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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Code of Honor (2016)

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Code of Honor

D: Michael Winnick / 107m

Cast: Steven Seagal, Craig Sheffer, Louis Mandylor, Helena Mattsson, Griff Furst, James Russo, Michael Flynn, Rafael Petardi, R.D. Call

You can say what you like about Steven Seagal – good or bad – but it doesn’t really matter. He’ll continue to make movies like Code of Honor, he’ll continue to wave his hands in the air in a vaguely threatening manner during fight scenes, and he’ll absolutely positively not change the way he mangles the few lines of dialogue he gets to spout from movie to movie. After forty-seven features (yes, forty-seven!), one short and one TV series, the slowest moving action hero in movie history has become the very embodiment of cinematic mediocrity. And yet… and yet… there’s something about him that keeps audiences coming back for more. Is it the possibility that he’ll surprise us all with a measured, affecting performance amidst all the gunplay and martial arts? Maybe. Or is it simply to see if he can put in an even worse performance than the last movie? Again, maybe.

There’s a third possibility: what if Seagal hasn’t found his “groove” yet? What if there’s a role out there that will allow the sixty-four old to impress us all, and erase the memories of the dozens of leaden performances he’s given since debuting in Above the Law (1988)? And what if that’s what draws in audiences time after time? An unrequited hope in the man himself? Well, if that is the case, then Code of Honor isn’t the movie to change anything. The guilty pleasures inherent in a Seagal movie are all here: those flapping hands, the poorly edited fight scenes that always fail to make him look good (and only halfway competent, despite his real-life prowess), the squinting, the drawn-out, laconic line delivery, and of course, the laidback hands clasped together  and looking bored approach to every character since Chef Casey Ryback.

COH - scene1

The plot is only slightly unusual this time. Seagal is a vigilante ex-US Army Colonel cutting a swathe through the criminal gangs in Salt Lake City after his wife and child are killed in a gang-related shooting. While the local cops, headed up by Mandylor’s frustrated homicide detective, mill about like extras getting in the way, rogue fed Sheffer goes after Seagal and does an equally good job of offing loads of bad guys along the way – and with katana knives at that; who knew they were standard issue FBI weapons these days? Add a pretty stripper (Mattsson) to the mix as a witness who hasn’t actually witnessed anything, and a bonkers twist that doesn’t make sense at all, and you have a movie that wants to be different but doesn’t have the wherewithal to make it happen.

Seagal is as bad as ever, but Sheffer matches him, giving the kind of dreadful performance that begs the label “career-killer”; A River Runs Through It (1992) seems like it was an eternity ago now. To make matters worse, the pair are coerced into a scene that rips off the confrontation between De Niro and Pacino in Heat (1995). (It’s a bold if unforgivable move, and Mann fans would be well within their rights for fast forwarding that particular moment.) Writer/director Winnick flirts with the idea of making a fast-paced, gritty thriller, but lets himself down by coming up with a script that flails about in search of credibility at every turn. With an abundance of, and over-reliance on, CGI blood splatter, and Robert A. Ferretti’s editing proving more distracting than fluid, Code of Honor wastes what few ideas it does have by surrendering to the inevitable: it’s a Steven Seagal movie, and if he’s not making any effort, why should anyone else?

Rating: 3/10 – good intentions aside, this is very much a generic Seagal movie, with little to say for itself, or the means in which to do so; plodding and cruelly exposed by the absurdities of Winnick’s script (and direction), Code of Honor can’t even be called another nail in the coffin of Seagal’s career – because by now there must be very little left of the actual coffin with all the other nails in it.

Steven Spielberg’s 10 Most Successful Movies at the International Box Office

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He’s been entertaining audiences for nearly fifty years now, ever since his first professional gig directing an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D. in 1970. Since then he’s become the world’s most successful director, his movies earning a combined total of over four billion dollars. But which of Steven Spielberg’s movies have attracted the biggest audiences and earned the most at the international box office? Read on to find out.

10 – Minority Report (2002) – $358,372,926

“Everybody runs…” stated the tagline, and audiences flocked to see Spielberg’s adaptation of a short story by Philip K. Dick, with its clever, cerebral murder mystery and crunching action sequences. It also marked the first of two collaborations with Tom Cruise, and showed that, once again, Spielberg was more than capable of creating a believable vision of the future.

Minority Report

9 – The Adventures of Tintin (2011) – $373,993,951

Spielberg takes on motion capture with mixed results, in a movie that translates Hergé’s tenacious young detective from page to screen in a way that provides some stunning visuals but which also forgets to make the story more involving than it is. The Bearded One has a ball, and this is perhaps Spielberg’s loosest, most carefree movie since 1941 (1979).

8 – Jaws (1975) – $470,653,000

The movie that made Spielberg a household name, Jaws still has the power to unnerve successive generations of audiences, and persuade viewers that staying out of the water is still a pretty good option. A rollercoaster ride that never lets up, Spielberg pulls out all the stops, makes Peter Benchley’s source novel seem better than it is, and elicits a trio of terrific performances from Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss.

7 – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – $474,171,806

What should have been the last in the series sees Spielberg make up for the darker excesses of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and regain the sense of fun that made Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) so appealing. The inclusion of Sean Connery is, of course, a stroke of genius, but the movie’s highlight is that tank chase, a marvellous exercise in thrills, perfectly timed stuntwork, and breezy humour that still impresses today.

6 – Saving Private Ryan (1998) – $481,840,909

After pulling no punches in his examination of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg brought home the true horror of the D-Day landings by thrusting his audience into the thick of it all for twenty of the most gruelling, gut-wrenching minutes in cinema history. The search for Private Ryan and the events that follow lack that initial visceral intensity, but this is still Spielberg operating at a level that few other directors can match.

Saving Private Ryan

5 – War of the Worlds (2005) – $591,745,540

Spielberg’s second collaboration with Tom Cruise was a box office success but lost its way in the final third, leaving critics and audiences alike wondering how Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp could have failed to maintain the movie’s pace and energy from its stunning opening, and gripping central section. Whatever your view, this is easily one of the best, most effective alien invasion movies ever made, and all because the characters and not the spectacle are the focus.

4 – The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) – $618,638,999

Not one of Spielberg’s best thanks to an erratic screenplay courtesy of the normally reliable David Koepp, this inevitable sequel sees Spielberg struggling to repeat the sense of wonder he brought to the original. It’s overlong as well, and there are only a few instances where Spielberg finds his groove, but this took as much as it did at the box office because nobody else was able to come close to making dinosaurs look this impressive.

3 – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – $786,636,033

A prime example of one too many trips to the well, what was until recently Indiana Jones’s swansong movie – a fifth entry is due in 2019 (when Harrison Ford will be seventy-seven) – this sees Spielberg aiming to restore the last-gasp, derring-do atmosphere of Ark and Crusade, while being undermined by a script that loses sight of what made those movies so enjoyable in the first place.

2 – E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – $792,910,554

Spielberg’s ode to childhood and miracles can still invoke a wide variety of emotions including wonder. It also provides all the evidence needed to remind audiences that Spielberg is a director who has such a deep connection to the child in all of us, that he can make us wish we were that young again. Forget the minor changes he made in the 20th anniversary re-release, this remains one of the most powerful, and emotional, fantasy movies ever made.

1 – Jurassic Park (1993) – $1,029,153,822

Dinosaurs. ‘Nuff said.

Jurassic Park

10 Reasons to Remember Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016)

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Abbas Kiarostami (22 June 1940 – 4 July 2016)

Abbas Kiarostami

And so we say goodbye to yet another iconic figure from the world of movie making. As if 2016 hasn’t been bad enough so far, to lose Abbas Kiarostami as well is like being kicked in the stomach while you’re already on the floor. Kiarostami wasn’t just one of the most influential figures in Iranian film – if not the most – he was also one of the most influential figures in film worldwide, an artist who prompted Jean-Luc Godard to say, “Film begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.”

He began his career at the age of thirty after having set up a film section at Tehran’s Centre for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. He made his first movie, a short called Nan va Koutcheh (The Bread and Alley) in 1970, and continued his career during the Seventies by making an eclectic mix of short movies, features and documentaries. As he developed and refined his style, his movies became more and more minimal. Kiarostami kept stripping away everything he felt was extraneous or unnecessary, until he had the essence of the story he wanted to tell. Audiences across the globe began to connect with his movies with the release of Close-Up (1990), a mesmerising treatise on life and art and the blurring that often occurs at the boundaries of these two elements.

From there he went from strength to strength, his movies often appearing to great acclaim at film festivals around the world, while in Iran, they were largely ignored by the authorities, his way of reflecting Iranian social attitudes apparently providing little enticement for them to interfere or complain. Thus free of the constraints that have affected fellow movie makers such as Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rousolof, Kiarostami was able to make the movies he wanted to make, and his continued success, along with critical approbation, made the release of his movies something to anticipate and cherish. He often worked without a script and was keen to improvise, and he also enjoyed crafting performances from non-actors, using their inexperience to capture a more realistic mise-en-scene. His last work, the documentary Venice 70: Future Reloaded, was released in 2013. He leaves behind an impressive body of work, and the grateful thanks of movie goers around the world who have been captivated by his simple yet telling way of movie making, and the wholly human worlds he’s invited us into over the years.

The Report

1 – The Report (1977)

2 – Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987)

3 – Close-Up (1990)

4 – Through the Olive Trees (1994)

5 – Taste of Cherry (1997)

Taste of Cherry

6 – The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)

7 – Ten (2002)

8 – 10 on Ten (2004)

9 – Shirin (2008)

10 – Certified Copy (2010)

Certified Copy

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

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Independence Day Resurgence

D: Roland Emmerich / 120m

Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Sela Ward, William Fichtner, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Travis Tope, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Angelababy, Deobia Oparei, Nicolas Wright, Patrick St. Esprit, Chin Han, Vivica A. Fox

The tagline says it all: “We had twenty years to prepare.” And after all the waiting, this is the sequel we get, a bloated, lumbering, obscenely stupid movie that takes its predecessor’s legacy and repeatedly takes a dump on it. It’s a movie that insults the audience’s intelligence, and patience, at almost every turn in its efforts to tell the kind of half-baked story that should have been abandoned at the earliest stage possible. It took five people to pen the screenplay, two of them Emmerich and his long-time producing partner Dean Devlin, and it shows in the way that no two scenes run together seamlessly or with any sense of on-going purpose. Make no mistake about it: Independence Day: Resurgence is not worth your time.

The signs are there early on. Ex-President Whitmore (Pullman) is having dreams that anticipate the aliens returning. Once awake he’s plagued by a vision of an image he takes to be another of the aliens’ spaceships. Meanwhile, in Africa, a tribal warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Oparei), is visited by David Levinson (Goldblum), but there’s no reason given for Levinson’s being there. When Umbutu takes him to the site of a crashed alien spaceship they discover that it’s been sending out a distress call. Uh oh, we all know what that means!

IDR - scene1

Cue the Moon-based planetary defence systems coming under apparent attack from a giant sphere that appears out of some kind of black hole. Taking the approach that it’s safer to shoot first then ask questions later, current US President Lanford (Ward) orders its destruction. Maverick pilot Jake Morrison (Hemsworth), though grounded for saving a weapon from destroying the moon base (don’t ask), “borrows” a spaceship and heads for Africa to pick up Levinson so that he can take a look at the wreckage of the sphere (again, don’t ask). Umbutu tags along, as does Dr Catherine Marceaux (Gainsbourg), Umbutu’s shrink-cum-alien researcher, and a cowardly auditor, Floyd Rosenberg (Wright), who’s followng Levinson around for no other reason than the script has put him there. (Is it bizarre enough yet?)

Other characters are added to the mix. There’s ex-President Whitmore’s daughter, Patricia (Monroe), an ex-fighter pilot now working as part of President Lanford’s entourage. There’s Dylan Hiller (Usher), the son of Steven Hiller, the hero of the first movie who has died in a training exercise; he’s in a relationship with Patricia. Then there’s Dr Brakish Okun (Spiner). He’s been in a coma for the last twenty years since his “close encounter” with one of the aliens. Once the distress call goes out, he wakes up, older certainly, but suffering none of the side effects of being in a coma for such a long time (there’s certainly no muscle atrophy). Falling into line are General Adams (Fichtner), the military leader of the US forces, Dylan’s mother, Jasmine (Fox), who works in a hospital, and Jake’s co-pilot/gunner Charlie Miller (Tope), who acts as a comic alternative to Jake’s more serious demeanour. Oh, and let’s not forget Julius Levinson (Hirsch), David’s father, another character from the first movie who’s shoehorned into this one to add even more familiarity to the proceedings (and who miraculously survives what should be the world’s most destructive tsunami). (And that’s all without even mentioning the giant sphere that proves to have the personality of a stuffy doctor’s receptionist – still not bizarre enough?)

IDR - scene2

All these characters flit in and out of the narrative, adding little beyond their required presence at various points, and only occasionally making an impact. Even Levinson is sidelined by events, while Whitmore fills the role of this movie’s Russell Casse, and President Lanford proves expendable in a sequence that comes and goes without making audiences feel anything other than apathy. Even the movie’s principal hero, Jake, is cruelly underwritten, leaving Hemsworth in the unenviable position of playing a role that highlights his shortcomings as an actor. With the likes of Monroe, Usher and Fichtner reduced to the status of bit part players, the movie ignores its cast for the most part and concentrates on providing more spectacle than you can shake a giant spaceship at.

It’s while Emmerich piles on the destruction that the tagline for Gareth Edwards’ reboot of Godzilla (2014) springs to mind: “Size does matter.” For as the director gets carried away crashing an enormous spaceship into the North Atlantic, and displacing Singapore only as long as it takes to float it halfway around the world and drop it on London, the message comes across loud and clear, that this movie is better because it’s bigger, both in scope and special effects. But it’s all soulless and uninvolving, populated by whizz-bang dogfights and lacklustre retreads of moments from Indepedence Day that only serve to remind viewers just how enjoyable that movie was, and still is.

IDR - scene3

And where Independence Day kept its laughs to a minimum, its bloated but thankfully shorter sequel adds humour and silliness by the bucket load, largely whenever Okun or Floyd is on screen, and in the plethora of one-liners sprinkled throughout the script. This may have seemed like a good idea at the time but this reliance on making the audience laugh undercuts the seriousness of the situation, leaving the movie feeling uneven and, sometimes, crass in its efforts to entertain instead of having us on the edge of our seats. The world is about to end, but that’s okay, here comes Brent Spiner with another less-than-pithy wisecrack.

