Taken (2008)

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Taken

D: Pierre Morel / 93m

Cast: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Olivier Rabourdin, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Holly Valance, Katie Cassidy, Gérard Watkins, Xander Berkeley

Retired government agent (or “preventer”) Bryan Mills (Neeson) is divorced from his wife Lenore (Janssen) and struggling to re-connect with his daughter, Kim (Grace). He’s over-protective, which works against him, and never more so when, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, Kim tells him she’s been invited to stay in Paris during the summer. He’s against the idea at first, but eventually gives his permission for her to go. Travelling with her friend, Amanda (Cassidy), Kim arrives in Paris and they settle into the apartment where they’re staying. But on the first night, intruders break in to the apartment, and Kim, who’s on the phone to her father, watches as she sees them grab Amanda, and then come looking for her.

Bryan learns that her abductors are Albanians who specialise in human trafficking, kidnapping young female tourists to be sold as sex slaves to the highest bidder. He travels to Paris, and with the help of old friend, Jean-Claude (Rabourdin), devises a plan to find Kim and get her back. He learns about a construction site where there is a problem with “new merchandise”, but Kim isn’t there; instead he finds a woman who has Kim’s jacket. He leaves with her and holes up in a hotel room where she tells him about a house in the Rue de Paradis. The house proves to be where the Albanians have their base. Bryan kills all but one of them, whom he tortures for more information.

The Albanian tells Bryan about a man called Saint Clair (Watkins), who hosts parties that act as cover for the buying and selling of any kidnapped women. Brian sees Kim there, but before he can rescue her, he’s knocked unconscious. When he comes to, Saint Clair and his henchmen have Bryan tied up, and are about to kill him…

Taken - scene

Back in 2008, the idea of Liam Neeson playing a full-on action role was regarded as a bit unusual, partly because few of his previous roles had been in the action genre, and partly because of his age (he was fifty-six at the time). But despite the preposterous, gung-ho approach taken by writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, Neeson’s über-serious portrayal of Mills somehow offset the movie’s cocksure silliness, and made Taken a huge success at the box office (the movie took around $225 million worldwide).

The idea of a man with “a special set of skills” running riot in Paris with a flagrant disregard for the law or due process, while not exactly new, benefits hugely from Neeson’s performance. His single-minded pursuit of his daughter’s kidnappers grounds the movie so effectively that even when Mills is directly in the line of fire of a man with a semi-automatic weapon and he doesn’t receive so much as a scratch, it’s almost like an entitlement; he’s a father, and what he’s doing is right (godammit).

This leads to a lot of indiscriminate killing, and in one sequence casual maiming, as Mills sense of justice borders on the psychopathic (he shoots one Albanian in the back, something our cinematic heroes are very rarely seen to do). This unapologetic violence is what gives the movie its edge, as Mills’ unfettered brutality keeps the audience wondering just how far he will go to rescue his daughter. Neeson is completely focused and convincing, and when you realise just how committed he is, you almost begin to feel sorry for the bad guys – they really don’t stand a chance (even with the nature of the script and the storyline, they really don’t stand a chance).

Away from the continual bloodshed, the earlier scenes where we first meet Bryan and Kim are more compulsory than enthralling, while the idea that Bryan sees his daughter as being younger than she is and in need of more “protection” is never fully developed (when he tells Lenore Kim’s been abducted you half expect him to say, “I told you so”). This is less a kind of over-developed fatherly concern and more of a deep-rooted paranoia, which might have had a more effective pay-off if Kim had been kidnapped because of something he did in the past. As it is, it still leaves Bryan Mills as one seriously screwed-up ex-government agent, and his morally dubious approach to “working” makes him more interesting than most armed avengers.

This extra-added depth to the main character, allied with Neeson’s compelling performance, makes Taken a bit of a guilty pleasure. Benson and Kamen’s script does its best to plug up any plot holes when they crop up, but it doesn’t always succeed – Bryan’s friend, Sam (Orser), identifies the kidnapper Bryan speaks to over the phone with only two words to go on (that’s some voice recognition software they’ve got there!) – and outside of Bryan, Kim and Lenore, characterisations are kept to a minimum, with broad brush strokes used throughout. As the bad guys, the Albanians could have been Russian or Croatian or any other Eastern European ethnic minority, and lack an identity as a result: they’re just there to be despatched as quickly as possible.

The fight scenes are cleverly constructed and choreographed to make Neeson look like he’s doing most of his own stunts (though when he’s not it’s a little too obvious), and it all looks appropriately bone-crunching and painful (the sound effects guys must have a field day on these kinds of movies). And as if to pour scorn on the idea that French stunt drivers aren’t the best in the world, there’s a short sequence involving Bryan chasing a boat that is as brazenly exciting and well edited as any in, say, The Transporter movies, or Ronin (1998). Having cut his teeth on The Transporter (2005), Morel directs with confidence and knows enough to let Neeson take the reins and do what he does best, while injecting a fierce intensity into the action scenes. Janssen and Grace provide adequate support (though Grace does overdo the squeals of delight when Kim gets something she wants), while a sub-plot involving a pop star (Valance) comes and goes so quickly that you wonder why it was included.

Rating: 8/10 – a thudding, crunching, pumped-up action movie shot mostly at night for maximum atmosphere, Taken is a supremely confident addition to the lone avenger sub-genre of action movies; with a commanding central performance by Neeson that re-energised his career, this should be filed under “Gratuitous Violence – for the enjoyment of”.

Trailer – The Walk (2015)

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The latest from Robert Zemeckis tells the true story of Philippe Petit, the man who attempted to walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in August 1974. With an October 2015 release date, it’s still a long way off, but expect it to be hyped up for the Oscars in 2016.

Mini-Review: V/H/S Viral (2014)

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V:H:S Viral

D: Marcel Sarmiento (Vicious Circles)/Gregg Bishop (Dante the Great)/Nacho Vigalondo (Parallel Monsters)/Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead (Bonestorm)/ 82m

Cast: Justin Welborn, Emmy Argo, Gustavo Salmerón, Marian Álvarez, Nick Blanco, Chase Newton, Shane Bradey

The latest in the found footage horror series, V/H/S Viral strays further and further from the original concept, partly it seems to avoid accusations of “more of the same”, and partly in recognition that the VHS format is now too outdated to work effectively (either way, just how many empty houses full of old tapes can there be?).

Beginning with the wraparound story, Vicious Circles, where a guy ends up chasing the ice cream van that he believes holds his kidnapped girlfriend (and which is already being chased by police), the movie then tells the bizarre story of Dante the Great, a magician who comes into possession of a cloak (once owned by Houdini) that allows him to really do magic – but at a price. It’s a bit of dumb fun, more interested in showing off it’s gravity-defying stunt work than exploring the idea of possession by an object. In terms of found footage it’s also the most contrived, with camera placements in places where they’re really unlikely to be, and with too many used sources for the footage to have been put together in the way in which the segment is presented.

The middle tale, Parallel Monsters, concerns a scientist, Alfonso, who creates a doorway to an alternate universe – in his basement. He meets a replica of himself and the two explore each other’s houses, but while they seem identical, Alfonso soon discovers that not everything is the same in this other universe. It’s a mix of Cronenbergian body horror and sci-fi conventions that has an unintentionally hilarious bedside moment before reaching its predictable climax.

V:H:S Viral - scene

The last tale, Bonestorm, features a couple of skateboarders who travel down to Tijuana to skate at a remote storm drain only to find they’ve upset the local devil worshippers who try and kill them before the devil in the drain tries as well. Of the three stories this is the worst, mixing POV shots of the skaters offing dozens of extras dressed as devil worshippers with the kind of crass dialogue that makes you wish they’d die before they even get to Tijuana.

With the wraparound story proving too confusing to make sense, as well as having no connection to the three tales – a fourth tale, Gorgeous Vortex, was cut to provide a “smoother” running time (whatever that means) – V/H/S Viral is too far removed from the first two movies to be effective, and the material is weak throughout (it’s like watching Halloween (1978) and Halloween II (1981) and then wondering if Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) was really the best they could come up with).

Rating: 3/10 – a very poor sequel that can’t even be bothered to put its tales into any kind of context, V/H/S Viral is lacking in almost every department; tired, and horrible (as opposed to horrifying), this sequel is one that even fans will want to disown.

Poster of the Week – Megunica (2008)

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Megunica

Megunica (2008)

A documentary that follows the Italian artist Blu on a tour of South America, Megunica – the title is an amalgam of the countries visited: Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Argentina – is represented by a poster that is literally a work of art. Designed and drawn by Blu, the fun here is in interpreting the image and what it might mean.

I say “fun” because this is a movie I haven’t seen, but the poster is so intriguing it’s already had me trying to locate a copy of Megunica so I can discover if the image is relevant to a sequence in the movie, or if it’s a stand alone piece that the makers felt would be fitting just for the poster. (This is what a really good poster should do: not be just part of a marketing exercise, but grab the attention and be fascinating enough to make someone want to see the movie it’s promoting, even – and especially – if it’s a movie they might not plan to see normally.)

When looking at the poster, two things spring to mind immediately. The first is the idea that the man we see painting a wall and covered in flies is somehow attempting to wipe the slate clean. With South America’s history of exploitation and corruption in mind, Blu’s painter could be trying to make the point that it’s time for change, a time to start over. If so, it’s a powerful statement, at once provocative and profound. The second possibility is that it’s a self-portrait, a representation of Blu himself, an artist known for his murals and graffiti work the world over. What better way to “introduce” him than as the focus of the poster, and doing what he does best?

Both ideas, of course, may be erroneous, but again, that’s part of the fun. The flies may be representative of the conditions where the movie was made, or a metaphor for  South American societies, or they could be “just” flies. But whichever notion is correct, or if they’re there for another reason entirely, the fact that this poster can prompt even this much debate is a triumph.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know (especially if you’ve seen the movie).

The Fantastic Four (1994)

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Fantastic Four, The

D: Oley Sassone / 90m

Cast: Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab, Michael Bailey Smith, Joseph Culp, Ian Trigger, Kat Green, Carl Ciarfalio, George Gaynes

College friends Reed Richards (Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Culp) have built a machine that they hope will harness the energy from a passing cosmic phenomenon, but their experiment backfires and Victor is horribly injured. Believed to have died from his injuries, Von Doom is spirited away to his home country by two of his followers.

Ten years later, the cosmic phenomenon has returned and Reed has built a spaceship to take him and a hand-picked team – his friends Ben Grimm (Smith), Sue Storm (Staab) and her brother Johnny (Underwood) – near enough to it that they can collect data about it. Reed acquires a large diamond that will allow them to harness the power of the phenomenon’s cosmic rays, but on the eve of the flight it’s stolen by a criminal called the Jeweler (Trigger) who replaces it with a fake. As a result, Reed’s ship is bombarded by cosmic rays and forced to crash land back on Earth. The four survive but discover the rays have altered them in different ways: Reed can stretch his body, Sue can turn invisible, Johnny can control fire, and Ben has been changed into an orange-skinned stone-like creature (Ciarfalio).

Picked up by Doom’s henchmen (posing as Marines), the four are held at Victor’s mountain hideout (where he is now known as Doctor Doom). They use their newfound powers to escape and head back to New York, where they try to work out what to do next. Ben leaves and ends up being inducted into the Jeweler’s gang. While there he learns that Doom needs the diamond for a laser cannon that he wants to use to destroy New York. When Doom subsequently steals the diamond, Ben alerts Reed. Together they all don costumes Sue has created and travel back to Doom’s mountain hideout, where they attempt to stop Victor from carrying out his plan.

Fantastic Four, The - scene

Famous for being the Marvel movie that’s never been released (but which can be seen on YouTube), The Fantastic Four makes for fascinating viewing. It’s as bad as bad can be – though there are worse movies out there – and plays like a Saturday morning serial, but without the tension of a cliffhanger moment. Its low budget, let’s-make-it-to-keep-the-rights approach stifles any creativity, and even though a lot of the origin material is taken directly from the comics, there’s a spark missing that keeps The Fantastic Four from being more than just a curiosity.

On the positive side, the movie does move at a good pace, and most scenes don’t outstay their welcome, but there’s very little energy within them. The dialogue is clunky and/or chock full of needless exposition, and the cast don’t always succeed in making it sound convincing. Some of the sets have that “one puff and they’ll fall down” look to them, and the photography by Mark Parry is often static and poorly framed, making some scenes so bland and uninteresting to watch that you end up pitying editor Glenn Garland (also an associate producer) for having so little effective coverage to play around with.

The whole sub-plot involving the Jeweler and his “dregs of society” underlings feels forced and his philosophical musings feel like they’ve been drafted in from an amateur Shakespeare production. Doom has two senior henchmen who do the bulk of his dirty work for him, but are about as threatening as day-old kittens, while Doom himself is too prone to posing and making fancy hand gestures to be menacing; he’s like the camp uncle who only gets to visit at Xmas. As for the Fantastic Four themselves, Reed’s elasticity is used at one point to trip some of Doom’s henchmen; Sue’s invisibility is sometimes only partial, leaving her head and/or upper body exposed as in the good old days of silent cinema; Johnny acts like a gosh-darn college student who wants to put on a show in the old barn; and Ben as the Thing gets to say, “It’s clobbering’ time!” on three separate, yet underwhelming occasions.

With all this it’s no surprise that the cast – apparently unaware that the movie wouldn’t be released – display all the vitality of actors attending a read-through. Hyde-White aims for gravitas but misses by a mile, making Reed seem out-of-touch instead (even when Sue is practically throwing herself at him). Staab matches him in terms of banality, and delivers her lines with a breathless urgency that befits an ingenue rather than an actress in her Thirties. Underwood has plenty of energy and enthusiasm but doesn’t know what to do with it, his wide-eyed mugging making Johnny look like an idiot. And Smith isn’t on screen long enough to make much of an impact (Ciarfalio does much better in the Thing suit, even without his own dialogue). With these four making very little impression, it’s left to Culp to provide the unintentional laughs, and once inside his Doctor Doom outfit, he does so with camp abandon.

Watching The Fantastic Four it’s hard to believe that even the Seventies’ Spider-Man movies that were made for TV are better viewing experiences – but they are. It’s also difficult to work out just what the $1 million budget was spent on, what with the shoddy sets, the below-par special effects – Johnny’s full-body Human Torch effect is rendered as animation rather than live action – and the “don’t touch too much” props (though, surprisingly, the costumes are not that bad). With Sassone unable to provide much in the way of capable direction, it’s amazing that the movie can be construed as anything even close to entertainment, but even with all its failings some fans may well be prepared to forgive much of what makes the movie so bad in the first place.

Rating: 2/10 – with its behind the scenes machinations finally revealed in Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s “The Fantastic Four” (2014), the actual movie retains its standing as one of sci-fi’s greatest misfires; made for the sake of it, The Fantastic Four continually trumps each terrible scene with another – and that’s some feat in itself.

Begin Again (2013)

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Begin Again

D: John Carney / 104m

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Yasiin Bey, Catherine Keener, CeeLo Green

Record label executive Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo) is struggling to keep up with the changing pace of the modern music industry. Separated from his wife Miriam (Keener) and estranged from his daughter Violet (Seinfeld), Dan’s partner in the record company he co-founded, Saul (Bey) fires him. He goes on a drinking binge that sees him end up in bar where English singer-songwriter Gretta James (Knightley) is persuaded to take to the stage by her friend, Steve (Corden). The song she sings captivates Dan and he approaches Gretta with the offer of signing her.

Gretta isn’t interested in Dan’s offer because she’s planning to return to England the next day. She’s in the US because she came over with her boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Levine), when he was signed to a record label. While on a promotional jaunt, he slept with a record label executive; unhappy and discouraged, Gretta just wants to leave and put her relationship with Dave behind her. The next morning, though, she takes up Dan on his offer. This forces him to come clean about his position, but he convinces her to go with him to see Saul; Dan is sure Saul will sign her, but without a demo to give him, he passes.

Undeterred, Dan comes up with a plan to make an album of Gretta’s songs by recording them all over the city: on rooftops, subway platforms, alleyways, wherever they can. Dan assembles a team of musicians that includes Steve, while Gretta, in an attempt to reunite him with his daughter, arranges for Violet to play guitar on one of the songs. With the album completed they see Saul again but leave without a deal having been reached (Gretta wants Dan to get his job back as well as a bigger cut of the profits).

Shortly after, Gretta sees Dave accepting an award on TV and believing him to have sold out, pours out her feelings in a song she sings and leaves on his voicemail. Dave gets in touch with her and asks to meet when he’s back in New York. Greta agrees but finds that her feelings for Dan are changing from professional to personal. Unsure of which way to turn, Gretta meets Dave in the hope that she’ll be able to decide which path to take.

Begin Again - scene

A fresh take on an age-old story, Begin Again belies its Svengali-like origins to give its audience a modern day interpretation that sidesteps many of its genre conventions with a knowing wink and a shrug of indifference. Working from his own script, director Carney fashions a story of two peoples’ separate roads to personal empowerment and redemption that neatly avoids the clichés inherent in such scenarios, and makes the movie feel like a breath of fresh air.

Playing around with the structure in the movie’s first half hour, Carney introduces the viewer to Dan and Gretta with a view to telling their back stories in such a way that by the time they begin to make the album they’re like old friends we’ve known for ages. We get to see Dan at his worst and Gretta at her most trusting. We see them come together and start to rely on each other as they begin to rebuild their lives. It’s in these opening scenes that Carney draws the audience in and sets up the dramatic elements that will pay off later on in the movie (but not in the way that you might expect). And he doesn’t fall into the usual traps, for example: despite the predictable nature of Gretta and Dave’s break up, it’s presented in the kind of “adult” way you rarely see in movies. It’s a relatively short scene but Carney packs it with an emotional punch that is frankly disarming (and he’s ably abetted by Knightley and Levine).

With Dan and Gretta’s relationship so well cemented the movie’s central section becomes a joyous evocation of making an album. This is Begin Again at its most winning and infectious, the sheer pleasure of making music in a live environment so evident you can’t help but tap your feet along with the songs. And thanks to the efforts of composer Gregg Alexander these are terrific songs indeed, catchy and effortlessly perceptive about life and love and the pitfalls of both. Knightley, who hadn’t sung before, is assured here, her soft, soulful voice a perfect match for the material.

Alas, the final third, with its need to wrap things up, undermines some of the good work Carney has put in. Gretta and Dan each arrive at a place that befits their individual struggles, but there’s a sense that they’ve been let down by Carney’s determination not to play it safe and to avoid the movie having a predictable ending. Even with this, his leads remain convincing throughout, handling their characters’ journeys from start to finish with skill, confidence and conviction. Ruffalo gives such an impressive performance it’s hard to take your eyes off him, while Knightley invests Gretta with a stubborn, earnest vulnerability that is mesmerising. When on screen together they spark off each other, each raising their game, each making the movie even richer. In support, Steinfeld, Keener and Corden all provide charming turns, while Levine (from Maroon 5) makes his feature debut and is very good indeed.

With its emotional content linked directly to, and expressively through, its songs, Begin Again is a musical drama that packs several unexpected punches, and if its near rags-to-riches feel has an unavoidable touch of whimsy wrapped around it, then it’s no bad thing. This is a feelgood movie, and unashamedly so.

Rating: 8/10 – guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face during its musical numbers, Begin Again is a lively, effervescent movie that is both delightful and poignant in equal measure; with assured turns from its two leads, it’s a movie that entertains and rewards far more than it should do given its bittersweet ending.

Tusk (2014)

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Tusk

D: Kevin Smith / 102m

Cast: Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Guy Lapointe

Popular podcast hosts Wallace Bryton (Long) and Teddy Craft (Osment) have built up their following by finding videos of people doing stupid and/or humiliating things and re-broadcasting them. When they find a video of a young Canadian whose swordplay proves disastrous, Wallace determines to follow it up by meeting him. His girlfriend, Ally (Rodriguez), wants to go with him but he dissuades her. When Wallace arrives in Manitoba, though, he finds the story is a dead end. Later that night in a bar, he comes across a flyer from someone offering free lodging in return for listening to a lifetime of interesting stories. Intrigued, Wallace calls the man, Howard Howe (Parks) and arranges to meet him where he lives.

Their initial meeting goes well. Howe does indeed have some remarkable stories to tell, and Wallace is fascinated by them. Howe’s home is also full of mementoes and keepsakes from his travels. But as he begins to tell Wallace about the time he was stranded on a small Russian island with only a walrus for company, the podcaster begins to feel tired. Soon he passes out. When he comes to he finds himself in a wheelchair and very groggy. Howe explains that Wallace was bitten by a poisonous spider – which caused him to pass out – but he’s been seen by a doctor, though in order to stop the poison from spreading, Wallace’s left leg has been removed below the knee.

Wallace soon learns that the story of the spider is untrue, and that Howe has plans for Wallace that involve transforming him into a walrus. Wallace manages to call both Ally and Teddy but his calls go to voicemail. Howe finds out what he’s doing, and so speeds up his plan. The next morning, Ally and Teddy find Wallace’s calls and head for Manitoba. When they get there they find there is little evidence to go on, but the local police put them in touch with an ex-detective of the Sûreté du Québec, Guy Lapointe. Lapointe has been chasing a serial killer who’s been responsible for dismembering and mutilating young men for years, twenty-three in total. Together, he, Ally and Teddy trace Wallace’s journey from Manitoba to Howe’s home. But will they be in time to save Wallace from an awful fate?

Tusk - scene

The last few years have seen writer/director Kevin Smith broaden his cinematic horizons away from his New Jersey roots – and the dialogue heavy movies he made there – to incorporate ideas and places far removed from the kind of movies we’ve become used to. Cop Out (2010) was a serious misstep, working from someone else’s script and having no real feel for the material; in many ways it looked like a movie made by someone who didn’t give a toss (it also has one of the most embarrassing tag lines ever: “Rock out with your Glock out”). Red State (2011) was a better choice of material but was too unsure of what it wanted to be to be entirely successful. Now, with Tusk, Smith returns with a more focused, more accessible movie, but one which also has its fair share of needless longueurs.

Using Long and Osment as on screen versions of himself and long-time producer/friend Scott Mosier, Smith opens the movie with a podcast that recreates the vibe of his own podcasts: funny, irreverent, and with a healthy disdain for “holding back” (the video they show is both predictable and yet shocking at the same time). It sets up Wallace as a bit of a horrible jerk, something that is confirmed later on when we learn that he doesn’t want Ally to go on trips with him because it cuts down on his opportunities to get some “road head”. He’s not a likeable guy, but as he tells Ally, he’s the new Wallace, whereas the old, pre-podcast Wallace was a loser. It’s a neat trick on Smith’s part, that the object of a painful physical transformation has already undergone a mental one, and it’s this that will (hopefully) see him through his ordeal. Long makes Wallace objectionable and crass in his dealings with others, but this makes it difficult for the audience to fully sympathise with him when Howe’s plan swings into action. It’s a measure of Smith’s confidence as a director, and Long’s performance, that this hesitancy doesn’t undercut the movie’s effectiveness, and instead, adds to the tension.

However, with the introduction of Lapointe, Smith scuppers both the momentum he’s built up up to that point, and a large portion of the goodwill the movie needs to keep the audience with it (it’s a far-fetched tale requiring a healthy dose of acceptance, especially in the later stages). Lapointe is played by a very well known actor who is simply credited as Guy Lapointe, but it’s a mannered caricature of a performance that stops the movie cold and ruins the tone completely. Lapointe is in many ways the comic relief, but it’s an extended turn that doesn’t work and includes an awkward flashback that adds little to the movie other than the chance to see Parks play old and bordering on senile (as opposed to old and way past disturbed).

Parks is on fine form, his verbose dialogue made into polite expressions of personal experience in his opening scenes with Long, and then given a more florid, cod-Shakespearean approach once his plan is under way. It’s an operatic performance in many ways, and leans toward tragedy by the end, but Parks is quietly, authoritatively magnificent in a role that could so easily have descended into high farce (especially when Smith’s script skirts it quite often). In support, Osment has a subdued role that doesn’t allow him to stretch as an actor, while Rodriguez gets to emote to camera but with very little reason for her to be doing so.

Tusk is an odd little movie that will likely divide audiences, and in certain quarters will find itself the object of unintentional laughter, but the nature of the story is such that this is unavoidable. Like many of Smith’s movies it’s not the most visually compelling of projects to watch, and the score by Christopher Drake doesn’t highlight the drama as well as it could have done, often feeling perfunctory rather than part of the movie’s fabric. However, in the editor’s chair, Smith really shows his strengths – the sequence with Guy Lapointe in the diner aside – and he makes good use of long shots to evoke menace (Howe walking the length of the dining table to see to Wallace’s cries for help is a great example).

Rating: 7/10 – with often superb dialogue that any actor would relish delivering, and a sense of the truly macabre that most horror movies can’t even fake properly, Tusk sees Smith on fine form; this may well turn out to be a future cult movie, while its scenes of Cronenberg-style body horror are grim and uncompromising to watch.

Penguins of Madagascar (2014)

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Penguins of Madagascar

D: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith / 92m

Cast: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare

Antarctica: three wilful penguins, Skipper (McGrath), Kowalski (Miller) and Rico (Vernon) rescue an egg from an abandoned ship full of leopard seals. The egg hatches to reveal a baby penguin they call Private (Knights). After seeing off the seals they find themselves adrift on a small patch of ice.

Ten years later – and following on from the events in Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012) – the team decide to leave the circus. They break into Fort Knox so that they can celebrate Private’s birthday by treating him to some Cheezy Dibbles, a snack that has been discontinued but which can still be found in one of the Reserve’s vending machines. However, the vending machine proves to be a trap and the team are kidnapped by Dave (Malkovich), an octopus bent on revenge against all penguins thanks to his treatment in various zoos where they were the star attraction and not him.

The penguins escape his clutches and find themselves in Venice. Cornered by Dave’s squid “henchmen”, they find themselves rescued by members of the North Wind, a secret, undercover, inter-species task force dedicated to bringing animal villains to justice. Led by Agent Classified (Cumberbatch), they view Skipper and the gang as unreliable and refuse to team up with them; instead they have the gang transported to one of their remote bases (ironically, on Madagascar). But the gang escape and make their way to Shanghai where they manage to capture Dave. He escapes though, and manages to kidnap all the city zoo’s penguins, and Private as well. At his remote island base, Dave shows Private his plan to use a Medusa serum on all the world’s penguins, and which will turn them all into horrible, mutated creatures.

Meanwhile, the penguins and the North Wind argue about the best course of action. They do agree to attempt a rescue mission but are all captured. Private manages to free the North Wind but instead of freeing the penguins they depart for reinforcements. With Dave heading for New York City to release the Medusa-affected penguins on an unsuspecting public, it’s up to Private to find a way of saving his friends, and all the other penguins as well.

