Blood Father (2016)

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Blood Father

D: Jean-François Richet / 88m

Cast: Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty, Diego Luna, Michael Parks, William H. Macy, Miguel Sandoval, Dale Dickey, Thomas Mann, Richard Cabral, Daniel Moncada, Ryan Dorsey, Raoul Trujillo

The recent career of Mel Gibson has seen him appear in one movie per year since 2010 (with the exception of 2015). While personal troubles have dogged him over the last ten years, and caused him no end of embarrassment – and given Ricky Gervais the opportunity to make one of the best jokes about an actor, ever – Gibson has tended to stick to the action genre that has stood him in such good stead in the past. Aside from his role in The Beaver (2011), Gibson’s choice of roles has seen him engage fitfully with the material on offer, and he’s been the villain in two action sequels that should have been much, much better: Machete Kills (2013) and The Expendables 3 (2014).

But now, with Blood Father, Gibson finally has a role he can really sink his teeth into, and the result is a performance that serves as a (much-needed) reminder of just how good an actor he really is. An adaptation of the novel by Peter Craig, and co-written by Craig and Andrea Berloff, the blood father of the title is an ex-con by the name of John Link. He’s been out of the joint for a year, and sober for two. He lives in a trailer outside a small town in New Mexico, and is a tattooist by trade. He’s also divorced, and has a seventeen year old daughter, Lydia (Moriarty). But Lydia has been missing for the last three years, ever since she ran away from the home she shared with her mother and her mother’s third husband. John has hopes of finding her one day, but without any clues as to her whereabouts, it’s unlikely he will.

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It’s Lydia who finds him. Having gotten involved with a junior member of a Mexican cartel, Jonah Pincerna (Luna), Lydia finds herself in very deep trouble when Jonah raids the home of someone who’s been stealing from him. As a test of her loyalty he asks her to kill the woman there; Lydia ends up shooting Jonah instead. On the run, and with no one else she can call, Lydia contacts John and he arranges to meet her. He takes Lydia back to his trailer, but it’s not long before Jonah’s crew turn up looking for her. The ensuing gunfight prompts John to leave and take Lydia with him, and to find out more about Jonah and his connections. After a lucky escape from the police, John discovers that the cartel have sent a hitman (Trujillo) to kill Lydia.

A reunion with an old army buddy, Preacher (Parks), goes awry when he attempts to claim the missing persons reward money put up when Lydia ran away. She and John manage to get away, and at a motel they change their appearances, John shedding his beard and Lydia dyeing her hair blonde. While John travels to a nearby penitentiary to visit an old friend, Arturo Rios (Sandoval), who has concrete information about Jonah, Lydia is persuaded to take herself to a public place by John’s sponsor, Kirby (Macy), and trust no one. But it’s a set up, and Lydia is abducted. Her abductors contact John, and a rendezvous in the desert is arranged, but it’s a rendezvous that is likely to end in both of them being dead…

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Fans of Mel Gibson the actor will be glad to see that his performance in Blood Father is very definitely a return to form. Ostracised and pilloried for the racist remarks he’s made in the past, Gibson seemed to be getting by on the goodwill of others – Jodie Foster, Robert Rodriguez, Sylvester Stallone etc. – and while he’s still a highly watchable actor in his own right, there was always a feeling over the last few years that Gibson wasn’t trying too hard, that the work he was taking on couldn’t have been challenging for him, and so he wouldn’t rise to the challenge. Here, though, Gibson has found a role that is not only challenging, but inspiring, rewarding, and above all, one of the best fits for his skills as an actor.

Inevitably, there’s more than a smidgeon of Martin Riggs lurking inside the character’s DNA. Witness John’s response to the arrival of Jonah’s henchmen and the gunfight that follows: he’s dismissive of them, and once they open fire and he has to deal with them he gives angry voice to the variety of ways that their appearance will lead to his breaking parole. He’s pissed off, he’s mostly unconcerned by their firepower, and he can’t wait around for the police – the sensible thing to do – because he’s convinced they won’t believe a word he says. Playing John with a fatalism that speaks volumes for the character’s mindset, Gibson gives one of the best performances of his entire career, and proves as mesmeric an actor as he was back in the late Eighties, early Nineties. As he scowls and growls his way through the movie, Gibson also imbues John with a subtle vulnerability that adds depth to the character and makes his need to reconnect with Lydia entirely credible.

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Thanks to the combination of Gibson’s performance, Craig and Berloff’s astringent screenplay, and Richet’s sharp, purposeful direction, Blood Father is more than just a standard action drama punctuated by brief, kinetic bursts of violence. It has an off-centre sense of humour, is sure-footed enough to keep John and Lydia’s relationship free from sentiment, makes very good use indeed of its stunning New Mexico locations (beautifully lensed by DoP Robert Gantz), and above all, maintains a level of tension that many other so-called thrillers fail to achieve for even a fraction of the movie’s running time. As a return to form, Gibson couldn’t have picked a better vehicle or character, and the movie is proof positive that he’s still as mercurial an actor as ever, and that when the right role comes along, he’s nigh-on untouchable.

Rating: 8/10 – with deft supporting turns from the likes of Sandoval and Macy allied to Moriarty’s low-key, sympathetic portrayal of Lydia, Blood Father is more than just a vigorous action thriller; despite its awkward title, the movie explores themes of loss and regret, hope and sacrifice, that elevate the narrative beyond its basic, conventional set-up and make it one of the more astute “relationship dramas” out there.

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

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Now You See Me 2

D: Jon M. Chu / 129m

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Morgan Freeman, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin

Ten questions you need to ask yourself while watching Now You See Me 2:

  1. Why would prison authorities allow convicted criminal Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) access to computer equipment that would enable him to make threats against the Four Horsemen (“You will get what’s coming to you. In ways you can’t expect.”)?
  2. Pigeons? (Yes, pigeons.)
  3. How does Lula (Caplan) know so much about the Four Horsemen, including the reason why Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher’s character from the first movie) isn’t around any longer?
  4. Why is Dylan Rhodes’ (Ruffalo) attendance at a Four Horsemen “event” more suspicious to his FBI colleagues than his talking into his sleeve?
  5. How convenient is it that Bradley has just the form Rhodes needs to get Bradley out of jail?
  6. Chase McKinney (Harrelson) – unfortunate stereotype or unfortunate stereotype?
  7. How likely is it, in a sequence that lasts nearly four and a half minutes, that not one of the security guards notice the playing card as it’s whipped, zipped and slipped from one Horseman to another?
  8. How do lines such as, “But I don’t agree that we have a sackful of nada, ’cause we’re all here. That’s a sackful of something” get past the first draft stage?
  9. When did the FBI’s remit extend outside of the US?
  10. Could the screenplay by Ed Solomon have ended on a more absurd, ridiculous note than the surprise reveals made by Bradley?

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Rating: 4/10 – another poorly constructed sequel that plays fast and loose with logic, Now You See Me 2 wants the audience to like it as much as the mass London crowds go crazy for the Horsemen; slickly made but soulless, only Caplan makes an impact, and the magic tricks lack the first movie’s sense of fun, leaving the movie to rattle on for two hours without anyone having to care what happens to the characters (which is both a bonus and a relief).

Alive Inside (2014)

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Alive Inside

aka Personal Song

D: Michael Rossato-Bennett / 78m

With: Dan Cohen, Oliver Sacks, Gregory Petsko, Samite Mulando, Bobby McFerrin, William Thomas, Michael Rossato-Bennett

It’s estimated that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease. If this figure is correct then the US healthcare system is in for a rocky ride in the decades to come, as that figure rises in line with a rapidly aging – and longer living – population, and the cost of medication to treat the condition rises right alongside it. But what if there was an alternative to the use of drugs such as NAMENDA XR®, or Aricept, an alternative that was also cheaper to implement?

Step forward Dan Cohen, founder of Music & Memory, “a non-profit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology”. Michael Rossato-Bennett’s inspiring documentary introduces us to the former consultant/trainer for the U.S. Department of Education as he attempts to convince healthcare professionals and pretty much anyone who will take notice, of the beneficial effects of music on the memories and cognisance of Alzheimer’s sufferers. Originally, Rossato-Bennett was meant to follow Cohen around for one day only, filming his attendance at a care home and recording the effects – if any – on the residents there. Using iPods and music choices that reflected the eras when these people were young, Cohen was able to prove that music could “reawaken” Alzheimer’s sufferers, and retrieve memories long believed lost.

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Cohen found a perfect example in Henry, a ninety-four year old who was withdrawn and barely able to speak. Within moments of Henry’s being fitted with headphones and music from his youth played for him, he reacted with spontaneous enthusiasm. Henry responded in a way that amazed everyone, and the longer he listened the more articulate he became. He was able to tell Cohen how the music made him feel, and soon he was able to sing independently of the iPod, revealing a deep melodic voice almost unaffected by the passing of the years. (At this point, Rossato-Bennett decided one day of filming Cohen wasn’t enough: he followed him for the next three years.)

Other patients benefitted from Cohen’s approach to palliative care. While the drugs they were taking each day did little to alleviate their isolation, Cohen’s iPods brought people out of their lethargy. Families could reconnect with their loved ones again, and those sufferers who were still able to understand what the disease was doing to them were able to appreciate the renewed lease of life this music therapy afforded them. People like Denise, a bipolar schizophrenic who felt every emotion so intensely that her life was like being on an emotional rollercoaster. Cohen’s “intervention” saw her do away with the walking frame she’d been using constantly for the previous two years, and dance. And for the first time in a long time, she could honestly say she was happy.

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With such dramatic but telling effects on a range of Alzheimer’s sufferers, it would seem absurd for the US healthcare system to ignore Cohen’s work. But you’d be wrong (if unsurprised). As Gregory Petsko, Professor of Bio-Chemistry and Chemistry at Brandeis University puts it so tellingly, he could write a prescription for a thousand dollar drug and no one would bat an eyelid. But if he wanted to prescribe a forty dollar iPod, then questions would be asked. It’s at this point that Cohen begins to encounter all manner of excuses from doctors and care providers unwilling to adopt his unique methods. (It’s not mainstream enough for them.)

Cohen perseveres though, focusing on the US care home system, but he makes a limited amount of headway, despite continued, and incontrovertible, evidence that his idea works. When the uptake of iPods ends up being less than one per cent, an exasperated Cohen throws in the towel. But the story doesn’t end there. Some time later, footage of Henry is posted on Reddit, and it goes viral, and now Cohen is appearing on television and promoting his use of iPods…

There’s a great deal of joy to be had from Alive Inside. Joy at seeing Alzheimer’s sufferers regain a semblance of their old selves, joy at knowing that this particular form of therapy works independently of any drugs, joy at seeing the relief and happiness it brings to families and loved ones, and joy that Cohen’s efforts haven’t all been for nothing. There’s something incredibly powerful and uplifting in seeing someone who is withdrawn – mentally, emotionally and physically – emerge as if from a deep sleep and re-engage with their past and their present surroundings. There are several of these moments in the movie, and rather than become expected or commonplace, each is a moment to be thankful for, a transformation that reinstates identity and awareness.

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In between these powerful moments, Rossato-Bennett is astute enough to provide viewers with historical, social, medical and political contexts for the current state of care home facilities, particularly in light of the introduction in 1965 of Medicare and Medicaid. By treating Alzheimer’s sufferers as patients, the elder care programme has effectively mistreated millions of people in the forty-plus years since; they’ve been victims of a system that has failed to do anything other than make them physically comfortable for as long as possible. As one esteemed physician and researcher puts it, he’s worked in the field of dementia for thirty-eight years and he’s not been able to do anything as productive for dementia sufferers as Cohen has with his iPods. It’s admissions like these that add to the emotional impact of seeing the effect of music on so many people, especially when you have someone as authoritative as Oliver Sacks confirming that musical memories are able to withstand the ravages of Alzheimer’s far better than other kinds of memory. (If this is the case then why the hesitation in adopting Cohen’s idea?)

Cohen himself comes across as a committed, dedicated individual with a great deal of empathy for the people he meets, be they Alzheimer’s sufferers, care providers such as nurses, or the families struggling to come to terms with the premature “loss” of a loved one. As the movie follows him on his quest to improve the lives of so many “lost souls”, his approach and consideration of others serves as a reminder that we should cherish our time with our elders, and recognise their value as individuals, even if they are distant or unresponsive. It’s an important message, and one that shouldn’t be diluted or allowed to fade away. Thanks to Cohen and his efforts, and the reawakening of a man named Henry, that’s unlikely to happen anytime in the near future.

Rating: 8/10 – an impressive, solidly mounted documentary, Alive Inside skimps on statistics in its attempt to put across its feelgood story, but that’s a minor quibble when there’s so much that’s delightful to be had; Rossato-Bennett should be congratulated for his efforts, as his movie tells what could have been a remarkable if dour story with careful consideration and passion.

For further information about Dan Cohen and his work, visit http://musicandmemory.org

Oh! the Horror? – Cryptic (2014) and Visions (2015)

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These days it’s easy to make a horror movie, and these days it’s even easier to be taken in by movie makers who promote their product as being one thing when it’s actually another. Here are two movies that, on the surface, look like horror movies and even have a basic horror movie set-up. Closer attention though reveals two movies that in reality are closer to thrillers with horror overtones than out and out scarefests.

Cryptic

Cryptic (2014) / D: Bart Ruspoli, Freddie Hutton-Mills / 93m

Cast: Ed Stoppard, Dan Feuerriegel, Ray Panthaki, Philip Barantini, Vas Blackwood, Ben Shafik, Sally Leonard, Robert Glenister

Five gangsters, their banker, their lawyer (and a random drug addict), find themselves in a crypt containing a strange metal coffin – and have strict instructions not to open it until their boss arrives later that night. With wild stories about a vampire killing off their fellow gangsters, it’s not long before the group begins to wonder if their boss has captured the creature in the metal coffin, and they’re all there to exact revenge on it when their boss turns up with the key. Tensions arise, however, with the idea that one of them might be the vampire instead, and accusations abound. With guns and knives all too ready to be employed, the group’s initial solidarity begins to disintegrate, and when one of them is found dead with wounds that could have been made by a vampire, suspicion and paranoia are the order of the night.

As the group struggles to reconcile their boss’s orders with the possibility of being locked in with a real “live” vampire, they become obsessed with the contents of the metal coffin. Now believing it contains weapons that could kill the creature – if it is one of them – they argue over whether or not to try and open it. Some, like banker Steve Stevens (Stoppard), are all for leaving the coffin alone and waiting for their boss. Others, such as loose cannons the Jonas brothers (Feuerriegel, Barantini), are all for opening it and using whatever’s inside to defend themselves (even though there’s no guarantee weapons are inside it). With an uneasy truce between the two sides looking unlikely to last, another death makes it impossible, and things quickly escalate…

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A very low-budget British independent project, Cryptic is a rough diamond of a movie that mixes often corny humour with outbursts of blood-soaked violence and an East End vibe that works surprisingly well given its single location set-up and coolly bizarre scenario. That writers/directors Bart Ruspoli and Freddie Hutton-Mills have managed to stretch their very basic plot over ninety-three minutes and kept it entertaining is a tribute to their inventiveness, and the obvious fun they had in putting it all together. Even if the narrative does get bent out of shape now and again thanks to some fervent story ideas, and the need to keep its oh-so-important subplot ticking along in the background, Cryptic still manages to hold the attention and reward the viewer’s time.

Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills are aided by a more-than-game cast who invest their characters with recognisable traits and motivations, even when the action descends into unbridled psychopathy. Stoppard leads the pack as the suave, acerbic banker who refuses to let himself be rattled by the notion of a vampire in their midst, while Feurriegel and Barantini sidestep the script’s occasional need to caricature their characters by highlighting their solidarity as brothers even when they’re violently at odds with each other. And Blackwood is a delight as Meat, possibly the dumbest gangster ever, who buys his weapons on the Internet. They and the rest of the cast are hugely responsible for just how good the movie is, and it’s to Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills’ credit that they chose their cast so effectively and so well. By buying into the absurdity of the situation, their efforts make the movie a treat to watch.

Rating: 7/10 – an unexpected gem amongst the plethora of low-budget tosh the British Film Industry has released in recent years, Cryptic is deserving of a wider audience, and all because it’s clearly a movie that its creators have spent more than five minutes putting together; with a wicked streak of humour running through it from start to finish, and an edge that is only employed when necessary, this is proof that East End gangster movies don’t all have to be pony and trap.

 

Visions

Visions (2015) / D: Kevin Greutert / 82m

Cast: Isla Fisher, Anson Mount, Gillian Jacobs, Jim Parsons, Joanna Cassidy, Eva Longoria, Bryce Johnson, John de Lancie

Moving to Paso Robles to reopen a vineyard they’ve purchased, Eveleigh and David Maddox (Fisher, Mount) are expecting their first child. Having been on anti-depressants following a car accident a year earlier, Eveleigh has come off them thanks to her pregnancy, but is beginning to experience strange visions that lead her to believe that there are supernatural forces at work in their home. David isn’t so convinced, especially when their realtor confirms that the property doesn’t have a bad history. At the insistence of her OB/GYN doctor (Parsons), Eveleigh resumes taking anti-depressants and the visions cease.

Some months later, Eveleigh is persuaded to come off her anti-depressants by her friend, Sadie (Jacobs). But the visions return, and Eveleigh’s paranoia surrounding them leads her to believe that David is somehow involved. She delves further into the vineyard’s history, and discovers that a century earlier, paranormal activity prompted the then owner to burn it down. And Eveleigh’s research reveals pictures drawn by a medium who tried to contact spirits in the house; the pictures show Eveleigh and David. When her doctor and some of their friends mount an intervention, Eveleigh is forced to realise that her visions are not as she first thought, and are even more frightening for what they really mean.

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There’s a twist in Visions that, all things considered, comes too late to save the movie from its determination to be bland and unremarkable. Despite a plot that requires Fisher to be put in jeopardy from the beginning, Lucas Sussman’s convoluted screenplay throws in everything bar the kitchen sink in its efforts to distinguish itself from every other “haunted house” movie. The result is a movie that promises much but delivers very little, from Fisher’s anguished mother-to-be, to Mount’s too-good-to-be-completely-true husband, and all the way to the “surprise” villains that audiences should have spotted a mile off. Greutert’s last movie was Jessabelle (2014), a movie that gave new meaning to the phrase, “so-bad-it’s-bad”, but here he’s on firmer ground, even if that ground contains the occasional narrative quicksand.

But the central mystery isn’t as gripping as it needs to be, and Fisher is often left stranded by the sudden twists and turns that her character’s visions propagate. Mount is left stranded by the script’s decision to involve him only occasionally, while supporting characters come and go without making any impact (including Parsons’ doctor, a role that does nothing to allay any suspicions that the actor can only play The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper). As the fitful tension begins to escalate, the movie – also edited by Greutert – at least makes an attempt at providing real thrills, even if they’re of the cheap and nasty kind. But all this pales beside the notion that the sins of the future are as dark and disturbing as the sins of the past; they’re not.

Rating: 4/10 – an unremarkable “chiller”, Visions tells its dull story with a modicum of creativity, but sadly, remains an underwhelming experience; Fisher is given the enviable task of not only being pregnant but “possessed” as well, but isn’t given enough support by the script to make some (or all) of her possessions come to her.

Question of the Week – 24 August 2016

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In today’s must-have-it-as-soon-as-possible society, the use of sites such as Pirate Bay and KickAss Torrents means that the availability of movies is that much more widespread, and the choice of movies that much greater. A look at Pirate Bay today reveals the availability of movies such as Wiener-Dog and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, titles that are either still showing in cinemas or have yet to be released on DVD/Blu-ray. Whether or not you agree with the illegal downloading of movies, what’s evident from the popularity of these sites and the sheer volume of movies that can be accessed, is that this avenue of access is here to stay. The studios and production companies trot out the usual cries of woe about loss of sales and how it’s harming future investment, but this phenomena has been around for a long time now, and cinema sales are still pretty buoyant each year. What seems incredible is that the studios et al haven’t found a way of embracing the system these sites offer, and making huge profits from our need to see movies as soon as possible. So, with that in mind, this week’s Question of the Week is this:

Should all movies, whatever their source, be available across all platforms – cinema, home video, digital download, streaming, pay-per-view – on the same day of release?

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Spaceman (2016)

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Spaceman

D: Brett Rapkin / 90m

Cast: Josh Duhamel, W. Earl Brown, Winter Ave Zoli, Ernie Hudson, Carlos Leal, Caroline Aaron, Claude Duhamel, Stefan Rollins, Wallace Langham

If you’ve heard of Bill Lee, one-time pitcher (and a left-handed pitcher at that) for the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos, then chances are you also know about his drug-related background, his independence and need to challenge authority, plus his support for Maoist China, Greenpeace and school busing in Boston (amongst others). He was a well-known counterculture figure who appeared in an issue of the pro-marijuana magazine, High Times, and who once threatened to bite off the ear of an umpire in a 1975 World Series game. In later life, while still involved with baseball on a variety of levels, he was also asked to run for President of the United States on behalf of the Rhinoceros Party (his slogan: “No guns, no butter. Both can kill.”) If nothing else, Bill Lee has led an extraordinarily rich and eventful life.

Which makes Spaceman all the more confusing for focusing on the period that immediately follows the end of his professional career. Fired for one challenge to authority too many (walking out before a game in protest at the release of a fellow player), Lee (Duhamel) expects to get right back in the game, so confident is he that his unique skills as a pitcher will be more than enough to offset his off-the-pitch behaviour. But when the offers don’t come rolling in, Lee finds himself at a loss. His agent (and friend), Dick Dennis (Brown), keeps getting the runaround when he tries to contact the big league teams, and soon the message gets through: nobody wants him because everyone is tired of his shenanigans. He’s also thirty-six, and time isn’t on his side.

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Lee’s also trying to do right by his three kids. He’s separated from his wife (Zoli) and can only have them over by arrangement. He’s as unorthodox a parent as he is a baseball player, but his relationships with his children are one of the few aspects of his life that he gets right. Otherwise, Lee smokes a lot of weed, drinks a lot of booze, and dreams of making it back into the Big Leagues. But the offers don’t come, his eventual divorce sees him deprived of any visitation rights, and to cap it all he receives an invitation to play for a Canadian seniors team. Intrigued and offended at the same time, Lee attends one of their matches, and helps them win. His need to play keeps him with the team for a while, until Dennis swings him a tryout for San Fran at their training facility in Phoenix. Lee motors all the way down there, only for the head coach (Langham) to dismiss him, and for Lee to learn that he won’t ever be taken back into the Big Leagues. A coaching offer comes along too, but the lure of playing sees him contemplating returning to Canada and resuming playing in the Seniors’ league.

Director Brett Rapkin has been here before. In 2003, he and fellow movie maker Josh Dixon joined Lee on a trip he was making to Cuba. The resulting footage made up the bulk of the documentary Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey (2006). Ten years on and Rapkin’s decision to revisit Lee’s life (or at least a part of it) has led to his making a movie that starts off strong with Lee’s determination to stand up for his teammate, but then it settles into an amiable groove that is pleasant to watch but eventually becomes so placid that not even the scene where he loses his visitation rights scores any dramatic depth.

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By focusing on a period when Lee wasn’t playing baseball, it seems that Rapkin (who also wrote the screenplay) has chosen to explore the nature of the man behind the legend. But when the man is the legend, there’s little room for any real exploration, and so we have several moments where Lee informs anyone who’ll listen that he needs to play baseball, several scenes where Lee mooches around at home in his Y-fronts, and even more scenes set in a bar where he squanders his time in playing the wounded, unappreciated hero. With the introduction of the Canadian seniors team, the movie does find something more interesting to focus on, but even then it continues to be more amiable than sharply detailed.

As the Spaceman, Duhamel makes up for his appearance in the dreadful Misconduct (2016) by infusing Lee with a great deal of charm and affability. The employment of a scruffy beard adds to the character, while his scenes with Zoli reveal the pain Lee is suffering at the collapse of his marriage (something that didn’t happen in real life). But on the whole, Duhamel has little to work with, and while he’s able to give a warm, occasionally disarming performance, he’s too confined by the conventional nature of the material and the flatly handled narrative. The supporting cast have even less to hang a performance on, with only Zoli making any kind of impression, playing Lee’s wife with a brittle dismay that seems all too appropriate.

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While the movie as a whole is affectionate in its view of Lee and his anti-establishment outbursts, and his self-aggrandising, it does make an effort to remind viewers that for all his grandstanding he was an exceptional pitcher. At the San Fran tryouts, and before he’s sent on his way, Lee’s gift with a baseball is used to outclass an arrogant batsman, a scene that trades on an overly familiar scenario in sports movies while doing so with a valid sincerity (look closely at any shots of Lee pitching though and you’ll see that the shot has been reversed; Duhamel isn’t a leftie). Sadly, there are too few scenes of Lee doing what he did best, but thankfully, when there are they lift the movie out of the doldrums.

Rating: 5/10 – not a bad movie per se, but one that never aspires to be anything more than good-natured, Spaceman struggles to find any dramatic traction that might keep an audience from losing interest; ultimately, Rapkin’s debut feature shows him working at a purposely even keel and forgetting to add some highs and lows to give texture to his otherwise genial look at a baseball hero and his fall from the Big Leagues.

Suicide Squad (2016)

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Suicide Squad

D: David Ayer / 123m

Cast: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Scott Eastwood, Adam Beach, Ike Barinholtz, David Harbour, Common, Alain Chanoine, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller

At the beginning of 2016, DC Comics fans had two movies to look forward to in the coming year: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. Anticipation for both these movies was almost stratospherically high. But Batman v Superman proved to be a messy affair that lacked coherence and couldn’t even give audiences a rousing showdown between the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel. Critically pounded, and causing a division between fans that in some quarters got way too heated, the movie fell short of making a billion dollars at the box office, and was judged a disappointment. Earlier this month, an extended cut of the film was released on home video, and though the extra footage tidied up a few things left adrift in the theatrical cut, the general consensus was that the additional thirty minutes didn’t make it a better movie.

Fans quickly turned their attention to Suicide Squad to save the day, and the hype began all over again. In development since 2009, the movie arrives now with all the fanfare of a Second Coming. Promoted and advertised and pushed for all it’s worth (IMAX screenings feature a new, Suicide Squad-inspired countdown that’s a nice but unnecessary gimmick), this was Warner Bros.’ chance to prove that they were listening when critics and fans alike said Batman v Superman was too dark and sombre. Director David Ayer promised there would be humour, and the tone would be lighter. Has he delivered? Predictably, the answer is yes and no.

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Suicide Squad is, first and foremost, just as messy as it’s DC Extended Universe predecessor. Its plotting is murky and frustratingly lacking in detail, character motivations vary wildly (sometimes in the same scene), there’s the usual over-reliance on a surfeit of destruction-porn, and no one to root for or care about, even though the script does try its best to make Deadshot (Smith) and El Diablo (Hernandez) at least halfway sympathetic. What fun there is to be had can be found in the opening twenty minutes as we’re introduced to each member of the squad, from the assassin who never misses with a gun, Deadshot, to meta-humans such as Killer Croc (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and El Diablo, wicked witch Enchantress (Delevingne) and her human host June Moone (also Delevingne), thief extraordinaire Captain Boomerang (Courtney), and brain-fried Daddy’s Lil Monster, Harley Quinn (Robbie). Watching these characters interact with and defy authority at every turn gives hope to the direction the movie is heading in, but that hope is short-lived.

Assembled by government spook Amanda Waller (Davis), the squad is a fail-safe option if someone were to come along with Superman’s abilities and use them for evil. With explosive devices implanted in their necks to stop them absconding, the squad, led by Colonel Rick Flag (Kinnaman), are tasked with a mission in Midway City when Enchantress and her brother Incubus (Chanoine) begin building a machine that will destroy all other weapons on the planet and – well, this is one of those plot points that sounds great but is actually quite lame and badly thought out. With Flag and the squad further augmented by expert swordswoman Katana (Fukuhara), escape specialist Slipknot (Beach), and two teams of soldiers, they venture into the randomly destroyed city in search of a High Value Target to rescue. But Waller and Flag have been less than honest about the mission, and the squad must decide if working together is a more appropriate way forward than going their own ways.