That this is so woeful proves the old adage, penned by William Goldman, that in Hollywood, “nobody knows anything”. If they did, then Messrs Emmerich and Devlin wouldn’t have transferred such a dreadful script to the screen and attempted to pass it off as a worthy successor to the movie that made both their names. Where Amy Schumer appeared in a movie called Trainwreck (2015), it wouldn’t be inappropriate for this farrago to be re-titled Spaceshipwreck – it’s a far more apt description.

Rating: 3/10 – without a doubt the worst – so far – of this year’s summer blockbusters, Independence Day: Resurgence lacks apppreciable thrills, appreciable drama, appreciable tension or emotion, and any clear idea of the story it wants to tell; frustrating on so many levels, it’s a movie that consistently defies belief, and does the one thing the viewer will be praying it won’t do: set things up for another sequel.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

D: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa / 112m

Cast: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Sheila Vand, Evan Jonigkeit, Fahim Anwar, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones

If you’re a fan of Tina Fey, and have been waiting to see Whiskey Tango Foxtrot with some anticipation after seeing the trailer, be warned! This isn’t the out and out comedy with occasional dramatic moments that the trailer makes it out to be. Instead it’s the opposite, a drama with occasional comedic moments that fit awkwardly for the most part with the movie’s main focus, the true story of one woman journalist’s stay in Afghanistan and the experiences she had there.

Fey plays Kim Baker, the fictionalised version of Kim Barker (why the slight name change?). In 2004 and dissatisfied with the way her career in television news is going, she takes up the offer of an assignment reporting from Afghanistan. Taking a huge chance – she doesn’t know the language or the customs, and has never reported from a war zone before – Baker is assigned a driver/interpreter, Fahim (Abbott), and a personal bodyguard, Nic (Peacocke). She’s also grateful to find another female journalist there in the form of Tanya Vanderpoel (Robbie).

WTF - scene3

At first, Kim’s inexperience doesn’t do her any favours but she soon begins to gauge the lie of the land and the feelings of the US soldiers stationed there. Her status as a woman helps her gain access to news stories that other (male) journalists and reporters are unable to gather, and as time goes by, she earns the respect of her fellow journalists, Fahim, and even General Hollanek (Thornton), the head of the US forces. She also takes risks when she feels it necessary, such as leaving an armoured vehicle when the convoy she’s in is attacked and capturing the event on video. The only downside of her experience thus far is when she catches her boyfriend (Charles) with another woman during an unscheduled video call.

Her sudden availability has its upside, though. It allows her to manipulate local Afghan minister Ali Massoud Sadiq (Molina), into providing her with background intelligence, though Fahim warns her that she is becoming like the drug addicts he used to treat before the war: willing to do anything to get a story. She also develops a relationship with Scottish journalist Iain MacKelpie (Freeman); at first it’s only serious on his side, but Kim becomes attached to him, and their relationship deepens. As the two get to know each other, Iain tells her of an opportunity to interview a local warlord. The only drawback is his location: on the other side of a mountain pass that is closed due to heavy snow. While they wait for the snows to clear, Kim finds herself having to justify her continuing presence in Afghanistan, and travels to New York to state her case in person. There she discovers an unexpected rival for her “spot”, and also learns that Iain has been abducted for ransom…

WTF - scene1

Barker’s story – recounted in her book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan – is remarkable for how “Pakistan and Afghanistan would ultimately become more all-consuming than any relationship [she] had ever had.” Sadly, Robert Carlock’s screenplay only manages to skirt round this attachment, preferring instead to imply an unrequited attraction between Kim and Fahim that can never be consummated, and an actual relationship with Iain that sees Fey look uncomfortable whenever she and Freeman end up in a clinch. This is one of many components that the movie never finds a satisfactory place for, and the result is an uneven, sporadically effecive piece that does occasional justice to Barker’s story, and Fey’s skills as an actress.

As with so many true stories adapted for the screen, the movie changes a lot, and in the process loses sight of what works best. Kim’s back story is predictably sketchy – why is she so miserable about her job?; how did she get to a point where the idea of covering a war in a far-off country became her best option? – and it’s jettisoned just as predictably once she arrives in Kabul. The movie continues in the same vein, offering brief soundbites in lieu of solid characterisations, and making only intermittent attempts to provide motivations for the actions of its principals (when it can be bothered to go beyond the superficial). By failing to provide any of its characters with any depth – Thornton’s General is so lightweight he’s practically gossamer-thin – it becomes hard to care about anyone, even Kim. Aside from a sincere yet unnecessary subplot involving a wounded soldier (Jonigkeit), Whiskey Tango Foxtrot rarely gives the viewer a reason to believe that any of Barker’s memoir has been adapted with a view to making it appear earnest or artless.

WTF - scene2

Fey’s obvious forté is comedy, and when the movie needs her to be, she’s very funny indeed. But she’s not quite so confident in the dramatic stretches, and it’s these moments that help undermine the movie further. Fey only comes across as comfortable in these situations if she can put a comedic spin on things, and the script lets her do this far too often for the audience to be comfortable as well. In support, Freeman puts in a good enough performance but isn’t given enough to do that’s memorable or fresh, while Robbie flits in and out of the narrative just enough for viewers to remember she’s there, and to remind Fey as Kim that in Afghanistan she’s gone from a solid six to a nine (so much for female solidarity in a male-dominated society). As for Molina, he plays Sadiq as a lecherous horny goat, a character two steps removed from a Carry On movie racial stereotype; it’s not quite a completely offensive portrayal, but both Molina and directors Ficarra and Requa should have known better.

Despite all this, the movie is amiable enough, and under Ficarra and Requa’s stewardship makes for an undemanding viewing experience. Like Fey they seem more at home when dealing with the more humorous aspects of Barker’s time in Afghanistan (Pakistan is left out of the equation entirely), though they redeem themselves in terms of the movie’s look. Along with DoP Xavier Grobet, the directing duo give the movie a rich visual style that offers crisp compositions at almost every turn, and a warm colour palette that refutes the idea of Afghanistan as a ravaged, war-blighted country lacking in beauty. At least they got that right.

Rating: 5/10 – an awkward mix of drama and comedy where neither comes out on top and where each ends up countering the other, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t as bad as it may seem, but it’s also not as good as it could have been; fans of Fey may be satisfied by her performance here, and she’s to be applauded for trying something outside her comfort zone, but there’s too many times when she doesn’t do the (admittedly) thin material any justice.

Question of the Week – 3 July 2016

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This week’s question is a simple one:

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 can be found in the next Question of the Week, arriving on 7 July 2016.)

10 Reasons to Remember Michael Cimino (1939-2016)

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Michael Cimino (3 February 1939 – 2 July 2016)

Michael Cimino

Throughout his career, Michael Cimino was a divisive figure. To some he was a maverick movie maker who didn’t care about budgets, ignored studio heads in his efforts to make the best movie he could, and who once said of Francis Ford Coppola, “Why do you think Francis is re-cutting Apocalypse [Now]? He’s dried up. I’m going forward; he’s going backward.” To others he was a genius, one of the most controversial directors of his era, and someone whose movies contain aspects and representations of poetic realism. Whichever camp you fall into, he will always be remembered for two movies: The Deer Hunter (1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1980). The first was a multi-Oscar winning triumph, the second was a movie that supposedly caused the downfall of its studio, United Artists. Both are masterpieces in their own right, and both examine the American experience on different frontiers in powerful and striking ways. If Cimino had never made another movie after those two, he would still be highly regarded.

But after Heaven’s Gate, Cimino found it increasingly difficult to get funding for his projects, and he often butted heads with studio executives on the movies he was offered – Footloose (1984) was just one of many movies he could have directed but managed (maybe deliberately) to get himself fired from. Among the projects he tried to get made were adaptations of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (with Clint Eastwood as Howard Roark), Frederick Manford’s Conquering Horse (to be filmed entirely in the Sioux language with English subtitles), and Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate (to be filmed in Shanghai with Johnny Depp and Daniel Day-Lewis). He was always channelling various ideas and plans but thanks to the notoriety surrounding Heaven’s Gate he became an untrustworthy figure in Hollywood circles, though he did have his supporters. If he had been able to continue his career in the way he wanted, who knows how many other masterpieces he could have made. But he leaves us with a small body of work that is impressive on so many levels, from his early screenwriting credits all the way through to his contribution to the portmanteau movie To Each His Own Cinema (2007). Again, whatever your point of view regarding the man and his work, one thing’s for certain: he’s not a director who’ll be easily forgotten.

Silent Running

1 – Silent Running (1972) – screenplay

2 – Magnum Force (1973) – screenplay

3 – Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) – screenplay/direction

4 – The Deer Hunter (1978)

5 – Heaven’s Gate (1980)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by United/Everett/REX Shutterstock (961842b) 'Heaven's Gate' - landscape 'Heaven's Gate' film - 1980

6 – Year of the Dragon (1985)

7 – The Sicilian (1987)

8 – Desperate Hours (1990)

9 – The Sunchaser (1996)

The Sunchaser

10 – To Each His Own Cinema (2007) – segment, No Translation Needed

Monthly Roundup – June 2016

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Manglehorn (2014) / D: David Gordon Green / 97m

Cast: Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Harmony Korine, Chris Messina, Skylar Gasper

Manglehorn

Rating: 5/10 – in the wake of a failed romance that has left him heartbroken, locksmith A.J. Manglehorn (Pacino) decides to try again with bank teller Dawn (Hunter), but his personality puts obstacles in his way; despite the obvious talent involved, Manglehorn is a chore to sit through, as the character himself – as Dawn discovers – isn’t someone you want to spend too much time with.

The Brain (1962) / D: Freddie Francis / 83m

Cast: Anne Heywood, Peter van Eyck, Cecil Parker, Bernard Lee, Jeremy Spenser, Maxine Audley, Ellen Schwiers, Siegfried Lowitz, Hans Nielsen, Jack MacGowran, Miles Malleson, George A. Cooper

The Brain

Rating: 5/10 – a fatal plane crash sees a millionaire businessman’s brain kept alive by pioneering scientists, one of whom (van Eyck) finds himself searching for the person who caused the plane crash when the businessman’s brain communicates with him; an erratic sci-fi thriller that gets bogged down whenever it concentrates on the murder suspects, this adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s novel Donovan’s Brain has a great cast and a terrific premise, but is let down by Francis’ pedestrian direction and a style that wants to evoke film noir but can’t because the script hasn’t been written that way.

A Certain Justice (2014) / D: James Coyne, Giorgio Serafini / 96m

aka Puncture Wounds

Cast: Cung Le, Dolph Lundgren, Vinnie Jones, Briana Evigan, Gianni Capaldi, James C. Burns, Robert LaSardo, Jonathan Kowalsky, Sean O’Bryan, Eddie Rouse

A Certain Justice

Rating: 4/10 – Iraq veteran John Nguyen (Le) returns home and becomes embroiled in a fight against big-time drug dealer Hollis (Lundgren) when he saves a hooker (Evigan) from the violent attentions of Hollis’ men; as a showcase for Le, A Certain Justice works well enough, but this is still a muddled actioner that cuts narrative corners more often than it doesn’t, and sees Lundgren adopting a wig and ponytail that makes him look like an aging hippie instead of a menacing crime boss.

Woman on the Run (1950) / D: Norman Foster / 77m

Cast: Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, Robert Keith, John Qualen, Frank Jenks, Ross Elliott, J. Farrell MacDonald, Victor Sen Yung, Steven Geray

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Rating: 7/10 – when store window designer Frank Johnson (Elliott) witnesses a gangland execution he goes on the run, leaving his estranged wife (Sheridan), the police, and a persistent reporter (O’Keefe) trying to track him down before the killer does; a cleverly written film noir based on Sylvia Tate’s original story, Woman on the Run may have a misleading title but it features hard-boiled dialogue, bruised relationships, and atmospheric location work, all of which means the movie is an under-rated gem and deserves a wider audience.

The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) / D: George Sherman / 82m

Cast: John Lund, Jeff Chandler, Susan Cabot, Bruce Cowling, Beverly Tyler, Richard Egan, Jay Silverheels, John Hudson, Jack Elam, Regis Toomey

The Battle at Apache Pass

Rating: 6/10 – peace on the frontier with the Apache nation is threatened by the divisive tactics of Indian Affairs agent Neil Baylor (Cowling) and unsanctioned raids by Geronimo (Silverheels); based around two historical events – the Bascom Affair in 1861, and the title encounter in 1862 – The Battle at Apache Pass is an enjoyable Western featuring good location work in Monument Valley, beautiful photography, and Chandler (as Cochise) and Silverheels reprising their roles from Broken Arrow (1950).

The Phenom (2016) / D: Noah Buschel / 88m

Cast: Johnny Simmons, Ethan Hawke, Paul Giamatti, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Yul Vazquez, Louisa Krause, Paul Adelstein, Elizabeth Marvel, Marin Ireland

The Phenom

Rating: 5/10 – Hopper Gibson (Simmons) is a talented pitcher who has a shot at the big leagues but suffers a crisis of confidence, one that threatens his future; well acted but dour and uninviting, The Phenom plods along in such a low-key manner that some viewers may well decide they don’t care enough if Hopper overcomes his slump, and may also decide to watch something else instead.

A Place to Go (1964) / D: Basil Dearden / 86m

Cast: Rita Tushingham, Mike Sarne, Bernard Lee, Doris Hare, Barbara Ferris, John Slater, David Andrews, William Marlowe, Michael Wynne, Roy Kinnear

A Place to Go

Rating: 5/10 – an ambitious young man who wants to get away from Bethnal Green gets involved with a local racketeer (Slater) and a young woman (Tushingham) at the same time, and much to the consternation of his parents (Lee, Hare); a slice of life, East London style, this kitchen sink drama is enjoyable enough but is hampered by a dreadful performance by Sarne and some weak plotting, but still has enough to recommend it, particularly the (deliberately) sad sight of Lee’s character trying to impress as an escapologist.