Penguins of Madagascar - scene

With Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private proving the most popular characters in the Madagascar franchise, it was inevitable that after several short movies and their own TV show, that a feature-length movie would happen eventually (in fact it’s been on the drawing board since 2005). Thankfully, all the well established quirks and traits of the characters have been retained, along with their Bond-style theatrics, and at the service of a half-decent plot that, while not entirely too imaginative, still makes for a lot of fun and keeps the movie entertaining as a whole.

There’s a lot going on in Penguins of Madagascar: it’s an origin story (not that it was really needed), a revenge tale, a spy caper, a personal empowerment yarn (Private feels like a lesser member of the team because he doesn’t have a specific skill), and a family saga. Mixing all these elements could have led to the movie having an identity crisis, but under the auspices of Darnell and Smith, the movie weaves these various strands to such good effect that each one plays out with to its full potential. It’s good to see so many elements in a movie given enough space to work effectively, and not feel under-developed. And even if these elements are entirely familiar or lack a degree of originality, there’s enough verve and vitality about them to offset any disappointment.

With a lot going on, there’s also a lot to enjoy, though some of it – such as the inclusion of several movie star names amongst Dave’s instructions to his squid squad, e.g. “Nicolas! Cage them!” – may require repeat viewings to fully appreciate or pick up on. (There’s been some criticism that with so much going on this leads to some of the humour being hit and miss, that if one joke fails it’s not a problem as there’ll be another one along in a minute. Not to be too obvious about it, but it’s a rare movie that has a 100% hit rate when it comes to jokes or visual humour.) But as with most big budget studio animation these days, it’s all part of the enjoyment to be had, with references for kids and adults alike, making the movie work on several levels, and providing entertainment for as broad an age range as possible.

Whatever your reaction to the material may be, Penguins of Madagascar is still a fast, funny, visually inventive movie that is a treat to watch. The glossy, vibrant animation is sharp and richly detailed, and has a spirited zest to it that makes watching the movie a complete pleasure. From the crisp whiteness of Antarctica, to the  bright, colourful showdown in New York City, this is animation that zings and pops off the screen with fizzy, glorious abandon. The various set pieces are handled with skill and imagination, and the characters are so cleverly drawn and animated that certain habits almost go unnoticed (Agent Classified can’t say “penguin”; instead he says “pengwings”). With so much going on visually, it’s fitting that the voice cast is able to match the animators with their performances. Cumberbatch and Malkovich are great choices, their vocal styles complementing their characters’ looks perfectly and adding a further layer of richness to the proceedings. As the titular team, McGrath (who created the characters), Miller, Knights and Vernon have been doing this for so long that they don’t put a flipper wrong throughout, and there’s solid support from the likes of Jeong and Stormare (and yes, the documentary filmmaker at the beginning is Werner Herzog; who knew he liked penguins so much?).

It looks like it’ll be a while before we see Skipper and the gang again – not until Madagascar 4 reaches us in 2018 – but for now this outing for the spy-centric birds acts as a wonderfully anarchic, hugely enjoyable showcase for their particular brand of well-meaning chaos. Heartwarming at times, highly silly at others, and with something for everyone packed into its ninety-two minute running time, this is an exuberant, rewarding di-version (or should that be div-ersion?) that succeeds admirably in expanding the world of four very individual penguins.

Rating: 8/10 – glorious fun throughout, Penguins of Madagascar is another sure-fire success from Dreamworks Animation; it may lack depth and play fast-and-loose with subtlety – “No one breaks the Wind” – but as an exercise in well-crafted lunacy, this fits the bill entirely.

Columbus Circle (2012)

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Columbus Circle

D: George Gallo / 82m

Cast: Selma Blair, Amy Smart, Jason Lee, Beau Bridges, Kevin Pollak, Giovanni Ribisi, Jason Antoon, Robert Guillaume

Abigail Clayton (Blair) lives alone in her penthouse apartment overlooking Columbus Circle, and has done so for nearly twenty years. She communicates with only two people: in person with her physician and long-time family friend Raymond Fontaine (Bridges), and by note with concierge Klandermann (Pollak). Her quiet, ordered life is disrupted following the death of her neighbour. The investigating detective, Frank Giardello (Ribisi), isn’t convinced it’s the accidental death it looks like. He speaks to Abigail (much to her dislike); she in turn alerts Fontaine who reassures her that Giardello’s talking to her was just routine.

Abigail attempts to buy her neighbour’s apartment to further maintain her privacy but to her dismay a couple move in shortly afterward. Charles (Lee) and Lillian (Smart) seem like a young, prosperous, happy couple but one night, Abigail overhears an argument the couple have in the corridor. The argument becomes violent and Lillian is hit by her husband. Lillian’s cries for help prompt Abigail to do something she would never have thought possible: help the injured woman. Once inside Abigail’s apartment, Lillian makes excuses for Charles’s behaviour before she falls asleep. The next morning she thanks Abigail for her help and the beginnings of a friendship are established.

Meanwhile, Giardello’s investigation reveals a link between Abigail’s neighbour and Fontaine. When Giardello visits him, Fontaine lets slip that he knows Abigail as well. The detective begins to suspect that Abigail isn’t who she seems to be, and is probably wealthy heiress Justine Waters, who disappeared on her eighteenth birthday and hasn’t been seen since.

Abigail and Lillian grow closer, while Charles becomes more and more aggressive in his behaviour. One evening, he and Klandermann are in the elevator together when the concierge remarks that Charles is familiar to him but he can’t place where they might have met. Charles thinks it unlikely but Klandermann is convinced that he’ll remember. When he does, it brings to light a conspiracy that involves the search for a missing heiress…

Columbus Circle - scene

Making out like a Hitchcockian thriller, Columbus Circle has a basic plot that seems clever at the outset but which quickly abandons plausibility in favour of a more tired and derivative approach, and wraps things up so awkwardly that it makes you wonder if co-scripters Pollak and Gallo really had an ending in the first place. With any thriller there’s an accepted – indeed, expected – amount of suspension of disbelief, and Columbus Circle is no different in this respect, but sometimes it’s a matter of how many times that suspension is required that defeats everything. No matter how much good will a movie generates during its running time, sometimes it’s never enough. And so it proves here.

Abigail’s reclusive lifestyle is explained via a mix of flashbacks and exposition, and is used as the basis for her helping Lillian. So far, so good. But when we see Lillian playing amateur therapist and helping Abigail down the corridor in an attempt to conquer her fear of leaving her apartment, then things begin to tumble downhill with ever increasing speed. And even later still, when the movie requires Abigail to leave the safety of her apartment altogether, she does so without a backward glance. It’s moments like these that prompt the question, why make Abigail a recluse in the first place? For ultimately it doesn’t matter. Nor does the issue of whether or not she’s really a missing heiress (something the movie gives up quite early on). What Columbus Circle does, and with a clumsiness that does itself no favours, is to take a fairly run-of-the-mill scenario and then try to make it more intriguing by having its lead character driven by a deep-rooted phobia – which it then ignores/drops/abandons in order to provide the movie with a “satisfying” ending.

Long-time mystery fans will spot the mechanics of what’s happening from a mile off, while even newcomers shouldn’t have too many problems spotting the bad guys. It all leaves the movie appearing less effective than it should be given the calibre of the cast involved. Blair is a perfect choice for Abigail, her injured looks and awkward physicality providing more character development than her dialogue, but the rest of the cast struggle to make more of their characters than is on the page or the script allows. As a result, generic performances abound, particularly from Pollak who you’d be forgiven for thinking would have given himself a better role. Ribisi takes a secondary role and employs his trademark blank-faced stare to minimal effect, and Bridges (sadly) reminds us once again why his brother gets all the good roles. Worst of all, Lee and Smart fail to convince as Charles and Lillian, displaying a lack of chemistry that hurts the movie whenever they’re on screen together.

Organising it all, Gallo starts off strong but fumbles things almost from the moment Giardello talks to Abigail. Their encounter is stiff and unfriendly and it sets the tone for many of the scenes that follow, even amongst other characters. As the mystery unfolds and the movie heads into unashamed thriller territory, Gallo loses his grip completely, leading to a final fifteen minutes that defies the movie’s own logic and screams “convenience” at the top of its lungs. The movie also looks like it was made for TV, with Anastasia Michos’ photography battling against an incredibly bland lighting design. Add an equally bland score by Brian Tyler and you have a movie that seems content to settle for second best in its endeavours.

Rating: 4/10 – of passing interest only, Columbus Circle undermines itself by dispensing with its mystery elements early on, leaving any tension or drama feeling forced and artless; the only puzzle here is why Gallo and Pollak thought this would pass muster as either a mystery or a thriller.

He Who Dares (2014)

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He Who Dares

D: Paul Tanter / 82m

Cast: Tom Benedict Knight, Simon Phillips, Christina Bellavia, Ewan Ross, Zara Phythian, Ben Loyd-Holmes, Kye Loren, Lorraine Stanley

A ruthless gang of terrorists led by Holt (Phillips) kidnap the British Prime Minister’s daughter, Alice (Bellavia) and some of her friends from a nightclub. At a nearby multi-storey car park they barricade themselves in and wait for the authorities to find them. When they do, the officer in charge, Detective Carpenter (Ross) advises caution but an SAS unit led by Christopher Lowe (Knight) goes in without orders. They find each level rigged with explosives. Meanwhile, Holt waits for his larger plan to come to fruition, and when he becomes aware of the SAS, exhorts his gang to kill them. A cat and mouse game ensues as the SAS make their way through each level, while on the outside Carpenter tries to figure out how the gang can possibly make their escape, or if they really are intending to blow up the car park and themselves with it.

He Who Dares - scene

With so many independent, low budget gangster/crime movies having been made in the UK over the last ten years – often by the same people – you could be forgiven for thinking that with all that experience the movies would get better over time. But you’d be wrong. And He Who Dares is a perfect example of a genre that has nothing left to say, and even less to offer in terms of entertainment. It’s a grim, depressing movie that ranks as amateurish drivel; its below-par heroics and poorly choreographed action scenes are so bad that it makes even Steven Seagal’s run of Made-in-Romania movies look good.

There’s really no excuse for the appalling dialogue, the ridiculous and unconvincing set up, the woeful plotting, the atrocious acting, the clumsy direction, the lacklustre photography, the unimaginative fight scenes, and worst of all, the over-indulgent use of freeze frames, superimpositions and distressed image effects that passes for editing. Put all these things together and you have an appalling mess of a movie that seemingly has no idea of how stupid it is.

We have Phillips to thank for the risible story, and director Tanter, along with James Crow, to thank for the terrible dialogue and plotting. Tanter and Phillips are frequent collaborators – the White Collar Hooligan movies, Shame the Devil (2013) – and really should be kept apart from each other if this is the kind of movie they’re likely to come up with. What defeats the imagination is the possibility that these two men, with all their (limited) experience, can’t see that the movies they’re producing are so bad as to be almost unendurable. It’s worrying that movie after movie goes by and there’s no improvement in quality.

Rating: 1/10 – with nothing to recommend it, He Who Dares is an embarrassing, unintentionally hilarious movie that exposes the limitations of its makers, and would have gained more kudos if it had been a student movie; with a sequel – He Who Dares: Downing Street Siege – already completed (and which sees Knight, Phillips and Bellavia reprising their roles), it seems there’s no likelihood of things improving any time soon.

The Mule (2014)

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Mule, The

D: Tony Mahony, Angus Sampson / 103m

Cast: Hugo Weaving, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Ewen Leslie, Geoff Morrell, Georgina Haig, Noni Hazlehurst, John Noble

Melbourne, 1983. Ray Jenkins (Sampson) is voted player of the year at his local football club, and is included in the team’s trip to Thailand as part of its end of season celebrations. With the trip funded largely by local businessman Pat Shepherd (Noble), the team’s vice captain, Gavin Ellis (Whannell) makes Ray an offer: while they’re in Bangkok they can pick up a kilo of heroin, and smuggle it back by putting it in condoms and then swallowing them. Ray reluctantly agrees, but when the time comes only he swallows any condoms.

Back in Australia, Ray behaves suspiciously at the airport and is detained by customs officials. They suspect him of carrying drugs but he refuses to be x-rayed or be given any laxatives (Ray has to give his consent for either to happen). Ray is handed over to the Australian Federal Police, led by Detectives Croft (Weaving) and Paris (Leslie). They take him to a nearby motel where they keep him under surveillance for seven days, and where they wait for one of two outcomes: either Ray confesses to being a drug mule, or he defecates twice. Ray makes the decision to keep quiet and resist going to the toilet for as long as he can.

Meanwhile, Gavin is avoiding Pat, for whom he was smuggling the heroin in the first place. However, Gavin was planning to double cross Pat and sell the heroin himself, but Ray’s detention has ruined things. With Pat after him, Gavin finds out where Ray is being held and books into a room in the same motel. On Ray’s second day he’s appointed a lawyer, Jasmine Griffiths (Haig). She advises him not to cooperate with the police and to hold on for as long as he can. As the week goes on, Ray finds himself being bullied by Croft and some of the other officers, while Pat learns of Ray’s involvement (Gavin was meant to be working alone). When Pat finally catches up with Gavin he gives him no alternative but to find a way into Ray’s motel room and silence him before he can tell the police anything. But when he does, what happens afterwards makes matters far more complicated than even he could have predicted.

Mule, The - scene

Based on a true story, and set against the backdrop of the 1983 America’s Cup competition, The Mule is the kind of slightly warped, slightly off-kilter drama that Australian cinema does so well. Taking the bare bones of an arrest in the early Eighties, co-writers Sampson and Whannell, along with Jaime Browne, have fashioned a tale of personal endurance and criminal conspiracy that is by turns tense and dramatic, while also maintaining a fair degree of black comedy in its approach (see the above still). It sets things up with an economy and confidence that makes Ray’s dilemma all the more agonising, as he seeks to make it through his detention at the motel without giving anything away – literally.

Ray is initially presented as a bit of a quiet, unassuming, and gullible character, but there is an intelligence working beneath the furrowed brow that proves more than a match for the likes of Croft and his bully-boy tactics, and there’s a degree of fun to be had in seeing him turn the tables on the police, especially later on in the movie when he discovers a way out of his predicament. Along the way though, Ray has to make some hard choices in between the stomach cramps and protracted bowel spasms, and thanks to Sampson’s natural, perceptive performance, the viewer is sympathetic to Ray’s predicament throughout; he’s an easy character to like, and to root for. (Though one scene may well have audiences reaching for their sick bags, as Ray finds a temporary solution to his problems.)

With Ray’s predicament taking centre stage, the supporting storylines prove less original, though they do bolster the basic man-in-a-room-for-a-week scenario, and give the audience a break from Ray’s protracted agony. There is a twist that arrives partway through, but anyone who’s seen even a handful of crime dramas will see what’s coming based purely on its location, and it seems geared to provide a more “thrilling” ending to the movie than is actually necessary. As well as the criminal plotting going on, there’s some domestic drama ladled into the mix as well, and some crude sexism on Croft’s part that seems reflective of the period rather than an unnecessary character trait.

The cast all have enough to get their teeth into, with Weaving clearly relishing his role at the atavistic Croft, all macho posturing and sneering disdain. As his partner (and in a sense the straight man in their relationship), Leslie has the unshowy role that contrasts with Croft’s boorishness. Both actors put in good performances, and are matched by Haig’s idealistic public defender, Morrell’s shady stepfather, and Hazlehurst’s strong-willed mother. Noble exudes a cruel menace as the crooked businessman with a grim way of chastising his employees, while Whannell does sweaty paranoia with aplomb as the in-over-his-head Gavin. But it’s Sampson’s movie, his portrayal of Ray entirely convincing even when the script requires him to up the IQ points in his efforts to outsmart the police. It’s an often gruelling performance to watch, but as realistic in all likelihood as you’d expect.

Along with Mahony, Sampson also proves adept behind the camera, directing matters with an assurance and boldness that pays off handsomely. He even makes the many scenes where Ray is writhing around in pain as agonising for the audience as it is for the character, and ensures that the humour, when it’s included, isn’t there just for the sake of it. Two moments stand out: the two customs agents deciding who’s going to do Ray’s cavity search, and the police officer returning to Ray’s room and spraying some air freshener – small moments of hilarity that are also timed to perfection. There are also some inventive camera shots to keep things interesting from a visual perspective, and the editing by Andy Canny ensures the pace is kept tight and that scenes don’t outstay their welcome. On the downside, having the main character kept in the same location for so long does restrict the narrative, and while outside events prove engaging overall, without them the movie would have struggled to maintain the audience’s interest. There’s also the small issue of the police always falling asleep at night when they’re supposed to be watching Ray for signs of any “movement”. It’s a clumsy plot device, and is the one really false note in the whole movie.

Rating: 8/10 – thanks to the efforts of Sampson and Whannell – if they look familiar it’s because they play Tucker and Specs in the Insidious movies – The Mule is a little gem of a movie that deserves as big an audience as it can achieve; uncompromising in places, wickedly funny in others, this is an unusual tale that walks a fine line between implausibility and credibility, and succeeds in walking that line admirably.

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas (2014)

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Merry Friggin' Christmas, A

D: Tristram Shapeero / 88m

Cast: Joel McHale, Lauren Graham, Robin Williams, Candice Bergen, Clark Duke, Oliver Platt, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tim Heidecker, Pierce Gagnon, Bebe Wood, Ryan Lee, Amara Miller, Mark Proksch, Amir Arison

As a child, Boyd Mitchler (McHale) had Christmas, and his belief in Santa, ruined for him by his alcoholic father, Virgil (Williams). As an adult with a family of his own – wife Luann (Graham), daughter Vera (Wood) and son Douglas (Gagnon) – Boyd is determined to make Christmas special for all of them, but especially for Douglas, who still believes in Santa. Boyd figures he can keep Douglas’s belief going for one more Yuletide before that particular layer of innocence is stripped away.

When his brother, Nelson (Duke) calls and says that he has a son, and the christening is on December 24th, and he wants Boyd to be a godfather, it means only one thing: Boyd and his family will need to spend Christmas with Boyd’s parents, including his father who he’s estranged from. Also there will be Boyd’s sister, Shauna (McLendon-Covey), and her family: husband Dave (Heidecker), son Rance (Lee), and daughter Pam (Miller). It isn’t long before Boyd and Virgil are butting heads and letting old animosities interfere with the festive cheer.

With the children all bedded down for the night, and Douglas reassured that Santa will still find him, even though he’s not at home, Boyd discovers that they’ve left Douglas’s presents back at home. Though it’s late, Boyd decides he can make it home, collect the presents, and be back in time for when the children wake up. He sets off, but he doesn’t get far before his car breaks down. Virgil comes to his rescue and together they head for Boyd’s home. Along the way both men begin to understand each other a little better, while back at Virgil’s, Luann and Boyd’s mother, Donna (Bergen), try to come up with some alternative presents in case Boyd doesn’t get back in time.

Merry Friggin' Christmas, A - scene

Of note for being the first of three projects to be released after Robin Williams’ death, A Merry Friggin’ Christmas looks, on paper, to be a sure-fire piece of Yuletide entertainment. It has all the ingredients needed: a dysfunctional family trying to get along, a great ensemble cast, a race against time, pratfalls, verbal insults, two kids you’d cross the road to avoid – even if they were your own, and a seasonal message of goodwill to all men (especially if they’re hobo Santas played by Oliver Platt).

Sadly, what the movie doesn’t have is a focused or funny script, or sharper direction. The script, by first-timer Michael Brown, provides a reasonable enough set up for what follows, but struggles to move things along or keep matters interesting, and loses what little momentum it has pretty quickly. By the time Boyd hits the road, any real drama has been sucked out of the movie, along with most of the humour, and it’s left to McHale, Williams and Duke to provide what little energy it retains. The antipathy between father and son is reduced to their calling each other “Sally”, and aside from one moment of unexpected pathos, is resolved so easily the viewer could be forgiven for wondering how they remained at odds for so long. Likewise the matter of Boyd and Luann’s increasingly celibate marriage, referred to twice but never properly dealt with (and just one of several loose ends the movie never ties up, like Boyd hating his job).

Just as unsatisfactory is the humour, or lack of it. When you have someone of the calibre of Robin Williams in your movie and it’s meant to be a comedy, the worst thing you can do is give him dialogue that he can’t do anything with, and restrict any chances of physical hilarity to zero. All Williams is required to do is snarl off some less than witty insults and comments, and then, later, act wounded and upset. It’s a waste of his talent, but it’s also a measure of the man himself that even though the viewer will realise quickly this is the case, they’ll keep watching in the hope Williams pulls something out of the bag and saves the day (or should that be “seizes the day”?).

The rest of the cast fare just as badly, with McHale looking miserable throughout (but then who wouldn’t be if your character comes across as a jerk for most of the movie?), Graham looking non-plussed, Bergen doing her best to make the material sound better than it is, and Duke doing his lovable schlub routine for what seems like the hundredth time in just this year alone. Platt is almost unrecognisable as a hobo Santa, while the one member of the cast who manages to make something of their role is Proksch, who rescues the movie whenever he’s on screen as a trooper who’s always around when Boyd is speeding.

Such a leaden endeavour isn’t all the fault of the script, though. Making his feature debut, TV veteran Shapeero drops the ball right at the beginning and never manages to retrieve it. Scenes play out with all of their vitality drained out of them, and there’s a noticeable lack of consistency in both the tone and the rhythm of the movie, making it seem disjointed and like a jigsaw puzzle with several of the pieces missing (there’s also the sense that he’s left the cast to interpret their roles without any input from him at all). There are also too many occasions where the camera’s focus is on the wrong person altogether.

Rating: 3/10 – ending up as more of a ho-hum dirge than a ho-ho-ho comedy, A Merry Friggin’ Christmas fails to deliver in almost every department, and should come with a warning that expectations need to be lowered before watching it; slow-going and less than engaging, this is a Christmas movie that doesn’t even provide any snow to add to the effect.

Poster of the Week – A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

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Countess from Hong Kong, A

A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Chaplin’s final movie wasn’t the well-received swan song he may have hoped for, and it does try to tell a modern story in an old-fashioned way that doesn’t work for the most part, but this poster captures some of the light-hearted fun he was aiming for.

It’s a very Sixties poster, with lots of space left unused, and a slightly trippy feel to the border, the blue bubbles reducing and expanding for no particular reason but still suiting the design. The break at the top left for the stars’ names and the title disrupts the pattern, but it’s a break that doesn’t upset the overall style. Having the stars’ names in red makes for an obvious focus, and they pop out from the pale yellow background like an alert.

The images of Loren and Brando are appealing, especially Loren’s pout, though whether she’s doing so out of surprise or distaste is hard to tell at first thanks to the direction in which her eyes are looking, while Brando’s grin speaks of a man enjoying himself immensely (and if you’re sharing romantic scenes with Sophia Loren, why not?). They seem to be enjoying each other’s company, and it’s clear that they’re relaxed and comfortable with each other. It’s a lovely image, the kind it’s easy to imagine two lovers sharing. And then there’s the inclusion of Brando’s hand and arm, as he attempts to pull away the sheet from Loren’s upper half; it’s a neat touch, and explains the look on Loren’s face.

Below the image are the remaining credits, with Chaplin’s name highlighted in black, and then the supporting cast (also in black). With the bright, primary colours used elsewhere, it’s a bit of a surprise to see black employed so much, though it does make Chaplin’s name stand out (which may have been the intention). All in all, though, this is a fun poster to look at, and it brings together its few elements to surprisingly good effect.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.

The Giver (2014)

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Giver, The

D: Phillip Noyce / 97m

Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift, Emma Tremblay

In the future, an event known as the Ruin has left the remains of North American society living in communities with rigid rules and hierarchies, and with no memory of the past. The stronger emotions such as love and fear have been quelled, leaving the world a literally grey, colourless place. On their eighteenth birthdays, friends Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan), attend a ceremony that determines their roles as adults in the community. Fiona is given the role of Nurturer, working with newborns in the Nurturing Centre, while Asher is chosen to be a drone pilot. Jonas, however, is initially passed over, until the Chief Elder (Streep) decrees that he will become the next Receiver of Memories.

The next day, Jonas begins his training with an old man who is the current Receiver (Bridges). The old man – the Giver – explains that he is the repository of all the memories of the past, from even before the Ruin, and this knowledge is used by the Elders to provide them with advice and guidance. Meanwhile, Jonas’s father (Skarsgård), a doctor at the Nurturing Centre, has brought home a sickly infant called Gabriel in the hope that more personal care can improve his health.

Jonas’s training continues and slowly the emotions that emerge lead to Jonas beginning to see colours instead of the grey. As Jonas starts to share his newfound experiences with Fiona and Asher, his increasingly erratic behaviour (by community standards) begins to attract the attention of the Chief Elder. She becomes worried that Jonas’ training won’t be successful, and stresses this to the Giver. To make matters more complicated, Jonas discovers that Gabriel has the same birthmark that he does, and that this means Gabriel will grow up to be a Receiver.

However, the next stage of Jonas’ training sees him learn about warfare and death, and he comes to realise that the community practices selective euthanasia as a way of maintaining the status quo, and of weeding out any infants who are too weak or sickly. When he learns this, he wants nothing more to do with being a Receiver, but then Gabriel is returned to the hospital to be “released”. Unable to let Gabriel be killed, Jonas has no option but to rescue the infant, and head for the boundary between the community and the rest of the world. If he can get them both safely across the boundary, then they will both be safe, and the community will undergo the very change the Elders are most frightened of.

Giver, The - scene

While very similar in its set up to Divergent (2014), The Giver – based on the young adult novel by Lois Lowry – is lacking in many of the areas that made that particular movie so surprisingly effective. Even though the script is a largely faithful adaptation by screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, The Giver suffers from having a bland central character in Jonas, a social structure that clearly hasn’t done away with the emotions it abhors, and chief amongst a myriad of other problems, doesn’t even attempt to make any sense.

This is an adaptation where the faults of the original novel have been translated directly onto the screen, and where the novel’s flawed logic has been allowed to dictate events that should have been tightened up dramatically, and which should have seen the characters given a lot more to do than behave as nothing more than genre stereotypes. Good science fiction that depicts a future society – especially one born out of the ruins of an older social structure – always links back to that previous structure in ways that resonate and make an audience either blink in recognition or baulk in horror at the mistakes being repeated. All The Giver does is say, Here’s the community, here’s the set up, no one sees colours, nobody understands the concept of death, parents aren’t really parents, and there’s a whole other world out there but no one’s allowed to see it. And then: just accept it.

