Project Almanac (2014)

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Project Almanac

D: Dean Israelite / 106m

Cast: Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Virginia Gardner, Amy Landecker, Gary Weeks

Budding inventor David Raskin (Weston) has been accepted into MIT but is unable to afford his tuition. When his mother (Landecker) finds out she plans to sell their home. In an attempt to avoid this happening, David decides to see if he can find anything amongst the various inventions left behind by his father (Weeks) before he died on David’s seventh birthday in a car crash. Instead he finds an old camcorder that contains footage of his seventh birthday party. Watching it back he’s shocked to discover himself as he is now in the background of one of the shots. He shows this to his sister, Christina (Gardner) and his two friends, Adam (Evangelista) and Quinn (Lerner). With their help David finds the blueprints for a “temporal relocation device” that his father was apparently building.

They then find the prototype he was working on and using some additional resources, such as the battery from the car of the girl David has a crush on, Jessie (Black-D’Elia), they manage to get the machine to work. But Jessie discovers what they’re doing and she becomes part of the group. All five travel back in time to the previous day and decide to play a trick on Quinn, but it nearly backfires on them. Making a pact to always use it together, they use the time machine for personal gain, Adam winning the lottery, Christina getting her own back on a school bully, and Quinn passing an important test. They also decide to travel back three months to a Lollapalooza festival where David has a chance to declare his feelings for Jessie. However, he hesitates too much and the moment passes. When it becomes clear that Jessie is upset by this and growing distant from him, David travels back alone to the festival to fix things.

But even though he and Jessie are a couple when he comes back, the change has caused a ripple effect that has culminated in a plane crash that killed everyone aboard. David goes back again to fix things but this time it causes a different set of problems. Jessie begins to suspect that David has manipulated their being together, but when they both travel back to correct things, Jessie meets her past self and is erased from that particular timeline. Worldwide catastrophes occur as a result, which prompt David to travel back to his seventh birthday and warn his father of the consequences of building his machine…

Project Almanac - scene

As with No Good Deed (2014), Project Almanac is a movie whose release has been delayed for reasons unknown, but anyone watching the movie – also known and advertised as Welcome to Yesterday before ending up with its current title – will have a fair idea of why when the quintet win big on the lottery (but not as big as expected), and Adam says, “I’m not winning the lottery a second time!” Casting aside its biggest mystery – just what was David doing at his seventh birthday party? – the movie opts for several bouts of wish fulfilment first before sending in the expected trials and tribulations of changing the past (has anyone noticed that the ripple effects in these movies are always for the worst, and never the best? Isn’t that equally as likely to happen?).

The script, by Jason Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, never really has a clear goal for its characters and never really gets its head around the conundrums of time travel, preferring instead to pull the rug out from under David et al with often ill-considered consequences attached. As attempts to heighten the drama they’re less than successful: one minute David’s mother has a job, the next she hasn’t; one minute Adam’s fine, the next he’s been run over; one minute David’s in one timeline, the next he’s not – and he has no idea what’s been happening in either. If it’s frustrating or maddening for the characters, imagine what it’s like for the poor viewer, having to sit through yet another time travel movie that doesn’t fully explore the possibilities inherent in its plotting and storyline. In the end it takes an unconvincing way out and doubles back on itself in a way that you know the makers think is clever, but if you give it enough thought, you’ll soon realise it’s a cheat.

With the plot and story chock full of holes, and constantly undermining itself, Project Almanac also plays havoc with its characters and their continuity. David is meant to be intelligent and inventive with a streak of geek in him that makes his relationship with Jessie that much more awkward to navigate. But the script throws out any intelligence he has when he goes back to Lollapalooza to change his and Jessie’s life together. Would someone so smart really want to manipulate his “true” love in such a way? And why is he suddenly so insensitive and shallow? And why can’t he see that with each trip he makes he runs the risk of losing everything? (Because the script needs him to, is the answer to all these questions.) And as this central romance takes prominence, the rest of the group become less interesting and less involved, and are reduced to making dire predictions about David’s tampering with time travel.

To make matters worse, the found footage style of filming used here often makes no sense, particularly in the scene where David travels back to Lollapalooza – just who is filming him and Jessie if this is now a separate timeline and he’s making his move? It’s moments like these that further undermine the credibility of events and make the movie such a disheartening viewing experience. Making his feature debut, Israelite pulls off some clever visuals, but shows his lack of experience throughout, leaving his cast adrift for most of the movie and along with the screenwriters, making the science seem too absurd for its own good (it’s handy that David’s high school has a good supply of hydrogen tanks – hydrogen tanks, really?). One plus is the lack of a musical score – as it should be – but it’s a sad state of affairs when the absence of something is a movie’s best feature.

Rating: 3/10 – with too many stupid decisions made by an apparently intelligent character – he got into MIT, remember? – Project Almanac is another in the long line of low budget time travel movies that fails to capitalise adequately on its basic premise; continually underwhelming, it remains risible throughout and entirely forgettable.

Summer of Sam (1999)

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Summer of Sam

D: Spike Lee / 142m

Cast: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Rispoli, Saverio Guerra, Brian Tarantina, Al Palagonia, Ken Garito, Bebe Neuwirth, Patti LuPone, Mike Starr, Anthony LaPaglia, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ben Gazzara, John Savage, Michael Badalucco, Spike Lee, Jimmy Breslin

New York City, 1977. The serial killer known as Son of Sam (Badalucco) is terrorising the city, randomly shooting people. He sends taunting messages to the police who are no nearer to catching him after seven murders than they were after the first. Against this backdrop, a group of friends try to make sense of what’s happening as well as trying to deal with their own problems. Vinny (Leguizamo) is a hairdresser working in the Bronx. He’s married to Dionna (Sorvino) but cheats on her every chance he gets. His best friend, Ritchie (Brody) has adopted a punk lifestyle, complete with spiked hair and punk clothing. It bothers Vinny and the rest of their friends, but proves attractive to Ruby (Esposito), who’s treated poorly by everyone else because she’s perceived as “easy”.

With the police struggling to make any headway in the Son of Sam case, the lead detective, Petrocelli (LaPaglia) approaches local crime boss, Luigi (Gazzara) for help in catching him. His men begin compiling a list of suspects, an idea that spreads throughout the neighbourhood and which is taken up by Vinny’s friends, led by Joey T (Rispoli). Suspicious of Ritchie’s new lifestyle, they add him to their list. Meanwhile, Vinny and Dionna’s marriage is unravelling. Vinny is still seeing other women – including his boss, Gloria (Neuwirth) – and he’s flirting more and more with drugs. He and Dionna are invited to a gig that Ritchie’s band is playing at CBGB’s but Dionna refuses to go inside. Vinny suggests they go to Studio 54 instead but they’re not able to get in. A photographer (Savage) who’s coming out of Studio 54 takes a liking to Vinny and they go with him to Plato’s Retreat, a swingers club. There, Dionna and Vinny have sex with other people, but on the way home Vinny becomes resentful and accuses Dionna of being a “lesbian freak”. Outraged by his accusation (and his double standards) she reveals she knows about his affairs and leaves him stranded at the side of the road.

Ritchie’s relationship with Ruby, however, is going from strength to strength, even though he dances at a gay club and prostitutes himself with the clientele. When Brian (Garito), one of Vinny’s friends, discovers this and tells Joey, it serves to make Ritchie more suspicious in everyone’s eyes, and when an artist’s impression of Son of Sam is published in the newspapers it looks enough like Ritchie for Joey to believe he is the killer. With Dionna having ended things with Vinny, and his reliance on drugs taking over his life, he’s persuaded by Joey to lure Ritchie out into the street where he can be attacked by his “friends”. But what none of them realise is that the police have made a breakthrough in the case, and that a terrible injustice is about to be carried out.

Summer of Sam - scene

Filmed in and around the actual areas where David Berkowitz killed six people and wounded seven others between July 1976 and July 1977, Summer of Sam is a jarring, hedonistic movie that paints an hallucinatory portrait of the time, and which acts like a fever dream of desire and mistrust. It’s a scurrilous, profane movie, sometimes scabrous and full of bile, as its characters deal with their own personal hells, all potent counterpoints to the madness experienced by Berkowitz. It deals with themes of betrayal and promiscuity, xenophobia and suspicion, and is unforgiving in its attempts to shine an unforgiving light on the social mores of the time.

The time period is recreated with verve and attention to detail (though it does get quite a few of the punk-related details wrong), and Ellen Kuras’ cinematography captures the vibrancy of the era, as disco battled with punk, and misogynism and distrust maintained a firm stronghold in Italian neighbourhoods. The lighting often makes scenes, and especially interiors, look grimy and slightly soiled, a trenchant reflection of the characters and their rude approach to life and each other. Lee explores and exploits the late Seventies with gusto, ramping up the intensity of the emotions and the spirit of the times, and encouraging a handful of career-best performances from his cast. The movie benefits enormously from its depiction of the fear and terror people felt in the wake of Berkowitz’s murderous activities, and the closed-minded vigilantism that grew out of them.

The movie generates such a speed and a momentum that it propels the viewer toward its denouement with alacrity, and through the machinations of Vinny and his friends, with undisguised relish. All this leads to a movie that operates at such a pitch that there’s little room for subtlety or tenderness. However, Lee’s confident handling of the narrative more than compensates for any rough handling or delirious imagery. When the heatwave of the time results in a power outage which in turn leads to rioting and vandalism, it’s depicted with a torrid matter-of-fact quality that it fits in completely with Lee and co-scripters Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli’s aggressive, no holds barred approach to the various storylines.

Lee is incredibly well served by his cast, who enter into things with complete commitment. Leguizamo, one of the most prolific and versatile actors working today – he currently has five movies in various stages of post-production – puts in a career best performance, expertly displaying the narcissistic selfishness of a man who projects strength but who is battling his fear of commitment every day. It’s a riveting portrayal, and even when he’s not the focus of a scene the viewer’s eye is drawn to him, as if at any moment he’s going to demand their attention again. He’s matched by Sorvino, whose quiet, unassuming portrayal of Dionna in the movie’s early stages gives way to a gutsy, impassioned performance that matches Leguizamo’s for emotional ferocity. Like her co-star, it’s a career best outing, and it’s a shame that post-Summer of Sam she’s not appeared in any movies that have allowed her to shine as she does here.

Brody offers strong support though he’s given less and less to do as the movie progresses, while Esposito suffers the same fate. Badalucco is an imposing presence as Berkowitz, and sharp-eared viewers will recognise John Turturro’s voice as Harvey the Dog (who tells Berkowitz to “kill”). LaPaglia’s detective flits in and out of the narrative (and is nowhere to be seen when Berkowitz is arrested), Gazzara coasts as the local mob boss, and Savage is on screen for all of a minute. The soundtrack consists of a great mix of contemporary songs alongside Terence Blanchard’s driving score, and there’s terrific use of The Who’s Baba O’Riley two thirds of the way in to accompany a brilliant montage (another song by The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again, is used near the end for another very dramatic sequence, but it’s not as effective).

Rating: 9/10 – Summer of Sam won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is one of Lee’s most daring, uncompromising movies, and has a charge that few other movie makers could achieve or maintain over such a long running time; demanding and uncompromising, it’s a movie that doesn’t pull any punches and is all the better for it.

The Rewrite (2014)

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Rewrite, The

D: Marc Lawrence / 107m

Cast: Hugh Grant, Marisa Tomei, Bella Heathcote, J.K. Simmons, Chris Elliott, Allison Janney, Caroline Aaron, Steven Kaplan, Emily Morden, Annie Q, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Aja Naomi King, Damaris Lewis

Keith Michaels (Grant) is a Hollywood screenwriter who had a big hit with his first script, Paradise Misplaced. But since then his caché has faded to the point where he can’t even get a job doing rewrites on other scripts. When his agent, Ellen (Aaron), tells him about a job teaching screenwriting at Binghamton University, he refuses to take it, but his lack of money persuades him to take it. He arrives in Binghamton and while at a fast-food restaurant, meets some of the university’s students, including Karen (Heathcote) who has signed up for his class.

The next day he wakes up in his new residence with Karen asleep beside him. He heads off to work and meets the university’s head, Dr Lerner (Simmons). He shows Michaels his office and leaves him with seventy script submissions made by students who want to attend his class; all he has to do is read through them and pick ten students whose work he feels is good enough. Instead, Michaels selects his students – eight of them at least – by checking their files and picking the ones he finds the most attractive (including Karen). On his way to a faculty meeting later that day he runs into mature student Holly Carpenter (Tomei) who gives him her own script and asks that he consider her for the class. Then, at the meeting, he falls foul of tenured professor Mary Weldon (Janney) when he rubbishes the idea of female empowerment and the novels of Jane Austen, Weldon’s specialist subject.

When he ends his first, very short, lesson with the proviso that his students meet back in a month after they’ve completed their scripts, Michaels finds that Weldon is also head of the ethics board and is looking to get rid of him, and if she finds out about his relationship with Karen, it’ll be all the ammunition she needs. He resumes lessons, and begins to take a closer interest in everyone’s scripts; at the same time he tries to end things with Karen. His relationship with Holly develops as she takes an equal interest in him, particularly in his son Alex, whom he hasn’t spoken to in a year. But when Weldon learns of his fling with Karen, he finds he has only two choices: either leave quietly, or face an enquiry which will eventually be made public. With one of his students, Clem (Kaplan) producing a script that Michaels can use as a way of boosting his career, he has to make a decision that proves to be harder than he expected.

Rewrite, The - scene

The fourth collaboration between Grant and director Lawrence – following Two Weeks Notice (2002), Music and Lyrics (2007), and Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009) – The Rewrite is an amiable comedy sprinkled with astute literary and cinematic references, and features a romantic subplot that is practically traditional in this type of movie. It’s a fun, good-natured movie that coasts along for most of its runtime, but often redeems itself with a witty one-liner or a heartfelt scene that gives its talented cast a chance to make the material shine that much brighter than expected.

Much of the fun to be had comes from Grant, who downplays his usual tics and grimaces (though they’re still there) and provides a performance that’s a breezy mix of egocentric and rueful, charming and nonchalant. His more mature look is a pleasing addition to the mix and suits his character’s down-on-his-luck situation; Grant’s face makes Michaels’ moments of regret that much more effective. In the scene with Tomei where he talks about his son Alex, Grant reveals a vulnerability and a sadness we don’t see very often in his performances, and it serves as a reminder that, when required, Grant as an actor is capable of far more than just being a bumbling fish out of water.

Grant is ably supported by the likes of Tomei, Simmons and Janney, seasoned pro’s who can do this sort of thing in their sleep, and if their characters seem painfully underwritten at times it shouldn’t be surprising as this is Grant’s movie pure and simple, a star vehicle created for him and which he navigates with ease. It’s a good job too, as Lawrence’s script spends a lot of time ensuring that Michaels doesn’t encounter any real problems on his way to personal redemption. With the movie robbed of any real drama as a result, it’s left to Grant et al to inject a degree of seriousness at appropriate moments, and offset the more woolly aspects of the material.

However, Lawrence’s central conceit, that teaching can be as rewarding as doing, is ably demonstrated and the scenes where Michaels critiques his students’ work are among the most rewarding in the movie, and The Rewrite improves whenever these scenes occur. Again, it’s a good job, as without them (or the cast’s enthusiasm) the movie would be too familiar and unsurprising to be persuasive, and the goodwill Grant’s presence provides would be wasted. It is funny, though, but like so many comedies that don’t take the “edgy” approach of movies such as Sex Tape (2014), and instead rely on tried and trusted set ups and tropes, it struggles to provide its audience with anything new or original.

Still, it’s innocuous and pleasant enough to make it a not entirely disappointing prospect, and Lawrence’s direction – while a little wayward – does enough to ensure the viewer’s attention is held from start to finish. With efficient if unspectacular cinematography from Jonathan Brown that unfortunately adds a layer of blandness to some of the visuals, and a occasionally distracting soundtrack that mixes original songs with a score from irregular composer Clyde Lawrence, the movie’s aim doesn’t appear to be particularly high. But, perversely, it succeeds against a veritable truckload of odds by being oddly endearing and defiantly sweet.

Rating: 6/10 – sporadically effective and bolstered by Grant’s easy-going performance, The Rewrite is a middling comedy that comes alive in fits and starts; a tighter script – ironically – would have improved things, but even so, it hits the spot when required.

All the Wilderness (2014)

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All the Wilderness

D: Michael Johnson / 76m

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Virginia Madsen, Isabelle Fuhrman, Evan Ross, Danny DeVito

Following the death of his father, James Charm (Smit-McPhee) has become emotionally isolated and withdrawn. While his mother, Abigail (Madsen) relies increasingly on extra glasses of wine to cope with her loss, James takes to roaming the nearby woods and sketching the dead animals and insects that he finds there. He attends therapy sessions with Dr Pembry (DeVito) but is largely uncommunicative when it comes to talking about his father. Before a session, James meets Val (Fuhrman); there’s an immediate connection, one that’s cemented when she catches him sneaking out during the session. As he heads home he sees a young man (Ross) playing an abandoned piano in an alleyway.

Later on he bumps into the young man while on a bus. The young man’s name is Harmon, and along with a friend, he invites James to tag along with him for the night. At a food area, James finds Val selling doughnuts out of a van. They have an awkward exchange but Val is pleased to see him. Harmon then takes James to a party, afterwards they head back to Harmon’s place where James smokes his first weed and, unwittingly, begins to open up about his problems. The next night he goes back to the food area and sees Val again. She writes an address on his palm and tells him to meet her there the next day.

Feeling unsure about their burgeoning relationship, James meets Val and they head out of the city to a lake where they spend time getting to know each other. Back in the city they meet up with Harmon at another party. But James witnesses Val and Harmon kissing and he leaves. At his next therapy session, Dr Pembry challenges James as to why he sees him. When he tells James he thinks it’s because he feels guilty for not being able to support his mother, and that he should just get on with life, James begins to see things differently. He confronts Harmon and patches things up with Val before heading home to speak to his mother and revealing something about his father’s death that nobody else knows.

All the Wilderness - scene

A lyrical coming of age tale from first-time writer/director Johnson, All the Wilderness is a slow, mood- rather than plot-driven movie that has a strong visual flair and does its best to be different in a genre with (perhaps) too many antecedents. Taking the basic idea of a teenager torn between clinging to his father’s memory (albeit in an unusual way) and finding a way out of his grief, the movie covers mostly typical territory, but thanks to a good central performance by Smit-McPhee, never seems forced or too over familiar.

James is initially an intriguing character, though his obsession with recording – and predicting – death does seem a little heavy-handed, especially when you add his fondness for Chopin into the mix, as well as his choice of reading material, Moby Dick. But Johnson’s script is smart enough to introduce these embellishments and then not play on them too much except to provide some occasional flashes of humour later on. As we get to know him, James’ uncertainty and social awkwardness gives way, and we see someone taking their first tentative steps in growing up. Again, the script does a good job in balancing the difficulties of dealing with grief and the need to leave it behind, and as James begins to do so, Smit-McPhee’s physicality and demeanour become more confident, and his emotions fall into place, allowing him to realise that the wilderness his father spoke of – a slightly clumsy metaphor for life and death – is not something he has to be a part of.

While James isn’t particularly self-destructive, his relationship with his mother is tested by his going AWOL to see Harmon and Val, and though the ensuing confrontations between them feel perfunctory, and Madsen is required to step back almost throughout, it’s the actors approach to them that stops them from being entirely redundant. It’s the same with James and Val’s trip to the lake: they exchange personal information, mess around in the water, and establish a bond that, despite what happens between Val and Harmon, won’t be broken. It’s thanks to Smit-McPhee and Fuhrman that this fairly brief sequence works so well, and makes their later talk in the wake of that kiss all the more credible.

Johnson does make some mistakes though. Pembry’s “resolution/advice” comes at the end of approximately six months of sessions, and appears to be so simple (and obvious) that you have to wonder why it’s taken him so long to say it. And James’s reaction to it is also too expedient to be taken entirely seriously; all of a sudden he’s focused and determined and knows exactly what he needs to do. James also imagines hooded assailants chasing him through the streets, and while this idea adds some much needed energy to the movie, their appearance is never properly explained (and in one case seems designed only to get James on the bus where he properly meets Harmon).

Where the movie scores highly is in its look and feel, with DoP Adam Newport-Berra giving the viewer the sense of how James sees the world around him, with all its sights and sounds either slightly distorted or given heightened emphasis. There’s also a good use of space and lighting that makes some of the images seem more original in their framing and composition than you’d expect. And there’s a great mix of classical and indie music on the soundtrack too.

Rating: 7/10 – a solid debut by Johnson, All the Wilderness deals with themes of loss, fear and personal responsibility and, by and large, makes them seem fresh; but with too much that’s familiar, not every attempt to subvert the formula works, leading to a movie that works for the most part but not entirely.

Trailer – Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015)

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It’s an amazing story: two eleven year old kids, neither of whom really know what they’re doing, remake Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot – all bar one scene. This documentary shows how they made their movie and brings them back together to shoot that one remaining scene. It has all the hallmarks of a movie that will amuse and amaze in equal measure, and hopefully, will be as entertaining – in its own way – as the movie it’s based around.

Nightcrawler (2014)

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Nightcrawler

D: Dan Gilroy / 117m

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm, Kent Shocknek, Leah Fredkin

Louis “Lou” Bloom (Gyllenhaal) unemployed; to make ends meet he steals things and then sells them. When he sees a freelance film crew working at the scene of a car crash, he asks their boss, Joe Loder (Paxton) how they make a living from what they do. Loder tells him about selling the footage to the TV stations; this inspires Bloom to steal a racing bicycle and trade it for a radio scanner and a camcorder. Later that same night, Bloom gets in close at the scene of a carjacking and films the victim dying. This gets both Bloom and Loder moved on and they become rivals as a result. Bloom takes his footage to a local TV station where he meets morning news director Nina Romina (Russo) who not only buys the footage but encourages him as well.

Bloom hires an assistant, Rick Carey (Ahmed), and together they start visiting as many crime scenes as they can but even though Bloom has no compunction about manipulating the scenes to provide himself with better footage, Loder still beats him to several important stories. However, his work begins to be shown more and more, and he’s able to get better equipment. Knowing she can’t do without his footage, Bloom also blackmails Nina into having sex with him. When Loder beats him to a major plane crash story, it leads to Bloom sabotaging Loder’s van. When Loder crashes his van and is severely injured, it’s Bloom who gets the footage of his rival being loaded into an ambulance.

Later that night, Bloom and Carey arrive at the site of a home invasion. Leaving Carey outside to sound an alert when the police get there, Bloom sees the gunmen leaving and films them. Going inside the house he finds three dead bodies, all of whom he films. He gives Romina a copy that doesn’t include the gunmen, and the footage is shown, even though some of Nina’s colleagues feel it’s unethical. The police become involved and ask for Bloom’s footage but he gives them another edited version. Then, using the footage he’s held back, Bloom tracks down the gunmen and he and Carey follow them to a nearby restaurant. They tip off the police, but when they arrive, things don’t go quite as Bloom planned.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an unscrupulous news cameraman in the thriller Nightcrawler

A mesmerising, audacious drama set against the backdrop of a Los Angeles that’s never looked so foreboding at night as it does here, Nightcrawler features a powerhouse performance from Gyllenhaal, and makes for a riveting viewing experience. It all hinges on writer/director Gilroy’s script, a fervid foray into the dark underbelly of daily news gathering that exposes the often desperate need for more and more “potent” material, and the betrayal of ethical concerns in the search for ratings. It’s a bravura piece, challenging and appalling in equal measure, and in the character of Louis Bloom, shows how little appreciation can be given to the feelings of others in the pursuit of fame (and presumably fortune).

Bloom is a grim-faced, skeletal-looking, fixed-eyed monster, oozing an unstable charm, flattering just enough to get his foot in the door, dismissive when someone can’t or won’t help him. He’s the upbeat loner whose interaction with others is continually designed to improve his lot in life, to make things better for him before anyone else. As charismatic as he seems, there’s a mania lurking close beneath the surface that serves as a warning to everyone around him. But Bloom is adept at reading others; he knows when and how to press their buttons, to manipulate them, or if necessary, threaten them into doing what he wants. And if threats don’t work, well, he’s not averse to making sure he still gets what he wants, anyway he can. He’s a ruthless, predatory menace.

As the amoral stringer, Gyllenhaal gives a super-charged performance that is easily his best yet, his gaunt physical appearance a perfect fit for the rapacious Bloom. Gyllenhaal makes him uncomfortable to watch, a creepy, unsettling presence wherever he goes, those big eyes of his hinting at madness and danger. Even when he’s silent he gives off a dispiriting air, as if even what he’s thinking (and no matter how banal) is somehow as poisonous to others as anything he could actually say. Gilroy has created one of the most defiantly unprincipled characters in movie history, and Gyllenhaal has seized his chance with undisguised relish. (It’s still a mystery that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for the role.) Working on what seems like nervous energy, Gyllenhaal paints a convincing portrait of a man willing to do anything in order to succeed, and whose sociopathy is frightening. In the aftermath of the police’s arrival at the restaurant, the true nature and extent of his emotional detachment is revealed – and Gyllenhaal makes it truly disturbing.

It’s one of many scenes that Gilroy artfully constructs that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat and which is anchored by Gyllenhaal’s impressive performance. As Bloom’s career blossoms, his amoral nature finds its mirror in Nina’s equally amoral disregard for conventional programming rules. In some ways she’s worse than Bloom, her lust for the material he provides as uncomfortable to watch as the ways in which he’ll procure it. When she sleeps with him the idea that she’s being blackmailed lacks currency; if anyone is being exploited it’s Bloom. Russo is superb in the role, giving ample expression to Nina’s vicious impropriety and matching Gyllenhaal for intensity. It’s been a long time since The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and while she’s made a couple of interesting movies in the meantime, she’s not had a role that is as challenging as this one, and it’s great to see her inhabit the part with such fierce intelligence.

In presenting such a couple of despicable characters (made for each other but otherwise doomed to be alone), Gilroy has taken a considerable risk in making a movie without a sympathetic main character. But such is the awfulness of Bloom (and Nina’s) behaviour, and so complicit do we become as an audience, that we can’t take our eyes off them. In the same way that Bloom produces highly upsetting footage and Nina watches it with barely disguised impatience, Gilroy engineers things so that we too are drawn inexorably into a world we would otherwise avoid. Just how far will Bloom go? Will he film anything that Nina won’t be put off by? How much further can they take all this? All questions that the audience feels compelled to discover the answers to.

Nightcrawler - scene2

As well as his talented cast – Ahmed and Paxton provide sterling support as Bloom’s naïve employee and experienced rival respectively – Gilroy has surrounded himself with a pretty talented crew. Bringing his script to life, the movie is beautifully shot by DoP Robert Elswit, the night-time scenes having a luminosity to them that makes L.A. a character in itself. In the editor’s chair is Gilroy’s fraternal twin brother, John Gilroy, who has assembled the material with such care and attention to the movie’s emotional moods that each scene has a resonance that exists both alone and in conjunction with other scenes (and to add to the charges of nepotism he’s also Russo’s brother-in-law). And there’s a marvellously evocative score by James Newton Howard that subtly underpins the action without overwhelming it.

Rating: 9/10 – with a riveting, powerful performance from Gyllenhaal at its centre, Nightcrawler is a nightmarish journey into the heart of one man’s personal darkness; formidable and emotionally rigorous, it’s also a movie that rewards with each successive viewing, and stays in the mind long after it’s ended.

Unbroken (2014)

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Unbroken

D: Angelina Jolie / 137m

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Luke Treadaway, C.J. Valleroy

As a young child, Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Valleroy) is always getting into trouble, whether it’s through stealing or drinking. He’s also bullied at school because of his Italian roots. One day he’s caught looking up women’s dresses from beneath the bleachers at a track meet. He makes a run for it which is witnessed by his older brother, Pete. Realising how fast Louie can run, Pete decides to train him to be a runner. Louie earns a name for himself and as a young man (O’Connell) is chosen to represent the US at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He does well and sets a record for running the final lap of the 5000 metre race.

In 1943, Louie is a bombardier in the United States Army Air Force, stationed in the Pacific. On a search and rescue mission, his plane crashes into the ocean, leaving himself and two of his crew, Phil (Gleeson) and Mac (Wittrock), adrift in two inflatable rafts. Fighting off starvation and the attention of marauding sharks, they survive as a trio until the thirty-third day when Mac dies. On the forty-seventh day Louie and Phil are rescued by a Japanese military ship. Now prisoners of war they’re initially interrogated for information about the Allies and then transferred to separate P.O.W. camps. Louie ends up at a camp in Tokyo that is overseen by Corporal Mutsuhito “Bird” Watanabe (Miyavi). Watanabe makes a point of mistreating Louie, partly because of his fame as an Olympian, and partly out of jealousy.