Shadows on the Stairs (1941) / D: D. Ross Lederman / 64m

Cast: Frieda Inescort, Paul Cavanagh, Heather Angel, Bruce Lester, Miles Mander, Lumsden Hare, Turhan Bey, Charles Irwin, Phyllis Barry, Mary Field

Shadows on the Stairs

Rating: 4/10 – a killer strikes in a boarding house where everyone comes under suspicion; a leaden whodunnit shot in a pedestrian style, Shadows on the Stairs is typical of the period with its mix of drama, comic relief in the form of Hare and Irwin as bumbling policemen, romantic triangles, and occasional flashes of social comment, but it all adds up to a movie that betrays its stage origins at every turn.

Moonwalkers (2015) / D: Antoine Bardou-Jacquet / 107m

Cast: Rupert Grint, Ron Perlman, Robert Sheehan, Stephen Campbell-Moore, Tom Audenaert, Jay Benedict, James Cosmo, Eric Lampaert, Kevin Bishop, Erika Sainte

Moonwalkers

Rating: 4/10 – in 1969, the US military sends unstable CIA agent Kidman (Perlman) to London to contact Stanley Kubrick with an offer to film a mock moon landing (in case the real mission goes wrong) – but he ends up working with a would-be rock band manager (Grint) instead; uneven and often groan-inducing, Moonwalkers takes a great idea and tramples all over it with a mix of psychedelia, undercooked comedy and inappropriate violence, leaving just a few knowing nods and winks in relation to the period to provide anything of interest.

Mini-Review: My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016)

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My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

D: Kirk Jones / 94m

Cast: Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Gia Carides, Joey Fatone, Louis Mandylor, Elena Kampouris, Alex Wolff, Bess Meisler, Rita Wilson, John Stamos, Mark Margolis, Rob Riggle

The extended Portokalos family are back, but since we saw them in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), things haven’t remained the same: Toula (Vardalos) has had to close her travel agency due to the recession, and the family dry cleaning business has gone the same way. All that’s left is the restaurant started by her father, Gus (Constantine). On the home front, Toula and her husband, Ian (Corbett) have a grown-up daughter, Paris (Kampouris), who can’t wait to head off to college and escape her family’s overbearing attempts to make sure she’s okay – and Gus’s constant reminders that she needs to marry at the first opportunity. Some things though haven’t changed: Gus is still convinced that the Greeks invented everything, and that he’s a direct descendant of Alexander the Great. When this assertion is challenged he decides to prove his claim by entering his ancestors’ details on an online ancestry site. But when he starts going through his paper records he discovers that his marriage certificate was never signed by the priest, and that he and wife Maria (Kazan) aren’t officially married.

Expecting Maria to go along with his idea of renewing their vows, Gus is horrified when she tells him she wants a proper wedding, and more importantly, a proper proposal, something Gus failed to provide fifty years before. Gus baulks at this and a stalemate ensues, with each proving as stubborn as each other. It’s only when Gus falls ill and Maria refuses to go with him to the hospital that Gus relents and proposes. Maria accepts his proposal and when Gus is well again, she begins to plan their wedding. Meanwhile, Paris gets accepted to a college in New York, Toula and Ian try to spend more time together and rekindle the romance that brought them together, Gus’s estranged brother, Panos (Margolis) arrives from Greece for the wedding, and the ancestry site replies to Gus’s application.

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If you liked My Big Fat Greek Wedding then you’ll definitely like My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. There’s very little here that’s different from the first movie (“Now, give me a word, any word; and I will show you how the root of that word is Greek.”), and Vardalos, who wrote the script, wisely plays up the original’s strengths in favour of doing anything too new or complicated. The end result is a movie that complements the original without challenging it any way, and which offers a pleasant if unexceptional viewing experience for anyone meeting the Portokalos family for the first time.

Vardalos has also been lucky enough to reassemble everyone from the first movie, and everyone reconnects with their characters as if they’ve only been away from them for a couple of months instead of fourteen years. Martin is wisely given ample opportunity to show off her particular brand of forthright comedy, while Meisler, as Mana-Yiayia, steals every scene she’s in. It’s a tribute to Vardalos’ skills as a writer that she manages to find moments for all the characters to shine, and she doesn’t make Toula the main focus of the movie as she did before. That said, there are still the usual themes surrounding family, and mutual love and support, and director Kirk Jones adds a degree of sparkle to proceedings, raising this way up and above the level of unnecessary sequel.

Rating: 6/10 – while it’s not the most original of sequels, nevertheless My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is much better thanks to Vardalos’ decision to not tinker too much with the original format; still, it is formulaic, and it doesn’t stretch itself in any new directions, but it’s a nice, friendly movie that just wants to entertain – and by and large, it does.

Trailers – American Pastoral (2016), The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) and Keeping Up With the Joneses (2016)

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For his feature debut as a director, Ewan McGregor could have (probably) chosen any project he wanted, but not one to shirk a challenge, the actor has decided to film Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (it’s been in development for over a decade, and Jennifer Connelly is the only person still on board from back then). So, no pressure there, then. But the trailer reveals, albeit in a disjointed fashion, that McGregor appears to have found a way of coherently presenting the various social and political upheavals of the period (the Sixties), and without sacrificing any of the personal or emotional effects these events have on the characters involved. With David Strathairn cast as Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, and a supporting cast that also includes Molly Parker and Peter Riegert, McGregor has found himself in very good company indeed, and if his direction, allied with John Romano’s screenplay, is as good as it looks (and thanks to DoP Martin Ruhe it looks beautiful indeed), then this could be a strong Oscar contender come next February.

 

In The 9th Life of Louis Drax (it’s never Johnny Smith anymore, is it?), a young boy’s fall from a cliff and subsequent coma opens up a mystery that will involve his parents (Sarah Gadon, Aaron Paul) and his doctor (Jamie Dornan). Liz Jensen’s 2004 novel was due to be adapted by Anthony Minghella before his untimely death in 2008, but now it’s been adapted for the screen by his son Max, and with the formidable talent of Alexandre Aja in the director’s chair. The trailer is sufficiently twist-y enough for clues to Louis’s “condition” to be given in one second and then overturned in another, and the movie’s success is likely to depend on how well the mystery is maintained before answers have to be revealed. The cast also features the likes of Oliver Platt, the ubiquitous Molly Parker, and Barbara Hershey, and seems to have got a firm hold on the supernatural thriller aspects of the story, so this should be as satisfying – hopefully – as it looks.

 

Whatever you want to say or think about Keeping Up With the Joneses, there’s little doubt that this mix of action and comedy about a suburban couple (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) who discover that their new neighbours (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot) are international spies, is exactly the kind of moderately high concept idea that the Hollywood studios love to put their money behind. The trailer offers perhaps too many laughs (and hopefully not all the best ones), while downplaying the inevitable action sequences, but whatever the finished product gives us, let’s hope that director Greg Mottola’s quirky sense of humour is front and centre, and the chemistry between each couple adds to the fun to be had. If not we’ll just have to chalk it up to a good idea gone bad, or to put it another way, a movie that you switch off from once it’s started.

Life on the Line (2015)

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Life on the Line

D: David Hackl / 93m

Cast: John Travolta, Kate Bosworth, Devon Sawa, Gil Bellows, Julie Benz, Ryan Robbins, Ty Olsson, Sharon Stone

The life of a lineman – in Texas at least – is one that is continually fraught with danger and the prospect of death. This is the message that Life on the Line reminds us of throughout its (brief enough) running time, and especially when said linemen make mistake after mistake as they go about their daily work (the movie will have health and safety experts choking on their popcorn; real linemen will either be laughing at the many, many inaccuracies the movie exhibits or shaking their heads in prolonged disbelief). But, hey, this is still the fourth most dangerous job in the world.

We’re given an example of this right at the start when the actions of cocky lineman Beau Ginner (Travolta) lead to the death of his brother, who’s also his crew boss. Circumstances lead also to the death of his brother’s wife; this leaves Beau’s neice, Bailey, in his care (what the authorities were thinking is a question the movie avoids asking altogether). Fast forward ten years and Bailey (Bosworth) is on the verge of going to college, while Beau has become Mr Safety, and a well respected crew boss like his brother. The complete overhaul and replacement of thousands of miles of electrical lines throughout Texas has Beau’s crew working flat out to meet the utility company’s deadline.

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Two new workers – Bailey’s ex-boyfriend Duncan (Sawa), and new neighbour Eugene (Robbins) – bring their own problems to the mix, with Duncan treating Bailey in an unexplained, dismissive manner, and Eugene having trouble with PTSD since returning from Iraq. He’s distant to his wife, Carline (Benz), and is away a lot due to his work. Meanwhile, Bailey is trying to reconnect with Duncan because she has something important to tell him, while also fending off the unwanted attentions of ex-con Danny (Olsson). And Beau is coming under increasing pressure from the utility company, even to the point of being asked to “take risks” if it will get the job done sooner rather than later.

By now it’s clear that all these separate storylines are likely to converge, and the movie makes it clear that this will be the case as it keeps counting down the days to a great storm. Until then the movie busies itself with some low-key soap opera dramatics mixed with random scenes such as Beau talking down an angry biker in a bar. Bailey reveals her secret to Duncan, and to Beau; Danny’s unwanted attentions escalate to the point where he targets Carline; Eugene’s paranoia leads him to climb an electrical pylon with the intention of killing himself; and a trainwreck causes Beau no end of problems, including one of his crew being injured. As the storm rages around them all, matters of life and death arise, and Beau has to make a terrible choice.

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Whatever you may think about John Travolta and his recent run of movies, he’s still an actor to watch, even if his performances border on the perfunctory these days. Life on the Line is no different to any other movie he’s made in the last few years, and here he does the bare mimimum in terms of characterisation and emoting, a situation his fans will be overly familiar with. There’s no spark or energy in his portrayal, no attempt to overcome the many implausibilities of the script, or the diffidence with which screenwriters Primo Brown, Peter I. Horton, Marvin Peart and Dylan Scott have created the part of Beau. Instead he goes through the motions, and in some scenes, comes close to looking bored (when Beau harangues his crew about safety and shows them pictures of electrical burn injuries, Travolta’s delivery lacks the edge such a scene needs to show Beau’s doing this because he cares about his crew).

But Travolta’s paycheck-grabbing performance is the least of the movie’s worries. The aforementioned script is quite a stinker, cobbled together and assembled on screen by Hackl and his production team with all the finesse of pre-school children being asked to build a rocket ship: you can give them all the directions and tools they’ll ever need, but they won’t know what to do with them. It’s much the same here, with Travolta and his fellow cast members continually left high and dry by the vagaries of the script and the vague intentions of Hackl, DoP Brian Pearson, and editor Jamie Alain. All three share an inability of purpose that ruins the movie from the word go. And some of the dialogue – straight from the Holy Land of Cliché – is so dire that no one can rescue it and make it sound even halfway credible.

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The narrative doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny, the subplots scream “Filler!”, and the denouement is so laughable and corny and hackneyed and clichéd and just plain stupid that you won’t believe your eyes and ears. As a drama, Life on the Line is the equivalent of a DOA, and should be approached as warily, as if you were, say, taking a hot dish out of the oven without the benefit of oven mitts. This is bad on a level that only low-budget movies can achieve, and while the production has attracted a reasonably talented cast, it struggles to be both interesting and dramatic, and succeeds only in giving new meaning to the word ‘risible’.

Rating: 3/10 – “no one here gets out alive,” said The Doors, and Life on the Line is a perfect example of a movie that fits that kind of doom-laden vibe; blandly executed and overly reliant on plot rehashes we’ve seen a million times before, the movie stumbles along in search of someone to steer it out of the murky backwaters of its own making, and along the way, makes you wonder if anyone associated with it could ever be happy with the way it’s turned out.

Demolition (2015)

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Demolition

D: Jean-Marc Vallée / 102m

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, C.J. Wilson, Polly Draper, Heather Lind

There’s a scene early on in Demolition, the latest feature from the director of Wild (2014) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013), where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, an investment banker named Davis Mitchell, attempts to get some M&M’s from a hospital vending machine, but the M&M’s don’t drop down. He hits it a couple of times, then asks one of the hospital staff if they can open it; the answer is no, because it’s not owned by the hospital. This prompts Davis to write a letter of complaint to the Champion Vending Company, which begins, “Dear Champion Vending Company: I put five quarters in your machine and proceeded to push B2, which should have given me peanut M&M’s. Regrettably, it did not. I found this upsetting, as I was very hungry, and also my wife had died ten minutes earlier.”

Now, on the face of it, this is a great way in which to begin exploring the mindset of a recently bereaved husband, but Bryan Sipe’s unconvincing screenplay hasn’t told us enough about Davis so far for the audience to make a judgment as to whether or not this is funny, sad, poignant, or revealing. Instead, it invites the viewer into Davis’s world by getting him to expand on his relationship and marriage with his recently deceased wife, Julia (Lind), but through the medium of letters to the vending company. It’s an awkward plot device because we don’t know if this is a legitimate way for Davis to deal – initially – with his grief at losing his wife in a tragic car accident. It’s awkward because, outside of these letters, Davis acts like he’s okay and he’s dealing with it all pretty well.

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At first, at least. Something his father-in-law, and boss, Phil (Cooper), says to him sends Davis off on another tack, that of dismantling things to see what they’re made of, and how they work. To this end he dismantles light fixtures and bathroom stalls at his place of work, along with his computer, and at home, a coffee machine. He takes these things apart, lines the various component parts in neat groups, and then leaves them where they are. At work it all leads to Davis being told to take some time off, while at home it leaves him restless and unfocused. When he receives a late night call from a woman called Karen Moreno (Watts), the vending company’s customer service manager and someone who has read and connected with his letters, Davis is intrigued enough by her call to want to learn more about her.

Again, though, Sipe’s screenplay – and Vallée’s direction – doesn’t make it clear just why Karen connects with Davis, and vice versa. It’s true that Davis is behaving oddly, and it’s true that Karen is a needy single mother who has the ability to behave in an equally odd manner (she stalks him until he talks to her on a train), but just why these two people find support and a degree of comfort in each other is left floating in the wind. You could argue that the script requires them to, and that would be a reasonable enough answer, but the script doesn’t legitimise their relationship, even as it develops, and especially with the introduction of Karen’s fifteen year old son, Chris (Lewis). Here, Davis is pared away from Karen and inxplicably, takes on the role of father figure to Chris.