But even if the audience were to accept the world of The Giver, even if disbelief could be suspended, it would have to be suspended with pretty much every single scene. There are too many occasions where the viewer’s credulity is stretched to breaking point. Throughout, Jonas behaves as if he’s forgotten the community is littered with surveillance cameras, choosing to carry out his small rebellions while being watched continually. And then, the extent of what he’s been doing is only discovered once he’s chosen to flee with Gabriel (wasn’t anyone watching up ’til then? If not, why not?). It’s also clear that infants such as Gabriel aren’t allowed to stay with families they’re not assigned to, so why is Jonas’s father allowed to bring him home (other than to suit the needs of the story)? And why, in a society that is apparently crime-free and has never been the subject of attack from any other survivors of the Ruin, does it have a security force, or fighter drones to patrol its airspace? These and many more questions remain unanswered, but perhaps the biggest question of all is one reserved for the extended sequence that occurs once Jonas and Gabriel have fled the community and are on their way to the boundary: namely, when were pyramids built in North America?

With the material proving so shoddy and conflicted, audiences are likely to fall back on the performances for comfort but even here they’ll be disappointed. Thwaites seems a good choice for Jonas but within the first ten minutes it becomes obvious that the few demands of the role aren’t going to be met. He’s adequate, but in the way that allows some actors to appear to be giving a more competent performance than they really are. Surprisingly, he’s matched by Streep. Here, the three-time Oscar winner dons an unflattering wig and adopts the air of someone who’s signed on without realising just how bad the script is. As the Giver, Bridges – for whom this has been something of a pet project over the years – brings a gravelly voice and the occasional flash of emotion to his role, but even he can’t inject any life into proceedings, leaving his scenes with Thwaites as near to lifeless as you can get without needing to call an ambulance. (And spare a thought for Holmes, required to do little more than frown a lot and remind Jonas to be more precise in his speech; what a stretch.)

In the hands of veteran Noyce, The Giver has that Hollywood sheen that keeps things looking interesting even when they’re not, and with editor Barry Alexander Brown, manages to keep things moving, especially during a difficult final third that sees the script ramp up the awkwardness and the clumsiness of proceedings to such a point that some viewers may give up out of mounting frustration. It is a handsomely mounted production however (once the grey gives way to full colour), and Marco Beltrami’s score adds a much needed fillip to the overall blandness, but these are minor successes in a movie that remains sluggish and uninspired.

Rating: 4/10 – an unsuccessful adaptation that tests the patience of its audience, and which raises too many questions it has no intention of answering, The Giver is yet another teen vision of a future dystopian society that offers complacency of ideas over originality of thought; dull and meandering, this is one future tale that rarely warrants the attention it’s seeking.

My Top 10 Movie Quotes

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It’s always great when you recognise a line from the movies, whether it’s as iconic as “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, or as casually effective as “I’ll be back”. But I suspect most of us have our own favourites, those lines of dialogue that have stuck in our memories for one reason or another, and which we trot out whenever we can to impress our friends and families – or just anyone who’ll listen.

Here then are my top 10 quotes, listed in no particular order, but all “ear-catching’ in their own way. See how many you recognise.

1 – “Englishmen. You’re all so fucking pompous. None of you have got any balls.” – The Grim Reaper, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

2 – “You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full time job. Now behave yourself.” – Jack Carter, Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter (1971) - Michael Caine

3 – “The dead are not quiet in Hill House.” – Mrs Sanderson, The Haunting (1963)

4 – “Get out of my way son, you’re usin’ my oxygen.” – Randall P. McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

5 – “It’s been emotional.” – Big Chris, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

6 – “This isn’t the state of California, it’s a state of insanity.” – General Joseph W. Stilwell, 1941 (1979)

7 – “You’re going to die up there.” – Regan MacNeil, The Exorcist (1973)

8 – “You’re terrible, Muriel.” – Joanie Heslop, Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

9 – “It seems that envy is my sin.” – John Doe, Se7en (1995)

Se7en - John Doe

10 – “Dead? No excuse for laying off work.” – Supreme Being, Time Bandits (1981)

Honourable mention: “Stack ‘em, pack ‘em and rack ‘em.” – Trudeau, Die Hard 2 (1990).

Feel free to let me know your own favourites, and keep on quoting!

Mini-Review: Kite (2014)

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Kite

D: Ralph Ziman / 90m

Cast: India Eisley, Samuel L. Jackson, Callan McAuliffe, Carl Beukes, Deon Lotz, Zane Meas

Some time after the death of her parents, Sawa (Eisley) starts killing members of the criminal organisation headed by the Emir (Meas), the man held responsible for her parents’ deaths. Sawa is helped by Karl Aker (Jackson), a detective who was her father’s partner. As she kills the Emir’s people, she gets closer and closer to him, but her dependency on a drug called Amp causes her to begin making mistakes, and soon her identity is in danger of being revealed.

While Aker covers up any evidence she leaves behind, Sawa is also helped by a young man named Oburi (McAuliffe). He says he knows her from before her parents’ death, and that they were friends, but thanks to Amp, Sawa’s memories of him are hazy and indistinct (along with most of her past). When a hit sees her being chased by some of the Emir’s people, Oburi helps her escape and, with no access to Amp, her withdrawal symptoms begin to help her remember exactly what happened when her parents were killed. And when she finally comes face to face with the Emir, the encounter leaves her with more questions than answers.

Kite - scene

A live action version of Yasuomi Umetsu’s A kaito (1998), Kite was probably hoping that arriving so long after the original might mean any comparisons would be kept to a minimum. Sadly for the makers of this version, the gap in time isn’t an advantage, and the decision to “go live” has led to yet another dystopian vision of the future where street gangs dominate, crime appears to be the only growth industry, and the police are so jaded as to be little more than bystanders. We’ve seen this kind of movie so often now that it’s hard to get any kind of enjoyment out of it; the viewer can only sit back and watch as Kite ticks the boxes it so resolutely refuses to think outside of.

In the end, it’s all about the action, but despite some well choreographed moments of mayhem, including a bathroom shootout that’s reminiscent of the one in True Lies (1994), there’s nothing here that has any real impact. The characters are bland and/or one-dimensional, and nothing the cast does elevates the material in any way (not even Jackson, not exactly a stranger to crass or unconvincing dialogue, can do anything with lines that include “I can’t do this anymore”). As a result, there’s no one to care about, not even Sawa herself, and as the plot staggers towards the inevitable “twist” (that can be seen coming before the movie even starts), the sense of despair rises accordingly.

Rating: 3/10 – looking and feeling like a compendium of scenes and locations from every other ghetto-based action movie made in the last few years, Kite suffers from leaden direction and a script that fosters complacency all round; tiring and dispiriting, with missed opportunities galore, potential viewers should skip this altogether.

Seduced and Abandoned (2013)

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Seduced and Abandoned

D: James Toback / 98m

Alec Baldwin, James Toback, Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Bérénice Bejo, Diane Kruger, Ryan Gosling, Jessica Chastain, Neve Campbell, James Caan, Mark Damon, Avi Lerner, Ashok Amritraj

Deciding to make a movie together, director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin first work out the kind of movie they want to make – a Last Tango in Paris-style project set in Iraq – and who they want to co-star with Baldwin, namely, Neve Campbell. Then, they take their idea to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in the hope of securing the financing needed to get the movie made. Along the way they speak to various people about the difficulties of getting movies made, the challenges in persuading potential investors to part with their money, and how easier/harder it was back in the Seventies to get a project off the ground.

The search for investors leads to meditations on money, fame, acting, glamour, even death, as Toback and Baldwin look at the wider aspects of movie making, and the constraints that stop some movies from being made as their makers intended. The movie also looks at the industry from both a creative and a financial standpoint, and features interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and their own experiences of funding and making movies.

Seduced and Abandoned - scene

Opening with a quote from Orson Welles – “I look back on my life and it’s 95% running around trying to raise money to make movies and 5% actually making them. It’s no way to live.” – Seduced and Abandoned is an often hilarious, witty and insightful look at contemporary movie making, made by a director whose own career has seen him struggle to get movies made, and an actor whose career resurgence since The Aviator (2004) has propelled him to the lower reaches of the ‘A’ List. Together, they take the viewer on a tour of the highs and lows of movie making, and even when they’re coming up against closed door after closed door, still manage to stay positive.

In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to discern if this apparent by-product documentary is the real movie or not, or just some idea they had on the back of trying to make their version of what Baldwin refers to as Last Tango in Tikrit. Although the pair are seen in several meetings pitching their ideas for the movie, they never seem entirely convincing that this is a legitimate project that they’re trying to get off the ground; they don’t even have a script yet, nor anything approaching a synopsis. (Asked point blank if she’d appear in the movie, Diane Kruger blanches and then falls back on the tried and trusted, “If I can see a script I’ll consider it” answer.) Matters aren’t helped by Baldwin’s continual references to the sex scenes the movie would include, making it seem like some weird, sexual fantasy of his own that he’s trying to get off the ground.

However unlikely the premise, though, we all know there are movies out there that have been made out of worse ideas – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), anyone? – but the reactions of veteran producers/distributors Avi Lerner and Ashok Amritraj provide a short, predatory lesson in how to get a movie made: always bear in mind the profits. Toback is told in no uncertain terms that with Campbell aboard he won’t get the $15-$20m he wants to make the movie; instead he’ll only get $4-$5m. Only in those circumstances will producers or investors feel comfortable that they’ll get their money back. It’s a harsh reality, and one that shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s so casually discussed that it’s like a slap in the face.

The case for Last Tango in Tikrit being entirely a fabrication is given further credence by Toback’s almost slavish reactions to suggestions for changes to the plot and the story, and the casting. He agrees to almost all of them, seemingly eager – maybe too eager – to please his potential investors in order to secure the financing he needs. In moments such as these, Toback seems uncomfortably close to abandoning the whole concept of the movie, just as long as he gets the money to make a movie, if not the one he’s there to try and get made. (It’s a shame no one asks him to replace Baldwin with a bigger name actor; it would have been interesting to see his reaction to that.)

With Toback and Baldwin being rebuffed at every turn, and to ensure that the movie runs for more than half an hour, there are plenty of interviews with industry notables such as Martin Scorsese, who recounts some of the issues that came up when he was making Mean Streets (1973); Bernardo Bertolucci, who talks about working with Brando on Last Tango in Paris (1972); Francis Ford Coppola, who conveys his dismay at making two Godfather movies and then not being able to get backing for a movie of his own; and Ryan Gosling, whose reaction to an airplane emergency isn’t quite what you’d expect.

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The movie’s sly wit and acerbic humour help to keep things interesting, and it’s a good thing as Seduced and Abandoned is a documentary that will remain largely of interest to movie buffs and/or anyone trying to get their own project off the ground. The movie does assume a degree of awareness of what goes on at Cannes, and there’s also an assumption that viewers will be up to speed on the way in which movies are financed, but the lay person may well struggle, or find it less than fascinating. And Toback doesn’t always maintain a linear focus, letting the movie wander from one meeting to another but without any clear context (and reinforcing the idea that the movie is the movie, whatever Toback and Baldwin might say).

Rating: 7/10 – with its two “leads” obviously having a whale of a time, Seduced and Abandoned comes across more as a bit of a jolly boys’ outing to Cannes rather than a properly realised documentary; as a result it lacks focus and doesn’t entirely convince, instead making it seem like a huge in-joke that Toback and Baldwin have concocted for their own amusement.

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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Skeleton Twins, The

D: Craig Johnson / 93m

Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason

Following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Milo Dean (Hader) agrees to stay for a while with his twin sister, Maggie (Wiig) and her husband, Lance (Wilson). Milo and Maggie haven’t seen or spoken to each other in ten years, and at first, they are hesitant with each other. Milo is gay, and getting over the end of a relationship (hence the suicide attempt), while Maggie appears happy in her marriage but is always off taking courses – currently it’s scuba diving – and while Lance is keen to have children, Maggie is secretly taking the pill.

While out one day, Milo sees an “old flame”, Rich (Burrell), working in a bookstore. He approaches him but Rich is hostile. Meanwhile, Maggie is becoming increasingly attracted to her scuba diving instructor, Billy (Holbrook). Milo begins helping Lance with his work clearing paths in the woods, and after a visit from their mother (Gleason) that doesn’t go well, Milo and Maggie take the first proper steps in rebuilding their relationship. The next day, Milo returns to the bookstore and things go better with Rich; Maggie though, goes to a bar after class with Billy and they end up having sex in the bathroom.

The issue of pregnancy and Maggie’s abilities as a mother lead to a falling out between her and Milo. They patch things up, and in the process, tell each other some secrets: Milo reveals he has had sex with a woman, while Maggie reveals she’s on birth control. She further reveals it’s not because she doesn’t want children, but that she always sleeps with her instructors; it’s a compulsion she can’t help. That evening, Milo meets up with Rich and they spend the night together (even though Rich has a wife and son).

Halloween comes round and Milo and Maggie decide to dress up and go out like they did as kids. While they’re in a bar, Milo goes to the bathroom and leaves his phone behind. It rings and Maggie sees that it’s Rich calling. This leads to a row between them. Soon after, Lance and Milo have a Dudes Day, during which Lance voices his concerns that he might be shooting blanks because of how long it’s taking for Maggie to become pregnant. Milo, still smarting over Maggie’s reaction to his seeing Rich, plants the seed that she may be taking some “medication” that Lance doesn’t know about. But unbeknownst to both Lance and Milo, Maggie just might be pregnant after all.

Skeleton Twins, The - scene

Early on in The Skeleton Twins we see Maggie holding a handful of pills with the intention of taking them and ending her life. She’s interrupted by the call that tells her about Milo’s failed attempt. Suicide is a big issue in the movie, and while it sets the scene for the movie as a whole, and is referred to on several occasions, it appears more as a deus ex machina than as a raison d’être, spurring the movie on when Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman’s script needs it to. There’s plenty of incident in the movie, and there’s more than enough to keep an audience interested, but the recurring use of suicide as a plot device makes it seem – by the movie’s end – artificial, and it loses its effect. If it had been used just to set up, or introduce, the characters of Milo and Maggie then it might have had more potency. As it is, their reasons for trying to end their lives – while obvious – are never really explored in any real depth, and what becomes clear as the movie progresses is that the viewer will only be given access to Milo and Maggie’s surface feelings and nothing more profound.

Which makes The Skeleton Twins a frustrating, though nevertheless enjoyable viewing experience. As mentioned above, there’s a lot going on in the movie, and a lot of it is very engaging, and even though it’s predictable in the way that indie movies that deal with fractured relationships often are, it’s that familiar sheen that carries the movie forward and makes it work (for the most part). Milo and Maggie live average lives that border on quiet desperation; they both want to feel something more than they usually feel, and both are searching for a contentment they can’t quite grasp hold of. Milo feels the need to brag to Rich about an acting career he doesn’t have, because he’s envious of the life Rich is leading. Maggie feels the need to have affairs because being settled scares her. Both of them want stability but don’t know to achieve or maintain it. In the end, they learn to rely on each other a little bit more than they used to, but they’re still a long way from finding the peace that has so far eluded them.

There are other angles and avenues that aren’t fully explored – their mother’s role in their childhood (and the same for their father), the previous relationship between Milo and Rich, Maggie’s compulsion re: extra-marital sex – and these add to the sense that the script wasn’t fully developed before filming began. However, the script does have its compensations, not least some terrific dialogue, and an often delightful sense of the absurd. And there’s a great sequence where Milo cheers up Maggie by miming to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, so vividly expressed by the pair that it’s easily the movie’s highlight.

What saves the movie completely, though, are the performances from Hader and Wiig. Wiig is on fine form, displaying an understanding of the character that makes Maggie a lot more sympathetic than she might be otherwise (both she and Milo are quite self-centred and narcissistic in their own ways, and these aren’t always attractive qualities in either of them). Maggie has a vulnerability about her as well that Wiig portrays with skill, and she pulls off the difficult moments when Maggie is overwhelmed by her own feelings with both talent and proficiency. But the real performance of note is Hader’s, shrugging off his usual comic schtick to provide an impressive, noteworthy portrayal of a man hoping to reconnect with a time when he felt valued and needed (even if it wasn’t the best of situations). There’s a soulful aspect to his performance that makes Milo the more likeable of the two siblings, and even when he’s messing things up in his relationship with Maggie, you can see clearly that Milo is doing his best, even if it’s coming out wrong. It’s a well-balanced rendition that is more affecting that might be expected, and shows Hader to be a far more intuitive actor than previous roles have indicated.

Alongside Hader and Wiig, Wilson takes Lance’s almost puppy-dog looks and personality and makes him the quintessential good guy, but not quite so bland or vanilla that you can’t see Maggie’s attraction to him. It’s the awkward, not-quite-so-invested-in-by-the-script supporting role that can seem a bit colourless, but Wilson is quietly effective throughout. As Rich, Burrell has the more dramatic role, and gives a good portrayal of a man afraid of his past and the feelings it brings up, matching Hader for intensity in their scenes together.

Skeleton Twins, The - scene2

In the director’s chair, Johnson directs his and Heyman’s script with a delicate touch that, unfortunately, leaves much of the drama either quickly dispelled with or feeling lightweight and lacking in importance. He fares better with the visual look of the movie, the various locations and interiors given a sharp focus by Reed Morano’s complementary photography, and he uses close ups with a firm understanding of how potent they can be at the right time. Nathan Larson’s score is evocative and breezy, and full marks absolutely have to go to key makeup artist Liz Lash for coming up with Milo’s Halloween look – disturbing, for once, for all the right reasons.

Rating: 6/10 – with the material only scratching the surface of its characters lives and problems, The Skeleton Twins just misses out on being as poignant and as emotionally involving as it should have been; stellar lead performances aside, this is a movie that is still worth watching but with the proviso that it’s sadly less than the sum of its parts.

Poster of the Week – JFK (1992)

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JFK

JFK (1992)

Oliver Stone’s controversial examination of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy is engrossing, challenging and provocative. This poster for the movie isn’t quite as powerful – though that’s not a bad thing – but it what does do really well is compile some very iconic imagery into an attractive, attention-grabbing whole.

There are three very potent images included here. The first is the shot of Jackie Kennedy reaching over the back of the car with the Security Service agent rushing toward her. Even if you were unaware of the context of that image, you’d still know there was something wrong there, that this woman was in trouble. Knowing the context adds sympathy, sorrow, grief and shock, and the image’s inclusion is a poignant and concise reminder of the events of 22 November 1963.

In contrast, the image of Lee Harvey Oswald clasping a rifle in one hand and copies of the Communist paper The Militant in the other, provokes a different reaction. Whether you regard him as an assassin or a patsy, there’s something about Oswald’s look to camera that makes the viewer a little uneasy. Whatever his involvement in the death of John F. Kennedy, Oswald is still someone who invites suspicion, and this image reinforces that feeling with quiet authority.

Lastly, and perhaps less obviously, there is the torn American flag, a symbol of the “loss of innocence” America as a nation felt in the wake of Kennedy’s death. This was an event that – if such a thing is truly possible – damaged the nation’s psyche. It’s inclusion is the poster’s most subtle aspect, and mixed with the other two images, creates a compelling reflection on the movie’s subject matter.

The further inclusion of an image of Kevin Costner as District Attorney Jim Garrison doesn’t really add anything to the overall design, and appears more of a marketing idea than anything else. But the tag line is certainly apt, and rounds off the poster’s effect quite nicely: “The Story That Won’t Go Away”. How true, indeed.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

D: Jonathan Liebesman / 101m

Cast: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Pete Ploszek, Jeremy Howard, Danny Woodburn, Tohoru Masamune, Whoopi Goldberg, Minae Noji, Johnny Knoxville, Tony Shalhoub

Ten reasons NOT to see this movie:

1) Megan Fox – still trying too hard and still unable to display even a hint of a recognisable or credible emotion.

2) Splinter learns jujitsu from a book.

3) Splinter teaches the turtles jujitsu – after learning from a book.

4) April O’Neil saves the turtles and Splinter from a lab fire – only to dump them into a sewer.

5) The Foot Clan ninjas use automatic weapons – they never use their ninja skills.

6) April O’Neil tries to convince her boss that there are mutant ninja turtles acting as vigilantes – and doesn’t provide a shred of proof – twice.

7) The New York sewer system contains enough discarded electronic equipment to assemble a sophisticated, city-wide surveillance system.

8) The super-rich bad guy’s only reason for being the bad guy is so he can be even richer.

9) April O’Neil is the subject of constant sexual harassment from Michelangelo – this is regarded as humour.

10) Turtles – apparently – are bulletproof.

Rating: 2/10 – so bad it’s a crime, and continuing evidence that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes has no idea how to reboot a franchise or remake a movie from the Eighties; as poorly executed as you might expect, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles drains the life out of its own premise, and gives new meaning to the word “awful”.

The Babadook (2014)

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Babadook, The

D: Jennifer Kent / 93m

Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear, Tim Purcell

Six-year-old Samuel (Wiseman) has a deep-rooted fear of monsters. Each night he makes sure his mother, Amelia (Davis) checks under the bed and inside his wardrobe to ensure nothing lurks in his room. Most nights, though, Samuel’s fear leads to his sleeping with his mother; this in turn leads to Amelia being constantly tired. With his fear of monsters becoming obsessive – Samuel is convinced they’re real and constructs weapons to kill them – his behaviour begins to have an isolating effect. His school doesn’t know how to deal with him, and Amelia’s sister, Claire (McElhinney) is sufficiently worried to want to keep her daughter away from him.

One night, Samuel chooses a book for Amelia to read to him at bedtime. The book is called The Babadook, and shows a menacing creature trying to prey on a young child; strangely, the last few pages are blank. Amelia is disturbed by the book, but not as much as Samuel. His behaviour worsens as he refers to the Babadook as being real. Unable to cope at work, and struggling with Samuel’s “acting up”, Amelia rips the book into pieces and throws it into the trash. Soon after, there is a loud knocking at the front door. Amelia finds the book on the doorstep, its pages reassembled, and with the last few pages now depicting her murdering their dog, and then Samuel before taking her own life. Horrified, this time she burns the book.

Amelia also starts to receive phone calls where a voice chants “ba-BA-ba Dook! Dook! Dook!” Then one night she sees the creature in her room. Terrified, but unsure of what to do, Amelia attempts to carry on as usual but Samuel becomes increasingly wary of her. When he has a fit in the back of their car, she keeps him off school, but her attempts to look after him are hampered by sudden mood swings and angry outbursts. Samuel becomes convinced she’s been possessed by the Babadook, and tells her so. And soon, the book’s added illustrations start to come true…

Babadook, The - scene

Expanded from Kent’s debut short, Monster (2005), The Babadook is an occasionally chilling examination of childhood terror and adult paranoia. It opens with the accident that claims the life of Oskar (Winspear), Amelia’s husband. This pivotal moment is at the heart of Amelia’s troubles, her unresolved grief keeping her from moving on with her life and hindering her from properly dealing with Samuel’s fear of monsters. Of the two, she is the more susceptible to the attentions of the Babadook, and so it proves, the creature targeting the weaker inhabitant of the house. It’s a frightening scenario for any child: to see their parent turning into the very creature they’re most afraid of, and it’s this very real terror that the movie exploits so effectively.

However, the concept of the Babadook itself is less successful. As the latest boogeyman to hit our screens, its look a combination of German Expressionism and Freddy Krueger’s favourite manicure, the creature is kept hidden for the most part, Kent preferring to use Oskar as its more user-friendly incarnation. This decision is a wise one on the writer/director’s part, as when the Babadook does appear in the flesh, the nightmarish quality of the book’s rendering of it is undermined, and there’s just too much of a resemblance to Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). (There’s also a moment when the Babadook, hidden in the darkness of Amelia’s bedroom, extends its arms in a wing-like effect; it’s meant to be terrifying but instead is puzzling as there’s no follow up.) Used largely as a shock effect, the Babadook isn’t quite as scary as might be expected, and Kent doesn’t do full justice to the opportunities the creature could have afforded.

The Babadook is more effective, however, as a study of one woman’s extreme mental breakdown. Taking the death of her husband as a starting point, Amelia’s inability to cope is more understandable. There’s a scene with her sister where Amelia admits she doesn’t talk about Oskar’s death but it’s still a source of pain; it’s clear from this that she’s never properly dealt with the feelings and emotions that have developed over the years since he died (there is an added level of heartache to Oskar’s death: he was driving Amelia to the hospital so she could give birth to Samuel when the accident happened). With Samuel’s seventh birthday fast approaching, and his insistence on the reality of monsters – in particular the Babadook – Amelia’s descent into murderous psychosis is a credible alternative to the idea of a creature in the shadows. To back this up, Amelia is shown in various fugue states, and her mood swings revolve around items belonging to Oskar, or Samuel’s own need for reassurance and comfort. As she clings to the past and deflects the concerns of the present, her grip on reality loosens to the point where her mania is all-encompassing, and where any lucid moments are short-lived.

In this context, the Babadook is an obvious extension of Amelia’s mania, but the script calls for a more traditional showdown, though even here Kent can’t resist throwing a twist into the mix, and the movie ends by creating a fresh mystery (viewers can decide for themselves just what it all means in relation to what’s gone before). With its drab, murky interiors and deep shadows, Amelia and Samuel’s home is yet another movie location where the lighting is largely ineffectual (or never used), and there’s a conveniently placed kitchen window that allows Amelia to view the Babadook in their neighbour’s home (and which violates the creature’s own mythology for the sake of a cheap scare). Unable to resist the inclusion of some standard horror tropes – bumps in the night, the wardrobe door that was shut and is later mysteriously open – Kent’s script also offers up some very minor subplots that aren’t developed fully, and keeps its secondary characters firmly in the background. Away from the script, Kent directs with a confidence that stands her in good stead when the focus is on the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, but less so when she’s trying to inject some terror into the proceedings.

Babadook, The - scene2

If you’re someone who rarely watches horror movies, and really this is more of a domestic drama with horror themes attached, then it’s likely you’ll find The Babadook quite disturbing. However, fans of the genre will find less to celebrate, and may well feel let down by all the hype that’s surrounded the movie since its release. Kent has done a proficient job of expanding her original short film (which is well worth checking out), but the main problem in that version remains here: just what does the Babadook represent, and why?

Rating: 6/10 – uneven, and with too many longueurs holding up the action, The Babadook never quite lives up to its potential; only occasionally scary, and with performances from Davis and Wiseman that don’t resonate or impress as much as they should, this is yet another reminder of how difficult it is nowadays to create a truly terrifying horror movie.

The Cat Returns (2002)

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Cat Returns, The

Original title: Neko no ongaeshi

D: Hiroyuki Morita / 75m

Cast: Chizuru Ikewaki, Yoshihiko Hakamada, Aki Maeda, Takayuki Yamada, Hitomi Satô, Kenta Satoi, Mari Hamada, Tetsu Watanabe, Yôsuke Saitô, Kumiko Okae, Tetsurô Tanba

Haru (Ikewaki) is a young girl who always seems to be running to catch up in her life. While on her way home from school one day, she saves a cat from being run over by a truck. Unseen by anyone else, the cat dusts itself down and thanks her for saving his life; afterwards Haru thinks she’s going mad. When she mentions the incident to her mother (Okae), her mother recalls an occasion when Haru was much younger and she spoke to a kitten. Somewhat reassured, Haru is still surprised to find a procession of cats appear in the night outside her home. Led by the Cat King (Tanba) of Cat Kingdom, he bestows on her his thanks for saving his son, Prince Lune (Yamada), and promises to bestow on her a range of gifts.