Louis is given the opportunity to make a radio broadcast that will be heard in the US. He’s able to reassure his family that he’s alive, but when he’s asked to make a second broadcast that’s critical of the US, he refuses. Sent back to the camp, Watanabe makes all the other prisoners line up and punch Louie in the face as a punishment for not making the broadcast. Two years pass. Watanabe is promoted and leaves the camp, much to Louie’s relief. But when the camp is damaged in a bombing raid by US planes, the prisoners are moved to another camp where it transpires that Watanabe is in charge. Watanabe’s mistreatment of Louie continues, until one day when Louie’s resilience and inner strength lead to Watanabe being embarrassed in front of his men and the rest of the P.O.W.s.

Unbroken - scene

Adapted from the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut is a sincere yet curiously dull affair that never quite engages the viewer, despite its obviously worthy subject matter. Zamperini’s plight was horrendous and yet this is a surprisingly sanitised version of events, with only Watanabe’s bouts of cruelty giving the movie any edge (it’s a strange movie that makes the viewer want to see more abuse in order to make it more involving).

This is partly to do with the script – a combination of drafts and rewrites carried out by William Nicholson, Richard LaGravenese and Joel and Ethan Coen – and the directorial decisions made by Jolie. The script does a good job in reflecting Louie’s life as a child, and it’s these early scenes that have the greatest impact, with their nostalgic appreciation for an earlier, more innocent time. Jolie paints these scenes in a rosy hue and quickly establishes a mood for the movie that the audience can appreciate as being straightforward and unfussy. But once Louie is adrift on the ocean it’s where things begin to unravel, and the movie loses traction. The drama begins to leak out of the movie just as it should start to be truly engrossing, and nothing Jolie does from then on ever comes close to retrieving it.

Once Louie arrives at the P.O.W. camp and encounters Watanabe, Unbroken settles into a predictable series of abusive moments that give O’Connell repeated chances to adequately display Louie’s agony and suffering, and Miyavi the chance to impart a degree of homoerotic self-loathing. There’s a surprising lack of tension to these scenes, and Jolie’s direction of them seems to be carried out at a distance, as if her respect for the material is stopping her from taking any risks. As a result, the audience becomes more of a spectator than a participant and the movie becomes unrewarding.

The movie isn’t helped either by some annoying inconsistencies. After spending forty-seven days adrift at sea, Louie and Phil’s physical deterioration is persuasively shown in a scene where they’re made to strip naked (Gleeson looks really awful). And yet it’s all undone by their carefully groomed facial hair – or lack of it – and equal lack of sunburn. It all contributes to the idea that what Jolie is going for is war-lite, a diffusion of the horrors that really happened, and while this isn’t a bad idea per se – we don’t always need to see just how bad things actually were – here it’s as if she’s taken basic notions of heroism and courage and made them more about stoicism and acceptance.

Unfortunately as well, Jolie fails to raise her cast’s performances above the level of satisfactory, with only Miyavi making any impression, his bland mask of a face hiding a dangerous sadism that seems to pain him as much as it pleases him. In contrast, O’Connell’s rise to international stardom takes a stumble. It’s not his fault, he’s just not given much to work with other than “look worried, look despairing, and grimace in pain”. With these constraints in place, he looks stranded at times, as if he knows he should be giving more but has been instructed not to.

Despite all this, there are some good things about the movie, not the least of which is Alexandre Desplat’s emotive, intimate score, and Roger Deakins’ Oscar nominated cinematography. The former is one of the composer’s best works in recent years and lifts the movie out of the doldrums with ease, and unobtrusively as well. Deakins is a master of lighting and mood, and he has an instinctive way of placing the camera, which helps Jolie’s pedestrian approach tremendously. Together, these two elements give the movie a boost it would have missed out on altogether.

Rating: 5/10 – lacking passion and drive, Unbroken is a dull, ponderous affair that is a less than rewarding experience for the viewer; as a tribute to Louis Zamperini’s fortitude and spirit, it could certainly have been more dramatic, but as a (very) low-key examination of one man’s will to survive it fares slightly better.

Mini-Review: No Good Deed (2014)

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No Good Deed

D: Sam Miller / 84m

Cast: Idris Elba, Taraji P. Henson, Leslie Bibb, Kate del Castillo, Henry Simmons, Mirage Moonschein

Denied parole after serving five years for manslaughter, Colin Evans (Elba) makes his escape from a prison transport vehicle, killing a guard and the driver in the process.

In Atlanta, Terri Granger (Henson) is coping with the demands of a baby and young daughter Ryan (Moonschein). When her husband, Jeffrey (Simmons), comes home early from work and announces he has to leave right away to visit his father, Terri worries about the way he’s behaving (even though he reassures her that he loves her). Her friend, Meg (Bibb), suggests they have a girls night, to which she agrees. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Atlanta, Evans is stalking the woman who was his fiancée, Alexis (del Castillo), before he went to prison. He confronts her at her home with evidence that she’s seeing someone else; when she admits to it, Evans kills her.

With a violent storm raging, Evans crashes his car and seeks help at Terri’s house. He’s respectful and agreeable but when he calls for a tow truck and is told he could have a long wait due to the storm, Terri invites him in and gives him some dry clothes to change into. He mentions that his fiancée has been cheating on him; Terri is sympathetic (if a little unnerved by his telling her this so quickly). Meg arrives with wine and is clearly attracted to Terri’s guest. During a shared smoke break, Evans tries to get Meg to question Terri’s honesty, but when she doesn’t he kills her too. Evans tells Terri that Meg has left but Terri sees Meg’s umbrella is still there; she also discovers that the phone line has been cut. Realising that Evans is dangerous she attempts to leave with her children, but the escaped convict has other ideas.

No Good Deed - scene

A movie that all involved clearly took part in for the pay cheques, No Good Deed should be rechristened No Good Movie. Turgid and lacking in genuine excitement, the movie is a home invasion thriller that defies belief from the moment Evans is referred to as a “malignant narcissist” to one of the final scenes where multiple injuries leave Terri without a mark on her. It’s dull, it’s unimaginative, it’s repetitive, and a complete waste of its stars’ time and efforts. In fact, it’s so bad that a nadir of sorts is reached when Henson has to show fear and desperation to a police officer and succeeds only in looking as if she’s desperate for the toilet.

With Terri alternating between victim and victor (and sometimes in the same scene), and with Elba showing very little sign of the acting talent we know he has, the movie sputters its way through to one of those “Hollywood” showdowns where the attacks keep coming despite painful blows, stabbings, and the kind of injuries that would have ordinary people calling for an ambulance before the first flush of pain fully registered. It’s also a drab movie to watch, and is directed with an eye for awkward framing by Miller who probably got the job off the back of directing Elba in several episodes of the BBC series Luther. But here his lack of moviemaking experience shows and he fails to make much out of Aimee Lagos’s awful, awful script.

Rating: 3/10 – unsurprisingly pushed back for theatrical release on three occasions, No Good Deed squanders any good will by continually insulting the audience’s intelligence; poorly executed and lacking in energy, the movie seems content to undermine itself at every turn.

Blackhat (2015)

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Blackhat

D: Michael Mann / 133m

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Leehom Wang, Wei Tang, Viola Davis, Holt McCallany, Andy On, Ritchie Coster, Christian Borle, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen

When a nuclear plant in Chai Wan, Hong Kong is targeted by a hacker (van Wageningen) and the cooling pumps made to explode and cause a radiation leak, the Chinese authorities hand over the investigation to cyber warfare officer Chen Dawai (Wang). When the same hacker infiltrates Chicago’s Mercantile Trade Exchange, causing soy futures to rise, it becomes clear that he’s using a Remote Access Tool (RAT). Dawai insists that that he be allowed to work with the FBI on a joint investigation, and he travels to the US where he joins forces with Agent Carol Barrett (Davis). Once there he reveals that the original code for the RAT was written by himself and another hacker named Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth). Hathaway is currently in prison for committing computer crimes; Dawai wants him released to help with the investigation.

With Nick on board – though security tagged and accompanied by US Marshal Jessup (McCallany) – and with Dawai’s US based sister, Lien (Tang) helping as well, they discover that the soy futures hack was designed to siphon off nearly $75 million, but they don’t know why. When they discover the hacker has had a mole in the Trade Exchange, Nick and Lien find he’s been killed but was supposed to meet his boss at a restaurant. Nick finds a clue to the hacker’s identity, while the money is traced to a mercenary named Kassar (Coster). An attempt to apprehend him in Hong Kong fails and several of Dawai’s men are killed.

A break in the investigation comes with the retrieval of a data drive from the nuclear plant. Although it’s been corrupted by the radiation leak, Barrett tells Hathaway about a program the NSA uses called Black Widow which assesses corrupt data and is then able to reconstruct it by “filling in the blanks”. Her request to use it is denied however, which prompts Hathaway to use it anyway, hacking into the programme and using it to discover that the hacker’s server is based in Jakarta. At the same time, Lien discovers that the hacker has an interest in a remote site in Perak, Malaysia.

Hathaway’s use of Black Widow is detected, and Barrett is ordered to bring him back to the US. Dawai alerts him about this, and Hathaway and Lien (who have started a relationship) attempt to flee Hong Kong with her brother’s help. But Kassar ambushes them. Hathaway and Lien manage to get away and they travel to Perak to see what is so interesting about the site. It’s there that they discover the hacker’s true motives, and devise a way in which they can stop him.

Blackhat - scene2

It’s always a pleasure to watch a Michael Mann movie. You know going in that it’s going to look beautiful (especially if there are scenes shot at night – and there’s always scenes shot at night), there’ll be a level of machismo that few other directors can attain, some pulse-pounding action sequences, and a storyline that will have been researched for the utmost authenticity. And so it proves with Blackhat, Mann’s first movie since Public Enemies (2009), and a return to the world of modern day criminals for which he has such a proven affinity. However, while Blackhat‘s plot and storyline are drawn from recent events – in this case the Stuxnet computer worm that apparently ruined one fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges in 2010 – and it paints a convincing portrait of cyber crime and how systems can be breached, it badly falls down in its attempts to show just how cyber crime can be detected and defeated.

There are several problems with the overall plot that don’t add up, and it’s these problems that stop the movie from being as effective – or gripping – as Mann intended. The first is the coincidental nature of the relationship between Dawai and Hathaway and they’re having written the RAT code. It’s an unnecessary, and clumsy contrivance that asks the viewer to believe that they wrote this code as a test of their abilities and then they just left it on the Internet, apparently unaware of what it could be potentially used for. The second problem is the idea that a felon, serving time for computer crimes, would be allowed out of the country in order to help with the investigation. Hathaway is even allowed to take part in the attempt to capture Kassar in Hong Kong; how was that allowed to happen? All he needs is a desk and a computer – he doesn’t need to be globe-trotting with everyone else.

The third and most glaring problem is the way in which senior agents such as Barrett and Jessup allow Hathaway so much leeway in his efforts to catch the hacker. At the point where the Black Widow program is introduced, the speed and the ease with which Barrett goes along with Hathaway’s plan to hack into it is breathtaking for the way it undermines any authority she had up to that point. It would have been a better idea for Hathaway to have done it behind her back, thus making the need to bring him in once his hack is detected that much more dramatic, but Morgan Davis Foehl’s script instead takes the opportunity to throw all further attempts at credibility into the trash bin.

And like so many of his colleagues before him, Mann is unable to make looking at computer screens and tapping on keyboards anywhere near exciting. To offset this he focuses on the characters and their reactions to what’s happening on the computer screens, but this is even less exciting, and the viewer is subjected to endless reaction shots that are meant to convey various emotions but ultimately mean nothing as most reactions are ones of surprise or moments when a light bulb goes on over someone’s head.

Against all this, the cast do their best but Hemsworth is miscast, his performance only convincing when he’s required to physically go up against the bad guys. Wang and Tang both give earnest performances, but struggle with the script’s insistence on making their characters crime movie stereotypes: he the diligent cop battling professional prejudice, she the hero’s girlfriend (despite being independent and having a mind of her own the script still requires her to “stand by her man” when the going gets tough). Davis flits in and out of the narrative, while you could be forgiven for forgetting that McCallany was there at all, his character’s job to babysit Hathaway at all times conveniently ignored when the script requires it.

As with any Michael Mann movie, Blackhat does at least look impressive, DoP Stuart Dryburgh providing the kind of hyper-stylised, glossy feel to the night-time exteriors that we’ve come to expect from Mann’s movies. The scenes set in Hong Kong have a wonderfully organic, shiny aspect to them that makes the backgrounds and the locations the most effectively shot for a Mann movie since Collateral (2004), while the lighting throughout offers enough mood and intensity for a dozen other thrillers. But, ultimately, it’s not enough to rescue a movie that is let down by a poorly constructed script and its sympathy-free characters. (In fact, the movie has been so badly received that one of its distributors, Universal Pictures International, has decided not to release it theatrically in Australia at all.)

Rating: 4/10 – while Mann is a clever and experienced enough director to keep things moving, there are too many cracks to paper over no matter how quickly he does so; a major disappointment, Blackhat is a reminder that even the most talented of directors don’t always get it right (sadly).

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 8: Across the Deadline

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 17m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell, Dick Curtis

Climbing up to the overhead wire just as the hook holding up the trestle car straightens out completely, and sends the car plummeting to the canyon floor below, Mandrake rejoins Lothar and Webster as they fight off the Wasp’s men. The henchmen flee in their car, with Mandrake et al. in quick pursuit. The Wasp’s men hide out at a gas station, leaving the famous magician to return home; their leader informs Dirk of what has happened, and he tells them to pose as telephone repair men in order to plant a dictaphone in Mandrake’s home. When they get there, Betty and Tommy let in two of the Wasp’s men.

Mandrake returns home and immediately realises the two men are phony. He has a fight with them but they both escape. Meanwhile, the Wasp has Dirk and another of his men, Dorgan (Curtis) set up Professor Houston’s radium machine so that he can use it to destroy a dam. Still needing some more platinite to complete Houston’s new machine, Mandrake and Lothar return to the canyon where Webster has been mining some more of the precious metal. While Webster leaves to get a magnetic test kit, Dorgan takes a flag marker out to the dam and places it as a target for the Wasp to use with the radium machine. At the canyon, some of the Wasp’s men confront Mandrake and Lothar and a fight ensues. The Wasp destroys the dam, and the waters flood the canyon, causing massive destruction and into which both Mandrake and his loyal assistant fall to their deaths.

Mandrake 8

Three fist fights, a car chase, the Wasp getting out from behind his desk, Betty having even less to do than Tommy, Mandrake running in from another room (and at quite a distance) while the Wasp’s men shoot into one of his magic tricks (a cage he’s obviously disappeared into), Webster panhandling for platinite that’s already been mined – see Chapter 7: Gamble for Life – and the worst exploding dam effect seen in many a year, Chapter 8: Across the Deadline scrambles from one scene to the next with all the energy and vigour of a small child with ADD. This is another filler episode, adding nothing to the serial’s overall plot, and lacking in sense throughout.

And yet it still retains the serial’s rude charm, and provides the usual amount of unintentional laughs in amongst the seriously played theatrics. There’s little that can be said when the Wasp’s men are able to escape by holing up at a random gas station in the middle of nowhere, or by having Dirk and Dorgan test the radium machine on a lump of concrete, as by now the writers have abandoned what little plot development had been gained in the previous episode and decided to throw in the first idea that came to them – whether it works or not.

Rating: 4/10 – not the best of episodes and spurious in its plotting, Chapter 8: Across the Deadline becomes an episode to be endured on the way to the finale; at least it’s fast-paced, and the sight of Mandrake and Lothar congratulating themselves for having avoided a landslide is guaranteed to raise a chuckle.

The 87th Annual Academy Awards – The Oscars 2015

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Oscars 2014, The

Yes, folks, it’s that time of year again, when fashion designers get a free plug for some of their more expensive creations, when various stars generally fail to look happy for their fellow nominees when they win the coveted statuette, and when millions of us tune in to see a veritable orgy of fixed smiles, congratulatory backslapping, and a stream of actors and actresses who usually prove unable to read a teleprompter or tell poorly written jokes (and not forgetting the predictable round of halting acceptance speeches and several winners’ attempts to thank everybody and their auntie’s next door neighbour’s cat).

Hosted by first-timer Neil Patrick Harris, there was the traditional opening number celebrating the movies (and with help from Anna Kendrick and Jack Black), followed by a heartfelt speech about the power of the movies to inspire and move us. There was a fitfully amusing running gag involving Harris’s predictions locked away in a clear plastic box and being overseen by Octavia Spencer. A highlight was Harris’s “tribute” to Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as he came from backstage in his underwear.

Meryl Streep provided a moving introduction to the In Memoriam section, and there was a tribute to The Sound of Music (now fifty years old) that featured clips from the movie and a performance by Lady Gaga that was – gasp! – actually pretty good (and received a standing ovation). And who should come out afterwards but Julie Andrews herself.

Winners in bold.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Robert Duvall – The Judge; Ethan Hawke – Boyhood; Edward Norton – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher; J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

Whiplash (2014) -- Screengrab from exclusive EW.com clip.

Not much of a surprise but definitely well deserved, Simmons’ speech was mainly a tribute to his wife and children, and parents everywhere. Presented by Lupita Nyong’o.

Best Achievement in Costume Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Milena Canonero; Inherent Vice – Mark Bridges; Into the Woods – Colleen Atwood; Maleficent – Anna B. Sheppard; Mr. Turner – Jacqueline Durran

Completely expected and Canonero’s fourth win, she was gracious and thanked Wes Anderson profusely. Presented by Jennifer Lopez and Chris Pine.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

Foxcatcher – Bill Corso, Dennis Liddiard; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Frances Hannon, Mark Coulier; Guardians of the Galaxy – Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou, David White

The second win for The Grand Budapest Hotel and entirely deserved, members of the team and Wes Anderson were thanked with gratitude. Presented by Reese Witherspoon.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Ida; Leviathan; Tangerines; Timbuktu; Wild Tales

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Superb result and a great moment for its director, Pawel Pawlikowski, who made a witty speech and was clearly overwhelmed by it all (and was the first who overran his time… and got a big cheer for it). Presented by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman.

Best Short Film, Live Action

Aya; Boogaloo and Graham; Butter Lamp; Parvaneh; The Phone Call

This award was open to all and one of the winners called Oscar a “big bugger”, and a nod to Sally Hawkins for providing her services on the movie for free – and they went over their time. Presented by Kerry Washington and Jason Bateman.

Best Documentary, Short Subject

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1; Joanna; Our Curse; The Reaper; White Earth

Too close to call but the winner has poignancy to spare, and the winners thanked everyone involved, particularly their families. Presented by Kerry Washington and Jason Bateman.

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

American Sniper – Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Thomas Varga; Interstellar – Gary Rizzo, Gregg Landaker, Mark Weingarten; Unbroken – Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, David Lee; Whiplash – Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley

The second win of the evening for Whiplash in a category that could have been won by any of the nominees. Presented by Sienna Miller and Chris Evans.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

American Sniper – Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Aaron Glascock, Martín Hernández; The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Brent Burge, Jason Canovas; Interstellar – Richard King; Unbroken – Becky Sullivan, Andrew DeCristofaro

Without Whiplash as a nominee, this was almost a fait accompli, and the winners thanked everyone connected with the movie, as well as their families. Presented by Sienna Miller and Chris Evans.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Patricia Arquette – Boyhood; Laura Dern – Wild; Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game; Emma Stone – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Meryl Streep – Into the Woods

Patricia Arquette

One of the more predictable results of the evening, Arquette thanked a plethora of people and threw in a plea for equal rights for women in America – which got a huge round of applause. Presented by Jared Leto.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill, Daniel Sudick; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Erik Winquist; Guardians of the Galaxy – Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner, Paul Corbould; Interstellar – Paul J. Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, Scott R. Fisher; X-Men: Days of Future Past – Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie, Cameron Waldbauer

Not really a surprise (though it should have gone to Dawn…), the winners thanked everyone in general and gave a special mention to Kip Thorne. Presented by Ansel Elgort and Chloë Grace Moretz.

Best Short Film, Animated

The Bigger Picture; The Dam Keeper; Feast; Me and My Moulton; A Single Life

Well deserved – it really is a great movie – and the winners were appropriately humble. Presented by Anna Kendrick and Kevin Hart.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Big Hero 6; The Boxtrolls; How to Train Your Dragon 2; Song of the Sea; The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

BigHero6

Disney win again (without a Pixar movie in contention), but this was the best result for the category, the movie having so much heart. Presented by Zoe Saldana and Dwayne Johnson.

Best Achievement in Production Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pinnock; The Imitation Game – Maria Djurkovic, Tatiana Macdonald; Interstellar – Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis; Into the Woods – Dennis Gassner, Anna Pinnock; Mr. Turner – Suzie Davies, Charlotte Watts

It was either this or Mr. Turner but a good result nevertheless, and another heap of praise for Wes Anderson (and deservedly so). Presented by Chris Pratt and Felicity Jones.

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Everything) – Emmanuel Lubezki; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert D. Yeoman; Ida – Łukasz Żal, Ryszard Lenczewski; Mr. Turner – Dick Pope; Unbroken – Roger Deakins

Lubezki’s second Oscar in a row (and the first award for Birdman…) was expected but it really should have gone to Ida. Presented by Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain.

Best Achievement in Editing

American Sniper – Joel Cox, Gary Roach; Boyhood – Sandra Adair; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Barney Pilling; The Imitation Game – William Goldenberg; Whiplash – Tom Cross

As at the BAFTAs, the absolutely positively must-win choice, and an absolutely positively deserved award, and a great nod to Damien Chazelle. Presented by Naomi Watts and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Best Documentary, Feature

CITIZENFOUR; Finding Vivian Maier; Last Days in Vietnam; The Salt of the Earth; Virunga

Citizenfour2

A superb result for such a superb movie, and great to see director Laura Poitras accepting the award, and condemning the powers that be over their treatment of ordinary people. Presented by Jennifer Aniston and David Oyelowo.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Begin Again – Lost Stars (Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois); Beyond the Lights – Grateful (Diane Warren); Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me – I’m Not Gonna Miss You (Glen Campbell, Julian Raymond); The Lego Movie – Everything Is Awesome (Shawn Patterson); Selma – Glory (Common, John Legend)

Maroon 5 performed Lost Stars, while there was a cast of (what seemed like) thousands led by Tegan and Sara who reaffirmed that Everything Is Awesome. Tim McGraw subbed for Glen Campbell on I’m Not Gonna Miss You, then Rita Ora sang Grateful surrounded by laser lights, and in keeping with their original collaboration, John Legend and Common performed Glory against the backdrop of the Edmund Pettus Bridge (though Common’s hand gestures were a little too distracting). And Glory received a standing ovation, with many in the audience in tears.

Pretty much the only choice and Common gave an impassioned speech about democracy that revolved around the Edmund Pettus Bridge, while Legend reiterated the need for freedom and justice and continued voting rights. Presented by Idina Menzel and John Travolta.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat; The Imitation Game – Alexandre Desplat; Interstellar – Hans Zimmer; Mr. Turner – Gary Yershon; The Theory of Everything – Jóhann Jóhannsson

With Desplat finally winning an Oscar (and seeing off the challenge from himself), this was a great result and Desplat was a gracious winner. Presented by Julie Andrews.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo; Boyhood – Richard Linklater; Foxcatcher – E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness; Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy

The movie’s second win and highly regarded, though not as cut and dried a result as it seemed. Iñárritu gave a bit of a rambling speech but it was heartfelt and didn’t go on for too long. Presented by Eddie Murphy.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

American Sniper – Jason Hall; The Imitation Game – Graham Moore; Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson; The Theory of Everything – Anthony McCarten; Whiplash – Damien Chazelle

An unexpected result given Moore’s “treatment” of Turing’s life, the writer gave an awkward speech that mentioned his attempted suicide at sixteen and some life-affirming sentiments – but he still got some of the audience to stand and applaud him. Presented by Oprah Winfrey.

Best Achievement in Directing

Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest HotelAlejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Richard Linklater – Boyhood; Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher; Morten Tyldum – The Imitation Game

As the tide swung in Birdman‘s direction (excuse the pun), Iñárritu gave an initially humorous speech that evolved into an expression of the effort that artists put into their work, and then into a big Thank You to everyone connected to the movie. Presented by Ben Affleck.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Steve Carell – Foxcatcher; Bradley Cooper – American Sniper; Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game; Michael Keaton – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne

Despite the growing possibility that Michael Keaton would take the Oscar, this was a great result that saw Redmayne overjoyed by his win and giving praise to everyone in sight. Presented by Cate Blanchett.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night; Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything; Julianne Moore – Still Alice; Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl; Reese Witherspoon – Wild

Julianne Moore

As with the BAFTAs Moore won but both Jones and Cotillard gave better performances. However, her speech acknowledged her co-nominees, and then she thanked pretty much everyone connected with the movie, before mentioning Alzheimer’s and thanking her family. Presented by Matthew McConaughey.

Best Motion Picture of the Year

American Sniper; Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Boyhood; The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Imitation Game; Selma; The Theory of Everything; Whiplash

Birdman2

Iñárritu got everyone associated with the movie to come up on stage, and found even more people to thank, including Keaton who briefly showed how grateful he was to be there, before Iñárritu rounded things off by making a short political speech about Mexican immigration. Presented by Sean Penn.

And so it was a tie between Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Everything) and The Grand Budapest Hotel with four wins each. With a few unexpected results amid all the predictable ones. The show as a whole became less and less interesting as it went on and Harris’s initial enthusiasm seemed to waver until even some of his jokes weren’t getting a laugh (though his predictions provided some amusement, even if they arrived too late). And the most valuable award of the evening? The Lego Oscars of course.

Two Days, One Night (2014)

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Two Days, One Night

Original title: Deux jours, une nuit

D: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne / 95m

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée, Batiste Sornin, Simon Caudry, Alain Eloy, Myriem Akeddiou, Fabienne Sciascia, Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Hicham Slaoui, Philippe Jeusette, Yohan Zimmer, Christelle Cornil, Laurent Caron, Serge Koto, Morgan Marinne, Gianni La Rocca, Ben Hamidou, Carl Jadot, Olivier Gourmet

In Seraing, a small Belgian industrial town, Sandra (Cotillard) works at a solar panel factory. The workforce consists of seventeen people, but Sandra has recently been off sick due to a bout of depression. During her absence, her boss, Monsieur Dumont (Sornin) has realised that the work can be done just as well by sixteen people instead of seventeen. As a result, she has fallen foul of machinations orchestrated by her foreman, Jean-Marc (Gourmet), and Dumont has given the rest of the staff a choice: they can have a €1000 bonus or keep Sandra in her job. Thanks to Jean-Marc’s scare tactics and bullying, the staff have voted for the bonus. Sandra has all but given up on her job when her co-worker Juliette (Salée) calls to say Dumont has agreed to meet with them. He agrees to a secret ballot, to be held on the Monday morning (it’s currently Friday afternoon).

All Sandra has to do is visit the rest of her colleagues over the weekend, explain about Jean-Marc’s role in things, and ask if they will vote for her to keep her job at the secret ballot. But Sandra hasn’t fully recovered from her illness, and her confidence is at such a low that she just wants to curl up in bed and ignore everything going on around her. Urged on by her husband, Manu (Rongione), and furnished with a list of addresses by Juliette, she sets out on Saturday morning by public transport to persuade her colleagues to vote for her. Some agree readily, others inform her that the money will ease their own problems. She manages to change the minds of a few, but by the end of the day she’s only halfway to getting the numbers she needs.

Driven round by her husband, she continues on Sunday but although she makes further headway, by the afternoon the whole thing begins to look even bleaker when she suffers a setback. Filled with despair, she takes a whole bottle of Xanax but when a colleague changes her mind and visits Sandra to tell her, her hope returns. With the pills flushed out of her system at the hospital, Sandra resumes her visits to her remaining colleagues. But by the time of the secret ballot on Monday morning, it’s too close to call and she has an agonising wait to hear the result.

Two Days, One Night - scene

The latest from the Dardenne Brothers, after their wonderfully simple and affecting The Kid With a Bike (2011), Two Days, One Night is another simply told, emotionally honest drama that features a strong central performance, and tells its story with a minimum of artifice and a maximum amount of intelligence.

Its tale of a woman fighting to retain both her job and what little self-confidence she’s managed to keep following her illness, Two Days, One Night takes a straightforward storyline and imbues it with such emotional depth, and makes such an impact, that it lingers in the memory long after it’s ended. This is due in no small part to Cotillard’s superb portrayal of Sandra, a role that she inhabits so completely and so effortlessly that if you started watching the movie from just two minutes in, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a documentary. As the movie progresses, Cotillard’s beautifully shows the depth of despair and terror that Sandra is feeling about her situation, and the way in which she clings to each small victory with undeniable relief. By the time Monday morning arrives, she’s still nervous and she’s still unsure how the vote will go, but she’s gained so much confidence in herself, and so much more courage than she had on the Friday that you’re praying the ballot will go her way.