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It’s another decision made by the movie that takes Davis further and further away from the grief and (implied) despair he’s meant to be feeling following Julia’s death, and into an area where he becomes an unofficial member of Karen and Chris’s disjointed family. Meanwhile, Phil decides to use Julia’s memory to start a foundation and needs Davis to sign off on it. But Davis drags his heels, and again, the script doesn’t provide any ready answers as to why. By the two thirds mark, most viewers would be forgiven for wondering if any of Davis’s decisions have a point to them or are based on any recognisable emotions. This is because the movie is a frustrating exercise in character development and emotional withdrawal that coasts along with little regard for cause and effect, or the demands of a cohesive narrative.

It will come as no surprise that Demolition ends with everything wrapped up neatly (and with a pretty bow on top), and viewers who do manage to make it this far will be asking themselves what all the fuss was about in terms of the storyline and a handful of subplots that pop up every so often but don’t add anything to the overall narrative (a revelation regarding Julia comes out of nowhere and goes back there pretty quickly without having any real effect whatsoever). It’s hard to engage with any of the characters except on a superficial level, and the quality of the characterisations is such that even Gyllenhaal and Watts – two extremely capable actors – can only do so much with them before repetition sets in and their efforts fail to have any impact.

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Vallée’s direction is also a problem. While there’s a kernel of a great idea here – widower tries to make sense of his own grief by rebuilding his life from the ground up – Vallée doesn’t have any answers to the problems that are inherent in the script. This leaves the movie plodding along for several stretches (particularly when Davis enlists Chris in the demolition of his home), and any emotional high points lacking punch or dramatic intensity. It’s a visually well-constructed movie, however, with Vallée proving once again that he has an eye for composition and filling a frame with relevant information in support of the story, and he’s ably supported by his regular DoP Yves Bélanger. But it’s not enough to hide the ways in which Sipe and his wayward screenplay fails to explore Davis’s grief and Karen’s lack of confidence.

Rating: 5/10 – given Vallée’s previous movies (and their success), his work on Demolition and partnership with Gyllenhaal seems like a guarantee of quality, but there are too many problems with the script for even this combination to improve things; the movie aims for a kind of heightened realism at times, and while this is an admirable ambition, the fact that it doesn’t even come near is a good indication of how difficult it’s been to translate Sipe’s undercooked screenplay for the screen.

Mini-Review: Urge (2016)

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Urge

D: Aaron Kaufman / 90m

Cast: Justin Chatwin, Danny Masterson, Ashley Greene, Pierce Brosnan, Nick Thune, Alexis Knapp, Chris Geere, Bar Paly, Eric Davis, Jeff Fahey, Kevin Corrigan

In Urge, there is only One Rule: you can only take said designer drug once. It’s new, much more addictive than any other drug available, and can only be found at a nightclub on Eastman Island, off the coast of New York. When arrogant businessman Neil (Masterson) takes his p.a. Theresa (Greene), and friends Joey (Knapp), Danny (Thune), Vick (Geere), and Denise (Paly) to his home there for the weekend, they find another (uninvited) friend, Jason (Chatwin) already there. The group head for the island’s only nightclub, where they find the guests rapidly shedding their inhibitions and having the time of their lives. Jason is invited to meet the club’s owner (Brosnan), who supplies him with Urge, a new drug that promises to surpass anything Jason and his friends have tried before… and so it proves, except for Jason who is unaffected by it.

Despite the One Rule, Neil and friends go back the next night to score some more Urge. Later, Jason awakes back at Neil’s house where a party is in full swing, and Urge is being taken repeatedly by everyone there. But instead of providing everyone with a good time, darker aspects of their personalities and hidden desires are being drawn out by the drug. Sex and violence abound, and try as he might, Jason can’t get any one of his friends to listen to him when he tells them something is wrong. With the violent behaviour increasing, he attempts to get them to leave but only Joey is able to go with him. But once they do they discover that things are worse all over the island, and Jason learns that the mysterious club owner has a much darker plan for Urge than anyone could have imagined.

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Showing the effects of a drug high on screen is often an excuse for directors to go overboard in the editing suite by stitching together static shots with jump cuts featuring bursts of colour and/or flashing images (and not always in a way that makes any sense). Urge takes this option but doesn’t overdo it, choosing instead to have its cast behave in angry, declamatory ways that are meant to be dramatic but are often absurd and laughable; you could be forgiven for thinking that getting high means acting in an over the top manner and shouting a lot (which is pretty much Masterson’s entire performance). This all leads to various comeuppances and violent confrontations that, alas, add little to the main narrative, and are largely contrived.

What doesn’t help is the movie’s determination to be a tortured religious allegory, with Brosnan’s character (all tired verbiage and inappropriate laughing) put forward as a vengeful God, and Urge being used as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. None of it makes any real dramatic sense, and when Jerry Stahl’s script isn’t trying to make Urge seem like an edgy thriller, it stops the movie short and lets Brosnan’s mysterious club owner pontificate on the failings of the human race (dialogue that not even Brosnan can make credible). There’s an attempt at making the spread of the drug an example of the drawbacks relating to free will, but it’s awkward and ill-conceived in its execution.

Rating: 3/10 – with an unwieldy narrative that rarely makes sense and has a nodding acquaintance with plausibility, Urge wants to be a tense, disturbing thriller, but ends up  falling short on both fronts; Chatwin and co. struggle with their underwritten characters, and director Kaufman (making his feature debut) shows an aptitude-lite approach to the material that hampers it even further.

Question of the Week – 26 June 2016

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Director’s Cuts have been with us for quite some time now, and often they’re the version of a movie that we should have seen in cinemas – it’s unlikely that anyone watching the extended versions of all three Lord of the Rings movies will want to go back to the theatrical cuts (or even prefer them). But whether Director’s Cuts provide us with a fully realised vision, or enable a director to add/extend scenes he/she wasn’t able to retain in a theatrical cut, there’s a market out there among movie buffs for so-called extended versions. Occasionally, some of these Director’s Cuts make it onto the big screen, as with Dances With Wolves (1990), which gave fans of the movie a whole extra hour to enjoy. But more often than not, the Director’s Cut is restricted to the home video market, where it still attracts fans and/or interested viewers, but isn’t given the acknowledgment it may (or may not) deserve. With this in mind, this week’s Question of the Week is as follows:

Should Director’s Cuts be given a theatrical release – if only for a limited time – so that fans or audiences in general, can see a movie exactly as their directors envisaged?

Blade Runner

The Nice Guys (2016)

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The Nice Guys

D: Shane Black / 116m

Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio, Gil Gerard, Daisy Tahan, Kim Basinger

Amidst all the super-hype surrounding the likes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, one movie stood out as a becaon of hope amongst all the spandex and super-destruction on offer in 2016. That movie was… Finding Dory. But after Pixar’s latest, there was another movie that looked like it could rescue the average movie goer from having to endure even more superhero shenanigans. And that movie was… Everybody Wants Some!! And then, after Richard Linklater’s latest, there was yet another movie that had the potential to offer a respite from the Marvel and DC Universes. (Drum roll please.) The Nice Guys!

Audiences needed this movie. Audiences needed it because it promised to be hyper-violent, occasionally crass (perhaps even borderline obscene), blackly funny, unapologetically profane (and profanely unapologetic), a twisted caper, beautifully acted, and fantastically written and directed by its creator, Shane Black. It was the anti-superhero movie that would remind us all that you could have a two-hour movie that didn’t rely on mega-destruction and angsty men in tights. And Shane Black, the genius who wrote Lethal Weapon (1987), The Last Boy Scout (1991), and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), he would be our saviour.

But…

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Somewhere along the line, somewhere during the movie’s production, and at some point when someone really should have been paying attention, Black fumbled the ball. Not in a horrible, dying-seconds-of-the-match, the-other-team-scores-and-wins-as-a-result kind of way, but with the story, the movie’s reason for being, the set up if you will. Because the movie has a ton of promise. It has all the ingredients: it’s set in the Seventies, a decade that’s almost over-ripe for satirizing; it co-stars Russell freaking Crowe and Ryan freaking Gosling as two opposing private eyes who work together when they realise their cases are linked; it has action and stunts aplenty; it’s unfalteringly funny, with wisecracks, one-liners and visual gags sprinkled liberally through the script; and it “introduces” Kim Basinger. (Which is interesting/distracting. If you remember, Basinger played a prostitute “cut” to look like Veronica Lake in L.A. Confidential (1994). Here she looks like she’s been “cut” to look like her younger self.)

But what it doesn’t have is a coherent, or interesting plot. Somehow, Black has managed to take two of the biggest industries in America during the Seventies, the porn industry and the automobile industry, and contrive to mix them together so that neither one is interesting anymore. And then he throws in some unnecessary political scandal-mongering, and you realise it won’t get any better. (You could argue that that’s an achievement all by itself, but you’d be missing the point.) So contrived is the plot that every time Crowe and Gosling stumble over another clue and head off to make things worse, it doesn’t make any difference: anyone watching is just being carried along for the ride – and you don’t care where they (and you) end up.

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So, The Nice Guys isn’t quite the triumph we were hoping for. It also makes you think of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang more than once as it drags itself along looking for an interesting enough plot to hook itself up to. Gosling is the new Robert Downey Jr, while Crowe is the new Val Kilmer (minus the gay characterisation). There are parties to attend, villains stalking the heroes, and a female character who appears to be dead but might not be. Black changes much more than he repeats, but the echoes are there, and they’re enough to make you wonder if The Nice Guys was conceived as a companion piece to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or if Black was thinking, “Well, it worked last time…”

However, the movie does have Crowe and Gosling as its trump card(s). Whoever thought that they’d make a great double act should be given the keys to Tinsel Town, because it is an inspired piece of casting. Crowe’s gruff, no-nonsense character we’ve seen before, but here he distills it down to its pure essence and then adds a thin layer of impish humour to boost it back up. He’s ostensibly the straight man, but thanks to Black, Crowe gets to deliver some of the movie’s drier, more acid-tinged humour, and sometimes with just a look. It’s been a while since Crowe had a role he could do real justice to, but Jackson Healy is it, and he grabs the opportunity with both hands (he looks more relaxed than we’ve seen him for a long while, as well).

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If Crowe is the straight man then Gosling is definitely the funny man. He’s not known for his comedy roles, but as the cowardly, avaricious Holland March, Gosling judges his performance perfectly, squealing and flinching at the drop of a hat, and generally embarrassing his young daughter, Holly (a terrific performance by Rice). Watching him react to the several physical liberties that March is prone to during the movie is immensely rewarding, and again, thanks to Black’s way with clever dialogue, makes March’s innate stupidity more endearing than annoying (he refers to Hitler at one point as a “munich” because he had one ball). Like Crowe, Gosling looks entirely comfortable in his role, and the enjoyment both are having transfers itself to the viewer.

1977 is recreated with a great sense of fun – watch out for the billboards advertising that year’s Jaws 2 and Airport ’77 – and the movie opens with a reminder that the Hollywood sign didn’t always look so good back then; it also serves as an indication of the level of corruption that our “nice guys” will be getting involved with. The movie is given a level of off-kilter glamour thanks to the prowess of DoP Philippe Rousselot, and alongside John Ottman and David Buckley’s original score there’s a veritable hit parade of Seventies music to get down and groove to. Now, what was it all about again…?

Rating: 7/10 – despite letting itself down plot-wise, The Nice Guys should still be seen by anyone with an interest in clever storytelling and finely crafted dialogue; Black is still an inventive, ingenious writer/director, and there’s still much to enjoy from start to finish, but this is one movie that tries hard – sometimes too hard – to make itself more intriguing and engrossing than it actually is.

Central Intelligence (2016)

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Central Intelligence

D: Rawson Marshall Thurber / 114m

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul, Ryan Hansen, Tim Griffin, Timothy John Smith, Thomas Kretschmann

An action comedy that doesn’t take itself, or its raison d’etre, seriously, Central Intelligence is the kind of buddy movie that lives or dies depending on the chemistry between its two leads. It’s a relief then that the pairing of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart – this decade’s answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito perhaps – works so well, and the pair are able to riff off on one another with an ease that belies the fact that this is their first movie together.

It all begins twenty years ago at a high school rally that sees put-upon fat kid Robbie Weirdicht grabbed from the school showers and sent sprawling across the floor of the gymnasium where everyone is gathered. While everyone else laughs, only Calvin Joyner, the most popular kid in school, helps Robbie to cover up. Robbie runs away and is never seen again. Fast forward twenty years and the class of 1996 is preparing to attend their high school reunion. Calvin (Hart) is now an accountant whose initial promise seems to have petered out: he’s just been passed up for promotion. He’s married to his childhood sweetheart, Maggie (Nicolet), but they don’t have any kids and she’s more successful than he is. Then, out of the blue, Calvin recieves a friend request on Facebook from someone called Bob Stone (Johnson). Stone persuades Calvin to meet him for a drink, and when they do, Calvin is amazed that Bob is actually Robbie, and that Robbie has changed so completely from the fat kid he remembers from school.

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The pair end up back at Calvin’s home, where Bob asks him to look at his payroll account as there’s a problem with it. But the account is actually a list of bids for an unknown item at an auction due to finish the next night. Bob stays over, but the morning brings a surprise visit by the CIA in the form of Agent Harris (Ryan) and her fellow agents, Mitchell (Griffin) and Cooper (Smith). They’re after Bob who, it transpires, is a CIA agent who is apparently wanted for the theft of spy sateliite codes and the murder of his partner. Bob has left, however, and only catches up with Calvin later at his office. A firefight with the CIA ensues and the pair narrowly escape. Bob explains he’s trying to find the location where the codes will be bought, and needs Calvin’s accounting skills to help him do so. Calvin balks at the idea however, and takes off at the first opportunity.

Pressure from the CIA is brought to bear on Calvin and he’s forced to give up Bob’s whereabouts. But with Bob in custody and being interrogated “the hard way”, Calvin has a change of heart and helps him escape. They use another high school alumni, Trevor (Bateman), to help them find the location of the buy, and head off to Boston to crash the meeting, and discover just who the buyer is and if he’s a shadowy figure called the Black Badger, also the man responsible for the death of Bob’s partner, Phil (Paul)…

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From the above synopsis you can guess that Central Intelligence doesn’t have exactly the greatest of scripts, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. Yes, it has several painful moments where the basic plot rebounds against the constraints of credibility, and the storyline surrounding Calvin and Maggie’s relationship takes the movie off into odd areas that slow the movie down and feel like padding, but overall it’s a movie that provides solid laughs, both visual (Bob’s dislocated finger) and verbal (“And you’re still shorter than my cat” – Trevor to Calvin). For once, Hart doesn’t overdo his usual schtick and delivers his best performance for a while, making Calvin’s eventual, committed, partnership with Bob more believable than expected. Meanwhile, Johnson reminds viewers just how good he can be in a comedy role, playing Bob as an over-exuberant man-child whose enthusiasm for pretty much everything is expressed through a variety of gushing excitement and childlike wonder.