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It’s clear from the start that Suicide Squad wants to be edgy and smart, caustic and irreverent, and provide a great time for its audience. But as the movie progresses, and once the introductions are over, it soon becomes clear that these so-called supervillains are going to be trapped by the demands of a script that wants to show that, deep down, they’re all really good guys at heart. As a result, this leads to a watering down of the original concept – Worst.Heroes.Ever. – that should be revised to read Best.Antiheroes.Ever. Yes, they’re largely antisocial, and yes they have their issues with authority, and yes they haven’t got a problem with killing people (mostly), but by the end they’ve all bonded and are like one big happy dysfunctional family. It’s enough to tug at the heart strings.

And then there’s the Joker (Leto). Much has been made of Leto’s insistence on staying in character for the duration of the shoot – Smith has quipped that he didn’t meet Leto until after filming was completed – and the Joker’s heavily tattooed look. But it’s all immaterial as Leto is on screen for around fifteen to twenty minutes in total, in a subplot that sees him try to rescue Harley Quinn from being part of the squad. With the Joker reduced to a supporting role it’s hard to qualify Leto’s performance. Yes it’s mannered, heavily so, and completely different from any previous interpretations, but the script depicts him as a lunatic gangster figure rather than the Clown Prince of Chaos. The character has room for development, then, but right now his need to rescue Quinn keeps him working to a standard plotline and any antic diversions seem forced.

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In what is fast becoming the one area in which Warner Bros. seems unable to act on the recommendations of others, Suicide Squad ramps up the destruction on offer, with endless gunfights and property devastation the order of the day. It’s all accompanied by one of recent cinema’s more overwhelming and intrusive scores (courtesy of Steven Price), a blaring cacophony of dramatic musical cues and declamatory passages that reinforce just how much the movie is like being hit repeatedly over the head (and by Harley Quinn’s mallet at that). Ayer can’t stop things from getting too overwrought in the movie’s final half hour, and inevitably any subtlety is made to hide in the shadows where it can’t interfere with anything.

Against all this the cast do their best, with Smith atoning for some recent poor choices by making Deadshot likeable and charismatic. Robbie has the most fun, and is the most fun to watch, but after a while the chirpy attitude and cheesy wisecracks begin to grate, and Ayer does away with any development the character has made as if it never happened, leaving her no different from how she was at the start. Davis essays the real villain of the piece, but once that particular “surprise” is established the character stops being interesting, as does her motivation, and she’s wisely sidelined. Kinnaman does stolid with ease but fails to make Flag memorable, while Hernandez makes El Diablo a surprisingly well-rounded character, less of a supervillain, and more Hulk-like in terms of his anger issues.

The movie is further hampered by Ayer’s insistence on giving the movie a noir feel instead of a comic book feel, and John Gilroy’s haphazard, wayward approach to the editing. Other odd moments/decisions stand out: Deadshot looking like a pimp when he’s out with his daughter; Enchantress swaying like a woman trying to keep up an invisible hula hoop; several flashbacks that slow the movie’s rhythm; a scene where El Diablo reveals a tragic consequence to his ability that feels out of place; and an origin story for Quinn that involves falling into a chemical vat for the sake of it.

Rating: 5/10 – slightly better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (but only slightly), Suicide Squad still has enough problems to stop it from becoming the first DC Extended Universe movie to overcome the series’ usual pitfalls; shedding its claim to being edgy and different with every minute that passes, the movie is further proof that Warner Bros. and DC need to work harder on their game plan, and that copying Marvel isn’t necessarily the right idea.

Jason Bourne (2016)

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Jason Bourne

D: Paul Greengrass / 123m

Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzenz Kiefer, Stephen Kunken, Gregg Henry

The original Bourne movie trilogy was smart, inventive, thrilling, and a massive boost for the ailing spy genre. It made an action hero of Matt Damon, featured action sequences that were fresh and exciting, and had an emotionally complex through-line that bolstered the already intense plotting. At the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, David Webb had gained the answers to questions that had plagued him ever since he’d been saved from a watery grave by the crew of a fishing boat.

Except… he hasn’t, not really. The closing lines from The Bourne Ultimatum – “I remember. I remember everything.” – are repeated here at the movie’s beginning, and are followed by a montage of scenes from the original trilogy (as far as this movie is concerned, The Bourne Legacy (2012) never happened). But in amongst these memories are flashes of scenes we haven’t seen before. And when Jason Bourne snaps out of his reverie, we find him in the back of a truck and heading for an illegal fight ground in Greece. Clearly the years since he took down Treadstone and Blackbriar haven’t been good to him: despite his fighting prowess he still looks lost. And the bad dreams, or reveries, he’s experiencing aren’t helping. For someone who “remembers everything”, he’s having some of the most spectacularly disturbing and disorienting dreams ever. And he can’t make sense of them, especially the ones that involve his father, Richard Webb (Henry).

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Help comes in the familiar but unexpected form of ex-CIA analyst Nicky Parsons (Stiles). Having hacked into the CIA mainframe, she’s done so with the aim of helping Bourne learn more about his past, and has discovered that his father had a greater role in the Treadstone programme than Bourne has been led to believe. But in hacking the CIA, Nicky has become a target and her contacting Bourne in Athens leads to his getting “back in the game”. With CIA operatives on their trail, as well as an Asset (Cassel), Bourne gains access to the information Nicky hacked, and once he becomes aware of his father’s involvement, he finds his enrolment in the Treadstone program wasn’t as clear cut as he thought. But as before, his reappearance has senior members of the CIA, including Director Robert Dewey (Jones), unwilling to let Bourne expose their Black Ops programs. Using a combination of the Asset and the head of the Cyber Crimes Division, Heather Lee (Vikander), to track down Bourne and eliminate him once and for all, Dewey plots to keep the CIA’s secrets as hidden as ever.

Fans of the Bourne Trilogy are generally dismissive of The Bourne Legacy, the Jeremy Renner starring addition to the series that failed to add anything new to the mix, and which felt like an uninspired retread of everything that had gone before. Matt Damon famously turned down the chance to cameo in Legacy, and made it clear that he wouldn’t return to the franchise unless Paul Greengrass was back on board as well. Well, Damon got his wish, and Greengrass is back as the movie’s director. But perhaps Damon should have made another stipulation: that Greengrass didn’t write the script.

Jason Bourne has many of the same attributes that The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum share. There’s the generous use of “shaky cam”, Christopher Rouse’s exemplary editing, excellent location work, and a series of intense and very well-staged action sequences (one of the series major strengths). But there’s one aspect that’s missing this time round, and aside from Greengrass’s muscular directorial style, it’s perhaps the series’ most important component: the contribution of Tony Gilroy. As screenwriter of the first two movies, and co-screenwriter of the third (though his input was drastically reduced), as well as Legacy‘s writer/director, Gilroy helped guide the series from its inauspicious beginnings to a position of critical and commercial success worldwide. His scripts had intelligence, depth and subtlety, and his villains were drawn with a vividness and care that made them worthy adversaries.

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But without Gilroy (no doubt a casualty of The Bourne Legacy‘s poor reception), Jason Bourne proves just as disappointing as its unacknowledged predecessor. Nearly ten years on from the events of Ultimatum, Bourne is still an emotional mess, haunted by memory fragments that cause him pain and regret. He looks awful, and Damon plays him like a man besieged. For a man who found all the answers he needed, Bourne looks even more tormented than when he was in the dark. The movie never really attempts to explain why this is the case, preferring instead to give audiences a tortured Bourne without expanding on his back story. As a result, his decision to jump back in, prompted by some spurious nonsense involving his father, seems perfunctory instead of necessary.

With Bourne himself treated in such a cavalier fashion – he’s really just a one-man wrecking crew here – the other characters fare just as badly. Dewey is a stock villain, one step removed from twirling an invisible moustache and muttering “mwah-ha-ha!” whenever the script has him do something nefarious. Jones has no chance with the role, and there are times when his awareness of this comes through loud and clear; just watch his scenes with Vikander, and ask yourself if he looks committed. Cassel’s Asset is fuelled by revenge for the torture he suffered through Bourne’s exposure of the Blackbriar program, but as the character spends an inordinate amount of time running around chasing Bourne without actually catching him, his anger (and his back story) gets shoved to the side. And then there’s Heather Lee, the Cyber Crimes head who acts as this movie’s Pamela Landy. There’s supposed to be some mystery as to which side she’s on (she helps Bourne in various ways while pushing a separate CIA agenda), but thanks to Greengrass’s less than subtle direction, Vikander never looks anything other than extremely distrustful.

Film Title: Jason Bourne

And then there’s the small but important matter of how Bourne gets about. From Greece he travels to Berlin, then to London. He does so on his own, without any help from anyone, and manages to elude detection at every turn (a facet of the series that was usually, and very cleverly explained away – but not here). And yet when he travels from London to Las Vegas he does so by commercial aircraft, and though he receives assistance from Lee in getting through US Customs, it still begs the question how UK Customs didn’t flag him up in the first place. (Also, it seems that outside of Athens and Las Vegas there’s not the CCTV infrastructure to allow the CIA to track Bourne efficiently anywhere else.) And stop and think about this: in Las Vegas, at an expo for a communications platform that Dewey wants to appropriate – don’t ask – Bourne picks up various conveniently placed bugging devices that he uses to get to Dewey, all of which begs the question, what plan did he have originally (as he couldn’t have known they were there beforehand)?

Gaping plot holes like these only add to the realisation that Jason Bourne is a less than rewarding, less than necessary sequel to four previous movies (three of which had already told the story effectively and with impressive style), that throws in a handful of rousing action sequences, makes Bourne indestructible, has a subplot involving a communications platform – actually, still don’t ask – and features some of the blandest characters in the whole series. Greengrass is a mercurial director, with a great visual style, but he’s not as good a screenwriter as he might think, and along with Rouse, he makes things too simplistic for the movie’s own good. The end result? A movie that only takes off when it’s throwing punches or chasing SWAT vehicles.

Rating: 5/10 – a missed opportunity to enhance and expand on the series, Jason Bourne trades on nostalgia instead of bringing something new to the franchise; Bourne looks tired throughout, as does Jones, and by the movie’s end the viewer will feel exactly the same way.

“Science or no science, a girl’s got to get her hair done” – 10 Female-centric Sci-fi Quotes from the 1950’s

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The Fifties were a great time for sci-fi movies. But if you were an actress appearing in a low budget sci-fi movie – in a starring role or even further down the cast list – then chances were you’d be saddled with some of the lamest, dumbest, sometimes sexist dialogue this side of an Ed Wood feature. To “celebrate” those “difficult roles” that actresses such as Joan Taylor, Mara Corday and Andrea King did their best to play straight (against almost impossible odds), here are ten quotes that show just what they were up against.

1 – “So I decided after one bad marriage to bury myself in science.” – Ann Anderson, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

It! The Terror from Beyond Space

2 – “The only reason I open my trap is to keep my teeth from chattering.” – Vicki Harris, Target Earth (1954)

3 – “Well, flying battleships, pink elephants, same difference.” – Sally Caldwell, The Giant Claw (1957)

4 – “How is it you’re so strong, Ro-Man? It seems impossible.” – Alice, Robot Monster (1953)

Robot Monster

5 – “Can’t I just dust around the fingerprints?” – Mrs. Porter, The Blob (1958)

6 – “Miz Hawthorne, she deal with the Evil One.” – Louann, the maid, The Alligator People (1959)

7 – “It’s the Sermon on the Mount… from Mars.” – Linda Cronyn, Red Planet Mars (1952)

Red Planet Mars

8 – “I love you, Doug, and I must kill you!” – Lambda, Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)

9 – “For a few dollars you can hire a woman who’ll fulfill all your fetishes. And when you get tired of her you can run down to the employment agency and hire another.” – Claire Anderson, It Conquered the World (1956)

10 – “Caught me unprepared. I’ve been cooking over a hot creature all day.” – Marisa Leonardo, 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

20 Million Miles to Earth

NOTE: The quote in the title is from Tarantula (1955), and is spoken by Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton.

10 Reasons to Remember Arthur Hiller (1923-2016)

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Arthur Hiller (22 November 1923 – 17 August 2016)

Arthur Hiller

Born in Edmonton, Canada to Jewish parents who had immigrated from Poland in 1912, Arthur Hiller grew up in an environment where a love of music and theatre was instilled in him from a young age. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at the start of World War II, and became a navigator, flying numerous missions over Europe. In the early Fifties he began directing for Canadian television; this led to his being offered a job directing with NBC. Over the next ten years he worked steadily in television, contributing to shows such as Playhouse 90, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Route 66.

During this period he made his feature debut, the coming-of-age romantic drama The Careless Years (1957), but it wasn’t until he worked for Disney on Miracle of the White Stallions (1963) that his movie career began to take off. By then, Hiller’s ability to work within different genres was standing him in good stead, enough for him to move away from television (almost) altogether. After 1965, his TV work consisted of three episodes of the series Insight, episodes that were made over an eleven-year period. Hiller soon allied himself with screenwriters of the calibre of Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon, and developed a reputation for making comedies that had a surprising depth to them.

1970 saw the release of Hiller’s most famous, and enduring movie of all, Love Story. The success of the movie cemented his success, and throughout the Seventies, Hiller had a run of hit movies that made him an A-list director. His was a brisk, authoritative style, but there was also a looseness, a sense of fun to his movies that made them more enjoyable than most comedies of the era. He was inspired by a post-War screening of Rome, Open City (1945), and he never lost sight of the emotional truth of his movies, even if some of his later works, such as Carpool (1996) weren’t as effective – or as amusing – as they could have been.

In 1989, he took on the role of President of the Directors Guild of America, a position he held until 1993, when he became President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the next four years. He made one last movie, the less than pardonable National Lampoon’s Pucked (2006) (a career nadir for both Hiller and its star, Jon Bon Jovi), before retiring. Hiller will be fondly remembered for the way in which his movies resonated with audiences, their effortless likeability, and the almost timeless quality they carry, and the unassuming yet quietly confident way in which he directed them.

The Americanization of Emily

1 – The Americanization of Emily (1964)

2 – The Out of Towners (1970)

3 – Love Story (1970)

4 – Plaza Suite (1971)

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5 – The Hospital (1971)

6 – The Man in the Glass Booth (1975)

7 – Silver Streak (1976)

Silver Streak

8 – The In-Laws (1979)

9 – The Lonely Guy (1984)

10 – Outrageous Fortune (1987)

Outrageous Fortune

600 Miles (2015)

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600 Miles

Original title: 600 Millas

D: Gabriel Ripstein / 84m

Cast: Tim Roth, Kristyan Ferrer, Noé Hernández, Harrison Thomas, Armando Hernández, Mónica Del Carmen, Orlando Moguel, Gilberto Barraza, Harris Kendall, Ángel Sosa

Trading on long static shots and a stately pace in which to anchor its two leading characters, first-time writer/director Gabriel Ripstein has made a movie that takes an interesting (if not original) idea and transforms it into a movie that moves bluntly from scene to scene, and rarely seeks to engage with its audience. It’s a crime drama where the crime is incidental, a road trip movie where the journey is nothing more than a journey, and a buddy movie which lacks any real sense that its two main protagonists have really bonded (this is particularly thrown into sharp relief thanks to the movie’s final two scenes, the second of which has a real sting in the tale).

It also takes a long while to bring its two central characters together. Arnulfo (Ferrer), along with his bully of a friend, Carson (Thomas), smuggles guns into Mexico for a cartel. He’s a young man who lacks self-confidence, and he wants to impress his bosses, but he’s awkward and unsure of himself when he’s around them. Several runs go without incident, and Arnulfo begins to feel more confident. He meets a girl he likes and begins a (very) tentative romance.

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What Arnulfo is unaware of is that his activities are being monitored by ATF agent Hank Harris (Roth). Every time he and Carson buy guns to take into Mexico, Harris is right there to collect the details of their purchases. When he finally has enough evidence to arrest them, Harris approaches Arnulfo’s truck while he waits outside a gunsmith’s for Carson to come out. Carson manages to overpower Harris before leaving Arnulfo with the problem of what to do with him. Panicked by the whole thing, Arnulfo puts Harris in the back of the truck, and not knowing what else to do, decides to drive the six hundred miles to the cartel’s base. He believes that the cartel will be able to use Harris for information.

But six hundred miles is a long way, and though Harris is stuck in a hidden section of the truck until they cross the Mexican border, once in Mexico, Arnulfo lets him ride up front, albeit tied up. And so begins a long, drawn-out section of the movie where Harris and Arnulfo get to know each other a bit better – but not in such a way that they can call themselves newfound friends. In fact, if anything, their relationship (such as it is) has the feel of a fait accompli, a way for Ripstein to pass the time until he can get to the inevitable showdown at cartel HQ. (There’s also an attempt at emotional confliction due to the fact that one of the cartel bosses is Arnulfo’s uncle.)

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Alas, for all of Ripstein’s efforts, 600 Miles is as arid as the Mexican desert vistas we see in the movie. By taking an almost documentary approach to the material, and by stripping back the narrative to almost bare minimum levels, Ripstein has ensured that the movie looks good but is scarce on incident, and his characters seem to be devoid of an inner life. As a result, it’s difficult to care what happens to Harris and Arnulfo, and it’s even harder to imagine their journey together as being anything other than a chore for both to get through. Even though Arnulfo is trying to do “the right thing” as he sees it, his naïve decision has potential consequences that even he should be able to foresee. That he doesn’t is too ingenuous for the movie’s own good, and there are further instances where Ripstein’s dramatic needs – such as they are – mean that Arnulfo undergoes too many emotional transformations for them to work effectively.

As the troubled young man, Ferrer adopts a shy, deferential demeanour that fits well with the character’s insecurity and lack of worldly experience. By contrast, Roth is all silent stares and dishevelled authority. He’s a weary man in a weary job, as inured by ennui as Arnulfo is by immaturity. He’s not even very good at his job, pointing a gun at Arnulfo and not announcing his ATF status, and allowing himself to be kidnapped in broad daylight. Roth is good at playing understated characters, but he has so little to work with, not even a basic character arc, that even he can’t give the kind of magnetic, internalised performance the movie needs from the role.

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What the viewer is left with is a movie that promises much in the way of well-judged characterisations, clever insights into the male psyche, and occasional outbursts of violence, but which fails to engage except on a superficial level. It’s a symptom of low budget, arthouse fare that we get interminable scenes of people staring out of or through windows, or lapsing into prolonged silence as if the mere fact of their being silent was evidence enough of some inner turmoil or struggle. In most cases this muted behaviour feels more like padding than incisive direction, and Ripstein’s efforts to convince us that these two characters are more than what we see never ring true.

Sadly, the movie is also let down (though not quite as badly) by Ripstein’s involvement in the editing, along with Santiago Pérez Rocha León. Between them, both men have shaped the style and rhythm of the movie in such a way that instead of feeling languid and somewhat pastoral in nature (which would have helped), it instead feels sluggish and lacking in passion. Certain scenes end abruptly, while others go on beyond their natural lifespan; it’s hard to know which way each scene will go. What is undeniably a plus for the production is Alain Marcoen’s simple yet highly effective cinematography, a great example of how to make a movie look dazzling even when using natural or low-level lighting.

Rating: 4/10 – audiences may well feel that 600 Miles is a triumph of style over substance, and while they might have a case, it’s Ripstein’s lack of directorial experience that hampers the movie and stops it from fulfilling its potential; Roth and Ferrer do their best to elevate the material, but they have so little to work with that ultimately, their efforts are in vain.

Happy Birthday – Ben Affleck

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Ben Affleck (15 August 1972 -)

Ben Affleck

Few actors have had the career that Ben Affleck has (mostly) enjoyed. From his first appearance in the rarely seen drama The Dark End of the Street (1981) up until his more recent appearances as the Caped Crusader in both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad (both 2016), the Berkeley-born multi-hyphenate has made a number of critically acclaimed movies, been one half of the critically derided Bennifer, and staged a comeback thanks to a series of critically acclaimed directorial outings. In front of the camera he’s better as a brooding, contemplative anti-hero than the comic actor he was asked to be so often in his early career, while behind the camera he’s proved he can deliver some of the finest dramatic movies of recent years. And of course, he’s a two-time Oscar winner, for co-writing Good Will Hunting (1997) with Matt Damon, and for being a producer on Argo (2012). It would seem that his future is now inextricably linked with the DC Extended Universe – though we shouldn’t hold that against him – so it may be that his profile won’t extend much beyond that particular arena in the coming years. But even so, Affleck has enough clout within the Hollywood industry now to ensure that whatever he does in the coming years, it will be warmly received and showered with awards (unless he dons a batsuit). Here though are five movies he’s made that are worth seeing because of his involvement.

Changing Lanes (2002) – Character: Gavin Banek

Changing Lanes

A simple traffic accident leads to outright hostilities between a young lawyer (Affleck) and an alcoholic insurance salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) in Roger Michell’s cautionary tale, a movie that cleverly shifts its sympathies between both men while also condemning their behaviour at every turn. Affleck subverts his natural charisma to good effect in a performance that is the epitomy of “sweaty desperation”.

Boiler Room (2000) – Character: Jim Young

Boiler Room

Affleck essays a supporting role here, playing the boss to Giovanni Ribisi’s aspiring investment broker in a movie that is unapologetically hard-boiled and rapacious. It may be Ribisi’s movie – and he’s very very good in it – but Affleck is unnervingly convincing as one of the co-founders of the firm he works for, and gives a scene-stealing performance early on that few actors of his generation could have provided.

State of Play (2009) – Character: Stephen Collins

State of Play

An uneven but still gripping adaptation of the original BBC series, this sees Affleck as the potentially corrupt congressman who may or may not be involved in a string of murders being investigated by his old friend, a newspaper journalist (played by Russell Crowe). Affleck takes a role that could have been strictly by-the-numbers, and imbues it with a complexity that matches the narrative and makes for a worthy adversary for Crowe’s dogged journalist.

Going All the Way (1997) – Character: Gunner Casselman

Going All the Way

As the extrovert buddy to Jeremy Davies’ introverted ex-serviceman in post-Korean War America, Affleck takes on a role that requires him to flaunt his obvious sexuality, and he rises to the challenge with gusto. Whenever he’s on screen he’s like a magnet for the eyes, a jock you can’t underestimate, and a character with much more depth than is usual for this type of role. Knowing this, Affleck gives an affecting performance, and steals the movie right from under Davies’s nose.

Hollywoodland (2006) – Character: George Reeves

Hollywoodland

For some, this is Affleck’s finest hour as an actor. As the increasingly haunted, yet charming Reeves (who played Superman on TV in the Fifties), Affleck gives a subtly shaded performance that reveals Reeves’ inability to deal with the pressures of fame, and highlights Affleck’s skills as an actor. Full of wonderful intuitive touches, it’s a supporting performance that feels like a lead role, and is mesmerising to watch, all a tribute to Affleck’s research, and commitment to the (real-life) character.

Before I Wake (2016)

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Before I Wake

D: Mike Flanagan / 97m

Cast: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Dash Mihok, Antonio Evan Romero

Made in 2014 but only released now thanks to its US distributor, Relativity Media, filing for bankruptcy last year – which explains the credit “and introducing Jacob Tremblay” – Before I Wake is a horror thriller that takes the idea of dreams (and nightmares) that are able to come to life, and have a lasting physical effect on the “real” world. The focus is on a young boy, Cody (Tremblay), who has the ability to, literally, make dreams come true. After a string of foster placements break down because of this ability, Cody is placed with Jessie and Mark (Bosworth, Jane), a couple who have decided to foster following the death of their young son, Sean (Romero).

Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane star in Relativity Media's "Before I Wake". Photo: Courtesy of Relativity Media Copyright: © 2014 QNO, LLC

Cody settles in and at first all is well, despite his unwillingness to get a good night’s sleep. Instead he uses caffeinated drinks to stay awake, all so he can ensure that he doesn’t have a nightmare and summon the Canker Man, a force for evil that devours its victims. Cody believes the Canker Man killed his mother, and is responsible for the disappearance of some of his previous foster carers. But while he may have nightmares that bring the Canker Man to life, Cody also has regular dreams, and ones that give life to Cody’s chief interest: butterflies. Soon, Jessie and Mark are revelling in the appearance of dozens of these magnificent creatures; at least, until Cody wakes up – then they disappear in a puff of smoke.

Cody’s interest in Sean leads to his appearing one night, and as real as when he was alive. Jessie is quicker to associate Sean’s “return” with Cody’s dreams than Mark is, and she soon takes advantage of the situation, ensuring Cody sleeps so that she can spend more time with Sean. Once Mark becomes aware of what she’s doing, and highlights how inappropriate her behaviour is, it proves to be too late. Cody has a nightmare, and the couple have their first experience of the Canker Man, a terrifying creature that threatens them both. Following on from this, Jessie decides to find out more about Cody’s life before she and Mark began fostering him, and to see if his past holds any clues that will help deal with the threat of the Canker Man.

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There are lots of horror movies that take place in a dream world, or in the realm of waking dreams, but very few where dreams are allowed to manifest themselves outside of these arenas. The beauty of Before I Wake – at least in its first thirty to forty minutes – is that it patiently sets up the rules of its scenario and does its best to adhere to them. During this period we see a particular cause and effect to Cody’s dreams that shows writer/director Mike Flanagan, and co-writer Jeff Howard, have thought their movie through, and have done their best to ground it from the start. However… once Jessie begins looking into Cody’s past, all that patient build up and attention to detail is abandoned, and the movie loses its identity to become yet another generic horror thriller (Flanagan refutes the idea that this is a horror movie, preferring the term “supernatural drama”; he has a point but it only goes so far).

This leaves the movie feeling dramatically rich and engaging in its first half, tackling as it does issues of grief, dependency, overwhelming sadness, and the deliberate exploitation of a child. Jessie may well be grieving still for Sean (the movie takes place six months after his death), but the way in which she so readily accepts Cody’s gift and uses it for her own needs, is in many ways more horrifying than the Canker Man himself. Mark calls it abuse, and he’s right. It’s such a breach of trust that the script runs the risk of making Jessie unlikeable as well as selfish, but thanks to Bosworth’s sympathetic performance, this is avoided. There are moments, though, when it looks as if the Canker Man is going to have a run for his money in the villain stakes. (And what a different movie it would have been if Jessie’s motivation had remained the same throughout; how would the audience have felt about her then?)

Kate Bosworth stars in Relativity Media's "Before I Wake". Photo: Courtesy of Relativity Media Copyright: © 2014 QNO, LLC

But as already mentioned, the script hives off from this approach into much more familiar, and prevalent, territory as Jessie delves into Cody’s past. This involves the easy theft of his social services file (complete with the location of the children’s home he’s sent to once things have escalated beyond the point where Jessie and Mark can deal with everything themselves), a visit to a mental institution to talk to a previous foster parent, Whelan (Mihok), and a confrontation at the children’s home where all the staff appear to have gone home for the night. Again, the credibility built up until now is left to drift off by itself, discarded in favour of a showdown between Jessie and the Canker Man that is thankfully brief, and true to the nature of, and reason for, Cody’s dreams.

Flanagan is a talented rising star, and while Before I Wake has its problems, he’s still able to show a confidence in the material, as well as the visual design, that bode well for any future endeavours. He’s also able to coax a good performance from the criminally under-used Bosworth, and shepherds Tremblay through his first lead role in fine style (even if his sing-song voice can be a bit grating at times). Sadly, Jane gets sidelined by the script too many times for comfort, but at least he’s in good company, with Gish (as a harried social worker) and Mihok allowed just enough time to move things forward when necessary. Some viewers may find themselves struggling to connect the dots once Jessie relates Cody’s unfortunate history, and some may even feel that it’s all too contrived, but at least Flanagan doesn’t pitch a special effects laden  climax at his audience. There are a few scares along the way, but none that will trouble anyone who’s seen any recent scary movies, and no last minute idea for a sequel (hallelujah!).