Cotillard gives such a brilliant performance that it’s a testament to the abilities of the Dardenne Brothers that she doesn’t dominate the movie to the point where the other characters and their stories are overwhelmed. Each of her colleagues has their own story to tell and each is indelibly presented, with special mention going to Cornil as a woman with an abusive husband (and who tips the balance when Sandra takes her overdose), and Magomedgadzhiev as a male colleague who doesn’t react in anything like the way Sandra expects when she catches up with him.

The Dardennes show a clear appreciation for the rhythms and symmetries of daily life, with Sandra’s home and family life and their importance for her naturally presented. It’s contrasted with the homes of her colleagues, none of which she sees except from the doorstep. Even when someone is home she’s never invited inside, as if she were an outsider, and this unspoken rejection adds to Sandra’s struggle, as she has to go further almost every time in tracking someone down (at one point she bumps into one of her colleagues by accident). It all adds to her sense of impending failure and shows just how difficult such a simple “exercise” can become when so much rides on it. The Dardennes capture every high and low of Sandra’s journey and by setting it in such a familiar, provincial environment, they reinforce how perilous ordinary life can be when something unexpected happens.

Alain Marcoen’s exquisite photography breathes added life into the movie’s mise en scène, and is complemented and enhanced by Marie-Hélène Dozo’s confident, precise editing (some scenes were filmed in a single take, adding to the verisimilitude). With the Dardenne Brothers free to weave their magic on the material, the movie becomes a spirited, uplifting look at one woman’s dark journey to personal redemption.

Rating: 9/10 – a quietly effective, quietly rousing tale of an underdog finding strength in the unlikeliest of circumstances, Two Days, One Night is a triumph for the Dardennes and a delight for the viewer; Cotillard is superb, and confirms her place as one of the finest actresses working in movies today (as if we needed reminding).

Mr. Turner (2014)

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Mr. Turner

D: Mike Leigh / 150m

Cast: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, David Horovitch, Joshua McGuire, Kate O’Flynn, Leo Bill

Eminent painter Joseph Mallord William Turner is famous for his land- and seascapes. He lives in a big house in London with his father, William (Jesson) (who acts as his assistant), and his devoted housekeeper, Hannah (Atkinson). He has children he’s estranged from: two daughters from a relationship with Hannah’s aunt Sarah (Sheen). He rejects their attempts to procure financial support from him, even when they visit with his first grandchild. When he’s not at home, Turner travels the country (and sometimes abroad) making sketches that he can expand into paintings when he’s home.

He also visits members of the aristocracy and valued patrons. On one such visit he’s accosted by the struggling artist Benjamin Haydon (Savage), who asks him for the sum of £100 to help him avoid ruin. Haydon’s entreaties lead to Turner promising to lend him £50 instead, which Haydon accepts. When his father dies, Turner becomes depressed but the need to draw and paint is stronger than his despair. Shortly after, Turner visits Margate where he finds lodging with Mrs Booth (Bailey) and her husband (Johnson). He stays there awhile and finds himself enjoying the couple’s company. When he returns a second time he learns that Mrs Booth’s husband has passed away.

In the meantime his anarchic behaviour at the Royal Academy of Arts beguiles and amuses some of his fellow artists, and angers and upsets others, such as Constable. He appears to deface one of his own seascapes with a splotch of red, then removes himself. His associates are appalled and discomfited at this, until he returns and shapes the splotch until it resembles a buoy. At this their respect is renewed, and Turner’s notoriety is upheld, along with the acceptance of his genius. Around this time, Haydon, who has had his run-in with the Academy, visits Turner and tries to repay part of his debt. Turner, whose reputation is that of a curmudgeon, relents and waives the debt.

Returning to Margate he begins a relationship with Mrs Booth; they find a place together in Chelsea where Turner spends most of his time. But when the young Queen Victoria voices her disapproval over one of his paintings, his fame and public support begins to diminish. And following an attempt to experience what it feels like to be in the midst of a snowstorm by having himself strapped to the mast of a sailing ship, his health deteriorates as well.

Mr. Turner - scene

Biopics of famous artists usually depend on their having lived eventful, passionate lives away from the canvas, but what is a director to do when their subject lives a fairly hermetic life, and who feels compelled to sketch at every opportunity (even when they’re with a prostitute and still mourning the loss of their father)? Unfortunately, Mike Leigh never really finds an answer to the question, which leaves Mr. Turner somewhat dry and determinedly episodic.

Turner’s life did have a few memorable moments but they largely occurred when he was much younger (the movie covers the last twenty-five years of his life). His younger sister died aged four and his mother was committed to an asylum where she later died. At the age of fourteen he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts school, and into the Academy itself a year later (Sir Joshua Reynolds was on the panel that admitted him). Perhaps the movie should have focused on these events, showing us how the “painter of light” earned that sobriquet.

Instead we have a movie that begins with Turner at the height of his powers and fame, and which seeks to concentrate on his private life, but without convincing the viewer that there’s any connection between the two. Despite his reputation for being a social malcontent, the Turner we encounter here is more open and friendly than expected and appears to be acidulous only with people he actively dislikes – there’s a great scene where the art critic John Ruskin (McGuire) reflects disapprovingly on a style of painting he clearly has no understanding of and Turner soundly rebuffs him. But while Leigh may be attempting to separate the man from his reputation, that he proves to be a more rounded individual shouldn’t come as a surprise.

In his relationships with women things vary between interesting and banal, and with his visit to a prostitute having a much different outcome than might be typical, that his emotional life was unconventional is to miss the point. There’s an element of desperation in his exploitation of Hannah that would border on abuse if she wasn’t such a willing accomplice, while his “wooing” of Mrs Booth speaks more of two lost souls finding each other than anything more dramatic. In both relationships however, Turner remains on the outside, receiving comfort when he needs it, and giving little back in return. It’s indicative of the female role in society at the time, 1826-1851, that Turner does all this without a moment’s consideration (or remorse) for his actions, and Hannah and Mrs Booth remain grateful for being part of his life.

Outside of these relationships there’s little else that serves as a way of learning more about Turner’s life, and as a result, the movie adds scene after scene that either reinforces what we already know about him, or adds nothing more to the narrative than the opportunity to show off some more of Leigh’s fastidious period recreation. This is hugely impressive, though, and is one area in which Mr. Turner can’t be faulted. Suzie Davies’ production design coupled with Charlotte Watts’ set decoration and Jacqueline Durran’s costume design, and all lovingly shot by DoP Dick Pope (and all four of them Oscar nominated for their efforts) make the movie a visual treat that is as richly rewarding as the reproductions of Turner’s paintings. It’s heritage moviemaking of the highest order.

Mr. Turner - scene2

Despite problems with the movie’s narrative and structure, Leigh is still able to show why he’s one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic directors working today, and why any of his future projects will still command attention and respect. Leigh’s work ethic and methods are well-known, as well as his organic approach to the material he and his cast are working on, and with Mr. Turner those methods are all in place, leading to a clutch of excellent performances and some splendid supporting turns. Spall is simply magnificent, grumbling and grunting his way through scenes with a sour face and occasional flashes of charm. It’s a deceptively simple and sympathetic portrayal, and Spall inhabits the character completely, so much so that you forget he’s acting. He’s matched by Atkinson, whose screen time is much less, but who brings an unforgettable sadness and pathos to her role as Turner’s subjugated housekeeper (and for those who might be wondering why Hannah looks so dreadful by the movie’s end, it’s because she suffered from psoriasis). As Hannah’s “competitor” Mrs Booth, Bailey expresses more in one rueful smile than some actresses manage in an entire movie, and her pleasant, amiable approach to the character serves as a telling counterpoint to the gruff demeanour of Turner himself.

A movie then that requires a great deal of perseverance but which is helped immeasurably by its cast and its presentation, Mr. Turner is likely to divide audiences into two camps: those looking for a story to follow, and those who can forgive its absence. With too many longueurs for its own good, the movie struggles to be as effective as it needs to be, but retains just enough energy to help audiences reach the end. It’s a close run thing, though, and with so little explained throughout, will definitely try some viewers’ patience.

Rating: 7/10 – fans of Leigh’s might be tempted to forgive the lack of a recognisable storyline, but without it Mr. Turner suffers accordingly; strong performances and often beautiful compositions and framing can’t prevent the movie from feeling hollow, nor the material from seeming as if it wasn’t quite as fully developed as it should have been.

Top Five (2014)

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Top Five

D: Chris Rock / 102m

Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, JB Smoove, Gabrielle Union, Romany Malco, Cedric the Entertainer, Anders Holm, Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Sherri Shepherd, Jay Pharaoh, Ben Vereen, Kevin Hart, Luis Guzmán, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, DMX, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe

Andre Allen (Rock) is a stand-up comedian whose move into movies has brought him international fame thanks to the Hammy trilogy where he plays a cop in a bear costume. Wanting to put the Hammy movies behind him and focus on more serious projects – his latest movie, Uprize, is about the slave revolt that began in Haiti in 1791 – Andre is also a recovering alcoholic and about to get married to reality TV star Erica Long (Union).With only a couple of days to go before the wedding, Andre agrees to an interview with the New York Times’ Chelsea Brown (Dawson).

The interview gets off to a poor start when Chelsea asks him a banal question that prompts him to challenge her to ask the questions she really wants to ask. She wants to know when he stopped being funny and why, and about his alcoholism. He tells her about the time he hit bottom, in 2003 on a trip to Houston, where a night of sex and drugs with a couple of prostitutes (and the unexpected involvement of his tour promoter) led to accusations of rape and his being arrested. He also credits Erica with helping him achieve sobriety and stay that way.

As the interview continues, Andre introduces Chelsea to some of his friends. He’s relaxed with them, and they all joke that he’s never been funny and still isn’t. At a press conference for Uprize, Andre is chagrined to hear calls for another Hammy the Bear movie. He and Chelsea stop off at a hotel so she can meet up with her boyfriend, Brad (Holm), whose birthday it is. Unfortunately, she discovers that Brad has been hiding the fact that he’s gay (despite some very obvious clues in their sex life). Upset and angry at being so easily duped, she’s less than happy when Andre expresses his disbelief at how naïve she’s been. They argue, but the argument leads to their kissing and ending up in a club bathroom about to have sex. They manage to stop themselves; Andre asks to borrow Chelsea’s phone to make a call. While he does he discovers that she is actually James Nielson. He confronts her. Chelsea admits to the deception but tries to explain that she does like him and that she regrets not having told him sooner. Andre refuses to accept her explanation and leaves her behind in the club. From there he goes to a convenience store where he gives in to temptation and starts drinking again…

Top Five - scene

A romantic comedy that weaves in some interesting dramatic elements, Top Five is an astute, cleverly constructed movie that shows Rock firing on all cylinders and mixing gross-out comedy with intelligent observations on fame and media exposure, as well as trenchant examinations of modern day relationships and their ups and downs. It’s a confident movie, unafraid to take a few risks, and Rock proves he has a gift for exposing some of the more absurd aspects of his profession, in particular the fame that can be gained from a movie trilogy based around the exploits of a cop in a bear costume (“It’s Hammy time!”).

He’s also more than adroit at creating a romance between Andre and Chelsea that anchors the movie and proves far more affecting than expected. Partly this is due to his script, which for the most part tries hard to avoid becoming standard romantic fare (though it follows an established formula), and the obvious chemistry he has with Dawson. As they travel the streets of New York, challenging each other, debating, laughing, supporting each other, the warmth and growing affection they feel for each other is so charmingly done that you find yourself rooting for them. As it becomes clear that their existing relationships are less than satisfactory, their slow pull towards each other becomes as rewarding for the viewer as it is for them. Dawson is always an appealing presence on screen, and here she proves a great foil for Rock’s often acerbic approach to his own material.

Of course, this being a Chris Rock movie, the focus is as much on the comedy as the romance, and here he succeeds in providing a slew of laugh-out-loud moments, from Cedric the Entertainer’s unexpected “party trick” to Andre and Chelsea’s discussion on the requirements for becoming the next President, to Chelsea’s punishment of Brad’s anal fixation, to Andre’s bodyguard Silk (Smoove) and his penchant for the larger lady (his encounter with Sidibe is brief but wonderful), to Andre’s adding “stank” to a radio promo – Rock maintains a high hit rate throughout. He also infuses several dramatic moments with a level of humour that adds poignancy and pathos to the material, and gives the likes of Union and Shepherd a chance to shine in scenes that hold a lot more weight than is immediately apparent.

While Rock scores highly with his script, and employs a cast who all make the most of their roles (and are clearly having a great deal of fun in the process), he’s not quite as successful in creating a visual palette that elevates or enlivens the material, and certain scenes have a perfunctory feel about them as a result (DoP Manuel Alberto Clara worked on Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac Vol. I & Vol. II and there are many similarities in style between those movies and this one). That said, there are some occasional moments – Andre’s impromptu appearance at a comedy club, the scene where Andre trashes the convenience store – where the visual approach works in the movie’s favour.

All in all though, Top Five is a movie that provides much to enjoy and admire, and serves as a reminder that when he puts his mind to it, Rock is one of the more gifted comedians working in movies today (it’s also amazing to think that he’s only recently turned 50; he definitely doesn’t look it). Let’s hope this is just the first of many more similar projects to come.

Rating: 8/10 – a disarmingly enjoyable romantic comedy, Top Five benefits greatly from its charming central romance and Rock’s willingness to offset the comedy with telling moments of drama; a winning return to form after the less than successful I Think I Love My Wife (2007), this has something for everyone and rarely disappoints.

Swamp Fire (1946)

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Swamp Fire

D: William H. Pine / 69m

Cast: Johnny Weissmuller, Virginia Grey, Buster Crabbe, Carol Thurston, Pedro de Cordoba, Marcelle Corday, William Edmunds, Edwin Maxwell, Pierre Watkin

Coming home from the war, bar pilot Johnny Duval (Weissmuller) is a veteran whose return is tinged with a bittersweet quality. He lost both his ship and his men during the war and he’s haunted by the event, so much so that he’s lost his confidence as a bar pilot completely. But he does have the love of Toni Rousseau (Thurston) to look forward to, and the welcome of his friends. Travelling through the swamp to his home at Cypress Point, his row boat is side-swiped by a motor boat being driven by Janet Hilton, a wealthy socialite who lives at nearby Delta Island. With her motor boat run aground, Johnny offers to take her to Cypress Point where she can rent another boat. Once there, she wastes no time in alienating Johnny’s friends, including Toni, before leaving.

Johnny goes back to work for the Coast Guard but he takes a junior role, until one night the bar pilot on his ship feigns an illness that leads to Johnny taking over and seeing another boat through the river’s perilous sand bars. The boat belongs to Janet’s father; she’s also on the boat and makes advances towards him, but even with that and other distractions such as an hallucination from the war, he guides the boat safely through the waters, and regains his confidence. Quickly promoted to a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, Johnny resumes his usual work as a bar pilot. In the meantime, Janet continues to pursue him, much to the annoyance of Toni, and to the satisfaction of Mike Kalavich (Crabbe), a trapper who wants Toni for himself. Johnny decides to marry Toni and the date is set, but the night before, he finds himself persuaded to guide a ship through dangerous fog. There is a collision with another boat, one that leads to the death of Toni’s grandfather (de Cordoba).

Unable to cope with the guilt of what he’s done, Johnny goes away on leave and bar hops until he’s so drunk he stumbles into the path of a truck and is knocked down. He ends up in hospital and is there for two weeks before anyone discovers who he is. The news makes the papers and Toni and Johnny’s boss, Captain Moise (Maxwell), head to the hospital to bring him home. But when they get there they find Johnny has already left – in the care of Janet Hilton. At the Hiltons’, Janet tells them – falsely – that Johnny doesn’t want to see them, or anybody, from Cypress Point. Janet takes further steps to stop Johnny and Toni from contacting each other. With both believing the worst of the other, Johnny and Toni’s relationship falters then fails, until the capture of one of Kalavich’s comrades in poaching leads to Janet’s duplicity being revealed. But while Johnny tries to find Toni, Kalavich, enraged by this turn of events, decides to set fire to the swampland, putting them all in danger.

Swamp Fire - scene

The first of two movies uniting former Olympic swimming champions Weissmuller and Crabbe – the second would be the Jungle Jim adventure Captive Girl (1950) – Swamp Fire is an absorbing, though pedestrian drama that unfolds at a steady, if sometimes soporific pace, and which offers both actors a chance to spread their wings in roles they wouldn’t normally have played. Weissmuller, though as wooden as usual, does his best as the taciturn, PTSD-suffering Johnny, and makes a decent fist of his love scenes with Thurston (he certainly kisses her with gusto). Crabbe has the greater challenge, playing a disgruntled bad guy with a dodgy Cajun accent and a pencil-thin moustache, but it’s a more natural performance, and he seems more at ease in the role than Weissmuller does as Johnny, and the movie gains a noticeable energy whenever he’s on screen.

They’re kept apart for most of the movie, however, leaving room for Weissmuller to romance both Grey and Thurston in equal measure, and to show that his muscular frame still looks good in a T-shirt (he doesn’t go bare chested in this movie, perhaps because of the extra weight he’d put on at the time). The twin romances are agreeable, if not entirely believable. Grey’s character is so stuck up and manipulative that when Toni ends up in the river and at the mercy of an alligator, it’s likely the viewer will be wishing it was Janet in the water. The character vacillates between arrogant, passive and flirtatious (sometimes in the same scene), and Grey doesn’t always know when to move from one aspect to another. Thurston plays Toni as if she were more of a tomboy than a young woman with eyes for only one man, but she’s consistent in her approach to the character and makes slightly more of things than the script – by Daniel Mainwaring (credited as Geoffrey Homes) – would appear to allow. There’s an argument that both roles are underwritten, but the truth is they’re quite stereotypical for both the time the movie was made and its milieu.

In the hot seat, Pine – noted for being a producer more than a director – shows a sure hand in moving the camera around and elicits good performances from the supporting cast, including Edmunds as the local bar owner, and Maxwell as Johnny’s suppportive superior. The Louisiana locations are well chosen for their beautiful scenery, and make for splendid backdrops to the (occasionally) overheated emotions of the main characters (though the amount of rear projection work going on almost negates their effect). As well as being involved in several river collisions, Weissmuller gets to wrestle and kill an alligator – the danger of which he brushes off with manly stoicism – and there’s a catfight between Grey and Thurston that is, sadly, over almost as soon as it’s started. The fiery climax doesn’t look as impressive in the long shots as it does close up, but the emotional undercurrent is brought to the fore, making the denouement unexpectedly compelling, and satisfying as well.

Rating: 5/10 – like a lot of low-budget, modest post-War productions, Swamp Fire is borderline forgettable, but despite its faults, is a pleasant enough diversion for sixty-nine minutes; Weissmuller and Crabbe make for great adversaries, and the plot isn’t as banal as it seems, making this a notch above other, similar movies from the period.

Mini-Review: Life’s a Breeze (2013)

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Life's a Breeze

D: Lance Daly / 80m

Cast: Fionnula Flanagan, Pat Shortt, Kelly Thornton, Eva Birthistle, Gerry McCann, Lesley Conroy, Willie Higgins

Thirteen year old Emma (Thornton) is tasked with visiting her Nan (Flanagan) twice a day to make sure she’s okay. Nan lives in a big old house with lots of clutter and her layabout son Colm (Shortt). They’re part of an extended family that includes Colm’s brother Des (McCann), his sister Annie (Conroy), Kelly’s mother Margaret (Birthistle) and their various spouses. Everyone has a fondness for Nan but are too busy with their own lives to pay her much attention. One day, Colm asks Emma to take Nan out for the day so that the family can surprise her by giving her home a makeover. When they get back, the clutter has vanished, there’s a new sofa, new kitchen appliances, and a new bed been installed. But Nan has only one question: where’s the mattress from the bed?

She asks because she kept all her life savings inside it, a sum that amounts to almost a million Euros. At first, the family doesn’t believe her but, unsure that she’s not telling the truth, they track down Arthur (Higgins), the man who took all the rubbish away. He tells them it’s gone to landfill, but when they visit the site they’re unable to find it. Nan thinks Arthur’s been lying and they follow him out of town to a place at the side of the road where he dumped everything, but the mattress isn’t there. Then Colm makes the mistake of going on a radio show and alerting everyone to the mattress’s disappearance and the money inside it. What began as a small-scale “search and rescue” mission now develops into a country-wide search for the mattress and the million Euros, and the family in danger of losing everything.

Life's a Breeze - scene

An Irish/Swedish co-production – with some scenes filmed in Sweden – Life’s a Breeze is the type of modest, low-key production that often succeeds just by being modest and low-key. However, while it’s moderately funny and it has a spirited cast who could do this sort of thing blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, the short running time is an indication of how slight the material actually is. It’s also a simple tale, and while it skirts around issues relating to the elderly, personal dignity and avarice, it does so with such a lightness of touch that these attempts at adding some depth don’t always pay off.

That said, it is mildly diverting, and Daly handles it all with a confidence that helps make up for the less than attractive visual design and the often uncoordinated cinematography (Daly again, but uncredited). Ultimately though, the movie’s strengths are its cast and its score. Flanagan portrays Nan with a quiet sense of despair at the “idjit” antics of her family, Shortt does panic like it’s a daily occurrence for Colm, and Thornton displays a maturity that makes Emma the most interesting character of all. And the score – by Daly and Declan and Eugene Quinn – is jaunty and upbeat, and provides a suitably catchy counterpoint to the action.

Rating: 6/10 – with a little bit less going on than meets the eye, Life’s a Breeze is pleasant enough but isn’t likely to remain in the memory for long; boosted by an impressive first-time performance by Thornton, the movie is amusing, moderately charming, and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

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Jupiter Ascending

D: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski / 127m

Cast: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Christina Cole, Nicholas A. Newman, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jeremy Swift, Kick Gurry, James D’Arcy

Jupiter Jones (Kunis) works as a cleaner with her mother, Aleksa (Kennedy), and her aunt. She has no prospects, no will to succeed, and no man in her life. Shackled to her mother’s Russian family, she is unaware that she is the genetic reincarnation of the matriarch of the Abrasax family. The Abrasax family are part of an alien race whose business is that of seeding planets and harvesting the inhabitants once they reach a certain physical maturity. The Abrasax matriarch had Earth as part of her portfolio, and its importance as a source of youth-giving serum is not lost on her offspring, Balem (Redmayne), Kalique (Middleton) and Titus (Booth). Each of them is trying to acquire Earth for themselves, and when they learn of Jupiter’s existence, they initiate plans to either manipulate her or kill her (or both).

Jupiter can claim her genetic forebear’s titles and properties but if she does it will freeze out Balem and his siblings. His response is to send agents to Earth to kill her, but Titus sends a genetically engineered hunter called Caine Wise (Tatum) to protect her and bring her to him. Wise enlists aid of fellow hunter Stinger Apini (Bean) but a group of mercenaries manage to capture Jupiter and take her to a planet owned by Kalique. Kalique informs Jupiter that the conditions of her mother’s will were such that Earth would belong to her genetic reincarnation should one come forward. All Jupiter has to do is to claim her inheritance and her brothers’ plans will be thwarted.

Aided by Stinger and the Aegis, an intergalactic police force, Caine rescues Jupiter from Kalique and takes her to the planet where she can begin to claim her inheritance. Titus appears on the scene and tells Jupiter he plans to uphold his mother’s wish that Earth not be harvested, and that if she marries him it will ensure both Earth’s safety and an end to Balem and Kalique’s scheming. Titus isolates Caine from Jupiter and reveals his real plan which is to marry her and then have her killed, thus inheriting Earth by default. He has Caine expelled from an air lock, while Jupiter agrees to marry Titus…

Jupiter Ascending - scene

Originally set for release on 25 July 2014, Jupiter Ascending finally arrives on our screens and… is… well… just… terrible. It’s not quite as bad as, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) – that would be difficult – but it is shockingly, depressingly bad in ways that are completely surprising given the calibre of the directors, the cast and the crew. Already a box office bomb, with very little chance of its $176,000,000 budget being recouped any time soon, Jupiter Ascending is a classic example of what happens when you ask two feted filmmakers to come up with “an original intellectual property and franchise” – take a bow, Jeff Robinov (Warner Bros. president). The result? A movie that makes no sense at any point during its entire running time.

It’s a spectacular movie, true, but this is yet another sci-fi movie that is a triumph of style over substance. If there had been half as much effort put into the script as there has been into the special effects and the design of the movie then we might be talking about the movie in terms of it being a modern classic. But so successfully have the Wachowskis sabotaged their own script – sorry, “intellectual property” – that instead we have to talk about the movie in terms of it being an (almost) unmitigated disaster. Take the notion that only the human race can produce the serum that keeps the Abrasax family so youthful. So far, so good. But if this is the case, and the Abrasax family have “seeded” Earth in order to produce this serum, why haven’t they done it on other planets? Surely that would make sound business sense (not to mention keep them eternally young)? (It seems not.)

There are plenty of other elements within the script that don’t make sense, such as the whole idea that Jupiter is the genetic reincarnation of the Abrasax’ matriarch. How or why this should even happen in the first place is skipped over by the Wachowski’s, and it hovers over the movie like a particularly stinky McGuffin. And the speed with which Bean’s character changes sides (and is forgiven) has all the dramatic intensity of someone changing their washing powder instead of their allegiance. It’s all in service of a script that careens from one unlikely scene to another while ramping up the visual spectacle to such a pitch that the characters appear incidental to the vast spaceships and the vast sets inside them (though the Wachowskis have seen fit to ensure that no room is too small that Caine can’t pitch and hover around it with ease).

The cast look uncomfortable throughout, with Tatum doing his best not to appear confused (or wishing he was making another movie entirely), and Kunis unable to make Jupiter less irritating than she’s written. Bean appears to be apologising for each line he has to utter – his rhapsodising about bees is a highlight – while Booth mistakes petulance for silky menace, and Middleton is saddled with the weight of too much exposition (and wrinkles). And then there’s Redmayne, soft-spoken for most of the movie and evidencing Balem’s more psychotic tendencies by shouting loudly whenever he’s annoyed. By the end it’s become the movie’s most flamboyant performance, but it would have been better utilised in a pantomime than a science fiction movie trying to take itself seriously.

The action scenes are suitably large-scale and ambitious but still rely heavily on the bad guys being terrible shots, and Wise being able to get off a kill shot from any angle. The Renaissance feel to many of the sets and the overall design is, however, impressive, but the production facility on Jupiter is too overblown, and seems designed more to be destroyed (as it eventually is) than anything else. And therein lies another problem, the Zack Snyder Equation™, which posits that if there is a chance to provide mass destruction on a monumental level then it should be grasped with every gigabyte possible. It seems movie makers still haven’t caught on to the fact that while this may make for an arresting visual sequence, we’ve still seen it way too often now for it to have any meaningful effect.

Rating: 4/10 – with stumbling, forlorn attempts at comedy thrown in here and there – “I love dogs”, Jupiter’s Russian family, any time Famulus (Mbatha-Raw) makes an appearance – Jupiter Ascending succeeds in undermining its own credibility at nearly every turn; a space opera masquerading as something more (though exactly what is hard to determine), this sees the Wachowskis reprising themes from The Matrix to less than impressive effect.

10 Reasons to Remember Louis Jourdan (1921-2015)

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Suave, debonair, charming, handsome, a hit with the ladies – you could be forgiven for disliking Louis Jourdan just on principle, but the French actor had a likeability that made him popular with both genders. Over the course of a career spanning seven decades, Jourdan was the dependable character actor – a description he would have endorsed – who often gave better performances than the movies he made deserved. If he was never quite the star he should have been, it didn’t seem to matter to him, and it shouldn’t matter to us. He leaves behind some indelible screen appearances, and this wonderful quote: “I didn’t want to be perpetually cooing in a lady’s ear. There’s not much satisfaction in it.”

Louis Jourdan - Felicie nanteuil

1 – Félicie Nanteuil (1944)

2 – The Paradine Case (1947)

3 – Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

4 – The Happy Time (1952)

5 – Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

6 – The Swan (1956)

7 – Gigi (1958)

8 – Can-Can (1960)

9 – The V.I.P.s (1963)

10 – Count Dracula (1977)

Louis Jourdan - Count Dracula

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 7: Gamble for Life

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 16m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell

Escaping (of course) from his crashing plane, Mandrake parachutes to the ground in time to aid Professor Houston in getting away from the Wasp’s men at the ironworks in Dorgan. Unfortunately he has to leave his radium machine behind. The Wasp alerts his men to watch Mandrake’s country home. While they keep watch, Webster arrives. Mandrake needs him to help retrieve some platinite to help the professor build another radium machine. Tapping into Mandrake’s phone line, the Wasp’s men learn that he needs to collect some parts from Houston’s home. They get there first and ambush the magician but Lothar intervenes and they get away – but without the parts.