Indeed, it’s the inspired pairing of Johnson and Hart that makes Central Intelligence work as well as it does. Unlike, say, Hart’s pairing with Ice Cube in the Ride Along movies, here he displays a genuine chemistry with the former WWE Superstar that makes watching the movie far more enjoyable than it appears at first glance. And while, as mentioned above, Hart employs his trademark cowardly, fast-talking movie persona on several occasions but perhaps in deference to Johnson’s cleverer, less in-your-face approach, refrains from going as over the top as he’s done in the likes of Get Hard (2015). This makes for one of his better performances, and in his scenes with Johnson you can see and feel him upping his game, something he hasn’t done since co-starring with Stallone and De Niro in Grudge Match (2013).

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Without Johnson and Hart’s sterling performances, however, Central Intelligence would be even more derivative and lightweight than it looks, thanks to its piecemeal plotting, obvious villain, and low-key action sequences (they’re well choreographed but aren’t that memorable when all’s said and done). There’s an awkward subplot involving bullying that is resolved in typically inappropriate fashion, and the secondary characters are practically cardboard cutouts, leaving the likes of Ryan and Bateman little else to do but recite their lines and hope for the best once the movie’s cut together. Thurber, whose last movie was the wickedly smart and under-appreciated We’re the Millers (2013) makes light work of a screenplay that could have been filed under “fluffy nonsense” and no one would have complained, and shows an aptitude for the buddy movie – and showing these characters in a good light in particular – that hopefully will keep him retained if a sequel is ever greenlit (which is likely).

Rating: 6/10 – there’s plenty of silly fun to be had in Central Intelligence, but while it’s amusing enough, it doesn’t excuse the waywardness or clumsiness of the script; Hart and Johnson make a great double act (though Johnson proves to be the better comic actor), and there’s enough merit to the action scenes to keep genre fans happy, all of which adds up to a surprisingly entertaining viewing experience – if you don’t expect too much.

Poster(s) of the Week – The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

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Illumination Entertainment’s latest attack on our heartstrings and wallets asks the question seen below:

The Secret Life of Pets

“They” are the various pets whose activity and behaviour is the focus of The Secret Life of Pets. In creating the following posters, Illumination have given us a chance to get to know these characters ahead of seeing the movie, and have also given us an indication of what to expect from each of them. It’s a clever touch, and there’s even room for a couple of movie in-jokes as well.

Gidget  Max

Buddy  Chloe

Sweetpea  Pops

Snowball  Mel

Duke

Which one is your favourite? Let me know by leaving a comment.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

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Everybody Wants Some!!

D: Richard Linklater / 117m

Cast: Blake Jenner, Glen Powell, Tyler Hoechlin, J. Quinton Johnson, Ryan Guzman, Temple Baker, Wyatt Russell, Juston Street, Will Brittain, Austin Amelio, Forrest Vickery, Tanner Kalina, Zoey Deutch

Fresh from his success with Boyhood (2014), writer/director Richard Linklater has created a movie that begins where that movie ended – albeit with different characters. Set over a long weekend before the start of college, Everybody Wants Some!! sees freshman pitcher Jake (Jenner) arrive at a college in Texas and ready to see where college life will take him. It’s not long before he’s introduced to most of the rest of the team, and it’s even sooner when it’s suggested they all go out for a beer. While travelling round they try and tempt girls into coming to their frat house that night, but have middling luck; two girls in particular turn them down flat, though one of them does indicate she thinks Jake is attractive.

Over the course of the day Jake gets to meet everyone on the team, from coolly confident and loquacious Finnegan (Powell), to roommate Billy (renamed Beuter by his teammates) (Brittain), to knowledgeable, helpful Dale (Johnson), all the way to Jay aka Raw Dog (Street), a gonzoid character whose pitching speed is said to be around 95mph. Jake soon fits in with the established team’s sense of camaraderie, and the way they haze each other.  Made to feel at home he soon becomes aware of the various dynamics within the team and learns from other players such as Willoughby (Russell) and McReynolds (Hoechlin) that even though they might party each and every night, nothing is more important than the team and supporting each other, and that they take playing baseball very seriously indeed.

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Over the course of the weekend, Jake learns some very valuable lessons and takes a chance on contacting the girl who thought he was attractive. While his teammates concentrate on having as much “fun” as they can possibly manage with as many girls as is humanly possible, Jake gets to know the girl, Beverly (Deutch), and discovers that he likes her very much. An invitation to a Sunday night party Beverly is helping to organise for the college performing arts students leads to the team coming along too, and Jake worrying that their behaviour may cause problems, and especially for him with Beverly. But it doesn’t go entirely the way he believes based on his experiences of the previous two days.

Everybody Wants Some!! – the title comes from a Van Halen track off their Women and Children First album – looks at first as if it’s going to be yet another generic coming of age movie where the hero struggles to fit in and must find a way of being accepted by the clique or college fraternity he’s been assigned to. Even Jake’s first encounter with McReynolds, where he makes it clear he doesn’t like pitchers, seems to confirm the antagonism and animosity that Jake is likely to face as he tries to establish himself. But Linklater is not a director who deals in cliché, and what feels like the first of many obstacles Jake has to overcome in order to be accepted, proves to be the last, as his arrival is welcomed and he’s accepted into the fold with alacrity.

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Linklater is clever enough to make Jake quietly likeable and offhandedly friendly, taking each new introduction as it comes and avoiding being fazed by a lot of the seemingly unfriendly behaviour exhibited by his teammates. He soon comes to realise that he’s no longer the big fish in the little pond of high school, but just a little fish in a much bigger pond, and others on the team – Beuter, fellow freshman Plummer (Baker) – are in the same predicament. Jake doesn’t know how things are going to turn out but he learns early on, that whatever happens his teammates will be there to support him. From the vagaries and disappointments and minor successes of high school, Jake now has to prove himself all over again, but thankfully in a much more encouraging environment.

Of course, this being college, high spirited behaviour is the order of the day, and the movie excels in recreating the kind of unabashed hedonistic lifestyle of the very early Eighties, where excessive drinking and smoking weed and pursuing women for sex was regarded as normal for young males at the time, and whose testosterone-fuelled exploits were (rightly or wrongly) regarded as the stuff of future legend. Out of this, Linklater shows how these young men bond unconditionally, and treat each other with respect even while they’re playing pranks on each other, or treating each other with an apparent disregard for their feelings. They might not say it to each other, and Linklater stops short of saying it directly, but there is a love here that is stronger than any individual relationships they may form outside the team. And they do know how to party, whether it’s at a disco, or at the frat house, or at a country and western bar dancing to Cotton Eye Joe – these guys live for the moment in a way that successive college students (and not just in America) have been trying to emulate ever since. It was in many ways a simpler time: pre-AIDS, pre-designer drugs, and pre-social media, and Linklater highlights how little pressure college students felt as they navigated the rocky road to adulthood.

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What’s also clever about the movie and its ensemble cast of characters is the speed and succinctness that Linklater employs in allowing the viewer to get to know them. Faced with around a dozen characters, most of whom are given little or no background information to help the viewer distinguish them from each other (at first), the movie could have stumbled around introducing them, and made no impact at all. But Linklater doesn’t put a foot wrong with any of them, and broadens each character’s screen time and appeal as the movie progresses, so that by the time the movie’s reached the halfway point you may well feel you’ve known them a whole lot longer. Linklater is helped in this by some terrific performances, and though it would be a little unfair to pick out any one actor ahead of anyone else, special mention must go to Glen Powell as Finnegan. His performance is the jewel in the movie’s crown: self-assured, confident, engaging, overtly dramatic when required, and quietly impressive throughout.

Of course, Everybody Wants Some!! wouldn’t be a Richard Linklater movie set in the early Eighties without it having a killer soundtrack, and that’s exactly the case, with the director choosing a selection of songs that help both recreate the times and the social atmosphere that went along with them. There’s some iconic tunes to be sure, but it’s the way Linklater uses them that’s so effective, with the likes of Heartbreaker by Pat Benatar and Hand in Hand by Dire Straits used in support of the material and not just because they might sound good at a certain moment. The movie is also beautifully lensed by DoP Shane F. Kelly, which in turn highlights the wonderful period production design and costumes – take a bow Bruce Curtis and Kari Perkins respectively.

Rating: 9/10 – a delightful mix of comedy and drama that doesn’t short change or undermine either discipline, Everybody Wants Some!! is a movie that offers a whole host of rewards for the viewer; with a cast and crew at the top of their game, the movie is honest, reflective, heartfelt, genuinely affecting in places, and a near-perfect example of a simple story told simply and without unnecessary affectation.

Momentum (2015)

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Momentum

D: Stephen S. Campanelli / 96m

Cast: Olga Kurylenko, James Purefoy, Morgan Freeman, Lee-Anne Summers, Colin Moss, Brendan Murray, Hlomla Dandala, Greg Kriek, Shelley Nicole

On the face of it, Momentum looks like another generic action movie with its central protagonist on the run from a team of highly skilled assassins who are after something the central protagonist has in their possession. And so it goes: Momentum is exactly that kind of movie. But while it certainly follows a very worn and well-trod path, there’s also enough here to warrant more than a cursory glance or viewing, because even though it could be accused of being derivative and occasionally unappealing, it has an energy and a clear sense of purpose that elevates the material and makes it a more enjoyable experience than expected.

It begins with a very odd sight: four bank robbers dressed like extras from a G.I. Joe movie breaking into a vault while bank staff and customers alike cower in fear of being shot by the usual robber with a hair trigger. The robbers steal a fair amount of diamonds and, in amongst them is a flash drive. As they’re about to leave, the robber with a hair trigger gets mouthy with the gang’s leader and winds up dead for his trouble – but not before he’s unmasked the leader who turns out to be a woman. Said woman is Alex (Kurylenko), and she’s been persuaded to take part by co-robber, Kevin (Moss). Later, at a hotel, Kevin’s idea of extra insurance re: selling the diamonds leads to the arrival of Mr Washington (Purefoy) and his team of mercenaries, who want the drive. While Alex hides under the bed, Kevin is killed. She manages to escape, and with the drive, but Washington is soon hot on her trail.

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She makes it to the home of third robber, Ray (Murray). While she’s there, Alex contacts Kevin’s wife, Penny (Summers) to warn her that her life is in danger from Washington and his men but Penny is dismissive thanks to previous animosity between her and Alex. This doesn’t stop Alex from heading for Penny’s home when Washington learns her address. There she takes out two of Washington’s men, and tracks them to their hideout in an abandoned factory. For a while she has the upper hand, but is outsmarted by Washington and captured. Washington begins to torture Alex for the whereabouts of the drive, until he realises that Alex is a lot more than she seems, and changes his approach. This leads to Washington obtaining the drive – or so he believes – at the airport, but Alex has other ideas.

It should be noted from the outset that Momentum has plot holes the size of Table Mountain (seen briefly in an aerial shot of Cape Town, where the movie takes place). The biggest and most obvious plot hole concerns the flash drive itself. As the movie’s version of Hitchcock’s favoured McGuffin, the flash drive contains evidence of a plot to destabilise the US by a crooked senator (Freeman). Why it happens to be in a safety deposit box in the vault of a Cape Town bank is a question the movie never gets anywhere near answering. And where Alex gets her incendiary devices from – one pops up out of nowhere – is another mystery you might as well forget about chasing an answer for. This is an action thriller that concentrates on its various action sequences and only occasionally remembers it has a (basic) plot to refer to.

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But within that framework there’s much to enjoy, from Kurylenko’s tough-as-nails Alex, a woman with a very specific past that, along with the movie’s denouement, is designed to enable further adventures, to Purefoy’s debonair assassin, a winsome, laidback, much needed performance that offsets the rest of the movie’s defiantly grim proceedings. Both actors are well-cast, and the nature of both characters is brought splendidly to the fore, despite the sometimes banal dialogue they have to recite thanks to screenwriters Adam Marcus and Debra Sullivan. As adversaries, they make a good team.

There’s also the not-so-small matter of the action sequences, which often belie the movie’s budget, and which are confidently and expertly staged. Kurylenko acquits herself well in these scenes, and there’s a sense that the makers were looking for a harder edge than usual, as Alex’s way of dealing with Washington’s team is often uncompromisingly brutal. That said, the movie baulks at putting Alex in too much physical danger, even when Washington has her leg in a vice and is determined to torture the whereabouts of the drive out of her. Elsewhere, the movie’s treatment of its secondary female characters – Penny, Kevin’s insurance policy Jessica – leaves something to be desired, as well as a couple of instances where children are threatened for no other reason than that they can be.

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There are a couple of twists and turns, and the script takes time out to provide Alex with a back story that explains her particular skill set, but the emphasis is on moving things along as quickly as possible. This does lead to a number of risible moments where convenience is the order of the day, and coincidence rears its head to poor effect, but by and large Momentum concentrates on being a thrill ride, and in that respect it succeeds with aplomb. There isn’t a stand out sequence as such, but taken as a whole, the movie works in a better fashion than expected, its narrative proving a mix of standard action tropes and waspish humour that is enjoyable and mostly rewarding. Campanelli, making his feature debut after a successful career as a camera operator on movies as diverse as The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and J. Edgar (2011), handles the visuals well and finds creative ways of using space, and depth of field, in the action scenes. Wisely, perhaps, he leaves Kurylenko and Purefoy to do their own thing, though Freeman (who shot his scenes over two days) looks uncomfortable trying to create a villain out of nothing.

Rating: 6/10 – clumsy in places and lacking cohesion, Momentum is on firmer ground when it lets Kurylenko and Purefoy play cat-and-mouse amidst all the violence, and said violence is taking up much of the running time; a guilty pleasure perhaps, but one that at least knows where its faults lie, and which doesn’t worry too much about them.

