This first trailer for Pixar’s Inside Out can be found practically everywhere else on the Internet, but it’s such a good trailer that reproducing it here isn’t a problem. If the rest of the movie is even half as good as this then we’re looking at a movie that looks set to re-establish the House of Luxo’s claim to the title of Kings of Animation.
The Rules of Attraction (2002)
You’re adapting a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, you’ve got a cast that includes some of the hottest young actors around, and you want to make sure that the movie is advertised as effectively as possible – what do you do? Well, the answer’s obvious: you fill your poster with images of stuffed toys engaging in various sexual activities and positions.
This kind of exploitative approach is usually reserved for exploitation movies but The Rules of Attraction was a low-budget ($4m) indie movie that featured well-known stars, a director who helped Quentin Tarantino come up with the story for Pulp Fiction (1994), and was an adaptation of a novel that had already garnered a fair degree of notoriety. With all that going for it, the decision to have fourteen pairs of rutting toys on the poster must have seemed like one of the best, most transgressive, and cool, ideas ever.
And it is. It’s arguably one of the most arresting posters ever created, so much so in fact that it was banned in the US and replaced by the poster below.
Much better, eh? So this was the poster that US audiences saw at theatres, while Canada and the UK were deemed able to deal with the audacious nature of – gasp! – toys giving each other a good seeing to. (It’s always a strange thing that the US has such a hard time dealing with sex but seems okay with all kinds of violence.) And in its own way, the poster being banned worked a treat, giving the movie an added boost at the box office.
Of itself, the poster is a humorous mix of fluffy indiscretions in a range of bright colours against a pale green background that at first seems off-putting but actually works when it shouldn’t. And its tag line is more subtle than expected, reflecting both the toys’ antics and some of the character motivations in the movie. (It’s a shame about the quotes, though – definitely not reflections of the finished movie.)
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.
NOTE: This is the last Poster of the Week for a while, as it makes way for a new format that will begin next week. To everyone who has taken an interest in the various posters I’ve looked at over the last six months, thank you very much, and I look forward to renewing this strand later in 2015.
D: Michaël R. Roskam / 106m
Cast: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Michael Aronov, Ann Dowd, James Frecheville, Tobias Segal
Cousin Marv’s is a bar managed by Marv (Gandolfini). It serves as a “drop bar” for money owed to the Chechen mob (who own the bar). Helping Marv is long-time friend Bob Saginowski (Hardy), a quiet, brooding man who appears somewhat slow-witted. While on his way home one day, Bob discovers an injured dog that’s been dumped in a trash can. As he rescues it, Nadia (Rapace), whose trash can it is, sees him and though wary of Bob at first, helps him with the dog.
The bar is robbed one night by two masked gunmen. They get away with just the money from the till, but it’s the Chechen mob’s money, and Marv will need to get it back. Meanwhile, a local hoodlum, Eric Deeds (Schoenaerts) begins following Bob around. Eventually he visits Bob at his home and tells him he’s the dog’s owner and can prove it, but he makes only veiled threats about going to the police if Bob causes any trouble over it. Deeds is suspected of killing a man named Richie Whelan ten years before, and has a reputation for being unpredictable and violent. It also turns out that he and Nadia (whom Bob is slowly getting closer to) were in a relationship once.
Later on, Bob and Marv find a trash bag that contains the severed arm of one of the gunmen and the money they stole. Bob disposes of the arm, cleans the money of the blood on it, and gives it to the Chechen mob’s enforcer Chovka (Aronov). In return, Chovka tells Bob and Marv that the bar will be the “drop bar” on the upcoming Super Bowl night.
Deeds tells Bob that he wants $10,000 or he’ll go to the police about the dog. He arranges to meet Bob at his home to collect the money but he doesn’t show. Instead he goes to Nadia’s house and tells her they’ll be going away together that night; Nadia is too intimidated to do otherwise. That night, the night of the Super Bowl, they go to the bar where it becomes clear to Bob that Eric is looking to steal the money being dropped off for the mob.
Adapted by Dennis Lehane from his short story, Animal Rescue, The Drop is a quietly impressive, deliberately paced crime drama that features strong performances from its four leads, intelligent direction, and a slow build up in tension that benefits the movie greatly. There’s not a lot that’s new here, but The Drop is a movie where there’s just enough misdirection and plot-tweaking to keep the audience guessing at what’s going to happen next.