The gifts begin appearing the next morning, with cat tail plants overtaking the garden, Haru being chased to school by a large band of cats, and her locker containing boxes of live mice. Later, Haru is lamenting the way things are going when she sees Natoru (Hamada), the Cat King’s assistant. When she complains about the gifts, he offers her a trip to Cat Kingdom and tells her of the most important gift of all: her marriage to Prince Lune. Haru panics at the idea, and while she wonders what she can do, she hears a voice tell her to find the big white cat at the crossroads.

The cat, Muta (Watanabe), takes her to a strange part of town where the buildings are all much smaller than usual and where she is introduced to Humbert von Gikkingen (Hakamada), aka the Baron. Haru tells the Baron about her predicament, and he agrees to help her, aided by Muta and a crow called Toto (Saitô). Before they can however, there is a knock at the door and Haru is carried off by Natoru and several other cats. When Haru wakes she finds herself in the Cat Kingdom; she also finds she’s shrunk to the size of a cat, and is half-human, half-cat. With preparations for the wedding going ahead, Haru appears to be trapped in the Cat Kingdom with no way out and no prospect of being rescued.

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Regarded as a minor entry in the Studio Ghibli canon, The Cat Returns is a light, good-hearted movie that tells a simple story in a simple, old-fashioned style, and is all the better for it. It may not have the depth of, say, Spirited Away (2001) or Grave of the Fireflies (1988), but Haru’s plight is tinged with clever humour and the movie embraces its premise with a delightful vigour. Haru herself is an appealing character, her teenage awkwardness imaginatively rendered, and given free expression in the opening twenty minutes.

Once the premise of talking cats is established, the movie piles on the charm with cheerful abandon, and while Haru’s adventures in the Cat Kingdom take on a more serious tone, there’s still plenty of imaginative whimsy on display (Haru’s half-cat look is a prime example). The characters are – as expected – carefully designed, with the Baron’s urbane Victorian apparel proving a winner. Likewise, the Cat King is a terrific creation, his heavy-lidded stare and overfed frame highlighting the dissolute nature of his life and position.

This being a Studio Ghibli production the animation is naturally of a very high standard, particularly with regard to the backgrounds, which are so full of detail that it’s hard to take in all at once. There’s also a richness in their colour schemes that makes a lot of these background shots pop off the screen, so bright and vivid are they. Haru and the Baron et al. fit in well against these backdrops, but where the main characters look like they belong, the same can’t be said for the cats who are, in effect, bit players and extras. The level of detail brought to the main characters is absent here, with large groups of cats in certain scenes looking more like pre-viz animation than the finished product. And it’s unfortunate, but the Baron’s mouth is often represented by an awkwardly drawn line, making him look unnecessarily thin-lipped and/or petulant.

But these are minor problems in a movie that entertains throughout and whose sole purpose is to provide seventy-five minutes’ worth of fun, with no hidden meanings, and no dramatic subtext beyond the notion that almost being made to marry a cat will lead to a reassessment of one’s outlook on Life (Haru is a more focused individual come the movie’s end). As fluffy as one of the clouds seen floating in the sky in more than one scene, The Cat Returns is directed with flair and a good sense of the absurd nature of the story by Morita (whose only directorial credit this is, so far), and the Japanese voice cast all prove perfect matches for their characters, with special mention going to Ikewaki and Watanabe. There’s also a wonderfully playful score courtesy of Yuji Nomi that is a character all by itself.

Rating: 7/10 – as adaptations of comic books go – this one from Aoi Hiragi’s Neko no Danshaku, BaronThe Cat Returns is a joyous diversion that boasts some unsurprisingly beautiful animation and an inventive storyline; a feelgood movie in every way, this can, and should be, enjoyed by children and adults alike.

Predestination (2014)

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Predestination

D: The Spierig Brothers / 97m

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor, Christopher Kirby, Cate Wolfe, Ben Prendergast, Freya Stafford

A man enters a building and heads for the basement where the boiler is housed. There he finds an explosive device that’s counting down to its detonation. Just as he is about to stop the bomb from detonating he is shot at and injured. He makes one last attempt to save the building and the people inside it, but is badly burnt in the process. In desperation, he reaches for what looks like a violin case, but it’s just out of reach. Then someone pushes it closer, the man is able to push some buttons on the case… and he vanishes. When he wakes up he’s in a hospital recovering from severe burns to his face and throat. So bad were the man’s injuries, the doctors have had to carry out extensive reconstructive surgery, and he’s advised that the pitch of his voice will be very different than before.

The man (Hawke) is a temporal agent, able to travel back and forth in time within fifty-three years of 1981, the year in which time travel is achieved. Working for a secret organisation, his task – as before – is to track down and eliminate the so-called Fizzle Bomber, a terrorist responsible for several arson attacks in the Sixties and Seventies, but whose greatest “achievement” was the murder of 11,000 people in a massive explosion in New York City in 1975. Accepting one last chance to stop the Fizzle Bomber, the agent travels back from 1985 to 1978 and finds work in a bar. One night a young man comes in who reveals himself to be a writer of true confessions stories. The agent challenges him to tell the best story he knows.

The young man begins by telling the agent that when he was a girl he was abandoned by his parents on the steps of an orphanage when he was just a baby; he was named Jane. Growing up healthy and fit, and with a fierce intellect, he was precocious and headstrong. As a teenager he tried to join an organisation called Spacecorp which trained future astronauts but an anomaly discovered during a physical meant he had to leave the programme. At a night class, he met a man and fell pregnant. The child, a girl,  was born by Caesarean, and afterwards one of his doctors (Pendergast) explained to him that his internal organs were both male and female, and that they’d made the decision to remove the female organs and set him on the path to becoming a man. And if that wasn’t enough to deal with, his child was abducted a few days later and never seen again. Eventually moving to New York City, he found he had a knack for writing true confessions-style magazine articles, and now here he is. The agent is unimpressed however, and reveals that he’s known who the man is all along. The man believes he’s being scammed, but when the agent tells him that he can help him kill the man who got him pregnant (and presumably stole their child), the man is sufficiently intrigued to agree to whatever the agent has in mind.

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With such a lengthy back story, Predestination has the look and feel of a convoluted soap opera, its abandoned/stolen babies and sex change protagonist the kind of thing that is so open to parody and ridicule it risks losing its audience’s involvement from the moment the writer mentions being born a girl. But the premise is played out in such a straight, deliberate fashion that what might be loosely termed “a tall story” soon proves to have more depth than is readily obvious. As the writer embarks on his quest for revenge he finds himself drawn into a world of time travel, unexpected twists and turns, temporal paradoxes, and the mystery of the Fizzle Bomber.

What happens before the scene in the bar is repeated later in the movie, while what happens after the scene in the bar sees the agent and the writer separating and converging in ways that neither they nor (hopefully) the audience are able to predict. Adapted from the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein – a copy of his novel Stranger in a Strange Land can be seen on the writer’s desk at one point – Predestination is a mostly faithful retelling of Heinlein’s tale, and keeps the time travel paradox that unites the main characters. Outwardly complex and confusing, the movie isn’t actually that difficult to follow, but it does its best to obscure matters (mostly by having the agent make several seemingly unconnected “jumps” in the final third), and creators the Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter) have fun providing just enough misdirection to complicate matters when necessary. But while it all adds up to an occasionally challenging viewing experience, and it holds the attention for most of its running time, sadly the movie doesn’t quite become more than the sum of its parts.

Part of this is due to the central time travel paradox, a clever conceit on paper, but not so reasonable when portrayed on film. That it breaks one of the biggest taboos ever regarding time travel is at first impressive, but then as the plot unfolds and things fall into place, the movie takes that taboo and pretty much tramples all over it. It’s actually hard to work out if Heinlein’s original concept was as well thought out as it might have been, or if the Spierigs have taken the idea a step too far (certainly the ending is modified from the original). In either case the movie begins to stumble over itself in the final third as it seeks a satisfactory conclusion. What it comes up with, though bold in itself, is not as dramatically rewarding as was perhaps intended, and some viewers may feel short changed by the nihilism employed.

With the story losing its way, the cast have a greater struggle on their hands than just remembering where they are in any given scene. There are emotional arcs here that need to be maintained, and character motivations that need to be reliably and consistently adhered to, and thanks to decisive performances from Hawke and Snook, this is largely the case, but even they are unable to offset the emphasis on overly clever plotting that hampers the last thirty minutes. Taylor has a more shadowy role as the head of the time travel agency, and while he maintains an air of inscrutability throughout, his appearances are too few to provide any real answers as to what is going on.

The various time frames and locations are kept to a generic minimum, with only costume changes and/or cars to herald the period the characters find themselves in, and the score and song choices are integrated into these scenes with aplomb. The look and style of the movie is fairly gloomy, and the camerawork by Ben Nott isn’t as fluid as perhaps was needed, though the Spierigs show a knack for effective medium shots that contain a lot of visual information for the viewer to ponder on. It’s not an attractive movie to watch for the most part, but the look of the movie is consistent, and it certainly fits the mood of the piece.

Rating: 7/10 – an intriguing idea given a progressively rougher handling than necessary, Predestination is still a valiant attempt at an intelligent science fiction story, and for that reason, shouldn’t be overlooked; a movie that sees Hawke and Snook on fine form, this also has a great sense of its own tragedy, and bravely takes its time in setting up the main storyline.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

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Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1, The

D: Francis Lawrence / 123m

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Mahershala Ali, Willow Shields, Natalie Dormer, Stanley Tucci

Having been rescued from the Quarter Quell Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), Finnick Odair (Claflin), and Beetee (Wright) find themselves in the underground fortress that is the new District 13, and which has been built beneath the ruins of the old District 13. While Finnick despairs the loss of his lover, Annie Cresta, and Beetee sets about helping the district leaders with their plans to take the fight to the Capitol, Katniss is asked to become the Mockingjay, the symbol of the resistance. She refuses, blaming the District 13 leaders – headed by President Alma Coin (Moore) and ex-gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) – for not trying to save Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), Annie, and Johanna Mason who are all prisoners in the Capitol.

Heavensbee decides it would be better to convince Katniss another way, and he arranges for her to visit the ruins of District 12. There she sees the devastation and the remains of her people and is visibly shocked by what’s happened. She agrees to become the Mockingjay but on the condition that the captured Victors are rescued and granted full pardons. Coin agrees and Katniss becomes a part of the rebel propaganda campaign, appearing in videos that are broadcast across the districts and eventually, into the Capitol. These videos lead to uprisings in some of the other districts, including the destruction of the dam that provides the bulk of the Capitol’s electrical power.

An attack on District 13 follows but the underground fortress isn’t breached. Coin sends a team led by security chief Boggs (Ali) and Gale (Hemsworth) to rescue the captured Victors. They find their way in with ease, helped immeasurably by Beetee’s jamming of the Capitol’s security signals. But when Beetee’s transmissions are interrupted, and President Snow himself reveals his awareness of the rescue attempt, the safety of Gale and Boggs and the rest of the team hangs in the balance.

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It’s a rare movie in any franchise that opens with two scenes showing characters in utter despair, but The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is so confident in its set up, and what it needs to do in this necessarily darker episode, that these two scenes act both as a brief summation of where the story has been and where it is now. It’s also exposition given added weight by an emotional heft that exposition generally doesn’t carry, and gives notice that the writers – Danny Strong and Peter Craig – aren’t going to take the easy route in adapting the first part of Suzanne Collins’ final book in the Hunger Games trilogy.

In fact, this is an even more carefully assembled, and thought out, screenplay than the one that made The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) so effective. Here, the political machinations are more exposed, the betrayals and compromises crueller than ever, and Katniss’ sense of being alone (even with Prim (Shields) and her mother, and Gale to support her) heightened even more. It’s a movie that looks at the loss of hope and the suspension of faith, and emphasises the way in which personal sacrifice almost always comes at a cost. It’s a bleaker, more anxiety-ridden movie, and in being true to the original source, furthers the series’ own integrity.

The introduction of President Snow’s District 13 counterpart, Alma Coin, is handled incredibly well, with Moore proving an excellent choice in the role. Fans of the book will know where the narrative takes President Coin, but for now the script provides very subtle clues as to the nature of that direction, and Moore gives a clever, finely tuned performance that provides a perfect foil for Sutherland’s spider-like turn as the malevolent Panem president. (It’s a shame that the best verbal sparring is reserved for Snow and Katniss – seeing Coin and Snow exchanging words would be an intense and fascinating encounter.) Moore isn’t on screen a lot but when she is, Coin is an enticingly vivid presence.

But the focus is, of course, on Katniss, and the way in which she deals with this new direction in her life. Lawrence is an intelligent, perceptive actress and she handles the demands of the role – again – with a fierce determination that matches the character and the journey she’s making. Katniss may not be the most emotionally stable young woman you’re ever likely to meet, but she has an inner strength that Lawrence brings to the fore with accomplished ease. Watching her reaction to the horrors of a devastated District 12 shows just why it’s now so difficult to imagine anyone else in the role, so completely does she inhabit the part.

The rest of the characters share varying amounts of screen time, with Gale having a larger part to play this time round, and Effie Trinket (Banks) also benefitting from an expanded role (that wasn’t in the novel; Banks’ previous performances convinced Collins the character needed to be more involved in the final two movies). A newly sober Haymitch (Harrelson) proves less effective as a character, but the actor rises to the challenge of providing the same (required) turn in each movie. Heavensbee reveals himself to be a clever, thoughtful manipulator, and Hoffman has fun with the role, a genial smirk never too far from his features. The relationship between Katniss and Prim continues in the same fashion as before, with their mother still given a background role, and Katniss’ affection for Gale is barely mentioned, leaving her (presumed) love for Peeta to take centre stage. This dynamic, always in doubt during the previous two movies, begins to coalesce into something more tangible here, and leads to one of the most heart-rending, and shocking, scenes in the series so far.

Returning to the director’s chair, Lawrence continues to be a wise choice for the hot seat, and keeps the focus on the characters and their relationships to each other, emphasising the emotional ups and downs that Katniss has to overcome, and the difficult path she has to take as the rebels’ figurehead. Lawrence also keeps the action on point, each sequence plotted and designed for maximum effect, and he brings the other featured districts to life with a well thought out economy. There’s another stirring score courtesy of James Newton Howard, and Jo Willems’ photography maintains the visual style of the previous movie while adding a grittier sheen to things.

Rating: 9/10 – with one more movie to go, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a memorable, thrilling addition to the series, and perfectly sets up Part 2; with a handful of superb performances, and a director firmly in control of the material, this instalment stands as a perfect example of how to make a bridging chapter relevant and exciting in equal measure.

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

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Most Wanted Man, A

D: Anton Corbijn / 122m

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Nina Hoss, Robin Wright, Homayoun Ershadi, Daniel Brühl, Mehdi Dehbi, Rainer Bock

Chechnyan refugee Issa Karpov (Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg illegally. Spied on CCTV by the German intelligence network, Karpov is of particular interest to the team led by Günther Bachmann (Hoffman). With their specific focus on the Muslim community, Karpov’s appearance raises questions, especially as the Russians believe he could be an extremist bent on committing a terrorist attack. With another German intelligence agency led by Dieter Mohr (Bock) wanting to arrest Karpov immediately, Bachmann gains seventy-two hours in which to identify Karpov’s motives. At the same time, Bachmann is also looking into the financial dealings of local Muslim philanthropist Dr Abdullah (Ershadi), suspecting him of siphoning charity donations to terrorist organisations.

However, Karpov has come to claim an inheritance. He enlists the help of immigration lawyer Annabel Richter (McAdams), asking her to make contact with banker Tommy Brue (Dafoe). Karpov’s inheritance is held at Brue’s bank, and while Brue needs proof of Karpov’s identity and his claim, Bachmann recruits Brue as part of a plan that has wider implications than whether or not the Chechnyan is in Hamburg for suspicious reasons. With Brue on board, Bachmann begins to piece together more and more information relating to Karpov’s past and his reasons for being there. When Richter begins to feel she and Karpov are being watched she manages to get him to a safe house, but Bachmann abducts her, and persuades her to help him in getting Karpov’s money to him.

In the meantime, US diplomatic attache Martha Sullivan (Wright), ostensibly an observer, helps Bachmann with his investigation, and uses her position to keep Mohr off Bachmann’s back. With Brue and Richter both on board, Bachmann’s wider plan to entrap Dr Abdullah begins to come together. Karpov, unaware of what’s happening, or that he’s been under constant surveillance, is persuaded to sign over his inheritance. But when Abdullah presents a list of charities to receive funds from Karpov’s unwanted legacy, and it doesn’t contain the name of the charity that Bachmann and his team suspect is being used by Abdullah to divert monies to terrorists, it looks as if all their intelligence gathering and surveillance work has been for nothing.

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A sharply detailed look at the behind the scenes work needed to apprehend or “turn” a terrorist suspect, A Most Wanted Man is a dour triumph that succeeds because Andrew Bovell’s measured and skilful adaptation of the novel by John le Carré takes its time introducing and maintaining the various subterfuges that pepper the narrative. This is an espionage thriller that eschews gunplay and car chases, and instead focuses on the mind games used in manipulating people into “keeping the world safe”.

A Most Wanted Man is an absorbing, slow burn movie that takes a somewhat familiar plot – does a person of interest have good or bad motives? – and thanks to a commanding central performance from Hoffman, Bovell’s polished script, and Corbijn’s exacting direction, is as sure-footed in its design and execution as any other le Carré adaptation (it does seem that the author’s works lend themselves well to being adapted for the screen). Holding it all together is another superb performance from Hoffman, his German accent making him sound completely different, and his somewhat slovenly appearance belying the intellect that keeps him several steps ahead of his quarry (and often, his team). This was Hoffman’s last lead role before his death, and as an unexpected swan song, shows once again why he was one of the finest actors of his generation. There’s not one moment where the artifice slips and the viewer becomes aware that they’re watching an actor – Hoffman inhabits the role so completely, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they bumped into Günther Bachmann in real life.

Hoffman is ably supported by his co-stars, particularly McAdams who takes a largely conventional role and gives it a depth that is surprising for the character (but not for the actress). Dafoe is equally good as the compromised banker, Brue, and Hoss’ fatalistic second-in-command adds a layer of melancholy to the movie that reflects the sombre approach to the material. As the tortured, subdued refugee, Dobrygin is terrific in his English language debut, mournful and emotionally reticent, but with a deep-rooted sincerity that fits the character perfectly. But while the main cast all excel, spare a thought for Brühl, whose character is reduced to contributing the odd line and who stays firmly in the background.

With the political background given due relevance, and the inner workings of German intelligence – whether correctly detailed or not – explored in surprising detail, A Most Wanted Man remains a captivating, quietly meticulous thriller that benefits from an austere, gloomy production design by Sebastian Krawinkel that in turn is matched by Sabine Engelberg’s precisely detailed art direction. Keeping all these elements in tune, and creating a wholly believable milieu, Corbijn – whose previous feature The American (2010) was not as disciplined as his efforts here – makes it easy for the viewer to understand what’s going on at each twist and turn, and ratchets up the tension with a confidence that some more experienced directors never attain no matter how many movies they make. In the end, it all hinges on a signature, the kind of moment that few thrillers rely on, but here, Corbijn has the viewer on the edge of their seat and holding their breath. And then with victory assured, he and Le Carré pull off something so unexpected that the viewer’s breath is taken away altogether. It’s an audacious feat, and all the more impressive in the way it’s carried out.

Rating: 8/10 – with an eerily compelling score by Herbert Grönemeyer, the only negative that can be said about A Most Wanted Man is that, even with le Carré’s source material at its heart, some parts of the story and plotting are predictable; that said, it’s still a complex, engrossing thriller featuring effortless performances and is an intelligent, thought-provoking piece that rewards throughout.

The Sin of Nora Moran (1933)

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Sin of Nora Moran, The

D: Phil Goldstone / 65m

Cast: Zita Johann, Paul Cavanagh, Alan Dinehart, Claire Du Brey, John Miljan, Henry B. Walthall, Sarah Padden, Cora Sue Collins, Aggie Herring, Otis Harlan

Edith Crawford (Du Brey), the wife of a state governor, goes to visit her brother John Grant (Dinehart), the District Attorney. She shows him several letters that prove her husband, Dick (Cavanagh) has been having an affair. She wants to know the woman’s name, but her brother tries to reassure her there could be other explanations for the letters, but then he lets slip that he knew what was going on. Pushed to reveal the woman’s name he hands his sister a newspaper cutting that reports the imminent execution of a woman named Nora Moran (Johann). At first, Edith doesn’t see the connection, but then her brother begins to explain.

He tells her of an orphaned child called Nora (Collins) who is adopted by an elderly but loving couple, the Morans (Herring, Harlan). When Nora is twenty-one the Morans are both killed in a car crash. Using her inheritance, Nora determines to be a dancer and seek her fame and fortune in the theatre. But she encounters disappointment after disappointment, until, almost broke, she gets a job working in a circus as the assistant for lion wrestler, Paulino (Miljan). Paulino proves to be a sexually abusive boss; with the aid of one of her co-workers, Mrs Watts (Padden), Nora flees the circus and heads to New York where she finds work in a nightclub. There she meets Dick Crawford, and their romance begins.

Grant becomes aware of his brother-in-law’s affair and pays the lovers a visit at Dick’s country hideaway. He confronts the pair; Nora pretends to have “known” several men during her time at the circus. This causes Dick to leave, and after she assures Grant she won’t hang around anymore, he leaves too. Later, Nora telephones Grant and asks him to return to the hideaway, where she shows him the dead body of a man, a man she has murdered. Fearing a scandal, Grant helps Nora dispose of the body, and she leaves town. Later, Nora is arrested for the man’s murder, and at her trial, and with Nora refusing to give any evidence to save herself, she is sentenced to be electrocuted.

Sin of Nora Moran, The - scene

A somewhat surreal, non-linear drama, The Sin of Nora Moran is a strange, visually inventive movie that resists easy categorisation – it has elements of murder, mystery, romance, redemption and sacrifice – and gives Johann her best role by far. It’s also a far cry from the more usual romantic dramas of the period, and doesn’t shy away from showing the terrors of pre-execution incarceration.

Dark and brooding, this adaptation of W. Maxwell Goodhue’s story Burnt Offering, features a narrative that begins in the office of the District Attorney and then flits about from place to place – and from time to time – in its efforts to tell a very plain tale and infuse it with some flair. At one point, Grant makes Dick look at Nora in her coffin; it’s a fantasy sequence but unsettling all the same for not being signposted. Or there’s the shot of Nora’s head being encased in imaginary flames (a none-too blatant example of how badly she’s being treated, as well as being indicative of her expected post-mortem destination). With imagery such as this, the  movie has a vivid, sometimes hallucinatory quality that perfectly complements the more melodramatic twists and turns of the script.

Full credit for this must go to the director, as well as the screenplay by Frances Hyland that, together, forge a significantly darker tragedy than perhaps even audiences of the time might have expected. Faced with the man she loves being exposed as a love cheat in the press, and his reputation tarnished irrevocably, Nora does what every lovestruck young woman would do: she keeps quiet, and by doing so, keeps him safe. The theme of self-sacrifice is given probably its best expression when Grant’s intrusion leads to Nora’ almost immediate, and selfless, decision to withdraw from Dick’s life; she believes with all her heart that his reputation and character mustn’t be sullied. (Of course, these days, Dick would probably be left to fend for himself, and would probably be asked to do whatever fun things someone could come up with.)

With all the symbolism on display, and no end of metaphors for those viewers who aren’t quite up to speed on the visual clues, The Sin of Nora Moran features several broad acting performances from the likes of Dinehart and Miljan, while sadly confirming what contemporary audiences must have known all along: that Cavanagh was an actor with the range of a large piece of wood. As the titular heroine, Johann gives an assured, sympathetic performance as the young woman looking for some fleeting happiness to make her life all the more worthwhile.

Rating: 7/10 – shot in an unfussy yet often severe style by DoP Ira H. Morgan, and with a suitably intense score by an uncredited Heinz Roemheld, The Sin of Nora Moran is a cautionary tale of love gone awry that is often enthralling, and visually arresting; Johann shines in the title role, and the expected sentimentality is given short shrift thanks to the script’s determined sobriety.

Poster of the Week – The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

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Bitter Tea of General Yen, The

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

In 1930, Hollywood adopted the Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code), as a way of ensuring that movies wouldn’t “lower the moral standards of those who see [them]”. Although the Code was formally adopted at that time, it would be another four years before the Code was rigidly enforced, as producers between 1930 and 1934 ignored the Code in favour of strong box office returns on movies with racy material. And one such movie that flouted the Code was The Bitter Tea of General Yen.

Its tale of a Chinese warlord and the fianceé of a Christian missionary who fall in love, the movie transgressed against several particulars of the Code, not the least of which was in its depiction of sexual passion. And while most of the posters made to advertise the movie were entirely sedate and gave no indication of the torrid goings-on between Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther, this one spells it out as boldly as possible, and leaves the potential viewer in no doubt as to what he or she can expect (if they’re lucky).

General Yen’s ethnicity has been toned down quite a bit, making Asther look more Central European than Chinese, but the title is a giveaway, and there’s also the military-style jacket to reinforce matters. As he approaches the prone character of Megan Davis, there are two very obvious reasons for his interest: her barely covered breasts. Seen today, this rather blatant attempt at prurience doesn’t have as much effect as it would have done back in 1933, but it’s still a bit of a surprise to see such an exposure of flesh so prominently displayed. It certainly gives a good indication of how racy the movie is likely to be – even if that particular image isn’t replicated in the movie itself – and it’s also a further indication that the Code was being flouted as often, and in as many ways, as possible.

A racy, sexually provocative depiction of an inter-racial relationship – unusual for the time – and a great example of how the studios ignored the Code, this poster has a terrific collision of colours and only one worrying aspect to the whole thing: just what has happened to Asther’s right hand?

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.

Listen Up Philip (2014)

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Listen Up Philip

D: Alex Ross Perry / 109m

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de La Baume, Jess Weixler, Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil, Eric Bogosian

On the verge of having his second novel published, Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman) takes the opportunity to berate the people who didn’t support him when he was trying to get his writing career off the ground. And yet he doesn’t feel any better for doing so. His success is making him unhappy, both with his publisher who wants him to undergo a book tour, and with his girlfriend, Ashley (Moss), a photographer who’s beginning to achieve her own success. As Philip does his best to sabotage his various relationships, his publisher puts him in touch with respected, prize-winning novelist Ike Zimmerman (Pryce). Ike has read Philip’s second novel and liked it enough to want to meet him.