Rating: 6/10 – a bunch of narrative inconsistencies and moments where the movie goes “off reservation” aside, Before I Wake is a hybrid horror/thriller that provides enough tension in its first half to help overlook the failings of the second; Bosworth is good value as always, and there are genuine moments of beauty thanks to Flanagan’s use of a kaleidoscope of butterflies as a potent indicator of Cody’s dream state.

Question of the Week – 13 August 2016

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Currently, there is no more divisive subject in mainstream cinema than the quality of the Warner Bros.’ movies set in the DC Extended Universe. Ever since Man of Steel rebooted the Superman franchise back in 2013, the merits of each successive movie in the DCEU (as it’s referred to) have been subjected to the critical equivalent of a full-scale autopsy. On the one hand you have fans of the DCEU who rail against any notion of these movies being anything other than entertaining, excellent examples of modern superhero movie making. On the other hand you have the naysayers (fans or otherwise) who decry these efforts as dreadful, cynical money-making exercises. There’s very little middle ground, although there are some folks out there who are able to voice more constructive opinions, but these opinions aren’t really being heard in the maelstrom of vitriolic arguments that seem to be the only response DCEU fans and their “opponents” can muster when confronting each other.

Marvel vs DC

There are as many fans and detractors on the Marvel front. The air of superiority that Marvel fans lord over DCEU fans, and which stems mostly from Marvel’s continued dominance at the international box office, can often lead to the same arguments that dominate the DECU debates though. This movie is bad, that movie is better, they should do this, the movies would be better if they did that. Everyone except for the writers and producers and directors seems to know what will make these movies work. (Already, and with nearly a year to go before its release, Wonder Woman has been referred to as “a mess”, as if this is of any relevance to anything. Think about it.) With so much time and money and effort involved in making these movies, you’d hope that the results would be better each time, but there’s clearly something wrong with the DCEU movies that isn’t happening (as much) with Marvel’s output. Which makes this week’s Question of the Week a simple one:

Why do the current spate of DCEU superhero movies still inspire such devotion and passion when they’re clearly not working to their full potential – or is that the point?

I Am Wrath (2016)

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I Am Wrath

D: Chuck Russell / 91m

Cast: John Travolta, Christopher Meloni, Amanda Schull, Sam Trammell, Patrick St. Esprit, Rebecca De Mornay, Asante Jones, Paul Sloan, Luis Da Silva Jr, Robert Forte Shannon III, James Logan

You’re an ex-Black Ops veteran turned law-abiding car engineer about to work for Honda (probably). You come home from a job interview and meet up with your wife who’s working on an independent review of a proposed water pipeline that’s being backed by the state governor. Both of you are approached by a shady looking guy who wants help paying his parking ticket. You warn him off but he gets offended. The next thing you know, you’ve been hit over the head and are on the floor, then the shady looking guy pulls out a gun and shoots your wife. She dies instantly. Thanks to your knowledge of cars, you recognise the sound of the car engine the shady looking guy and his two accomplices drive off in. Later, at the police station, the detectives assigned to your wife’s murder are sympathetic and helpful. Even later, those same detectives tell you they’ve got someone who may have been involved. At a line-up, you pick out the shady looking guy thanks to the distinctive fly tattoo he has near his right eye. And right then and there, the rug gets pulled out from under you: the detectives don’t have enough evidence to arrest him. The shady looking guy goes free. Now what do you do?

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Well, if you’re John Travolta, and the movie you’re starring in is called I Am Wrath, then you tool up and go after the man who killed your wife, and his two accomplices. But what is it that prompts you to do this? Is it a profound sense of justice needing to be done? Is it anger and a need for revenge? Is it because you’re fed up with leading a “normal” life and you want to get back to killing bad guys? Or is it because a Bible the priest at your wife’s funeral gave you, lands open at a particular place (Jeremiah 6:11 to be precise) after you’ve thrown it to the floor? And is it because the phrase “But I am full of the wrath of the LORD, and I cannot hold it in” is featured there, and it seems like God’s giving you permission to go out and kill some people? Well, praise the Lord. Seems he doesn’t mind people committing murder after all.

This is exactly how Travolta’s character, called Stanley Hill (and since when did Travolta ever look like a Stanley?), comes to make the momentous decision to take the law into his own hands and seek vengeance on shady looking guy and his pals. If you’re in any doubt as to how good or bad this movie is at this point, then rest assured the scene with the Bible is as far from cinematic gold as it’s possible to get. Travolta hurls the good book to the floor. It lands cover side down and open at the aforementioned passage. Travolta looks over at it. He gets up, a look of consternation on his face. As he approaches the Bible he begins to look as if he already knows what he’s going to read when he picks it up. And once he does, there’s no doubt: it’s a sign! And he knew it was a sign! Stanley has been given a sign from God (even though he’s not a praying man)! Say Hallelujah everyone!

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Unfortunately for I Am Wrath, any further religious overtones or connotations are abandoned with undue haste. Save an artless confessional scene much later on, the script and direction steer well clear of any religious undertones and concentrate on Travolta – aided by Meloni as his pal from their Black Ops days – and his mission to avenge his wife’s death. Along the way he discovers a conspiracy that involves the police, a local crime lord, and – shock! horror! – the state governor. What could have been an intriguing, finely balanced exercise in the nature of faith versus morality, instead becomes yet another tired actioner where one man and his friend take on a whole bunch of bad guys, break every law going in the process, and are cheered as heroes for “taking out the trash” (quite literally at one point).

First optioned as a vehicle for Nicolas Cage back in 2012, and with William Friedkin set to direct, the project derailed six months later. Watching this finished result, it’s hard not to see why, as it’s difficult to tell if Paul Sloan’s script – he also plays crime lord Lemi – is the same now as it was then, free from any revisions or amendments. It’s a screenplay that signposts everything so far in advance, that even the most naïve or inexperienced of viewers would have no trouble predicting each step or move made by the characters before they happen. From Travolta reassuring his daughter (Schull) that the drive-by shooting that nearly killed her will be the only time she’s put in danger (yeah, right!), to the police (Trammell, Jones) being in the pocket of both the crime lord and the governor, to the epilogue that apparently sees Travolta at the mercy of a “surprise” (not really) gunman, I Am Wrath diligently avoids doing anything that might be construed as original or different.

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Those with fond memories of The Blob (1988), or The Mask (1994), might be encouraged by the presence of Chuck Russell in the director’s chair, but any hopes that  the fourteen year hiatus since The Scorpion King (2002) has left him pumped and raring to go should be abandoned from the start. It’s clear that Russell is just a director for hire, and his bland, uninspired approach to the material reflects this idea all too well. He’s unable to motivate his cast either, with Travolta going through the motions, Meloni playing the sidekick with a (much needed) sense of humour, Schull reduced to creating a character out of whatever reaction she’s required to have from scene to scene, St. Esprit oozing venom like it’s expected of him whatever the circumstances, Trammell and Jones playing detectives who don’t have an ounce of depth between them, and Sloan snarling away at everyone in lieu of providing a proper characterisation. It’s all as bad as it looks, dispiriting too, and without even a sense of its own absurdity to redeem matters.

Rating: 3/10 – another nail in the coffin of Travolta’s career, I Am Wrath is disjointed, mediocre, passionless, and calamitous in equal measure, with lacklustre direction, a weak script, perfunctory performances, and woeful continuity (look for Travolta’s disappearing/reappearing forehead contusions); when movies look and sound this stale, you have to wonder what could possibly have motivated everyone to have taken part, the answer to which would probably make for a better movie than this one could ever be.

Trailers – Hacksaw Ridge (2016), Split (2017) and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

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If you don’t know who Desmond T. Doss was, then prepare to be amazed. The trailer for Hacksaw Ridge introduces us to a man whose pacifist leanings led to his being the only non-weapons carrying member of the US Army during World War II, and who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery and courage in rescuing over seventy-five men during the Battle of Okinawa. It’s an incredible tale, and judging from the trailer this could very well be in contention for a whole slew of awards once it goes on general release in November 2016. Advance word is overwhelmingly positive, and many people who’ve seen the movie already are praising its director, Mel Gibson – making his first movie behind the camera since Apocalypto (2006) – for the way in which he presents both the intensity and horror of the conflict on Okinawa, and Doss’s personal faith and its effect on the men around him. Andrew Garfield looks to have finally found a movie that allows him to step up to the mark in terms of his acting ability, and there’s advance word that Vince Vaughn (seen briefly here as a drill sergeant) gives his best performance yet in a movie. If all this early praise is to be believed, then this could prove to be one of the finest war movies ever made, and a reminder that Gibson, whatever his personal problems in recent years, is still a damn fine movie maker.

 

The latest from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, Split looks like an attempt at making a disturbing psychological thriller based around the notion that a kidnapper with multiple personalities – 23, in fact – is doing so at the behest of the strongest, most fearful personality of the lot… the Beast. It remains to be seen if Shyamalan can pull off this particular storyline with anything like the degree of credibility it needs (and having James McAvoy playing the central character, Kevin(!), will certainly help his chances), or if the mechanics of the narrative will require McAvoy to shift personalities at too rapid a speed for things to remain plausible. This being Shyamalan, it’s hard to tell, but what can be discerned from Split‘s first trailer is that he’s going for a taut, gripping viewing experience, the kind he hasn’t really tried before, and one without any supernatural elements either. It’s easy to dismiss Shyamalan as a writer/director, but The Visit (2015) was a welcome semi-return to form, and he’s such a strong, distinctive, visually arresting director that it’s about time his skills as a writer were able to once again match those he has as a director.

 

At first sight, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword looks like a spirited romp through an alternative Arthurian timeline, one where the fabled King begins life as a child of the streets, but still ends up removing Excalibur from its stone and ruling a kingdom. And while there’s nothing remotely wrong with the idea of retelling the Arthur legend in such a way, what is obviously, clearly, undoubtedly, unquestionably and visibly wrong here is the way in which that idea has been executed. Guy Ritchie may be a very talented director, and he may have assembled a very talented cast – Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, and, erm, David Beckham – but the tone of the movie is plainly off by a country mile. Martial arts fight sequences, modern day humour, large-scale battle sequences straight out of the Peter Jackson Middle Earth Playbook, and a visual style that apes any number of other fantasy movies made in recent years; all these aspects and more make the movie feel derivative and lacking in originality. While it’s evidently been created with the intention of being one of 2017’s must-see tentpole movies, here’s a prediction: come next March we’ll all be asking the same question, “Why, Guy, why?”

Money Monster (2016)

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Money Monster

D: Jodie Foster / 98m

Cast: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, Emily Meade, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo

Lee Gates (Clooney) is the host of TV show, Money Monster. Gates acts as an advisor for anyone looking to invest their money in stocks and shares, but he does so in a hyped-up, devil-may-care fashion that makes him seem sharp and ahead of the game. From the opening dance routines to his frequently ad hoc approach to any scripted segments, Gates talks and behaves as if he can’t ever be wrong. As he gears up to present the latest edition of the show, Gates is expecting to interview Walt Camby (West), the CEO of IBIS Clear Capital, an investment company whose main trading algorithm has developed a glitch and “lost” $800 million, leaving some of their investors high and dry. But Camby is off the grid, and his chief communications officer, Diane Lester (Balfe), is left to field Gates’s questions.

Once on air, the show is interrupted by a delivery man (O’Connell) who appears on set and reveals he has a gun. He forces Gates to put on a vest that’s crammed with C4, and threatens to detonate the explosives unless he gets some answers as to why IBIS’ algorithm went so badly wrong. The delivery man, whose name is Kyle Budwell, is appalled that Gates, and everyone else, is just accepting Camby’s line that it was all just a glitch. Why, he asks, isn’t anyone asking how it could have happened, and why is everyone not as angry as he is, especially as Gates, on a previous edition of the show, told his viewers that investing in IBIS was safer than investing in savings bonds.

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The police are quick to arrive, and the show is allowed to carry on broadcasting live. Gates’s producer, Patty Fenn (Roberts), is stuck in the unenviable position of having to keep both Gates and Kyle calm, and to keep the on-set camera and sound team from being hurt as well. Soon the police – and Gates – learn that Kyle inherited $60,000 when his mother died and he invested it all in IBIS shares; now he has virtually nothing except a job that pays fourteen dollars an hour and a pregnant girlfriend, Molly (Meade). Meanwhile, Diane begins to suspect that all isn’t as it seems at IBIS when her senior colleagues prove less than helpful as she tries to piece together what happened to make the company lose so much money in one hit. And as she begins to work out what happened, so too does Patty and Gates. As the mounting evidence points to fraud on a massive scale, Camby resurfaces, and he and Gates and Kyle find themselves on a collision course to reveal the truth.

If you’re thinking that Money Monster sounds like a fast-paced financial thriller where Wall Street is the bad guy, and Clooney portrays a champion for the little guy who exposes fraud and corruption wherever they rear their ugly heads, then you’re going to be disappointed. It is a financial thriller, that much is true, but the pacing is a little haphazard, and any tension inherent in the material is worn down by director Jodie Foster’s unwillingness to have the movie edited appropriately (and it’s not as if her editor, Matt Chessé, hasn’t any experience in this area – he’s worked on both World War Z (2013) and Quantum of Solace (2008) before now). This is best expressed in a horribly lengthy sequence that sees Gates and Kyle walk from the TV studios to Federal Hall, surrounded by armed police and baying crowds. With precious little happening apart from Clooney looking anxious and O’Connell looking like he can’t work out what’s going on, the sequence comes to a contrived end long after you’ve begun hoping that they’ll get there already.

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With the movie’s thriller elements lacking energy or defined purpose, there’s the small matter of the McGuffin, the $800 million. Such is the muddled approach to the story as a whole, that the script – by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Rouf – never really decides if it’s important or not. That Camby is behind its disappearance is never in doubt, but Kyle’s motivations for challenging its public perception as a glitch manage to change from scene to scene. One minute he wants the money back so all the investors who’ve lost out can be remunerated, the next he wants an explanation as to how the money could have vanished in the first place, and then he’s looking for an admission of guilt. With the script unable to decide what Kyle wants, it leaves O’Connell adrift and having to do the best he can with a character who keeps telling Gates he’s not stupid, but who is then outed by his girlfriend as being exactly that (and when she does, it’s harsh).

Clooney is left stranded a lot of the time, especially in the twenty minutes or so after Kyle’s arrival on set. But when Gates is given stuff to do – argue about the state of his life against Kyle’s, plead with the public to buy IBIS shares in order to save his life – he’s stuck with dialogue that feels and sounds clunky and unconvincing. Clooney is a very good actor, but not even he can do anything with lines such as, “We take care of each other. It’s in our DNA. Not because an equation tells you to do it, but because it’s the right thing to do.” Roberts is likewise hampered by a role that requires her to be too many things at once: TV producer, hostage negotiator, amateur detective, and grudging friend (to Gates). She does her best but in the end has to coast along with the vagaries of the script like everyone else.

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The script tries to make the apparent complacency of ordinary investors as much to blame for financial disasters as it does the banks, the investment companies and the government, an argument that sounds edgy but is quickly shelved once Camby’s apparent perfidy is placed front and centre, and there are some Gosh No! moments when Kyle trots out a few financial conspiracy theories, but on the whole this is a movie with a script that doesn’t know exactly what it wants to say, and sadly, a director who doesn’t quite know how to get it into better shape. There are stretches where Money Monster is quite listless, content to cruise along in neutral and wait until the next plot development hoves into view. What that means for the viewer though, is a movie that never grips as it should, and never engages consistently with its audience.

Rating: 5/10 – only moderately rewarding, Money Monster lacks discernible energy and stumbles around trying too hard to be an efficient thriller (without quite knowing how to be one); a disappointment then given the talent involved, this could have been a lot more interesting, and a lot more entertaining, if it hadn’t been so rambling in its approach and its execution.

 

Stranger on Horseback (1955)

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Stranger on Horseback

D: Jacques Tourneur / 66m

Cast: Joel McCrea, Miroslava, John McIntire, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Nancy Gates, Emile Meyer, Robert Cornthwaite, Jaclynne Greene, Walter Baldwin, Emmett Lynn, Roy Roberts

Like each decade before it, the Fifties saw Hollywood and the independent studios make low budget Western after low budget Western. Trying to wade through them now is like trying to read a library of books that have no title pages: it’s difficult to tell if any one Western is better or worse than any other. But Stranger on Horseback (a title that’s not entirely accurate), is one low budget Western that deserves a closer look, and perhaps, over sixty years after it was made, a reassessment.

Adapted from the story by Louis L’Amour, the Stranger in question is actually circuit judge Richard Thorne (McCrea). Arriving in a small town on a routine visit, he soon learns that there has been a murder recently, but that the man responsible hasn’t been arrested. When he asks why, he discovers that the town is owned and run by Josiah Bannerman (McIntire), and that the man who committed the killing is Bannerman’s son, Tom (McCarthy). Despite several warnings from the town sheriff, Nat Bell (Meyer), and Bannerman’s legal counsel, Colonel Buck Streeter (Carradine), that Josiah won’t allow it, Thorne voices his determination to ensure that Tom Bannerman is arrested and committed for trial.

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News of this development reaches Josiah, and he charges Tom with persuading Thorne to accept his hospitality. Tom’s presence in town leads, unsurprisingly, to his arrest, with Thorne being aided by Bell. With Streeter manoeuvring himself into place as the trial prosecutor, and less than veiled threats made by Josiah’s men as to the likelihood of a trial taking place, an uneasy stalemate exists while Tom languishes in jail. In the meantime, Thorne begins to piece together the events surrounding the murder, while also making an impact on Tom’s cousin, Amy Lee (Miroslava). Her attentions lead to Thorne meeting Josiah, and the last chance of a peaceful outcome in regard to Tom going to trial. Realising that there’s no chance of a trial – fair or otherwise – taking place in town, Thorne decides to spirit Tom away during the night and make for the nearest town, Cottonwood. But his ruse is quickly discovered, and Josiah and his men rush to head them off before Thorne and Bell can get Tom, along with two witnesses to the shooting, to the safety of the nearby town.

For a low budget Western that runs a somewhat paltry sixty-six minutes, Stranger on Horseback is definitely deserving of a much better level of recognition amongst modern day audiences. Directed by the hugely talented Tourneur, this was one of a number of Westerns he made in the Forties and Fifties, and his second with McCrea as the lead. One of Tourneur’s strengths as a director was his ability to draw out strong performances from his casts, and then ally them to a palpable sense of mood. In doing so he made his movies stand out by virtue of their credibility and an often surprising emotional depth. Stranger on Horseback is no exception, with McCrea perfectly cast as the tough, no-nonsense judge whose reputation means he doesn’t have to carry a gun unless absolutely necessary. McCrea made a lot of Westerns in the Fifties, but this is easily one of his best, his performance far more subtle and measured than the material might seem to deserve. In tandem with Tourneur’s assured direction, McCrea makes Thorne the kind of hero whose integrity and law-abiding nature is never in question.

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But it’s not just McCrea who puts in a great performance. This is a movie with a glut of them. As Thorne’s love interest, Amy Lee, Miroslava gives an insightful portrayal of a woman torn between loyalty to her family and the chance of freedom that an unexpected romance gives her (a subplot involving Amy Lee’s impending marriage to the town banker (Cornthwaite) is handled with a sobering disinterest on her part and a tired resignation on his). (Sadly, this was Miroslava’s penultimate movie before she committed suicide aged just thirty, and from her role here it seems certain that her skills as an actress, her ability to find a sympathetic core to the characters she played, would have led to even better performances over time.)

As the proud land baron Josiah Bannerman, McIntire is a terrific adversary for McCrea, his egoism a perfect counterpoint for Thorne’s rectitude. McIntire was a great character actor, often quietly giving memorable performances in the background of bigger movies, and although his presence here requires a degree of repetition in terms of relaying the same threats over and over, he nevertheless imbues Josiah with a sincerity of intent and action that overcomes an awkward last-minute reversal of purpose. And then there’s the wonderful John Carradine, cadaverously charming as ever as the smooth-tongued, lizard-like Colonel Streeter. His scenes with McCrea are a testament to his talent as an actor, his delivery and equanimity in the part a perfect example of what can be done with a supporting role if you have the skill and the encouragement of your director. It’s also a performance that foreshadows his role as Major Cassius Starbuckle in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); both portrayals are hugely enjoyable, and both highlight just how good Carradine was when given a halfway decent script to work from.

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Further down the cast list, McCarthy is appropriately callow as Tom Bannerman, while there’s a beautifully judged performance from Meyer as the sheriff who finds newfound courage thanks to Thorne’s arrival (Meyer is one of those actors whose face is so familiar, you’d swear you’ve seen him in more movies than he’s actually appeared in). Tourneur brings out the best in everyone, and in doing so, elevates the very basic plot and storylines in Herb Meadow and Dan Martin’s screenplay, making it a richer and more rewarding experience than anyone could have predicted.

While the movie is a great, unsung example of low budget Western movie making, unfortunately there is one issue it can’t presently overcome. Existing copies of the movie have become so degraded that the gorgeous Arizona locations – filmed in Ansco-color – are now a riot of over-exposed colours and blurred details. It’s so bad that when we first see McCrea riding into town it looks as if he doesn’t have a face. This is a movie in desperate need of restoration. Let’s hope a pristine copy surfaces at some point, and the movie can be seen as it was meant to be.

Rating: 8/10 – a superior Western thanks to the involvement of Tourneur, Stranger on Horseback is a richly rewarding movie with some outstanding performances to further add to its stature; with only a rushed conclusion to keep it from being a complete and utter classic, this is still a prime example of a low budget Western that shouldn’t be dismissed or ignored purely because of its provenance.

Edge of Winter (2016)

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Edge of Winter

D: Rob Connolly / 89m

Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Percy Hynes White, Tom Holland, Rachelle Lefevre, Rossif Sutherland, Shiloh Fernandez, Shaun Benson

Set in the (very) snowy Canadian wilderness, Edge of Winter begins with an awkward meeting between Elliot Baker (Kinnaman), his ex-wife, Karen (Lefevre), their two sons, Bradley (Holland) and Caleb (White), and Karen’s new husband, Ted (Benson). The reason for the meeting is due to Karen and Ted heading off on a cruise holiday and needing Elliot to look after the boys. Everyone looks and feels uncomfortable, and it’s clear from Karen’s behaviour that Elliot isn’t exactly her first choice, but he is the boys’ father.

We never learn the reason why Elliot and Karen’s marriage ended, other than that the boys were “more mature” than their father. But his nervous attitude and eagerness for their visit to go well serves as a signal that all is not well with Elliot himself, and that it’s unlikely he’ll get his wish. Of the boys, Bradley is the more withdrawn and unhappy at having to spend time with his father. He’s a teenager and probably remembers more about the breakup of his parents’ marriage than he’d like (though how long they’ve been divorced is something else we never learn). On the other hand, Caleb, who is a few years younger, is more open to the idea.

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The boys’ discovery of Elliot’s hunting rifle should be the opportunity for him to lay down some boundaries, but instead he offers to take them where they can learn to shoot. On the trip, Elliot lets his sons know just how important their visit is to him, and even goes so far as to confiscate Bradley’s mobile phone so that it doesn’t become a hindrance to their all getting on. When they arrive at the place where they can learn to shoot, Bradley’s first experience of firing a rifle concludes with his being embarrassed and refusing to carry on. Caleb is more enthusiastic, and he does well. When it comes time to leave, Elliot lets Bradley drive, but an argument between the brothers leads to their car skidding off the road and into a ditch. Unable to get the car free, the trio are forced to spend the night there. And while they wait, Elliot learns something that has a tremendous effect on him.

The next morning, and with Elliot claiming that it’s too far for them to walk back to the highway, they head off to reach a cabin by a lake that Elliot says is near enough for them to get to. When they get there, both Bradley and Caleb begin to wonder just how long their father is planning to stay there before trying to get home. Elliot himself is less than forthcoming, and the sudden arrival of two fishermen leads to the realisation that their father may not even want to get back home, and that maybe what he really wants is for the three of them to stay at the cabin indefinitely…

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From the very first moment we see Elliot – dealing with a debt problem on the telephone – we know that all is not well with him. He looks pale and uncertain about things, anxious and agitated in a way that speaks volumes about his character right from the off. Whether this is the way the script describes him, or a decision made by Kinnaman in terms of his portrayal, or the way that first-time feature director Connolly advised the actor to portray Elliot, his agitated state works as a clumsy kind of cinematic shorthand: this is a man on the edge. But aside from having money problems, we never learn very much about Elliot, or the reasons for his being so anxious. Instead we’re left with a poorly constructed portrait of a man trying to connect with his sons who doesn’t understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate, and who has no cognisance of the harm he’s doing in trying to bond with them.

As a result, Elliot’s behaviour stretches the viewer’s patience. With little or no back story to fill in the gaps, he becomes the movie’s weakest link, called upon to propel the narrative forward by virtue of some equally weak plotting. The arrival of the fishermen inevitably leads the movie into confirmed thriller territory, but it’s at the expense of what little credibility has been achieved so far. Elliot’s determination to keep his sons with him becomes increasingly preposterous (just how deluded is he to believe that hiding out at the cabin indefinitely is a good idea?), and his efforts to “keep them safe” are as equally preposterous on both a dramatic and a conceivable level.

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The movie isn’t helped by the pedestrian pace adopted throughout. Connolly, along with editor Greg Ng, fails to realise that this isn’t an indie character study (even though there are elements of this buried in the script), but a slowburn thriller that should be highlighting the horror inherent in its basic storyline: that the biggest threat to the two boys’ safety is their own father. Instead it downplays any terror in favour of clumsy interactions between the characters, developments in the plot that defy rational explanation (the burning of the cabin, for one), and a reveal that begs the question, how could Elliot have done this without anyone else knowing? There’s no sense of urgency to help make the final twenty minutes more exciting than the rest of the movie, and no sense that the boys are in any real danger. Instead, the script (by Connolly and Kyle Mann) lumbers through an unconvincing series of confrontations and encounters until ending on a whimper rather than a bang.

Rating: 4/10 – with its cast able to provide only adequate performances thanks to the under-developed script, Edge of Winter is a disappointing and unrewarding experience; not even the beautiful Canadian locations can compensate for a movie that consistently avoids meeting its audience’s expectations, and which wastes too much time in achieving very little of merit.

Question of the Week – 7 August 2016

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This week has seen the release of the first trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which is due out next year. I won’t dwell too much on the content – you can see for yourselves below what it’s made up of – but what does seem baffling is the point of releasing it at all. The movie won’t be released until July 2017, so with around a year to go, why put out a trailer, and a teaser trailer at that, that allows us just the briefest glimpses of material that, if Nolan’s previous movies are anything to go by, will be part of a movie that runs for over two hours? I can understand the idea of whetting our appetites, but as the trailer tells us so little (which isn’t completely a bad thing, not in these days of trailer overkill), why bother? As a collection of random images it’s fine, and you could argue that Nolan’s take on the rescue mission will be a suitably atmospheric one, but still – did it need to be released a) so far ahead of the movie’s arrival, or b) with so little in it to pique our interest? With all that in mind, this week’s Question of the Week is as follows:

Is there a genuine place for the teaser trailer in today’s modern marketing strategy, or is it just an outdated tool that’s no longer useful in promoting a movie?

Sharknado: The 4th Awakens (2016)

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Sharknado 4

D: Anthony C. Ferrante / 85m

Cast: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Masiela Lusha, Tommy Davidson, Cody Linley, Ryan Newman, Imani Hakim, David Hasselhoff, Cheryl Tiegs, Gary Busey, Christopher Shone, Nicholas Shone

The title says it all. In fact, it says too much, because in hitching their bandwagon to that of Star Wars, and unleashing a torrent – a veritable Forcenado, if you like – of bad in-jokes and awkwardly added references to their own franchise, the producers of the Sharknado series have pretty much indicated that their confidence isn’t as high as it was this time last year, when Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! proved surprisingly enjoyable. Judging by the look of the movie, there was a much smaller budget available this time, despite the series’ growing success, and the calibre of familiar faces making cameo appearances couldn’t be maintained either.