A big part of this is due to the character of Bob, as mentioned above, a quiet, brooding man who leads a simple life but lacks certain social skills (his budding romance with Nadia is awkward yet sweet, and proceeds at a hesitant pace that suits them both). As the movie progresses it’s revealed that he and Marv were part of a crew before the Chechens came along, and thanks to Lehane’s well-constructed screenplay and Hardy’s compelling performance, the viewer begins to get a sense that there’s more to Bob than meets the eye. In his dealings with Deeds, Bob is taciturn and compliant but there’s a definite hint of repressed menace there; part of the energy of these scenes is derived from waiting to see if Bob will respond with violence or not.
The threat of violence is palpable throughout, and when it does happen it has an almost cathartic effect, releasing the tension so effectively constructed by Lehane and director Roskam. This is a movie where so much is on the line, and so much is dependent on people doing what’s expected of them that it becomes unnerving when things come to a head. But through it all, Bob treats each new development in such a matter-of-fact way it’s like he’s just an observer. He’s the rock around which the movie is built, and in a role that would defeat a lot of actors, Hardy brings a subtlety and a quiet grace to the role.
In support, Gandolfini reminds us of just how gifted an actor he was, imbuing Marv with a melancholic bitterness that reflects his dismay at being ousted by the Chechens. He’s a man who hasn’t been able to move on, forced to live with his sister (Dowd), and always harking back to the days when he had respect in the neighbourhood. It’s an intense performance, full of the brio we’ve come to expect from Gandolfini, and as his last released movie, a fitting end to his career. As Nadia, Rapace is, somewhat predictably, reduced to playing the girlfriend who becomes a pawn in the game that Deeds plays with Bob. It’s a role that needs a bit more depth given to it in the screenplay, but Rapace uses her curious looks to good effect, and her scenes with Hardy are refreshingly appealing. It falls to Schoenaerts to provide the main thread of menace, and he does so by making Deeds unpleasant to watch at all times, his eyes showing a lack of amenity and concern for others that is often disturbing. It could have been a much showier performance, but Schoenaerts gets it just right, keeping the viewer on edge throughout.
All this is orchestrated with aplomb by director Roskam making his English language debut after the success of Bullhead (2011). He’s a director with a clear, precise style of movie making, and he frames his scenes with a refreshing lack of artifice, keeping things simple and without recourse to odd camera angles or visual trickery. He’s aided in this by DoP Nicholas Karakatsanis and editor Christopher Tellefsen; together the trio’s efforts make for a surprisingly low-key but effective viewing experience. Roskam also keeps the various sub-plots, particularly the one involving the murder of Richie Whelan, as relevant as they need to be, and as potent.
Rating: 8/10 – a riveting crime drama that sports four terrific performances, The Drop is a confident, compelling movie that offsets familiarity with attention to detail; a slow burn movie that yields a plethora of riches and features a killer pay-off line.
D: Mike Cahill / 106m
Cast: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Steven Yeun, Archie Panjabi, Kashish, Cara Seymour, William Mapother
A graduate student researching the evolution of the human eye, Ian Gray (Pitt) is determined that his findings will discredit the creationists. One Halloween he meets a young woman named Sofi (Bergès-Frisbey) at a party but she leaves before he can get her number; all he has is pictures of her eyes (Ian takes photographs of the eyes of the people he meets).
Some time later, Ian sees Sofi’s eyes on a billboard poster and uses it to track her down. They begin a tentative relationship and eventually plan to marry. On the day of their planned wedding, Ian’s lab partner Karen (Marling) calls him with momentous news: she’s identified a species of worm that is blind but which has the genetic capacity to develop an eye. This leads to an argument between them that reaches its peak when they find themselves in an elevator that breaks down between floors. Their attempt to get out results in Sofi’s death, and Ian retreats from his work and everyone around him. Eventually, Karen visits him and her support leads to Ian returning to his work and their relationship becoming more intimate.
Seven years pass. Ian and Karen are married and expecting their first child. Ian has published a book about his research, though it’s still ongoing. When their child, Tobias, is born his eyes are scanned into the hospital registry but at first another patient’s details show up on the monitor. Passed off as a glitch in the system, Ian and Karen think nothing more of it until a few months later they receive a call from a Dr Simmons (Seymour). She tells them routine blood work taken when Tobias was born shows he may be autistic and she would like him to be brought in for further tests. The tests prove unusual and lead Ian and Karen to become suspicious of Dr Simmons’ motives. When Ian delves deeper, he finds Simmons appears to be working on the hypothesis that iris patterns – normally unique to every individual – may be an indicator of reincarnation.
Ian’s old lab partner Kenny (Yuen) has created an iris database that is linked into iris scanners around the world. When they scan Sofi’s eyes into the database it brings up a hit – a scan made in Delhi three months before. Ian travels to Delhi and finds the centre where the scan was carried out but learns that the girl involved (Kashish) is an orphan and will be hard to find. If he does, he resolves to test her in the same way that Dr Simmons tested Tobias.