Their meeting leads Ike to offer Philip the use of his country house. Ike feels that living in the city isn’t conducive to producing great writing, and Philip agrees with him. His decision adds tension to his relationship with Ashley who hates that he’s made such a decision without involving her. At Ike’s country house, Philip meets Ike’s daughter, Melanie (Ritter). She’s not impressed by his angry, selfish behaviour, and sees him as just another (younger) version of her father, someone Ike can further mould in his own image.

Ike arranges for Philip to teach at a college for a semester. Again his decision upsets Ashley and she decides while he’s gone to end their relationship. As she begins to establish a life without Philip, he becomes intrigued by one of the other teachers at the college, Yvette (de La Baume), and they begin a tentative relationship. When things with Yvette don’t work out, Philip returns to Ashley but finds that his certainty about their relationship and her needs aren’t exactly what he believed.

Listen Up Philip - scene

An absorbing if not entirely rewarding look at the life of a writer who takes the pursuit of selfishness to new extremes, Listen Up Philip is an unsubtle drama that spends a lot of its running time reinforcing – as if we need it – the idea that Philip is a deeply unpleasant person to be around. From the first scene where he lambasts his ex-girlfriend, Philip’s caustic, choleric attitude is clearly going to be difficult to deal with for the entire movie, and writer/director Perry wisely avoids putting Philip centre stage throughout. He’s quite simply an asshole, something Philip himself acknowledges from time to time, but the problem is that his self-awareness isn’t used to initiate any self-improvement. Philip remains resolutely selfish and arrogant all the way to the movie’s end, and even though he’s played superbly by Schwartzman, the lack of an appreciable character arc is disappointing, and leaves the movie feeling like an extended snapshot rather than a full-fledged story.

There’s also the issue of Philip’s relationship with Ike, a father/son dynamic that never really goes anywhere, other than to show that how Ike is now, is how Philip will be when he’s older, whether he’s as successful or not. As played by Pryce, Ike is as unappealing and dismissive as Philip is, intellectually snobbish, emotionally stunted, and a firm believer in the high quality of his own endeavours. So instead of having one unpleasant, narcissistic character to deal with, Perry gives us two, and the movie seems set to be a bit of an endurance test: can the viewer possibly withstand the deleterious effects of spending so much time with two such disagreeable characters? But, thankfully, Perry splits them up and sends Philip off to college where he can alienate a whole new bunch of characters.

With Philip out of the way, Perry turns his attention to Ashley, and at last the movie gives us a chance to get to know someone we can sympathise with. Moss is just as good as Schwartzman – if not better – and she shines as the under-appreciated Ashley, slowly building up the character’s confidence and determination to improve matters relating to her work, her friendships, and her relationship with Philip. It’s a terrific performance, balanced and intuitive, and the movie becomes more interesting when she’s on screen. (If the movie had been about Ashley, and Philip was a secondary character, then, who knows?) By the end, the viewer is rooting for her to succeed, and Perry gives us the outcome we’ve all been hoping for.

Perry also gives us a very erudite script with plenty of juicy, faux-intellectual dialogue for the cast – and narrator Eric Bogosian – to sink their teeth into. There are literary, cinematic and philosophical references galore, some obvious, some more obscure, but all seemingly included to give the impression that Philip and Ike operate on a higher creative plane than the rest of the characters. It soon becomes overbearing, which may have been the intention, but when the narrator spouts such precepts and apothegms as well, it becomes too arch and mannered to have any meaning, even if it does sound good.

Ultimately, there’s no explanation for Philip’s behaviour that would allow the viewer to appreciate the way he is, and again, this leaves us with a main character it’s hard to associate with, or feel any affinity for. Nihilistic it may be but with Philip so determined not to be happy, and with no intention of letting others around him be happy, not even Keegan DeWitt’s vibrant score, or long-time collaborator Sean Price Williams’ immaculate photography can counteract Perry’s attempts to show how isolated we can become from our friends and family, and ourselves. It’s doubly ironic then that when Philip is off screen, the movie picks up and becomes more involving.

Rating: 5/10 – dour and often feeling like it’s too clever for its own good, Listen Up Philip has two impressive central performances, and a vivid sense of its main character’s vanity, but at the expense of a narrative that holds the attention; a good effort nevertheless, but one that the casual viewer might need to be in a certain frame of mind for before watching it.

St. Vincent (2014)

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St. Vincent

D: Theodore Melfi / 102m

Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Donna Mitchell, Dario Barosso

Vincent McKenna (Murray) is the kind of curmudgeonly old man it’s best to steer clear of. He drinks to excess, gambles too much, and is about as sociable as a dose of the clap; in short, he’s the kind of you’d cross the street to avoid. When new neighbours Maggie (McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Lieberher) move in next door, relations are initially frosty as the removals van causes damage to Vincent’s car. On Oliver’s first day at his new school he falls foul of bully Ocinski (Barosso) and has his keys, wallet and phone stolen. He manages to get home but with his mother at work and no other way of getting in, he calls on Vincent to use his phone to call his mother. Vincent isn’t best pleased but agrees nevertheless and Oliver stays with him until Maggie can get home from work – but not before he’s agreed a babysitting rate with her.

The money is important as Vincent’s terrible luck at gambling has left him very short of money. He can’t get a loan from the bank, he owes too much money to loan shark Zucko (Howard), and he’s behind on payments to the care home that looks after his wife Sandy (Mitchell). With Maggie working late more and more, he and Oliver spend more and more time together. Vincent teaches Oliver to defend himself from bullies such as Ocinski, and takes him to the race track where Oliver learns how to bet. He also bonds with the old man, becoming the only friend Vincent really has, unless you count pregnant stripper Daka (Watts), who has a fondness for the old man that she plays down at every opportunity.

When Vincent and Oliver win big at the race track, it’s potentially the beginning of a big change in Vincent’s life, but he still avoids paying Zucko. Meanwhile, Maggie’s husband begins a custody battle for Oliver, leading to an awkward court appearance where the depth of her son’s relationship with Vincent is revealed, and with less than perfect consequences. And matters are made worse when Zucko pays Vincent a surprise visit at home.

St. Vincent - scene

If you’re looking to make a movie where the main character is a caustic, mean-spirited, emotionally withdrawn malcontent, well, in the words of one of his earlier movies, “Who ya gonna call?” The obvious answer is Bill Murray, the one actor who does “grumpy” better than anyone else on the planet, and for whom the art of being a killjoy seems like second nature. He’s the perfect choice to play Vincent, and it’s a good job writer/director Melfi was able to get him to commit to the movie because without him, St. Vincent may not have turned out to be as enjoyable as it actually is.

It’s a particular kind of actor who can pull off such a deceptively difficult role, for while Vincent is outwardly abrasive, there’s a grudging kindness and likeability buried below the surface that is reserved for the people he cares about. As he becomes more and more enamoured of Oliver and Maggie, it’s good to see that the script doesn’t do the one thing that most movies of this kind do without fail: have the main character renounce his mordant ways and become more agreeable. Here, Vincent remains unlikeable to pretty much everyone for the entire movie, allowing Murray to paint a convincing portrait of a man continually at war with a world that kicks the rug out from under him at nearly every opportunity. His antipathy towards the world is entirely understandable, but it’s his willingness to let some people in, while retaining that antipathy, that saves the character from being entirely one note.

Murray grabs the character of Vincent and gives the kind of assured, entirely believable performance that only he can pull off, making the old man by turns acerbically funny, justly melancholy, disappointingly selfish, and unsurprisingly reticent. It’s a virtuoso performance, one that lifts the movie up and out of the rut of its less than original plotting and straightforward storylines. Aside from a couple of instances that don’t turn out in just the way the viewer might expect – the result of the custody hearing, the outcome of Zucko’s home visit – Melfi, making his feature debut as writer/director, has assembled an old-fashioned drama with over-familiar characters we’ve all seen at least a dozen times before, added the kind of spiteful humour that modern audiences appreciate, and has made his movie seem fresh and unconventional.

He’s also procured a raft of excellent performances, and not just from Murray. Leaving behind the forced hilarity of movies such as The Heat (2013) and Tammy (2014), McCarthy excels as Oliver’s mother, playing her with an honesty and put-upon vulnerability that works effectively against Murray’s obnoxious grouch. Watts is equally as good as the pregnant Daka, her hard-boiled exterior the perfect foil for Vincent’s ingrained irascibility; when they spar it’s like watching an old married couple, and the fondness that builds up in such a relationship. Howard, sadly, has little to do but appear menacing in a couple of scenes, and O’Dowd works his magic as Oliver’s home room teacher, a priest with very relaxed ideas about prayer. But the real revelation here is Lieberher as Oliver – like Melfi, making his feature debut – giving the role a delicate, yet simple touch that dispels the idea early on that Oliver is going to be one of those precious and precocious kids that Hollywood is so fond of putting on screen. He’s a natural, comfortable with his dialogue and able to hold his own with Murray (it really feels like he’s been doing this for a lot longer).

With its deft one-liners and subtle nuances, Melfi’s script makes the occasional stumble – Zucko disappears completely after he visits Vincent, Oliver and Ocinski become friends a little too easily (you’ll understand why when you see the movie), and the sub-plot involving Vincent’s wife adds little to the mix – but all in all this is a solid, hugely enjoyable movie that features some terrific performances, a great score by Theodore Shapiro, and enough charm to melt a dozen icebergs.

Rating: 8/10 – a great first feature from Melfi – who’s now one to watch out for – St. Vincent is a breath of fresh air, and rarely puts a foot wrong with its main characters; Murray carries the movie with ease, and the movie’s indie sensibility isn’t allowed to overwhelm the material, making for a very good time to be had by all.

Miss Meadows (2014)

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Miss Meadows

D: Karen Leigh Hopkins / 88m

Cast: Katie Holmes, James Badge Dale, Callan Mulvey, Ava Kolker, Mary Kay Place, Jean Smart, Stephen Bishop

Miss Meadows (Holmes) is a sweet-natured, well-mannered substitute school teacher who hides a dark secret: she’s a vigilante, dedicated to “removing” anyone whose moral compass isn’t attuned as finely as her own. On her way home one day, she’s threatened by a gun-wielding kerb crawler who points a gun at her and tells her to get in his car. Miss Meadows promptly shoots him dead with her own gun… and carries on walking as if nothing has happened.

At the elementary school, Miss Meadows is put in charge of a class whose teacher has just died of cancer. One little girl, Heather (Kolker), has been seriously upset by this and Miss Meadows does her best to console her, and eventually earns her trust. In the meantime, she also meets the town Sheriff (Dale); there’s an immediate attraction but neither of them pursue it immediately. It’s left to the Sheriff to do the pursuing, and he takes Miss Meadows for a drive. As their romance blossoms, a school trip to a local park eventually sees Miss Meadows entering a fast food restaurant in order to get the school children some hot dogs. There she finds a young man has killed all the staff and customers and wants to kill himself. When she tells him he should, he attempts to kill Miss Meadows instead, but she proves quicker on the draw than he does, and she kills him.

Faced with a vigilante in his town, the Sheriff is suspicious that it might be Miss Meadows but he doesn’t have any evidence, other than that she’s lived in previous towns where a vigilante has been on the loose. Meanwhile, Miss Meadows learns that she’s pregnant with the Sheriff’s baby; she doesn’t tell him straight away but when she does he asks her to marry him, and she says yes. Around this time a convicted child molester called Skylar (Mulvey) moves into the neighbourhood. Miss Meadows tries to warn him off but he ignores her and starts hanging around the school. And Heather reveals that she saw Miss Meadows shoot the man in the fast food restaurant.

An incident with a priest leads to Miss Meadows killing him as well but this time she leaves behind a clue, and one that the Sheriff recognises. He confronts her, and out of love for her, tells Miss Meadows her vigilante days are over. But then on their wedding day, Skylar abducts Heather…

Miss Meadows - scene

A quirky mix of drama, comedy, romance and the kind of vigilante thrillers Charles Bronson made in the Seventies and Eighties, Miss Meadows gives Katie Holmes her best role since Batman Begins (2005). As the unfeasibly sweet and wholesome Miss Meadows (we never learn her first name), Holmes embraces the role and gives a tremendous performance, doing full justice to the duality of the character and the changes in tone such a character demands. It’s an assured, confident performance – the kind Holmes hasn’t given in a very long time – but it’s so good that Miss Meadows the movie sadly doesn’t match the  quality of Miss Meadows the character.

While Holmes is mesmerising throughout, her understanding of the role so complete she doesn’t put a foot wrong at any point, the rest of the movie stumbles along around her, the various strands and shifts in tone not quite gelling to create a balanced, effective whole. Matching Miss Meadows with the equally good-natured Sheriff (we don’t learn either of his names) lessens the chance of any real tension between the two when his suspicions are confirmed. Because the script avoids the Sheriff experiencing any personal dilemma at all, the confrontation between the two has no depth to it at all, and it’s almost perfunctory in its execution. Similarly, the scene where Miss Meadows confronts Skylar over tea in his home feels forced because of its mixture of genteel manners and unequivocal threat.

There are other scenes and moments that don’t quite work. The cause of Miss Meadows antipathy towards wrongdoers is due to a childhood trauma that is teased out as the movie progresses, but there are clues to be had in the character’s talks with her mother (Smart). And as those clues are revealed before the full tragedy of the traumatic incident is shown, the viewer is effectively given the same information twice, leaving the incident to play out with little dramatic resonance or emotional impact. It’s poor choices like this that undermine the movie’s persuasiveness, and leave the cast adrift within scenes that often bear no relation to the ones that have gone before, or follow on. The scenes in the Sheriff’s office are the best examples of this, taking place almost in isolation of the rest of the plot, and again feeling more perfunctory than essential to the story.

It’s not all bad, though. Holmes’ mannered, skilful performance anchors the movie, and is so rich it bolsters the movie during those short stretches when she’s not on screen. Dale and Mulvey are more than competent foils for Holmes’ ultra-proper, Fifties influenced femme fatale – the scene where Miss Meadows and the Sheriff make love for the first time is worth seeing all by itself just for her delighted reaction; it’s not just their first time – and the photography by Barry Markowitz is almost painterly in its depiction of small-town life. There’s also an amusing, wistful score courtesy of Jeff Cardoni that is appropriately idiosyncratic, and matches Miss Meadows’ prim nature perfectly. And even though her script doesn’t always meet the challenges it sets itself, Hopkins is on firmer ground in her choice of shots and the way in which she places the camera to achieve the desired comic or dramatic effect (this is a very good-looking, carefully composed movie).

Rating: 5/10 – without Holmes’ assured, ironic performance, Miss Meadows would swiftly become a chore to sit through, even though the premise is a shrewd one; uneven and unsure of which impression to make, the movie aims for a John Waters-style vibe but is ultimately too lightweight to succeed completely.

Mini-Review: The Moonlighter (1953)

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Moonlighter, The

D: Roy Rowland / 77m

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Ward Bond, William Ching, John Dierkes, Morris Ankrum, Jack Elam, Charles Halton, Myra Marsh

Cattle rustler Wes Anderson (MacMurray) is in jail waiting to be tried for his crimes but there’s an angry lynch mob planning to storm the jail and hang him from the nearest tree. When an innocent man is hanged in his place, Wes vows to seek revenge against the lynch mob (and any others). During an encounter with the head of the lynch mob and two of his men, Anderson is wounded in the shoulder. He manages to get away and heads for the town of Rio Hondo where his mother (Marsh) and younger brother Tom (Ching) still live on the outskirts.

While recuperating, Wes hopes to restart his relationship with old flame Rela (Stanwyck), but while he’s been away for the last five years and hasn’t stayed in touch, she’s agreed to marry Tom in order to have a more secure future. Wes is reluctant to accept this but doesn’t try to interfere. Then one day an old friend of Wes’s, Cole Gardner (Bond) drops by with a plan to rob the local bank. Tom, who works at the bank, convinces Gardner and an averse Wes to be a part of the robbery. What happens as a result leads to Wes and Gardner being hunted by Rela, and a shootout in the nearby hills.

Moonlighter, The - scene

Originally released in 3D – in Natural Vision, no less – The Moonlighter is a bland, unexceptional Western that’s of note mainly for the pairing of Stanwyck and MacMurray in their third movie together. Otherwise, there’s not much to recommend, with Wes’s antipathy for lynch mobs being jettisoned once he’s injured, and Gardner’s bank job taking over as a way of moving the story forward. What twists and turns there are, are unremarkable for the most part, though the ease with which Rela is deputised to go after Wes and Gardner is probably the biggest surprise the script – by the usually more reliable Niven Busch – comes up with. It all hinges on Rela’s love for Wes, and how determined she is to bring him to justice (though the actual outcome seems arrived at because of convenience rather than any credible dramatic necessity – it’s a short movie, after all).

Rowland’s uninspired, pedestrian direction makes the movie seem more of a drag than it actually is, though there’s a rough energy to the early scenes leading up to the lynching. However, this energy isn’t kept up, and with the introduction of Rela and Tom the movie begins to falter, trying to set up a romantic triangle that never really takes off or convinces. Similarly, the speed with which Wes agrees to rob the bank seems forced and implausible, but not as much as his acceptance of Tom’s being a part of it. As the reluctant lovers, Stanwyck and MacMurray inject a little of their own energy into their scenes together, but it’s not enough to keep the viewer interested in how things will turn out.

Rating: 4/10 – lacklustre and plodding, The Moonlighter hasn’t the pace or the style to be anything than a standard oater with few pretensions; Stanwyck and MacMurray are as watchable as ever, but the script and direction doesn’t support them enough to help them overcome the dreariness of the material.

10 Reasons to Remember Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

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A talented director who came to prominence in the Sixties with a brace of movies that heralded a prodigious talent, Mike Nichols had a distinct visual style and an even more distinctive rapport with his often very talented casts (he directed seventeen actors who were Oscar nominated for their roles). He made some very fine movies – see below – and even if later in his career, when the movies weren’t always as successful, or rewarding, his work still maintained a level of integrity that few directors have managed to achieve in the course of their careers. He also came up with the “Five Rules for Filmmaking”:

1 – The careful application of terror is an important form of communication.

2 – Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for.

3 – There’s absolutely no substitute for genuine lack of preparation.

4 – If you think there’s good in everybody, you haven’t met everybody.

5 – Friends may come and go, but enemies will certainly become studio heads.

Film Director Mike Nichols

1 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

2 – The Graduate (1967)

3 – Catch-22 (1970)

4 – Carnal Knowledge (1971)

5 – The Day of the Dolphin (1973)

6 – Silkwood (1983)

7 – Working Girl (1988)

8 – Postcards from the Edge (1990)

9 – The Birdcage (1996)

10 – Angels in America (2003)

Mike Nichols2

Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)

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Lethal Weapon 4

D: Richard Donner / 127m

Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Rene Russo, Chris Rock, Jet Li, Steve Kahan, Kim Chan, Darlene Love, Traci Wolfe, Eddy Ko

An incident involving an iron-suited, flamethrower-wielding criminal leads to two revelations: that Roger Murtaugh (Glover) is going to be a grandfather, and that Martin Riggs (Gibson) is going to be a father. Nine months later the two men are looking forward to the imminent births. Out one night on Roger’s boat, and accompanied by Leo Getz (Pesci), they find themselves nearly struck by a cargo freighter. When the freighter’s crew opens fire on them, Riggs takes the fight to them and boards the vessel. The ship eventually runs aground and the cargo hold reveals a group of Chinese illegal immigrants.

Later, Murtaugh discovers a family hiding in one of the lifeboats. Instead of letting INS know, he allows them to come home with him (but he doesn’t tell Riggs; he also doesn’t tell the investigating officer, Butters (Rock), who is secretly the father of Roger’s grandchild). In Chinatown, triad boss Uncle Benny (Chan) has a visitor in the form of Triad negotiator Wah Sing Ku (Li). Wah has been expecting the family Roger has discovered, as they are an important part of his plan to free four Triad overlords (including one who is his brother) from the clutches of a corrupt Chinese general. The head of the family, Hong (Ko), has an uncle who is a master engraver; Wah aims to buy the overlords’ freedom with counterfeit money.

Riggs and Murtaugh are given promotions to captain, and they start to help Butters with his investigation. A visit to Uncle Benny sees them meet Wah but they don’t find out who he is. Leaving Leo to trail Uncle Benny, Riggs and Murtaugh are unaware of just how close they’re getting, but it’s close enough for Wah to find out where the family are hiding and to abduct them – and then to put Riggs, his partner Lorna (Russo), Murtaugh and his wife (Love) and pregnant daughter (Wolfe) in danger of being burned alive. They all manage to escape unharmed, and with Butters in tow, Riggs and Murtaugh track down Uncle Benny at his dentist’s. With the use of some nitrous oxide, they get Uncle Benny to reveal the plot involving the Four Fathers (the triad overlords). When they liaise with other detectives who work the Chinatown beat, the three men learn about the corrupt Chinese general and where the exchange is likely to take place. Interrupting the meet, they spill the beans about the money, and a vicious firefight breaks, along with a three-way showdown between Riggs, Murtaugh and Wah.

Lethal Weapon 4 - scene

The last in the series, Lethal Weapon 4 could, and perhaps should, have been a whole lot worse, but it’s a measure of the likeability of the characters, and the directorial flair of Richard Donner that, while it may still be the least in the series, it’s also an entertaining ride that will put a smile on fans’ faces. The familiarity of the material and the verbal sparring between Riggs and Murtaugh (however predictable), along with the extended action sequences and the often slapstick comedy, makes this the celluloid equivalent of being wrapped up in a nice, warm blanket on a cold winter’s evening. It’s a huge comfort to know that everything you could want from a Lethal Weapon movie is all present and correct.

With all the series’ highlights in place, the movie does meander in places, mostly when it’s trying to acknowledge the fact that its characters are getting on a bit and are “getting too old for this shit”. Given that this is the fourth in the series, and also given that there’s been a clear decision to end the franchise before it gets too derivative and stale, this acknowledgment is a welcome development. It makes for a satisfactory conclusion to the series, but all the angst and drama of the first two movies – already lessened in Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) – has now been left behind completely. Riggs’ journey from near-suicidal nut job to devoted family man is complete, while Murtaugh is a proud grandfather whose anxiety about the loss of material things (usually his car, this time round his boat) and whatever can go wrong actually doing so, is more accepting of what Fate throws at him. These are now very settled men, and while it’s heartening to see them take on the bad guys one last time, this is a movie that – fortunately – realises it’s time to call it a day.

As lighthearted – and lightweight – as it is, Lethal Weapon 4 still does its best to deliver where it matters most: in the action sequences. The opener, with its exploding tanker and fiery devastation, is as preposterous as it sounds, but is still an impressive start to the movie and at least reassures the viewer that it’s going to be business as usual. There’s the obligatory car chase with its detour aboard a trailer, a foot chase that ends with Riggs dangling from a roof, a well choreographed fight at the Murtaugh home that showcases Li’s martial arts skills, and a climactic shootout that evolves into the three-way showdown mentioned above. All are expertly shot and cut together, and all are exciting to watch, but the familiarity they bring with them makes them less than memorable. It’s a shame, but draws attention to the fact that familiarity doesn’t always breed originality.

It’s difficult as well to bring anything new to the table with such well established characters, and while Gibson and Glover are still as enjoyable to watch as always, there’s more than a hint of tiredness in their banter, as they rework old lines and try to maintain the jokiness of previous outings. This leads to some awkward dialogue being exchanged – mostly around Murtaugh’s belief that Butters is attracted to him – and a sense that all the in-jokes and series’ references were included at the expense of more original material. It’s a trade-off, no doubt willingly made by Donner and the producers, but leaves the movie feeling a little jaded and occasionally lacklustre.

On the performance side, everyone acquits themselves well, particularly Pesci who’s given a completely out of character monologue towards the movie’s end that is surprisingly effective, and Li who provides Riggs and Murtaugh with the series’ first truly formidable adversary. Two scenes aside, Russo is reduced to hovering in the background, while Rock plays Butters as an earnest, slightly duller version of the man Murtaugh may have been when he was younger. Behind the camera, Donner plays ringmaster with his usual skill and expertise, while Andrzej Bartkowiak does a great job in making even the static shots interesting to watch. And no Lethal Weapon movie would be complete without the musical collaboration of Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen, here adding another familiar element with their jazz-infused score.

Rating: 7/10 – the tag line reads “The gang’s all here” and they are, along with all the other “best bits” of the series, in a movie that could have been called Lethal Weapon’s Greatest Hits; fun, if a tad too long thanks to its need to wrap things up, Lethal Weapon 4 is still an enjoyable diversion and provides an admirable send off for its two aging heroes.

Two Shorts by François Ozon: A Summer Dress (1996) and X2000 (1998)

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François Ozon is one of the most interesting writer/directors working currently in movies. He makes socially astute, emotionally complex features, and infuses them with wit and style. He writes great roles for women – Charlotte Rampling, Swimming Pool (2003); Romola Garai, Angel (2007); Catherine Deneuve, Potiche (2010) – and isn’t afraid to tackle themes surrounding sexuality and sexual identity. Early in his career Ozon made a number of short movies, and unusually, they’re all intriguing for one reason or another. The two movies reviewed here show a marked difference in style and tone, but taken as examples of a writer/director who’s discovering just what he can do, they make for beguiling viewing.

A Summer Dress (1996)

Summer Dress

Original title: Une robe d’été

D: François Ozon / 15m

Cast: Frédéric Mangenot, Lucia Sanchez, Sébastien Charles

Luc (Mangenot) and Lucien (Charles) are young, gay and on holiday together. Lucien is the more extroverted of the two and likes dancing along to Sheila’s version of Bang Bang. Luc, on the other hand, wants to enjoy the peace and quiet and concentrate on getting a tan. When Lucien refuses to stop enjoying himself, Luc heads off to the beach where he strips off and goes for a swim before settling back down to sunbathe. There he meets a young girl, Lucia (Sanchez), who asks him if he wants to go into the nearby woods and make love. Luc agrees and they find a spot in the woods and have sex. When they return to the beach, Luc’s clothes are gone. Lucia lends him her dress so that he can get home without having to travel naked. When he gets back to Lucien, the sight of Luc in a dress arouses him and they have sex as well. The next day, Luc returns the dress to Lucia.

Summer Dress - scene

If that all sounds too slight, even for a fifteen minute movie, then in some ways you’d be right, but then it’s also the point. A Summer Dress is interested in capturing a small series of moments in a twenty-four hour period, but moments that aren’t necessarily profound or destined to have a prolonged effect on its main characters. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a summer fling, a fleeting holiday romance that happens on its own terms and comes without any emotional baggage. As such, the movie is a treat to watch, its young protagonists experiencing life on their own terms and without the judgement of others (a lifestyle we might all like to have). There’s an openness and honesty in their approach to sex that is both carefree and naïve, but so redolent of youth that it’s refreshing to be reminded of it (if you’re well clear of your teens). A Summer Dress is an ode to the time in our lives when there are endless possibilities and life is bright and beautiful and full of promise.