The platinite can be found in a canyon where the Suburban Telephone Company have a base of operations. Mandrake, Lothar and Webster travel there. At the same time, the Wasp’s lieutenant, Dirk, continues to implement his boss’s plans to sabotage all the local communication networks by sending them to the same site. As they arrive, Mandrake and Webster decide they have enough platinite and start to head back to their car. Alerted to the presence of the Wasp’s men by the site foreman, Mandrake and Webster tackle them. One of the men climbs a gantry and heads across the canyon in a trestle car. Mandrake jumps on and the two fight but the hook the car is hanging from is slowly straightening out. The Wasp’s man falls over the side, and as Mandrake watches him fall, the hook straightens entirely, sending the trestle car crashing down into the canyon.

Mandrake, the Magician Chapter 7

One of the more amusing episodes (and probably not for the right reasons), Chapter 7: Gamble for Life sees more things happen by chance than by any logical design. The Wasp instructs his men to watch Mandrake’s country home when he can’t know that’s where he’ll go, and instead of telling his men to go the canyon (because that’s where Mandrake and the platinite will be) they get there under their own steam – what a coincidence! Other amusing moments: Mandrake parachuting to the ground sans chapeau, and then rushing to Houston’s aid with hat firmly back on his head; telling Houston to “Buck up, man” when the professor claims he can’t make it; a gate telephone that drops down out of nowhere; and Kikume’s stunt double wearing an ill-fitting wig to make him look more like the real thing (not happening).

For all the poorly choreographed fight scenes and glaring lapses in logic and common sense, the series continues to be highly enjoyable, and often because it is rough and ready around the edges. Hull is still a somewhat smug Mandrake, everyone else has to stand in line to wait their turn in front of the camera, and the fisticuffs to narrative ratio is still approximately four to one. It’s good to see Webster, a character who otherwise pops in and out of the material, given a bit more to do, and the showdown at the canyon is one of the better set ups so far. Of course, there’s five chapters to go, so the writers have got a lot to do to wind this up, and judging by the preview for Chapter 8, they’re still not in any hurry.

Rating: 6/10 – as fast-paced and entertaining as ever, Chapter 7: Gamble for Life maintains the devil-may-care approach to the material already established and at last shows Mandrake getting one over on the Wasp by rescuing Professor Houston; it’s all thrilling stuff and it’s still a pleasure to come back to each week.

To Be Takei (2014)

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To Be Takei

D: Jennifer M. Kroot, Bill Weber / 94m

George Takei, Brad Takei, Howard Stern, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Brad Savage, Lea Salonga, John Cho, B.D. Wong, Daniel Inouye

George Takei’s early life in Los Angeles was blighted by Executive Order 9066 which ordered the internment of all persons considered a threat to national security, particularly any Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. Takei and his family were moved to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. After a year, the introduction of a “loyalty questionnaire” – which his father refused to sign – meant they were relocated to a camp in Tule Lake, California. At the end of the war they were allowed to return to Los Angeles.

Takei did well in school, and eventually enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley. He became interested in acting – though he admits he was a “performer” long before then – but it wasn’t until the late Fifties that he began to find work, initially doing voice over work on movies such as Rodan (1956). A couple of Jerry Lewis movies (albeit playing racially dubious roles) gave him a small degree of exposure, enough to be considered for the role of Sulu in Star Trek. As part of the multi-ethnic crew, Takei’s appearance was a tremendous boost for Asian-American actors, but in real terms his career continued at a steady pace, mostly in TV.

1973 saw the beginning of Takei’s political career. He ran for the City Council of Los Angeles, but narrowly lost out. However, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to the team responsible for the planning of the Los Angeles subway system. His political career came to a close in the early Eighties as the Star Trek movies became increasingly popular. Concentrating his efforts on acting, Takei saw in the Nineties by finally becoming Captain Sulu in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). At around the same time he became involved in The Howard Stern Show, and is the show’s semi-regular announcer even now. The new century saw him as busy as ever but 2005 was a defining year: in October, Takei revealed that he was gay and had been in a relationship (with Brad Altman) for eighteen years. To many it wasn’t a shock as he’d been a supporter of LGBT organisations for some time, but it led to his becoming a more vocal supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage; at present he’s a spokesperson for the Human Rights Act “Coming Out Project”.

In 2008, he and Brad married and together they tour the world giving speeches and making convention appearances and turning up on TV. Takei has embraced Facebook in a big way and currently has around eight million followers; his daily posts are funny and occasionally, controversial. And in 2012 he appeared in the stage musical Allegiance, a project he helped initiate and which is set in a Japanese internment camp in World War II.

To Be Takei - scene

If you sat down to write a book or a film script or a stage play, and you made your main character a somewhat diminutive Japanese-American homosexual who finds fame as an actor on a science fiction TV show, it’s a safe bet that publishers and backers would look at you funny and then laugh you out of the room for being so foolish. After all, who’s going to believe a story as far-fetched as that? And yet, George Takei is living proof that you can be all that and more.

Charting his life and experiences, To Be Takei is an amusing, warm-hearted look at a man who, over the last fifty years, has become a pop-culture icon. It’s a sweet-natured movie, much like the man himself, and is a wonderful introduction to a man who laughs at everything (unless you say being gay is a lifestyle – he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms it’s not, it’s an orientation). He has a great laugh too, a rich, soulful chuckle that punctuates his speech as if he can’t control it. Seeing him being so cheerful, and so much of the time, it’s plain to see he’s a man who’s lived not only a full life – he’s currently 77 – but is still doing so and with no intention of slowing down. His energy levels are prodigious. But it’s most likely his childhood at Rohwer that informs this, and the scenes where he discusses his time at the camps in Arkansas and California add a depth and a meaning to a life that, otherwise, seems to have been a model of fun and excitement. That it hasn’t left any permanent emotional scars is a testament to his resilience and his refusal not to let it affect him in any meaningful way. It’s these scenes that resonate the most, especially when they dovetail into those that show the development of Allegiance.

The movie follows Takei and Brad as they attend various functions and travel round the US. At one point they’re up in the mountains scattering Brad’s mother’s ashes. The wind proves to be blowing in the wrong direction and some of the ashes end up on their clothes. George’s pithy observation? “And I think your mom’s going to be at the cleaner’s too.” The relationship between George and Brad is the cornerstone of the movie, their devotion to each other so evident that when they’re taking the mickey out of each other, you’re laughing with them because it wouldn’t even occur to you to laugh at them. Even when Brad is in manager mode and bossing George around, there’s a deep-rooted affection there the whole time that makes it all the more marvellous to witness.

As well as his time in the internment camps there’s a fair amount of time devoted to his exploits in Star Trek, and the ongoing animosity between George and William Shatner – “Speaking of fat alcoholics… good evening, Bill.” – but it’s the contributions of Nimoy, Nichols and Koenig that add a poignancy to the proceedings, and reinforce just how much he’s loved by his old “comrades in space”. In fact, the movie is very good at providing just the right amount of time for each phase of his life and career, and for the current day activities he gets up to. Balancing out what really has been an incredibly varied and rewarding life, it’s to the movie’s credit – and Takei’s – that he remains as likeable as he’s always been. He’s so highly regarded and he’s so open and honest about things that by the movie’s end you feel you almost know him, such is the attention to detail and interest in him shown by Kroot and Weber. And with the honesty and commitment shown by Takei and Brad, the movie also paints a lovely portrait of two people who are still enamoured of each other after more than twenty-five years.

Rating: 8/10 – a documentary about a remarkable man presented in a fun, entertaining way, To Be Takei is a joy to watch, and made all the more so by Takei’s obvious enjoyment at being filmed; even if you only watch it to see his public service announcement regarding Tim Hardaway – “Oh my” indeed – you’ll find yourself wishing you could spend just a little bit more time in his company.

Late Phases (2014)

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Late Phases

D: Adrián García Bogliano / 96m

Cast: Nick Damici, Ethan Embry, Lance Guest, Erin Cummings, Tom Noonan, Tina Louise, Rutanya Alda, Caitlin O’Heaney, Karen Lynn Gorney, Larry Fessenden, Dana Ashbrook

Blind Vietnam war veteran Ambrose McKinley (Damici) moves into a gated community called Crescent Bay with his dog Shadow. He has an antagonistic nature, and a poor relationship with his son, Will (Embry). He meets his neighbour, Delores (Gorney), but aims to pretty much keep himself to himself. That first night, Delores is attacked by someone or something; Ambrose hears the commotion and tries to work out what’s happening. Delores’s attacker then turns their attention to Ambrose. Shadow defends Ambrose and the attacker flees, leaving Shadow fatally wounded.

Ambrose is found the next day and the police arrive to investigate. He learns that this isn’t the first time someone in Crescent Bay has been attacked, and that the community is always finding its dogs killed by some animal. When it’s also mentioned that the attacks happen regularly each month (and around the time of the full moon), Ambrose begins to suspect that his and Delores’ attacker is a werewolf. He keeps his suspicions to himself but begins to plan and prepare for the next month’s full moon, aiming to kill the creature and put an end to all the attacks and dog killings.

He’s persuaded to attend the local Sunday church group, where he meets Father Roger (Noonan). He suspects the priest of being the werewolf as he talks about people’s dark sides and how he keeps his own dark side under control. Ambrose also runs afoul of the other Crescent Bay residents by using a shovel as a walking cane, and by his continued aggressive attitude. He has silver bullets made, and ensures he has several guns hidden about his property. But as the next full moon approaches, the person who is the werewolf realises what Ambrose is up to, and begins making their own preparations…

Late Phases - scene

With werewolf movies becoming more prevalent in recent years, Late Phases arrives with a modicum of expectation based around the involvement of Bogliano, an Argentinian director whose movies have a unique brand of intensity about them, and its fairly unusual setting, a gated retirement community. It’s a broadly entertaining movie that is confident enough to show its monster within the first fifteen minutes, but like so many other horror movies that start off promisingly, Eric Stolze’s script soon opts for implausibility instead of being more carefully thought out.

It’s a shame as the movie gets quite a few things right. The main character of Ambrose is a refreshing change from the usual screaming teen queen, his curt, uncompromising nature and abrupt manner maintained (almost) throughout. Damici proves a great choice for the role, his glowering features and sardonic scowl completely in tune with Ambrose’s determined animosity. He’s a practical man and he approaches the idea of a werewolf being on the loose in a practical manner, with no room for doubt or hesitation. He doesn’t try to convince anyone there’s a werewolf carrying out the attacks and he doesn’t try to enlist anyone’s aid on the night. He just gets on with it.

His talks with Father Roger combine musings on the duality of man with notions of honour and personal belief, and though they do include dialogue that is cliché driven, it’s good to see a horror movie take time out to examine pertinent themes, and in some depth (it’s also good to see Noonan back in a movie after several years on various TV shows and making shorts). Alas, the same can’t be said for Ambrose’s relationship with his son, which hinges on his inability to show emotion, and which has a predictable resolution. Damici and Embry manage to make these scenes more effective than as written, but they’re still pretty perfunctory.

Another plus is the decision not to use the “w” word. At one point, Ambrose asks the question “What do silver bullets make you think of?” The reply? “The Lone Ranger.” It’s a lovely moment, played completely straight, and underlines the confident nature of much of the script. However, this is a horror movie and certain illogicalities have to be adhered to (or so it seems). While pacing out steps in one of the rooms in his property, Ambrose turns on a couple of lamps – would a blind man need to do that? He finds a claw embedded in the wall of his new home (within about a minute of his going inside) – as an early warning of what’s to come it’s great, but wouldn’t a realtor (or someone) have spotted that long before he moved in? And the police are woefully inadequate in dealing with attacks that go back twenty-five years but are on the ball when some of Ambrose’s neighbours complain about his behaviour. (And let’s not mention the gate security guard who seems to work 24/7.)

The movie reveals the identity of the werewolf approximately two thirds in and while most viewers won’t be surprised by the revelation, they probably will be surprised by the fact that this werewolf can bite people and pass on the curse while in human form. This leads to a risible showdown between Ambrose and several werewolves that features possibly cinema’s first ever example of “were-fu”. It also reveals that werewolves are unable to move out of the way when a blind man points a gun at them, and have to stand in the line of fire for around twenty seconds bellowing before attacking Ambrose one at a time. And there’s a minor subplot involving a headstone that amounts to a bad joke when it’s finally brought into play.

Late Phases - scene2

There’s a transformation scene that’s not too bad given the budget, and a pleasing amount of gore to keep genre fans happy, and there’s an emphasis on keeping the special effects practical rather than enhanced by CGI that works in the movie’s favour, but while Bogliano adds some much needed energy to things in the two big setpieces that bookend the movie, there are still too many occasions where the viewer will be shaking their head and asking themselves, did I really just see or hear that? The rest of the cast provide adequate support, and there’s some effectively framed scenes and shots courtesy of DoP Ernesto Herrera. Wojciech Golczewski’s score can be a little intrusive at times, though it does provide some atmospheric support during the quieter scenes, and the movie thankfully avoids the temptation to set up a potential sequel.

Rating: 6/10 – with a bit more care and attention paid to the script, Bogliano’s first English language movie could have been a much more robust and compelling movie; as it is, Late Phases is worth seeking out as an attempt at doing something a little different within an already crowded genre.

The Two Faces of January (2014)

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Two Faces of January, The

D: Hossein Amini / 96m

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, David Warshofsky, Daisy Bevan, Omiros Poulakis

Athens, 1962. Rydal Keener is an American working as a tour guide. He meets an American couple on holiday there, Chester and Colette McFarland (Mortensen, Dunst). They invite him to dinner and he accepts, mainly because he’s attracted to Colette. Later, after dropping them off at their hotel, Rydal discovers Colette has left a bracelet behind in the taxi. He decides to return it. Meanwhile, the McFarland’s have another visitor, a private detective named Vittorio (Warshofsky). It transpires that Chester has defrauded several people in an investment scam, and it’s this money that is allowing the McFarlands to travel around Europe. Vittorio and Chester scuffle and the private detective is killed. As he attempts to get Vittorio back to his own room in the hotel, he’s discovered by Rydal. Chester convinces Rydal that the man is merely out cold from drinking too much, and together they get him into his room.

Chester convinces Rydal that he and Colette need to leave Athens as soon as possible, but their passports are being kept by the hotel. Seeing a way of scamming some money out of Chester, Rydal agrees to help them; it also gives him a chance to be nearer to Colette. He arranges for new passports to be given to them in Crete, where they all travel to next. Without identification papers they’re forced to wait on the quayside for the next day’s bus to Chania. While they are there, Colette visits Rydal in his room while Chester is sleeping. Back on the bus, Colette panics when she sees photos of her and Chester in a newspaper and thinks they’ve been spotted. At a rest stop, Colette gets off the bus and the two men chase after her. They walk on and eventually reach the ruins of Knossos.

Rain causes them to seek shelter in the ruins. Chester lures Rydal down into the lower levels and knocks him unconscious. When Colette realises what he’s done they argue and she falls to her death from some steps. Chester flees, leaving Rydal to come to the next morning and be seen by a group of schoolgirls and their teacher as he leaves. Rydal hurries to catch up with Chester, who has collected the new passports and is heading back to Athens on a ship. There is a confrontation between the two where each tries to outwit and out-threaten the other, but both come to realise that they are bound together by their actions over the past couple of days, and would find it easy to implicate the other if either informed the police. But when they get to Athens airport, Rydal finds that Chester has one more trick up his sleeve.

Two Faces of January, The -scene

Adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, The Two Faces of January is a ponderous, though well acted drama that never quite gets off the ground, despite an intriguing storyline and some glorious location photography. As written and directed by Amini – something he’d been working on for around fifteen years – there is a distance between the audience and the main characters that stops them from ever becoming likeable or sympathetic. We never get to really know them either. Chester is a cheat but it’s just accepted that he’s a cheat; there’s no back story to explain why. Colette is aware of his duplicity and has obviously chosen to stay with him but we never find out why either. It’s confusing as well when their previous happiness is so quickly overturned by the arrival of Rydal in their lives: does she really love Chester or is she too a fraud? And Rydal’s past, with his father issues and need for independence, is also glossed over, with the questions, “Why Athens?” and “Why a tour guide?” completely unanswered.

There is one clear motivation that drives them all however: escape. But it’s clumsily used as a device to keep the narrative and the characters moving, and while Amini uses it to show how each is trying to escape themselves (and more so than the authorities), this is also clumsily done. What we’re left with as a result is a mini-travelogue where it seems that the characters are constantly outwitting each other – or appear to be – but in actuality aren’t doing anything of the sort. Chester imagines all sorts of deviousness in Rydal’s behaviour (and Isaac’s performance goes a long way to suggesting this, even though it’s not true), and he’s continually on his guard for some new twist. But ultimately he’s the author of his own downfall, and has no one to blame but himself for what happens.

Amini never reconciles Rydal’s willingness to keep in with the McFarlands, even after he knows what they’ve done, and while his attraction for Colette is an understandable reason in itself, there are moments where he’s making decisions about carrying on but we never find out what his reasons are. It ends up being a problem for the narrative when it just feels that if he didn’t, the plot (and the movie) would grind to a halt.

In adapting Highsmith’s novel, Amini has jettisoned the homo-erotic subplot between Chester and Rydal in favour of a more conventional love triangle approach, and in doing so he robs the movie of a potential, and valuable, source of tension. For otherwise, the movie plods along looking good but feeling empty, its characters relying heavily on plot contrivances such as Rydal just happening to know someone who can provide forged passports, and Colette getting so easily frightened and leaving the bus.

As Chester, Mortensen puts in a good performance but even he can’t reconcile the character’s initial fearfulness and vulnerability with the more callous character he becomes. Dunst has a couple of emotional scenes that show off her skills as an actress, but again she can’t reconcile Colette’s initial happiness with her husband with the antipathy she shows toward him once they leave Athens (she already knows they’re on the run, why should this make her feel any different? And this is before she learns of Vittorio’s death). Rounding off the trio, Isaac portrays Rydal as a conspiring victim, unsure of himself as he gets in deeper and looking for a way out, even though he can’t see one. It’s a confident performance, not as conflicted as Mortensen and Dunst’s, but unfortunately, still a little shy of being satisfactory.

Two Faces of January, The - scene2

With the scenery providing a welcome (and thankful) distraction from the unwieldy and undercooked melodramatics, the movie adds a particularly awkward scene at a customs hall where Chester and Rydal act so suspiciously it’s a wonder they aren’t picked out of their respective queues sooner. And the denouement, included to add some much needed excitement, is so poorly edited that any sense of vitality is diminished quite rapidly. There’s a great movie to be had from Highsmith’s novel, but alas, this isn’t it, and for that, Amini is the only one to blame.

Rating: 5/10 – with its cast unable to elevate the material or make up for Amini’s lack of directorial control, The Two Faces of January fails to provide any tension or mystery; plodding, and with a weak resolution, the movie looks great throughout but offers little that’s arresting to occupy the viewer’s time.

Trailer – Aloha (2015)

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The latest movie from Cameron Crowe has a trailer that is all kinds of funny and smart and funny and witty and funny and romantic and did I mention funny? With one of the best openings to a trailer ever, there’s a good chance that Crowe’s got his groove back after the slight hiccup that was We Bought a Zoo (2011). Enjoy!

The Timber (2015)

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Timber, The

D: Anthony O’Brien / 82m

Cast: Josh Peck, James Ransone, David Bailie, Elisa Lasowski, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Julian Glover, Mark Caven, Shaun O’Hagan, William Gaunt, Attila Arpa

1898, the Yukon Territory. Brothers Wyatt (Ransone) and Samuel (Peck), along with their mother Maggie (Kennedy) and Samuel’s wife, Lisa (Lasowski) and their newborn son, are struggling to keep their property from being foreclosed by local businessman and bank owner George Howell (Glover). When Howell tells Wyatt that their debt will be paid if he tracks down and captures the brothers’ father, Jebediah (Gaunt), he has no choice but to accept. Samuel goes with him, much to the dismay of Lisa who is fearful they won’t return.

As they set out, Howell insists they’re accompanied by Colonel Rupert Thomas (Caven), a seasoned army man who knows the area they’re travelling into, the Timber. As they make their way up into the mountains to the mining camp where their father was last known to be, the town sheriff, Snow (Bailie) visits Maggie and Lisa to make sure they’re alright. While he’s there, two of Howell’s men arrive to begin assessing the property, but before it’s legal to do so; Snow runs them off.

Heading deeper into the Timber, an accident with their horses and wagon leaves the three men having to travel on on foot. The next morning they’re attacked by a couple of mountain men and Thomas is killed. Wyatt and Samuel press on, struggling against the harsh elements and a further assault that sees Samuel captured and taken to a cave where his left hand is badly injured. Wyatt rescues him and they continue on up the mountain until they reach the mining camp. But madness has overtaken the men working there, and the foreman, Jim Broadswell (O’Hagan) has them locked up. When some of the workers use dynamite to blow up the camp, the brothers manage to escape, taking Broadswell with them.

Their father, however, intercepts them, killing Broadswell and wounding Wyatt. Unable to do anything, Samuel passes out and he and his brother are taken to a small Indian encampment where Samuel wakes to find that Jebediah has amputated his injured hand. With their father clearly out of his mind and intending to murder Wyatt, Samuel has to find the strength to save his brother, while back at their home, Howell and three of his men arrive to take the property by force if they have to.

Timber, The - scene

Shot in the stunningly beautiful Carpathian Mountains, The Timber is a Western that features an odd editing style, and the kind of elliptical narrative that could well alienate audiences expecting a more straightforward plot or storyline. It’s a bold move on the makers’ part and while it does add to the overall, nightmarish quality of the brothers’ journey, there are also times when it proves frustrating. Scenes appear disjointed, and the movie is peppered with flashbacks and Samuel’s musings on the events that take place and his own mental state. It’s not a conventional approach by any means, but in the hands of screenwriters O’Brien, Steve Allrich and Colin Ossiander, it does make for an absorbing, though unpredictable viewing experience.

That said, there are enough genre conventions to help the wary viewer along. Howell is the devious land baron, Samuel’s wife Lisa is the plucky frontierswoman with a mind of her own, and the brothers are the traditional good men trying to stay that way. These staples help the movie immensely when its non-linear approach kicks in, its deliberately steady pace allowing for more detail than expected, and for the themes of betrayal, greed, revenge and madness to work their way through the narrative more effectively. It’s a considered, more thoughtful Western, and it retains a moral compass that anchors the characters.

Samuel and Wyatt appear to be opposites, with the younger brother, Samuel, seeming to be less experienced and less mature, but as the movie progresses he proves to be his brother’s equal, and by the movie’s end he’s passed through what might be termed an adult rite of passage. Wyatt is more confident, firm in his beliefs and unafraid of doing the difficult thing, but he proves just as unprepared for what happens on the journey as Samuel. In a way, it’s his over-confidence that determines how much trouble they’ll both face, and whether or not they’ll survive the ordeal.

On the distaff side, Lisa and Maggie are the type of dependable women who seem used to being left by their men, and who harbour a mainly unspoken resentment of it. Maggie is fearful for her sons’ return because she’s already lost her husband to the Timber; she doesn’t want to lose them in the same way. Lisa is fearful because of her newborn child and being left alone, and sees the brothers’ quest as being irresponsible. When they leave she makes her feelings clear by avoiding a kiss from Samuel, then adopts his role by guarding the property while they’re gone. She’s a practical woman because she has to be.

Peck and Ransone make a good pairing, their physicality and dramatic intensity proving an apt fit for the material, while Lasowski offers grit and determination to spare. Kennedy uses Maggie’s loss to present a woman living in both the past and the present, and Bailie gets the chance to reveal a greater depth to the sheriff’s character than is at first apparent. As the underhanded Howell, Glover exudes a cold nonchalance that befits his character’s greed, and for those of you who may be wondering, yes it is the same William Gaunt who appeared in the cult Sixties’ TV series The  Champions who plays Jebediah (though you’d be hard pressed to recognise him).

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With the Carpathians standing in for Canada’s Yukon territory, and what must have been a difficult shoot due to the conditions – there are plenty of moments where Samuel and Wyatt are wading through knee-deep snow – The Timber is a movie full of arresting visuals and stunning scenery. O’Brien directs with a reliance on close-ups to add a measure of unnerving claustrophobia to the wide open spaces, and keeps the madness – or mountain sickness – from being too over the top. At a trim eighty-two minutes, the movie doesn’t outstay its welcome, and while as mentioned before, it provides enough genre staples to keep most Western fans happy, it’s still likely to divide audiences at the end of the trail.

Rating: 7/10 – a solid, no frills Western with a psychological core, The Timber is a well-intentioned, idiosyncratic movie that impresses as often as it hesitates; there’s much to appreciate here, but it may depend on your frame of mind when watching it as to just how much appreciation it’ll receive.

What We Did on Our Holiday (2014)

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What We Did on Our Holiday

D: Andy Hamilton, Guy Jenkin / 95m

Cast: Rosamund Pike, David Tennant, Billy Connolly, Ben Miller, Amelia Bullmore, Emilia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge, Harriet Turnbull, Lewis Davie, Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie

Doug and Abi McLeod (Tennant, Pike) are separated but have agreed to travel with their three children – Lottie (Jones), Mickey (Smalldridge) and Jess (Turnbull) – to his father Gordy’s 75th birthday party in Scotland. The reason for their going together is that Gordy (Connolly) has cancer and this birthday is likely to be his last. Doug and Abi are worried that their children will say something awkward about their marriage as no one is aware they’ve split up – not Gordy, or Doug’s brother Gavin (Miller) and his wife Margaret (Bullmore), who are organising the party. The tension between Doug and Abi – brought about by Doug having had a brief affair – is exacerbated by the long journey, but they all arrive in one piece.

Once at Gavin’s mansion home, the children spend time with Gordy while their parents get involved with the plans for the party. Gordy is fun-loving and free of the hang-ups that trouble his children and their wives, but his cancer medication is putting a strain on his heart, making hm more unwell than he’s letting on. On the morning of his birthday, Gordy opts to take the youngsters to the beach, much to the dismay of Gavin who wants the day to go perfectly (and without his father going AWOL). While they’re gone, Doug learns that Abi wants to move to Newcastle with the children; she’s found a new job there.

Down at the beach, the children have a great time with Gordy, who reveals that because of his Viking heritage – 84% – he’d like to have a Viking funeral. His idea is that it will stop the arguments between Gavin and Doug. A little while later, Gordy passes away on the beach; Lottie heads back to tell her parents but when she gets to the mansion she finds her parents arguing (and discovers her mother already has a lover). Dismayed to see that what Gordy has said about arguments is true, she goes back to the beach, where she and Mickey and Jess decide to honour Gordy in the best way they know: by giving him a Viking funeral.

'WHAT WE DID ON OUR HOLIDAYS'

While there’s nothing completely new about What We Did on Our Holiday – except for Gordy’s ultimate fate – it’s been put together and produced with a great deal of heart and soul. As a result it’s a wonderfully amusing, often laugh-out-loud movie that has enough joie de vivre to offset some of the more predictable moments, and when it ends leaves you wanting to spend just a little more time with the characters, and to find out how they move on.

Part of the charm of the movie is it’s lack of sentimentality around Gordy’s illness (and his eventual death), and the way in which it makes the children more assured than their parents. Gordy talks about his impending death as if it’s a great inconvenience, and the scene where he tells Lottie about it is touchingly and simply done (it’s probably the way we’d all like to tell someone). His illness is never allowed to assume too great an importance, except when it comes to the adults, and it’s a refreshing change to see children being treated as able to cope with such information and not be affected by it (too much at least). It’s also refreshing to see them make the kind of decision that most adults would probably balk at.

Of course, it helps when your writers and directors are the very talented Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (perhaps best known for the UK TV series’ Drop the Dead Donkey and Outnumbered). They have a knack for assembling and examining dysfunctional families and making their quirks and foibles and peccadilloes so completely entertaining that you can’t help but laugh with the characters instead of at them. So true to life are their efforts it’s not too much to imagine a little girl who collects rocks and breeze blocks (Eric and Norman respectively), or a pre-teen who uses a notebook to keep track of all the lies her parents tell. Equally, the squabbles and the caustic comments that Doug and Abi regale each other with have that essence of truth that make them so recognisable and appropriately amusing.

With the material striking only the occasional false note – Lottie’s speech to the adults late on seems forced and too much like wish fulfilment, Celia Imrie’s child protection officer is an unnecessary attempt to add some drama – the cast are left to have a field day. It’s easy to see that they’ve had a great time, and it shows in the performances. Tennant and Pike have an easy confidence around each other and their scenes together sparkle with mischievous energy. Miller does po-faced with aplomb but makes Gavin more than just strait-laced and lacking in humour (there’s a great scene where Lottie, Mickey and Jess interrogate him about what he does for a living). Bullmore doesn’t have quite as much to do but Margaret has her own back story and “the incident” is one of the funniest sequences in the whole movie. And Connolly plays Gordy with just the right mixture of resignation and resistance towards his cancer, reining in his usual acerbic style in favour of a more sweet-natured, affectionate approach that pays off in dividends. But if the adult cast are all on top form, they’re still outshone, out-performed and upstaged by the trio of Jones, Smalldridge and Turnbull. They’re so relaxed and self-assured it’s a pleasure to watch them handle the variety of emotions they’re called on to carry off, and with as much of a mischievous energy as their older co-stars. Full marks to casting directors Briony Barnett and Jill Trevellick for finding them and bringing them together.