An intriguing premise that mixes science with a belief in the unexplained, I Origins is a thoughtful, engrossing, yet ultimately uneven sci-fi drama that ends up sitting on a very broad fence in its attempts to be fair to both the scientific community and those who promote faith over facts. It’s a clever movie, erudite and well conceived by writer/director Cahill, and puts across its central tenet with intelligence and verve. Even though the science rests firmly in the realms of fantasy, it’s presented so convincingly that the movie’s first half is a fascinating exercise in scientific research intercut with Ian and Sofi’s serious-minded love affair.
Once Sofi dies the science takes a back seat it never returns from, and the focus switches to the possibility that Dr Simmons’ research really does point to the possibility that reincarnation is real – and can be scientifically proven. Ian’s reaction isn’t typical: he travels to the place shown in photos used in Tobias’s test. It’s a weak moment that doesn’t fully convince; Ian makes an assumption about the photos’ providence and is on his way almost in the blink of an eye (no pun intended). And the whole notion of an iris database linked to scanners on an international level is never fully explained, the reason for its existence skimmed over, and its inclusion seems forced, more to drive the narrative forward than anything else.
Stretching the narrative in this way leads to a lessening of the drama and the quality of its effect on the viewer. Once in Delhi, Ian’s search for the little girl with Sofi’s eyes proves too easy and hints at Cahill’s screenplay needing to speed things up to reach its conclusion. It’s a decision that hurts the movie and undermines the credibility it’s built up in its first hour. However, it’s not quite enough to undermine the journey the movie takes the viewer on, and there’s still the mystery of how well the little girl will do when Ian tests her. This allows the movie to end on a note of goodwill, but one that is put in jeopardy by a post-credits sequence that shows the extent of Dr Simmons’ studies – it’s a logical extension of Sofi’s “reincarnation” but instead feels contrived rather than thought provoking, as was probably intended.
Pitt gives an impassioned performance that isn’t always sympathetic as Ian can be self-centred and blinkered around others. His scenes with Bergès-Frisbey carry a studied intensity though that is reminiscent of his performance in The Dreamers (2003). As the love of his life (even after he marries Karen, Ian still fantasises about Sofi and their time together), Bergès-Frisbey is aloof, mysterious, and proud, a free spirit who doesn’t like to be challenged. Rounding off the main characters, Marling is brittle and reflexive, studious and controlled, but hiding a passion for Ian because of his relationship with Sofi. It’s Bergès-Frisbey who gives the movie its passion, and Marling who gives it its intelligence; both actresses give high quality performances.
Cahill directs with a strong visual sense, and while not a flashy director, contributes – along with DoP Markus Förderer – a consistent tone that benefits the movie greatly. While its early, wintry theme seems a little overearing when viewed against the later warm brown hues of Delhi, Cahill nevertheless makes each scene captivating to watch, even if the thematic content is lacking, or the dialogue sounds occasionally like it’s been drawn from the well of verbosity. It’s a movie that takes a fair degree of risk in presenting its story to the viewer, but ultimately pays off despite its change of tack at the hour mark.
Rating: 7/10 – intelligent, well-considered sci-fi that manages to say something about identity and the quest for knowledge at the same time; I Origins – while appearing to say something about death and its attendant consequences – actually works best as a meditation on what it’s like to have your scientific view on life eroded by emotions and longing.
D: Kevin Greutert / 90m
Cast: Sarah Snook, Joelle Carter, Mark Webber, David Andrews, Ana de la Reguera, Amber Stevens, Chris Ellis
Following a car accident that kills her fiancé and leaves her paralysed from the waist down, Jessie (Snook) goes to recuperate at what was her parents’ house but is now just her dad’s, her mother (Carter) having died from cancer when Jessie was very young. She’s given her mother’s room, and settles in, but her dad (Andrews) is distant and not very supportive. One day, Jessie discovers a number of old video tapes in a box labelled “Jessabelle”. When she plays one she finds herself watching her mother playing with a deck of Tarot cards and talking to “Jessabelle”. Jessie thinks her mother means her, but some of what she says doesn’t relate to Jessie at all. When her dad finds out about the tape he gets angry and destroys it; he also throws her wheelchair into the nearby lake.
The next day he apologises and gives Jessie her mother’s old wheelchair so that she can still get about. When he goes out she watches another tape; on it her mother mentions a man named Moses. On the next day, Jessie is helped into a bath by a physiotherapist. She falls asleep, and the bath begins to fill with blood. When Jessie wakes she finds the ghost of a girl a few years younger than her in the bath with her. The ghost (Stevens) attacks Jessie but when she screams and her dad bursts in, the ghost disappears, as if it was all an hallucination. Her dad finds the other tape and tries to burn both of them but he gets locked in his shed and burns to death.