The Family Fang (2015)

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The Family Fang

D: Jason Bateman / 106m

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Jason Butler Harner, Kathryn Hahn, Harris Yulin, Linda Emond, Marin Ireland, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Taylor Rose, Jack McCarthy, Kyle Donnery, Michael Chernus, Josh Pais

Annie and Baxter Fang (Kidman, Bateman) are the children of performance artists Caleb (Walken, Harner) and Camille Fang (Plunkett, Hahn). While growing up they took part in their parents’ various performances, which were often carried out in public places and without the people around them being aware they were taking part in a performance. Caleb and Camille have always used these “artistic moments” to highlight their idea that true art is only present in the moment it happens (they don’t acknowledge that they might be manipulating “art” in these circumstances rather than allowing it to be spontaneous).

As adults, Annie is an actress whose participation in a series of movies is under threat because she is no longer regarded as essential to the productions; she’s further challenged by a requirement to appear topless that she hadn’t previously agreed to. Baxter is a novelist whose last novel wasn’t well received. While he works on his latest book, he writes articles. On an assignment, he ends up shot in the head by a spud gun, and winds up in hospital. While he’s being treated, and much to Baxter’s consternation, the hospital staff contact Caleb and Camille, who agree to come and take him home. Not having seen his parents in years, Baxter contacts Annie and implores her to come and help him deal with them. Reluctantly, she agrees.

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Back at the Fang family residence, old animosities surrounding the way Annie and Baxter were treated as children, and their involvement with their parents’ art, leads to their being involved yet again in one of Caleb’s schemes. But it backfires, and Caleb and Camille announce they’re heading off for a break. A while later, the local sheriff informs Annie and Baxter that their parents’ car has been found at a rest stop. The pair are missing, and there’s blood all over the inside of the car; foul play is suspected. Annie is adamant that it’s yet another of their parents’ performances, and that they’ll turn up safe and sound somewhere sometime later. Baxter isn’t quite as certain, and harbours some doubts. Annie challenges him to help her look for them in order to prove she’s right, but their efforts go unrewarded, until a song from their past provides them with a lead, one that finds them learning some uncomfortable truths about their parents, and the reasons for their disappearance.

The Family Fang is Jason Bateman’s second directorial feature – after Bad Words (2013) – and while it’s the kind of indie project you might expect Bateman to be attracted to, it’s not as good a fit as it seems. From the trailer the movie looks like a comedy but while there are some great comedic moments, this is a drama that examines notions of parental responsibility, the function of art in everyday life, sibling dependency and rivalry, fame, and personal fulfillment. But while the movie examines these notions, what it doesn’t do as successfully, is reach any conclusions or provide any answers to the questions it raises.

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What it also fails to provide the audience with is anyone to connect with. For all of Annie’s complaining about her childhood, she’s actually broken away from her parents when we meet her. Any issues she has as an adult she relates back to when she was a child, but the movie – and in particular, David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s novel – doesn’t make a convincing connection between the two. Likewise, Baxter’s inability to stand up for himself when confronted with Caleb and Camille in the flesh. There are flashbacks to instances where Annie and Baxter’s involvement with their parents’ “art” can be construed as inappropriate, but these don’t adequately explain the animosity they display. Without that connection it’s hard to see Annie (specifically) and Baxter (occasionally) as anything but whinging ingrates.

Unfortunately for the viewer, Caleb and Camille don’t come off any better. The movie never reconciles their unwavering dedication to their art with the selfishness that goes with it, and it never attempts to explain or rationalise Caleb’s anger when the public doesn’t recognise or understand what he’s trying to say. And Camille is so much the uncomplaining follower that when it’s revealed she had a promising career ahead of her before she met Caleb, and that she gave it all up to be with him, her reasons for doing so sound insubstantial and contrived.

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As the feuding family, Kidman’s insecure and wailing Annie hogs most of the screen time, while Bateman takes a (largely) back seat as the lacking in confidence Baxter. Walken gives another of his semi-engaged performances, doing just enough to make it look like he’s interested, and is easily outgunned by Plunkett, who at least makes Camille a figure of sympathy even if she has only herself to blame for her predicament. As the younger Caleb and Camille, Harner and Hahn inject some much needed energy into proceedings, while Yulin contributes a pleasant enough cameo as Caleb’s mentor.

Watching The Family Fang, there are too many scenes where it feels that Bateman hasn’t gained a sufficient enough grip on things to make them entirely effective. Also, the pace of the movie works against it, as Bateman directs with a stubborn determination to make each scene work in the same way as all the others and with as much emotional impact (which is mostly diluted). The end result is a potentially intriguing movie that never finds its feet or a direction for it go in. And this despite some sterling camera work by Ken Seng and another wistful, deceptively emotive score by Carter Burwell.

Rating: 5/10 – a movie lacking in focus and drive, The Family Fang never rallies its constituent parts into a unified, satisfying whole; with no one to care about, the movie becomes a stilted, unconvincing piece that is only occasionally interesting, and some well judged moments of comedy aside, isn’t as sharp, or knowing, as it should be.

Trailers – Denial (2016), Moana (2016) and Before I Wake (2016)

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In 1996, the Holocaust denier David Irving sued the historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel in the English courts over remarks she had made about him in her book, Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. With the burden of proof planted firmly in Lipstadt’s corner, she had to prove to a libel court that Irving’s claim that the Holocaust didn’t happen, was false. Now this trial is being brought to the screen with a script by David Hare, and a cast that has more than a little experience in bringing heavyweight drama to the fore. Weisz is a great choice to play Lipstadt (though she has replaced Hilary Swank in the role), and Spall looks both banal and creepy as Irving. With its terrible historical background, Denial looks like it has the potential to be a thought-provoking, morally complex thriller that examines one of the more darker, and disturbing assertions made about the Holocaust in the last thirty years.

 

If you’re John Lasseter, you’ve got to be feeling pretty satisfied with yourself and the state of play at Disney at the moment. Two out of the three last Disney animated releases have taken over a billion dollars at the international box office, and just in the last few days, the latest movie from Pixar, Finding Dory (2016), has broken all kinds of box office records including the largest opening weekend for an animated feature. Pretty sweet indeed. This must make the next Disney animated release another cause for (probable) celebration. However, this first teaser trailer for Moana doesn’t give anything away, and aside from some beautifully realised sea-faring animation, and a rather scrawny looking chicken as comic relief, there’s nothing to get excited about. Let’s hope Moana‘s first full trailer gives us something more to look forward to.

 

Mike Flanagan is a name that most mainstream movie goers will be unfamiliar with, but if you’re a fan of horror movies and have been paying attention in recent years then you’ll know that he’s made a handful of features that have tried (and sometimes succeeded) in doing something a little bit different with the genre. Absentia (2011) was a quietly unnerving experience, while Oculus (2013), even though it didn’t work completely, was a stylish and clever exercise in combining two linear narratives to heighten suspense. With Before I Wake, the signs are that Flanagan has found a story that will play to his visual strengths as well as his ability to craft unsettling experiences out of everyday occurrences. And for anyone who thinks the child actor has a familiar face, it’s Jacob Tremblay, from Room (2015).

10 Reasons to Remember Anton Yelchin (1989-2016)

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Anton Yelchin (11 March 1989 – 19 June 2016)

Anton Yelchin

Russian-born, but brought up in the US from the age of six months, Anton Yelchin eschewed his family’s sporting background (by his own admission, he “sucked” as an athlete) to become an actor. It was a wise move. From his first appearance in an episode of ER in 2000, Yelchin grew in stature with each passing year, gaining more and more attention, both with critics and audiences alike, until his name in a cast list was something to watch out for. In recent years he’s appeared in indie dramas, mega-budget sci-fi franchise reboots, and even voiced the role of Clumsy Smurf in a handful of Smurf outings (how’s that for versatility?). He was a distinctive actor with a distinctive voice and a rangy physicality that made him move in an equally distinctive yet unpredictable way, and he was one of the best performers of his generation. His death has come at a time when five of his movies have yet to be released, including Star Trek: Beyond, due later this summer. That we won’t be able to watch him grow any more as an actor, and provide us with even more emotionally astute and dazzling performances is a terrible shame, but we do have a body of work that will remain as rewarding as it’s ever been, and which will remain a testament to Yelchin’s skill as an entertainer.

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1 – Hearts in Atlantis (2001)

2 – Alpha Dog (2006)

3 – Charlie Bartlett (2007)

4 – Star Trek (2009)

5 – Like Crazy (2011)

6 – Odd Thomas (2013)

7 – Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

8 – 5 to 7 (2014)

9 – Burying the Ex (2014)

10 – Green Room (2015)

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Mini-Review: The Boss (2016)

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The Boss

D: Ben Falcone / 99m

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Kathy Bates, Cecily Strong, Mary Sohn, Kristen Schaal, Timothy Simons, Cedric Yarbrough

Just when you thought it was safe to sit down and watch a movie featuring Melissa McCarthy – and this based on her supporting turn in St. Vincent (2014) and the refreshing change of career pace that was Spy (2015) – along comes The Boss, a throwback to the haphazard comedies she was making in the wake of her break-out turn in Bridesmaids (2011). That McCarthy has both comedic and acting chops to spare makes her decision to appear in The Boss seem like a backward step, a contractual obligation perhaps, but even though she has the ability to step up a gear when required, this sees the future Ghostbuster idling in neutral for much of the movie’s running time.

It’s a slight tale. McCarthy is Michelle Darnell, the 47th richest woman in America, a businesswoman whose foster-care childhood has made her the self-absorbed, take no prisoners, care about no one else success story she’s always wanted to be. But when she’s careless with a deal set up via insider trading, arch-rival and one-time lover Renault (Dinklage), makes sure she’s arrested. Cue a stretch in prison that does nothing to change her attitude. When she gets out she has nowhere to go, so she offloads herself on her ex-PA Claire (Bell), and Claire’s daughter, Rachel (Anderson). Financial salvation (and ultimately personal redemption) comes in the unlikely combination of Rachel’s Dandelions group, and Claire’s ability to make amazing brownies. Using the group to sell the brownies, Michelle begins to claw her way back up the business ladder, but will it be at the expense of the new-found regard for others that she’s discovered, and will she recognise at last that trusting in others brings its own rewards?

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If you have to think about the answer to that question then… where have you been, and wherever you were, what were doing all this time? This is a riches to rags to riches movie that plays fast and loose with its stitched together screenplay, and seems content to make Michelle as brainless/obtuse/horrible as possible before she experiences the usual road to Damascus moment required in movies such as this and turns into a loveable, and loving, heroine. You’ve seen this kind of movie too often for it to offer anything new, and to be fair to McCarthy and her co-screenwriters, Falcone and Steve Mallory, it doesn’t once try too hard to be anything but what it is: a so-so comedy that offers occasional laughs while its cast tries to make more out of it than is on the page (which results in one of Dinklage’s worst performances for some time, and Labine reduced to cuddly man-child duties as Claire’s potential boyfriend). If you’re a fan of McCarthy’s previous movies, such as Tammy (2014) and Identity Thief (2013), then you’ll be amused. But if not, then this will be a hard slog indeed.

Rating: 5/10 – a by-the-numbers comedy that relies too much on its star being objectionable for no real reason, The Boss also features some awkward scenes that go on for far too long in their efforts to make the viewer laugh – the scene where McCarthy plays with Bell’s breasts being a good case in point; it’s no earth-shaker to be sure, but when even the star isn’t trying too hard, then you know this is just filler before the next, hopefully more rewarding project.

Question of the Week – 18 June 2016

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As of today there are twenty-six movies that have made over one billion dollars at the international box office – and all but eight of them are sequels. It’s reassuring that the top two movies are original features (thanks, Jim!), but with big budget sequels driving and dominating today’s box office, it’s hard to believe that the make up of the Billion Dollar Club will change anytime soon (indeed, sixteen of the twenty-six movies in the list have further sequels planned to succeed them). With this in mind, this week’s question is:

Have audiences become unwilling to invest their time and money (and attention) in original material, and have they become too infatuated with the “cult of the blockbuster sequel” to stretch their cinematic horizons?

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The Conjuring 2 (2016)

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The Conjuring 2

aka The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Case

D: James Wan / 134m

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, Patrick McAuley, Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Franka Potente, Bob Adrian

In the world of paranormal investigations, the plight of the Hodgson family, who resided in Enfield during the Seventies, is one of the most well-documented cases on record. Between 1977 and 1979, the family – single mother Peggy and her four children, Margaret (13), Janet (11), Johnny (10), and Billy (7) – were reported to have been plagued by poltergeist activity. Among the various investigators who looked into the case were Ed and Lorraine Warren. Their findings were that the activity was the result of “inhuman spirit phenomena”, and this despite a general consensus that the alleged poltergeist activity was a hoax perpetrated – largely – by Janet.

The Warrens were just two of many investigators who visited the Hodgson’s home during the late Seventies, but for the purposes of The Conjuring 2, their involvement has been beefed up to the point where lead investigator Maurice Grosse becomes a secondary character, left behind in the wake of the Warrens’ more experienced involvement with the paranormal. And in beefing up the Warrens’ involvement, the movie also connects the events that occurred in Enfield with events related to the Warrens’ investigation into the Amityville haunting.

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And this is where the movie starts, in Amityville, and where it introduces us to the movie’s principal villain, a demon nun intent on claiming Ed Warren’s life (Lorraine witnesses his death while in a trance). This early sequence serves as the set up for the ensuing events based in Enfield, and widens the scope of the Warrens’ investigation once they’ve been persuaded to look into the case. In the hands of director James Wan and his co-screenwriters, Carey and Chad Hayes, and David Leslie Johnson, this gives viewers a mix of “true” occurrences and fictional explanations that works well for the most part, but which relies heavily on the style of horror movie making established in recent years through the likes of the Insidious series, the first Conjuring movie, and its spin-off Annabelle (2014).

It’s a style of horror movie making that is fast becoming too predictable for its own good, but as one of its creators, Wan is better placed than most to squeeze more life out of it. The Conjuring 2, with its demon nun and shaky dramatics, is a better sequel than might have been expected, but it still contains too many moments that shatter the ilusion of heightened reality that the script carefully tries to maintain throughout. With its flooded basement, final act heroics, and expository trance sequences, the movie identifies more with its own place in the modern horror landscape than it does with the requirements of telling a good story. And one or two standout sequences aside, the movie is too heavily reliant on the template established through previous movies to be entirely effective.