Full marks too to the location scout who found the area of Scotland where the movie was filmed – the scenery is simply breathtaking. Having such a beautiful backdrop makes the movie all the more pleasing to watch and the visuals are supported by an unobtrusive yet fitting score by Alex Heffes. And watch out for Wiggins the ostrich – he only makes an occasional fleeting – literally – appearance but it’s one more level of comic absurdity amongst a plethora that makes the movie so delightful.

Rating: 8/10 – a great comedy that overcomes several moments of déja vu and the occasional stumble to provide a marvellous comedy experience, What We Did on Our Holiday is full of charm and playfulness; splendidly rewarding, it will put a smile on your face and keep it there until the final credits.

Mini-Review: Buddy Hutchins (2015)

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Buddy Hutchins

D: Jared Cohn / 98m

Cast: Jamie Kennedy, Sally Kirkland, Sara Malakul Lane, Steve Hanks, David Gere, Demetrius Stear, Richard Switzer, Milana Lev, Hiram A. Murray, Nicole Alexandra Shipley, HenRii Coleman, Harwood Gordon

Recovering alcoholic Buddy Hutchins (Kennedy) has a wife, Evelyn (Lane) and two kids, Joel (Switzer) and Molly (Lev). Thanks to the time when he was an alcoholic he has a dry cleaning business that’s on the verge of failing, his son hates him, his ex-wife (Shipley) is chasing him for unpaid alimony, and his relationship with his brother, Troy (Hanks) is on rocky ground. Only his daughter, his mother, Bertha (Kirkland), and his remaining employee, Ryan (Stear) actually like him. When Buddy discovers that his wife, who is a teacher, is having an affair with one of the other staff, Don (Gere), it’s the first in a long line of injustices and reversals of fortune that end up tipping him over the edge into murderous rage.

Along the way he’s locked out of his own house, forced to stay with his mother, see his dry cleaning business seized by the bank, he’s threatened by his ex-wife’s new boyfriend (Coleman), ends up in jail for harassment, loses custody of his children in divorce proceedings, has to deal with his mother’s hospital bill when she has a heart attack, learns his father whom he thought was dead is actually alive and is really his uncle (his uncle is actually his father), and loads more beside. He starts drinking again and decides that it’s time to take back control of his life… by killing anyone he feels has contributed to the mess his life has become. In possession of a gun and a chainsaw, Buddy begins to take his revenge, leading to a standoff with the police.

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A low budget drama-cum-thriller-cum-occasional black comedy (with a budget so low that some of it was filmed in the director’s own home), Buddy Hutchins is a movie that must have looked and sounded good on paper, but which in reality is so ragged and unconvincing that the average viewer will be wondering why anyone bothered. The movie seeks to make Buddy a sympathetic character who is just so incredibly hard done by by virtually everyone around him, but trips up from the start by making him an unlikeable, arrogant jerk who blames everyone but himself for his troubles. With Kennedy unable to salvage the character (though he tries), the movie staggers as drunkenly as Buddy from one poorly shot, flatly directed scene to another.

Against a script by Cohn that abandons all credibility long before it gets to the point where Buddy is pursued in his van for hours by three lone police cars and then evades them just… like… that (or when he’s at Don’s house and he goes straight to the one cutlery drawer that has a gun in it), the movie offers little more than a succession of disasters that are piled on with no discernible reason other than that they’re meant to be humorous somehow. With characters behaving meanly and selfishly for no other reason than the script requires them to, Buddy Hutchins becomes quickly swamped by increasingly unlikely scenarios, and branches into gore territory once Buddy starts using his chainsaw.

Rating: 3/10 – as the movie adds to Buddy’s agony, so too does it add to the viewer’s, making Buddy Hutchins a movie that satisfies on only a couple of unexpected occasions; Kennedy does his best to keep it interesting but the material defeats him, and to make matters worse – if that was possible – Cohn’s direction is largely AWOL.

The Voices (2014)

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Voices, The

D: Marjane Satrapi / 103m

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith, Paul Chahidi, Stanley Townsend, Adi Shankar, Sam Spruell

Jerry Hickfang (Reynolds) has a problem. Actually, he has quite a few problems, but the main one is that his cat, Mr Whiskers, and his dog, Bosco, talk to him. Mr Whiskers  wants Jerry to behave in all sorts of horrible ways and takes a caustic view of him when he refuses to listen. Bosch is more supportive of Jerry and tells him that he’s a better person than the one Mr Whiskers wants him to be. Jerry does his best to ignore both of them, but therein lies another problem: the reason he can hear them is because he’s not taking his medication… and anti-psychotic medication at that.

Jerry works in the shipping department at a bathtub factory. He gets on well with his fellow workers and is regarded highly by his supervisor Dennis (Chahidi). He has a crush on one of the accounts staff, Fiona (Arterton) and musters up the nerve to ask her out, remaining blissfully unaware that Lisa (Kendrick) (who works with Fiona) has a crush on him as well. However, Fiona stands him up and goes out with Lisa and Allison (Smith), another accounts clerk. When she tries to go home her car won’t start. Jerry happens to pass by and offers Fiona a lift. They decide to go for a drink together but on the way a deer hits the car. The deer tells Jerry that it’s too injured to survive and that he should kill it. Jerry takes out a knife and cuts its throat. Fiona freaks out and runs from the car into the woods. Jerry chases after her and when he catches up with her he stabs her… accidentally at first and then repeatedly.

He leaves the body there but Mr Whiskers persuades him to go back the next day and retrieve it. He takes it home, cuts it up into little pieces and puts Fiona’s head in his fridge. She’s not happy about being alone in the fridge and tries to persuade Jerry to find someone she can have as company. Jerry resists though and to try and improve things, resumes taking his medication. He and Lisa start to see each other, but when she decides to surprise Jerry at his place she sees what he’s been doing, and it leads to Fiona getting her wish after all. When Allison goes missing as well (after finding out about Jerry’s past), two of his workmates, John (Shankar) and Dave (Spruell), grow suspicious of Jerry and visit his home. What they find there leads them to call the police…

Voices, The - scene

First shown at the Sundance Festival back in January 2014, The Voices finally arrives in cinemas and on VoD but, despite several festival awards under its belt, with very little fanfare. Part of this may be to do with the movie’s content. If you watch the trailer it keeps things light and funny (you could even be forgiven for thinking it’s a serial killer rom-com with an emphasis on the com), but what the movie does in reality  is try to offset moments of goofy humour with darker insights into the mind of a seriously disturbed individual. But in doing so, The Voices proves to be as schizophrenic as its main character.

With the tone of the movie veering between whimsical and malicious, and with detours that take in quirky, creepy and absurd, it doesn’t take long for the viewer to realise that the material is going to be uneven and, as a result, not entirely convincing. Yes, Jerry is mentally ill, psychotic even, and yes, the way in which his two states of mind – on drugs, off drugs – are cleverly dramatised by the state of his apartment – gleaming and clean when off his meds, gnarly and grim when he’s on them – but there’s still not enough glue to hold all the pieces together. Part of the problem is that the script (by Michael R. Perry) gives the impression that once all the ideas for the movie were gone through the decision was made to include them all, whether they worked or not.

Off the back of this, Satrapi has fashioned a movie that works well in spurts but drags in others while meandering in-between times. It makes for a frustrating watch and while Reynolds gives an atypical performance that works well with the material (though his doofus smile makes him look mentally challenged rather than mentally ill), the feeling that a firmer hand was needed persists throughout. Reynolds certainly understands the character, and he makes Jerry entirely sympathetic. All Jerry wants to be is happy; it’s just the way he goes about it that’s inappropriate. And he makes it clear when the script doesn’t that Jerry has a degree of self-awareness about his illness and what it makes him do, but a couple of token instances of resistance aside, he can’t quite pull off the ease with which Jerry goes about killing people.

As for Mr Whiskers and Bosco, it’s clear that they’re meant to be the source of much of the movie’s humour, but once you’ve heard Mr Whiskers’ Scottish-sounding, foul-mouthed attempts at coercion the first time, it soon becomes a played-out plot device; he needs to be less aggressive and more insinuating. The same is true of Bosco, his down-home Southern drawl humorous at first but proving more of a vocal stunt as the movie progresses (Reynolds provides both voices, adding to the conceit that Jerry is hearing their voices inside his own head and they’re not really talking to him). Otherwise, the humour relies on severed heads proving peevish about their situation, awkward comments that Jerry makes to his co-workers, and a few cartoon-style moments that we’ve all seen before.

The rest of the cast cope well enough with largely under-developed characters, with Arterton and Kendrick reduced to window dressing, though Weaver (as Jerry’s court-appointed psychiatrist) acts like she’s in a farce and not something trying to be a little darker. Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography and Udo Kramer’s production design combine to make Berlin look like the US, and the movie is full of garish little touches, such as the work clothes Jerry and his co-workers have to wear. And at the end there’s a musical number that concludes things with one final (unnecessary) flourish.

Rating: 6/10 – while not as clever or as funny as it thinks it is, The Voices does have a (still beating) heart that helps the viewer wade through some of the more uneven aspects; better as well thanks to Reynolds’ involvement, it’s a movie that will probably gain cult credibility in the future but its delay in hitting cinemas should act as a warning as to its real quality.

Selma (2014)

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Selma

D: Ava DuVernay / 128m

Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, André Holland, Stephan James, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Roth, Wendell Pierce, Alessandro Nivola, Stephen Root, Oprah Winfrey, Dylan Baker, Cuba Gooding Jr, Martin Sheen

1964. Martin Luther King Jr (Oyelowo) receives the Nobel Peace Prize, mere weeks after the deaths of four children in an explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Also in Alabama, Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) tries to register to vote but has her application denied. King visits President Lyndon B. Johnson (Wilkinson) at the White House to ask for federal legislation that will allow black citizens to register without being impeded. Johnson tells him that, while he agrees with  King about the issue, it’s not one that he’ll be focusing on any time soon. Having already decided to march on the courthouse in Selma, Alabama if the President refuses to help, King sets things in motion.

Joined by members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), King and his followers march on the courthouse where they’re confronted by the town sheriff and his men. A brawl ensues during which Clark is assaulted by Annie Lee Cooper and King and several others are jailed. Alabama’s governor, George Wallace (Roth) is angered by the protest, and when a night march in Marion is planned, he takes steps to have it dispersed. The march ends in violence and leads to the death of a young protester, shot while trying to avoid trouble in a restaurant. Following this, King receives criticism for his beliefs but he continues to insist that people should be fighting for their rights.

Another march is planned, this time from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, a distance of fifty miles. Leaving Selma, the march crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge where it is met by state troopers who instruct everyone to disperse. When they don’t, the troopers put on gas masks and start hurling tear gas into the crowd; they also attack the march using clubs and other weapons, as well as riding people down. It’s all witnessed by TV news crews and broadcast live across the nation, leaving Johnson angry at Wallace’s actions. He sends John Doar (Nivola), the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights to try and persuade King to call off the next attempt at marching to Montgomery, while he personally attempts to coerce Wallace into resolving the issue of registration and the use of state troopers if the march goes ahead.

White Americans who support King’s cause and civil rights in general, arrive to take part in the march. Again they cross the bridge, but this time King is leading. When they see the state troopers, they’re surprised to see them step aside. King kneels and prays for a few minutes, then heads back into Selma, effectively cancelling the march. More political manoeuvrings go on, including Johnson asking Congress for the quick passing of a bill to eliminate restrictions on registering, and the march to Montgomery finally goes ahead.

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For America, the Sixties were a turbulent decade, one that saw a variety of freedoms and rights enshrined in law, and the beginning of a transition from the kind of post-War conservatism that saw danger in any type of change, to a more free-minded liberalism that challenged the old order on almost every front. Racial issues were high on the agenda, if not for the politicians, then certainly for black people, and not just in the South. It was a time when people from all walks of life began to stand up and say, “enough is enough” (or to paraphrase Howard Beale in Network (1976): “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!”). But as ever, the battle was an uphill one, and there were plenty of people, equally, who were prepared to see it fail.

The determination and the will to succeed that existed in Martin Luther King Jr is shown here as forceful and impassioned, but there’s a measure of self-doubt as well, and it’s this rounding of the man that helps make the movie as commanding as it is. Avoiding any attempts at mythologising King, Selma gives us a portrait of a man fully aware of his mission in life and confident enough to second-guess himself when needed. It’s a balance that could have been lost on several occasions during the course of the movie, not least in its depiction of his troubled marriage, where the script so neatly sidesteps any possibility of descending into soap opera that it makes for a refreshing change. And the complexities of the organisations involved and how they all interact with King, are also well handled, showing the figurehead but not the leader. The movie shows King making decisions based both on his own ideas and those of others, and if his opponents – such as Wallace – appear too one-dimensional in comparison, well, maybe that’s because they just were.

King is played with tremendous gravitas and skill by Oyelowo, imbuing King with a pride and a sensitivity that never seem at odds with each other. It’s an impressive achievement, sharply detailed, perfectly pitched, and one of the finest acting performances you’re likely to see in a long while. It helps that he has a passing resemblance to King, but it’s the voice that he captures so well, that distinctive, low cadence that could rise to a crescendo so effortlessly in the middle of a sentence. It’s not far from the truth to say that Oyelowo inhabits the man rather than impersonates or mimics him (listen to the speech the real King made when the march reached Montgomery, and then listen to Oyelowo’s version and see how close he is), and he’s just as effective in the movie’s more pensive moments as he is when called upon to be the fiery orator.

Good as Oyelowo’s performance – and it is very good – he wouldn’t have been anywhere near as imposing if it weren’t for an extremely well-structured and heavily nuanced script, courtesy of Paul Webb (his first). He makes the politics easy to understand, the characters easy to empathise with or condemn (as necessary), and he doesn’t rein in on the complexities of the issues concerned. It’s a great screenplay, and the rest of the cast, aided and abetted by DuVernay’s strong, sanguine direction, relish every scene and line at their disposal. (If there is one area, though, where Webb fails to convince, it’s in Johnson’s refusal to address the issue of voting registration; his arguments are spurious at best, though they may have been so at the time – it’s hard to tell.)

DuVernay, making only her third feature, emphasises the various relationships that develop between the different factions, and never loses sight of the human factor in amongst all the politicking. She uses the camera with aplomb, particularly with medium shots, imparting a level of detail some more experienced directors fail to achieve ever. And there’s a richness about the movie that speaks of carefully considered choices made ahead of filming, of everyone involved knowing exactly what’s required and everyone involved having the conviction to carry it off. The mood of the times, and the look of the times, are tellingly rendered, and the atmosphere surrounding the planning of each march is palpable, taking the movie – unwittingly perhaps – into thriller territory. But the drama remains throughout, and by the movie’s end, the audience is rejoicing almost as much as the characters are.

Rating: 9/10 – a rewarding look at a particular place and time in American history, Selma takes a flashpoint that resonates far beyond its happening, and makes it as compelling and vital as if it were happening today; a triumph for all concerned and buoyed by Oyelowo’s superb performance, DuVernay’s apposite approach to the material, and Webb’s rewarding screenplay.

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 6: The Fatal Crash

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 14m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell

Escaping from the Interstate Power House just as it starts collapsing around them, Mandrake and Lothar head for their car. Spotted by the Wasp’s henchmen, a struggle ensues during which Mandrake manages to acquire a distinctive knife from one of the henchmen. Back at Professor Houston’s he tells, Betty, Tommy, Dr. Bennett, Webster and Raymond that he should be able to find out where the knife was purchased. But two of the Wasp’s men are listening outside and when no one is looking, they steal back the knife.

Meanwhile, Professor Houston manages to outwit one of his guards and get a radio message to Mandrake, telling him that he’s about to be moved to an ironworks in a place called Dorgan. With Betty’s help, Mandrake learns that Dorgan is fifty miles away, so he decides to fly there in his plane. The Wasp learns of this and arranges for another plane to intercept Mandrake’s. The magician reaches Dorgan only for the pilot of the other plane to shoot at him. Houston attempts to slip away while the Wasp’s men watch as Mandrake’s plane is hit and it crashes into the ground.

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It’s the halfway stage, and Mandrake, the Magician is proving to be a serial with a keen sense of its own absurdity and a great deal of vigour. It’s formulaic to be sure, but every now and then it throws in something unexpected, as with this episode and Mandrake’s taking a brief time out from sleuthing to show off a magic trick to Betty and Tommy. And with the brief running time (which still includes the same title sequence as every other chapter, a recap of the previous episode, plus a look ahead to the next chapter), there’s no chance to indulge in a car chase, and only a very short bout of fisticuffs. Instead, the focus drifts away from Mandrake for most of the episode, leading to a scene where the Wasp punishes one of his men, and more time with Professor Houston.

The fast pace and devil-may-care approach to the material – the Wasp remains as supernaturally omniscient as always, now the radio transmitter has been found the Wasp’s men take to eavesdropping at windows – help make the serial fun to watch, and Chapter 6: The Fatal Crash (which we all know isn’t true) is a good case in point. The writers clearly know their stuff, and make this episode – and despite its short amount of new material – a pleasing addition to the series, bringing all the main characters together and through Professor Houston, showing that Mandrake isn’t the only proactive character. And yes, as you can see above, the makers have seen fit to include lightning bolts to indicate an electric shock – does it get any better than that?

Rating: 6/10 – the whole section with the knife is all filler and to be honest, heavily redundant, but there’s enough incident in Chapter 6: The Fatal Crash to make this one of the more enjoyable episodes; surprisingly improved by having less Mandrake in it, the serial maintains the energy of previous entries and makes the next episode look even more exciting.

The BAFTAs 2015

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The British Academy Film and Televison Awards are given in separate awards ceremonies, with the television honours arriving on 10 May 2015. The film side of things were awarded on 8 February 2015 at London’s Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Here are the various categories and their nominees, with the winners highlighted in bold.

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Outstanding British Film

The Imitation Game – Morten Tyldum, Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwarzman, Graham Moore; Paddington – Paul King, David Heyman; Pride – Matthew Warchus, David Livingstone, Stephen Beresford; ’71 – Yann Demange, Angus Lamont, Robin Gutch, Gregory Burke; The Theory of Everything – James Marsh, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce, Anthony McCarten; Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer, James Wilson, Nick Wechsler, Walter Campbell

An unsurprising win and the first of the evening, giving the movie a head start over its co-nominees in other categories. Presented by David Beckham.

Special Visual Effects

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Erik Winquist, Daniel Barrett; Guardians of the Galaxy – Stephane Ceretti, Paul Corbould, Jonathan Fawkner, Nicolas Aithadi; The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, R. Christopher White; Interstellar – Paul Franklin, Scott Fisher, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter; X-Men: Days of Future Past – Richard Stammers, Anders Langlands, Tim Crosbie, Cameron Waldbauer

Not the most obvious choice out of a pretty even field but as much a decision arrived at because of the “reality” that was created. Presented by Felicity Jones and Stephen Hawking.

Supporting Actor

Steve Carell – Foxcatcher; Ethan Hawke – Boyhood; Edward Norton – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher; J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

A popular decision and a well-deserved award, Simmons was succinct, funny and appropriately humble. Presented by Reese Witherspoon.

Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette – Boyhood; Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game; Rene Russo – Nightcrawler; Imelda Staunton – Pride; Emma Stone – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

The only choice really but more so because of Boyhood than because her performance was better than the rest. Presented by Cuba Gooding Jr.

Cinematography

Birdman or (the Virtue of Unexpected Ignorance) – Emmanuel Lubezki; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman; Ida – Łukasz Żal, Ryszard Lenczewski; Interstellar – Hoyte Van Hoytema; Mr. Turner – Dick Pope

Accepted by Michael Keaton, this wasn’t entirely unexpected as the movie’s use of long takes was innovative and complex. Presented by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Martin Freeman.

Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer

Stephen Beresford, David Livingstone – Pride; Gregory Burke, Yann Demange – ’71; Elaine Constantine – Northern Soul; Paul Katis, Andrew De Lotbiniere – Kajaki: The True Story; Hong Khaou – Lilting

The movie’s popularity and its huge public awareness made this a shoo-in for the award, though it would have been nice to see ’71 win instead. Presented by Tom Hiddleston and Mark Strong.

Original Screenplay

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr, Armando Bo; Boyhood – Richard Linklater; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson; Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy; Whiplash – Damien Chazelle

Accepted by Ralph Fiennes, who read out a wonderfully funny letter from Wes Anderson; absolutely deserved. Presented by Julianne Moore.

Film Not in the English Language

Ida – Pawel Pawlikowski, Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol, Ewa Puszczynska; Leviathan – Andrey Zvyagintsev, Alexander Rodnyansky, Sergey Melkumov; The Lunchbox – Ritesh Batra, Arun Rangachari, Anurag Kashyap, Guneet Monga; Trash – Stephen Daldry, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Kris Thykier; Two Days, One Night – Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Denis Freyd

A great result for a great movie and richly deserved, Ida‘s director gave an eccentric but entertaining speech. Presented by John Boyega and Alice Eve.

Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper – Jason Hall; Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn; The Imitation Game – Graham Moore; Paddington – Paul King; The Theory of Everything – Anthony McCarten

Again, no surprise, and absolutely the right choice, because McCarten’s screenplay is, literally, a superb achievement. Presented by Noomi Rapace and Jesse Eisenberg.

Director

Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel; Damien Chazelle – Whiplash; Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Richard Linklater – Boyhood; James Marsh – The Theory of Everything

Accepted by Ethan Hawke who made an emotional and passionate speech. Presented by Steve Carell.

Leading Actor

Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game; Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel; Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler; Michael Keaton – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Another unsurprising result but Redmayne gave an impassioned speech. Presented by Kristin Scott Thomas.

Leading Actress

Amy Adams – Big Eyes; Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything; Julianne Moore – Still Alice; Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl; Reese Witherspoon – Wild

As expected, but while Moore was incredible, Jones was astonishing and this was the only time where the award went to the wrong person. Presented by Chris Evans and Henry Cavill.

Film

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher, James W. Scotchdopole; Boyhood – Richard Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson; The Imitation Game – Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwarzman; The Theory of Everything – Eric Bevan, Tim Fellner, Lisa Bruce, Anthony McCarten

Given The Theory of Everything‘s dominance elsewhere during the evening, Boyhood‘s win was something of a surprise, but what a great surprise, and a great speech from Ellar Coltrane. Presented by Tom ‘Fucking’ Cruise.

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And those other awards not seen on the BBC broadcast:

Animated Film

Big Hero 6 – Don Hall, Chris Williams; The Boxtrolls – Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable; The Lego Movie – Phil Lord, Christopher Miller

Any one of these could have won and it would have been a fair result. These days the animated movie award is possibly one of the most hotly contested, but full marks to Lord and Miller for making The Lego Movie such an enjoyable winner.

British Short Animation

The Bigger Picture – Chris Hees, Daisy Jacobs, Jennifer Majka; Monkey Love Experiments – Ainslie Henderson, Cam Fraser, Will Anderson; My Dad – Marcus Armitage

A labour of love for the makers and a great result ahead of its nomination at the Oscars.

British Short Film

Boogaloo and Graham – Brian J. Falconer, Michael Lennox, Ronan Blaney; Emotional Fusebox – Michael Berliner, Rachel Tunnard; The Kármán Line – Campbell Beaton, Dawn King, Tiernan Hanby, Oscar Sharp; Slap – Islay Bell-Webb, Michelangelo Fano, Nick Rowland; Three Brothers – Aleem Khan, Matthieu de Braconier, Stephanie Paeplow

Also Oscar nominated, this is a great win that gives the makers a massive boost for the US ceremony in two weeks’ time.

Make-Up and Hair

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Frances Hannon, Mark Coulier; Guardians of the Galaxy – Elizabeth Yanni-Georgiou, David White; Into the Woods – Peter Swords King, J. Roy Helland; Mr. Turner – Christine Blundell, Lesa Warrener; The Theory of Everything – Jan Sewell, Kristyan Mallett

The first of three technical wins for The Grand Budapest Hotel but a great acknowledgement of the exceptional work that went on behind the camera.

Original Music

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Antonio Sanchez; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat; Interstellar – Hans Zimmer; The Theory of Everything – Jóhann Jóhannsson; Under the Skin – Mica Levi

Levi’s score for Under the Skin was daring and strange (and the only good thing about the movie) but Desplat’s win was just as deserved.

Costume Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Milena Canonero; The Imitation Game – Sammy Sheldon Differ; Into the Woods – Colleen Atwood; Mr. Turner – Jacqueline Durran; The Theory of Everything – Steven Noble

Canonero is an old hand at this (if she’ll forgive the phrase), and really had no competition, so this was no surprise at all.

Production Design

Big Eyes – Rick Heinrichs, Shane Vieau; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pinnock; The Imitation Game – Maria Djurkovic, Tatiana Macdonald; Interstellar – Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis; Mr. Turner – Suzie Davies, Charlotte Watts

Creating a world that is at once familiar and yet strange as well is always a challenge, but Stockhausen and Pinnock did an amazing job, and in reality, only Mr. Turner came anywhere close.

Sound

American Sniper – Walt Martin, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Thomas Varga, Martin Hernández, Aaron Glascock, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wayne Lemmer, Christopher Scarabosio, Pawel Wdowczak; The Imitation Game – John Midgley, Lee Walpole, Stuart Hilliker, Martin Jensen, Andy Kennedy; Whiplash – Thomas Curley, Ben Wilkins, Craig Mann

Always likely to be the winner, Whiplash is as much an aural treat as it is a visual one, making this award entirely well deserved.

Editing

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Barney Pilling; The Imitation Game – William Goldenberg; Nightcrawler – John Gilroy; The Theory of Everything – Jinx Godfrey; Whiplash – Tom Cross

Another shoo-in, Cross’s efforts were nothing short of amazing, making this along with Sound completely in Whiplash‘s pocket.

Documentary

CITIZENFOUR – Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutzky; Finding Vivian Maier – John Maloof, Charlie Siskel; 20 Feet from Stardom – Morgan Neville, Caitrin Rogers, Gil Friesen; 20,000 Days on Earth – Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard; Virunga – Orlando Von Einsiedel, Joanna Natasegara

Absolutely and completely the only possible outcome and still the scariest non-horror movie you’re ever likely to see.

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So it was The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s night with five wins, ahead of Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash on three. Sad to see The Imitation Game and Mr. Turner come away with nothing but that’s often the way some years.

Oh, and if anyone’s wondering why the ‘F’ word is included in Tom Cruise’s name, well it’s because that’s how he was introduced by Stephen Fry (when the compere wasn’t getting kisses from Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Cuba Gooding Jr).

Ida (2013)

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MCDIDAA EC008

D: Pawel Pawlikowski / 82m

Cast: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski, Halina Skoczynska

Poland, the early Sixties. Anna (Trzebuchowska) is a novitiate nun at a convent in the countryside. She has an aunt, Wanda Gruz (Kulesza), who is her only living relative; before Anna takes her vows, the Mother Superior (Skoczynska) advises her that she should visit her. She goes to the city where she finds her aunt is well off through her work as a judge (she’s also an alcoholic who enjoys one night stands). She isn’t there very long when Wanda tells Anna that she’s Jewish and her real name is Ida; also that her parents are killed during the war. At first, Anna doesn’t believe her, but Wanda shows her some photos, including those of a little boy, and tells her that her mother was very artistic.

Anna wants to visit their graves but Wanda tells her that no one knows where they are buried. Anna persists in wanting to find them. She and her aunt travel to her parents’ home in order to begin their search. There, Wanda speaks to the current owner, Feliks (Szyszkowski), looking for the whereabouts of the man’s father, Szymon (Trela), who lived there during the war, and who was sheltering Anna’s parents. Szymon is in hospital, so Wanda and Anna travel to see him. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker, Lis (Ogrodnik), a sax player heading to play a gig in the same town; there is an immediate attraction between him and Anna. When they visit Szymon he tells them nothing.

However, Feliks turns up at their hotel room and promises to show them where the bodies are buried, but only if Anna signs away all rights to the house and the land. She agrees. He takes them straight to a wooded area where he begins to dig until bones start to appear. There are three bodies in all: Anna’s parents and the little boy from the photos who proves to be Wanda’s son. Feliks confesses to having killed them all, but leaving Anna at a local church as she could pass for Christian. Anna and Wanda take the bones and bury them in a nearby Jewish cemetery.

Anna decides to return to the convent, but her exposure to the outside world has filled her with doubts about becoming a nun. She leaves again and heads back to the city, partly to test her faith and partly to attend an unexpected funeral.