But Star Wars isn’t the only movie to be given the subtlety-free tribute treatment. There’s also Pirates of the Caribbean, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Twister (“It’s a cownado!”) to name but a few. This leaves the already fragmented plot, what there is of it, feeling like it was made up as filming went along, with returning screenwriter Thunder Levin handing out new script pages each day. As the series’ put-upon hero, Fin Shepard (Ziering), aided by the same core group as in number three, is called upon to battle a variety of shark-infested tornados when a high-tech defense system designed to stop them from forming in the first place, goes wrong. Cue a trio of sharknados, all of which mutate thanks to whatever blatantly ridiculous idea Levin had that day. As a result we have a sandnado, an oilnado, a firenado, a bouldernado, a lightningnado, the aforementioned cownado, a hailnado (a hailmarynado might have been more appropriate), a lavanado, and to top them all, a nukenado.

SHARKNADO: THE 4TH AWAKENS -- Pictured: (l-r) Ian Ziering as Fin Shepard, Masiela Lusha as Gemini -- (Photo by: Tyler Golden/Syfy)

Part of the series’ appeal – at least until now – has been its self-awareness, and the audience’s knowledge that the makers aren’t taking any of it seriously at all. The series’ humour has been an asset in this respect, but here it’s so tired, and conveyed with such a lack of energy that the one-liners which would previously have raised at least a smile, now induce groans instead. To paraphrase the tagline from Alien, In Sharknado: The 4th Awakens, no one can hear you sigh. Even the celebrity cameos, usually the source of much of the series’ merriment, aren’t able to raise the stakes, and there’s precious little fun to be had when the likes of Alexandra Paul and Gena Lee Nolin are drafted in (for a Baywatch-themed skit with Hasselhoff), only for them to be summarily eaten moments later (now if they’d managed to get Donald Trump…).

For many though, the main source of amusement will come from the so-bad-they’re-terrible special effects. Sharknado: The 4th Awakens reaches new heights (or should that be lows) in low-budget special effects, with some of the worst CGI ever committed to the small screen. The tornados themselves give new meaning to the word “appalling”, while any attempt at combining two separate film elements always looks like the worst kind of cut and splice effect, with backgrounds looking a different colour to what’s intended, and any of the cast unlucky enough to be in the foreground often highlighted by a soft white outline. While none of the Sharknado movies will ever be known for their use of cutting edge computer wizardry, the lack of attention to detail, and a “that’ll do” attitude harm the movie even more than usual.

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And if the movie’s less than half-hearted approach to special effects hurts it, spare a thought for the acting – if it can be called that. Out of everyone, Ziering can be considered lucky: he’s got the most physical role, he has no choice but to play it seriously, and even though he knows it’s all as daft as a box of frogs, all he has to do is keep a straight face when he says his lines. As Fin’s supposedly dead wife, April, Reid also keeps a straight face throughout but instead of making the best of things she looks like she’s wondering when her character is really going to be killed off and she can get out of making these movies each year (it doesn’t help that Reid isn’t the best of actresses and uses the same expression for any and all feelings or emotions).

Further down the cast list we have Lusha as Gemini, a character that’s new to the series but who helps Fin in his endeavours (though exactly what her relationship is to Fin is never explained). She’s a replacement for the part of Nova, played in previous instalments by Cassie Scerbo, and while she attacks the role with relish, she’s too intent on making everything she does overly dramatic; as a result she offers a one-note performance that does her no favours. As Fin’s kids, Linley, Newman and the Shone twins are adequate but have little to do; Hakim’s character, though the latest member of the Shepard family (son Matt’s wife), also has little to do but run around after everyone else; Hasselhoff is in the same boat; Davidson tries to inject some much needed energy into his role as the tycoon behind the high-tech defense system, and succeeds largely because he makes more of an effort than anyone else; and then there’s Gary Busey, on board as April’s father and a mad scientist-type, who literally recites the majority of his lines standing up behind a table. It looks like he did all his work in under thirty minutes, or possibly twenty.

SHARKNADO: THE 4TH AWAKENS -- Pictured: Ian Ziering as Fin Shepard -- (Photo by: Tyler Golden/Syfy)

In charge once again is Ferrante, directing with all the flair and excitement of a man who can see any chance of a better career ebbing away with every entry in the series (and the movie ends on a set up for Part 5 – lucky guy). In conjunction with returning DoP Laura Beth Love, Ferrante drops any pretence at knowing how to frame a shot or a scene, or how to give direction to a cast who can only muster the enthusiasm to pick up their paycheck. It makes for an often embarrassing collection of stitched together moments that barely add up to a fully-fledged movie.

Rating: 2/10 – for a series that was improving – however gradually – with each successive entry, Sharknado: The 4th Awakens is a massive backward step, and easily the worst entry to date; shoddy in almost every department, with just Chris Ridenhour and Christopher Cano’s driving score to recommend it, the makers have got to go a long way to justify any further adventures for the unlucky Fin and his family.

Love & Friendship (2016)

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Love and Friendship

D: Whit Stillman / 93m

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry

It may seem like an odd corollary, but Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s posthumously published Lady Susan, and a certain Monty Python sketch involving the Piranha Brothers (Doug and Dinsdale) have something in common. In the Python sketch, Michael Palin as low-level criminal Luigi Vercotti talks about Doug as being the more vicious of the two gang leaders:

“Everyone was terrified of Doug. I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of Doug.”

“What did he do?”

“He used… sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, pathos, puns, parody, litotes and… satire. He was vicious.”

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You could add mieosis to the list, or rhetoric, or even polemics – they’re all there in Stillman’s screenplay, all in service to one of the year’s funniest movies, and proof (as if it were truly needed) that Jane Austen had a wicked sense of humour, and enjoyed attacking the social mores of her time; no one was safe, high- or lowborn. In transferring Lady Susan to the screen, Stillman has retained the epistolary nature of the novella, allowing the audience to be swept along with the recent widow’s attempts to secure advantageous marriages for both herself and her daughter, Frederica (Clark)… while also brokering an affair between herself and the married Lord Manwaring. In the process, barbs are dispensed with precision, honeyed slanders voiced with mannered simplicity, and insults hurled with joyous abandon. There’s no turn left unstoned by the movie’s end, and nobody who doesn’t find themselves somehow injured by an unkind remark (even if they don’t know they’ve been injured – some remarks pass by so quickly the characters don’t even realise it’s happened).

This is the overwhelming joy of Love & Friendship: the ease with which the characters are disarmed by unexpected, cutting remarks, and the way in which their reactions are to stare in disbelief like rabbits caught in the headlights, trying to fathom just what to say in return – and then the moment is gone and they’re left there, still staring in shock. Stillman includes so many of these moments there’s a danger of his overdoing it, but the range of insults is so varied that everyone’s a winner, and every moment is assured a smile from the viewer. As Lady Susan (Beckinsale) weaves her tangled web of intrigue, she does so with a shrewd cunning that’s completely impressive. She’s the predatory shark in petticoats who cares for no one but herself and her assured future (or her daughter’s assured future, as that will lead to hers as well).

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Watching the movie is like indulging in a massive bowl of whipped cream and citrus lemon sauce, a confection that’s rich and rewarding and a bit of a guilty pleasure. But it shouldn’t be, as Stillman elicits superb performances from his cast, with Beckinsale on particularly fine form as Lady Susan, revelling in her machinations and throwing out carefree lines such as “Facts are horrid things” with an amused detachment that fits the character perfectly. It’s good to see Beckinsale – along with Sevigny, reunited with Stillman after eighteen years – being given such a juicy role after so many bland fantasy outings. Maintaining an equilibrium and a sense of purpose while treating everyone around her – bar her good friend, Mrs Johnson (Sevigny) – with utter contempt, Beckinsale as Lady Susan is a poisonous delight, cunning, devious, and wholeheartedly shameless in her efforts to get what she wants. But there’s also grace and subtlety in her performance, a measured approach to the character and the material that reaps dividends when she’s called upon to be deceitful or just outright lying.

But it’s not just Beckinsale who puts in a fabulous performance. As Lady Susan’s confidant, Mrs Johnson, Sevigny has what looks to be the thankless role of best friend who’s there just so the main character has someone to show off to. But Stillman is too good a director, and Sevigny too good an actress, to let this happen, and even in her scenes with Beckinsale, Sevigny’s quiet attention and marvelling at the deplorable behaviour of Lady Susan’s relatives is too good to be ignored or undervalued. And she’s on even better form when the contents of a letter causes problems both for her and for Lady Susan.

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On the spear side of things, there’s a pitch perfect exercise in buffoonery from Bennett as the idiotic Sir James Martin, whose halting, almost stream of consciousness dialogue is matched by the actor’s use of physical tics and surprised facial expressions; he’s like a child for whom everything is new and endlessly fascinating (he finds peas to be an amazing discovery). There’s a scene where he turns up unexpectedly at the home of Lady Susan’s brother-in-law (Edwards), and spends approximately two minutes waffling horrendously about almost nothing at all, and its one of the funniest things you’ll see this year, a perfect match of physical discomfort and mental truancy.

As befits an adaptation of a novella, the story is very slight, and does boil down to very little at all, but Stillman wisely concentrates on the characters and their idiosyncracies rather than the plot, and there’s reward enough in seeing them adrift – often – in a sea of their own making. It’s a romantic comedy, and a recalcitrant comedy of manners, and a comedy of hilarious misdirection that bubbles with energy and glee at providing so much mischief. Stillman doesn’t make very many movies these days, which is a shame, but let’s hope Love & Friendship is the beginning of a more prolific period in his career because it would be a shame if he spent another five years (the time since his last movie, Damsels in Distress) away from our screens.

Rating: 9/10 – a perfect mix of period drama (with sterling work by costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh and production designer Anna Rackard), and pin-sharp levity, Love & Friendship is perfectly designed to ensure a good time will be had by all; Stillman interprets Austen with authority, Beckinsale has a great time as the unprincipled Lady Susan, and the viewer is treated to one of the few comedies released this year that doesn’t rely on crass jokes or gross-out humour – and is all the more impressive for it.

The Bronze (2015)

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The Bronze

D: Bryan Buckley / 100m

Cast: Melissa Rauch, Gary Cole, Thomas Middleditch, Sebastian Stan, Cecily Strong, Haley Lu Richardson, Christine Abrahamsen

The cast of hit TV show The Big Bang Theory are all talented actors and actresses. But although they’ve all found fame and fortune through appearing on the show, some of them want to be known for more than their TV roles. And that’s a fair enough ambition. In recent years, Kaley Cuoco has broadened her horizons with movies such as Authors Anonymous (2014) and Burning Bodhi (2015), while Simon Helberg has worked with his wife, director Jocelyn Towne, on I Am I (2013) and We’ll Never Have Paris (2014). Now it’s Melissa Rauch’s turn to branch out, and in doing so, she makes sure that the image of her as the helium-voiced, large-breasted Bernadette Wolowitz (neé Rostenkowski) is done away with completely.

With her hair tied back and sporting a mono fringe that keeps her eyes hooded for the most part, Rauch’s incarnation as 2004 bronze-winning Olympic gymnast, and hometown heroine, Hope Ann Greggory is as far from the squeaky, shiny Bernadette as you could get. She’s rude, crude, unnecessarily aggressive, has an ego the size of the Olympic rings, and is content to live off her past glories as an Olympic gymnast. Stores and restaurants in her hometown of Amherst, Ohio let her have freebies, while her long-suffering father, a postman called Stan (Cole), has to contend with her stealing money from the mail he delivers. She won’t get a job, looks down on everyone around her, has never been in a relationship, and always wears her 2004 TeamUSA jacket with sweatpants.

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Years before, after suffering a recurring injury that ended her gymnastics career, Hope fell out with her mentor, Coach Pavleck (Abrahamsen). But with Pavleck’s recent, untimely death, Hope receives a letter that gives her the chance to inherit $500,000 from Pavleck’s estate – but only if she coaches Amherst’s newest hope for gymnastic glory, “Mighty” Maggie Townsend (Richardson), and gets her to the upcoming Olympics. Threatened by the idea that Maggie might eclipse her fame and become Amherst’s new town heroine, Hope agrees to coach her but the training regime she comes up with leads to Maggie putting on weight, being unable to focus, and messing up her gymnastic routines. But Hope’s efforts to sabotage Maggie’s future come to a halt when ex-Olympic Gold medallist Lance Tucker (Stan) baits her into coaching Maggie properly. Now all that remains is for Hope to coach Maggie in such a way that she’ll not only impress at the National Finals, but at the Olympics as well… but can Hope be that selfless?

Well, the answer to that one is obvious. Anyone who’s ever seen this type of movie, where the curmudgeonly, grumpy, outrageously inappropriate central character gets to say outrageously inappropriate things at every opportunity (and get away with them), will be unsurprised by the way in which Rauch and her co-screenwriter husband Winston have dictated the arc of Hope’s redemption. And while there’s more than a whiff of formula about everything, what some viewers may perceive as a major failing on the Rauchs’ part, is actually something that makes the movie far more interesting than expected.

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Although The Bronze is ostensibly a comedy, there are character elements that feel more at home in a drama, particularly a grim psycho-drama about a character who is unable to connect with other human beings due to a lack of compassion, and through mutual dislike. Take away the “humour” in Hope’s situation and you have a scenario that’s terrible for the way in which it shows how a person clinging desperately to fame, paves the way for, and ensures, their own downfall. Hope is a parasite, living off old glories and refusing to adjust to the reality of her present situation; she’s in so much denial she’s practically drowning. As a character with serious mental health problems, Hope is fascinating to watch, but as a foul-mouthed, shameless self-promoter whose attitude is “funny”, she’s not so fascinating.

Rauch appears so determined to portray Hope as a kind of anti-Bernadette that she moves too far in the opposite direction, spraying venom at everyone around her, and particularly at Stan, whose acknowledgment of his daughter’s situation is key to the main storyline. There are moments where Hope’s derisory treatment of her father begs the question, why would she be so dismissive of him and his love for her? On what level does that make her feel better? (Both are unfair questions: the movie makes no effort to explain Hope’s motivation for being nasty, she just is.) With other questions like these bouncing around throughout the movie – would love interest Ben (Middleditch) really find her so attractive as a person after being mistreated by her so often, and so callously? – The Bronze becomes an exercise in belief suspension that is increasingly hard to maintain.

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With its central character proving immensely unlikeable, even when she begins to slowly change into a more rounded individual (it’s a movie convention that seems extra tired here), it’s left to the supporting characters to make an impact, but thanks to the script, no one is allowed to overshadow Hope or her story arc. Cole is as good as ever, though under used; Middleditch and Stan are polar opposites as Ben and Lance, two caricatures of how men apparently behave; Richardson gives new meaning to the phrase “silly goose” (but not in a good way); and Rauch channels her inner bitch  with ruthless determination, setting her jaw against any notion of broadening the character’s appeal.

First-time feature director Buckley fails to make much of an impact, but does manage to generate some interest when Hope and Lance spin and whirl around her hotel room in a wonderfully choreographed sex scene that features sterling work from Rauch and Stan’s body doubles. It’s the one scene in the movie that stands out from all the rest, and without it, The Bronze would remain stubbornly parochial in its approach. Visually there’s nothing new here, and tonally it sticks to its hard-hearted groove even when it’s meant to be uplifting. In trying to move away from her role as Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory, Rauch has certainly managed to create a completely opposite character, but sadly, Hope isn’t someone you want to spend too much time with.

Rating: 4/10 – disappointing and badly misjudged, The Bronze is rarely funny, and thanks to its rampant female misanthropy, something of a chore to sit through; there’s the essence of a powerful drama buried beneath all the name-calling and rude behaviour, but unfortunately, that’s not the story that Rauch has chosen to tell.

Ron Howard’s 10 Most Successful Movies at the International Box Office

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Having successfully made the transition from actor to A-list director, Ron Howard has retained his populist focus ever since he made his first short movie, Old Paint, back in 1969. He’s also a director who moves from genre to genre, and while some of his detractors insist he doesn’t imprint his own particular stamp on any of them, he still has a recognisable style that’s all his own, whether it’s ramping up the tension as the Apollo 13 crew try to solve the problem of getting back home from the Moon, examining the life and times of one of Britain’s most iconic racing drivers, or indulging in some light-hearted fantasy romance involving a mermaid. In each of these there’s a subtle understanding that Howard takes it all very seriously but at the same time is having fun putting it all together, like a kid in a candy store who can pick anything he wants. He’s not the edgiest, or grittiest of directors, and sometimes the subject matter isn’t always a good match for his strengths (e.g. In the Heart of the Sea), but he isn’t afraid to take risks, and when he does connect with the right material, the effect can be breathtaking. Here then are his ten most successful movies at the international box office, and evidence (if it were needed), that you don’t have this much success unless you’re getting it right more times than not.

NOTE: As always, box office figures are all thanks to the good folks at boxofficemojo.com.

10 – Cinderella Man (2005) – $108,539,911

Howard’s biopic of the boxer James Braddock – apparently washed-up but with one last championship fight left in him – Cinderella Man reunites the director with Russell Crowe and makes the Depression-era Thirties as much of a character as any of the people depicted. It’s a powerful piece about pride and redemption, and of all the movies on this list is probably Howard’s most underrated project. A towering achievement, and in terms of recreating an age where people had to fight for so many things, including the right to a basic life, Braddock’s tale is a salutary lesson in self-belief and how not to give up.

Cinderella Man

9 – Parenthood (1989) – $126,297,830

Howard has always been able to assemble great casts for his movies, and Parenthood is no exception. A comic ramble through the ups and downs of, yes, parenthood, Howard deftly explores the stresses and strains, and quiet heroics, that make up being a parent, and along the way keeps things grounded yet heartfelt. It’s a small, unassuming masterpiece of a movie, with terrific performances from Steve Martin and Dianne Weist, and features early turns from Keanu Reeves and Joaquin Phoenix (back when he was known as Leaf Phoenix). And as Jason Robards’ character so aptly puts it, parenting is “like your Aunt Edna’s ass. It goes on forever and it’s just as frightening.”

8 – Far and Away (1992) – $137,783,840

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in a romantic drama set against the backdrop of the Irish famine – what could possibly go wrong? Critics were quick to answer, and while it’s true that Far and Away isn’t the best example of Howard’s work in this list (it lacks passion and sincerity, and never engages the audience as powerfully as it should), it still retains a certain flavour that helps overcome the movie’s soap opera narrative and the overly romanticized nature of much of the material. Howard plays up the central relationship but is hampered by (then married couple) Cruise and Kidman’s lack of chemistry, leaving him adrift in a way that wouldn’t happen again until In the Heart of the Sea.

7 – Backdraft (1991) – $152,368,585

In between Parenthood and Far and Away, Howard made this testosterone-fuelled homage to US firefighters, and in the process made a movie that easily fits the term “guilty pleasure”. A certain amount of romanticism is involved (witness Kurt Russell tackling raging infernos without a helmet or breathing apparatus), and it’s allied to a mystery concerning a string of arson attacks, but the movie scores highly when it puts its willing cast in amongst the flames, and when Howard dials back the heroics to examine just what it is that drives these men on in such dangerous circumstances. Nascent star William Baldwin has never been better, but he’s still overshadowed by the likes of Scott Glenn, Robert De Niro, J.T. Walsh, and Donald Sutherland as Backdraft‘s very own version of Hannibal Lecter (“Burn it all”).

Prince WIlliam County firefighters watch as visiting British firefighters Phil Driver (center/front) and Gary West (left/front) demonstrate British firefighting techniques in the county's flashover simulator, a chamber about the size of a cargo container which allows firefighters to experience the growth and progression of a fire under controlled conditions. Dylan Moore photo

6 – Ransom (1996) – $309,492,681

A cynical yet memorable thriller with stellar turns from Mel Gibson and Gary Sinise, Ransom sees Howard apply tension by the bucket load as he charts the response by Gibson’s mega-rich businessman to the kidnapping of his son. Howard pulls out all the stops, making the movie an often heart-stopping experience, and it’s a shame that he’s not found another project to bring out the same qualities he displays here. Helped immeasurably by his star’s commitment, the former Richie Cunningham dispels any idea that he can’t do “edgy” when the material requires it, making this one of the rare occasions in his career when Howard has actively refuted his critics.

5 – A Beautiful Mind (2001) – $313,542,341

The true story of asocial mathematician John Nash, A Brilliant Mind brought Howard and Russell Crowe together for the first time, and earned Oscars for both of them. A meticulous, solidly grounded exercise that explores with creativity and sensitivity the mind of a schizophrenic genius, the movie is far more audacious than perhaps even its supporters are aware, and its place in the list shows just how successfully Howard’s approach to the material scored a hit with, and resonated with, audiences around the world. A strong contender for the title of Howard’s best movie, and a testament to the notion that there are no stories – true or otherwise – that can’t be made if a director is confident enough to trust in the material (in this case, Akiva Goldsman’s succinct and sympathetic screenplay).

4 – How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) – $345,141,403

A rare foray into fantasy for Howard, and twelve years after the disappointment that was Willow. Adapting Dr Suess for a live action big screen outing may have seemed foolhardy at the time, but Howard enters into the spirit of things and makes the movie one giant confection to be enjoyed over and over again. With the inspired casting of Jim Carrey as the Grinch, and the good doctor’s off-kilter sensibility given free rein, Howard is free to indulge himself as much as the audience, and the result is a movie that sees him having fun with the garish environs of Whoville, the innate pomposity of the Whovian “intelligentsia”, and the waspish barbs uttered by the Grinch. A joy from start to finish.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

3 – Apollo 13 (1995) – $355,237,933

Howard has always had a healthy attraction for true stories of courage, but he excelled himself with this gripping, incredibly well mounted account of the crew of Apollo 13’s attempt to get back home after their mission suffers from setback after setback after setback. Howard is aided by a string of impressive performances, from Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton as the beleaguered astronauts, to Ed Harris’s no-nonsense mission controller, and all the way down the cast list to people such as Kathleen Quinlan, and good luck charm Clint Howard. But it’s the verisimilitude achieved by Howard and his design team that registers the most, making Apollo 13 entirely credible and helping to make the astronauts’ predicament as taut as possible. Even if you know the outcome, Howard’s ability as a director will still keep you guessing if they actually get home – and that’s no small feat.

2 – Angels & Demons (2009) – $485,930,816

This and Howard’s most successful movie probably won’t be any surprise but what can’t be denied is that having a built-in audience is half the battle won. Reteaming with Hanks for what is actually a prequel to The Da Vinci Code, Howard retains the faithful adaptation approach he took with Dan Jones’ first outing for symbologist Robert Langdon, but still can’t do anything to combat the problems inherent in Jones’ wayward tale of corruption and murder within the Vatican. As a result, this seems more like Howard taking a back seat to the material and getting on board solely as a director for hire, rather than as an instigator.

1 – The Da Vinci Code (2006) – $758,239,851

The fan base was there, and a big screen adaptation was always going to happen, but of all the directors to take up the challenge of making Dan Jones’ literary behemoth, Howard probably wasn’t anyone’s first choice. Nevertheless, he does the best he can to replicate the pace and urgency of the novel, and elicits another committed performance from Hanks, but is hampered at every turn by the absurdities of Jones’s story; so much so that the book’s big revelation is a tepid affair at best, and risible at worst. But this was always going to be a success, and if you’re going to be attached to the movie version of a global phenomenon, that’s still no bad thing for your reputation. With third adaptation Inferno due to hit screens later this year, it’ll be interesting to see where it will fit into this list in a year’s time, though it’s unlikely to topple this first outing.

The Da Vinci Code

Ghost of the China Sea (1958)

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Ghost of the China Sea

D: Fred F. Sears / 79m

Cast: David Brian, Lynette Bernay, Jonathan Haze, Norman Wright, Harry Chang, Gene Bergman, Mel Prestidge

Set in the Philippines during World War II, Ghost of the China Sea is an amiable, if mostly forgettable drama about a group of civilians trying to escape the clutches of the approaching Japanese army. Trapped on an island that has begun to be invaded, and led by rough, tough ex-military man Martin French (Brian), the group – plantation owner Justine (Bernay), pacifist Reverend Darby Edwards (Wright), and plantation bookkeeper Himo Matsumo (Chang) – head for the nearby coast in the hope of finding a boat they can use to find safety on one of the other, numerous islands that make up the Philippines. Along the way they encounter Larry Peters (Haze), a seaman who has become lost on the island, but who saves them when they’re captured by the Japanese.

They help him find his ship, the Ilima, a broken-down vessel that barely qualifies as a navy ship, and which Peters refers to as the “USS Frankenstein”. They set off but soon need supplies, and discover that the Americans are being overrun and destroying any fuel and ammo dumps before moving on. Managing to get what they need, and still being pursued by the Japanese, French and co add a trio of Filipino resistance fighters to their group, and make way again. Along the way, French is challenged by Justine over his dismissive, arrogant attitude towards the others, and as the group is whittled down over time, French comes to realise that he can’t do everything by himself.

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Produced and scripted by Charles B. Griffith – better known as the screenwriter of such B-movie classics as Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and Death Race 2000 (1975) – and shot in Hawaii, Ghost of the China Sea is as ordinary and unremarkable a wartime drama as you’re ever likely to see. Like many similarly themed movies made in the Fifties, it tells a simple story, populates it with stock characters from the period – the stoic hero, the independent-minded heroine who still needs protecting and/or saving, the comic relief – and puts them all into situations where nothing too unexpected or exciting happens. Griffith himself was unhappy with how the movie turned out, but even so, and despite several reservations that could be mentioned about the movie, it’s still worth watching if you’re interested.

A lot of what makes it worth watching is due to the efforts of its director. This was Sears’ final movie, and the last of five movies to be released following his death in November 1957 (as you can imagine, he had a very busy career). What Sears does best here is to focus on the characters and what few internal struggles they have to contend with. French is all about getting the job done, but has decided that in order to do that he has to shut off from those around him. This makes him practically unlikeable, but thanks to Sears (and Brian), French’s slow reveal as a man of hidden feeling is both believable and a relief. Also, Sears takes Wright’s pacifist reverend and makes his dilemma more heartfelt than perfunctory, and while it’s tempting to view the moment when he has to make a choice (personal integrity vs necessity) as entirely predictable, it’s an affecting moment nevertheless.

Rating: 5/10 – not as corny or pedestrian as it might seem at first glance, Ghost of the China Sea is mildly diverting stuff that benefits greatly from Sears’ direction; unloved perhaps by its writer/producer, it’s a movie that deserves a little better attention than it’s received over the years.

NOTE: Sadly, there’s no trailer available.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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Star Trek Beyond

D: Justin Lin / 122m

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Joe Taslim, Lydia Wilson, Deep Roy, Shohreh Aghdashloo

It’s unfortunate, given the response to Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), that the latest instalment in the JJ Abrams’ revamped movie franchise opens with über-Captain James T. Kirk (Pine) lamenting his time in space as part of the Enterprise’s five year mission. After nine hundred and sixty-six days, Kirk is, frankly, bored, and as he puts it, “wondering what it is we are trying to accomplish”. It’s like a listening to a man who’s treading water in the ocean, far from land, and hoping a shark comes along to break the monotony. Harking after further adventure, Kirk sounds petulant rather than unhappy. But if it’s a challenge he’s after, then he need wait no further, because once the Enterprise has docked at the Federation’s new super-duper starbase, the Yorktown (a nod to the Enterprise’s original name in the original series’ pilot), an alien craft seeking help arrives and propels Kirk and his long-suffering crew into just the kind of adventure that he craves.

Told that an alien menace headed by someone called Krall (Elba) is responsible for the abduction and imprisonment of her crew, Kalara (Wilson), leads Kirk and co to the planet where her crew are being held. Orbiting the planet, the Enterprise suffers a devastating attack, and the main saucer is forced into a crash landing – but not before Krall and his men have invaded the starship and made it clear they’re after an artifact – the Abronath – that is on board, and not before the crew have been either captured by Krall or gotten away by means of the Enterprise’s escape pods. Spock and Bones escape together, as do Kirk and Chekov, while Scotty gets clear by himself. Down on the planet, Scotty meets Jaylah (Boutella), a scavenger whose people were captured and imprisoned by Krall in the past. She takes him to what she calls her ship, and Scotty is amazed to find it’s the remains of the USS Franklin, a ship long considered to have been lost.