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But that’s not to say that Wan doesn’t give it a good try. The opening sequence set in the house at Amityville is beautifully set up, with a reverse dolly shot that brings the viewer into the house via one of the two windows that are so iconic to the look of the property from the outside. A seance sees Lorraine (Farmiga) wandering the house and imitating/reliving the murders committed by a former occupant. It’s an effective collection of scenes but as they go on there’s a feeling that this is a sideshow, a gory hors d’oeuvre before the main course set in Enfield. The Warrens’ investigation into the events at Amityville made their names (and could have made for a movie all by itself), but we’re quickly moved on, and are introduced to the Hodgsons. Peggy (O’Connor) is an harrassed single mother struggling to keep her family afloat amid issues involving an absent husband, mounting money problems, and a house that looks in places like it’s suffered from fire damage (the set design is curious to say the least).

When Janet (Wolfe) begins to experience strange phenomena, Peggy is initially dismissive until she herself witnesses the same sort of thing. The police are called but can offer little help except as witnesses to the self-same phenomena, though this does lead to the Press taking up the story. Paranormal researcher Maurice Grosse (McBurney) begins his investigation while back in the States, Lorraine convinces Ed (Wilson) they should take a break from their own investigations (though in the end it doesn’t take much to convince Lorraine to change her mind). Once they arrive, Ed and Lorraine waste no time in contacting the spirit of the house’s previous owner, a man named Bill Wilkins (Adrian). Bill died in the house and it’s he who is responsible for all the paranormal goings-on. Unable to convince him to move on, Bill’s malicious behaviour begins to put everyone at risk. But when a video recording shows Janet causing damage that everyone had attributed to Bill Wilkins, Ed and Lorraine have no option but to leave as it throws too much doubt on the veracity of what’s happening. Until Ed has a breakthrough in relation to two recordings made of Bill talking through Janet…

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While The Conjuring 2 is handsomely mounted with a touch of Grand Guignol here and there to add to the visual gloominess, and Wan orchestrates proceedings with a confidence and deftness of touch that benefits and enhances the mood of the movie to good effect, it’s still let down by the vagaries inherent in the script and its decision to include as many of the recorded events as possible (though the script seems to be saying that these events aren’t dramatic enough on their own and they’re bolstered by the inclusion of extra phenomena such as the Crooked Man and dozens of crosses that turn upside down). Narrative leaps make the movie feel disjointed at times, particularly in the stretch before Ed and Lorraine arrive in Enfield, and there’s little investment in the characters or their development, with only Grosse given a poignant (and true) reason to believe in the paranormal.

The cast perform efficiently enough, with Wilson and Farmiga settled into their roles, and there’s excellent support from Wolfe and O’Connor (though her accent, like Esposito’s, does wander from scene to scene). Don Burgess’s cinematography is a bonus, providing the movie with a sense of compressed space that feels appropriately claustrophobic when characters are shot in close-up, and there’s a subtle, “insidious” score by Joseph Bishara that adds to the effectiveness of the supernatural events. But if there’s one grumble to be made above all others, it’s why Valak, the demon nun in question, had to look like Marilyn Manson.

Rating: 7/10 – a solid if predictable horror sequel, The Conjuring 2 lacks cohesion in its narrative, but makes up for it with some impressive visuals and its recreation of the era; unnerving for the most part and featuring a couple of effective jump scares, viewers should take its assertion of being from “the true case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren” with a huge pinch of salt, and view accordingly.

10 Stars Who Weren’t Born in the Country You Think They Were

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When we see certain stars in their movies we’re prone to making subconcious conclusions about them: what they’re like off-camera (how nice or how nasty), what they might like to do in their spare time, and sometimes, if they’re single, that we’d be the perfect partner for them (creepy yes, but in a non-stalker kind of way, you know?). Some stars have been around long enough for most people to know that they’re not originally from the country we associate them with. For example, Mel Gibson is generally regarded as Australian but was actually born in the good old US of A. And Audrey Hepburn – American? British? – was born in Belgium. In the spirit of full disclosure, here are ten stars who weren’t born in the country you think they were. See how many of them you knew already.

1 – Emma Watson – the star of the Harry Potter movies, and more recently, Regression (2015), looks and sounds like the quintessential English rose, but guess again. Although both her parents are English, Miss Watson was actually born in Paris, France.

Emma Watson

2 – Eva Green – the mercurial, fearless star of movies such as Casino Royale (2006) and 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) has a classical beauty that could have originated in any of a dozen countries around the globe, but like Emma Watson, Green was born in Paris, France.

3 – Keanu Reeves – with his Hawaiian Christian name and chiselled good looks, you could be forgiven for believing Reeves to be as American as they come, but in fact the star of The Matrix (1999) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) was born in Beirut, Lebanon.

4 – Bruce Willis – the tough-as-nails star of Die Hard (1988) and The Sixth Sense (1999) – like so many others in this list – is generally regarded as American through and through but again, appearances can be (and are) deceiving, as Willis was born in Idar-Oberstein in the former West Germany.

Bruce Willis

5 – Rose Byrne – an actress whose career began back in 1994 as the unfortunately named Rastus Summers in Dallas Doll, Byrne has made a name for herself in recent years in a number of R-rated comedies, and while she seems as American as the next actress, she was actually born in Balmain, Australia.

6 – Oscar Isaac – with his dark, brooding looks, Isaac has a cosmopolitan aura about him that, like Eva Green, could mean he was born just about anywhere, but while he’s played a Russian in Pu239 (2006), and a Mexican in For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada (2012) – amongst others – Isaac actually heralds from Guatemala.

7 – Michael Fassbender – despite having grown up in Northern Ireland and having made a name for himself in a handful of well-received British movies, including Hunger (2008) and Fish Tank (2009), the younger incarnation of Magneto in the X-Men movies actually hails from Heidelberg in the former West Germany.

Michael Fassbender

8 – Joaquin Phoenix – while most of his siblings were born in the US, including his brother River, the star of Walk the Line (2005) and Her (2013) was born in a country where his parents were serving as Children of God missionaries at the time. The country? None other than Puerto Rico.

9 – Amy Adams – as quintessentially American in appearance as Emma Watson is quintessentially British in appearance, the actress who was billed as Gorgeous Woman in Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006), and who is now Clark Kent/Superman’s go-to gal, was actually born in Vicenza, Italy.

10 – Kim Cattrall – the star of Sex and the City and, going further back, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), looks American, sounds American, and appears steeped in all things American, but again, appearances are deceiving as the truth is she was born in Liverpool, England.

Kim Cattrall

Gods of Egypt (2016)

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Gods of Egypt

D: Alex Proyas / 127m

Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites, Gerard Butler, Elodie Yung, Rufus Sewell, Chadwick Boseman, Courtney Eaton, Geoffrey Rush, Bryan Brown, Emma Booth

Gods of Egypt starts by reinventing Egyptian history. Overly sincere narration informs us that Osiris (Brown) ruled over the populous and bountiful Nile area, while his brother Set (Butler) was given dominion over the barren, desert areas at the far edges of Osiris’ kingdom. Time passes, until Osiris decides to abdicate his throne in favour of his son, Horus (Coster-Waldau). At the crowning ceremony, Set arrives and promptly kills Osiris, blinds Horus by taking out his eyes, and usurps the kingdom. He also sets about killing all the other gods and collecting their individual powers.

A year passes. Set has enslaved the people of Egypt and has put them to building monuments in his name, including one that reaches high into the sky, a tower so great that Ra (Rush), Set’s father, will be able to see it in his heavenly orbit. A slave girl, Zaya (Eaton), convinces her beloved, a thief called Bek (Thwaites), that only Horus can save everyone, but he will need his eyes back. Horus’ eyes are kept in Set’s vaults, and Zaya’s position in the home of master builder Urshu (Sewell) means that she has access to the vaults’ plans and can ensure that Bek avoids any booby traps in his search for the eyes. He retrieves one, but is unable to find the other. In their subsequent escape from Urshu’s home, Zaya is struck by an arrow and dies. Bek continues on to the home of Horus where he bargains for Zaya’s return from the land of the dead in exchange for Horus’ other eye. The god agrees to help him find it.

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Naturally, Set becomes aware of what Horus is doing. He sends assassins, and even himself, to halt their journey to the Egyptian capital and the procurement of Horus’ other eye. But luck is on Bek and Horus’ side, and aided along the way by Hathor (Yung), the goddess of love, and Thoth (Boseman), the god of wisdom, they reach the capital and Horus does battle with Set. With Set having unleashed the world-devouring creature Apep, Horus and Bek must find Horus’ eye, and a way to defeat Set and save Egypt from complete annihilation.

Students of Egyptian history will be shaking their heads in dismay at such a (brief) description of the events that occur in Gods of Egypt. But if they were to actually sit down and watch the movie, that head shaking would quickly turn into uncontrolled apoplexy. As revisionist fantasies go, Gods of Egypt is tawdry stuff, and heavily reliant on spectacle provided by CGI and poor script decisions. The gods can transform into armoured, winged variations of themselves in order to do battle with one another, but this is nothing to the way in which the characters speak an awful mix of cod-literal pseudo-intellectual exposition, and apparently heartfelt twaddle. With deathless lines of dialogue such as “I don’t want to die, I want to live! I want to live down on earth, amongst the lands I have conquered!” (spoken by Set), it’s no wonder that the script, by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless – who also co-wrote Dracula Untold (2014) and The Last Witch Hunter (2015), and whose next project is Power Rangers (2017) – contains enough wince-inducing moments to stun a sphinx.

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Ostensibly an adventure story, the movie packs in the usual amount of over-the-top action setpieces that seem de rigeuer in modern fantasy movies, and in doing so, sacrifices credibility at every turn, and on certain occasions, any coherence it’s built up along the way (which isn’t much). Characters behave erratically, leaving the audience to wonder if Sazama and Sharpless assembled their final script from the scattered pages of previous drafts, and the journey Bek and Horus embark on seems to take in every possible physical environment – from desert to swamp to mountain – available to the screenwriters’ imagination. The movie is a big, sprawling epic, eager to please with each new bout of CGI-rendered spectacle, and yet it’s spectacularly hollow, a crowd-pleasing exercise that lacks subtlety, depth and narrative stability (which begs the question, just which kind of audience is it looking for?).

The cast are lost amid all the surface glamour and overbearing special effects. Coster-Waldau is particularly adrift, varying the level of his performance from scene to scene and never quite managing to find a through line for Horus that doesn’t smack of constantly changing improvisation. He also has trouble giving weight to his dialogue, making Horus sound plaintive and reticent rather than angry and defiant. Thwaites is stuck with the awkward task of motivating Horus and his fellow gods to take up against Set, and providing most of the movie’s humour. That he only succeeds intermittently shouldn’t be much of a surprise, as again the script doesn’t support him in either endeavour, and often leaves him hanging high and dry. And then there’s Butler, chewing the scenery with all the energy of an actor working out a contractual obligation and not caring how bad he is.

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The rest of the cast struggle manfully to maintain a semblance of interest in their characters with only Yung and Boseman injecting any passion into their roles. They’re not helped by the absence of Proyas in the director’s chair. Anyone who’s seen The Crow (1994), Dark City (1998), and I, Robot (2004), will be wondering what’s happened to the idiosyncratic and daring director whose visual ingenuity and flair marked him out as a talent to watch out for. Here, Proyas’ talent is squandered in a maelstrom of pixels and perfunctory plotting that does his reputation no favours, and makes his previous movie, the nonsensical Knowing (2009), look like a masterpiece in comparison. Proyas isn’t connected with another project as yet, but let’s hope he finds one that’s worthy of his talent and commitment.

Rating: 4/10 – overcooked and belligerent in its approach, Gods of Egypt looks good but remains resolutely superficial from beginning to end; an adventure movie that goes through the motions and proves hard to engage with, it trades plausibility for spectacle at every turn, and is entirely forgettable.

Wolf Warrior (2015)

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Wolf Warrior

Original title: Zhan lang

D: Jing Wu / 90m

Cast: Jing Wu, Nan Yu, Scott Adkins, Dahong Ni, Xiao Zhou, Qiang Ma, Zhaoqi Shi, Zibin Fang, Sen Wang, Tengyuan Liu, Yongda Zhang, Xiaolong Zhuang, Yi Zhao, Zi Liang

Action movies, when executed properly, can provide some of the most exhilarating movie moments it’s possible to experience. From John McClane’s exhortation to “take this under advisement, jerkweed” before dumping a chair load of C4 down a lift shaft in Die Hard (1988), to the spectacular destruction of the White House in Independence Day (1996), and the lobby shootout in The Matrix (1999), the movies have given us the kind of goosebump-inducing, jaw-dropping moments that make us want to go back to them time and again, so impressive are they.

But the flipside of this is the number of action movies that fail to deliver even the barest hint of one of these moments. There’s more of them, of course, and they often fall back on tried and trusted elements: running gunfire that never hits anyone, pyrotechnics rather than proper explosions, poorly orchestrated hand-to-hand combat (the kind of heavily edited sequences that end up looking as if they’ve had frames cut here and there), a scenario that sees one lone hero fend off an army of soldiers/mercenaries/thugs, a sneering villain who meets a nasty end (if the script is clever enough), a romantic interest who may or may not be abducted by the sneering villain, and/or a daring rescue mission that means certain death if anyone attempts it – usually against a heavily fortified hideout. (There are plenty of other, similar elements, but you get the general idea.)

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It’s easy to take some comfort from all this familiarity; after all, action movies are often the cinematic equivalent of socially sanctioned vigilantism, even if there’s a police officer involved (a la Dirty Harry Callahan). After policemen, action movies like to employ members of the military as their protagonists, ex-soldiers home on leave in their troubled hometown, or maverick individuals who have trouble following orders. Again, it’s comforting; these characters know how to handle themselves, they know how to comfortably beat up a minor bad guy (and several of his buddies), and their grit and detemination will allow them to overcome all kinds of injuries and take down the sneering villain.

All of which makes watching Wolf Warrior such a pleasant, though unremarkable experience. Many of the basic action movie tropes are here, from Jing Wu’s stoic yet romantically cocky sniper Leng Feng, to the top brass (Yu, Zhou) forced to watch events unfold from a command room, and the leader of a group of mercenaries (Adkins) whose resourcefulness proves no match for the hero (and who is reduced to, yes, sneering). Leng also overcomes several injuries sustained throughout the movie, including a gunshot wound to the left shoulder that he promptly ignores. It’s all entirely predictable stuff, competently shot and edited, but offering little in the way of reward for the viewer.