Ida - scene

An austere, rigorously shot movie in starkly beautiful black and white, Ida is one of the most powerful movies of recent years. There is a tangible layer of history that seeps through the narrative, colouring the actions of Wanda, and making its effects known at all times. Poland lost a fifth of its population during World War II – including three million Jews – and this terrible statistic is hinted at in the fate of Anna’s parents, their remains recovered but unlike so many buried in unmarked graves across the country. Using this as a backdrop to the main storyline, Pawlikowski and co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, have fashioned a compelling, disturbing movie whose emotional undertones are never far from the surface, and when they do break through, have a devastating effect.

The movie also maintains a strict, religious overtone, Anna’s faith tested on several levels but always giving her the strength to carry on. Trzebuchowska (a devout atheist in real life) gives a magnificent performance as Anna, her pale gaze appearing like a blank canvas with nothing to reveal, but it’s her eyes that always tell you how she’s feeling, seeming at times to be looking at something far away and yet as close to her as to be touching. It’s a quiet, well-modulated performance, the movie’s backbone and its source of inquiry as well, as Anna’s exposure to the horrors of the past and the pleasures of the present help inform the audience of the wider issues the movie deals with.

She’s matched by Kulesza’s angry, demoralised Wanda, a cog in the wheel of the state system who once prosecuted Poles who resisted the Nazis, and now finds herself leading a solitary, unfulfilling life accompanied by the lingering loss of her son. Wanda’s reluctance at first to help Anna find her parents is understandable given that she already knows what she’ll find. It also makes her anger and lack of compassion for others all the more reasonable, and Kulesza treads a very careful path between Wanda being unlikeable and sympathetic, making her a credible mixture of both. As both women make their journey into the past, it becomes all too clear that Wanda’s strength and determination are all too hollow.

Those viewers with a penchant for European arthouse compositions will be enthralled by Ida, its sense of space highlighted by the many scenes where the characters are anchored firmly to the bottom of the screen, or pressed into one corner, while vast expanses tower over them. Anyone familiar with Polish movies from the early Sixties will be impressed by the way that Pawlikowski and cinematographers Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski have emulated the filming style of that time, and the way in which scenes are shot in such a way as to prove a little intimidating or uncomfortable. This, combined with the often spartan quality of the black and white images, makes the movie a constant joy to engage with, although the casual viewer might not be aware of the design and its planned execution.

In throwing some light on events that happened in Poland over seventy years ago, and how its legacy was still being felt nearly twenty years on, Pawlikowski has put together a movie that is breathtaking in its simplicity and timeless in its subject matter. It’s a welcome return to form after the serious misstep that was The Woman in the Fifth (2011), and is an impressive reminder that the Polish movie maker is one of the most innovative and compelling directors working today.

Rating: 9/10 – beneath its bleak yet elegant exterior, Ida is an emotionally charged masterpiece that is enthralling, bold and intensely complex; with two powerful central performances, it’s a triumph for Pawlikowski, and is without doubt one of the finest movies of 2013.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

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Kingsman The Secret Service

D: Matthew Vaughn / 129m

Cast: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Sofia Boutella, Sophie Cookson, Edward Holcroft, Mark Hamill, Samantha Womack, Geoff Bell, Jack Davenport

1997. While on a mission in the Middle East, Kingsman secret agent Harry Hart (code named Galahad) (Firth) makes a mistake that costs the life of his protege. He visits the man’s wife, Michelle (Womack), and their young son, who is known as ‘Eggsy’. He gives Eggsy a medal and tells him if ever he needs a favour, to ring the number on the back of the medal and say the phrase, “Oxfords not brogues”.

Eight years later, one of Harry’s fellow agents, Lancelot (Davenport) is killed while trying to rescue a kidnapped professor (Hamill). As the membership of Kingsman demands a continuous number of agents, Hart and his remaining colleagues are tasked by the service’s head, Arthur (Caine), with finding a replacement for him. Meanwhile, Eggsy’s home life hasn’t improved. His mother is in an abusive relationship with Dean (Bell), and he and his friends are bullied by Dean’s gang. When Eggsy steals  one of the gang’s car he ends up being arrested. Remembering the medal, Eggsy calls the number and repeats the phrase. Soon after he is released and finds himself in the company of Harry.

While all this is going on, the kidnapper of the professor, tech-billionaire and radical environmentalist Richmond Valentine (Jackson) is blackmailing or kidnapping important world figures in order to support his scheme to reduce the world population through the free dispersal of SIM cards adapted for use in any mobile phone. With Kingsman becoming aware of his activities, Eggsy agrees to undergo the training required to become a Kingsman agent. While he competes against the other candidates, including Roxy (Cookson) and Charlie (Holcroft), Harry pays Valentine a visit to find out more about his plans and eventually discovers that the billionaire is planning a test of his SIM cards at a church in the Deep South.

Eggsy does well enough in his training to reach the final stage where it’s between him and Roxy for the position of the new Lancelot. But his confidence and commitment is rocked by the task required of him, and in the Deep South, Harry’s infiltration of the congregation leads to an unexpected and shocking development…

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If Matthew Vaughn only ever made comic book adaptations from now until the end of time, it would be a wonderful outcome for movie lovers everywhere. Following on from Kick-Ass (2010) and X-Men: First Class (2011), Kingsman: The Secret Service is a razor-sharp, highly entertaining spy spoof that retains enough drama to give it the edge it almost doesn’t need. It’s a movie that is both self-referential and iconic, and shows just how this sort of material should be handled: with obvious love and affection.

Adapting Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic book The Secret Service, Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman have created a world where the notion of a “gentleman spy” is still very highly regarded – by the spies themselves, and by the villain of the piece – and where a certain level of style is a necessity. It’s an Old Boys network, run as an elitist organisation that works so far behind the scenes no one’s ever heard of them. With its agents named after characters from Arthurian legend, and its adoption of high-tech weapons to back up each agent’s physical prowess, the Secret Service is a potent mix of the old and the new. From its bulletproof umbrellas to its poisoned knife tipped shoes to its underground hangar full of jets and helicopters and APC’s, this is an organisation that is serious about what it does, but also knows how to have fun while doing it.

The plot is straight out of the Sixties, with a megalomaniac threatening to destroy the world unless his demands are met, his ultra-dangerous sidekick – here Boutella’s artificial limbed killing machine, Gazelle – a variety of ingenious gadgets and some of the sharpest outfits this side of a Milan catwalk. As befits a Bondian villain, Valentine has a mountain lair with enough rough-hewn corridors for Eggsy to kill dozens of his henchmen, and he has a turncoat (or two) within the Kingsman organisation. It’s all presented with a splendid amount of panache (and above all, style), and Vaughn never loses sight of how important these aspects are in the grand scheme of things.

The director is more than ably supported by a first-rate cast that sees Firth cast entirely against type (but boy is he a great choice for the role), Jackson use a lisp to underline the absurdity of his character’s ambitions, Egerton grab the opportunity of a lifetime with both hands, Strong reinforce his status as one of the finest actors around (even if his Scottish accent wavers a bit), Caine provide gravitas and just a pinch of arrogance, and in a minor role as a kidnapped Scandinavian princess, Hanna Alström almost steals the movie with an offer Eggsy can’t refuse.

But what Kingsman: The Secret Service is most likely to be remembered for is the scene at the church, a technically impressive, devastatingly violent, gratuitously vicious, and brutally in-your-face sequence where the full effects of Valentine’s plan are felt. The camera swoops in and out and around the action, keeping its focus on Harry and never once letting up on the audience, as every blow and gunshot and stabbing movement is choreographed to furious perfection. It makes the night club sequence in John Wick (2014) look anaemic by comparison, and is all the more startling and effective by being almost balletic in its blood-soaked aesthetic.

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Of course, while the violence is as bone-crunching and quasi-sadistic as you might expect from Vaughn, there’s also a great deal of humour, along with the underlying theme of finding your place in the world. It’s a rich mixture of pointed comedy and heightened violence, and as with Kick-Ass, Vaughn succeeds in ensuring neither element overwhelms the other, leaving the movie to find its own level throughout and proving an exhilarating mix of both. He’s further supported by dazzling cinematography by George Richmond, and there’s a terrific score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margetson that uses various motifs from other spy movies and still sounds fresh. And of course, special mention must be made of the costumes by Arianne Phillips, her bespoke suits and accessories all now available for the gentleman spy in your life.

Rating: 8/10 – a little too long, with the final showdown in Valentine’s lair proving an unnecessarily two-part affair, Kingsman: The Secret Service is still a stylish, uncompromising action thriller that delights at every turn; Firth is simply superb, and Egerton is a rising star with bags of ability – and then some.

The World Made Straight (2015)

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World Made Straight, The

D: David Burris / 119m

Cast: Noah Wyle, Jeremy Irvine, Minka Kelly, Adelaide Clemens, Steve Earle, Marcus Hester, Haley Joel Osment, Alex Van, Robin Mullins

North Carolina, the early Seventies. Travis Shelton (Irvine) is seventeen and without much of a future ahead of him. He’s a high school dropout, can’t hold down a job, and spends most of his time hanging out with his friends. When he discovers some marijuana plants growing in back of a property in the woods, he takes a few and sells them to local small-time drug dealer, Leonard Shuler (Wyle). When he goes back to get some more he steps into a bear trap and passes out. When he comes to he finds himself confronted by Carlton Toomey (Earle) and his son Hubert (Hester), the owners of the marijuana plants and the area’s most prominent – and feared – drug dealers. Toomey strikes a bargain with Travis: in return for his silence about the plants, they’ll take him to the nearest hospital. Travis agrees.

While he recovers at the hospital Travis meets Lori (Clemens), a nurse he was in school with. They begin a tentative relationship that continues once he’s allowed home… which proves to be out of bounds, due to an argument Travis had with his father (Van) before his accident. With nowhere else to go, Travis persuades Leonard to let him stay with him for a while. His stay isn’t appreciated by Leonard’s girlfriend, Dena (Kelly), but he and Leonard form an unlikely friendship, with Leonard’s interest in local Civil War history, in particular the Shelton Laurel massacre, piquing Travis’s enthusiasm. As he delves deeper into what happened during the massacre he learns that several of his ancestors were killed there, including a thirteen year old called David Shelton.

He and Leonard visit the site and discover a pair of glasses that might have belonged to David. Dena becomes increasingly annoyed at Travis’s presence; one night while they’re all at a carnival, she disappears. Later on at Leonard’s she returns, accompanied by Toomey, to collect her things. Much later, Travis and two of his friends go to Toomey’s to score some drugs; there he discovers that Dena has been forced into letting men have sex with her to settle a debt Toomey says he owes her. Travis returns to free her, and he takes her to Leonard. Knowing that Toomey will come looking for her, he tells them to make a run for it. And sure enough, shortly after they leave, Toomey arrives looking for restitution.

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The second screen adaptation of a novel by author Ron Rash in four months – the other being Serena (2014) – The World Made Straight is a meditation on the prolonged effects of the past on the present. It highlights the ways in which past events can influence the behaviour of people even a hundred years after they’ve happened, and emphasises the toll such an influence can have.

In Travis we have a main character who – surprisingly, given the nature of his Appalachian heritage – is unaware of the massacre and his family’s unfortunate involvement. But this is a journey of discovery, one that takes Travis away from his cloistered home life and into a world where he struggles even further to make any headway. His unexpected friendship with Leonard (who helps him pass his GED test) and his romance with Lori both point to a brighter future, but his increasing obsession with the massacre and his family’s history keeps holding him back, his need to know what happened there and why stopping him from moving forward. Irvine plays him with a swagger he hasn’t earned yet, and keeps Travis from becoming too irritating because of the mistakes he makes. It’s a rough and ready performance, in keeping with the character, and allows for a depth of feeling that pays off when Travis and Leonard visit the massacres site.

He’s not the only one haunted by the past, though. Leonard is a small-time drug dealer who was once a schoolteacher. He lost his job when a student he’d caught cheating on a test and failed, hid some drugs in his car. There’s an irony in his current “career path” and it’s not lost on him. His fascination with the past is seen as a by-product of this turn of events, as if by seeking answers to the events of the past he can find answers to his own predicament. Through Travis, Leonard is hoping to make some small amends for the way in which his life has taken a wrong turn, and for the way in which he let it happen. Wyle gives a quietly compelling performance, making Leonard’s sadness with his life all the more effective due to the losses he’s suffered. He has some difficult choices to make at the end, and while one of them seems designed more to provoke the eventual denouement, he still makes it work – just.

Sadly, while Travis and Leonard are characters given the room to live and breathe within the movie’s narrative, the same can’t be said for Dena and Lori. Dena’s drug addiction makes her manipulative and self-absorbed, almost a caricature, particularly when she attempts to seduce Travis. Lori is the wholesome alternative to Dena, her fresh-faced appearance and blonde locks the opposite of Dena’s sallow complexion and lifeless hair. Kelly struggles to make more of Dena than the script will allow, and Clemens is hamstrung by Lori’s less than consistent presence in the narrative (she’s a glimpse of what Travis could have, but little more). However, the movie does have one performance that is authoritative and commanding, and that’s provided by the singer Steve Earle, whose portrayal of Toomey is soft spoken, low-key and infinitely more menacing as a result.

Shane Danielsen’s script leaves some plot lines dangling – at one point, Dena tells Travis that Leonard is his kin even though he has a different name and family background – and just why Travis becomes so enthralled by the massacre and its connection to his family is never really explained (or explored). Also, the relationship between Leonard and Dena creates its own problem as it’s difficult to work out why he’d be with her. And the ending, while not entirely unexpected, is arrived at by a series of convoluted changes of character but remains surprisingly satisfying.

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Making his feature debut, Burris directs things with one eye on the performances and one eye on the beautiful North Carolina countryside. Thanks to some stunning compositions, Burris and DoP Tim Orr make the movie a pleasure to watch, even if there’s an often wintry feel to the locations used, and there are several shots of a river that acts as a metaphor for the passage of time. It all makes the movie look more impressive than it is, but it’s not for want of trying. Burris has a good feel for the subject matter but can’t overcome the deficiencies in Danielsen’s script, and while the sense of history weighing down on the present is occasionally overdone, it doesn’t detract from the fact that, as debuts go, this is a pretty good start.

Rating: 7/10 – slow paced and not fully realised, The World Made Straight is still an auspicious debut from Burris, and lingers in the memory; worth seeing for Earle’s cobra-like performance and an atmosphere that builds to a conclusion that is both febrile and understated.

The Theory of Everything (2014)

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Theory of Everything, The

D: James Marsh / 123m

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Maxine Peake, Harry Lloyd

Cambridge, 1963. Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) is an astrophysics student with a brilliant mind and a bright future. At a party he meets Jane Wilde (Jones), who is studying Spanish Romantic poetry. As their romance blossoms so too does Stephen’s clumsiness and lack of coordination. A bad fall leads to a diagnosis of motor neurone disease and a prognosis that gives him only two more years to live. Stephen hides himself away, even from Jane, but she refuses to give up on him. Despite reservations from both their families, the pair marry and soon have their first child.

Stephen achieves his doctorate but his illness is progressing rapidly. He becomes reliant on a wheelchair for getting about and his speech deteriorates. He and Jane have a second child, and the burden on her becomes plain, but her sense of loyalty and commitment stop her from seeking help. At her mother’s suggestion she joins a local choir. Jane and the choir master, Jonathan (Cox) become friends and he begins to help her at home, looking after the children and Stephen as well. Their relationship becomes more serious; when Stephen and Jane have a third child, Jane’s mother asks if the baby is Jonathan’s. He overhears this and while he admits he has feelings for her – and she for him – he decides to stay away for a while. Stephen, however, persuades him to continue helping his family.

An invitation for Stephen to attend a concert in Bordeaux allows Jane and Jonathan to take the children camping there as well. While at the concert, Stephen becomes unwell and is taken to hospital. There a doctor advises Jane that Stephen will need a tracheotomy and that, as a result he’ll never speak again; she tells them to go ahead. Before they return to England, she and Jonathan agree not to see each other any more. Back home, Jane hires a helper, Elaine (Peake), who works with Stephen as a personal assistant. He also receives a computer which has a built-in voice synthesizer that allows him to communicate with people. It also spurs him to write a book, A Brief History of Time. When he’s invited to America to accept an award he tells Jane that he’ll be taking Elaine with him, and not her. Their marriage effectively over, Jane and Jonathan reconnect, while Stephen’s worldwide fame increases, culminating in his meeting the Queen.

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Anyone preparing to see The Theory of Everything and expecting to be overwhelmed by long stretches involving discussions related to quantum physics and black hole information paradoxes will be both relieved and pleasantly surprised. For this isn’t a biography of Stephen Hawking the noted physicist, but Stephen Hawking the individual. Eschewing his work in favour of his home life, the movie shows how his illness proved unable to diminish his spirit. As the disease that threatens his life leaves him more and more cut off from the world around him, Stephen’s determination and will to survive rises to the fore. It’s gladdening to see his personality and character still able to shine through, the spark of his mental state undimmed. Once he’s overcome his initial bout of self-pity and he marries Jane, there’s not one moment where he even comes close to contemplating giving in. And when his relationship with Elaine leads to the dissolution of his marriage, the emotion and the regret are all there in his eyes.

Stephen’s courage by itself would make for an uplifting, inspirational story, but what makes the movie even more effective is its detailing of the struggles undertaken – willingly it must be said – by his wife, Jane. As Stephen becomes increasingly disabled, the strain she feels grows and grows, and while her devotion to him is admirable, it’s clear that her need for a normal life is becoming more and more important to her. She snatches brief moments of happiness with Jonathan, a widower looking for someone to ease his own sense of loss; they’re kindred spirits, but Jane’s sense of propriety keeps them apart. This is the other tragedy the movie portrays so well: the emotional despair that comes with realising you have no more left to give, and that it’s only a solemn commitment to someone you once loved that keeps you from leaving.

Based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the movie is an emotional roller coaster ride, charting the rise and fall of their relationship over thirty years. It’s a movie that’s expertly crafted by Marsh and features an incisive, sharply defined script by Anthony McCarten. Together, they’ve created a movie that throws a spotlight onto one of the most poignant and touching of relationships and shows how mutual affection and reliance aren’t always enough. Using a surprising lightness of touch that complements the underlying humour displayed by Stephen throughout, Marsh directs with passion and perspicacity, getting to the heart of each scene with ease and coaxing tremendous performances from his two leads. It’s also a tremendous movie to look at, with Benoît Delhomme’s photography proving almost sumptuous at times, beautifully lit and offering compositions that are lush and redolent of the time in which they’re set.

But of course the main draw – or draws, if you prefer – are the performances by Redmayne and Jones. Redmayne is nothing short of excellent as Stephen, whether portraying the gauche young man with a bright future ahead of him, or the crippled, contorted genius his illness failed to stop him becoming. Redmayne’s performance is all the more impressive for having been shot out of sequence, challenging the actor to keep track of Stephen’s physical decline and adapt it to the production schedule. Even toward the end of the movie, when he’s unable to communicate except with his eyes, Redmayne ensures every feeling and every emotion is clearly written in his gaze. It’s a towering achievement, impressive both physically and for its humanity.

But in many ways, this is Jones’s movie, the actress proving mesmerising to watch, her performance one of such singular intensity and skill that it’s almost impossible to believe she’s acting, so completely does she inhabit Jane’s character and personality. Her scenes with Cox are a masterclass of understated longing and repressed emotion – when Jane declares she has feelings for Jonathan it’s such a heartbreaking moment and so powerfully realised that the viewer can only marvel at the depths being plumbed to realise such a moment in so compelling a fashion. But what Jones does best is to externalise each little instant where Jane’s love for Stephen is eroded just that little bit more, and just a little bit more, until she’s forced to admit that she did love him once. The audience can see that moment coming, and the inevitability of it, but when it does come, Jones makes it almost unbearable to watch.

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There’s more than able support from the likes of Thewlis as Stephen’s college professor, McBurney as his father, and Watson as Jane’s mother, while Cox’s diffident manner as Jonathan is so appealing it’s no wonder Jane falls in love with him (they’re still together today). The Cambridge locations are well chosen and there’s a tremendously evocative score by Jóhann Jóhannsson that is like a musical equation (if such a thing exists). And if anyone’s not sure, yes that is the real Stephen Hawking’s synthesised voice used in the final half hour, relied upon as the makers couldn’t reproduce its unique sound.

Rating: 9/10 – a superb biography of two people in a marriage where nothing is assured except the slow deterioration of their love for each other, The Theory of Everything is one of the most remarkable movies of 2014; with two justly lauded performances at its forefront, it’s a movie that dispenses its main protagonist’s passion for science in bite-size pieces and keeps the focus rightly on his successes and failures as “just another” fallible human being.

Mini-Review: Dinosaur 13 (2014)

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Dinosaur 13

D: Todd Douglas Miller / 95m

Peter L. Larson, Neal L. Larson, Patrick Duffy, Kristin Donnan, Terry Wentz, Bob Farrar, Susan Hendrickson, Bill Harlan

In 1990, Susan Hendrickson, one of a team of workers searching for fossils at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota, discovered the remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex that proved to be eighty per cent complete. The dinosaur was named “Sue” after Hendrickson, and was purchased by the Black Hills Institute for $5,000 from the owner of the land it was found on, Maurice Williams. The remains were transported to the Institute where their cleaning and restoration was overseen by its president, Peter Larson.

In 1992, the Institute was raided by the FBI and Sue’s remains were confiscated. Larson and the Institute were accused of theft from Government land (as the property where Sue was found was held in trust). After a lengthy trial, Sue was deemed to be Williams’ property after all and her remains were returned to him. In the meantime, charges were brought against Larson, his brother Neal and other members of the Institute for financial misdeeds unrelated to Sue’s discovery. While Williams got Sotheby’s to sell Sue for the princely sum of $7.6 million, Peter Larson was jailed for two years. Sue is now on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, while Larson is still searching for and finding T. Rex skeletons.

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Dinosaur 13 is one of those documentaries that makes no bones (excuse the pun) about its partisanship, and does its best to highlight the absurdities of a situation that could have been easily avoided if only a little background research had been done in the first place, and before anyone went looking for bones in the South Dakota soil. The excitement generated by Sue’s discovery sees the folks at the Black Hills Institute all but fall over themselves to retain her remains, but their lack of diligence in knowing who the land belonged to is scary (as are some of the later misdemeanours the movie reveals). However, the Government’s reaction is clearly disproportionate to what Larson and the rest actually did, and as the draconian efforts employed to convict them become clearer, the movie morphs from being about one of the greatest dinosaur finds in living memory – if not the greatest – into a cautionary tale about the way in which U.S. law can be used to punish a group of individuals.

In amongst the terrible injustices meted out to the various members of the Black Hills Institute, there are moments of bitter irony: Hendrickson becomes a state witness even though she has nothing to tell them, and when Larson is imprisoned, his intake papers show the reason for his incarceration as “failing to fill out paperwork”. Miller uses a variety of techniques to highlight and clarify the various events that happened, from interviews with those concerned – Larson’s ex-wife, Kristin, is particularly eloquent – to archival footage and pertinent television footage, to explanatory captions that move the story forward. It’s an engrossing movie that’s intelligently assembled and grabs the attention from the get go; by the end, you’re aghast at the ways in which everything went sour so quickly.

Rating: 8/10 – while Dinosaur 13 is clearly on the side of the people at the Black Hills Institute, and decries their treatment by the Government, it’s far more objective than it seems at first glance; leaving the passionate arguments on both sides for the people involved to express, the movie (thankfully) maintains its true focus on Sue and her sixty-five million year journey from the South Dakota hills to the bright lights of Chicago’s Field Museum.

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 5: The Devil’s Playmate

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 14m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell

With Mandrake unconscious on the mill wheel, and facing certain death, luck intervenes as the wheel rotates down into the cellar below and the magician falls from the wheel onto the floor. Regaining consciousness he exits the Mill River Inn where he finds Lothar fighting some of the Wasp’s men. Together they escape. Back at the home of Professor Houston, Mandrake muses on how the Wasp could have known he was going to the Inn. He suspects there is a listening device hidden somewhere in the house and with Betty’s help he not only finds it, but he also sets a trap for some of the Wasp’s men by telling her that the formula for platinite is in a safety deposit box at his bank.

The next morning, Mandrake baits the trap and manages to capture one of the Wasp’s men. The man tells Mandrake about the Wasp’s plan to destroy the Interstate Power House; Mandrake and Lothar rush there to try and stop it from happening. Somehow, the Wasp finds out about Mandrake’s imminent arrival at the power station and his men there are alerted. When Mandrake and Lothar get there they are both overpowered by the Wasp’s men: Mandrake is tied to a generator while Lothar is knocked unconscious. Just as the Wasp aims the radium machine at the building, Mandrake frees himself. Grabbing Lothar he lurches towards the exit, but then the room begins to collapse around them.

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With Mandrake again taking the fight to the Wasp, Chapter 5: The Devil’s Playmate inherits the mantle of shortest entry from Chapter 4: The Secret Passage, and also continues the trend of having a title that doesn’t relate to anything that happens during the episode. But this is an episode that crams a lot in and speeds along with gusto, the writers’ decision to make Mandrake even more proactive proving a good choice indeed. He’s not getting any nearer to finding Professor Houston or his radium machine, and he still isn’t any nearer to discovering the Wasp’s real identity, but at least he’s trying, and at last he’s found the hidden radio transmitter (go Mandrake).

This time around there are the usual punch ups and car chases (one of which ends with the Wasp’s men veering round Mandrake’s car so they can end up in the river), and the bizarre sight of Mandrake swinging from an upper balcony of the bank in order to take out three of the Wasp’s henchmen. Tommy is present for a minute or so before being sent to bed, Raymond shakes Betty’s hand then holds onto it for a very long time indeed, and as Mandrake makes to grab Lothar he stops to pick up his hat and put it on (he must really like that hat). As noted above, the Wasp somehow learns of Mandrake’s last-minute trip to the Power House, but unless he’s telepathic it’s impossible for him to know (we know he’s someone working with Mandrake but this is stretching his omniscience a bit too far). And it’s a shame that the cliffhanger ending is much the same as the destruction of the radio building at the end of Chapter 3: A City of Terror. But again, this is an episode that flies by, and it retains the series’ charm.

Rating: 5/10 – shorter than previous entries, but in some ways better, Chapter 5: The Devil’s Playmate has an energy about it that makes it all the more enjoyable; much more rewarding than the previous chapter, this bodes well for the development of the rest of the serial.

Super Bowl Trailers – Furious 7 (2015) and Minions (2015)

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America’s Super Bowl contest has become trailer heaven in recent years, with studios paying out small fortunes to have one minute trailers shown during the TV add breaks. Here are two of the best from this year’s event, the first proving that, if you had any doubts that Furious 7 might not be able to top Furious 6 for glorious, over the top vehicular mayhem, then prepare to have those doubts pushed to the kerb; and the second shows those little yellow Minions having their own Super Bowl issues. Watch and enjoy!

 

Wild Card (2015)

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Wild Card

D: Simon West / 92m

Cast: Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Milo Ventimiglia, Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, Max Casella, Sofia Vergara, Jason Alexander, Anne Heche

Nick Wild (Statham) is a security consultant living and working in Las Vegas. He’s also a gambler with a dream: win $500,000 and spend five years living the life he’s always wanted, starting with a year sailing around the Mediterranean. He takes a job protecting a young man named Cyrus Kinnick (Angarano) while he plays at the casinos. At the same time he receives a message from a friend called Holly (Garcia-Lorido), asking him to visit her. When he does he finds she’s been raped and beaten up by three men she met at the Golden Nugget. She tells Nick she wants to find out who they are so she can sue them.

Nick soon discovers the three men were local gangster Danny DeMarco (Ventimiglia) and two of his men. He’s warned not to go anywhere near them, but when he tries to tell Holly he couldn’t find out who the men were, she realises he’s lying and reminds him of a debt he owes her. Knowing it will cause trouble for him, Nick pays a visit to DeMarco at his suite. He disables DeMarco and his men, giving Holly – who’s never intended to sue them – a chance to exact her revenge on the gangster. She threatens to cut off his penis, and even nicks the side of it; he cries and pleads for forgiveness. Relenting, Holly takes $50,000 from him and splits it with Nick before leaving town.

Nick takes Cyrus to a casino, and while Cyrus plays at a craps table, Nick takes his half of DeMarco’s money and begins to gamble. He’s soon on a winning streak that culminates in his winning $506,000, enough for him to leave Las Vegas. He’s about to cash in his chips when he’s struck by an anxiety attack. He tells Cyrus that he’s been fooling himself: the money isn’t enough for him to avoid having to come back to Vegas after his five years are up. Telling himself he needs a bigger pot of money he stakes all his winnings on a single bet… and loses it all. Afterwards, he’s attacked by DeMarco’s men but manages to defeat them. But this leads to Nick being summoned to see Baby (Tucci), the boss of organised crime in Las Vegas. DeMarco has come to him with a story that Nick came to his suite, beat him up and shot his men, and stole the money to gamble with. Now Nick has to prove to Baby that DeMarco is lying, or his life will be forfeit…

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A remake of the Burt Reynolds’ movie Heat (1986), Wild Card is a project that Statham has been trying to get made for around five years. It’s also an adaptation by William Goldman of his own novel and a reworking of his script for Heat. A crime drama that features another of Statham’s occasional forays into character acting, the movie doesn’t offer anything new (hardly possible given the material’s history), but it does make for an entertaining, if occasionally risible, trip through the underbelly of life in Las Vegas.