Rating: 8/10 – a simple yet elegantly filmed tale of sexual liberation, A Summer Dress is Ozon at his most playful; with winning performances and the lightest of touches, this is a movie that provides a perfect capsule of time and place and incident.

X2000 (1998)

X2000

D: François Ozon / 8m

Cast: Denise Schropfer-Aron, Bruno Slagmulder, Lucia Sanchez, Flavien Coupeau, Lionel Le Guevellou, Olivier Le Guevellou

Waking up in his apartment the morning after the New Year’s Eve celebrations for the year 2000, a man (Slagmulder) goes into his kitchen and makes himself a glass of water with two Alka Seltzers in it. Then he’s puzzled to find twins in a sleeping bag in his lounge. When he looks out of the window he sees a couple making love in the apartment opposite. Meanwhile, his wife (Schropfer-Aron) also wakes up and decides to take a bath. The man falls from his perch at the window and breaks the glass with the Alka Seltzer in it. When he puts the broken glass in the bin he finds ants crawling over and around something underneath the bin. He then goes into the bathroom where he tells his wife that the ants are attacking.

X2000 - scene

Where A Summer Dress sees Ozon taking a somewhat lighthearted approach to the material, X2000 sees him in a more formal, meditative mood, using heavily stylised, static shots to represent notions of time and space and distance and perception. The man is continually surprised and/or bemused by what he sees, either within the flat or without. It’s as if he’s learning about everything from scratch, his reactions more childlike than that of an experienced adult (when he sees the couple making love he climbs up onto a unit in order to get a better view). His wife, meanwhile, keeps her head under the water, retreating from the world, prolonging the silence in the flat, even when her husband breaks all the glass. It’s a very clinical piece, dialogue-free until the very end, and shows Ozon working with limited resources to great effect. The elliptical nature of the storyline – such as it is – is clearly meant to be left to the viewer to interpret, but that doesn’t stop X2000 from being compelling in its own way.

Rating: 8/10 – with so much going on under the surface, X2000 is open to so many interpretations it’s almost confounding, but this makes it all the more rewarding; the brief running time merely reinforces the quality of Ozon’s perspective on the material and the cleverness of its construction.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962)

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Brain That Wouldn't Die, The

D: Joseph Green / 82m

Cast: Herb Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniel, Adele Lamont, Bonnie Sharie, Paula Maurice, Bruce Brighton

Dr Bill Cortner (Evers) is assisting his father (Brighton) in an operation on a man whose life is slipping away. Cortner Sr is prepared to accept the man’s passing, but Bill persuades his father to let him try something experimental. By a combination of heart massage and brain cortex manipulation, Bill’s efforts prove successful and the man’s life is saved. Afterwards, Bill tells his father about the experiments he’s been carrying out, experiments that involve limb and organ transplants from deceased patients. Cortner Sr voices his concerns but his son remains adamant that his experiments will lead to a time when illness and disease can be conquered by the use of transplanted organs and tissue.

The Cortners are joined by Bill’s fianceé, Jan Compton (Leith). They have a weekend trip planned to the Cortners’ country house (also where Bill has been conducting his research). An urgent call from the house sees Bill rushing to get there, and in the process, causing the car to go off the road. The ensuing crash sees Bill thrown clear but Jan is decapitated and killed. However, Bill flees the scene and heads for the house – with Jan’s head wrapped in his jacket. At the house he’s met by his assistant, Kurt (Daniel), and he quickly arranges Jan’s head in a tray of rejuvenating serum that he’s developed. Once Jan’s consciousness is revived, Bill tells Kurt his plan next is to find a body he can attach Jan’s head to.

Kurt manages to tell Bill about the reason for the urgent call: one of Bill’s experiments in limb transplantation has gone awry, and the “patient” is currently locked away in a room in the cellar where Bill works. Bill dismisses Kurt’s fears and goes in search of a “donor” body for Jan. While he’s gone, Jan wakes up and is horrified at what’s happened to her; she also finds she can communicate with Bill’s previous “patient”. Determined to make Bill pay for what he’s done to her, Jan plans her revenge. Meanwhile, Bill’s search for a woman with an appropriately attractive body proves unsuccessful. He returns to the house to find Kurt even more anxious than before and Jan threatening to stop him. He continues to ignore any warnings, and leaves again to find a suitable woman. Through an old flame he’s reminded of someone they used to know who’s suffered a facial disfigurement. Bill visits the woman, Doris Powell (Lamont), and on the pretext of correcting her scarring, convinces her to come with him to the house. But when they get there, not everything is as Bill left it…

Brain That Wouldn't Die, The - scene

Confusingly (or mistakenly) titled The Head That Wouldn’t Die at the very end of the movie, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a semi-exploitation movie that surprisingly spends several occasions questioning the lengths to which medical science should go in order to save lives. This philosophical and ethical approach serves to ground the movie more effectively than the standard mad-scientist-playing-at-God scenario it otherwise plays with. That Bill Cortner experiments with dead tissue in his efforts to perfect his transplants – a predictable nod to Frankenstein – it’s ironic that if he’d used live tissue (however unethically), he’d likely be regarded as a true saviour of people’s lives (he even mentions the “recent eye cornea transplants” that have been carried out). Ironic, but not quite as lurid as required.

Scientific discussions aside, there’s a marked prurience on display here, with Bill’s first search for a donor body taking him to a strip club. Cue a scene where a blonde “exotic” dancer (Sharie) moves around with all the flair of a barely animated mannequin, and a follow-on scene where another stripper (Maurice) removes her dress for no other reason than because the script requires her to. And as if that wasn’t enough for early Sixties audiences, there’s a swimsuit contest, and Bill’s eventual intended victim, Doris, is shown in her part-time role as a photographer’s model, dressed only in a bikini. It’s all quaint enough by today’s standards but back then would have been considered quite racy, and in terms of the narrative it’s probably as lurid as the producers could get away with.

As with most “creature features” from the Fifties and Sixties, the movie holds off on revealing its monster until the end. Usually the build-up is more impressive than the actual monster itself, but here that’s not the case. Played by Eddie Carmel, who was 7′ 6¾” tall and suffered from acromegaly, the make-up applied to his face and head is suitably horrific, even if it is reminiscent of The Monster from Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). When he’s first seen it’s a real jolt, and even afterwards, he commands the viewer’s attention, despite whatever else is going on in the frame.

As the increasingly megalomaniacal Bill, Evers is a poor choice for the committed doctor, his acting skills ranging from cursory to absent, often within the same scene. It’s a struggle to listen to him expound on Bill’s medical theories; even he doesn’t sound that convinced by them. Forced to act with her head through a table for most of the movie, Leith is at least able to provide two separate characterisations for Jan. First, and briefly, there’s the happy-go-lucky bride-to-be, and then there’s the embittered head in a tray. She’s asked to laugh and cackle a little too much but her performance is still the nearest to satisfactory that the movie manages to achieve. Daniel gives the impression that the conversations he has with Jan are all happening in his head, and chews so much of the scenery it’s amazing there’s any left by the movie’s end.

The script, written by Green, is unnecessarily padded out by both its dissertations on medical ethics (they could have been gone over in half the time), and Bill’s tour of places filled with scantily clad females. Once it enters the last ten minutes the movie picks up speed, but the final shot prompts more questions than it can answer. The production values are predictably low – Bill apparently has the use of just a table and a few tubes and beakers for his experiments – and Stephen Hajnal’s camerawork is particularly awkward when asked to provide something more than a standard medium shot. Green directs competently enough but doesn’t have the experience – this was his first movie – to make it visually interesting (despite all the heaving bosoms) and to avoid things becoming too melodramatic. And the uncredited score is as derivative as they come for this type of movie, and in that era.

Rating: 4/10 – filmed in 1959, and regarded by some as a cult classic, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is only occasionally diverting, and only occasionally satisfying; with the look and feel of a movie assembled from rehearsal footage, this is still worth seeking out, if only to see just how badly an exploitation movie can turn out when there’s so little exploitation actually included.

Poster of the Week – Lust, Caution (2007)

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Lust, Caution

Lust, Caution (2007)

Ang Lee’s exemplary drama of political and sexual intrigue is what many critics would describe as “awards worthy”. And so it has proven, particularly at the 2007 Venice Film Festival where it won Best Film (as you can see on the poster). And this is a great example of an “awards” poster, as well as being quite beautiful to look at.

The gold and red colouring immediately makes the poster alluring to look at, the warm flesh tones and splashes of vibrant red acting as flashpoints for the eyes, bold highlights that attract the eye and help settle it on the poster as a whole. The beauty of the image is appealing too, the wariness in the eyes of Wei Tang matching the cold stare of Tony Leung, and drawing attention to the tension in their relationship. With a swirl of blood adding an air of danger at the bottom, the drama inherent in the image becomes more potent (even if there’s no clear indication of what that drama encompasses).

But what’s most interesting – and nearly always is with this type of poster – is the choice of quotes. Each one is a lofty superlative drawn from respected reviewers and their publications, and each one leaves the reader with no doubts as to the movie’s quality. But while superlatives on a movie poster aren’t exactly unusual, here they’re just that little bit too effusive, making the movie sound like a masterpiece (which it doesn’t quite live up to).

And then, as if all the praise wasn’t enough, the designer decides to add the text that reminds everyone of Ang Lee’s prowess as a director, quoting his two most popular movies and giving the impression that Lust, Caution is as good (if not worse) than they are. It’s actually a subtle touch, more so than the review quotes, and more likely to draw in an audience. It all adds up to a movie poster that is deceptively effective at promoting the movie, and deceptively evocative at the same time.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

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Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (2014)

D: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon / 86m

Cast: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Travis Tope, Joshua Leonard, Anthony Anderson, Ed Lauter, Denis O’Hare, Spencer Treat Clark

Texarkana, October 2013. At an outdoor screening of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the movie made in 1976 about the murders that took place in the town during the spring of 1946, Corey (Clark) realises that his girlfriend Jami (Timlin) isn’t enjoying the movie. They leave, and find somewhere else to park up. They soon find they’re not alone: a man with a burlap sack over his head and eyeholes cut out is standing in front of their car with a gun in his hand. He forces them out of the car. The man makes Corey lie face down on the ground before killing him with a knife. Jami escapes but not before the man tells her that he’s doing this for “Mary, and so that the town won’t forget her”.

In the days that follow, Jami tries to discover what the killer meant about “Mary”, and goes to the town’s newspaper archives to learn more about the murders in 1946. She meets Nick (Tope) who helps her find the material she’s looking for. She finds a suspect at the time whose son might be responsible for the new crimes and takes her findings to the police. Led by Texas Ranger, Captain J.D. Morales (Anderson), the investigating team – which also includes Chief Deputy Tillman (Cole), Sheriff Underwood (Lauter), and Deputy Foster (Leonard) – allow Jami to explain her theory but reveal that they’ve already explored that avenue and it leads to a dead end.

A double murder occurs and it becomes clear that the killer is replicating the original murders. Jami continues her own investigation and discovers that there was a death in 1946 that was considered to be a suicide but which may have been the Phantom Killer’s final victim. When she also discovers that the man’s wife was called Mary, she begins to piece together enough evidence to suggest that the man’s grandson is very likely the killer. Meanwhile, the murders continue, and Jami finds herself targeted once again, as she and Nick edge ever nearer to revealing the killer’s identity.

Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (2014) - scene

Less a remake of the original movie than a belated sequel – though it has elements of the former – The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an initially interesting, apparently well constructed movie that riffs on the events of 1946 while adding a modern day twist to proceedings that appears cleverer than it actually is.

The movie begins with a voiceover reminiscent of the 1976 movie, and offers a recap of the Phantom Killer’s exploits. It then states that the following events happened in Texarkana in 2013. With such an unnecessary claim made right from the start, the movie’s attempts at creating a companion piece to Charles B. Pierce’s cult classic are seriously hindered, as the credibility needed to make the movie work on the same level is quickly abandoned. It’s a shame, as the meta-movie that was intended shines through from time to time, dispelling the fug of contemporary horror movie clichés that the movie trots out with wearying persistence.

As a result the killings are less intense, eschewing the febrile pitch of the original for a more blood-soaked approach; it’s as if the makers didn’t trust their audience to remain interested unless they threw in a gory moment or two every ten minutes. This leads to unnecessarily silly moments such as when a woman jumps out of a motel room window and breaks her leg (you get a close-up shot of the bone sticking out) – and then makes it to a car and tries to get it started. To make matters worse, when the killer catches up with her and stabs her to death in the car, the windows are treated to the kind of blood spray that looks like it was achieved by ejecting it from a cannon.

Where the movie does score points for originality is when Jami and Nick focus on the original movie and the idea that, in putting his movie together, Charles B. Pierce may have come across evidence that he wasn’t able to either incorporate into his movie, or prove was relevant to the murders. With Pierce having passed away in 2010, they turn their attention to his son – also Charles – who still lives in Texarkana. Alas, this twist in the story is ruined by having Pierce Jr behave like an obsessive backwoods loon, rather than someone who’s just interested in what is a very beguiling mystery (he’s played by Denis O’Hare, but the real Pierce can be seen in the background of the bar where Tillman meets up with a local prostitute).

With the script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa proving so uneven despite a plethora of good intentions, and with Gomez-Rejon unable to raise the material above the level of a slasher movie, this dispenses with character development early on – Anderson’s laid-back Morales remains that way whatever happens – and reveals the killer’s identity in such a WTF? moment (as well as being lifted from another horror franchise) that the viewer will probably be picking their jaw up off the floor. The cast add little to the proceedings, with Timlin unable to dial down Jami’s insipid nature, or provide any energy in a role that the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis would have made their own in the first couple of scenes. Cole is wasted, as is Leonard and Cartwright (as Jami’s grandmother), while Lauter gets the odd line here and there, and Herrmann has a puzzling role as the local clergyman who’s dispensed with – by the plot, at least – halfway through.

As noted above, there are plenty of good intentions here but almost none of them are organised into a coherent, plausible whole. The accent on gore is a misstep, the whole revenge plot is never given the depth or sense of injustice it needs, and the whole scene at the gas station throws what little credibility the movie has managed to retain to the four winds and beyond. As a belated sequel it barely works, but as an example of a potentially clever remake it fails completely.

Rating: 4/10 – a clever premise undermined by sloppy plotting, weak characters and a lack of directorial control, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is one of the less appealing horror movies of 2014; if watched on a double bill with the original, this should definitely be viewed first.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

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Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (1976)

D: Charles B. Pierce / 89m

Cast: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B. Pierce, Robert Aquino, Cindy Butler, Christine Ellsworth, Earl E. Smith, Bud Davis

Texarkana, February 1946. As the inhabitants of the town continue to put the war behind them, a couple park up along the local lovers’ lane. They hear a noise outside the car and find themselves confronted by a man wearing a burlap sack over his head with eyeholes cut out (Davis). He rips out some of the engine wiring before shattering the driver’s window and dragging the man out of the car. He batters the man before turning his attention to the woman whom he assaults before leaving both of them for dead. They survive the attack but with so little to go on the police – led by Chief Sullivan (Citty) – are unable to make any headway in the case.

Three weeks later, another couple are attacked in their car. This time, their attacker shoots the man dead and assaults the woman before killing her too. A police officer, Deputy Ramsey (Prine), almost catches the killer but he makes good his escape. Yet again the police have no clues to help them catch the man, and with the citizens of Texarkana becoming ever more fearful, they call in the help of the Texas Rangers. Led by legendary Ranger Captain J.D. Morales (Johnson), the investigation falls under his purview and he arranges for more police cars to patrol the streets, a curfew after dark, and a news blackout.

However, following a junior and high schools prom, a young couple park up in one of the town’s parks but nod off. When they wake they’re attacked by the man now known as the Phantom Killer. The man is shot and killed, while the woman (a trombonist in the high school band) is tied to a tree and murdered when the killer ties his knife to the end of her trombone and repeatedly stabs her as he “plays” it. With still no clues or evidence to reveal the killer’s identity, Morales becomes less sure they’ll catch him. When he kills a man by shooting him in the head through a window and tries to kill the man’s wife (who succeeds in getting to safety), it seems as if the trail will run cold yet again. However, a car fitting the description of the one that Ramsey saw the night of the first murders is reported abandoned. Morales and Ramsey follow a nearby path to an old quarry, and there they find the Phantom Killer…

Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (1976) - scene

Based on real events that took place in Texarkana between February and May 1946, and dubbed the Moonlight Murders, The Town That Dreaded Sundown owes much to the drive-in features of the late Fifties and the Sixties, its independent, low budget feel so reminiscent of the movies from – and for – that period that it’s comforting to revisit such a lively era. With its ominous, scene-setting narration, effective recreation of post-war Texarkana, and silent killer, the movie has a quiet power in its killing scenes that makes them quite uncomfortable to watch. The sequence involving the trombone is the best example: in other hands, this could have been unintentionally funny, but Pierce focuses on the horror of the situation and keeps the Phantom Killer’s murderous intent at the forefront of things, his muffled breathing acting as a chilling counterpoint to the pleas of his victim.

All the attacks have an intensity about them that is hard to forget, and these often prolonged sequences are the movie’s strong suit; the movie also makes each successive event as terrifying as the one before. The decision to keep the killer from speaking is a wise one, and with his eyes staring out from his hood, the Phantom Killer’s implacable nature is never in doubt. He’s an early boogeyman, a proto-Michael Myers without the supernatural background. Never caught in real life, the movie posits its own (fictional) account of what might have happened, but it’s as credible as the idea that the police force would employ an officer as inept as patrolman Benson (Pierce).

For while The Town That Dreaded Sundown is incredibly gripping when the Phantom Killer is on screen, when he’s not we’re left with too many unsubtle, almost slapstick encounters with Benson and his inability to follow even the simplest of orders (and which leads to a Dukes of Hazzard-style car accident that feels like it was air-lifted in specially from the series). The character is very much a throwback to the type of comic relief that was prevalent in drive-in movies only a decade before, the kind of witless nincompoop who screws up continually but somehow retains his job and the goodwill of the people around him. Pierce is actually pretty good in the role, but it’s a jarring, unnecessary character, and while Benson may be there to lessen the horror of the murders, he’s on screen too often to be anything other than annoying.

Johnson is his usual gruff self, Morales’ increasing frustration at not being able to catch the killer tempered by his experience. It’s a great performance from Johnson, relaxed and yet coiled like a spring at the same time. The same, alas, can’t be said for Prine, who acts with all the stiffness of several planks of wood, and manages one or two decent line readings late on in the movie (just wait for any exchange over the police radio to see just how bad he is). The supporting cast are all fine without distinguishing themselves, though special mention should go to Davis, whose imposing presence precludes any hint of mercy that the killer may be susceptible to.

Pierce, a native of Texarkana, assembles the material with a fine eye for detail and as mentioned above, makes each attack so intense even the casual viewer will be transfixed. The script, by Earl E. Smith (who also appears as Dr Kress, the shrink who attempts to explain the killer’s motives), is mostly faithful to events as they happened, but anyone familiar with what really happened back then will be able to spot the necessary artistic licence used by Smith to tell the story in such a short running time. There’s some eerily atmospheric photography, especially at night, courtesy of James W. Roberson, and a robust score by Jaime Mendoza-Nava that underscores events with surprising panache. And anyone worried that the movie might be excessively gory will be pleasantly surprised as Pierce keeps the bloodletting to an onscreen minimum, choosing instead to focus on the fear and terror of the victims.

Rating: 7/10 – rough and uneven, but with a clear sense of the horror involved in the attacks/murders, The Town That Dreaded Sundown has a ferocity that acts like a slap to the viewer’s face; a minor true crime classic, and since 2003, shown in Texarkana each year as part of a “Movies in the Park” mini-festival.

Fifty Shades of Grey and the Art of the Advance Warning

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Today I received an e-mail from Empire Cinemas here in the UK, alerting me to the fact that I could now book tickets for Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie that isn’t due out in the UK until – wait for it – 13 February 2015.

Empire Cinemas logo

Once I’d got over the shock of being sent such an e-mail a good three months before the movie’s release, I began to wonder why the wonderful folks at Empire Cinemas were doing such a thing in the first place. Sure, Fifty Shades of Grey – in novel form at least – has become a cultural phenomenon, but to open the box office before anyone has seen the finished product (and yes, I’m assuming that’s the case), and before anyone can make a qualified judgement on it, just seems a tad optimistic. But then, if you follow the booking link, the Empire Cinemas website only lists two showings per day that the movie can be seen. Two showings? With all the effort involved in alerting the great British public, there’s only two screenings?

Perhaps – and despite the inference that UK residents are really eager to see the exploits of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele – there’s actually a bit of hedging going on here, with Empire Cinemas dialling back their confidence that the movie will be the big box office success they expect. But even if that’s the case, why on earth are they opening the box office now? Just how many seats do they expect to sell a full four months before the movie opens? And who’s likely to book their seats so far in advance when anything could happen to disrupt their plans in the meantime?

Here in the UK, booking cinema tickets is a fairly straightforward process. Programmes change each Friday, with “advance” booking available from the Tuesday of the same week. Occasionally, and depending on the cinema – I mean you, BFI IMAX at London’s Waterloo – you can book weeks in advance for a particular movie (I’ve had my ticket for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies for a week now)… but months? No, that’s not usual at all.

Unless… unless it’s yet another example of marketing gone awry, an attempt to boost attendance figures and “pre-sell” the movie before it comes out and audiences realise that E.L. James’ “mommy-porn” exercise has been translated into one giant turkey (the latest trailer certainly avoids showing anything too memorable or original). If that’s the case then anyone who books now and not much nearer the time of the movie’s release will have played right into the hands of Universal’s and Empire’s assumption that there is a built-in audience that won’t be able to wait to get their hands on a ticket. (If you’re reading this, and you’re living in the UK, and the idea of grabbing a ticket so far in advance is making you want to grab your masquerade mask and indulge in a little light spanking to celebrate, then stop a moment and ask yourself this: in this day and age of over-priced ticketing and poorly projected movies, will it really make a difference to be one of the first to book a ticket to see Fifty Shades of Grey? And what will differentiate you from someone who buys their ticket, say, the day before the screening?)

Fifty Shades of Grey

Advance word about future movies, and advance screenings, and carefully disseminated information about the movies the studios want us to see at the cinema, are all becoming more and more important to the way in which movies are marketed and advertised. With Fifty Shades of Grey having a fanbase that Universal hopes will translate into big box office returns, this particular degree of advance warning seems entirely unnecessary, but it is indicative of a growing trend in Hollywood (and one I’ve previousy looked at in X-Men: Apocalypse and Cinema’s Dependency on Superheroes). Even Disney/Pixar aren’t immune from it, having recently announced the release in 2017 of Toy Story 4. It’s like having the identity of a Xmas present revealed by an eager relative who can’t wait for you to see what a great gift they’ve bought you – except it’s a present you won’t get for a couple of years or so.

On a personal level, I don’t see the point of revealing movie releases so far in advance, or offering advance tickets long before a movie’s release, or leaking plot details in infuriating dribs and drabs, or creating a viral ad campaign on the Internet – promote a movie, yes, but nearer the time it’s due to hit cinemas. On IMDb there are currently fourteen movies slated for release in 2020 (including a Green Lantern movie – yikes!), but do we really need to know now that they’re on the way? (In case you’re hesitating, the answer is No.) What it all boils down to is the studios trying to tell us what to see, and what to like, and when to do so. And while I know that’s what marketing and advertising and trendsetting is all about, it still doesn’t mean I have to like it, or go along with it. And neither should anyone else.

What If (2013)

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What If

D: Michael Dowse / 98m

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Megan Park, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, Rafe Spall

Following a difficult break-up, Wallace (Radcliffe) wants nothing to do with love. He no longer believes in it, and is in no hurry to hook up with someone new. At a party held by his best friend Alan (Driver) however, he meets Chantry (Kazan), Alan’s cousin. They hit it off, and he walks her home; at this point she reveals she has a boyfriend. Even so, Chantry gives Wallace her number but feeling that nothing good can come of their new association he doesn’t keep it. Sometime later they bump into each other outside a cinema they’ve just been to, and they pick up from where they left off. This time, when they reach Chantry’s home, she asks if they can be friends, to which Wallace agrees.

Their relationship grows as they spend more time together. Chantry invites Wallace to meet her boyfriend, Ben (Spall), and her sister, Dalia (Park). Ben warns Wallace off, while Dalia finds him attractive. An accident leaves Ben in the hospital overnight, and leads to his revealing why he’s so anti-love: his parents were doctors who cheated on each other until they divorced, and while he was a med student his girlfriend (also a med student) cheated on him with another doctor. Now he’s determined not to behave like his parents did.

Ben takes advantage of a job opportunity and moves to Dublin for six months, though he and Chantry commit to keeping their relationship going despite the distance between them. Alan and his girlfriend, Nicole (Davis) realise that Wallace is falling for Chantry, and even though he denies it, they keep pushing him to tell her how he feels about her, even on the day they get married. A disastrous night left naked and stranded at the beach by Alan and Nicole with just a sleeping bag to keep them warm, leads to an estrangement between Wallace and Chantry that neither knows how to fix. Confused about her feelings for Wallace she flies to Dublin and discovers that Ben has been offered a further job in Rio de Janeiro for another six months.

Alan tries once again to get Wallace to come clean to Chantry. Goaded to the point where he feels he has to come clean about his feelings for her, he follows Chantry to Dublin but receives a voicemail message when he gets there from Chantry that tells him she’s returned home and can he meet her. He rushes back and still feeling it’s best that he tells her how she feels, he tells her about his trip to Dublin and how much she means to him. Angry that he went to break up her relationship with Ben – something he’d promised he would never do – Chantry dismisses his claims that she has similar feelings for him, and they part. She accepts a promotion that means her moving to Taiwan. Realising that she’s not handled things too well, Chantry clings to the hope that Wallace will attend her leaving party, and they will have one last chance to make amends to each other.

What If - scene

Romantic comedies, these days at least, come in two forms: the kind that falls back on  gross-out humour to provide something memorable, and the kind that makes an effort to create memorable characters so that the humour flows organically from the actual set up. What If is definitely in the latter category, a rom-com that pitches two of the most appealing, agreeable characters that we’ve seen for a long while, and develops their relationship with patience and a surprising degree of skill.

Adapted from the play Toothpaste & Cigars by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, What If scores highly by virtue of the script by Elan Mastai – coming a very long way from his debut script for MVP: Most Vertical Primate (2001) – and the inspired pairing of Radcliffe and Kazan. As the couple living in mutual denial of their feelings for each other, both actors excel, raising the movie’s standard plotting and set up into something much more worthwhile and affecting. (This isn’t to say that Mastai’s screenplay is lacking in any way, it’s just that it does follow the basic formula of boy-meets-girl, boy-keeps-his-feelings-to-himself-for-too-long, boy-finally-reveals-feelings-but-girl-feels-betrayed, boy-and-girl-may-or-may-not-be-reconciled that holds up most romantic comedies.)