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Meanwhile, Spock has been injured, and Bones is doing his best to keep him alive. Sulu and Uhura have been captured, and Kirk and Chekov head for the downed Enterprise to see if they can make it operational again. Krall appears to be one step ahead of everyone, and his motive for gaining the Abronath is revealed to be part of a plan of revenge on the Federation. Aided by Jaylah, the crew of the Enterprise come together to fight back against Krall’s homicidal intentions, and in the process, find some very unique ways of taking the fight to him.

When Paramount announced that they were rebooting the original Star Trek franchise and had given the project to JJ Abrams, it seemed like a risky proposition, what with William Shatner et al having become so completely associated with the roles of Kirk and Spock and Bones etc, that it was hard to imagine anyone else portraying them. But Abrams was more than up to the task, and even managed to come up with a plot device that allowed his “new crew” to have their own adventures independently of the original movie series’ timeline. Quinto was a great choice for Spock, Pine had the cocksure audacity of a younger Kirk down pat, and Urban was possibly a better (if underused) Bones than DeForest Kelley. Only the lack of a convincing villain stopped Star Trek (2009) from being a complete triumph. And then Star Trek: Into Darkness tried to be too clever for its own good with its “He’s not Khan/Okay, he is Khan” shenanigans, and overwrought plotting.

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Perhaps realising that going “darker” on the first sequel works only on other sci-fi franchises, the producers have decided with this third outing to go lighter and make Star Trek Beyond more like an episode of the original series; or to be more accurate (or cynical – you decide) a retread of Star Trek: Generations (1994). The script, by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung (who appears briefly as Sulu’s husband, a gender acknowledgment that carries no weight whatsoever in the grand scheme of things), coasts along for the most part, and does what the original series always did so well: focuses on the relationships between Kirk, Spock and Bones, gives Scotty a chance to shine when something needs fixing (which happened pretty much every week), adds an alien collaborator to help the crew overcome the villain, throws in said villain and ensures they have a grudge against everyone else, and sidelines Uhura at every opportunity (though she is involved, by reference, in one of the movie’s funniest scenes). A tried and tested formula, to be sure, and one that on this occasion makes for an enjoyable if underwhelming experience.

But while enjoyable is good – and in a loud, dumb, fun kind of way the movie is enjoyable – there’s something missing that stops it from becoming a Star Trek movie that makes you want to go back and view it again because you had such a great experience watching it the first time. Partly because Krall is yet another weak villain, partly because there are too many occasions when the solution to a problem is to “couple the doohickey to the whatchamacallit and transverse the first number you thought of” (and who knew Kirk was so familiar with the properties of FM radio frequencies?), and partly because any plot development that relies on the presence of a fully functioning motor bike on the bridge of a downed starship, is stretching credibility to snapping point. (There are other moments where the viewer’s jaw is in danger of hitting the floor, but to reveal them all would take too long.)

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In the director’s chair, Fast & Furious alumni Lin makes a decent enough fist of things but doesn’t manage to provide audiences with anything really memorable to go away with. It’s a turbo-charged experience, to be sure, and Lin, along with his editing team (Greg D’Auria, Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto and Steven Sprung) ensures that the movie zips along at an exciting pace. The visuals are as crisp and vibrant as you would expect, and even though there’s an over-reliance on CGI, this is to be expected: it’s a science fiction movie, for Pete’s sake; how else is it going to look? The cast enter into the spirit of things, though Elba struggles with his dialogue thanks to the kind of alien mask that looks great but probably isn’t that functional; and there’s a touching moment where Spock looks at a picture from the past (that he can’t possibly have).

All in all, Star Trek Beyond is a movie that falls under the heading of “honourable mention”. It’s not going to be at the top of anyone’s list of all-time favourite Star Trek movies, but it won’t be anywhere near the bottom, like Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). It zips along like a young child eager to show off the neat-looking toy it’s just found, but as any parent will tell you, even neat-looking toys can lose their attraction quickly and without warning.

Rating: 6/10 – a middling, superficially diverting entry in the Star Trek canon, Star Trek Beyond is nothing new or special, and only occasionally rises to meet the demands of franchise (and genre) expectations; more a case of “boldly going where everyone has been before” than anything else, the movie is yet another reminder that the odd-numbered entries in the series are the ones that don’t always work.

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

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Batman The Killing Joke

D: Sam Liu / 76m

Cast: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise, John DiMaggio, Robin Atkin Downes, Maury Sterling, Anna Vocino

The latest in Warner Bros. series of direct-to-video animated movies to feature the Caped Crusader, Batman: The Killing Joke is a movie Harvey Dent would appreciate as it compromises two separate stories that are welded together to make a full-length feature. Fans will have their own feelings about which one of the two stories is the more effective, but taken on its own merits, the movie does have some distinctive moments that warrant more than a cursory acknowledgment.

The first “half” concerns Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl (Strong). As an occasional “partner” to Batman, Batgirl still feels the need to prove herself. The opportunity arises when she helps Batman in stopping a group of criminals led by Paris Franz (Sterling), escaping after a robbery. Franz gets away, but in the process he becomes obsessed with Batgirl, and when his plans to take over his father’s criminal empire begin to come to fruition, he drags her into it. This leads to Batgirl putting herself increasingly at risk, a situation that Batman is unhappy about. He tells her not to continue her involvement, but instead she rounds on him. Matters take an unexpected turn, and their relationship becomes even more strained. Later, Batman is lured into a trap by Franz, prompting Batgirl to go to his aid, and in doing so, she learns a valuable lesson – one that leads to her making a life-changing decision.

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This storyline is more reminiscent of previous Batman outings, both tonally and visually, with compact, multi-angled scenes that remind viewers of Batman’s comic book origins, and which serve as dramatic enhancements of the narrative. The animation here is a key component, serving to reassure returning viewers to the series, and maintaining a style that Warner Bros. have made their own. But the storyline itself isn’t as impressive, or as well thought out. Batgirl is made to look too dependent on Batman’s sanctioning her actions, and there’s a hint of a daughter seeking approval from her father that is terribly at odds with the “unexpected turn” that alters their relationship (this moment in the movie has been widely reported and talked about elsewhere, and caused a fair degree of controversy). It’s a brave move on  Warner Bros.’ part, but while there is some justification for it happening, it’s the way in which the movie fails to properly address it afterwards that spoils things, preferring instead to finish on an action sequence.

But as one door closes – as they say – another door opens, and the meat of the movie is thrust front and centre. The Killing Joke is a justly celebrated graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland that was first published in 1988. An adaptation has been anticipated ever since Mark Hamill announced his willingness to play the Joker in a movie of The Killing Joke back in 2011. Now that it’s here, fans can relax somewhat, but not entirely, as there are elements in this “half” that don’t work as well as they should.

It begins with Batman being called to a crime scene that could only have been the work of the Joker. But the Joker is being held at Arkham Asylum – or at least, that’s what everybody thinks. When Batman pays his arch-enemy a visit, he discovers that the Joker has escaped and left a decoy in his place. Meanwhile, the Joker has bought an old, rundown amusement park as part of his plan to hurt Batman and those he cares about. To this end, he shoots Barbara Gordon and abducts her father (Wise). Invited to the amusement park’s reopening, Batman rescues Commissioner Gordon and goes after the Joker – but not before Gordon insists that Batman brings him in “by the book”.

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The Killing Joke is primarily about the Joker, his origin and the psychology that he shares with Batman. But while the movie embraces this idea, and does its best to reflect the graphic novel’s content, it’s not as successful in exploring the notion of Batman and the Joker being two sides of the same coin, or brothers cut from the same emotionally disturbed cloth. Aside from a surprise musical interlude sung by the Joker (I’m Looney), the emphasis rests firmly on setting up the inevitable confrontation between the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime. In between all this, we get to see the Joker’s origin story, a tale designed to provide the character with a degree of built-in sympathy, and which leads to the conclusion that we’re all “only one bad day away from being him”. It’s a neat idea, but fatally at odds with the fact that Batman has chosen to fight crime, while the Joker actively embraces it. Yes, both characters are psychologically disturbed, but in ways that are more different than similar.

With the psychological content failing to make as much of an impact as it needed to, there’s also the matter of what happens to Barbara Gordon. Again, much has been made of this elsewhere, and there is an implication that the Joker is responsible for much more than just shooting her, but it’s at odds with the character and his history, and while this is an animated Batman movie that is trying hard to be more adult in its themes and approach, it’s unlikely that the producers would have allowed this interpretation to be included deliberately (and producer Bruce Timm has confirmed this). Clumsy writing seems to be the culprit here, rather than an attempt at pushing any boundaries.

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And then there’s the animation. While it’s a perfect fit for the first “half” and the preceeding entries in the series, here it fails to recreate Brian Bolland’s intense artistic vision with anything approaching the effect he conceived. There are enough iconic images retained from the source to keep fans happy but overall it would have been better to have made The Killing Joke as a true stand-alone movie, with maybe a bigger budget, and a visual style that reflects the graphic novel. There are too many moments where the Joker looks cartoonish rather than scary, and too many moments where the sparse visual details on offer leave the viewer with too little to look at. In the end, it all helps to devalue the impact of the story, and makes the movie look a little under-developed.

But there are still plenty of good things to be savoured, from the re-casting of Conroy and Hamill, to the energy expressed in the action sequences (which are all expertly designed and choreographed), the decision to explore darker and more disturbing material (even if it doesn’t always work out), and returning director Sam Liu’s confident direction. Fans of the series will be delighted to see the references to this story made in Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010) expanded on here, and the future of Batgirl is foreshadowed in an epilogue that, again, should please fans of the character.

Rating: 6/10 – too many bad decisions at a creative level scupper what could have been – potentially – the best animated Batman movie ever, but unfortunately Batman: The Killing Joke remains a slightly above average entry in the series; it’s great to have Hamill back in the fold, though, and his usual exemplary work as the Joker is highlighted by an impressively told joke at the movie’s end, a moment of class that the movie is sometimes sorely in need of elsewhere.

Monthly Roundup – July 2016

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Crawl (2011) / D: Paul China / 80m

Cast: George Shevtsov, Georgina Haig, Paul Holmes, Lauren Dillon, Catherine Miller, Bob Newman, Andy Barclay, Lynda Stoner

Crawl

Rating: 7/10 – a hitman (Shevtsov) hired by an unscrupulous bar owner (Holmes) winds up injured while trying to leave town, and ends up playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a waitress (Haig) when he seeks refuge in her home; a slow-burn thriller that takes its time and relies on tension and atmosphere to keep the viewer hooked, Crawl often belies its low budget, and features terrific performances from Shevtsov (in a role written expressly for him) and Haig, but stops short of being completely effective thanks to some awkward narrative choices and first-timer China’s lack of experience as a director.

The Asian Connection (2016) / D: Daniel Zirilli / 91m

Cast: John Edward Lee, Pim Bubear, Steven Seagal, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Byron Gibson, Byron Bishop, Eoin O’Brien, Michael Jai White

The Asian Connection

Rating: 3/10 – career criminal Jack Elwell (Lee) meets the love of his life, Avalon (Bubear), and decides that robbing a bank is the way to a financially stable relationship, but unfortunately the money he steals belongs to crime boss Gan Sirankiri (Seagal), and soon Jack is being coerced into robbing more of Sirankiri’s banks when one of his men (Boonthanakit) threatens to expose him; what could have been a moderately entertaining action thriller is let down by some atrocious acting (and not just from Seagal), some equally atrocious camerawork, editing that looks like it was done with a hatchet, and the kind of direction that gives “point and shoot” a bad name, all of which leaves The Asian Connection looking like something to be avoided at all costs.

Banshee Chapter (2013) / D: Blair Erickson / 87m

Cast: Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillian, Corey Moosa, Monique Candelaria, Jenny Gabrielle, Vivian Nesbitt, Chad Brummett, William Sterchi

Banshee Chapter

Rating: 3/10 – a journalist (Winter) looks into the disappearance of a friend, and discovers a secret world of government experiments that are linked to strange radio broadcasts and the discredited MK Ultra program from the Sixties; a paranoid thriller with supernatural overtones, Banshee Chapter tries extra hard to be unsettling and creepy – much of it takes place at night and has been shot using low light – but fails to make its story of any interest to anyone watching, which means that Winter and Levine put a lot of effort into their roles but are let down by the tortuous script and Erickson’s wayward direction.

In the Heart of the Sea (2015) / D: Ron Howard / 122m

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Charlotte Riley

In the Heart of the Sea

Rating: 5/10 – the writer, Herman Melville (Whishaw), convinces retired sailor Tom Nickerson (Gleeson) to talk about his experiences as a young boy at sea, and in particular his time aboard the Essex, a whaling ship that encountered a creature Melville will call Moby Dick; based on the true story of the Essex, and the voyage that saw it sunk by an enormous whale, In the Heart of the Sea is technically well made but lacks anyone to care about, avoids providing a true sense of the enormity of what happened, sees Ron Howard directing on auto-pilot, and leaves Hemsworth and Walker struggling to make amends for characters who are paper-thin to the point of being caricatures (or worse still, carbon copies of Fletcher Christian and William Bligh from Mutiny on the Bounty).

The Notebook (2004) / D: Nick Cassavetes / 123m

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Sam Shepard, David Thornton, Joan Allen, James Marsden

The Notebook

Rating: 7/10 – in the late Thirties, a young man, Noah (Gosling), sets his cap for the girl of his dreams, Allie (McAdams), and though they fall in love, social conventions keep them apart, while in the modern day their story is told by an old man (Garner) to a woman with dementia (Rowlands); handsomely mounted and told with a genuine feel for the central characters and their travails, Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook is an old-fashioned romantic drama that could have been made in the time period it covers, and which is bolstered by the performances of its four stars, as well as Cassavetes’ (son of Rowlands) sure-footed direction, glorious cinematography by Robert Fraisse, and a sense of inevitable tragedy that permeates the narrative to very good effect indeed.

Apache War Smoke (1952) / D: Harold F. Kress / 67m

Cast: Gilbert Roland, Glenda Farrell, Robert Horton, Barbara Ruick, Gene Lockhart, Harry Morgan, Patricia Tiernan, Hank Worden, Myron Healey

Apache War Smoke

Rating: 6/10 – a stagecoach station finds itself under attack from angry Apaches after a white man kills several of their tribe – and the evidence points to the station agent’s father, a wanted outlaw (Roland), as the killer; a compact, fast-paced Western, Apache War Smoke zips by in low-budget style thanks to the efforts of two-time Oscar winner Kress – editing awards for How the West Was Won (1962) and The Towering Inferno (1974) – and a cast who enter willingly into the spirit of things, making this studio-made Western set in Tonto Valley Station(!) a surprising treat.

Question of the Week – 30 July 2016

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Fans of Matt Damon will be intrigued, or just plain excited, by his presence in Yimou Zhang’s latest epic, The Great Wall, due later this year. It’s a fantasy/action period piece that asks the question, why was the great wall built? Was it to keep people out, or was it to keep out – speak of it only in hushed tones – something far worse? If you’ve seen the trailer by now then you’ll already know the answer (and let’s just say it’s not Po the Kung Fu Panda). But if you haven’t, and you’re wondering what on earth Matt Damon is doing appearing in an historical drama set in China, then… join the rest of us.

Perhaps it was being able to work with Yimou, still one of China’s most distinctive and exhilarating movie directors, even if it’s been ten years since he made Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), perhaps his last movie to gain both critical and commercial plaudits worldwide. Or maybe it’s the chance to spend time in China itself, a kind of busman’s holiday. Either way, Damon is there taking part and kicking – whoa there! Nearly gave it away (let the trailer do that).

 

But it’s not the first time an A-list Hollywood star has appeared in a movie set in historical China. Tom Cruise was once The Last Samurai (2003), while more recently we’ve seen the likes of Adrien Brody and Nicolas Cage donning historical armour and pitching up in Chinese movies – Brody opposite Jackie Chan in Dragon Blade (2015), and Cage taking Hayden Christensen under his wing in Outcast (2014). In all three of these movies, the presence of such stars has no doubt been encouraged to help boost international sales (and The Last Samurai was hugely successful, raking in over $450 million), but the so-called Marco Polo effect really only works when the Occidental character is, well, Marco Polo. So, with that all in mind, this week’s question is (obviously):

In this day and age, is the presence of a globally well-known star still the (potential) guarantee of box office success that Oriental movie makers seem to think it is, or are they being hired purely because they’re the best actor for the role?

Mini-Review: The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015)

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The Legend of Barney Thomson

aka Barney Thomson

D: Robert Carlyle / 92m

Cast: Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone, Ashley Jensen, Martin Compston, Tom Courtenay, James Cosmo, Brian Pettifer, Kevin Guthrie, Stephen McCole

Barney Thomson (Carlyle) lives a sad, awkward life as a Glaswegian barber who doesn’t talk to his customers (or even likes them), has few friends, and lives on his own in a drab flat; in short, he leads a life of quiet desperation. With his attitude at work causing too many problems, his boss, Wullie (McCole), gives him a month’s notice. Barney isn’t too good at accepting this, and pleads with Wullie to keep him on. But Wullie won’t change his mind. Barney’s bad luck gets worse: while trying to convince him, Barney causes Wullie’s death. Panicked, Barney endeavours to get rid of the body, but ends up confessing his “crime” to his mother, Cemolina (Thompson). To Barney’s surprise, his mother helps him by cutting up the body and, at first, putting the pieces in her freezer.

At the same time, the Glasgow police are trying to track down a serial killer who posts body parts to his victims’ families. In charge of the investigation is relocated London policeman, Detective Holdall (Winstone). He’s also tasked with looking into Wullie’s “disappearance”, which brings him into contact with Barney. To offset Barney’s paranoid suspicion that Holdall thinks he’s responsible for Wullie’s “disappearance”, Barney attempts to pin the blame on his colleague, Chris (Compston). But Barney’s plan takes an unexpected turn, and soon matters become even more complicated, leading him to have to count on his mother once more – but in a way that he couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

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Robert Carlyle’s first venture into big screen directing – he previously directed an episode of SGU Stargate Universe in 2010 – The Legend of Barney Thomson is an enjoyable if sometimes over-reaching movie that works best as farce, but less so as a straightforward black comedy. Adapted from the novel The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson by David Lindsay, the movie paints a vivid world of meandering lives, muddled relationships and the aforementioned quiet desperation. Barney is the eternal loser, always taking second place in his own life, and too reliant on others to make any serious decisions that would change his life for the better. Carlyle is terrific as Barney: put upon, afraid, going through the motions, and then on edge, anxious and terrified. He’s matched by Thompson, who makes Cemolina a cruel figure in Barney’s life, and whose brassy, couldn’t-care-less behaviour is the antithesis of Barney and his constant worrying. (Winstone and Jensen are less successful, their continual haranguing of each other feeling like it’s been drafted in from another, weaker movie.)

There’s humour aplenty, but too much of it is signposted in advance, and as a result it lacks the kind of impact to have audiences laughing out loud very often. Despite this, the movie moves at a good pace, and Carlyle directs with confidence, even though the material could have been straightened out here and there, and the ending a little less contrived. The Bridgend, Glasgow locations add flavour to the storyline, and there’s solid, suitably dour cinematography courtesy of Fabian Wagner that adds to the often astringent feel of the movie as a whole.

Rating: 6/10 – though not entirely successful, The Legend of Barney Thomson has much to recommend it, from Thompson’s harridan of a mother, to Winstone’s transplanted copper moaning about living and working in Scotland; it’s not a movie that will linger long in the memory after you’ve seen it, but it’s definitely worth watching, and does have an instant classic in the line (directed at Barney), “You look like a haunted tree.”

A Hologram for the King (2016)

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A Hologram for the King

D: Tom Tykwer / 98m

Cast: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Tracey Fairaway, Jane Perry, Tom Skerritt, Ben Whishaw, David Menkin, Christy Meyer, Megan Maczko, Eric Meyers, Khalid Laith

Early on in A Hologram for the King – and after a wonderfully staged, and ironic, interpretation of Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime – Tom Hanks’ character, Alan Clay, is sitting across a desk from his boss, Eric Randall (Meyers). They’re talking about a deal to be made in Saudi Arabia, and about Clay’s ability to clinch the deal. Randall is making it clear that Clay has to make the deal, while Clay is being equivocal (and not exactly inspiring his boss with confidence). It’s also clear that this is a very important deal for their company, and that Clay has to clinch it or his career – which is already suffering thanks to his recent divorce – will be over. All of which begs the question: if you have potentially the biggest, most important deal in your company’s history about to happen, would you really put it in the hands of a man whose life seems to be falling apart around him?

It’s a question this adaptation of the novel by Dave Eggers never quite manages to address, let alone answer, and it’s indicative of the problems with the movie as a whole. Clay’s mission – to deliver a contract-winning presentation to the King of Saudi Arabia on the merits of holographic telecommunications – should be a simple one, but right from the start nothing seems to be going according to plan. Jet lag means he misses the hotel shuttle to the site where the presentation will be conducted, and has to avail himself of the services of a driver, Yousef (Black). At the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade, Clay finds his small team (Menkin, Meyer, Maczko) sequestered in a tent away from the main building where all the other companies making presentations are based, and without benefit of consistent wi-fi, air conditioning or food. And no one knows when the King will actually be visiting the site for the presentation to be made.

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Unable to make any headway against the seemingly carefree approach to business that the Saudis appear to be indulging in, Clay finds his health deteriorating. A large growth appears on his back; when he attempts to “investigate” it with a heated steak knife he’s not entirely successful in his efforts. This leads to his visiting a clinic and being seen by a female doctor, Zahra (Choudhury). She reassures him that the growth is a cyst and should be removed. Meanwhile, a combination of persistent delays, angry phone calls from Randall, and memories of his time with Schwinn and a deal he was involved in that went badly wrong, conspire to bring on an anxiety attack. When he wakes he finds Zahra at his bedside, and the beginning of an unlikely relationship is forged.

As unlikely this relationship is – and Yousef points out just how unlikely it is given that there are so few female doctors in Saudi Arabia – it’s as unlikely as any other relationship Clay has. From the adversarial conversation with Randall at the movie’s start, to the spiteful divorce-signing barbs of his ex-wife (Perry), and his e-mail based discourses with his daughter, Kit (Fairaway), Clay is always struggling to connect with the people either closest to him, or those he’s dependent on. Ordinarily this would be scope for an ironic commentary on the nature of modern communications and the way in which traditional methods are being usurped and/or replaced. But A Hologram for the King pitches itself firmly as a fish-out-of-water tale (or camel-out-of-the-desert tale, if you will), and in doing so avoids doing anything fresh or surprising. Even his relationship with Yousef, the source of much of the movie’s humour, is dependent on a connection that feels forced into place by the demands of the script.

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Watching the movie you begin to wonder how it was that Dave Eggers’ source novel managed to be a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. In the hands of writer/director Tom Tykwer, the movie stutters and flails about trying to make itself relevant in any way possible, and succeeds only in wasting the viewer’s time. There’s such a lack of clarity and focus that scenes pass without making any impact – even when Clay probes the growth on his back it’s handled in such a matter of fact way he might as well be probing a potato on a plate. Tykwer mishandles so many scenes in this way that after a while the viewer has no choice but to just go along with the jumbled narrative and hope for the best. Add an abbreviated ending to everything that hints at production problems, and you have a movie that disappoints on too many levels to count.

Against the odds though, it’s not all bad. Hanks is too accomplished and intelligent an actor to allow a ragged script to get the better of him, and while Tykwer’s direction is erratic and lacks consistency from scene to scene, the actor at least makes Clay a sympathetic (if somewhat bewildered) everyman, and has the viewer hoping that despite all the chaos around him, he’ll come good in the end. In the hands of (probably) any other actor, Clay wouldn’t have been as rounded as he is here, and certainly despite the laissez-faire nature of Tykwer’s approach to the character. And Choudhury, an actress who, like Hanks, rarely if ever puts in a bad performance, is on equally fine form as a kindred spirit of Clay’s who provides him with a degree of stability he can’t find otherwise.

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Filmed largely in Morocco, the desert locations are given a lustrous sheen by Tykwer’s DoP of choice, Frank Griebe, and there are plenty of diverting compositions to take the heat off the wayward narrative, not least the beautifully shot underwater scenes that appear towards the end. And again, despite Tykwer’s involvement, the movie has a natural, organic rhythm courtesy of underrated editor Alexander Berner (he’s one of the few people able to come away from Jupiter Ascending (2015) with their reputation intact).

Rating: 4/10 – muddled and frustrating, A Hologram for the King never engages with its intended audience, and gets by thanks to the efforts of Hanks and Choudhury; Tykwer has talent but with two disappointing literary adaptations in a row now, perhaps it’s time he turned his attention to more original material.

Disorder (2015)

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Disorder

Original title: Maryland

D: Alice Winocour / 98m

Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger, Paul Hamy, Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant, Percy Kemp

Vincent (Schoenaerts) is a soldier suffering from post traumatic stress disorder following a tour in Afghanistan. A medical reveals a variety of associated problems, all of which mean he’s unable to remain in the army. Given a medical discharge, he goes back home but struggles to make sense out of being there. Soon, though, he accepts a job from his friend and ex-comrade, Denis (Hamy). Working as part of a security detail at a party held at a villa called Maryland on the French Riviera, Vincent’s suspicions about the host, Imad Whalid (Kemp), and at least one of his guests – allied with an interest in the host’s wife, Jessie (Kruger) – lead nowhere (albeit initially). It’s a surprise then that the next day, Denis advises Vincent that he’s been chosen to play bodyguard to Whalid’s wife and child, Ali (Errougui-Demonsant), while Whalid is away on business for a couple of days.

Vincent takes his new assignment seriously but finds Jessie barely acknowledges that he’s there. Ali seems more intrigued by Vincent’s presence but is a shy child who doesn’t say much. A trip to the beach passes without incident until the trio begin to make their way back to Maryland. Their car is rammed and masked men attempt to abduct Jessie. Vincent fights them off, killing one and wounding another before they take flight. Afterwards, at a police station, he and Jessie are both interviewed about the attack but Vincent is convinced by their line of questioning that the police are more interested in Whalid than they are in the attempted abduction. Back at the villa, he and Jessie find it’s been ransacked and the staff are no longer there.

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Matters are made more complicated by the news that Whalid has been arrested. His lawyer advises Jessie to stay at the villa, but Vincent believes they should go somewhere else. Jessie overrules him, and even though the police have arranged for officers to keep watch outside the front gates, Vincent decides to call Denis and get him to come over. Feeling more confident with his old army buddy there, Vincent is still sure that the house will come under attack before long. And then the police detail is removed, and Vincent’s worst fears begin to come true…

Alice Winocour’s first (and previous) movie was the erotically charged Augustine (2012), based on the relationship between a pioneering 19th Century French neurologist and his star patient, a partially paralyzed kitchen maid. If bets had been taken as to the content of her follow-up feature, it’s unlikely anyone would have chosen this dour contemplation on the effects of PTSD on an already withdrawn ex-soldier. But thanks to a committed and largely internalised performance from Schoenaerts, the character of Vincent is dependable instead of unreliable, and focused on keeping his charges safe. Winocour and co-screenwriter Jean-Stéphane Bron have taken what seems to be an odd tack at first, using Vincent’s PTSD to define the character and set up audience expectations.

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But Winocour doesn’t allow Vincent to tread an obvious path in terms of how the narrative develops. As it becomes clear that he and Jessie, Ali and Denis are going to come under siege, Vincent’s paranoid suspicions prove all too real, enabling him to deal with the situation effectively and, at one point, quite brutally. That one moment of brutality aside, Vincent acts swiftly and purposefully, leading the viewer to realise that his PTSD is what is going to keep them all alive, and that without it he may not be as resolute as he needs to be. It’s an interesting approach to what is essentially a mental illness, and though both Winocour and Schoenaerts downplay this aspect of the material – and certainly it’s jettisoned once the police detail is called off – there are enough echoes and quietly realised moments to remind the viewer that Vincent is always going to be just that little bit “damaged”.