It’s a milieu that’s been explored many, many times before, but here there’s a sense of  ennui that drifts alongside the narrative, making the characters’ desperation and need for self-improvement all the more affecting. Cyrus is a twenty-three year old self-made multi-millionaire who wants to know what it’s like not to be afraid, and to have the self-confidence to “be a man”. Holly is an escort who, like Nick, wants a better life where she’s not always at the mercy of others. And Nick himself is afraid that he’ll spend the rest of his life in Vegas, scratching a living and ending up alone. A lot of this is underplayed, a smart move by Goldman, and it gives the movie an edge that comes as a bit of a surprise.

With Las Vegas providing a more than suitable backdrop, Wild Card keeps its themes of redemption and avarice well to the fore. Nick’s return to the table after winning the money he’s always dreamed about is both inevitable and startling, and gives Statham the chance to show that he can be a better actor than a lot of people give him credit for. Sure he can pull off an action scene without breaking sweat or getting out of breath, but here he’s stretched on more than a few occasions – lying to Holly, appearing to kowtow to DeMarco, going back to the tables, looking bereft after he’s lost – and while he still maintains an aloof, taciturn presence, it’s a more rounded performance than usual.

But this being a Jason Statham movie, and one directed by Simon West – they also collaborated on The Mechanic (2011) – there’s room for a clutch of exhilarating, superbly choreographed fight scenes. Fans won’t be disappointed by the brutally inventive ways in which Nick dispatches various henchmen – one close up of a nose being broken is particularly impressive – and if these sequences still prove to be the main highlights of a movie that does its best not to be “just” an action movie, then it’s unfortunate but not entirely surprising.

The rest of the cast provide adequate support, though some are reduced almost to cameos or appear to have done only a day’s filming. Angarano and Ventimiglia have more than most to do but have a job with characters who remain cyphers throughout, with Ventimiglia in particular struggling to make more of DeMarco than the preening, psychotic gangster he appears. Garcia-Lorido brings an emotional intensity to her role that bodes well for her future, while Tucci phones in one of his patented “man with excess mannerisms” performances as Las Vegas’s capo di tutti capi. But with the likes of Davis, Heche and Vergara reduced almost to walk-on roles, the movie ends up feeling a little misogynistic.

All in all, West directs with his usual visual flair and helps Statham give one of his best performances. Goldman’s script is peppered with some less than quotable lines of dialogue – “He goes crazy and he shoots maybe my best two friends in the whole world” – but the structure is solid and Nick’s love/hate relationship with Sin City is woven into the storyline in a way that is meaningful and instructive of Nick’s personality. There’s a pleasingly claustrophobic feel to the casino scenes, and Shelly Johnson’s cinematography captures the glitz and the glamour of Las Vegas alongside its less attractive features.

Rating: 7/10 – worth seeing as a movie where Statham stretches his abilities as an actor, and for a couple of outstanding fight sequences, Wild Card is the kind of action movie that starts slow and builds to a (vicious) climax; unpretentious, and occasionally solemn, one can only hope that Statham and West get a chance to team up again soon.

Love Is Strange (2014)

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Love Is Strange

D: Ira Sachs / 94m

Cast: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Darren Burrows, Charlie Tahan, Eric Tabach, Christina Kirk, Christian Coulson

Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) are a gay couple who, after nearly forty years together, decide to get married. They have a wonderful day surrounded by friends and Ben’s family, but their happiness is short-lived. George works as a music teacher at a Catholic school; when the archdiocese finds out he’s now married, he’s dismissed. Unable to afford the upkeep on their apartment, they’re forced to sell it and seek somewhere else to live. They round up their friends and Ben’s family and ask them to put them up until they can find somewhere. Ben goes to live with his nephew, Elliot (Burrows), his wife Kate (Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Tahan). Meanwhile George moves in with their friends and neighbours, Ted and Roberto.

At his nephew’s Ben finds himself sharing a room with Joey, a situation that is uncomfortable for both of them. Kate, a writer working on her latest book, soon tires of Ben’s presence as he interrupts her work. Elliot, a music producer, works long hours and doesn’t always see the upheaval Ben’s being there entails. Issues surrounding Joey’s friendship with another boy called Vlad (Tabach) begin to cause arguments between Elliot and Kate, and Ben does his best to remain neutral but he’s clearly affected by the atmosphere in their home.

George also encounters problems at Ted and Roberto’s. They have a large group of friends that are always visiting. George’s sense of isolation begins to increase, and the frustration of not finding work straight away, or being able to find a new place to live, soon wears him down. He finds solace by visiting Ben as often as he can, and the two of them rekindle their life together. One day, Ben has a bad fall and his injuries leave him with his right arm in a sling. As he recovers, Joey and Vlad are discovered to have been stealing books from their school library. This leads to a confrontation between Elliot and Kate that results in her feelings about Ben being made apparent. And then George has a chance meeting with Brit Ian (Coulson), one that could mean he and Ben have somewhere new to live.

Film Set - 'Love Is Strange'

A measured, emotionally gratifying movie about long-term commitment and mutual dependence, Love Is Strange features the kind of performances that seem effortless, a script that is both poignant and relevant (and would remain so whatever the nature of the main relationship), direction that is carefully nuanced, and a set up with consequences that are entirely convincing. It’s a modern day chamber piece, a look at the lives of a couple whose near forty year relationship is threatened by the vicissitudes of contemporary living. It’s also one of the most emotionally honest movies made in recent years.

The relationship between retired painter Ben and music teacher George is one based on a love of the arts, but more importantly it’s the love they have for each other that the movie focuses on. Their artistic backgrounds inspire their life together; without each other they stumble and – literally in Ben’s case – fall. Once they reconnect with each other, they become re-energised, their adoration for each other so genuine that the viewer can’t help but be moved by it. After some time apart, George has had enough. He hurries to see Ben, and when he gets to him he collapses, sobbing with relief, in Ben’s arms. It’s a powerful, heart-rending moment, but where most writers would end the scene there, co-scripters Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias let the scene play on to include Elliot and Kate and their reactions. Both are made ill at ease by George’s emotional outburst, and walk away, their discomfort magnified by the lack of such a devotion in their own marriage (there’s an unresolved subplot that hints at Elliot having an affair; Kate is distant toward him as a result). It’s a brilliant moment, quietly yet impressively shot, and with such a visceral impact it’s almost shocking.

As the beleaguered duo, Lithgow and Molina are superb, investing both characters with  charm, honesty, intelligence, depth of feeling, and pathos. There’s very little that’s sentimental or saccharine about their performances either; they play each emotion and feeling with a refreshing lack of embellishment, unafraid to play it straight. It’s a joy to watch them, two experienced actors taking the material laid down by Sachs and Zacharias and making it sing. It’s a testament to both men that, although the focus is more on Ben than George, it always seems that they’re sharing the same amount of screen time, that the audience is investing the same amount of energy in following their individual trials and tribulations. Lithgow essays Ben’s increasing frailty with authority, while Molina conveys George’s sadness at his predicament with practiced ease. There’s not a false note from either of them throughout.

The same can be said for Tomei, whose portrayal of Kate continues to show her at the top of her game; the moment when she responds to Elliot’s accusation of being too soft with Joey is so vivid and so powerful it’s alarming. Tahan and Burrows offer solid support, and the narrative is beautifully endorsed by several pieces by Chopin, their melancholy refrains providing a moving counterpoint to Ben and George’s travails. A special mention as well for editors Affonso Gonçalves and Michael Taylor, who keep the rhythm of the movie at such a steady, effective pace throughout that it’s almost like “watching” a piece of music. But overall, this is Sachs’s triumph, a balanced, emotive, wonderfully constructed and delivered movie that rewards on every level.

Rating: 9/10 – with the feel and style of a European arthouse movie, but married to an American indie movie sensibility, Love Is Strange is simply, a pleasure; Lithgow and Molina make a great team, and Sachs throws his hat in the ring as someone whose next movie should definitely be sought out.

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

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Fast and the Furious, The

D: Rob Cohen / 106m

Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Rick Yune, Chad Lindberg, Johnny Strong, Matt Schulze, Ted Levine, Ja Rule, Vyto Ruginis, Noel Gugliemi, Reggie Lee

In Los Angeles, a gang of thieves are hijacking trucks using heavily modified Honda Civics. Sent undercover to find out who is behind the thefts, cop Brian O’Conner (Walker) infiltrates the street racing scene, making a particular impression at Toretto’s Market where he flirts with Mia Toretto (Brewster). This angers Vince (Schulze) who is attracted to Mia and is part of Dominic Toretto (Diesel)’s crew (Dominic is the focus of Brian’s investigation). Vince and Brian fight but Dominic breaks it up. Later, Brian turns up at a street race and bets his car’s pink slip that he can beat Dominic, but he loses. The police arrive to break up the event and Brian sees a chance to get into Dominic’s good books: he helps him get away.

They find themselves in territory controlled by Dominic’s old rival, Johnny Tran (Yune) and his cousin Lance (Lee). Johnny blows up Brian’s car, leaving him to find a “ten-second car” for Dominic. He finds a wrecked Toyota Supra and brings it to Dominic’s garage where he starts to restore it; he also begins dating Mia. Evidence points toward Tran being responsible for the hijackings, but a raid on Tran’s property reveals the goods Brian has seen there to have been legally purchased. With Tran no longer a suspect, Brian begins to believe that Dominic and his crew are responsible.

A street racing event, Race Wars, sees Dominic’s friend, Jesse (Lindberg) lose a race with Tran. Jesse flees with the car he should have handed over. Tran demands Dominic find the car and bring it to him, but Dominic is less than accommodating. Instead of looking for Jesse, Dominic and his team (who are the thieves), attempt a heist in order to help get Jesse out of Tran’s debt. But the heist goes wrong, and when Vince is badly injured, Brian breaks his cover to get him help.

Brian later attempts to arrest Dominic but he’s interrupted by the return of Jesse, who is killed by Tran and Lance in a drive-by shooting. Dominic and Brian both go after them, and it leads to a desperate chase through the streets and Brian making the toughest decision of his police career.

Fast and the Furious, The - scene

Back in 2001, the idea that this modest, straight-shooting actioner would spawn six sequels, and that they would be increasingly successful – so much so that the fifth sequel in the series, Fast & Furious 6 (2013) would gross over $750 million worldwide – seemed an unlikely one. The cast weren’t exactly household names, the director had made a modest success of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) but again wasn’t very well known, and the concept of street racing as a backdrop for criminal activity involving high-speed cars didn’t sound that exciting.

And yet the movie was – and remains – a pleasant surprise, not quite as high-octane as some of its successors, but (if it’s at all possible) more grounded and less reliant on being over the top. The car chases and vehicular action sequences are all well-staged and expertly choreographed, but there’s a lot of attention paid to the characters, and their milieu is entirely credible. With the groundwork providing a solid basis for the action, the movie is free to examine notions of brotherhood, loyalty, respect, and most of all, family, with Dominic in the role of pater familias.

All this offsets some of the sillier aspects of the script – Brian’s superiors behave like they’ve had a collective tyre iron shoved somewhere uncomfortable, and make noises like spoilt children; the final heist is attempted on one of those long American roads that no one else travels along – and helps make the movie more than just a collection of scenes that car fetishists will replay over and over again. The cars are spectacular, and the street racing scenes do have a raw energy to them, but it’s the growing bromance between Dominic and Brian that takes centre stage and proves the most enjoyable element, as the gruff, laconic mechanic-cum-street-racer-cum-hijacker takes the foolhardy policeman under his wing and welcomes him into a world he barely knew existed. It’s a little too neat that Brian keeps Dominic out of jail and places his own career in jeopardy, and Brian’s reasons for doing so are never adequately explained, but within the confines of the movie it still, somehow, works.

As ever, Diesel does brooding with his usual menacing insouciance, while Walker is all tousled curls and winning smile, but not quite the fully formed character the movie needs (though this is due more to the script by Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist and David Ayer than Walker’s actual performance). On the distaff side, Rodriguez is as ballsy as you’d expect, and Brewster provides a softer contrast, though in most respects their characters serve as eye candy with dialogue (again a problem with the script). Of the supporting cast, only Schulze makes any real impression, and it soon becomes clear that none of the rest are going to return in later instalments.

Similarities to Point Break (1991) are pretty obvious, but The Fast and the Furious is still its own thing, a turbo-charged action movie that Cohen has fun with, changing gears with gusto and setting up several moments where the audience can say “wow!” and not feel embarrassed immediately afterward. There’s a terrific score by BT that fuses industrial, hip-hop and electronica and perfectly suits the movie’s mise en scene, as well as providing a propulsive background to some of the car sequences. And if not all the car stunts seem likely, it’s worth bearing in mind the physics-defying absurdity of some of the movies that followed.

Rating: 7/10 – a solid, unpretentious beginning to the franchise, The Fast and the Furious is one of those guilty pleasures guaranteed to put a smile on your face – every time; fast moving and tense, the movie aims for thrills and spills and doesn’t disappoint.

Ex Machina (2015)

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Ex Machina

D: Alex Garland / 108m

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno

Caleb (Gleeson) is a computer coder who works for a large corporation owned by Nathan (Isaac). He wins a company raffle that involves spending a week at Nathan’s home, which is located in the midst of a vast countryside estate. On arrival he is given a key pass by an automated door system, and finds Nathan inside working out. Nathan soon reveals that he has been working on an experiment and that Caleb is there to conduct the Turing test on a robot with artificial intelligence called Ava (Vikander). Caleb’s job is to determine whether or not Ava could pass for human.

That night Caleb discovers that the TV in his room is actually a monitor that allows him to view Ava in her room. There is a power failure and Caleb is unable, temporarily, to leave his room; when he does he finds Nathan has been drinking and not in the best frame of mind. The next morning, Caleb is awakened by a Japanese girl called Kyoko (Mizuno); she doesn’t speak English, a benefit for Nathan as he can speak freely about his work. Caleb spends time with Ava and as they begin to get to know each other it becomes clear she is flirting with him. During another power failure Ava warns Caleb not to trust Nathan, and that he has been lying to him. As Ava begins to make herself more attractive to Caleb, he begins to wonder if Nathan has made this part of her programming all along.

Nathan lets Caleb see his laboratory, where he made Ava and mapped out her brain function. He insists Ava’s responses must be genuine, and reminds Caleb that if they are then the results of the Turing test must be positive. Later, Nathan gets completely drunk and when Caleb takes him to his room, he spies some cupboards and what looks like an “observation” room. When Caleb asks what will happen if Ava fails the test, Nathan is blunt: she will be updated and her memory will be erased. Caleb is upset by this prospect, and when Nathan gets drunk a second time, Caleb uses Nathan’s key pass to enter the observation room. There he sees footage that shows Nathan has been building robots like Ava for some time. He also looks in the cupboards and finds the discarded robots hanging up like old suits. When Caleb has his next meeting with Ava he tells her he has a plan for both of them to escape, and asks for her help. She agrees, and the next night they put the plan into operation.

Ex Machina - scene

Working from an original script, writer/director Garland has fashioned an intriguing sci-fi thriller that asks the question, can an artificial being truly possess human qualities, particularly real emotions. In asking that question, Ex Machina quickly becomes a guessing game for the audience, or as an old advert used to put it: is it live or is it Memorex? The answer, despite some wrong-footing and a few twists and turns in the narrative, is no, but with a caveat: there’s no answer to the further question of how Ava comes to fake the emotions she does display.

It’s unfortunate for what is otherwise a skilfully constructed and intelligent science fiction drama that when we first meet Ava she’s as self-assured and poised as she is at the movie’s end. This leaves the audience feeling that she’s been playing Caleb all along, and that the whole notion of the Turing test is irrelevant; if Nathan is as brilliant as he seems to be, he’d know already how far her development has taken her. And why go to the trouble of getting Caleb to visit him (the raffle is rigged) when it’s also clear that as clinical trials go, the parameters are so loose? In the end it boils down to who is the most manipulative – Nathan or Ava.

This conundrum aside, Garland shows a keen appreciation for his subject matter, creating a robot concept in Ava that makes physical as well as an aesthetic sense, and which allows the viewer to be reminded that she is, ultimately, a construct, not real and not able to function in the same way as humans, and even if latex skin is applied where and when necessary. This keeps the audience at a distance from her, while making Caleb all the more curious about the possibilities should she pass the Turing test. It’s a neat balancing act, and one that Garland keeps up throughout, even if he’s forced by his own script to step down from it by the expected denouement.

The look and feel of the movie is very Seventies, the austere, below level laboratory complex a maze of plain walls and functional furniture. Only Nathan’s own personal living quarters look and feel like part of the “real” world. In the end, the coldness of the laboratory area reflects Ava’s personality, and at the same time acts as a catalyst for her and Caleb’s escape – in such drab surroundings and being so confined, is it any wonder she wants to leave?

The motivations of all three main characters remain constant throughout, with Caleb’s naive, white knight demeanour expertly exploited by both Ava and Nathan, while creator and created share an antipathy toward each other that borders on hatred (on Ava’s part) and disdain (on Nathan’s part). All three actors give excellent performances, with Vikander warranting particular merit for the fine line she treads as Ava, making her both remote and alluring at the same time. Gleeson handles a role that could have been completely vanilla in comparison, but his pale features generate a mass of conflicting feelings and thoughts throughout. Isaac is the blunt force object of the trio, his stocky, powerful frame proving as muscular as his mind. As with Ava it’s a shame that Nathan operates at the same level for the duration of the movie, but it’s a compelling performance nevertheless.

Ex Machina - scene2

Garland proves to be a confident, accomplished director, gauging the performances with aplomb, and staging each scene with an economy of style and movement that greatly enhances the somewhat stoic pace and increasing tension. He’s aided greatly by cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Mark Digby, creating a futuristic environment for the science fiction aspects along side the wider marvels of the outside world Ava is so keen to see. There is the occasional narrative stumble – at one point, Caleb becomes convinced he’s like Ava and takes a slightly extreme approach to finding out one way or the other; Ava’s need to recharge her batteries would seem to preclude a proper escape – but on the whole, the script avoids the usual pitfalls such material engenders and has enough sense not to push things too far in terms of what Ava can do. That she is recognisably human by the movie’s end (at least to look at) is the movie’s ultimate triumph, reminding us that how we look on the outside is not as important as how we feel on the inside.

Rating: 8/10 – a sci-fi drama fused with metaphysical elements, Ex Machina is the first time in ages where science fiction themes have been treated with respect and intelligence; still, it’s not for everyone due to its pace and lack of perceived action, but on an emotional level it’s definitely punching above its weight.

All Relative (2014)

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All Relative

D: J.C. Khoury / 85m

Cast: Connie Nielsen, Jonathan Sadowski, Sara Paxton, David Aaron Baker, Al Thompson, Erin Wilhelmi, Liz Fye

Harry (Sadowski) is still getting over the break up with his fiancée – after a year has gone by. He’s continually encouraged to meet new women by his best friend, Jared (Thompson), but he’s afraid to take the plunge. One night, while out bowling with Jared, Harry meets Grace (Paxton); they hit it off but when he walks her home she reveals she’s seeing someone. They part as friends. Later that evening, Harry is in a hotel bar having a drink when he meets Maren (Nielsen). She’s in New York for the weekend and interested in “having fun”. They have sex in her room, but agree that it’s all purely physical. Over the course of the weekend, Harry tells Maren about Grace and she encourages him to call her. Harry and Grace meet up but she still treats him like a friend. When Harry is next with Maren, Grace texts him urgently and he goes to her, but not before Maren has made clear her disappointment with Harry’s reaction.

A month later, Harry and Grace are on their way to meet her parents. He’s nervous as Grace’s father, Phil (Baker), owns the architectural firm where he’s applied for a job. But his nervousness turns to outright dismay when Grace’s mother turns out to be Maren. With cracks in Maren and Phil’s marriage apparent from the beginning, and both Harry and Maren worried that one of them will tell Grace about their weekend together, the visit becomes bogged down by arguments and misunderstandings. When Harry is persuaded to stay over he finds himself giving marital advice to both Maren and Phil in which he preaches the values of listening and honesty – two things he’s not doing with Grace. When he finally decides to tell Grace about his time with her mother, Maren pre-empts him and sends Grace a text from his phone that ends their relationship but without mentioning their affair.

Unaware of what Maren has done, Harry is told by her as well that Grace no longer believes in his commitment to their relationship and she has ended it. Harry goes back to New York City, but doesn’t give up on Grace, or their relationship, and does his best to win her back.

All Relative - scene

There’s a point about two thirds into All Relative where Maren and Phil sit down and discuss their marriage and where it’s all gone wrong. It’s a long scene, well acted by Nielsen and Baker, but not as dramatic as it’s meant to be, and it’s a good example of the movie’s inability to make the serious parts of the script really dramatic, and to make the humorous parts really comedic. It’s an awkward mix, made more awkward by the movie’s frankly unbelievable sequence of events once Maren and Grace’s relationship is revealed. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but writer/director Khoury clearly hasn’t worked out how to make Harry’s predicament even remotely credible. And with a conclusion that feels more like a compromise than a realistic outcome, All Relative deprives the viewer of a fully rewarding experience.

Which is a shame as the movie could have been a lot sharper and a lot wittier. The initial scenes between Harry and Jared are handled with a pleasant whimsicality that bodes well for the rest of the movie, and Harry’s bashful approaches to Grace are cute without being overly cringeworthy. It’s all pointing to an enjoyable rom-com with an indie slant, and with the introduction of Maren, an indie rom-com with a slight hint of danger: will Harry have to choose between the two new women in his life?  Alas, any edge is pushed to the kerb as the movie enters farce territory with Maren’s reaction to Harry’s arrival. Nielsen’s performance teeters on the overblown at this point (and is a good indicator as to why this is her first “comedy”), but the script, on its way to being completely schizophrenic in tone, helps her out by reining in her outlandish attitude, but only by making her a relative figure of sympathy. As the movie progresses, Maren veers between being cunning and manipulative, and sensitive and thoughtful, but this inconsistency hurts both the character and the movie.

However, Maren’s uncertain personality is nothing compared to Harry’s unnecessary insistence on being truthful. Only in the movies would someone take another person at their word if they said, let’s be completely honest about everything. Harry’s need to reveal all about his fling with Maren often feels like the character can’t get by without the occasional bit of self-flagellation; here, his need provides the movie with what little real drama it can muster, but it feels forced purely by virtue of its repetition. It also leaves Harry sounding like an emotional misanthrope, as if by being completely honest he’ll be better than everyone around him (even if he doesn’t say this outright). Sadowski looks uncomfortable throughout, as if he’s realised that Harry is a bit of a dumbass and he’s decided to act accordingly (to be fair, the script does paint him that way).

With only Grace and Phil given anything remotely reminiscent of a believable personality or character, All Relative falls back too many contrivances and there-for-the-sake-of-it moments to make it all work. Khoury relies heavily on his cast to make the material more effective but alas they can’t, and while Paxton and Baker come out of things with their reputations intact, sadly, Nielsen and Sadowski give mannered, uneven performances that are often uncomfortable to watch. The movie is also quite bland in its look and feel and there’s no appreciable zing to proceedings, events and occurrences happening with what appears to be a frightening lack of consideration or interest on Khoury’s part (and that’s without taking the viewer into account).

Rating: 4/10 – let down by a script that can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be, All Relative staggers along without making the audience care about its characters or what happens to them; too awkward to work effectively, the movie runs aground with indecent haste and never recovers its forward momentum.

Memory of the Camps (1945/1984)

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Memory of the Camps

Original title: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey

No director / 58m

Narrator: Trevor Howard

Compiled from footage shot by combat and newsreel cameramen, Memory of the Camps was meant to be shown to German prisoners of war as a caustic reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Thanks to problems connected with post-war shortages and international cooperation, the movie’s assembly foundered and with two other, completed, documentaries released in the meantime – along with a change in policy that led to the authorities feeling such a project was now inappropriate – it’s only screening was in rough cut form in September 1945 (and without a working title).

Plans to revisit the movie in 1946 failed to happen and in 1952 the footage was “inherited” by London’s Imperial War Museum. It wasn’t until the early Eighties that anyone looked at the various reels and realised the importance of the material. As a result the five reel rough cut was shown at the 1984 Berlin Film Festival – with the added title Memory of the Camps – and then in 1985 on the PBS Network in the US with Howard’s narration added. (In 2015 an expanded, restored version with additional modern day footage titled Night Will Fall was shown as part of the Holocaust remembrance events surrounding 27 January, the date when Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians.)

The movie is a straightforward, no-holds-barred piece of cinema verité, unflinching in its depiction of the depravity carried out at fourteen locations (ten camps and four sites of atrocity) and beginning with Belsen-Bergen. The film that was shot then and the images that were recorded are heartbreaking, with hundreds of sick and emaciated internees struggling to comprehend the change in their fortunes or too far gone to understand it at all. Inevitably, there are the bodies, thousands of them everywhere, unattended, cadavers made of skin and bone, their faces like stretched parchment. The sheer scope and number of the deceased is difficult to comprehend, each pile of bodies looking like the worst example you’ll see… until the next one.

The Allies – mostly the British – are shown providing much-needed aid and comfort, but the bodies are the greater problem, their decomposition providing a fertile breeding ground for typhus and delaying the dispersal of the internees from the camps. In an ironic (and possibly contemptuous) turn of events, the Allies made the camp guards do most of the disposal work, getting them to handle the corpses and fill the mass graves with them. Shot so dispassionately at the time, this particular footage is harrowing to watch, as decomposing body after decomposing body is carried, or in some cases dragged along, to the pits that will be their final resting places.

Memory of the Camps - scene

The movie stays at Bergen-Belsen for some time, relaying the extent of the horror perpetrated there and the wretched conditions the inmates endured. It shows us the gas ovens, the infrastructure that made it all happen, and the survivors venting their anger on the guards and lackeys who had so recently tormented them. By the time the movie leaves Belsen-Bergen the viewer is so shell-shocked there’s a danger that footage from the rest of the camps – including Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Majdanek – won’t be as distressing, but nothing could be further from the truth. Each camp throws up its own unique horrors, and each visit adds to the mounting, inescapable conclusion that the Nazis’ Final Solution should never be downplayed or allowed to fade from memory.

Overseen by producer Sidney Bernstein, Memory of the Camps was meant to be the movie to be shown to German POW’s after the war. It was a prestige production, with Bernstein calling on the likes of Alfred Hitchcock to assist on the project – Hitchcock gave advice on how the footage should be assembled – as well as future British cabinet minister Richard Crossman to work on the commentary. Despite the setbacks it suffered, and even in its rough cut form, the movie is still incredibly powerful even today, and carries a horrible weight that reinforces the importance of its content. There are dozens of close ups of the faces of the unknown dead, each one a sad reminder of the millions of people who not only lost their lives but who will never be remembered.

Howard’s narration is a masterpiece of studied melancholy, his normally rich tones subdued by the details he has to recite. There are moments where he pauses for a second or two, not so much for deliberate effect (the movie doesn’t need any help in that department) but more out of a recognition that what he’s saying is almost beyond belief. The movie also includes long stretches where Howard remains silent and the images speak for themselves. When these silent passages occur, leaving the viewer alone with the horrors on screen and their own thoughts, it’s almost a relief when Howard resumes his narrative.

Good as Howard’s voice over is however, it’s still the visuals that carry the most weight, acting like random gut punches and leaving the viewer overwhelmed by their barbarity and callousness. With more recent acts of genocide having appeared on our TV screens it’s disturbing that the shameful acts carried out by the Nazis can still have such an effect on people over seventy years on. But in a strange way, that’s a good thing…

Rating: 9/10 – even in its incomplete form, Memory of the Camps is a gruelling, crushing reminder of how callously and deliberately the Nazis exterminated an astonishing eighteen million people; traumatic to watch, but if it wasn’t then its message would be lost completely, and that would be as unacceptable as the camps themselves.

For all the nameless victims who should never be forgotten.

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 4: The Secret Passage

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 17m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell, Sam Ash

Narrowly escaping from the collapsing radio station (and without a scuff mark between them), Mandrake and Betty return to her home. With Dr Bennett and Webster present he lets them know that he’s going to focus his investigation on finding Regan, the man who impersonated Professor Leland. He heads over to his friend Raymond’s magic store to see if he has any information but Raymond draws a blank. Coincidentally, Tommy Houston is there for a junior magician’s meeting, and is met by Betty. After Mandrake has left they overhear two of the Wasp’s gang in the store talking about Regan. Tommy hides in the boot of their car and learns Regan’s whereabouts.