Kazan and Radcliffe are both on terrific form, creating a convincing, captivating couple that makes it easier to root for them both through their personal and united travails. Kazan is a remarkably intuitive actress, able to adequately demonstrate the pain and confusion of unexpected love with an intensity that’s not often called for in a rom-com, but it all leads to a well-rounded, vivid characterisation and performance that elevates the material. She’s a beguiling actress, her unconventional looks and line readings adding to the believability of both Chantry as a character and her reactions to the developments in her relationship with Wallace. There are numerous moments where she reveals both the strength and the insecurity inherent in Chantry’s personality, and each moment is rendered beautifully.

Matching Kazan for believability and commitment is Radcliffe, demonstrating once again that he is one of the most talented actors of his generation. As the conflicted, honourably-minded Wallace, Radcliffe nails yet another role where he’s required (or so it seems) to be the engine that drives the movie on. Here he expertly dissects Wallace’s character and shows us the torment of a man whose experience of love has been so cruelly undermined by the people most important to him, and before he’s really had a chance to participate in it properly. It’s a measured, perceptive performance, full of insight and wit, and it complements Kazan’s role perfectly.

The secondary characters are well-drawn even if they’re unsurprisingly not as alluring or interesting as Chantry and Wallace are, but the supporting cast have fun with them nevertheless. Driver and Davis are a great match as the overly physical Alan and Nicole, their free-spiritedness at odds with the more closed in, hesitant natures of Chantry and Wallace, while Park is daffily amusing as Chantry’s predatory sister. And in the often thankless role of partner-who-must-be-shown-the-door, Spall makes Ben more interesting (and sympathetic) than the viewer might expect.

With a great script and great performances, the romantic aspects are handled with a great deal of delicacy and skill – the scene where Wallace helps Chantry out of a dress she’s trying on but has got stuck in is a superb case in point; the longing both characters display for each other is unexpectedly moving and outstandingly played. In the director’s chair, Dowse orchestrates things with poise and sensitivity, and shows an innate understanding of the characters and the material. He also knows when to let the camera linger on his leads, and when to go for the “killer” close up. It all adds up to a movie that’s not afraid to look good while pointing up the intimacy of the feelings on display. And there’s a wonderfully appropriate indie-style score by A.C. Newman that enhances and embellishes the action with casual aplomb.

Rating: 8/10 – funny, sad, heartwarming, quirky and absorbing, What If is a cleverly constructed, endlessly entertaining rom-com with two hugely impressive central performances; the perfect movie for singles looking for reassurance that love is just around the corner, or couples who want to rediscover that first thrill of finding someone special.

The November Man (2014)

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November Man, The

D: Roger Donaldson / 108m

Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Lazar Ristovski, Eliza Taylor, Caterina Scorsone, Will Patton, Mediha Musliovic, Amila Terzimehic, Patrick Kennedy

Montenegro, 2008. CIA agent Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) and his protegé David Mason (Bracey) are on an assignment to stop the assassination of a visiting dignitary. Devereaux takes the man’s place and while they identify and kill the would-be assassin, it comes at a price: Mason’s lack of experience causes the death of a young boy.

Lausanne, 2013. Devereaux is now retired and owns a small lakeside cafe. One day he’s approached by his old handler, Hanley (Smitrovich), with a job. Devereaux’s ex-lover, Natalia (Musliovic) is in trouble. She is in Moscow working undercover as an aide to Russian President-elect Arkady Federov (Ristovski). Natalia has uncovered intelligence that she says will destroy Federov’s chances of becoming president, but won’t reveal any details unless she’s extracted. Devereaux agrees to get her out. On the day of the extraction, Natalia obtains the evidence she needs against Federov but her actions are discovered. With her position compromised, and with Federov’s men chasing her, she evades capture long enough for Devereaux to find her. However, Hanley’s superior, Weinstein (Patton) gives an order that leads the extraction team – led by Mason – to kill her.

Devereaux kills the rest of Mason’s team but leaves him alive. While Mason is tasked with tracking down his mentor – Weinstein believes Devereaux and Hanley are in collusion, but doesn’t know why – Devereaux seeks to find out just what was going on in Moscow and why Natalia was killed. Using the evidence she gathered and was able to give him before she died, Devereaux tries to find a young woman named Mira Filipova; she is the only witness to war crimes Federov committed in Chechnya, and he will stop at nothing to silence her. With the only clue to her whereabouts being her association with a Belgrade women’s aid centre, Devereaux – and an assassin (Terzimehic) sent by Federov – attempts to find out more from centre worker Alice Fournier (Kurylenko). They go on the run together, chased by both Federov’s assassin and Mason, but managing to stay one step ahead of both. Along the way Devereaux tests Mason’s resolve, learns the truth about Federov’s involvement in a bombing that started the Chechnya war, and finds his twelve year old daughter, Lucy, put in harm’s way.

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An old-fashioned spy thriller where the Russians are – ostensibly – the bad guys, and the CIA is equally corrupt, this adaptation of the novel There Are No Spies by Bill Granger (and the seventh in a series of novels featuring Devereaux) has a simple, retro feel to it, but the now over-familiar Belgrade locations and haphazard plotting, as well as some disastrous attempts at characterisation, leave the movie looking and feeling disjointed and ill-conceived. From its opening sequence, The November Man makes a valiant attempt to bring the viewer on board but then keeps them at a distance thanks to its unfailing ability to jettison credibility at every turn.

Despite the retro feel – at one point Devereaux picks a lock the old-fashioned way – The November Man makes the occasional attempt to appear and feel relevant, but making Devereaux seem like an ageing Jason Bourne merely highlights the scarcity of original thought on display. The script, by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek, is littered with ill-considered and poorly written scenes that fail to advance the plot, and which give the impression that, rather than adapting Granger’s novel, they were making things up as they went along. There’s one very disturbing, completely out of left field scene where Devereaux cuts the femoral artery of Mason’s neighbour, Sarah (Taylor), leaving her to die unless Mason saves her (and doesn’t pursue his mentor). It’s an incredibly stupid scene, badly written and directed, and serves only to show how determined the movie is to get it wrong.

The basic plot is sound if unoriginal – someone in the CIA colluded with Federov to instigate the war in Chechnya, but who? – but somewhere along the way the need to add in as many convoluted twists and turns as possible has distorted the movie’s focus and made it more ludicrous than convincing. There’s also some wildly absurd action beats that defy logic, such as when Mason drives at full speed into a wall in order to kill the agent he’s riding with (don’t ask!); seconds later, Mason’s running away from the crash as if nothing’s happened.

Against all this, not even Brosnan can rescue things, even when running along alleyways and hotel corridors like he did in his Bond days. He’s also tasked with constantly looking aggrieved (and judging by how badly the movie’s turned out, he probably knew something was up during filming), but it’s the continual change back and forth between cold-blooded killer and sensitive family man that fails to have any impact. Thanks to the script, Brosnan is effectively playing two different Devereauxs, but they don’t fit together (not even once), leaving the actor struggling to combine the two into one recognisable character. It’s no surprise then that the rest of the cast fare equally badly, though Bracey deserves special mention for the woodenness of his expressions and the awkwardness of his line readings. Kurylenko has a little more to do than be the female lead who gets to “stand-next-to-the-star-and-look-pretty”, and Smitrovich does aggressive even when the script doesn’t call for it.

In the end, The November Man is a soggy mess of a movie that does just enough to hold the attention but without putting in too much effort. Donaldson directs as if he’s only seen every other page of the script, and the location photography by Romain Lacourbas is perfunctory, leaving the backdrop of the movie looking less than interesting. And John Gilbert’s editing lacks the necessary punch and energy to make the action scenes anything more than humdrum and predictably constructed.

Rating: 4/10 – weak in almost every department, The November Man is a dire attempt at replicating the kind of spy thrillers that popped up every other month throughout the Eighties; it doesn’t work here, and hasn’t done in any of the three hundred similar movies that Steven Seagal has made in the last ten years either.

The Boy and the World (2013)

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Boy and the World, The

Original title: O Menino e o Mundo

D: Alê Abreu / 80m

Cast: Vinicius Garcia, Felipe Zilse, Alê Abreu, Lu Horta, Marco Aurélio Campos, Cassius Romero

A small boy (Garcia) living in the countryside with his mother and father is devastated when his father leaves and doesn’t come back. The boy decides to go in search of his father, and in doing so encounters a migrant worker and his dog, a loom worker, and experiences the trials and perils of the world beyond his home. The boy travels a long way and sees many strange things, but his journey eventually finds him returning home, though he finds his quest has brought about an unexpected consequence.

From its beginning – creating dazzling concentric shapes of colour and design – The Boy and the World stands out as a virtuoso piece of animation, a cleverly assembled and thought out work that stimulates the mind as well as pleasing the eye (something it achieves throughout). There are a number of stylistic approaches used here to present the world the boy sees, from the open, sparsely animated countryside where we first meet him (and which is very different from the almost jungle-like environment he inhabits when he’s playing), to the ordered, grid-like orchard where the trees stretch out in row after row, and to the overcrowded, boxed-in structures of the distant city that the boy finds himself in. As the boy becomes increasingly hemmed in by the world around him, so too does the viewer. It’s a clever conceit: that the wider we roam, the more restricted we become.

The movie’s opening sequence, where the image is just the boy and a musical stone (the music is explained later on in the movie), is so simple and effective it’s a wonder that other animators don’t use this technique more often. Slowly, other textures and colours and shapes are added until the screen is filled with the riotous expression of the boy’s fantasy life. It’s a stunning progression, strangely beautiful and uplifting, a cornucopia of hues and tones mixed with swathes of water colours that bewitch and astound with every addition. And with a whistle it all disappears, receding into nothing as quickly as it was assembled; it’s a bravura sequence, superbly animated, and superbly evocative of the way a young boy might give life to a fantasy world.

With such an incredible opening the viewer might be forgiven for thinking that such a visual salvo would be difficult – if not impossible – to follow. But they’d be wrong. The boy’s home and its surroundings are uncomplicated, simplistic even, but totally in keeping with the movie’s reflection of the boy’s experience of life (only the skies are more dramatic). There’s a glorious moment when the boy’s father, waiting for the train that will take him away, is the only remaining image as everything else (except for his suitcase) fades from view. Again it’s this simplicity that makes the moment so effective and so heartbreaking for the boy. (And there’s been very little dialogue, and what there has been, has been in Portuguese which has then been played backwards.)

Leaving home, the boy’s adventure begins in earnest when he meets a sad-faced migrant worker who takes him to the orchard where he picks blossom from trees all day. There the boy hears – and sees – the music his father used to play. The boy runs among the trees, chasing the notes, and though his pursuit ends in disappointment, he remains committed to his quest – and the viewer with him. It’s a marvellous sequence, bolder and more formal in its design than anything seen previously, but still wonderfully emotive.

Boy and the World, The - scene

Later, when the boy arrives at the factory where the blossom is turned into rugs on giant looms, the tone becomes darker. Colours are muted, the curves and circles give away to more rectangular, sharper-edged shapes, and the boy encounters physical danger for the first time. Watching the movie head into more dramatic territory – there’s a hint as well that the factory is facing modernisation – it’s good to see that Abreu keeps the focus on the boy, even while the movie’s scope begins to broaden into areas involving industrialisation and the lack of workers’ rights.

From there the boy ventures by train into the big city, its box-like configuration, confusion of streets, and rampant, soulless consumerism proving too much for him. Lost, but still able to find some beauty in amongst the bustle and mayhem thanks to a kaleidoscope, the boy finds himself on a container ship that takes supplies to huge domed cities in the sky. It’s a startlingly futuristic moment, but rendered in such an awe-inspiring way that we can only share in the boy’s sense of wonder at what he sees. When he returns to the city it becomes clear there is a huge social divide, with poverty more evident than before, and the images become more detailed in order to highlight the level of despair and anguish of the people who live there. By now the movie is as dark as it’s going to get, but with the advent of real footage to show just how badly the world is being treated, the animation is dropped in favour of more hard-hitting examples of the movie’s message.

A bittersweet coda follows, but it’s in keeping with what’s gone before, the boy’s innocence transformed into something a little more modulated. He’s still able to see and hear his father’s music but it comes with a melancholy that the viewer knows he won’t be able to shake. It’s still a fitting ending, though, and the movie ends as it began, in a swirl of dazzling concentric shapes of colour and design until there is only a dot.

There is so much to admire in The Boy and the World that it’s easy to forget that it’s message is often too heavily put across (and illustrated) and there are some moments that lack the emotional heft that the movie displays elsewhere – the slums and its inhabitants are a case in point, with Abreu unable to resist pointing out how badly these people live and are treated, surrounded as they are by the kind of consumer products they’ll never be able to afford. It’s a blunt message, at odds with the more lyrical approach of the rest of the movie, and threatens to tip things over into the social injustice arena rather than have the movie continue to be about a boy’s search for his father.

As for the character designs, there are very, very few fat people depicted, with pretty much everyone appearing rake thin, though this is mainly due to the animation style that Abreu has adopted. Legs and feet are often straight lines, while arms are often held so close to the side that it appears the characters have no arms at all. It’s the adult faces that take the most getting used to, Abreu and his animators having gone for a look with the eyes that wouldn’t look amiss in say, Mama (2013) or The Woman in Black (2012), big long grey slashes that are unsettling to look at. As for the boy himself, he’s possibly the simplest character in the movie, his red-hooped top standing out in the crowd above his shorts and stick-thin legs and below his rosy-cheeked face. And with three strands of hair on top of his head, he’s just too adorable not to look at.

Rating: 8/10 – some viewers might be put off by the heavy-handed attempts at putting across the message about social injustice and the perils of institutionalised poverty, but The Boy and the World has so much more to offer; often lyrical, always beautiful to look at – even when the mood turns dark – and a rare piece of animation that really does let the movie speak for itself.

As the Light Goes Out (2014)

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As the Light Goes Out

Original title: Jiu huo ying xiong

aka Final Rescue

D: Chi-kin Kwok / 115m

Cast: Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue, Simon Yam, Hu Jun, Bai Bing, William Chan, Andy On, Patrick Tam, Liu Kai-chi, Deep Ng, Michelle Wai, Kenny Kwan, Alice Li, Jackie Chan, Andrew Lau, Susan Shaw, Bonnie Xian

Three Hong Kong firefighters – Sam (Tse), Chill (Yue), and Yip (On) – ignore basic safety rules when dealing with a fire and are brought before a disciplinary hearing to answer for their actions. Chill takes the blame but the trio’s friendship is undermined by the experience, as it was Yip who should have admitted it was his decision to ignore the rules.

A year later it’s 24 December and Hong Kong is experiencing the hottest, most humid weather in recorded history, with the soaring temperatures and an approaching typhoon set to make conditions potentially very dangerous in the coming days. At Lung Kwu Tan fire station it’s Sam’s last day before transferring to another station. It’s a bittersweet occasion as he still works with Chill and Yip (who’s now his station boss). At the same time a new firefighter, a transfer from the mainland called Ocean (Jun), is in his early forties and quickly earns the animosity of Chill when he overreacts to a minor situation at the station.

Meanwhile, Lee’s son, Water (Vincent Lo) is on a school trip to the nearby Pillar Point power station. Along with another station, Pillar Point is responsible for around eighty per cent of the power for Kowloon but while the plant supervisor Man (Tam) is convinced of its capabilities, others are not so certain with the impending weather conditions about to converge. When a fire breaks out in a winery that is adjacent to the main gas pipe that feeds the power station, Sam and his team deal with the fire but have reservations as to whether or not they’ve fully dealt with the situation. Overruled by Yip, Sam remains doubtful but returns to the station.

While Water and his schoolmates are waiting to leave the power station, Sam’s doubts about the winery grow and while Yip is away at a function, he decides to return to the site. The winery warehouse proves to be alight and when efforts to shut off the gas pipe fail, the resulting explosion sends fiery shock waves along the pipe and into the power station, causing devastation and trapping Water and two of his schoolmates, as well as Man, two of his colleagues, and Tao (Yam), a fellow firefighter. Sam must mount a rescue mission to save them, all while encountering situations and dangers that preclude following the rules.

As the Light Goes Out - scene

Impressively mounted, As the Light Goes Out is the kind of disaster movie where the characters’ personal issues and their fears and insecurities are set out carefully from the beginning, only to be abandoned once a big fire breaks out. In fact, it’s the movie’s first half where the rivalries and animosities, all bubbling below the surface for the most part in true Hong Kong fashion, are explored that grabs the attention, even when the winery and its unfortunate location re: the gas pipe is discovered. While the viewer waits for the gas pipe to explode and the devastation to begin, the characters fall in and out with each other, and mistrust is either added to or begun. It’s the potential for emotional disaster that’s more intriguing: whether or not the raft of personal issues will override professional ethics and make the rescue effort more difficult.

Alas, under Kwok’s direction, the sterling effort put into setting up the characters – and Sam in particular – is put aside in favour of the type of selfless heroics that often defy logic and make the viewer wonder what all the fuss of the first hour was for. Even the callow Man steps up to the plate and has his moment of heroism, and while it makes a change to see such a rote character prove less than cowardly, when everyone is working together it actually lessens the drama; you need that sense that someone is going to endanger everyone else at some point in order to increase the tension. As it is, characters do die – one very, very predictably – but the movie lacks any emotional resonance on these occasions, and quickly moves on to the next dangerous situation with barely a backward glance.

As for the disaster itself, there’s the usual inevitability of man’s hubris coming back to bite him in the ass, and the pyrotechnics are suitably impressive, though the scale doesn’t seem quite as spectacular as it might have been. Once the gas pipe explodes and the power station blows up, the main enemy isn’t the fires that sporadically populate the inside of the station but the black smoke that seems to move around with a will of its own. Treated almost like a character itself, the smoke is ever-present at times but rarely proves a viable threat, so the rescuers and the rescued face peril instead from a variety of dangerous obstacles and missing walkways they have to find their way around. Cue some low-key heroics and hastily improvised solutions, and a sense that Jill Leung and Yung Tsz-kwong’s script was originally a firefighter drama that wasn’t intended to be the disaster epic it’s aiming for.

Uneven then, and with moments of unnecessary reflection amidst all the carnage, As the Light Goes Out isn’t the compelling drama it wants to be, and there’s too much that’s perfunctory to lift it out of the doldrums it runs into every now and then. The cast perform well but ultimately are restrained from doing any better because of the script’s need for them to become action heroes. Kwok’s direction is equally uneven and the pacing is off in several sequences that should be exciting but turn out to be surprisingly dull instead. There are better firefighter dramas out there – Ron Howard’s Backdraft (1991), Johnnie To’s Lifeline (1997) – and this may have had ambitions to join that select group, but sadly, the movie’s lack of focus and mishandled structure holds it back.

Rating: 5/10 – initially full of deft characterisations and engaging performances, As the Light Goes Out segues into its firefighting dramatics and promptly stalls; loud, impassioned, occasionally spectacular, this is a movie that promises much but rarely delivers (and did we really need kids in peril as well?).

Battle Creek Brawl (1980)

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Battle Creek Brawl

aka The Big Brawl

D: Robert Clouse / 95m

Cast: Jackie Chan, José Ferrer, Kristine DeBell, Mako, Ron Max, David Sheiner, Rosalind Chao, H.B. Haggerty, Chao Li Chi

In Chicago in the 1930’s, restaurant owner Kwan (Chi) is being pressured into paying protection money to gangster Dominici (Ferrer). When he receives a visit from Dominici’s henchman Leggetti (Max) and some of his goons, Kwan is physically intimidated but doesn’t pay. As Leggetti leaves, Kwan’s son Jerry (Chan) – who has considerable martial arts prowess but has promised his father he won’t fight – intervenes and leaves the goons thoroughly embarrassed and beaten by using their own moves against them.

When Dominici hears about Jerry’s prowess he believes he’s found the fighter he needs for the upcoming Battle Creek Brawl, a street fighting contest held in Texas. Dominici needs Jerry to combat the fighter backed by rival gangster Morgan (Sheiner), but Jerry  refuses at first. This leads Dominici to have Jerry’s brother’s fiancee (Chao) kidnapped and held hostage. Jerry attempts to rescue her – aided by his martial arts mentor, Herbert (Mako) – but Dominici outsmarts him; they strike a bargain though, and Jerry agrees to take part in the brawl.

Morgan, meanwhile, has persuaded Leggetti to betray Dominici and ensure his fighter’s win by kidnapping Herbert. Having made it to the final round, and facing off against Morgan’s fighter, Kiss (Taggerty), Leggetti threatens Jerry with his mentor being hurt if he doesn’t lose the contest. The only thing Jerry can do is to stall until he can find a way of saving Herbert, and then defeating Kiss.

Battle Creek Brawl - scene

Chan’s first English language feature, Battle Creek Brawl is an enjoyable, free-wheeling martial arts movie that gives the diminutive star the chance to show off his athletic skills and flash the cheeky grin that’s stood him in such good stead for more than forty years. It’s a mainly lightweight distraction, unconcerned with providing any depth to the proceedings, and in many ways all the better for it. It’s a very likeable movie, made purely to entertain its target audience, and on that level it’s a complete success.

Chan’s acrobatics are given plenty of screen time, and as ever he’s a joy to watch, the sheer inventiveness and physical dexterity of his movements proving as entertaining as ever. His wonderfully expressive features and often amazing agility are placed to the fore as much as possible, and writer/director Clouse – with a few awkward exceptions – keeps the camera focused on Chan and leaves everyone else several places behind. The clever intricacy of the fight scenes, particularly the incredibly well choreographed bouts between Chan and Mako, raises the bar throughout, and if Chan’s adversaries are a little too eager to line up and take their punishment, well, that’s always going to be a drawback when working with US stuntmen – it’s a question of timing.

The movie takes place in a strange mix-world of Thirties Chicago and Seventies Texas, with only the costumes and the cars giving an indication that the brawl itself is taking place in the same time zone as the rest of the movie (keep an eye on the Texas backgrounds and you’ll see how jarring it can be). That said, the decision to make it a period piece in the first place makes no difference to the story or the action, but the apparent acceptance of Jerry’s inter-racial relationship with Nancy (DeBell) is a refreshing change (even if it does reinforce the lightweight nature of the script).

With the script’s refusal to add any real intensity to events, the performances are necessarily lacking in substance with even Ferrer struggling to add any appropriate menace to his role. He’s more like a cuddly uncle figure playing at being nasty but in as urbane a manner as possible. As his rival, Sheiner tries to add some threat to events but he’s not given enough screen time to succeed, while Max is given the chance to take on Chan, but with predictable results. DeBell is kept firmly in the background, and of the rest of the cast, only Haggerty as the dastardly Kiss, and Mako as Herbert make any real impression.

Clouse keeps the focus firmly on the fight scenes, and keeps the action moving in ever more exciting ways, and the camerawork by Robert C. Jessup – aided by editor George Grenville – is surprisingly precise and fluid in equal measure; there’s always something going on in the frame and some of it is as interesting to watch as what’s going on in the foreground, especially during the brawl itself, where there are plenty of “bits” that enrich the fights themselves. And to round things off there’s a rich, emphatic score courtesy of Lalo Schifrin that works so well with the material.

Rating: 8/10 – almost too flimsy in its construction and execution, Battle Creek Brawl is still simple yet effective, and a terrific introduction to Chan’s remarkable agility; with an innocence that borders on deliberate naïvete, the movie succeeds by having a great sense of humour and by not taking itself at all seriously – and by showcasing some tremendous fight scenes.

Poster of the Week – Amarcord (1973)

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Amarcord

Amarcord (1973)

There are several great posters out there for Fellini’s movies, and while some of them have a caché that can’t be beat – I’m talking I vitelloni (1953) for one – this particular poster appeals to me in ways that have crept up on me over the years. (Some historical background: I saw the majority of Fellini’s movies over a period of four months back in 2002, and while learning more about them, saw the variety of designs allocated to the posters for his movies; most of them are really expressive and charming.)

Here it’s the breadth of the design, coupled with the number of references to characters, places and events in the movie that impresses the most, along with the clever way in which the eye is drawn to each component of the poster in a way that allows one to focus on one aspect without losing sight of the whole. The dark-hued sky with its portentous colouring is wonderfully dramatic, hinting at some of the conflict contained within the movie, and then there’s the space between the characters and the sea, sparingly dotted with images, a brighter stretch of colour that looks more optimistic.

It also serves as the backdrop for one of the most incredible assemblies of characters from a movie you’re ever likely to see. They’re all there: from Ciccio Ingrassia’s mad uncle, to Magali Noël’s beautiful Gradisca, to Maria Antonietta Beluzzi’s impossibly bosomed tobacconist – an intimate series of representations that border on good-natured caricature yet retain the essence of that character, allowing their personalities to be hinted at or confirmed (to find out which you have to see the movie). It’s like a rogues gallery except that these are all people you’d be intrigued to meet.

And then there’s the bold, swirling script used for the director’s name and the title, a magnificently cursive grouping of letters that maintains its own identity and oversees the image like a proud, protective parent. It all adds up to an audacious, striking movie poster that perfectly reflects the movie it represents.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.

Interstellar (2014)

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Interstellar

D: Christopher Nolan / 169m

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, Mackenzie Foy, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn, Leah Cairns, Timothée Chalamet

In the near future, humanity is at risk of extinction due to a worldwide shortage of food. Ex-pilot, engineer and widower Cooper (McConaughey) runs a farm in the Midwest growing corn, the last remaining crop that is resistant to the blight that has devastated the rest of the world’s crops. Cooper is helped by his father-in-law, Donald (Lithgow), son Tom (Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Foy). Murph is a precocious child who is convinced their farmhouse has a ghost that is trying to communicate with them.  Cooper isn’t convinced but as the phenomena increases he comes to realise that there is a message being sent, but why and by whom remains a mystery.

The message translates into coordinates. Cooper determines to travel to where the coordinates are located, but finds Murph has stowed away in their truck. Letting her go with them, they find themselves at what appears to be an abandoned army base. They try to break in, but Cooper finds himself tasered. When he comes to, he finds himself in the company of a group of NASA scientists led by Professor Brand (Caine) who are attempting to find a way to solve the problem of humanity’s approaching doom. Brand, along with his daughter (Hathaway), have been working on finding another planet to live on. Through the appearance of a mysterious wormhole near Saturn, Brand and his team have sent twelve manned probes into the wormhole and three have returned signals that indicate the planets they’ve found could sustain human life. The next mission, which Brand wants Cooper to pilot, is to travel to each planet and make a definitive choice for mankind’s future.