Ultimately, Disorder is a mix of European arthouse character study and recognisably French thriller tropes. As you might expect, Winocour employs lots of close ups to help establish Vincent’s thoughts and feelings, and Schoenaerts’ often blank expression is betrayed by what’s going on with his eyes. He’s the movie’s focus, and we learn everything we need to know from an assortment of frowns and glances. The camera records them all, and soon we have a visual lexicon to refer to, as Vincent reveals more and more of himself (and possibly without his being aware he’s doing so). It’s in these moments that Schoenaerts excels, combining his imposing physical presence with a complex, sympathetic portrait of a man struggling, and finding, a reason not to be defined by his illness.

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Opposite Schoenaerts, Kruger has much less to do, but this is due mainly to the script’s decision to focus on Vincent at the expense of the other characters. Jessie is a woman who turns a blind eye to her husband’s business activities, content to look after their child and reap the obvious benefits. When Vincent confronts her with the reality of Whalid’s occupation, her reaction is hardly any reaction at all, and Vincent’s distaste washes over her with little effect. Kruger handles this convenient apathy with ease, but still manages to retain the audience’s sympathy for the situation she finds herself in. The actress has made some great choices in recent years – her performance in The Better Angels (2014) is a good example – and this is another quietly impressive portrayal from someone who could so easily have remained typecast because of her looks.

It’s also good to report that the thriller elements of Disorder are also well executed, particularly the attack on the car, which is filmed for the most part from within the car and which has an immediacy and an urgency that a lot of so-called out-and-out thrillers fail to achieve. While Vincent, Jessie, Ali and Denis wait in the villa for something to happen, the script allows them a brief interlude for laughter, but even then there’s a sense of foreboding, a certainty that the home invasion we all know is coming could happen right then and there. Again, Winocour shows a confidence in the material that for once doesn’t rely heavily on the same old tired thriller elements (even though she can’t resist having one of the intruders pass by in the background at one point), and there’s an understated tension to the final half an hour that’s maintained with a great deal of patience and aplomb.

Rating: 8/10 – part character study, part taut thriller, Disorder manages to unite both elements to impressive effect, and features a superb, well-modulated performance from Schoenaerts; a little slow to start with, but full of clever touches that enhance the material, the movie is both conventional and surprisingly unconventional at the same time, a rare feat these days and a very welcome one at that.

Oh! the Horror! – Scare Campaign (2016) and Emelie (2015)

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Scare Campaign

Scare Campaign (2016) / D: Colin Cairnes, Cameron Cairnes / 80m

Cast: Meegan Warner, Ian Meadows, Olivia DeJonge, Josh Quong Tart, Patrick Harvey, Cassandra Magrath, Steve Mouzakis, Jason Geary, John Brumpton, Sigrid Thornton

Scare Campaign is a TV show that loves to prank unsuspecting members of the public by putting them in creepy situations and then scaring the life out of them. Approaching the end of its fifth season, the latest show has to be rescued after the stooge reacts to a “reanimated” corpse by producing a gun. Warned by their boss (Thornton) at the network, Marcus (Meadows) and his team are tasked with making their season finale more contemporary and more dramatic, particularly in light of the exploits of a rival “reality” TV show called Masked Freaks, which appears to show snuff footage.

Taking over an abandoned mental hospital, Marcus and his team – including ex-girlfriend and lead actress, Emma (Warner), aspiring newcomer Abby (DeJonge), and make up supremo JD (Harvey) – get ready to prank their latest stooge by making it look as if the place is haunted by the ghosts of former patients. Enter Rohan (Tart), the stooge, who reveals an unexpected connection to the hospital, and who soon goes on a rampage killing the Scared Campaign team. Emma finds herself being chased by Rohan, and along the way, discovers cameras that aren’t linked to the production…

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There’s a degree of fun to be had from Scare Campaign, the latest feature from Australians Colin and Cameron Cairnes, and horror fans in general will be happy with the level of inventive gore on display, but the movie falls into the same traps as many other low-budget horror movies, from the perfunctory character development – does it really matter if Emma and Marcus once had a relationship? – to the uninspired use of the low-budget horror movie maker’s location of choice, the abandoned medical facility.

Where the movie does score highly is in its use of humour, offering up some genuinely funny moments when you least expect it, as when one of the team reveals that they do their research. Co-writers and directors Colin and Cameron Cairnes inject enough rude energy to keep viewers watching once the central conceit is revealed, but by the movie’s awkward and credibility-lite conclusion, some viewers may well have become exasperated by some of the narrative decisions. That said, Warner and Tart provide good performances, and the relatively short running time means the movie doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Rating: 5/10 – though not as effective as it would like to be, Scare Campaign is still a reasonably likeable shocker, even if it does come across as too derivative for comfort; the Cairnes brothers have talent, but coming after their more impressive first feature 100 Bloody Acres (2012), this looks and feels like a backward step.

 

Emelie

Emelie (2015) / D: Michael Thelin / 80m

Cast: Sarah Bolger, Joshua Rush, Carly Adams, Thomas Bair, Chris Beetem, Susan Pourfar, Elizabeth Jayne, Dante Hoagland

Stressed out and needing an evening together without their kids, frazzled parents Dan and Joyce (Beetem, Pourfar) don’t stop to think that it’s strange that the babysitter who shows up isn’t the one they were expecting. Instead they head off without checking to see if Anna (Bolger) really is who she says she is, and leave their three children – Jacob (Rush), Sally (Adams), and Christopher (Bair) – in the care of a young woman who soon begins behaving oddly. She plays inappropriate games with them, and soon earns the suspicion of eldest child Jacob, who begins to realise that Anna may not be the replacement babysitter she’s supposed to be.

While their parents remain oblivious to what’s going on at home, Anna’s behaviour becomes increasingly alarming, and Jacob, Sally and Christopher find themselves being menaced by her. When the reason for her being there is revealed, Jacob does his best to keep his siblings safe, but Anna (now revealed as Emelie), always manages to keep one step ahead, even when the original babysitter’s friend, Maggie (Jayne), calls to say hi. Matters escalate, and by the time Dan and Joyce try to ring home and get no answer – prompting their swift return home – Emelie has almost achieved her aim in being there.

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Michael Thelin’s first feature opens with an abduction, a predatory incident that takes place in broad daylight, and which is scary because it happens so easily. And a few uneasy moments aside, it’s also easily Emelie‘s most effective sequence. For despite many good intentions, and a handful of scenes that veer off in directions that aren’t immediately obvious, the movie struggles to maintain the sense of eerie disquietude that that opening provides. It’s a shame, as the uneven narrative needs more than just a few incongruous and unsettling moments to be as potent as it should be.

As the titular villain, Bolger gives a compelling performance, and manages to maintain a sense of repressed violence that adds greatly to her portrayal of a young woman pushing herself into a very dark expression of parental need. It’s also good to report that all three child actors cope well with the demands of the script, and Thelin directs them with due care and consideration. Once a cat-and-mouse situation develops, Thelin can’t resist adopting a more melodramatic approach, and there’s a subplot involving Emelie’s “partner” that seems superfluous until it’s used (clumsily) to link the parents and their belief that something is wrong at home. And to rounds things off, Thelin also can’t resist the possibility of a sequel, something that anyone watching this will not be clamouring for.

Rating: 4/10 – clunky and annoying for the most part, Emelie takes every parent’s fear – that of their children being at the mercy of a stranger who means to do them harm – and tries too hard to be different, resulting in a movie that is only fitfully tense and only occasionally alarming; with any menace reduced as a result, the movie can only pander to genre tropes in the hope that no one will notice just how ineffectual it is, and how poorly developed is Rich Herbeck’s screenplay.

Angel of Death (2009)

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Angel of Death

D: Paul Etheredge / 77m

Cast:  Zoë Bell, Jake Abel, Vail Bloom, Justin Huen, Doug Jones, Lucy Lawless, Brian Poth, Ingrid Rogers, John Serge, Lucy Lawless

The career of Zoë Bell is one you could charitably and fairly say is all due to the influence and intervention of one Quentin Tarantino. If he hadn’t picked her to a) be Uma Thurman’s stunt double in both Kill Bill movies, and b) to do the “ship’s mast” stunt in Death Proof (2007), then it’s unlikely she would have the acting career that has followed in the wake of those movies (prior to Death Proof, her only big screen appearance – believe it or not – was in Billy Elliot (2000). A short stint on Lost (2008) followed, but Angel of Death was the first movie to put Bell front and centre.

Except that Angel of Death was originally a web series, ten episodes that aired on Crackle in March 2009 and which ran eight to ten minutes per episode. The series had limited success (a second season was considered but has yet to be made), but it provided Bell with a showcase for her obvious physical talents, while at the same time highlighting her limitations with dialogue and characterisation. For every kick-ass moment where she punches and kicks people in the face, there’s another that sees her mangle her lines as if the effort of disguising her New Zealand accent is too difficult when combined with speaking like an American.

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However distracting Bell’s limitations may be though, Angel of Death provides the stuntwoman-turned-actress with a platform on which she can showcase her tremendous physical presence. Bell plays Eve, an assassin working for shadowy fixer Graham (Poth). The pair are partners in both their professional and private lives, and there’s an edge to their relationship that has more to do with Eve’s unwillingness to be treated like an employee rather than an equal. A straightforward hit is initially successful, but goes wrong when Eve finds herself facing two unexpected bodyguards and their charge, the target’s teenage daughter. Eve dispatches all three, but not before one of the bodyguards manages to stab her in the head (leaving the blade in her skull).

How you react to the sight of Bell with a knife sticking out of her head will set the tone for the rest of the movie. Keep a straight face, and you’ll find yourself accepting the movie’s more perverse developments with an ease that will probably surprise you. Laugh, and you’ll find yourself deriding those selfsame developments with the same amount of ease. And if that image isn’t enough to sway matters one way or the other, then the later image of Doug Jones’ mob-related Dr Rankin pulling it out without benefit of anaesthetic or proper surgical procedure, will decide things once and for all (clue: your ribs should be aching).

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But to paraphrase Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben: with great cranial relief, comes great responsibility, because Eve begins to have disturbing visions of the teenage girl she killed. Worse yet, these visions have the effect of causing her to go after the people involved in hiring her. This leads her to Arthur Max (Serge), an underworld fixer in the same vein as Graham but with less of a conscience. Eve takes the first of several beatings before she manages to kill him. This brings her to the attention of Max’s boss, the young but suitably psychopathic Cameron Downes (Abel). Downes is the son of an ailing crime boss, and has designs on inheriting the business sooner than his father may have planned. He’s a nasty piece of work whose weapon of choice is a cutthroat razor.

With Eve trusting no one, everyone is out to find her, including Graham, Cameron, the FBI, and a former colleague, Franklin (Huen), who winds up working for Cameron’s duplicitous sister, Regina (Bloom). With Eve’s hallucinations having an increasingly deleterious effect, she soon finds herself face-to-face with a bloodthirsty Cameron, but with the odds stacked massively against her. (You can guess the outcome, especially given a second season was mooted.)

Amongst all the bone-cracking fight scenes, the script by Ed Brubaker makes random attempts to give Eve and Graham’s relationship a sense of poignancy, and gives Huen a chance to humanise his character – even though he’s supposed to be a hitman (who instead comes across as a bit of a whinger). Etheredge directs things with an eye for making Eve’s world a low-budget film noir (the action seems to take place in and around the seedy tenement building in which Eve lives), but beyond the visual look of the movie he has no control over the actors or the vagaries of Brubaker’s credibility-lite screenplay.

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But this is an action movie first and foremost, and Etheredge does know where to put the camera during the numerous fight sequences. Alas, and despite Bell being her own stuntwoman for these sequences, these scenes are perfunctory and Ron Yuan’s fight choreography isn’t particularly thrilling, leaving them looking and feeling brutal, but without the emotional connection to Eve that would have you willing her on when things aren’t going her way. The episodic nature of the material doesn’t help either, or the way in which Eve recovers from each bout as if it’s never happened (really, she has powers of recovery that would embarrass the Wolverine).

But in the end, none of this is Bell’s fault. Brubaker’s script is a mess, Etheredge’s direction is cumbersome at best and lazy at worst, and the cast go about their performances as if each of them were appearing in a completely different movie. There’s a short, filmed-in-a-day performance by Lawless that is meant to provide some comic relief, but by the time she appears, there’s been too much comedy elsewhere for her ex-hooker character to register as anything more than a cameo for Bell’s benefit (Bell was Lawless’ stunt double on Xena – Warrior Princess). Bell does her best, and she’s surprisingly watchable, but only seems comfortable when she’s kicking ass, and not trying to approximate the kind of PTSD her character is suffering from.

Rating: 4/10 – Bell is the star attraction here, but like so many low-budget action thrillers, Angel of Death is strong on mood but weak on plausibiity; there’s some unnecessary comic strip transitions between episodes, some equally unnecessary attempts at providing depth, and a nagging sense that no one really felt there would be a second season.

The Automatic Hate (2015)

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The Automatic Hate

D: Justin Lerner / 97m

Cast: Joseph Cross, Adelaide Clemens, Deborah Ann Woll, Richard Schiff, Ricky Jay, Yvonne Zima, Vanessa Zima, Catherine Carlen, Caitlin O’Connell

What do you do when someone you’ve never met before – or more appropriately, never knew existed – suddenly appears and tells you they’re related to you, that you’re cousins? That’s the situation that Davis Green (Cross) faces at the beginning of The Automatic Hate, an indie drama that asks the question, should family secrets stay secret for the good of everyone involved?

When Davis’s cousin Alexis (Clemens) comes calling out of the blue, his relationship with Cassie (Woll) is going through a rough patch. Cassie is distant yet emotional, and conversation between the two is awkward. When Alexis reveals that she is the daughter of his uncle Josh (Jay), Davis is understandably confused because up until that moment he didn’t know he had an uncle. And when he tackles his father, Ronald (Schiff), over this surprising news, all he gets in return is, “We never talk about him”. As you might expect, Davis isn’t exactly satisfied with his father’s response, but can’t get any further answers.

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Partly to find out why there’s such a hatred and division between his father and his uncle, and partly to give himself some space from Cassie, Davis decides to seek out his extended family and to try and discover why such a serious rift began in the first place. He travels to upstate New York and learns that he has two other cousins, Annie (Yvonne Zima) and Amanda (Vanessa Zima), and in turn meets his uncle. Josh at first believes Davis has been sent by Ronald to spy on him, and insists Davis should leave. But the mystery of the rift, and Alexis’s increasingly romantic attentions keep him there; he finds himself responding to Alexis’s almost desperate attraction to him, and he stops responding to Cassie’s texts and calls.

The discovery of some old home movies by Davis and Alexis shows the two brothers as much younger men, and in the company of a young woman. One scene shows Josh and the young woman holding hands. Davis deduces that the rift is the result of a romantic triangle, and that Josh stole Ronald’s girlfriend from him. But this development has to be put on hold due to the death of Davis’s grandfather (and the brothers’ father). Despite the differences between the two men, Davis convinces Josh to attend the funeral, which is to be held near to a summer house owned by the family. The family unites at last, but tensions are high, and matters are made more difficult for Davis by his relationship with Alexis and the unexpected presence of Cassie. And then the mystery of what happened all those years ago is revealed…

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Fans of indie dramas will be pleased with the nature of Justin Lerner’s latest feature, and in particular with the way in which he sets up the main storyline, which isn’t the mystery at the heart of things, but the relationship between Davis and Alexis. From the moment they meet there’s a clear attraction between the two, but Lerner keeps them apart for quite a while, with Davis’s loyalty and commitment to Cassie as his reason for not acting on his newfound feelings. It’s during this period that the movie moves in parallel with events from the past, and there are tonal and emotional references that infuse both past and present. Lerner, along with co-writer Katharine O’Brien, keeps things low-key, but with hints of the greater drama to come, and the opening forty minutes sees the movie establish a setting and a mood that is very effective.

But then the family comes together, and the movie feels obliged to step up a gear. The ensuing drama, heightened as it is by the revealing of family secrets and the kind of dinner table confrontations – physical and verbal – that have a habit of destroying any attempt at familial accord, is an uncomfortable change of approach and the movie suffers as a result. Alexis’s behaviour in particular is a cause for concern, as the script allows her full rein to express her feelings for Davis. But she does so in such a way that most viewers will be thinking, “Uh oh, watch out Davis!” And how their relationship develops from then on also weakens the movie, leaving the final scenes to limp unconvincingly to the end credits, undoing so much of the good work that’s gone before.

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But while the final twenty minutes prove disappointing due to the script’s need to provide viewers with an unequivocal ending to the problem of Davis and Alexis’s relationship (and the decision it makes regarding their relationship), there are still plenty of things to recommend the movie. Along with Lerner’s confident handling of the material, there’s a clutch of effective, carefully modulated performances with Clemens and Jay stealing the honours from everyone else. Clemens – yet another Australian actress making the successful transition to US movie making – is vulnerable and disturbing in equal measure as Alexis, and exudes an unspoken menace at times that gives her character an edgy, dangerous quality that is both attractive and unnerving at the same time. Jay is equally good as the estranged uncle, resigned, implacable, and dignified in the face of Schiff’s angry brother. He’s an actor you can always rely on, and here he gives one of his best performances, allowing the enmity Josh feels to be expressed in dismissive looks and carefully loaded comments.

And of course, there’s the mystery itself, the movie’s McGuffin. Lerner is canny enough to provide clues that point in one direction while also maintaining the sense that nothing is quite what it seems (the home movie footage, if watched closely, is both explanation and red herring). When it is revealed it packs a punch that doesn’t dissipate easily, but it’s not allowed to overwhelm what follows. Lerner switches focus quickly, and the movie becomes oppressive for how it prompts reactions amongst the characters, and some bitter outpourings. Again, it’s not an entirely successful transition but one of the movie’s strengths is that it doesn’t always do what the audience may be expecting it to.

Rating: 7/10 – with much to recommend it, The Automatic Hate is a worthy indie drama with good performances, a (mostly) well constructed script, and a director firmly in control of the material if not the narrative; tense on occasion, with flashes of mordaunt humour to offset the latter half’s overwrought drama, the movie is on firmer ground as a study of the ties that bind family members, and is especially effective at exposing just how fragile those ties can be.

Trailers – xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017), Hands of Stone (2016) and In a Valley of Violence (2016)

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In the trailer for xXx: Return of Xander Cage, one thing stands out: that pretty much all the action beats we see, involve, or are performed by, everyone with the exception of Vin Diesel (aside from one leg swipe and an elbow to the neck). So straight away this seems less of a movie about the return of Xander Cage, and more of a movie where the star of the Fast & Furious franchise reinvigorates another, minor franchise by inserting his character into a storyline Cage didn’t originally feature in. If that’s so, then Diesel and director D.J. Caruso have an uphill battle on their hands to make Cage a still-relevant action hero at a time when Jason Bourne is back on our screens, and the best action movies are being made by a little outfit called Marvel. But if this really is a brand new outing designed and written specifically for Cage, and is intended to restart the franchise with Diesel firmly in place this time, then on first glance, it’s not looking too good. And it’ll be interesting to see where Tony Jaa fits into the scrapping order (first Paul Walker, now Diesel – who’s next? Michelle Rodriguez?). Let’s hope the two have a thumping good fight scene together, and one that doesn’t rely on the kind of editing that makes you wonder if their stunt doubles should be sharing top billing.

 

Real violence is on display in Hands of Stone, the story of boxer Roberto Durán’s rise from the poverty-stricken streets of Guarare in Panama, to glory in the ring, and two historic fights with Sugar Ray Leonard. The trailer makes it look as if Durán’s story is being told from the perspective of legendary trainer Ray Arcel, so it may be that the movie carries a degree of objectivity in its approach, and isn’t out to simply lionise Durán’s achievements. The boxer had his demons, and though the trailer touches on these, it’s hard to tell how much time will be spent on the man outside the ring instead of or rather than, the man inside it. Ramirez seems an obvious choice to play Durán (and he may be hoping to erase moviegoers’ memories of his performance in the Point Break remake), but he’s not an actor who’s really proven himself to date. De Niro has proven himself (many times) but the trailer doesn’t make it look as if he’s really trying, so let’s hope he’s more engaged than he’s been in recent years. And let’s hope the fight sequences are more Raging Bull (1980) than Grudge Match (2013).

 

Ti West is an indie movie maker in the best sense: he writes and directs his own movies, and he has a intriguing visual style that means you’re never sure where he’s going to take you next. Sometimes, as in The Sacrament (2013), he can surprise you just by getting the camera to turn a corner; other times, as in The Innkeepers (2011), he can surprise you by not surprising you (you’ll have to see the movie to know what that’s like). In a Valley of Violence has been on West’s to-do list for some time, and now that the first trailer is here we can see that it’s been well worth the wait. There are few trailers that can adequately instill a sense of foreboding from its assembly of clips, but this is one of those trailers. The lone stranger in town isn’t exactly a new twist on the Western genre, but under West’s stewardship, this looks like meaty, thrilling stuff indeed. With a great cast that includes Ethan Hawke, John Travolta (let’s hope it’s the kind of role he can do real justice to), James Ransone, Karen Gillan and indie favourite Larry Fessenden, this should be a rousing treat come the end of the year.

Question of the Week – 22 July 2016

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Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Lionsgate have announced that they’re thinking of releasing the last movie in the Divergent series, Ascendant, on the small screen instead of in cinemas. And with new characters that will allow the company to develop a spin-off TV series.

Now, if you’re a fan of the Divergent series – and if box office returns for Allegiant are any indication, there are fewer of you than when Insurgent was released – this might feel as though Lionsgate have betrayed their initial promise to bring Veronica Roth’s YA novels to the big screen. But while Allegiant was very disappointing due to its downplaying of Tris’s role and revelation that the Big Bad behind everything was a bean counter, you could argue that Lionsgate did themselves no favours by splitting the last novel into two movies.

Four: "What is it, Tris? What can you see?" Tris: "Syndication rights, lots of syndication rights."

Which makes their decision to move forward with a TV movie and spin-off series all the more confusing. If audiences are dwindling so badly, and interest in the movie series is waning, on what creative or financial level is it a good idea to develop a TV show from the same material? Lionsgate have been greedy before, and it’s worked, with two-part releases for Twilight: Breaking Dawn and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay being very successful indeed. But clearly their strategy has backfired on them this time. So with this in mind, this week’s question is:

Should companies adapting book trilogies for the big screen adopt a movie-by-movie approach to making them, or should they take the approach used on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies and make them all at once?

Mini-Review: The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

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The Secret Life of Pets

D: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney / 87m

Cast: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks,  Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie

The latest from Illumination Entertainment, the creators of the Minions, The Secret Life of Pets asks that familiar-sounding but rarely asked question: what do our pets get up to when we’re away from home? And the answer seems to be: a lot more fun than we get up to while we’re away. In a multi-storey apartment block that seems built along the lines of the Flatiron Building, it seems that every resident has a pet or two. And each of these pets has their own thing they do each day. Max (Louis C.K.), a terrier, sits in front of the door waiting for his owner to come home again.

But his perfect life with his owner, Katie (Kemper) is destroyed by the arrival of Duke (Stonestreet), a big hairy stray that Katie brings home wth her one day. Soon Max and Duke are at loggerheads, until while out for a walk, they become separated from their dog walker, and end up victimised by a group of feral cats led by Ozone (Coogan). With their collars removed they’re soon picked up by Animal Control. Only a mission by Snowball (Hart) and his gang of “flushed pets” to rescue one of their own sets them free, but at a price that will see Max and Duke being chased by Snowball, and their animal neighbours – led by Pomeranian Gidget (Slate) – setting out on a rescue mission of their own: to bring back Max and Duke safe and sound.

TSLOP - scene1

The plot of The Secret Life of Pets is so slight as to be almost invisible. It’s one long chase movie bookended by convivial scenes of the animals’ home lives, and while there’s nothing ostensibly wrong with this approach, what it does mean is that if the jokes along the way don’t match up to the promises the movie has been making since around this time last year then the movie itself is going to fall flat on its face. Fortunately, the jokes do match up, and the movie contains enough laugh-out-loud-funny moments that the movie can’t help be rewarding – if only on a broad, superficial level. Animal lovers will enjoy this the most, and it’s true that some of the animals’ secret lives do involve some hilarious imagery, but anyone taking a closer look will be dismayed by the way in which the characters behave like stereotypes, and how little they develop over the course of the movie.

But this is mainly about two adversaries learning to let go of their differences and work together, and thus earn equal respect. If it’s a tried and trusted storyline, and it’s been done to death by now, the fact remains that it hasn’t been done by Illumination Entertainment, and they manage to bring a freshness to the tale that helps lift the often banal nature of the narrative. In the hands of directors Renaud and Cheney, the movie is a bright, garish, enjoyable fun ride with a plethora of great sight gags – Buddy the dachshund (Buress) climbing a fire escape is inspired – and a big heart. It’s perfect for children below a certain age (who will love it), but some adults may find it hard going. Nevertheless this is still a lot of fun, and features a performance by Kevin Hart that, for once, is easy on the ears.

Rating: 7/10 – not as engaging as expected but still enjoyable for the most part, The Secret Life of Pets tells its simple story with a great deal of verve but little in the way of imagination or invention; not exactly forgettable, but not exactly memorable either, a situation that could, and should, have been avoided.

Opinion Piece – Why Do Tentpole Movies Always End Up Being So Disappointing?

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The tentpole movie. There are several of them each year, the movies that the studios and independent production companies rely on to keep them financially afloat for another year. These movies often have vastly inflated budgets, are merchandised and advertised and promoted until you can’t move without seeing said movies everywhere, and have such an overwhelming presence across all media platforms that you’d have to be The Who’s Tommy not to be aware of them. They have A-list stars, an over-reliance on CGI, and fanbases that pretty much guarantee massive box office returns in at least the first two weeks of release before word of mouth gets round and those same returns start to slow down alarmingly.

2016 has already seen a number of these tentpole movies arrive on our screens. Here’s how well they’ve fared so far at the international box office (all figures thanks to the good folks at boxofficemojo.com):

Captain America Civil War

Captain America: Civil War – $1,150,973,683; The Jungle Book – $936,752,718; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – $872,662,631; Finding Dory – $721,945,629; X-Men: Apocalypse – $533,873,226; Warcraft – $432,178,995; Independence Day: Resurgence – $337,785,022; Alice Through the Looking Glass – $276,749,249; Now You See Me 2 – $267,240,841; The Secret Life of Pets – $254,338,384; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows – $231,142,932; The Legend of Tarzan – $193,971,594; Allegiant – $179,240,249; The BFG – $64,479,045.

Obviously, some of these movies have only recently been released, so the likes of The Secret Life of Pets should see their box office take increase in the coming weeks. But what’s noticeable about the majority of these movies is how well they’ve been received  by both audiences and critics. Most have been lambasted for not trying hard enough, for valuing spectacle over plot or story, for repeating the mistakes of earlier outings, or for being just plain dumb (hello Independence Day: Resurgence). This blogger hasn’t seen all these movies – yet – but has seen and heard enough to know that this year isn’t a banner year for tentpole movies, just as 2015 wasn’t, and 2014 wasn’t, and so on and so on. It’s hard to remember a year when the majority of the much-anticipated blockbuster movies didn’t disappoint in one way or another.

The inevitable question is, why? Why do the big Hollywood studios, and the well established independent production companies, make such disappointing movies year after year? Is it the box office returns luring them into a false sense of competency? Are these movies being rushed into production ahead of being ready, just so they can open on a specific date? Are corners being cut once a movie is in production, a) to mitigate against unforeseen expenses, or b) to ensure that target release date is met no matter what? Or, in short, is anyone paying any attention?