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It’s comforting, though, because this is a Chinese action movie, but it has the look and feel of an American low budget action movie but with a few extra dollars spent on it. Its basic plot – sniper kills drug dealer, drug dealer’s brother hires mercenaries to kill sniper – is very basic indeed, but the screenplay (by Wu and three others) wanders away from it so often and so consistently, the average viewer could be forgiven for thinking the basic plot, if the makers had stuck to it exclusively, would have led to the movie lasting maybe fifty minutes tops. And there are several narrative decisions and developments that imply the script was made up as the production progressed, from the inclusion of a scene where Leng and his fellow wolf warriors (they’re an elite Chinese army outfit) fend off a pack of badly CGI-rendered wolves, to the idea that trying to kill Feng would best be achieved while he’s on manoeuvres and surrounded by dozens of fellow soldiers (the mercenaries are only five in number).

The mix of action movie tropes and Chinese movie making sensibilities leads to Wolf Warrior having its fair share of comedy moments too. Wu can’t resist making Leng the kind of chirpy, up for a laugh character who would usually end up as cannon fodder at some point in other action movies, and while he can be serious when required, it’s a strange sight to see him holding back on grinning when Leng steps on a mine. He also spends as much time as possible flirting with his superior (Nan Yu), which of course is reciprocated so that they can ride off together at the end (there’s no sunset, but it’s implied). And Leng’s maverick anti-authority tendencies, the subject of an enquiry at the beginning, are soon applauded once the mercenaries are defeated and the drug dealer’s brother is apprehended at the border.

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In the director’s chair, Wu proves to be an erratic presence, strangely confident when focusing on scenes that don’t involve any action, and unable to muster any tension or excitement in the scenes that do. Fans of both Wu and Adkins will be waiting for their final showdown with a fair degree of anticipation, but that anticipation is soon dispatched by the fight’s pedestrian moves and awkward wire work (it’s over too quickly as well). Adkins, whose presence in low budget action movies is often the best thing about them, is saddled with some dreadful dialogue, but he still manages to inject his character with enough venom to make his appearance fairly memorable, while Wu and his fellow cast members play up their stereotypical roles in such a way that the words ‘by rote’ spring to mind.

All this makes it sound as if Wolf Warrior is one to avoid, but while it’s certainly not a good movie, it does have a certain charm that redeems it somewhat. The Chinese setting is different, even if the overall mise-en-scene is overly familiar, and there are times when the absurdity of it all is more than capable of bringing a smile to the viewer’s face. Aside from several patriotic nods to the sanctity of the Republic of China, the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and its running time keeps things lean and (occasionally) mean. Fans of Asian cinema might want to check it out, but if they do, they’d do well to keep their expectations in check.

Rating: 5/10 – the usual vagaries of Chinese movie making – story developments that don’t make complete sense, less than consistent characterisations, narrative inconsistencies, haphazard editing – are all present and correct in Wolf Warrior, but can’t completely derail what is basically an inoffensive, painless viewing experience; the kind of movie that’s perfectly suited to an evening’s viewing with pizza and beers, it’s an action thriller that doesn’t try too hard and should be approached accordingly.

Question of the Week – 10 June 2016

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There’s been an awful (awful) lot of speculation recently about whether or not the next James Bond movie will see a different actor in the role, or if Daniel Craig will relent on his apparent assertion that he’s done with the part. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that the role has changed hands, but in amongst all the talk of Tom Hiddleston or Idris Elba or Jamie Bell stepping into Bond’s shoes, one thing seems to have been overlooked. It’s not about the role per se, more about the nature of the Bond movies and their need for reinvention. Putting aside the involvement of George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton, this week’s question is:

With the franchise showing continual signs of decreasing returns in terms of quality once an actor has reached his fourth outing, should the producers now look to limit an actor’s involvement to only three movies before rebooting the whole set up again and again?

James Bond

High-Rise (2015)

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High-Rise

D: Ben Wheatley / 119m

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Louis Suc, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Bill Paterson

First published in 1975, J.G. Ballard’s novel, High-Rise, was originally meant to be made in the late Seventies by director Nicolas Roeg from a script by Paul Mayersberg. That particular project fell through, and for a while afterwards Vincenzo Natali was attached along with Richard Stanley as screenwriter, but that fell through as well. Fast forward to 2014 and writer/director Ben Wheatley – along with his wife, screenwriter Amy Jump – develops the movie along with long-term attached producer Jeremy Thomas, and the result is an edgy, claustrophobic thriller that never quite achieves the goals it sets for itself.

We meet the movie’s central protagonist, Dr Robert Laing (Hiddleston), at a time when anarchy and violence have overtaken the residents of the tower block in which he lives. Holed up in the apartment he bought several months before, Laing is surviving against the odds, surrounded by the debris of his previously ordered and carefully maintained lifestyle. Pragmatic and sanguine about his future, the first thing to understand about Laing is that he’s showing no sign of leaving the tower block he lives in. The question that follows is a simple one: what could possibly have happened to bring Laing to this point?

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The movie takes us back three months and Laing’s arrival at the tower block designed by architect Anthony Royal (Irons), an experiment in social living that houses the lower classes on the lower floors, and the upper classes on the upper floors (and Royal and his wife in the penthouse suite). Laing’s apartment is somewhere in the middle, an unwelcoming collection of drably painted rooms that he makes no attempt to improve upon or make his own. He’s an aloof man, a little socially awkward, but he does attract the attention of his upstairs neighbour, Charlotte (Miller), and her son, Toby (Suc). She invites him to a party where Laing is introduced to some of the other residents, including documentary movie maker Richard Wilder (Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife, Helen (Moss).

Laing also attracts the attention of Royal, and the two meet privately, though Laing’s aloof nature keeps him at a distance from the disappointments voiced by Royal in relation to the social engineering that isn’t going as well as he’d hoped. There’s also the problem of his wife, Ann (Hawes), and her unhappiness at being cooped up in the penthouse suite, while her husband tries to perfect his plans for the tower block and the others being built nearby. With the power to the building frequently out for long periods, and the divisions between the affluent and the less well off growing wider and wider with each passing day, Laing finds himself caught between both camps in his efforts to blend in anonymously.

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Wilder, and his distrust and disapproval for those more privileged than himself, proves to be the catalyst for the kind of hostile rule breaking that makes the more well off residents angry and afraid that their ordered existence is in jeopardy. A party gets out of hand, and sees the beginning of the end of order within the tower block, as residents band together in various groups to impose their own versions of order on each other, but with the upper classes holding the upper hand – and crowing about it. But even their confidence proves short-lived, and Royal’s attempts to calm things aside, no one knows how to restore order to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s not long before mutual hatred leads to violence and murder, and the breakdown of civilised behaviour amongst the tower block’s denizens.

In adapting J.G. Ballard’s highly regarded novel, Wheatley has retained the Seventies period setting – all browns and oranges in the colour scheme, many of the male characters sporting excessive facial hair – and has created an isolated (and isolating) sense of space in the tower block designed by the well-meaning yet naïve Royal. With the building’s harsh lines and overwhelming size offering a sense of foreboding that’s hard to ignore, the movie’s visual design is at once disconcerting and strangely inviting, an uneasy mix of large, empty spaces and claustrophobic interiors that draws in the viewer and keeps them as unsettled as the residents of the lower floors. It’s an impressive achievement, the tower block’s dark shadows and labyrinthine feel a potent mix that is hard to shake off.

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Class divisions are at the core of the movie though, as Ballard’s clinical dissection of suburban mores and failings is given a thorough, if overbearing, once-over by Jump’s screenplay. Prejudice and bias, arrogance and denial, contempt and xenophobia, malice and psychosis – the script piles it all on with darkly comic attention to detail, and yet in such a fashion that none of it is as effective as the script, and Wheatley’s often fevered direction, would like. All these elements are combined in such a way that each of the characters experiences them to some degree or other, but not in a way that enhances the descent into self-induced madness and chaos they endure, or even the emotional fallout that results. The residents all behave appallingly, but in the same way that they find themselves trapped within the building, so too does the script trap them in a web of limited motivation, unexplained choices, and hasty reversals. The result is a movie where everyone behaves as if they’ve lost control of their ability to reason, while at the same time, behaving with a single-minded purpose: to destroy their lives and the lives of those around them.

If the bulk of the cast and characters are all required to behave in a fashion that suggests mass-induced paranoia, then it could be said that Jump and Wheatley are creating a world where this is inevitable when such class divisions are thrown together into a huge melting pot. Animosity will prevail, both seem to be saying, and it doesn’t matter how cultured or couth you may be, you’ll lower yourself accordingly in order to survive. Which leaves us with Laing, a character who starts off as being intriguing but soon becomes a cypher, a man it’s hard to identify with or even root for. As the tower block begins to disintegrate around him, he retreats from the carnage going on outside the door to his apartment, and gives in to emotional and physical lethargy, avoiding the world he’s now a part of, and retreating into himself. The movie loses its protagonist, and descends into an extended series of scenes where the focus becomes muddled due to the decision to explore various forms of maladroit behaviour in a mannered, and compromising way. The narrative, ostensibly about Laing and his reaction to the events going on around him, loses steam and becomes weighed down by stylistic excess and a repetitive disregard for its own narrative.

At least the performances, though mannered and harking back to the period in which the movie is set, are uniformly enjoyable, even if they’re often required to spout clichés and banal justifications in support of their actions. Hiddleston does extremely well as the odd man out, the outsider blessed with the ability to see beyond the tower block and the state of disillusion everyone is feeling, but who nevertheless finds himself embroiled in the angry wishes of the mob. Irons is astute and nowhere near all-seeing as Royal thinks he is, which adds to the character’s tragedy. Miller is fine as the object of several men’s lust, while Evans adds another powerful role to his career CV as the man whose anger makes him more dangerous than anyone else.

Rating: 6/10 – a movie that lacks recognisable depths in its characters, and avoids giving them appreciable feelings in the process, High-Rise takes its setting’s microcosm-in-sharp-relief and expands on it without fully exploring the consequences of anyone’s actions (even Charlotte’s); maddening for how good it could have been with a sharper attention to relevant emotional details, it’s still a thought-provoking movie, albeit one that loses its audience by letting its characters flail about unnecessarily and to little benefit.

Trailers – Yoga Hosers (2016), Can We Take a Joke? (2016) and Collide (2016)

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Watching the trailer for Yoga Hosers, the latest from Kevin Smith, is akin to hearing a long joke with every third sentence left out. You get the idea what’s being said is funny, you know you’re being told a joke so you’re waiting for the punchline (hopefully it’s not in one of those third sentences being left out), and the person telling you the joke is very funny to begin with, so the joke should also be funny – right? And yet, as the joke’s being told you start to get the idea that, actually, it’s not going to be very funny, and that maybe any humour in the joke is in the way it’s being told. Or maybe it’s just not a very good joke in the first place. That’s the idea with Yoga Hosers, whose trailer makes it look like there’s tons of humour in the movie, but at the same makes the movie look like it’s trying too hard to be wacky (oh look – there’s Johnny Depp “in disguise” again!). Smith doesn’t lack for confidence but his scripts aren’t always as water-tight as he might think (“So much nein it’s almost ten”?), and on this evidence he might be in for a mauling from both critics and audiences. Let’s hope not, though, because Smith is always one of cinema’s most idiosyncratic movie makers, and he’s not afraid to take chances; and that’s a good thing.

 

Staying with humour, the documentary Can We Take a Joke? looks at where comedians draw the line (if some of them ever do), and how they can justify stepping over it. In these days of instant outrage fuelled by social media platforms such as Twitter and  Facebook, it’s harder than ever to fly under the radar with a joke, particularly if it’s in response to a recent tragedy, but should comedians be constrained in such a way that an audience is effectively censoring them before they even step out on stage (or through whatever medium they’re broadcasting)? There are arguments for and against, and however you feel about jokes that may cause offence, this exploration of what “offensive” means looks certain to provoke a wider debate, even if it’s only for a short while until somebody else says or does something that the Take Offence brigade objects to.

 

In recent years, Felicity Jones and Nicholas Hoult have both built on their emerging careers to the point where their presence in a movie is something of a guarantee of quality. They’re also both very likeable, have very good screen presence, and franchise experiences aside, have made some very interesting choices in the past. And now we have them appearing in Collide, an action thriller that looks like any number of other action thrillers made in recent years, and also looks like it features the same clichéd character motivations we’ve seen over and over before. The presence of Anthony Hopkins in principal villain mode is not a good sign – hands up anyone who can remember the last decent performance Hopkins gave us – and the sight of Ben Kingsley hamming it up to eleven isn’t encouraging either, but the stunt work appears to be the key element, and in that respect the trailer does make the movie worth seeing just for the vehicular mayhem alone. One to see with low expectations then, and the hope that Jones and Hoult can rescue some of the movie with their performances.

Fourth Cousin (Twice Removed) of My Top 10 Movie Quotes

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Following on from My Top 10 Movie Quotes, and Second Cousin of My Top 10 Movie Quotes, here are ten more quotes from various movies, some funny, some moderately profound, some iconic, and a couple that are just plain weird and wonderful. Feel free to let me know if you have any of your own favourites – who knows, they might appear in a future post.

1 – “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” – Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

2 – “Can we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change? We’re educated people.” – Griffin Mill, The Player (1992)

3 – “Mine.” – Seagulls, Finding Nemo (2003)

Finding Nemo

4 – “Civilization, and syphilization, have advanced together.” – Professor Abraham Van Helsing, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

5 – “Kneel before Zod.” – General Zod, Superman II (1980)

Superman II

6 – “Thirty-five is an attractive age. London is full of women of the highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years.” – Lady Bracknell, The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

7 – “I pulled off early today. Took your advice, went to a doctor about this ear. He says ‘You have an ear infection, ten dollars please’. So I says ‘I told you I had an ear infection, you give me ten dollars!’ Well that started an argument.” – Charlie Meadows, Barton Fink (1991)

Barton Fink

8 – “George Washington was in a cult, and the cult was into aliens, man.” – Slater, Dazed and Confused (1993)

9 – “Dear God, I know I don’t believe in you, but since I’ll be starting Catholic school soon, I thought I should at least practice.” – Tammy Metzler, Election (1999)

10 – “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!” – Garry, The Thing (1982)

The Thing

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