He manages to jump out of the car without being seen and makes it back to Mandrake’s apartment where he tells Mandrake where he can find Regan, a place called the Mill River Inn. Mandrake and Lothar head there straight away and ambush Regan just as he’s about to go on stage. While Lothar ties up Regan and takes him back to their car, Mandrake disguises himself as Regan and performs his act. But the Wasp’s henchmen find out about Mandrake’s presence at the inn and arrive to take Regan away. Megan escapes from Lothar and Mandrake is attacked by the Wasp’s men. They corner him at the top of a staircase and force him over the railing and down on to a mill wheel that rotates downward with Mandrake unconscious on it.

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With a bit more purpose about it, Chapter 4: The Secret Passage has the shortest running time so far (and the first three minutes are a recap of Chapter 3), but it at least shows Mandrake being a bit more proactive than in the last episode. It’s still heavily reliant on coincidence and people overhearing other people in order to propel things forward – if the Wasp’s henchmen weren’t such blabbermouths Mandrake wouldn’t find out anything – and contains a couple of obligatory fight scenes (Mandrake takes on three goons in his apartment and only thinks to involve the police when he’s caught two of them). And it gives Downing, as Tommy, a chance to get involved as well, after spending the first three episodes largely in the background (and looking bored).

At the Mill River Inn, Mandrake’s magic act involves a tablecloth that deposits a lot of cutlery on the floor, a basket of flowers that appear from under it as well, and a variation on the Indian rope trick (which is strangely ineffectual). It’s a reminder of the character’s background, or day job, but the tricks shown are more in line with Tommy’s junior magician group than someone who’s meant to be the world’s greatest magician. It’s the first episode where the Wasp doesn’t make an appearance on the big TV screen in his gang’s hideout and instead, literally, phones in his orders, and there’s no car chase in the countryside. And while it’s Mandrake in peril at the end this time, it’s probably a fair bet that he’ll wake up just in time to save himself.

Rating: 5/10 – another solid entry that, briefly, gives Mandrake the upper hand, Chapter 4: The Secret Passage doesn’t feature a secret passage, and doesn’t give any further clues to the Wasp’s real identity (though the word “moustache” might give it away); still ticking over, the serial meanders ever onwards in search of a more exciting series of events to satisfy its audience.

Ninja Scroll (1993)

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Ninja Scroll

Original title: Jûbê ninpûchô

aka Jubei Ninpucho: The Wind Ninja Chronicles; Jubei the Wind Ninja

D: Yoshiaki Kawajiri / 94m

Cast: Kôichi Yamadera, Emi Shinohara, Takeshi Aono, Daisuke Gôri, Toshihiko Seki, Masako Katsuki, Shûichirô Moriyama, Ryûzaburô Ôtomo

In feudal Japan the village of Shimoda is wiped out by a mysterious plague. A team of Mochizuki ninja are sent by their chamberlain, Sakaki Hyobu (Moriyama) to investigate but are ambushed by a giant whose body is made of stone. He kills them all except for Kagero (Shinohara), the only female in the team. The giant, Tessai (Ôtomo), intends to use her for sex but is interrupted by a lone samurai called Jubei (Yamadera). Jubei Blinds Tessai in one eye and he and Kagero escape. She continues with her mission to discover the reason for the plague at Shimoda village, while Jubei finds himself pursued by Tessai; they fight a second time and Jubei is able to defeat him.

Afterwards, Jubei meets Dakuan (Aono), an old monk working for the government who  tells him that Tessai was one of the Devils of Kimon, seven supernatural entities under the control of Genma Himura (Gôri). Jubei is shocked as he had killed Genma five years before. Jubei was part of a ninja team led by Genma, and he was betrayed by him when Genma attempted to steal a horde of gold from his Lord; Jubei is shocked because Genma was beheaded. Dakuan informs him Genma now has the ability to reanimate himself, no matter how he’s killed. He also tells Jubei that with the death of Tessai the remaining Devils will seek him out to exact their revenge. Dakuan tries to hire Jubei to help him but he refuses; unwilling to accept his answer, Dakuan then poisons Jubei with the promise that if he assists the monk he’ll be given the antidote and a hundred pieces of gold.

True to the old monk’s warning, the remaining devils attack Jubei in turn. He defeats them, and as he does he learns that the gold that Genma tried to steal was on a ship that was sunk in a storm on the coast near to Shimoda village. He and the devils are in the process of recovering the gold. Jubei is rejoined by Kogera and also learns that she has a special gift: as her master’s poison expert her body is so full of toxins that she is immune to them; if anyone gets too close to her they run the risk of being poisoned themselves. Together, and only occasionally aided by Dakuan (who is using them as a distraction), they track the devils to Kishima Harbour where the gold is being loaded on to another ship. Once on board, they plan to sink the ship, but Genma and a remaining devil have other ideas.

Ninja Scroll - scene

Viewed over twenty years on from its debut, Ninja Scroll is still an exciting, vividly hand drawn (no CGI here) animated movie that stands head and shoulders above the majority of similar movies that have followed in its wake. It’s violent, unafraid to throw in some sexual activity (one scene is a little uncomfortable to watch), has a thin streak of malicious humour, and has some of the best choreographed fight scenes witnessed in an anime movie.

The storyline is almost classical in its simplicity, although the feudal politics might have some viewers reaching for the pause button if watching at home (good luck if you’re in the cinema). With its background of warring shogunates and treacherous clan retainers and double crosses, the history surrounding the gold and its whereabouts can be a mite confusing. But Kawajiri keeps it all brief enough to be ignored if the viewer wants to go that way, and concentrates on the clashes between Jubei and the devils, and his awkward romance with Kogera. Each of the showdowns features a devil with a particular way of fighting, from Tessai and his stone-like body to Yurimaru (Seki) and his command of electricity, and each makes for a continually compelling (and dangerous) series of foes for Jubei to defeat. It’s to Kawajiri’s credit that these encounters go such a long way to making the movie as successful as it is. The romance between Jubei and Kagero is equally well constructed and played out, its unrequited nature having a greater emotional depth than is usual, and the two characters’ scenes together add an extra punch to proceedings and benefit immeasurably from the voice talents of Yamadera and Shinohara.

The lone samurai figure is a staple of Japanese feudal fiction, and while Ninja Scroll is an homage to Futaro Yamada’s Ninpōchō novels, there’s much here that resonates beyond the source material. The themes of betrayal, honour, sacrifice, revenge and greed lie heavily on the narrative, but are complemented and enhanced further by aspects of love, duty, loyalty and compassion. All these add up to a storyline that is rich in potential, and which is used by Kawajiri to extremely impressive effect. He’s aided by an equally impressive voice cast, with Yamadera and Shinohara being superbly abetted by Aono (in a role that’s a homage to the famous Japanese monk Takuan Sōhō), Seki as the most debonair of the devils, and Gôri as the malignant sounding Genma.

The animation in Ninja Scroll is often stunning to look at, even if some of the imagery doesn’t always maintain the high standard set by surrounding scenes or shots – the hornets controlled by the devil Mushizo spring to mind – but this is a minor gripe in a movie that offers arresting image after arresting image (it’s a rare movie that can boast a death caused by head-butting). Again, Kawajiri assembles and orchestrates the material with undisguised skill, and is ably supported by Hitoshi Yamaguchi’s redolent cinematography, and the editing expertise of Yukiko Ito and Harutoshi Ogata.

Rating: 8/10 – an iconic anime that has stood the test of time (and what seems like a million and one imitators), Ninja Scroll has all the ingredients of a rousing samurai drama – and then some; bold, inventive, and endlessly enjoyable, it’s one animated movie that you just know will never be bettered by a live-action version.

Trailer – She’s Funny That Way (2015)

On the surface, She’s Funny That Way looks like a bright and breezy romantic comedy with a great cast and a classic screwball scenario. But what makes this movie one to watch out for is the (hopefully) welcome return of Peter Bogdanovich, making his first movie since 2007’s Tom Petty documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream. If the material is even halfway reminiscent of Bogdanovich’s superb What’s Up, Doc? (1972) then this should be a sheer delight – and hilarious to boot.

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

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Birdman

aka: Birdman

D: Alejandro González Iñárritu / 119m

Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Bill Camp

Desperately needing a comeback to boost his flagging, almost moribund career, actor Riggan Thompson (Keaton) is attempting to trade movie stardom (as the action superhero Birdman) for theatrical respect by adapting a story by Raymond Carver for the stage. Thompson is director, writer and star of the production, and as the first of three previews approaches he finds himself without a second male lead. One of his cast, Lesley (Watts), says she can get legendary Broadway actor Mike Shiner (Norton) to take over the role. When he does, Thompson finds himself challenged constantly by Shiner’s view of the piece. Stuck with him, Thompson also has to deal with his best friend and lawyer Jake (Galifianakis), his girlfriend Laura (Riseborough) (who’s also in the cast), and his daughter, Sam (Stone), a recovering drug addict who’s working as his assistant.

Through all this, Thompson is tormented by the voice of his movie alter-ego, Birdman. The voice is disparaging and keeps urging him to give up the stage production and make another Birdman movie. During the first preview, Shiner takes method acting to the extreme and drinks alcohol on stage so he can be really drunk when his character should be; Thompson hides it but Shiner stops the performance and castigates Thompson in front of the audience. Afterwards, they go for a drink together and Shiner continues to undermine Thompson’s confidence. Returning to the theatre, he has a row with Sam that further upsets him. The next night’s preview goes well, though this time Shiner criticises Thompson’s decision to use a prop gun in the final scene, and says it’s not convincing enough; afterwards, Shiner and Sam run into each other on the theatre rooftop.

Thompson’s mental state deteriorates over the next twenty-four hours, as Birdman’s comments become more aggressive. Thompson runs into famed (and feared) theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Duncan) who makes it clear she hates “Hollywood celebrities” who think they can act, and promises to “kill” his production. He gets locked out of the theatre and has to walk through Times Square in his underwear. And on the day of the final preview he has an hallucination where he flies through the streets of New York City. That night he takes a real gun on stage with him for the final scene.

Birdman - scene

Lauded for its complex, single take tracking shots (all cleverly done but tiresome to watch after a while), Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a bold, enthralling look at one man’s last, desperate chance to regain some semblance of pride and meaning in his life. It mixes (literal) flights of fantasy with a gloomy kitchen sink drama, injects pitch black humour when you least expect it, and gives Michael Keaton his best role since – unbelievably – Jackie Brown (1997). It also has a razor sharp script with some great dialogue – “When I dreamed of Broadway, I never pictured the elk antlers.” – inspired direction from Iñárritu, a claustrophobic backstage setting that increases the notion of characters trapped by their fears and insecurities, and superb performances from all concerned.

And yet… it’s not quite the all-round triumph that it appears to be. Despite the script’s inventiveness and shrewd construction, there’s something askew about Thompson’s predicament and the way in which he deals with it (or doesn’t, depending on your view of things). He can’t connect with his daughter, and while this may not be a surprise, it’s yet another example of the child being wiser than the adult, something we’ve seen so many times before even Iñárritu can’t add anything new to it. His relationship with Shiner is based on desperate need but grows into admiration, even when Shiner gives a poorly considered interview to the press. His girlfriend, Laura, tells him she’s pregnant, but he reacts as if she’s just told him something banal and uninteresting. The only real emotion he can display is anger, demonstrated in the tirade he subjects Tabitha Dickinson to, and the trashing of his dressing room. Thompson is otherwise at a remove from everyone and everything around him, failing to engage except on a superficial level, and clinging on to a shred of self-belief. He’s a man who wants to go back to old glories but knows that he’ll lose even more of himself; the play is his last chance for personal redemption.

By having him indulge his superhero fantasies though, Iñárritu’s script offers Thompson a way out that seems designed to give the movie an element of magical realism, but also takes it in a somewhat predictable direction. As a result, the final shot is a disappointment, supporting as it does Thompson’s increasing psychosis and jettisoning any attempt at making the movie a more considered and thought-provoking look at an actor in the midst of having a breakdown. Keaton is nothing short of astonishing in the role, his constantly beleaguered expression and downtrodden body language giving full articulation to Thompson’s state of mind, and every numb or painful feeling and emotion registering on his face so, so clearly. (It’s tempting to define Keaton’s performance as a comeback, but it’s so much more than that; and roles like this don’t come along very often.)

The rest of the cast, with the exception of Norton, have their moments but aren’t really called upon by the script to match, or even come near, Keaton’s acting masterclass. Stone plays Sam as a young woman trying her best to pull her own life together and without taking on her father’s problems in the process, and succeeds in making her both tough and still assailable. Watts and Riseborough share an intimate moment that comes out of left field, but are otherwise kept in the background, along with Ryan who appears twice to remind Thompson of what he’s lost. And Galifianakis, looking thinner than usual, plays Jake like a needy best friend, his conscience having been removed at some point to allow him to deal with Thompson on a necessarily abusive level. All give terrific portrayals, but with Iñárritu’s script so focused on Thompson’s troubles, it’s almost as if they have walk-on roles. Only Norton makes an equivalent impression to Keaton’s, Shiner proving to be the kind of narcissistic monster  whose arrogance overrides all and sundry. His scenes with Keaton are nothing short of breathtaking.

Iñárritu directs with undeniable flair, and makes each scene detailed and immersive, layering the narrative with precise emotional undercurrents and orchestrating the camera movement with élan. If the subtleties of the script occasionally get lost amidst the barely disguised symbolism, and some of the dialogue is a little too florid at times – or pretentious: “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” – then it’s in keeping with the theatrical setting. As mentioned above the use of long tracking shots stitched together to make the movie seem like one continuous take, while inventive, becomes distracting and then tedious very quickly, and is sabotaged by the events of the movie taking place over several days, making the aimed-for continuity an impossible achievement. Still, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is first class and there’s a percussive jazz score by Antonio Sanchez that is likely to divide audiences into thinking it’s either hugely complementary to both the action and Thompson’s mental state, or hugely intrusive and overbearing (this reviewer holds to the former).

Rating: 8/10 – excellent work from Keaton and Norton, and a bravura production combine to make Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) one of the most fascinating movies of recent years; sadly, the decision to include some unnecessary fantasy sequences, and a handful of under-developed supporting characters, holds the movie back and alters the movie’s raison d’être to no good advantage.

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)

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Hundred-Foot Journey, The

D: Lasse Hallström / 122m

Cast: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah, Farzana Dua Elahe, Dillon Mitra, Aria Pandya, Michel Blanc, Clément Sibony

Fleeing Mumbai after the loss of their restaurant in a fire that also claimed the life of their matriarch, the Kadam family – Papa (Puri), sons Mansur (Shah), Hassan (Dayal), and Mukhtar (Mitra), and daughters Mahira (Elahe) and Aisha (Panda) – first seek asylum in England but find their new home unsuitable for running a restaurant. They head for Europe, and while travelling through Europe, find themselves stranded in a small French village, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, when their van breaks down. Helped by Marguerite (Le Bon), one of the locals, they spend the night there. In the morning, Papa notices an abandoned building that’s up for sale. A quick look at the premises reveals the perfect site for a restaurant.

However, the site is directly opposite Le Saule Pieureur (the Weeping Willow), a Michelin star restaurant owned and run by Madame Mallory (Mirren). She is less than happy to see the Kadam’s open their own restaurant, and does all she can to sabotage their efforts to make Maison Mumbai a success, including buying all their menu’s main ingredients at the local market. This leads to a culinary war of attrition between Madame Mallory and Papa as they try to outdo each other. But Maison Mumbai flourishes, thanks to Hassan who has the makings of a great chef. He begins a romance with Marguerite and starts to learn how to cook French cuisine, albeit with infusions of spices and different flavours.

One night, Maison Mumbai has graffiti sprayed on its outer wall and its interior is fire-bombed. Hassan chases off the culprits but suffers burns to his hands and legs. Madame Mallory fires her chef (who was responsible for the attack) and voluntarily cleans the graffiti; this leads to a rapprochement between her and Papa. Hassan sees a chance to put his culinary skills to the test and “auditions” for Madame Mallory by getting her to make an omelette under his instruction (Hassan has learnt from Marguerite that this is the way Madame Mallory tests any potential new chefs). She recognises his skill and he accepts a job in her kitchen. Papa is dismayed by this turn of events, but not as much as Marguerite, who cools toward Hassan and their relationship becomes more adversarial than romantic. Hassan’s food is a success and with it comes the possibility that, thirty years after gaining her Michelin star, Madame Mallory will attain her second.

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY

Adapted by Steven Knight – writer/director of Locke (2013) and Hummingbird (2013) – from the novel by Richard C. Morais, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a feelgood movie that ticks all the boxes on its way to a predictably life-affirming finale, but which remains entirely likeable thanks to the breeziness of its set up, a handful of pleasing performances, and the sure hand of Hallström at the tiller. It’s not a movie to change the way anyone sees the world (though it might inspire some budding chefs out there), but rather is the cinematic equivalent of a comforting three-course meal.

Movies about the importance of food and how it can bring people together occupy a distinct dramatic sub-genre, and The Hundred-Foot Journey (the distance between both restaurants) is just as aware of its responsibilities to the audience as any other culinary-based drama. So we have lots of lovingly filmed shots of food being prepared, tasted and eaten, along with satisfied grins and knowing smiles (though thankfully no one actually rubs or pats their belly). This movie’s own particular hook, the fusion of French and Indian cuisines, isn’t focused on as much as you might expect. It’s a bit of a one-way street, with French dishes being given the upgrade treatment, as if they’re on the way to becoming moribund. At one point, Hassan adds spices to a recipe that’s two hundred years old and when Madame Mallory challenges him, his reply is to imply that perhaps it’s about time the recipe should be changed. And yet there’s no attempt to take Indian cuisine and introduce any French influences. (It’s a brave movie that is willing to say that classic French cuisine needs shaking up.)

The various relationships are handled with an appropriately genial approach, the initial animosity between Madame Mallory and Papa leading to mutual respect which in turn leads to their dancing together (and we all know what that leads to). Mirren is haughty and imperious, and pulls off a passable French accent, though it’s like watching her as the Queen but in charge of a restaurant instead of a country. Puri is as curmudgeonly as ever, but with a big heart beneath all the business bluster; it’s a softer version of his role in East Is East (1999), and like Mirren he goes along with the tried-and-trusted nature of the material. As the ever-experimenting Hassan, Dayal imbues the character with an earnest, willing-to-please demeanour that doesn’t quite gel with his desire to succeed. It’s an agreeable performance that again meets the needs of the movie, but could have been beefed up (excuse the pun). Le Bon at least gets the chance to act against expectations, Marguerite’s antipathy towards Hassan’s success being the only example of a character not behaving as anticipated.

Hallström assembles all the various ingredients with his usual lightness of touch and keeps things from becoming too sentimental (though there’s a liberal amount of sugar sprinkled throughout). The drama is affected as a result – Hassan’s burnt hands and his quick, virtually pain-free recovery become almost incidental to what follows, the clash of cultures barely resonates – and remains superficial from start to finish, the various setbacks and problems the characters have to deal with proving too easy to overcome on every occasion. The movie is beautifully lensed by Linus Sandgren (though some of the matte effects are a little too obvious for comfort), and the French locations provide the perfect backdrop for the action (viewers with a good memory will recognise Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val from 2001’s Charlotte Gray). And A.R. Rahman’s score adds energy to the proceedings, but isn’t enough to offset the dependable nature of the story.

Rating: 5/10 – there are other, better culinary dramas out there – Babette’s Feast (1987), The Secret of the Grain (2007) – but The Hundred-Foot Journey doesn’t aim as high as those movies and treads a more predictable, well-worn path instead; everyone does just enough to make it entertaining but by the end you’ll be wanting more than it’s menu is able to provide.

Mini-Review: The Calling (2014)

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Calling, The

D: Jason Stone / 108m

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Gil Bellows, Ellen Burstyn, Topher Grace, Christopher Heyerdahl, Donald Sutherland, Kristin Booth, Ella Ballentine, Jane Moffat

Asked to look in on an old woman as a courtesy, Fort Dundas police inspector Hazel Micallef (Sarandon) finds the woman has been murdered, her throat cut and her mouth manipulated to make it look like she’s screaming. With help from fellow detective Ray Green (Bellows) she begins to investigate the murder but when another victim is discovered in similar circumstances, she begins to suspect a serial killer is responsible. She asks for help on the case and is sent Ben Wingate (Grace), an officer from Toronto; he’s a bit wet behind the ears but eager to help.

As previous victims are identified, Hazel discovers a religious aspect to the murders. She consults with Father Price (Sutherland) who tells her of a biblical portent that relates to the belief in the resurrection of the dead through the sacrifice of twelve willing individuals. Further murders occur but clues lead to a man named Simon (Heyerdahl); they also show the trail he appears to be taking across the country and the way in which he chooses his victims. Armed with this knowledge, Hazel takes a risk and sends Wingate to the home of Simon’s next intended victim…

Calling, The - scene

Pitched somewhere between Fargo (1996) and Se7en (1995), The Calling is a serial killer movie that, like many others before it, takes a biblical angle and makes it sound preposterous. It’s always difficult to provide a religious-minded serial killer with an entirely plausible reason for their actions, but this movie, with its otherwise cleverly constructed script by Scott Abramovitch (based on Inger Ash Wolfe’s novel), has a hard time making Simon’s motive credible, and fares even less well when it comes to the sacrificial elements – why does his victims have to be killed so horribly? It’s all too confusing and muddled to work properly and hampers a movie that goes about its business with a moody, unrelenting seriousness.

There’s a sterling performance from Sarandon as a detective with a drink problem, but even she can’t avoid comparisons with Frances McDormand in Fargo – though her level of world-weariness is more pronounced. Bellows and Grace offer solid support, as does Burstyn as Hazel’s over-protective mother, but it’s Heyerdahl who makes the most impact, his portrayal of Simon both unnerving and chilling in its quiet intensity. One scene with the daughter of a waitress is so unsettling it’ll stay with you long after the rest of the movie has faded from your memory. Stone directs with the eagerness of someone making their first feature (which he is), but reigns in the desire to show off and throw in everything including the kitchen sink. He has a pleasingly straightforward approach to framing and composition, and isn’t afraid to embrace some of the more awkward plot developments (basically, anything involving Sutherland). It’s a confident outing for Stone, but sadly, it only gets him so far.

Rating: 5/10 – an interesting premise that’s let down by its own explanation, The Calling is left feeling overcooked and underwhelming; fans of this sort of thing will see the final scene coming from a mile off, while anyone else will have lost any initial enthusiasm once Hazel consults with Father Price.

Oh! the Horror! – The Remaining (2014) and Lemon Tree Passage (2013)

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The horror movie double bill is an old staple of movie-going, from the days when Universal used to offer monster “mash-ups” of their favourite creatures (and which were often advertised as providing “twice the fright”), through to the radiation-derived monsters of the Fifties, to Hammer’s doubling up on their own brand of Gothic horror. These days, the horror movie double bill is largely forgotten in cinemas, and the good old days of the horror all-nighter is virtually a thing of the past (except at Halloween… sometimes). But thanks to the joys of DVD and Blu-ray, those days can be recreated at home (though as we’ll see from the movies below, not always so successfully). With that in mind, and with the faint whiff of nostalgia hanging in the air, welcome to the first in an ongoing series of reviews that will feature horror movie double bills.

Remaining, The

D: Casey La Scala / 88m

Cast: Johnny Pacar, Shaun Sipos, Bryan Dechart, Alexa Vega, Italia Ricci, Liz E. Morgan, John Pyper-Ferguson

It’s the wedding day of Skylar (Vega) and Dan (Dechart). The celebrations are in full swing when suddenly the sound of a loud trumpet is heard and several of the guests drop dead on the spot, including Skylar’s parents. Pandemonium ensues, along with what seems like an earthquake, as the ground ruptures and buildings collapse. The newly married couple, along with their friends Tommy (Pacar) and Jack (Sipos) go in search of Jack’s girlfriend Allison (Ricci), who left the reception earlier on. Skylar is convinced that what is happening is the Rapture, when God calls all pure souls to Heaven while those that remain begin to endure seven years of Tribulation.

A priest at a nearby church, Pastor Shay (Pyper-Ferguson), confirms Skylar’s belief but her friends question why he hasn’t been claimed. This leads to all of them, in their own ways, questioning their belief in God and their individual faith in Him. As they continue to search for Allison, Skylar is badly injured; when they find Allison, they all head for the nearest hospital to seek medical help for Skylar. Once there, it becomes clear that the Rapture is now claiming the lives of those who refute God’s existence, putting everyone at risk. And with that knowledge, each of the friends has a difficult choice to make in regard to their future.

Remaining, The - scene

The Rapture is proving to be a resilient modus operandi for horror movie makers at the moment, with The Remaining the latest in an unconnected series of movies that take this particular Biblical warning (from Revelations if you want to check it out) and seek to show the end of the world as spectacularly as they can. This movie is more apocalyptic than most and features winged demons who carry off certain members of the cast as required, along with collapsing buildings and the kind of devastation that causes insurance companies to go bust overnight. It’s turgid stuff, crammed with moments of po-faced seriousness, its characters stopping every five minutes to question their religious values and Christian beliefs. While there’s no doubt some people might stop to do this, the idea that it would be a group of young twenty-somethings is never quite convincing enough.

Forged out of a desire to see what it would be like to make a global version of Paranormal Activity, La Scala has created a movie that’s similar in scope and approach to Chronicle (2012), but with a cast that can’t match that movie’s group of actors for experience and intensity. The use of found footage interspersed with traditional camerawork is often annoying (though necessary), and the inclusion of overwrought scenes of peril – while often impressive given the movie’s budget – grab the attention but seem designed to add some much-needed eye candy to a movie that’s been filmed throughout in as bland and unexciting a style as possible. The movie ends with a scene that contradicts its own raison d’être, but does at least prohibit the idea of a sequel (so that’s one benefit of the world ending).

Rating: 5/10 – even for this particular horror sub-genre, The Remaining is a movie that often makes you wish you’d been taken by the Rapture right at the start; still, it does try its best, and while some viewers will quickly express their dissatisfaction at the friends’ behaviour, there’s enough here to warrant a look, and it’s nowhere near as bad as Left Behind (2014).

Lemon Tree Passage

D: David Campbell / 84m

Cast: Jessica Tovey, Nicholas Gunn, Pippa Black, Tim Phillipps, Andrew Ryan, Tim Pocock, Piera Forde

American backpackers Amelia (Black), Maya (Tovey), and her brother Toby (Pocock) meet Aussie mates Oscar (Ryan) and Geordie (Phillipps), and after spending an evening with them, are invited back to Oscar’s house, where he lives with his brother, Sam (Gunn). Geordie has told them the story of Lemon Tree Passage, a stretch of road nearby where the tale goes, if you drive fast enough you’ll see the ghost of a man who was killed there several years before. Deciding that it’ll be a good idea to see if the story is true, all five travel out to Lemon Tree Passage and put the legend to the test. On their first try they see a bright light that appears out of nowhere and follows them along the road before disappearing. When they try it again, but with Geordie left at the roadside at the spot where they first saw the light, things take a strange turn.

Geordie disappears, and the rest of the group begin to experience strange phenomena happening around their car. Maya begins to have strange visions of a young girl called Brianna (Forde) who may or may have not been killed in the woods that surround them. Supernatural events continue to occur, and Sam is drawn to the area as well, leading to a revelation and a confrontation that proves to have nothing to do with the ghost of Lemon Tree Passage, but which is far more dangerous.

Lemon Tree Passage - scene

Taking as its basic premise the real-life urban legend of the ghost of Lemon Tree Passage Road in New South Wales, Campbell’s debut feature soon abandons its spooky set up in favour of a more convoluted and awkwardly presented storyline involving a murdered teenager, possession, revenge from beyond the grave, a lot of aimless wandering in the woods, tepid scares, and ridiculous plot developments. The reason for all this is sound enough, but in the hands of Campbell and co-screenwriter Erica Brien, is extrapolated into a complicated mess that cries out for some well-judged simplicity. Lemon Tree Passage is yet another movie where strange things happen either out of context, or because the script can’t come up with anything else to help move the plot forward more effectively.

With a script that undermines itself at every turn, it’s unsurprising that the cast are unable to elevate the material, or do anything with it that will improve matters. There are a handful of deaths – though why they should be happening is never explained – and a couple of shocks that are signposted too eagerly to have any real impact; it all leaves the viewer suspecting that Campbell and Brien took the idea of the ghost, didn’t know how to take it further, and instead, came up with the revenge tale that’s seen here. As it is, Campbell shows some promise as a director, creating a creepy menace in parts, and of the cast, Tovey fares better than the rest (but not by much). There’s a good deal of padding in the movie’s final third as the story unravels, and Sam King’s cinematography is rarely atmospheric enough to make up for the script’s deficiencies.

Rating: 4/10 – a good idea that’s left by the wayside in favour of a confused, improbable plot, Lemon Tree Passage is a disappointing entry in the urban legend horror sub-genre; absurd and unnecessarily confusing, it struggles to make sense throughout and has too many WTF? moments for comfort.

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