Whatever the reason, and it’s likely it’s an intangible one, each year we’re subjected to the latest hype for the latest movie that – so we’re informed – we simply absolutely positively must go and see. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a perfect case in point. The movie had a budget of $250 million. And yet, as horrifying as that figure is, it’s likely that the advertising and promotional budget for the movie will have exceeded it. It’s a good job that the movie made as much as it did at the box office, and will reap further dividends in the home video market, because otherwise we’d be calling it a flop both critically and financially. And yet the simplest, most compelling piece of promotional work that Warner Bros. ever did – and all they really needed to do – was to reveal the image of the Batman and Superman logos conjoined into one. Just that one image alone ensured the movie would be seen around the globe by millions, and would rake in a huge sum of money (but not quite the billion dollars-plus that Warner Bros.were probably hoping for).

Batman v Superman

But for all the hype and all the advertising and the various ways that Batman and Superman were shoved in our faces in the run up to the movie’s release, once it was out there and people could see it, we all learned that the promise inherent in all the advertising wasn’t upheld. It didn’t live up to the hype. And it was the first big movie out of the gate; how would all the other tentpole movies fare if they couldn’t get it right with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? The answer? Not so well. The Jungle Book was visually stunning but lacked narrative drive and a Mowgli you could care about. Finding Dory again looks great but lacks invention and imagination. X-Men: Apocalypse was muddled, uninspired, and never felt sure of the story it was trying to tell. Warcraft is stilted and of limited appeal to anyone unfamiliar with the video game it’s based on. Independence Day: Resurgence is a plodding, credibility-free slice of nonsense that makes you wonder if anyone really cared about it during its production. Alice Through the Looking Glass is a soulless affair that seems to have had every last ounce of originality squeezed out of it before production began. Now You See Me 2 struggles to be something more than a string of flashy setpieces connected by a specious plot that thinks it’s being really clever. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is a better movie than its predecessor, but that’s like saying being deaf is better than being blind. Allegiant was a shadow of the previous Divergent movies, and not just because its makers ramped down on the budget. The Legend of Tarzan took a page out of African colonial history and trivialised both the past and itself in the process. And The BFG, perhaps one of the most anticipated movies of the year because it reteamed Steven Spielberg and the late Melissa Mathison, failed to strike a chord with critics and audiences because, like Mowgli, you’re unable to identify with the central character (or any of the other characters, come to that).

The rest of 2016 doesn’t look as if we’ll fare any better. Ice Age: Collision Course will do well but after four previous movies and a plot summary on IMDb that relates how the characters join up to “fend off(!)” a meteor strike, expect it to fizzle out at the box office after a few weeks. Star Trek: Beyond looks as if it has abandoned the original series’ promise to “boldly go where no man has gone before” in its efforts to reassure audiences that it’s business as usual. Suicide Squad is expected to do well at the box office but as it’s from Warner Bros., and the trailers are practically screaming “triumph of style over substance”, any success may well be short-lived unless the makers have really looked at the excesses and narrative disasters in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and gone the other way (unlikely though). Ben-Hur is currently so far under the radar that it might as well be going straight to video or on demand. The Magnificent Seven has a great cast but seems to have forsworn the original’s bandits-terrorise-Mexican-villagers scenario in favour of a Silverado/Open Range retread. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children might be just the fillip that Tim Burton’s career needs right now but there’s a required depth to Ransom Riggs’ story that doesn’t seem to be present from the trailers released so far. And Assassin’s Creed, despite the involvement of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and their Macbeth director Justin Kurzel, will need to have much more of a coherent storyline than pretty much any other video game adaptation to be anywhere near successful.

This leaves Marvel’s introduction of Doctor Strange, J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Disney’s Moana, and something called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to restore our faith in the studios and production companies that spend billions each year in trying to get us to like their movies. Count them, just four movies. But while we pin our collective hopes on a small handful of movies, what will inevitably happen is that 2016 will pass into history as another average – or even below average – year for the blockbuster movie, and 2017 will take its place with an all-new batch of tentpole blockbuster movies that we’ll all flock to see, and which will in all likelihood disappoint us just as much as this year’s movies did. Will we, or the studios, ever learn? Probably not. And if that’s too pessimistic a note to end on, then consider this: unless audiences break the cycle by passing up on seeing these movies in cinemas, then the studios et al have no reason to make their movies any better, or devote their attention away from doing just enough to get millions of bums on seats in the first fortnight of a movie’s release. It’s a vicious circle, and one that shows no sign of being broken any time soon.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Ridley Scott’s 10 Most Successful Movies at the International Box Office

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In a career that spans nearly forty years, Ridley Scott has directed so many arresting and visually memorable movies, and in such a wide variety of genres, that it doesn’t seem to matter what projects he takes on, he’s pretty much guaranteed an audience when they’re released. He’s a meticulous, well-prepared director who likes to do as much as possible practically, though is more well-known for two movies whose use of CGI made them more successful than they perhaps would have been without it. The movies in this list have made over $3 billion at the international box office, so you can see why he’s a much sought after director, and never seems to take a break between movies. In his seventies now, he’s still preparing and making movies with the same energy and passion that he had nearly forty years ago. Let’s hope most, if not all, of his future projects are as successful as the ones listed below.

NOTE: Figures for Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), two movies you would have thought would make the list, are sadly unavailable.

10 – Body of Lies (2008) – $115,097,286

Terrorism in the Middle East, and the murky involvement of the CIA, are the focus of Scott’s taut thriller which reunites Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe for the first time since Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995). It’s a complex piece of work with many subplots and layer upon layer of political expediency and moralising adding texture to the movie’s more overt thriller elements. If it doesn’t succeed entirely then it’s not for want of Scott trying, and there’s a standout performance from Mark Strong that overshadows the work of both DiCaprio and Crowe – and that’s saying something.

Body of Lies

9 – Black Hawk Down (2001) – $172,989,651

Scott has always had a penchant for true stories, and Black Hawk Down, the tale of one hundred and twenty-three elite US soldiers making an incursion into Somalia and then finding themselves battling against a much stronger Somali force than their intelligence was aware of, is no exception. Scott brings an impressive sense of realism to the movie, and the fighting sequences are as intense as you’d expect, but what makes this movie work is the way in which Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan manage to make the audience care about each and every one of those one hundred and twenty-three soldiers as if we’d known them all our lives.

8 – Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – $211,652,051

Unfairly maligned when it was first released, Kingdom of Heaven is a sprawling epic set at the time of the Crusades that feels like it was made to (belatedly) cash in on Scott’s success with Gladiator (2000). Happily, this is its own movie, and while some of the politicking of the time is overlooked in favour of too many battle scenes, Scott keeps things relatively simple and coaxes a better-than-expected performance from Orlando Bloom. That said, if you want to see the movie, choose the three-hour Director’s Cut instead of the theatrical version.

7 – American Gangster (2007) – $266,465,037

Another true story, this time centred around the life of drugs kingpin Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington), and set in the Seventies, American Gangster sees Scott reunited again with Russell Crowe, and holding back on the visual flourishes in order to tell a dramatic story on its own terms. It’s not quite the sweeping historical epic that its run time would have you believe, but it does feature strong performances from its two leads, and the clever tricks of Lucas’s trade make for fascinating viewing.

6 – Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) – $268,175,631

You can see the attraction for Scott in a movie based around the rivalry between Moses and his “brother” the Pharaoh Ramses, but thanks to a script that seems to have been patched together at short notice, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a dramatic mess that can’t even elicit good performances from Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton, and also features some of the least convincing (i.e. ropiest) CGI seen in recent years. A misfire then, but Scott still manages to invest the movie with his customary, and always worthwhile, attention to detail.

Exodus Gods and Kings

5 – Robin Hood (2010) – $321,669,741

Less of a swashbuckling approach to the Robin Hood myth than a retread (in part) of Robin and Marian (1976), Scott’s fifth collaboration with Russell Crowe aims for earthy realism, but in doing so, fails to include a lot of what makes the myth so popular and entertaining. Scott marshals the visual elements with his trademark flair but can’t seem to inject any energy into Brian Helgeland’s too-respectful script. This leaves the movie feeling uneven and less than engaging, and the relationship between Robin and Maid Marian (played by Cate Blanchett) seems more matter-of-fact than truly romantic.

4 – Hannibal (2001) – $351,692,268

Scott’s first sequel (and so far only one, until Alien: Covenant comes out next year) sees him inherit the services of Anthony Hopkins but not Jodie Foster as Hannibal details what the cannibal doctor did next. There’s an over-abundance of style that should seem out of place but somehow works, and though Julianne Moore struggles as Clarice Starling, nevertheless Scott imbues her scenes with Hopkins with a delicate mutual dependency that gives the storyline some much-needed depth. And then there’s that scene at the end…

3 – Prometheus (2012) – $403,354,469

When it was first announced that Scott was returning to the world of Alien, and with a prequel at that, fans of the series wept for joy. Alas, Prometheus left audiences with more questions than they had answers to, and in particular, what on earth happened that it turned out so badly? Scott may know the answer to that one, but his insistence on practical physical surroundings aside, this woeful exercise in late-bloom franchise expansion lacked subtlety, a coherent script, and featured a drab performance from Noomi Rapace – all things that Scott didn’t appear to have a solution for.

2 – Gladiator (2000) – $457,640,487

They said the days of sword-and-sandal epics was dead, that audiences didn’t want to see those kinds of movies anymore, where the hero had bigger breasts than the heroine, and the sets wobbled if anyone went near them. Thankfully, Scott and co-screenwriters David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson had other ideas and the result is a triumphant reminder that when Scott is on top form there’s very few directors who can match him. Stirring, impressive (the scenes in the Coliseum really do buzz with excitement), with a handful of terrific performances and a sense of its own destiny (along with its lead character), this is high concept movie making at its best.

1 – The Martian (2015) – $630,161,890

Despite his being known as a director of science fiction movies, The Martian is only Scott’s fourth outing in the genre, but thanks to a near-perfect blend of drama, comedy and thrills, along with a standout performance from Matt Damon, this tale of an astronaut stranded on Mars and needing to stay alive until a rescue mission can reach him, is gripping, tightly structured, and a few narrative concerns aside, absolutely commanding. That it’s Scott’s most successful movie so far is perhaps not so surprising given the subject matter and Damon’s performance, but when you consider this was made very quickly indeed, it’s a tribute to Scott and his cast and crew that it turned out as well as it did.

The Martian

A Conspiracy of Faith (2016)

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A Conspiracy of Faith

Original title: Flaskepost fra P

D: Hans Petter Moland / 112m

Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Pål Sverre Hagen, Jakob Ulrik Lohmann, Amanda Collin, Johanne Louise Schmidt, Jakob Oftebro, Signe Anastassia Mannov, Søren Pilmark, Olivia Terpet Gammelgaard, Jasper Møller Friis

The third in the series of Department Q adaptations – from the novels of Jussi Adler-Olsen – sees the discovery of, literally, a message in a bottle being forwarded to said department in the hope that they can deduce if it’s some kind of prank or if the message is for real. With the head of Department Q, Carl Mørck (Kaas), still on sick leave following the events of the previous instalment, The Absent One (2014), his partner, Assad (Fares), and their assistant, Rose (Schmidt), begin to tease out the puzzle of the message, faded and corrupted as it is after being in the water for eight years. When Mørck does return to work he makes an important point: that there have been only two children reported missing in Sweden in the last ten years.

A name in the message – Poul – leads the team to looking at schools in the general area where the message was washed ashore. They discover that around seven years ago a boy named Poul and his brother Trygve were removed from a school by their parents, and were apparently sent to live with a relative. But when Mørck and Assad manage to track down Trygve he eventually tells them an entirely different story: that of being abducted by a man who ransomed the two boys, and who killed Poul. What also becomes clear is that the man who has done this was known to Trygve’s parents, and they said nothing at the time. Meanwhile, the man in question, known as Johannes (Hagen) and posing as a minister, meets with a couple, Elias (Lohmann) and Rakel (Collin), and their two children, Magdalena (Gammelgaard) and Samuel (Friis). Later, Johannes abducts the two children but is spotted doing so. Mørck and Assad are informed by a local police officer, Lisa (Mannov), and the three of them visit Elias and Rakel.

ACOF - scene3

At first, Elias is defiant, and doesn’t want their help, but when Johannes demands Elias bring him the ransom, Mørck insists the police mount a large-scale operation designed to catch Johannes when he collects the money. With Elias tasked with taking a train until being given further instructions, when those instructions involve throwing the money off the train at a certain point, the anxious father does something no one could have expected: he jumps from the train. But in doing so, his attempt at confronting Johannes himself goes awry, and the hunted soon becomes the hunter as he learns of Mørck’s involvement, and decides to target the detective – and anyone who gets in his way.

Three movies in and this adaptation of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s novel is still uniquely Scandinavian, and is still as gripping as its predecessors. This is a series that trades on the bleakness at the heart of its central character’s soul, so it’s fitting that A Conspiracy of Faith should challenge Mørck’s insistence that having faith in any kind of deity is “stupid” – even Assad is derided by his partner’s intransigence on the matter. But as anyone who’s been following the series since it began with The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013) can attest, Mørck does have faith, it’s just that it’s been damaged by the terrible things that have happened to him over the years. He’s out of touch with people and his surroundings – at the beginning of the movie, Assad finds Mørck dressed and ready to return to work but sitting motionless in his apartment as if he’s waiting for something to give him purpose. The message does this, but the nature of the case, and the realisation that the parents of previously abducted children kept quiet about what had happened and made up lies about it, merely serves to reinforce his view that religion has no place in the real world.

ACOF - scene2

By the movie’s end, Mørck may have had a revelation of his own, and he may have discovered a way to accept a degree of faith for himself, but the viewer will have to make up their own mind about that. Returning screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel is too clever to make such a consequence of Mørck’s involvement in the case so literal, but the clues are there, and it will be interesting to see where this takes the character in the next, and final, movie. With Mørck being so adamant about religion and worship, it’s good to see Assad take him to task over his own faith, and the way in which Mørck is disrespectful of him. Again, three movies in and Assad is a far cry from the slightly under-developed character he was in the first movie. Here his intelligence and leaps of, well – faith, help propel the investigation, and for much of the movie he’s the one in charge, not Mørck. It’s good to see that Assad has become such an integral part of the series, and not just the average sidekick who might get the odd moment to shine if the script allows it.

Both Kaas and Fares know their roles so well by now that they pick up where they left off without missing a beat. Returning minor characters Rose and Marcus Jacobsen (Pilmark) provide further links with the previous movies and are welcome aspects of the series’ continuity, while the various newcomers all do extremely well, from Lohmann’s prideful father, to Oftebro’s pretty boy police officer, and all the way to Hagen’s impressive turn as the murderous Johannes. Hagen is perhaps the series’ best adversary for Mørck and Assad, his passive face and physical stillness providing a keen counterpoint to the urgency that they bring to their roles, as inevitably, they encounter a race against time.

ACOF - scene1

The story does skim over the motivations of characters such as Elias, and the central sequence involving the train and the ransom drop looks too much like it’s been visually inspired by the climax of Mission: Impossible (1996) – without the helicopter in a tunnel, naturally – but these are minor issues in a movie that has a solid emotional base beneath all the thriller elements, and a movie that further confirms the producers decision to make four movies altogether was the right one (though they could adapt the other three Department Q novels Adler-Olsen has written – if they wanted to). Stepping into the director’s chair for the first time, Moland has made a fine job of seamlessly integrating this movie into the series as a whole, and along with DoP John Andreas Andersen and editors Olivier Bugge Coutté and Nicolaj Monberg, has retained the series’ beautifully dour visual style and narrative rhythms. With one more movie to go, let’s hope the producers can maintain the quality of the series so far, and bow out on a continuing high.

Rating: 8/10 – there’s much to admire (and enjoy) here, from some truly mordaunt humour to the creepy behavioural tics that Hagen brings to his role, but overall this is another fine instalment from a series that really, really needs a wider audience; by maintaining its focus on its lead character, and the problems that plague him, A Conspiracy of Faith avoids comparisons with any other crime thrillers out there, and confirms its place in modern cinema as a second sequel that works equally as well as the original.

Punching the Clown (2009)

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Punching the Clown

D: Gregori Viens / 90m

Cast: Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, Wade Kelley, Matthew Walker, Audrey Siegel, Guilford Adams, Mik Scriba, Evan Arnold, Mark Cohen

Movies about comedians and how they struggle to get noticed or challenge their audiences are few and far between. Dustin Hoffman portrayed Lenny Bruce in the succinctly titled Lenny (1974), Tom Hanks played a fictional comedian in Punchline (1988), and Robert De Niro’s role as Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1982) is still a benchmark performance in terms of the darkness that (reputedly) lies within the heart of each and every comedian. There’s always a toll to be endured, and whether it’s rejection, disappointment, or outright failure, success – true success – is rarely found at the end of the comedian’s journey.

And so it goes with Punching the Clown (which is a line from one of Henry Phillips’s songs, and refers to something other than actually punching a clown). Having toiled long and hard travelling across America, and taken on gigs at places as diverse as coffee shops and bowling alleys, singer/songwriter Phillips lands a spot at a pizza restaurant. But his performance doesn’t go down so well, particularly with the Christian fund raisers in the audience, and he’s not even paid fully. Deciding it’s time he tried his luck in L.A., he goes to stay with his brother Matt (Walker). Matt is a struggling actor reduced to dressing up as Batman at children’s parties, but he puts Henry in touch with an agent, Ellen Pinsky (Ratner). Ellen takes a shine to Henry but needs to see his act. At a local coffee bar, Espresso Yourself, Henry takes to the stage on an open mic night, and promptly wins over the audience with his songs, which are a mix of droll observational comedy and trenchant psychopathy.

PTC - scene1

Ellen gets Henry an invite to a party being held by a record company executive but his attempt at performing backfires. However, a chance encounter with one of the guests there the next day, along with an overheard comment that is misconstrued, leads Henry to being wooed by a record company with the offer of a recording contract. While he makes up his mind, Henry continues playing at the coffee bar, and begins a very tentative relationship with one of the barmaids, Becca (Siegel). But just as Henry’s star begins to wax brightly, a further misunderstanding over the provenance of some bagels leads to accusations that he’s anti-semitic. As this misunderstanding gathers more and more acceptance, Henry finds himself losing his grip not only on the recording contract, but also his relationship with Becca, and his now regular spot at the coffee bar. As things begin to spiral out of control, Henry has to decide if staying in L.A. is still as good an idea as it seemed when he first arrived.

If you haven’t heard of Henry Phillips, don’t worry. Unless you’re familiar with the YouTube series Henry’s Kitchen, then chances are you have no more idea of who he is than you do in knowing who your partner’s seeing behind your back (this is the kind of humour Phillips brings out in his songs; nobody is saying your partner’s seeing anyone behind your back). In songs such as Gotta Get a Girlfriend and Hello Michelle, Phillips spins twisted yarn after twisted yarn as he cuts through the niceties of modern relationships and gets right to the heart of what we’re all really thinking about when it comes to love, sex, and all the selfish motivations that go with them. He’s caustic, witty, keeps just on the right side of being offensive, and has a winning stage presence that’s enhanced by his self-deprecating approach.

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Punching the Clown was a labour of love for Phillips – it took around a decade to get made – and the inclusion of so much material he’d already honed by the time of the movie’s release has the effect of making his stage performances the undisputed highlights of a feature that otherwise lacks the bite needed to make Henry’s odyssey as engaging. As noted above, Phillips has a winning presence on stage, but off it he takes too much of a back seat in his own story, adopting the role of the persistent loser who never gets the respect or acknowledgment he deserves (throughout the movie his act is unfairly compared to that of another singer, Stupid Joe (Cohen), whose clarion call to audiences is, “Are you ready to get guitarded?”). It makes him an entirely sympathetic character, and someone you can root for with ease, but at the same time undercuts the drama when Henry’s “anti-semitism” begins to ruin his newfound success.

That said, there are some quite trenchant comments made about the difficult road to stardom, and the party at the record company executive’s house features a deliciously malicious sequence where each guest rebuffs another guest and is then rebuffed themselves, often with unnecessary cruelty. And when Henry finally gets to begin recording an album, he’s tasked with singing his funniest song, and then a song that’s funny from the very first line, a situation that highlights the common notion that in La La Land, taste is a concept misunderstood by many. Henry’s relationship with his agent is a sweet-natured one, and if it has a whiff of wishful thinking about it, it’s to Phillips’ credit that it’s still affecting (and benefits from a wonderful performance from Ratner, who, it should be noted, is also a White House correspondent when she’s not acting).

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The movie is structured around a radio interview that Henry gives to DJ Captain Chaotic (Kelley), and while some of the scenes in the studio cause an unnecessary disruption to the narrative, Kelley’s portrayal is acerbic, disarming and damn funny. Henry’s relationship with Becca avoids some of the more predictable pitfalls but is set up to fail in such an obvious manner that it’s a little dispiriting (but Phillips makes up for this later). In the director’s chair, Viens holds it all together with a great deal of panache, the movie’s unsurprisingly low budget stretched to good use, and in conjunction with DoP Ian Campbell provides proceedings with a suitably cinema verité look that anchors the “action”. It’s all rounded off by Phillips’ songs, the true heart of the movie, and what makes it work as well as it does.

Rating: 8/10 – some narrative stumbles aside, Punching the Clown is still hugely enjoyable, though if you’re expecting it to be a laugh-a-minute comedy, you’ll be sorely disappointed; far more subtle than it may look, the movie acts as a clever, knowing, well-constructed introduction to the weird and wonderful world of Phillips’ stage persona, and on that basis, is entirely successful.

Trailers – The Hollars (2016), La La Land (2016) and A Monster Calls (2016)

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Movies about dysfunctional families are almost a sub-genre all their own, and this latest, written by Jim Strouse – Grace Is Gone (2007), People Places Things (2015) – and directed by actor John Krasinski, features a great cast (which includes the fabulous Margo Martindale), the kind of serio-comic situations that hide a variety of truths beneath the humour, and no doubt, a few life lessons along the way. The trailer focuses, unsurprisingly, on the more comedic elements of the script, but under Krasinski’s stewardship, this should still be a movie that touches the heart as well as the funny bone. Any movie that examines what it is to be part of a family should have a head start on our attention – we’ve all been there, right? – but The Hollars looks a little more smart in its approach, and that makes it a movie worth watching out for.

 

In the latest movie from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play Sebastian, a jazz pianist, and Mia, an aspiring actress, who meet and fall in love against a backdrop of ambition and mounting success that threatens to tear their hard-fought-for relationship apart. The trailer acts as a mood piece, allowing us glimpses of the characters and the environments they work in, and tantalising peeks at the various genre elements – comedy, drama, romance,musicals – that Chazelle has utilised in order to tell their story. There are moments of visual wonder as well, with several beautifully framed and lit shots that are simply breathtaking. La La Land is likely to be a strong contender come awards season, but however it turns out, this is definitely one movie that at this stage, warrants an awful lot of anticipation.

 

A Monster Calls may appear to be a children’s tale, but Patrick Ness’s powerful novel, on which this is based (and which has been adapted by him), is a much darker fantasy than you’d expect, and it’s to the movie’s credit that the trailer doesn’t downplay this. Focusing on a young boy, Connor (played by newcomer Lewis MacDougall), who struggles with issues surrounding bullying, deep-rooted anger, and his mother’s battle with terminal cancer, this is as far from lighthearted stuff. Help though comes in the unexpected form of a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who like to tell stories – stories that help Connor deal with the problems he’s experiencing. Director J.A. Bayona has previously given us The Orphanage (2007) and The Impossible (2012), two movies with a strong visual style, and an equally strong focus on children overcoming difficult situations, so his involvement here is a good sign that one of the most impressive pieces of low fantasy fiction of recent years will be just as impressive on the big screen.

Short Movies Volume 4

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The short movie is an oft-neglected aspect of movie viewing these days, with fewer outlets available to the makers of short movies, and certainly little chance of their efforts being seen in our local multiplexes (the exceptions to these are the animated shorts made to accompany the likes of Pixar’s movies, the occasional cash-in from Disney such as Frozen Fever (2015), and Blue Sky’s Scrat movies). Otherwise it’s an internet platform such as Vimeo, YouTube (a particularly good place to find short movies, including the ones in this post), or brief exposure at a film festival. Even on DVD or Blu-ray, there’s a dearth of short movies on offer. In an attempt to bring some of the gems that are out there to a wider audience, here’s another in an ongoing series of posts (that this time focuses on short horror movies). Who knows? You might find one that becomes a firm favourite – if you do, please let me know.

Recon 6 (2011) / D: Blake Fisher / 12m

Cast: Georgina Haig, Mark Pound

Recon 6

Rating: 7/10 – In the future, a blood compound designed to eradicate disease has had the opposite effect, and now threatens the world’s population. In order to stave off the effects, sufferers have to take Recon 6, a drug that inhibits their propensity for murderous, carnivorous rage. But Christine (Haig) enjoys the rush of being off the drug; when she meets suicidal Dave (Pound), she sees someone who might share her approach to being a sufferer. Essentially a comedy of romantic errors, Recon 6 features a great performance from Haig, and a sharpness that only falters in its efforts to remain true to the staples of a romantic drama. The horror is kept to a minimum, and though there’s an awkwardness to the denouement, this is nevertheless a neat little movie that is well worth checking out.

Vicious (2015) / D: Oliver Park / 12m

Cast: Rachel Winters, Isabelle King, Alex Holden

Vicious

Rating: 8/10 – It’s late at night and a woman, Lydia (Winters), returns home to find her front door is ajar. A check of the house shows no sign of an intruder, and she goes to bed. During the night she has a nightmare involving her recently deceased friend, Katie (King), that wakes her. And then she hears a noise from along the landing… An atmospheric chiller, Vicious is a model of expert camera movement and slowly built tension. Park creates such a climate of fear within Lydia’s home that by the time the answer to the question, Is she alone? is answered, audiences will be glad it’s all over. A great use of shadow and light as well, particularly in a standout moment involving a pile of clothes and a dreadful realisation.

Open House (2013) / D: Richard Rodriguez / 12m

Cast: George Herpick, Kim Rodriguez, Alex DeMarco, Denzel Ward, Ashley Hernandez

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Rating: 4/10 – A young married couple (Herpick, Rodriguez) with their first baby on the way, go to view a house that their real estate agent says is perfect for them. When they get there they initially agree, but soon find themselves trapped in a house that doesn’t seem to want them to leave. Low production values and clumsy performances mar this short which ultimately tries too hard in almost every department. While Open House may well have the odd chilling moment to recommend it, it’s saddled with a “twist” you can see coming a mile off, and a score that’s too intrusive to work properly.

Blink (2013) / D: ‘Tolulope Ajayi / 12m

Cast: Adeyemi Okanlawon, Funlola Aofiyebi Raimi, Florence Uwaleke, Seun Faleke

Blink

Rating: 6/10 – A man (Okanlowan) awakens to find himself tied and weighted to a chair that’s underwater. He struggles to free himself but soon runs out of air – and wakes to find it’s all been a nightmare. But it’s not the only nightmare he suffers, and despite his best efforts, they recur each night. A bleak exercise in nihilistic justice, Blink is a South African short that is initially compelling but loses momentum once the man’s condition is revealed and explained. It’s also more of a psychological horror movie than an out-and-out scarefest, but has enough effective moments to warrant a look, plus it’s nice to see a movie like this from a country that doesn’t always produce this type of thing.

Idol Threats (2014) / D: David Schmidt / 10m

Cast: Michelle Courvais, Dennis Frymire, Brenda E. Kelly

Idol Threats

Rating: 6/10 – When a couple – Hanna (Courvais) and Colin (Frymire) – discover an ancient-looking figurine hidden inside the base of a statue, they find that the figurine holds within it a vengeful, angry spirit. Like a lot of horror shorts, Idol Threats takes a staple of the genre, the imprisoned demon, but adds a little tweak to proceedings by making its discoverers an upwardly mobile couple who are also quick to believe they’ve found something terrifying. However, while Schmidt makes good use of the bright, modern surroundings (the couple’s flat, a library), he’s let down by Courvais’ strident delivery of her lines, and some odd framing choices that are probably meant to create unease but just seem, well, odd. At least, as the end credits tell us, no books were harmed in the making of the movie.