Cooper’s decision to make the trip alienates Murph and he leaves without reconciling things between them. Along with Brand’s daughter and two other scientists, Doyle (Bentley) and Romilly (Gyasi), plus two robots, TARS and CASE, Cooper makes the two year journey to Saturn and then pilots their ship, the Endurance, into the wormhole. Once on the other side, they have to decide which planet to visit first. When they do they find it covered in water, and with wreckage of the manned probe strewn about; by Brand’s calculations and thanks to the difference in time and relativity, they’ve arrived only a few hours after the probe landed. When nearby mountains prove to be an approaching wave of huge proportions, Brand’s determination to retrieve the flight data leads to a member of the team dying before they can escape back to the Endurance.

Back on Earth, a grown up Murph (Chasten) is now working for Professor Brand; she still feels animosity toward Cooper and still hasn’t forgiven him for leaving. With her brother Tom (Affleck) now married and with a child of his own, and still trying to run the farm, she’s taken the place of Brand’s daughter and is working with him on his research. As the situation on Earth worsens, Murph learns that Brand hasn’t been entirely honest about his motivations in sending Cooper et al on their mission.

The second planet reveals a surprise: the scientist who was sent there is still alive. Dr Mann (Damon) is initially pleased to see them, but he behaves oddly, especially when he learns that their mission’s back up plan – to colonise the new planet with specially chosen embryos – is still feasible. He makes an attempt on Cooper’s life and then tries to gain control of the Endurance. His plan fails, but provides Cooper with the opportunity to head back through the wormhole in the hope that he can be reunited with Murph, while also allowing Brand to get to the last remaining planet.

Interstellar - scene

Ambitious, thought-provoking, and visually arresting, Interstellar is Nolan’s ode to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a dazzling sci-fi venture into the unknown that finds itself bogged down by the need to emphasise the human values that make us what we are, while making less of the actual space adventure that takes up so much of its running time. It’s a bold experiment, detailed and rich in its scientific background, but one that leaves many questions unanswered by the movie’s end.

While a degree of ambiguity is no bad thing in a movie, here there’s too many elements and aspects of the script that either don’t make sense or leave the viewer wondering if they’ve missed something. It seems clear that Nolan and co-scripter/brother Jonathan have made a great deal of effort to get the physics right, but they’ve done so at the cost of a consistent narrative. At the movie’s beginning, Cooper is shown as a man with somewhat undeveloped parental skills: a problem with Murph’s attitude at school is resolved by his getting her suspended. He encourages her to scientifically investigate their home’s ghost phenomena, but remains unconvinced of her findings. She’s not exactly an inconvenience to him, but the viewer can see that he’s happier dealing with machines. So when it comes time to leave for space, and he suddenly becomes completely committed to Murph and all misty-eyed over leaving her behind, it comes as a bit of a surprise that she means that much to him (but it does set up a later conflict between Cooper and Brand’s daughter, so maybe that’s why it’s there).

The mission itself is another device that doesn’t work entirely well. Ostensibly, the plan is to find a planet that can sustain human life and that humanity can eventually all travel to (the enormity of such an operation is never discussed though – but hold on, there’s a reason for that too). The back up plan – as noted above – is akin to a kind of Noah’s Ark solution, but again the details of just how these embryos are going to be “grown” is never fully examined. It’s things like these, where the reasons behind the mission are glossed over, that make Interstellar such a frustrating watch for so much of its running time. With so much riding on the mission and its success, and with the whole programme being hidden from the public – though wouldn’t someone have noticed the launch of a rocket ship into space? – the notion that humanity is facing extinction is never quite made to feel like that much of a pressing problem. When events on the first planet prove disastrous, the relative time they’ve spent there means that twenty-three years have passed on Earth. This allows for Chastain’s appearance as the adult Murph, but conditions haven’t changed, and if anything, no one seems any more worried than before. Certainly not the adult Tom, whose life running the farm carries on without comment.

Once on the second planet, the introduction of Damon as the unhinged Dr Mann – an unadvertised performance whose secrecy wasn’t really necessary – lends the movie some unneeded action heroics but also leads to musings on the nature of death and the importance of connecting with our loved ones, particularly our children. It’s an attempt at adding depth to a part of the film that doesn’t need it, and hamstrings what little suspense there is (which basically boils down to when is Mann going to go all psycho on everyone). Damon is good but it’s the predictable nature of his character that hampers the set up and by now the audience can accurately guess just where the movie is heading.

There’s more but a special mention should be made for a scene near the movie’s end, where one character finds themselves dismissed by another character in a matter of a couple of minutes (maybe three). It’s an astonishingly abrupt moment, and one that seems to have been written deliberately that way because the Nolans became conscious of the movie’s running time and needed to wind things up as quickly as possible. It undermines the relationship between the two characters completely and, considering it’s a scene that should carry one hell of an emotional wallop, it has the feel of an outtake that was added back in at the last minute.

interstellar - scene2

While the storyline and the plotting suffer from a consistent inconsistency – if such a thing, like the movie’s appearing-out-of-nowhere wormhole, can be said to exist – Interstellar at least looks stunning, its space travel sequences some of the best since 2001, and has Nolan cannily dispensing with sound effects outside the Endurance. The level of detail is impressive, and Nolan displays his usual knack of framing shots and scenes with an eye for the unusual angle and the beautiful image. He’s a master craftsman and it’s a pleasure to watch him at work – even here where the themes and motifs are not as congruous as they should be. (For his next project, it would be interesting to see Nolan direct someone else’s screenplay, one that he doesn’t get to adapt into something with more of his DNA on it than the writer’s.)

It’s also a pleasure to see Nolan assemble such a great cast. Man of the moment McConaughey is excellent as the tough-minded but ultimately emotionally driven Cooper, and Hathaway also excels in a role that, thankfully, isn’t as generic as it could have been; she also gets to deliver a speech about love that is genuinely moving and something all of us can relate to. As the conflicted adult Murph, Chastain provides an emotional touchstone for the audience in the movie’s latter half, giving a more subtle performance than might be expected, and Caine continues his run of Nolan movies with an appearance that, refreshingly, isn’t as overloaded with the usual heavy handed gravitas that this type of role normally attracts. Lithgow, Affleck, Bentley, Burstyn and Gyasi offer solid support, and Foy matches McConaughey scene for scene at the movie’s beginning.

Interstellar is a big picture that would like to be seen as an important picture, the kind that, back in the Fifties, would have had a roadshow release ahead of its theatrical run. But as mentioned above, there are too many “issues” – the overbearing, intrusive organ-based score by Hans Zimmer, Brand’s most important line in the movie being rendered unintelligible, the design of the robots that changes from scene to scene depending on what they’re needed to do – to allow it to be regarded as truly important. It strives hard to achieve this but as with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Nolan’s grip on the material is not as strong or as focused as on previous projects. But again, it’s an impressive visual experience and shouldn’t be faulted on that level, but as the good folks at Pixar always say, “It’s all about the story”, and sadly, that’s not the case here.

Rating: 6/10 – best seen on an IMAX screen – though even that will have viewers scratching their heads at Nolan’s choice of shots in the format – Interstellar sets out to be a profound meditation on love and the will to survive, but falls well short of effectively engaging with either concept, except occasionally; technically superb, this is a movie that, despite its star power and exceptional director, won’t remain in the memory for long because, sadly, it lacks the resonance to do so.

My Top 10 Guilty Pleasures

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If you love movies, there’s always going to be those select favourites that, even if they’ve been critically derided and/or flopped at the box office, that you can watch over and over again, and which will always raise your spirits when you’re having a bad day or need cheering up.  With this in mind, these are my (mostly) guilty pleasures, the ten movies that I can return to time after time, but which aren’t exactly going to feature on any ten best lists (except this one).

10 – Con Air (1997) – D: Simon West / 115m

Con Air

A plane full of vicious criminals, Nicolas Cage with a mullet, Colm Meaney’s apoplectic DEA agent, more testosterone than you can shake an Uzi at, one of the most over-the-top climaxes in action cinema history, a bunny in a box, and Steve Buscemi as a serial killer with a keen sense of irony – what’s not to like in this profane, blustering, blackly comic action movie? It’s a blast of pure escapism, and while it has its fair share of crass, stupid moments, it’s still the kind of simple-minded excess that never lets up in its efforts to entertain.

9) – Q (1982) – D: Larry Cohen / 93m

Q

There are other Larry Cohen movies that are as enjoyable as this one, but it has a marvellous sense of its own absurdity and plays it straight throughout. The big Q himself – Quetzalcoatl – is used sparingly, but when he’s on screen the movie steps up a pace and the flaws in the acting and the production design are forgotten (and forgiven). A great homage to the monster movies of the Fifties and Sixties, Q is often rough and ready in its approach but at its heart it has passion and some very offbeat humour.

8) – Happy Gilmore (1996) – D: Dennis Dugan / 92m

Happy Gilmore

Adam Sandler’s man-child persona is given its most effective outing in this tale of a hockey player who discovers an aptitude for golf. Gilmore’s angry outbursts are a joy to watch, and though the movie is as uneven and lacking in a consistent tone as most of Sandler’s early movies, it’s the energy he brings to proceedings that lifts the movie and gives it such a winning sheen (and angry slapstick is always funny).

7) – Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010) – D: Eli Craig / 89m

Tucker and Dale vs Evil

Not really a guilty pleasure considering it was well received on release (and probably has a cult following by now), Tucker and Dale’s attempts at surviving the intrusion of a group of preppy college kids with unfortunately murderous intentions is an inventive, fun-filled exercise in subverting the backwoods psycho sub-genre of horror movies.  As our heroes, Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine make for a great duo, and there are twists and surprises galore, as well as some great one-liners (“He’s heavy for half a guy”).

6) – Lake Placid (1999) – D: Steve Miner / 82m

Lake Placid

Of course it’s the best in the series, and of course it has a sense of humour that often overwhelms the horror, but the first in the rapidly worsening series is so deftly constructed that the inspired sparring between Oliver Platt’s arrogant hunter and Brendan Gleeson’s sardonic sheriff is just one highlight in a creature feature that just barrels along making the viewer smile at every opportunity. And there’s a wonderfully vulgar performance from Betty White that is as hilarious as it is unexpected.

5) – 1941 (1979) – D: Steven Spielberg / 118m

1941

Spielberg’s pet project is a complete mess, but it’s still a glorious mess, the kind of big budget misfire that still has a heart and a soul and is only interested in providing as much in the way of zany entertainment as it possibly can. The cast do their best but the script hinders any attempt at a cohesive narrative (almost deliberately so), and even Spielberg isn’t as in control of the material as he normally is. But if you go with it there’s lots to enjoy and some of the slapstick is really, really funny.

4) – Blown Away (1994) – D: Stephen Hopkins / 121m

Blown Away

Yes, Blown Away is barmy, and yes, Tommy Lee Jones’ Irish bomber is about as convincing as Sean Bean in The Patriot Games, but it has a simple intensity that offsets the ridiculous nature of the plot. It also features what is simply the most impressive explosion in movie history (spoiled slightly by having Jeff Bridges and Forest Whitaker almost photo-shopped into the sequence). It stretches credulity to the snapping point, and has more than a few moments where the script takes the cinematic equivalent of an extended lunch break, but it has a certain charm nevertheless.

3) – Arachnophobia (1990) – D: Frank Marshall / 103m

Arachnophobia

A thrill ride with spiders, and possibly Jeff Daniels’ finest hour, this heady mix of arachno-horror and small-town dramatics is unsure if it’s a slightly gorier tribute to the creature movies of the Fifties, or an adventure movie with hundreds of web-spinning villains. Either way it still works for the most part, and while some of the spider scenes err on the side of being more teasing than terrifying, the slowburn approach leads to a hugely satisfying climax.

2) – The Quick and the Dead (1995) – D: Sam Raimi / 105m

Quick and the Dead, The

Unfairly overlooked on its initial release, Raimi’s Western gunfight contest is high on impressive camerawork and special effects, but suffers from these aspects being the same reason the movie doesn’t quite work. Over-stylised it may be, and Raimi may not be able to rein in the movie’s visual ingenuity, but even so, surprisingly good performances from the likes of Gene Hackman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobin Bell help things immensely, and it never loses the viewer’s attention.

1) – CutThroat Island (1995) – D: Renny Harlin / 123m

Cut Throat Island

One of the most notorious money losers in box office history, Harlin’s overwrought, effects heavy, leaden-acted pirate movie is still huge fun despite all its problems. Frank Langella steals the movie, the locations are stunning, the stunts are great, and the whole movie revels in its complete absurdity. It’s the epitome of loud, dumb fun, and all the more enjoyable for it, making a remarkable virtue out of being so stupid that it just has to be watched over and over again just to see if it is as bad as it looks and sounds (it is, but who cares?).

The Lady in No 6 (2014)

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Lady in No 6, The

aka: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

D: Malcolm Clarke / 39m

Alice Herz-Sommer

Born in Prague in 1903, Alice Herz grew up surrounded by the intelligentsia of the day, her parents’ cultural salon frequented by the likes of Franz Kafka (who would go for walks with Aiice and her twin sister, Mariana, and tell them stories) and Gustav Mahler. She learnt to play the piano at an early age and was encouraged to take it up as a career by another friend of the family, Artur Schnabel.  She studied at the prestigious Prague German Conservatory of Music (where she was the youngest pupil), and there drew the attention of cellist Leopold Sommer.  They married in 1931, and in 1937 had a son, Raphael.  Alice gave recitals and performed in concerts until the Nazis took control of Prague and Jewish involvement in performances was curtailed.  While several of her family members and friends fled to Israel, Alice remained in Prague to care for her mother who was very ill.

In July 1943, Alice was arrested and sent to Theresienstadt where her skills as a pianist were utilised in over one hundred concert performances, including those for the visiting Red Cross, as the Nazis strove to show that conditions were not as bad as the Allies suspected.  Billeted with Raphael, he and Alice were liberated in 1945 (sadly, Leopold died of typhus in Dachau six weeks before it too was liberated).  Rebuilding her life, she and Raphael emigrated to Israel in 1949 and were reunited with their family, including Mariana.  There, Alice worked as a teacher at the Jerusalem Academy of Music until she decided to emigrate to England in 1986.  In retirement she still played the piano for three hours every day, and remained an inspiration to everyone who knew her.  Remarkably, she was a hundred and ten when she died in February 2014.

Lady in No 6, The - scene

The key to Alice’s life, she always said, was optimism.  She unfailingly looked for the good in life, even during the terrible years when she and Raphael were incarcerated in Theresienstadt.  Like so many of her fellow concentration camp survivors – two of whom are featured in the movie – Alice’s positive attitude helped her to withstand the horror that surrounded her.  She saw “the beauty in life” in almost everything, but particularly in music.  For Alice, “music was magic”.  It could raise her spirits and bring happiness in even the most terrible of situations or circumstances.  With her unwavering memory for classical pieces, Alice could always retreat into her own mind, a place where even the Nazis couldn’t follow her.  It’s inspiring to think that, despite where she was, she was perhaps freer than anyone could imagine.

This remarkable woman is the focus of an equally remarkable documentary short.  The Lady in No 6 is a compelling, fascinating account of one woman’s lifelong love affair with music.  Alice is seen at 109, still mobile, still playing the piano with wonderful dexterity, and still enjoying life with a vitality and energy that would put most thirty-somethings to shame.  She’s always smiling and laughing, and her eyes – only slightly dulled by old age – twinkle with a mixture of mirth and sincerity that is surprisingly wistful when she sits in repose.  Alice’s upbeat nature and lack of pessimism is a joy to behold, and when she talks about her love of music you can see that she’s transported by it.  As she’s said in the past, “I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion”.

Wisely focusing on her passion for music for the most part – with an extended but emotive sidestep into World War II – Clarke deftly avoids any hint of sentimentality (as does Alice) and paints an engaging, winning portrait of a woman whose devotion to music has the effect of making the viewer wish they had even a tenth of Alice’s ability and commitment to her art.  Testimony from one of her neighbours provides an idea of how much her morning recitals are enjoyed, and a reminiscence of her time at Theresienstadt reveals the same approval from some of the guards.  It’s a wonderful affirmation of Alice and her dedication to her muse, that her playing has been able to cross social and ideological divides with such incredible efficacy.

Away from Alice and her contagious love affair with classical music, the movie paints a sobering yet hope-infused account of her time at Theresienstadt, with one of her friends recounting a particularly chilling account of an encounter with Josef Mengele.  The focus shifts to take into account the resilience of those inmates who could see no other outcome but their own survival, and while Alice takes a back seat during these moments, it still serves to highlight the tenacity she must have had to endure (and to be so well-balanced in the aftermath of it all).

Visually as well, The Lady in No 6 is a treat, with Clarke’s assembly of various archival materials proving both eye-catching and memorable, his blending of the historical and the modern throwing each element into sharp relief.  The post-production work is highly impressive, and so is the editing by co-writer Carl Freed, both of such a high standard that the movie has a precise, almost painterly feel to it, and the scenes of Alice in her flat feel entirely welcoming, not as if the audience is eavesdropping on her, but that she’s gladly invited everyone in… and couldn’t be more pleased for the intrusion.

Rating: 9/10 – a delightful and inspiring look at the life of an absolutely exceptional woman, The Lady in No 6 fully deserves its Oscar win and is one of the best documentary short movies of recent years; it’s a shame then that we get to spend such a short amount of time in Alice’s wonderful company.

Opstandelsen (2010)

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Opstandelsen

aka Resurrection

D: Casper Haugegaard / 50m

Cast: Marie Frohmé Vanglund, Mads Althoff,  Jonas Bjørn-Andersen, Asta Stidsen, Roxanne Tirkov, Peter Althoff, Hans Maaløe

At the funeral of Simon (Peter Althoff), one member of his family is noticeably absent from the service: his brother Peter (Mads Althoff).  Peter’s other brother, Johannes (Bjørn-Andersen), and his sister, Esther (Vanglund), go to look for him.  They find him in the toilets, snorting cocaine.  He and Johannes argue, but Peter is dismissive when Johannes tells him the family is through supporting him with his drug problem.  Johannes and Esther return to the service; Peter continues to take cocaine.

With the drug affecting him substantially, Peter makes his way to the service.  When he does he finds scenes of carnage, with everyone under attack from the newly risen dead.  Scrabbling away he seeks refuge in another room and is joined by Johannes, Esther, and their younger sister, Maria (Stidsen).  Johannes finds a trap door and they all follow him down into the room below; in the process, Peter blacks out.

When he comes to, he finds they are trapped in a small room beneath the church, and with no safe way out.  Maria has been injured and with no way for her to stem the bleeding, Esther cradles her as she dies.  While the two brothers argue about what to do, Maria comes back to life and attacks Esther.  Peter and Johannes restrain her but have little option in the end but to kill her.  The shock of it all has a terrible effect on Esther and she retreats into her own mind.

Peter takes control of the situation and they leave the room, finding themselves in a maze of underground corridors and rooms.  Coming under attack from the undead at almost every turn, they fight their way to ground level but become separated, leading each of them into confrontations that will decide their eventual fate.

Opstandelsen - scene

A very, very low budget exercise in zombie terror, Opstandelsen is a compact feature that works better as a calling card to the industry than as a fully realised project.  The decision to shoot this as a short film was a wise one, and shows just how padded out by endless running around in tunnels/corridors/woods other horror movies have become.  It also helps the movie hit an above average number of dramatic high points, with the beleaguered trio facing (and fending off) attack after attack in their efforts to escape from the church.

The low budget necessitates some inventive responses to the challenge of presenting a church-bound zombie apocalypse, and while some work very well indeed – Maaløe’s fire and brimstone preaching from the pulpit (and practically blaming everyone there for what’s about to happen), an attack on Johannes through a door, Esther’s confrontation with her mother (Tirkov) – there are others that don’t, most notably the use of camera lights as the only form of illumination during a chase sequence below ground.  The editing is determinedly choppy during several of the attacks and it’s difficult to work out just what is going on (it gives the impression that some of the zombie make up and effects weren’t that great during those scenes).  It’s a shame, as these scenes would otherwise be quite effective at adding further energy to a movie that wastes little time in putting its main characters at risk and showing in gory detail what can happen to them.

There are things to be said for briefly introducing characters before letting the action take hold, but here it does lead to some problems, the main one being the way that Peter shakes off the effects of some very excessive coke-snorting to become as focused as he does (either he’s very used to it or the cocaine wasn’t as pure as it looks).  And the way in which Johannes earnestly prays to God for protection – giving the impression he may fold under the pressure – isn’t followed up or allowed to get in the way of his subsequent heroics.  Otherwise, the narrative follows a fairly standard formula, whittling down its cast until there’s only one survivor, and leaving things open-ended as to where the story might go next.

With a strong, heavily stylised visual aesthetic in play, Opstandelsen is often potent stuff, with its gruesome splatter effects used sparingly and with unflinching attention to detail, leaving the unprepared viewer to deal with some purposely raw and violent imagery; fans, however, will lap it up.  Haugegaard drives the action forward, making the movie a kinetic treat, allowing only the briefest of pauses once the trio leave the room below the trap door.  Some of the more violent, dramatic scenes are abetted by having Lasse Elkjær’s pounding score jacked-up in volume, and the soundtrack is beefed up as well, making all the lip-smacking zombie sounds that much more appalling to hear.  As an attempt to further highlight the awfulness of what’s happening, it’s unnecessary, but it does fit in with the movie’s unsubtle, in-your-face approach to the material.

Rating: 6/10 – very rough around the edges, and with performances that are perfunctory if not memorable, Opstandelsen is a short that bodes well for Haugegaard’s future projects; seriously grim and grisly throughout, fans of zombie movies will find much to enjoy even if the storyline offers very little that’s new.

Apron Strings (2008)

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Apron Strings

D: Vaele Sima Urale / 90m

Cast: Laila Rouass, Scott Wills, Jennifer Ludlam, Nathan Whitaker, Leela Patel, Jodie Rimmer, Kate Harcourt, Peter Elliott, Gary Young

Michael (Whitaker) is a young Indian student whose mother, Anita (Rouass) is estranged from her sister, Tara (Patel).  On the pretext of doing a college project, he visits his aunt at the restaurant she runs, while keeping his visit a secret from Anita.  He and Tara hit it off and he visits more often until she offers him a job there.  Anita, meanwhile, is at odds with the producers of the TV cookery programme she hosts: about the content, about the recipes, and about the costumes she’s asked to wear.

One of Tara’s regular customers is Barry (Wills).  He’s a middle-aged man still living at home with his mother, Lorna (Ludlam) and his Nan (Harcourt).  Barry is drifting through life looking for one get-rich-quick scheme to pay off after another, and he sponges off his mother – who runs a cake shop – with unvarying results: the money is always wasted.  Lorna’s attempts at tough love are undermined by her soft-hearted nature, even when Barry gets into debt through his attempts to get local baker Minh (Young) to buy out his mother’s business.

As Michael gets to know his aunt, and the family history, he begins to pull away from his mother.  This only adds to the anger she feels over her cookery programme, and their relationship suffers even further.  Michael spends more time at Tara’s restaurant until, suspicious of what her son has been doing, Anita follows him there.  Meanwhile, Lorna also has to deal with the return of her daughter, Virginia (Rimmer), several months pregnant and refusing to take on her mother’s ideas of conformity.  With passions running high in both families, each member has to look at themselves before they can make peace with each other.  But can they?

MCDAPST EC005

A subtly ambitious tale that takes in themes of racism, community, homophobia – Michael is gay – injured pride, personal responsibility and motherhood, Apron Strings is a small-scale drama that tells its various stories with simple precision throughout.  Both main stories involve mothers who have become distant from their sons, and who no longer understand them.  The blame for this seems squarely laid at the doors of Anita and Lorna, but it’s offset by their unswerving love for their children, as both women strive to ensure their children are happy.  The movie shows how difficult it can be to be both supportive and unsupportive depending on the situation, and how walking such a tightrope can backfire on the mother.

The movie also shows us how striking out on their own can undermine the best intentions of the two sons.  Michael aims to reunite Anita and Tara but he’s unprepared for the emotions that learning about his aunt and his mother’s fractured relationship are awakened in him.  He finds it difficult to reconcile the image he has of his mother with that of the proud young woman who made a difficult choice in her youth and has fought hard not to let that decision define her.  With Michael so sure of his racial identity, and having such a strong sense of family, that his mother has turned her back on all that, proves too much of a shock.  And yet, by being gay, he runs the risk of his own community rejecting him, making his own need to make a decision about his future all the more important.

Alternately, Barry is a lazy conniver, a wastrel who thinks being rich will solve all his problems, and the problems he perceives his mother has.  He’s the classic underachiever who thinks he’ll make his mother proud by hitting the jackpot, but he fails to recognise that she loves him all the same, and would do even if he was working at a mundane nine-to-five job, and as long as he was content.  But Barry is restless, with no chance of getting a job, or beginning a relationship, and with no pride in his appearance.  He struggles with himself and rebels against his mother’s hopes for him, failing time after time and never learning from the experience.

As the two mothers trying hard to connect with their sons, Rouass and Ludlam both turn in polished performances that make the audience waver in their sympathies for them, as each woman is allowed to appear strong and determined and yet flawed at the same time.  Rouass is at her best when railing against the constraints Anita believes her cultural background have placed on her, and she simmers with an anger that clearly has deep-seated roots.  It’s an impressive performance, a precise, detailed characterisation that is at once charming and distressing in its emotional candour.  Ludlam is equally good, Lorna’s tired efforts to rein in her best intentions and play the hard line blunted continually by what she sees as the need to be a caring, though accommodating mother.  She too is suffused with anger, but it’s an anger that has been compromised over time and it no longer carries the emotional weight that would enable Lorna to overcome the inadequacies she feels in dealing with her son (and her daughter).

Apron Strings - scene2

With two such strong, committed performances, it’s reassuring that under the equally strong and committed direction of Urale – making her feature film debut – the other performances aren’t overwhelmed in the process.  Wills plays Barry as a sad, desperate individual with few redeeming qualities but who is strangely sympathetic as well, a neat trick given the levels of perfidy that Barry will stoop to.  Patel provides the cultural and racial grounding that informs the audience, and paints a moving portrait of a woman whose sense of family obligation has paved the way for her own happiness and sense of purpose in life.  And Michael’s sense of confusion and anger over what he perceives is his mother’s betrayal of her heritage is neatly handled by Whitaker, as well as his conflicted emotions.

Each of these performances wouldn’t be quite so good if it wasn’t for the carefully constructed and multi-layered screenplay by Shuchi Kothari.  Her only feature length screenplay to date, it contains – and maintains – a level of detail that makes it easy for Urale to deliver an affecting, quietly moving piece that looks at the generational divide evident in today’s society, and which does its best to show that bridges can be built when the willingness is there on both sides.

Rating: 8/10 – a moving portrait of two families struggling to deal with the emotional fallout from unfulfilled dreams and desires, Apron Strings is a finely tuned drama that deserves a wider audience; and the scenes of Indian food being prepared are as mouth-watering as you’d expect.

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