Criminal (2016)

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Criminal

D: Ariel Vromen / 108m

Cast: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynolds, Alice Eve, Michael Pitt, Jordi Mollà, Antje Traue, Amaury Nolasco, Scott Adkins, Lara Decaro

Emotionless career criminal and sociopath Jericho Stewart (Costner) has a motto: “You hurt me… I hurt you worse.” It’s tempting to rephrase said motto so that it reflects Criminal‘s effect on its audience: “You trust the movie… and it gets worse.” For the movie is an unappealing mix of action movie, paranoid thriller and sentimental drama, and it tries to be all these things at once, with varied results.

It begins with London-based CIA agent Bill Pope (Reynolds) being followed by a bunch of bad guys led by Elsa Mueller (Traue). He has a holdall full of money, but he manages to hide it. When he’s tricked into making an “escape” to a cement works, he finds himself under fire and eventually captured by terrorist nutjob Xavier Heimdahl (Mollà). Heimdahl (he’s Spanish but his Scandinavian surname elicits no comment from anyone) wants a flash drive that’s also in the holdall; on it is a wormhole program that will give him complete access and control over the US’s weapons and defence system. But Bill keeps schtum and is beaten to death.

But this is the movies and being dead doesn’t always mean being dead. In Criminal, the twist is that Bill’s memories can be accessed and transferred into the mind of another person; in theory, that is. Pioneer scientist Dr Mahal Franks (Jones) has been trying to get permission for human trial for five years, but with the CIA’s London overseer, Quaker Wells (Oldman), desperate to find the program’s creator, a hacker called Jan Stroop aka The Dutchman (Pitt) before he can sell it to the highest bidder (which was Bill before he was killed), he sees no option but to allow Franks to test his theory that transference of memories is possible in humans. But there’s a catch (isn’t there always?).

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Franks’ best candidate to receive Bill’s memories is the aforementioned emotionless career criminal and sociopath Jericho Stewart. Currently in prison, he’s dragged from his cell in the US and shoved on a plane to the UK where Franks operates on him. When he comes to, Wells conveniently fills him in on what’s at stake and his part in it all, but Jericho pretends he doesn’t have any of Bill’s memories. Thinking he’s of no further use, Wells instructs two of his men to take Jericho out into the British countryside somewhere and kill him. But Jericho has other ideas, ideas that centre around a holdall full of money…

Criminal is a movie that offers three storylines for the price of one, and while each one would have made a respectable enough impact as a single movie, Douglas Cook and David Weisberg’s script gets so carried away with itself that the storylines tend to trip each other up and get entangled. Storyline one is a standard world-in-peril scenario that gives Gary Oldman the chance to run around and shout a lot about how much peril the world is in, while storyline two concerns Jericho Stewart’s coming to terms with having Bill’s feelings and emotions, two things he’s had no previous use for. And then there’s storyline three, the (very) unlikely relationship that develops between Jericho and Bill’s wife, Jill (Gadot).

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It’s this last storyline that’s the most problematic, and not just because on their first meeting, Jericho uses duct tape to tie Jill to her bed before making off with her jewellery. No, it’s the alacrity with which she lets him stay the night when he returns the next time, albeit wounded and showing clear signs that her husband is in his head somewhere. And while Jan Stroop demonstrates his control over the US’s weapons and defence system by firing a nuclear warhead from a submarine in the atlantic, Jericho and Jill (now there’s a name for a spin-off TV series) share chicken and waffles with her daughter, Emma (Decaro). This is the point in the movie where storylines two and three ride roughshod over storyline one – it literally grinds to a halt – and any pretense of Criminal being an action thriller is forgotten.

The movie rights itself, though – thankfully – and Jericho is soon back to letting out his inner rage, and on one singular occasion, in a way that’s uncomfortably, misogynistically non-PC (and he gloats about it too). Unfortunately it’s a moment that not even Costner can rescue, which is a shame as he’s just about the only consistently good thing in the whole movie. From his first appearance as a fuzzy-wigged prisoner in chains, all animal instincts and snarling antagonism – when he’s shot with a tranquiliser dart he merely grunts and says, “You’re gonna need another one” – Costner gives a terrific performance that holds the movie together; when he’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off him, and when he isn’t, you can’t wait until he’s back. As Jericho begins to deal with the onslaught of Bill’s memories and feelings, Costner articulates the pain he feels with conviction and sincerity – and this despite having to deal with some truly lame dialogue.

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Elsewhere, Oldman and Jones pop up at various points to push along the basic plot to its unsurprising conclusion, Reynolds contributes what amounts to an extended cameo that anyone could have played, Eve is completely wasted in a role that amounts to approximately five minutes of screen time and a handful of lines, Mollà never gets a grip on his character’s motivations, Pitt has the same problem, Adkins has a supporting role that doesn’t require him to go up against anyone (not even Costner), and Gadot struggles with a role that most actresses would have had trouble with.

Doing his best to make all this fit together in a halfway credible sense is Vromen, whose last movie was the gripping character study The Iceman (2013). He does his best, and the action sequences, despite offering little in the way of original thrills and spills, have a kinetic energy to them that ensures they stand out from the often plodding nature of the rest of the movie… but it’s the generic nature of the thriller elements that defeats him. Danny Rafic’s editing tries to make the movie feel more vigorous than it actually is, and there’s an appropriately dramatic score by Keith Power and Brian Tyler that provides a degree of ad hoc excitement but like so much of the movie, never fully encapsulates the sense of imminent peril Oldman continually shouts about.

Rating: 5/10 – another high-concept idea gets a lukewarm treatment, leaving Criminal feeling undercooked and dragging its heels when it should be embracing its race against time plotting; fans of Costner won’t be disappointed but otherwise this is an action/thriller/sci-fi/drama hybrid that lets its cast, and the audience, down way too often for its own good.

Elvis & Nixon (2016)

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Elvis & Nixon

D: Liza Johnson / 86m

Cast: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan, Ashley Benson

It’s one of those tales that has to be filed under Believe-It-Or-Not: when Richard Nixon (Spacey) met Elvis Presley (Shannon) in the White House on 21 December 1970. There’s no doubt that the meeting took place – one of the photographs taken that day is the most requested item in the US National Archives – but even so, if a conspiracy theorist came up to you and said Elvis met Nixon because he wanted to go undercover as an agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, you’d brush them off with a “Yeah, right,” and promptly move on with your life. But that is exactly what happened, and Liza Johnson’s bright and breezy movie looks at what might have occurred, and what might have been said, during that unexpected meeting (alas, Nixon didn’t start recording conversations in the Oval Office until some months after he met Elvis).

The Elvis Presley we meet at the movie’s beginning is an odd, troubled figure, unamused and made fearful by the revolution being played out on American streets by the youth of the day. To Elvis they’re all being misled, and to him, it’s the drugs that are leading them astray. What better way, thinks Elvis, to help his country and avoid a dire future, than to go to Washington and plead his case to become a Federal Agent at Large, an undercover role that would allow him to infiltrate the various organisations leading the so-called revolution. (And just in case you’re thinking, undercover? Is he mad?, then the answer is, probably. Or at least, very deluded. Very, very deluded.) And what better justification for his going undercover, than the fact that he already has various honorary law enforcement badges which have been given to him over the years (and which he seems to think is all the I.D. he needs wherever he goes – even the White House).

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Elvis writes a letter to Nixon that he hand delivers to the North Gate of the White House. The letter reaches one of Nixon’s aides, Dwight Chapin (Peters), who in turn shows it to senior aide Egil “Bud” Krogh (Hanks). At first, Krogh is dismissive, until he realises the benefit to Nixon’s image that a meeting with Elvis might have; but Nixon is dismissive of the idea. It’s only when Elvis’s personal assistant, Jerry Schilling (Pettyfer), suggests that Krogh “let slip” to Nixon’s daughters that their father might be meeting Elvis, that Nixon is emotionally blackmailed into letting the meeting go ahead. And so, the stage is set for one of the most unlikely get-togethers in the history of US politics and entertainment.

With the movie firmly deciding that Elvis was acting like a fruitcake at the time, and with Shannon playing him like a man who thinks everybody else around him is on the same wavelength – even though it’s doubtful there is a wavelength in the first place – his odd mannerisms and apparent lack of social awareness make for an amusing yet also deeply sad interpretation of the man and his misguided sense of commitment. That he really felt he could go undercover is the clearest guide to how barmy his idea was, but Shannon makes it all seem plausible – to Elvis if no one else. And that so many other people went along with it makes it even more bizarre. But amidst all the extraordinary behaviour, Shannon wisely adds a sense of almost child-like innocence to his portayal of Elvis that helps offset the surface notion that The King has lost his marbles. However you view his “ambition”, what Shannon consolidates in his offbeat, whimsical performance is that Elvis believed in everything he said – completely and without equivocation.

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Shannon is probably not everyone’s idea of Elvis Presley, and it’s true that even with a wig, sideburns, and Elvis’s trademark sunglasses the actor still looks nothing like him. But the same is true of Spacey, whose portrayal of the President stops short of being a caricature of the man, and even with the aid of a terrific make-up job, the actor is still recognisable as himself first and foremost. In the end though, it doesn’t matter because the performances of both men are so very good indeed. Separately – and the movie keeps them apart for nearly an hour – they bring to life their real-life characters with a mixture of vocal impersonation, physical posturing, and attention to detail. But when they finally meet, and Nixon’s obduracy gives way to an unforeseen liking for Elvis and his right-wing political views, the apparent differences between the two men fall away, and both actors enjoy the kind of verbal sparring that helps lift the movie over and above its slightly pedestrian beginnings.

Ultimately, Elvis & Nixon only works fully once Elvis actually meets Nixon, and the script by Joey Sagal (who has a memorable cameo as an Elvis impersonator), Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes (yes, Westley himself) springs into life in a way that makes up for the meandering, inopportune approach taken up until then. Make no mistake, the movie is a lightweight, engaging, yet deliberately frothy concoction, and it’s made in such a way that it’s not meant to be taken too seriously. But there’s an awful lot of running around for no good reason as the movie makes this momentous meeting happen. A subplot involving Schilling’s need to fly home to meet his girlfriend’s father is entirely superfluous, which makes Pettyfer’s presence entirely superfluous as well, while Knoxville’s presence is pared to the minimum. Hanks and Peters fare better, portraying Krogh and Chapin as two guys just trying to do their best, and getting quite a lot of the laughs as a result (however, there’s a sting in the tail when a pre-post credits sequence informs the viewer that both men were jailed for their involvement in the Watergate scandal).

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Whatever was discussed between Nixon and Elvis on that December day is unlikely to ever be revealed. And even if this particular version has it all wrong, it is reassuring to know that it doesn’t matter. This is a movie where you could almost apply the old adage, “Print the legend!”, and it wouldn’t make any difference. Johnson’s direction is assured if not outstanding but she does coax outstanding performances from her two leads, and if it weren’t for them, the movie wouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is.

Rating: 7/10 – taken with a very large pinch of salt, Elvis & Nixon can be enjoyed for the sugar-coated treat it is, and not as anything more serious; with good performances all round (and not just from Shannon and Spacey), and a pleasing sense of its own silliness, the movie may not linger in the memory once you’ve seen it, but it will delight and impress you while you watch it.

Happy Birthday – Chiwetel Ejiofor

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Chiwetel Ejiofor (10 July 1977 -)

Chiwetel Ejiofor

A British actor who has found his mark in American movies, Chiwetel Ejiofor – pronounced Chew-eh-tell Edge-ee-oh-for if you’re not sure – has appeared in a number of high-profile features since he caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, and was cast in Amistad (1997). Since then he’s had the serious good fortune to appear in movies directed by the likes of Ridley Scott (twice), Woody Allen, Spike Lee (also twice), Roland Emmerich, and Joss Whedon. By his own admission he’s attracted to strong, dramatic stories, hence the reason Love Actually (2003) is one of the very few comedies to grace his CV, but it is that intensity and drive he can bring to a movie that makes his performances so memorable, even in something as disappointing as Secret in Their Eyes (2015). He’s best remembered for his award-winning portayal of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave (2013), but fortunately it’s not a movie or a role that has pigeon-holed him since, and with his upcoming appearance as Baron Mordo in Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016), it’s clear that he’ll continue to make a variety of dramatic movies, and in any genre. Here are five more movies that he’s appeared in over the years. Together, all of them confirm his range as an actor – as if this was needed – and all of them are well worth seeking out if you haven’t done already.

Talk to Me (2007) – Character: Dewey Hughes

Talk To Me

A movie about the life and times of ex-con and radio personality Ralph “Petey” Greene (played by Don Cheadle), sees Ejiofor playing his friend and manager. He gives an inspired (and award-winning) performance that perfectly complements Cheadle’s, and the movie’s examination of one of America’s most turbulent periods – the late Sixties, early Seventies – is faithfully depicted. Even if the episodic nature of the narrative stops the movie from being as powerful as it could have been, Ejiofor’s portrayal of Hughes is nothing short of outstanding.

Dirty Pretty Things (2002) – Character: Okwe

Dirty Pretty Things

A British movie that deals with issues of immigration and racism, Dirty Pretty Things is bolstered by yet another award-winning performance by Ejiofor. As a Nigerian doctor forced to leave his country and who finds front of house work at a hotel that hides a terrible secret, Ejiofor brings an honesty and sincerity to his portrayal that never once falters. He’s particularly good in his scenes with Audrey Tautou (as a Turkish Muslim seeking asylum), and does a superb job of maintaining Okwe’s fatalistic-yet-hopeful character, even when the odds that he’ll find happiness are stacked against him.

Endgame (2009) – Character: Thabo Mbeki

Endgame

The second true story in this list, Endgame concerns itself with the secret talks held between the African National Congress and the Afrikaner National Party as they tried to reach an agreement to end apartheid. As Mbeki, Ejiofor gives yet another excellent performance – this time alongside William Hurt’s professor of philosophy, Willie Esterhuyse. The relationship that evolves between the two men serves as an example of what life in South Africa without apartheid could be like, and as the passionate, demanding Mbeki, Ejiofor is on such good form he’s almost hypnotic.

Serenity (2005) – Character: The Operative

Serenity

Ejiofor’s first encounter with science fiction couldn’t have been more enjoyable – for him and for fans of the short-lived TV series Firefly. As the mysterious and determined Operative, Ejiofor elevates the character’s seemingly banal, villain-101 demeanour into something much more interesting and calculated. He also fits in well with the established cast, and proves more than capable of holding his own against the likes of Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk, while also creating a role that is memorable for being unexpectedly layered.

Kinky Boots (2005) – Character: Lola/Simon

Pictured: Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor ) in Julian Jarrold's 'Kinky Boots'.

There’s much fun to be had in this, the tale of a Northampton shoe manufacturer whose livelihood is threatened by falling sales – until owner Charlie (played by Joel Edgerton) comes up with the idea for making bespoke boots for drag queens. As one of those drag queens, Ejiofor mixes comedy and drama with ease, and reveals a fine singing voice into the bargain. It’s effectively a supporting role, but when he’s on screen, Ejiofor holds the viewer’s attention like no one else – and that’s not just because of the outfits he’s called on to wear.

Hello, My Name Is Doris (2015)

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Hello, My Name Is Doris

D: Michael Showalter / 96m

Cast: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Tyne Daly, Stephen Root, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Beth Behrs, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, Rich Sommer, Isabella Acres, Caroline Aaron, Elizabeth Reaser, Peter Gallagher

A romantic comedy with a difference, Hello, My Name Is Doris begins with a funeral. Not necessarily the best place for a romantic comedy to start from, but it introduces us to Doris Miller (Field), a sixty-something spinster who works in the accounting department of a trendy, up-market firm. Never married and having spent a considerable amount of her life looking after her ailing mother (who has just died), Doris is adrift in her own life and the home she shared with her mother on Staten Island. But when new art director John Fremont compliments her on his first day on the job, Doris reacts like a teenager and straight away develops a crush on him. And when she attends a self-help seminar hosted by “new you” guru Willy Williams (Gallagher), Doris takes his advice and persuades herself that she can have a relationship with John that can be more than professional.

Ignoring the concerns and the advice of her best friend, Roz (Daly), Doris makes attempt after clumsy attempt to engage John in conversation at the office but she’s too nervous to make much of an impact. It’s not until she mentions her interest in John within earshot of Roz’s teenage daughter, Vivian (Acres), that Doris discovers there’s a way into John’s world that might make all the difference. With John having a Facebook page, Vivian sets up Doris with a fake account and gets John to accept her as a friend. His site reveals various interests, one of which is a band called Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters. They prove to be an electronic band – not Doris’s cup of tea – but when John finds out she’s a “fan”, and she then learns they’re playing a gig nearby, the stage is set for a “chance” meeting that sees the pair begin to get to know each other… and eventually become friends.

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But John has a girlfriend, Brooklyn (Behrs), and Doris has to find a way of dealing with this development, as well as the increasing concerns of Roz, and the fact that her friendship with John is based on deception. Doris ends up doing something petty and malicious that provides her with an opportunity to tell John how she feels about him. But while Doris is (mostly) having the time of her life, her brother Todd (Root) and his wife Cynthia (McLendon-Covey) are pressuring her to sell her home. They also insist she see a therapist dealing in hoarding issues, as the house is a mess of unneeded junk. Trying to balance these things with her newfound enthusiasm for John and the potential for romance with him, Doris has to try and keep a clear head in the run-up to telling him how she feels about him. But will he feel the same way…?

Hands up anyone who remembers the last time Sally Field had the lead role in a movie… Anyone? Well, if you came up with Two Weeks (2006) then give yourself a big pat on the back. Nine (now ten) years on, and Field is finally back on our screens in a role that not only reflects her age – she’ll be seventy in November – but which also serves as a reminder of just how good an actress she is. Forget the movie’s raison d’etre – which some viewers may find uncomfortable or just plain excruciating – this is a chance to see Field playing both drama and comedy with equal skill and navigating her way through the choppy waters of Laura Terruso and Michael Showalter’s broadly effective screenplay, itself based on Terruso’s short, Doris & the Intern (2011).

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What could well have proven to be a cringeworthy tale of an old(er) woman lusting after a younger man is headed off at the pass by Field’s perfectly judged, and empowering performance. As the socially removed (and then newly improved) Doris, Field shows the character’s vulnerability and desperate need for acceptance – not just by John but by his peers as well – at all times, reminding the viewer that there’s a lot more to Doris than predatory instincts and a late-blooming libido. That the script is sympathetic towards Doris is a given, but it’s Field’s instinctive and assiduous portrayal that stops that sympathy from becoming too cloying or saccharine. While the first half of the movie is content to wring out some offbeat and occasionally embarrassing comedy, the second half gives way to the necessary drama the movie needs to wrap things up. Field’s performance is the glue that holds the movie together, and it’s a pleasure to see her in a role that allows her to show off her range.

Again, the notion of a May-December relationship where the woman is way past the cougar stage may well put off some viewers, but a couple of dream sequences aside, this is a splendidly old-fashioned movie that doesn’t seek to offend anyone, and carries enough modern-day smarts to keep viewers hooked. There’s a smattering of jokes that are very funny thanks to their popping up out of nowhere – at a backstage party, Doris talks to a woman who tells her she’s “a teacher at a gay pre-school” – and Doris’s outfits are a mad jumble of colours and designs that make you wonder if she’s colour blind or has reached a point in her life where she just doesn’t care anymore (either could be true but the movie doesn’t reveal the reason for her sartorial mash-ups). And when things get serious, Field ensures that the poignancy and heartache surrounding Doris aren’t downplayed by the script’s need to be realistic about her relationship with John.

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With Field being on top form, it’s hard for the rest of the cast to look as good, and only Daly manages to stand out from the crowd. Otherwise, there are too many minor roles jostling for attention, and Max Greenfield’s John is too vanilla to make much of an impact (a problem that lies with the script rather than Greenfield’s portrayal). The likes of Lyonne, Reaser and Gallagher appear here and there when needed, while Root and McLendon-Covey play good cop/bad cop as Doris’s brother and sister-in-law, but the movie can’t decide if their characters work better as dramatic foils or comic relief. One area where the movie lacks insight is in its hoarding subplot, with Doris agreeing to see a therapist too readily, and subsequent attempts to show her dealing with this issue feeling shallow and poorly thought out (the therapist is shown to have no interest in Doris’s newfound happiness as John’s friend).

Showalter is a competent director and he has an economy of style that fits well with the material. This isn’t a flashy, unappealing movie – not by a long shot – and this approach suits the material, but it does lead on occasion to a few bland stretches where it appears the script is ticking over until the next big laugh or dramatic scene arrives. Thankfully there’s a terrific soundtrack to occupy the viewer during these stretches, and Brian H. Kim’s score adds immeasurably to the emotional atmosphere of several key scenes.

Rating: 7/10 – worth seeing just for Field’s exemplary performance, Hello, My Name Is Doris is nevertheless well worth seeking out, even if it does feel a little lightweight at times; a touching, undemanding movie for the most part, but one that can raise a smile a lot of the time, and do so without undermining the inherent drama.

Perfect Strangers (2016)

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Perfetti sconosciuti

Original title: Perfetti sconosciuti

D: Paolo Genovese / 96m

Cast: Giuseppe Battiston, Anna Foglietta, Marco Giallini, Edoardo Leo, Valerio Mastandrea, Alba Rohrwacher, Kasia Smutniak, Benedetta Porcaroli

Seven friends gather together for a dinner party, held at the home of cosmetic surgeon Rocco (Giallini) and his wife, therapist Eva (Smutniak). Joining them are newlyweds Cosimo (Leo) and Bianca (Rohrwacher), who have decided to try for a baby; distant married couple Lele (Mastandrea) and Carlotta (Foglietta); and single friend Peppe (Battiston), who should be bringing his new girlfriend for everyone to meet, but who turns up alone as she’s fallen ill. Before the dinner party gets under way, we’re treated to telling glimpses of the three couples’ relationships, and in particular, the fractious way in which Rocco and Eva deal with their daughter, Sofia (Porcaroli).

With an eclipse of the sun due to occur that evening, the friends muse on that and various other topics before a phone call to one of them raises the question of whether or not any of them know each other as well as they think. With the call used as an instigator, Eva suggests they all play a game: each has to place their mobile phone on the table and if they receive a phone call during the evening they have to let everyone else hear what the caller is saying, or if they receive a text or e-mail they have to read it out and show someone else to prove what they’re saying is correct. Rocco isn’t too keen to play the game but he’s in the minority, and so he goes along with it. Eva is keen to see if anyone has any secrets they want to hide, but everyone denies the likelihood that she’ll be proven right.

As the evening progresses, certain calls and texts lead to certain revelations: that at least three of the friends are having affairs, one is on the verge of doing so, two are living a lie, and one has been betrayed from the very beginning of their relationship with their partner. Emotions run high, accusations are made, confrontations are endured, and relationships are smashed apart with only the barest possibility of reconciliations occurring in the future. And still more secrets go unrevealed…

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Before the invention of the telephone, the letter was the pre-eminent way for lovers, especially those conducting their affairs under cover of secrecy, to communicate their feelings for each other (when they weren’t able to snatch some time together). The telephone made communication easier and more immediate – no more waiting for a letter that might be intercepted or not even arrive – but with the explosion in telecommunications over the last twenty years it’s become easier to conduct our secret affairs in private, and to keep our unwitting partners in the dark, our misdeeds hidden behind a barrage of passcodes and biometric security.

Against this, it’s hard to imagine anyone agreeing to reveal the nature of the calls and messages they receive on their mobile phones, especially if their partners are there with them at the time, so Rocco’s objection seems correct. Like everyone else he has a secret, but in relation to subsequent revelations it’s on the trivial side (though it does speak volumes for the state of his relationship with Eva). But because everyone else, despite some minor objections, agrees to go along with Eva’s “game”, Perfect Strangers avoids discussing either our over-reliance on modern technology, or the ways in which it can allow us to lead hidden, secretive lives. Instead, and after a suitably languorous period where suspicions go unraised and calls/texts are easily explained away, the movie starts to unravel the lives of its characters and the façades they adopt in everyday life. As the poster puts it, each of us has three lives: a public one, a private one, and a secret one.

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Once these façades are exposed for what they are – the masks we wear to prove that our deceit is necessary and/or acceptable, at least to ourselves – the script by director Genovese, Filippo Bologna, Paolo Costella, Paola Mammini and Rolando Ravello piles on the anguish and the shame and does its best to up the ante with each new secret that’s revealed. With some of the secrets proving inter-connected, and in ways that stretch the narrative’s carefully established plausibility – these are friends you can believe have known each other for years, and are comfortable with each other – the movie becomes overheated, its characters behaving as if the betrayals they’ve discovered are worse than any betrayal they’ve committed themselves. There’s a stark, angry moment when the provenance of a pair of earrings reveals an unexpected connection between two of the characters; it’s a brief scene that arrives out of the blue and is all the better for it. Otherwise, the script opts for extended, unlikely conversations that feel too articulate for the emotions everyone’s supposed to be feeling.

That said, this is the type of movie that feels as if it could have been adapted from a stage play (or could be adapted into one). Rocco and Eva’s apartment, an assortment of rooms dominated not by the dining room (which always feels cramped, adding to the notion of a pressure cooker environment) but by their vast kitchen, is the kind of set where a camera can prowl around characters with impunity and a keen eye for deceitful behaviour or motivations. Genovese frames his characters carefully, always showing the emotional distance between them (as well as the physical distance) while they’re at the dinner table, and the further distance they put between themselves when they’re away from it. As the movie progresses, and small rifts of insecurity become gaping chasms of duplicity, it reinforces the idea that we never really know anyone, even someone we live with or have known for a long time.

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At the movie’s end, and with the guests departing in various degrees of haste, Genovese and his co-screenwriters throw audiences a curveball that allows for a different, perhaps more mournful ending than expected. It’s awkwardly done, and as curveballs go, isn’t signposted too well; some audiences may be confused by what they’re seeing, but in relation to what’s happened throughout the evening it does allow the individual viewer to make their own mind up as to whether or not “honesty is the best policy”.

The cast all get their moments to shine, with Battiston delivering Peppe’s verdict on his friends’ behaviour with a sad resignation that’s entirely appropriate. Foglietta is on fine form as the wife who yearns for something more from her marriage but can’t find the wherewithal to find it and keep it, and Rohrwacher gives a touching performance as Bianca, the naïve young newcomer to the group whose aspirations as a wife and willing friend are cruelly dashed. Mastandrea has the most difficult role, but thanks to some poorly crafted dialogue, isn’t allowed to make Lele’s secret as affecting or believable as it needs to be. Genovese directs them all with aplomb, allowing each character to grow and develop, but again there are too many moments where, in the wake of a revelation, the movie struggles to maintain momentum thanks to the recurring decision to have a character express their feelings at length, and with too much hesitation.

Rating: 7/10 – a fascinating, though contrived drama, Perfect Strangers takes a dinner party game and uses it as a way of exposing the deceptions and dishonesty that can lie at the heart of modern relationships; too astute for its own good at times, the movie is occasionally uncomfortable to watch, but it features a wealth of good performances, some effective and unexpectedly poignant moments, and doesn’t – not once – allow the audience to feel superior to any of its characters.

Question of the Week – 7 July 2016

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Before we get to this week’s question, here’s the answer to Question of the Week – 3 July 2016. The question was:

All three of the movies pictured below were released at the same time in March 2016 – but which is the odd one out?

Zootopia:London Has Fallen:Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The answer should have been obvious to anyone who’s seen all three movies: the odd one out is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. The other two movies feature cartoon characters.

This week’s question has come about thanks to the announcement recently that Sacha Baron Cohen will be bringing Mandrake the Magician to our screens in 2019. Having seen and reviewed the 1939 serial starring Tristram Coffin (gotta love that name!), it strikes me that there’s a degree of barrel-scraping going on here. If so, then this week’s question is a straightforward one:

Can Hollywood reboot an old-time serial and make it work with a modern spin, especially if those old-time serials weren’t all that great to begin with?

Mandrake the Magician

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment. Until next time

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