At her dad’s funeral, Jessie is reunited with an old flame, Preston (Webber). She confides in him about the tapes, and although he’s married he promises to help her as much as he can. Jessie later finds more tapes, one of which contains her mother telling “Jessabelle” that she’s already dead. Things take a strange turn when Jessie and Preston discover an infant’s grave in the bayou, an infant named Jessabelle. They alert the police and the remains are taken away to be examined. Jessie and Preston also discover a shrine to the man known as Moses but are warned away from it. Echoes of the past begin to reveal themselves, and soon Jessie learns the truth about Jessabelle and her parents, and a terrible crime that was committed before she was born.
While Jessabelle attempts to bring something new to the sins of the past sub-genre of horror movies, regular viewers of this sort of thing will find it commendably low-key and sadly unambitious at the same time. The source of most viewers’ consternation will be Robert Ben Garant’s screenplay, his first proper outing in the horror field (he also wrote Hell Baby (2013) but that was more of a horror-comedy hybrid – and didn’t work in either department). Garant is better known as the writer/creator of the Night at the Museum movies, as well as being an actor, but on this occasion his enthusiasm for trying to tell a ghost story that isn’t as derivative as all the rest, is the one thing that actually gets him – and the movie – into trouble.
From the moment Jessie arrives at her childhood home it’s clear that her dad’s behaviour towards her is borne out of guilt over something he’s done in the past, and while this type of relationship isn’t exactly unusual in horror movies, here it’s more awkward than usual thanks to the script’s refusal to portray him as anything other than angry and scornful – which in light of what we discover he’s done, actually makes him appear self-deluded and cruel; it also makes the viewer wonder why Jessabelle’s vengeful spirit hasn’t killed him already. The mother’s appearance is problematic as well, her graduation from early video blogger to phantom presence in the movie’s final quarter being needed not to provide any unexpected scares but to explain the plot amid a welter of artless exposition.
The answer to the mystery of Jessabelle and the tapes Jessie’s mother recorded, when it comes, is as underwhelming as the relationship between Jessie and Preston, an attempt at romance that even stops the plot long enough for them to end up between the sheets. The clues that lead to the discovery of Jessabelle’s identity are so heavily signposted it’s like playing connect-the-dots (and there’s only three dots to be connected). Again, Garant’s script wants to appear more clever than it is, but lets itself down time after time with weak scares and even weaker plot developments (experienced viewers will have worked out what’s going on long before Jessabelle shows up in the bath).
Things aren’t helped by Greutert’s disinterested direction, nor Michael Fimognari’s pedestrian camerawork, reducing the beautiful North Carolina locations to gloomy backdrops. The performances aren’t that convincing either, with only Snook offering anything like a commitment to her character, making Jessie far more sympathetic than she has any right to be (she’s the most likeable character in a movie that makes it extra hard to root for anyone). And with an ending that is as predictable as it is entirely derivative, Jessabelle winds up disappointing far more than it entertains.
Rating: 3/10 – stupid is as stupid does – a phrase that applies to so many horror movies that it’s embarrassing, and Jessabelle does nothing to avoid being added to the list; despite Garant’s efforts this is dispiriting stuff indeed, and with only Snook’s performance to warrant a viewing, can be consigned to the so-bad-it’s-bad list of recent horror movies without a moment’s hesitation.
D: Takashi Shimizu / 97m
Cast: Leslie Bibb, Jamie Chung, Ryan Kwanten, Amy Smart, Jerry Ferrara, Scout Taylor-Compton, Nicky Whelan, Alex Frost, Christian Serratos, Rick Kelly, Johnathan Schaech
Vista Pacific Flight 7500 is an overnight flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. While the take off is routine, a bout of severe turbulence leads to a passenger (Kelly) having a seizure; despite the best efforts of travelling paramedic Brad (Kwanten) and stewardesses Laura (Bibb) and Suzy (Chung), he dies. With no immediate reason to turn back, the flight continues on but the passengers and crew encounter ever stranger events, including a life-threatening cabin depressurisation, the disappearance of the dead passenger’s body, and the lack of radio contact with Tokyo air control. As a supernatural explanation for things seems to be the most likely, Brad, his wife Pia (Smart), Laura, Suzy, and newlyweds Rick (Ferrara) and Liz (Whelan), with occasional help from fellow passenger Jacinta (Taylor-Compton), come to believe it’s all connected to the dead man, and look through his belongings for an answer. But what they find is even stranger still…
At first glance, this latest offering from the director of The Grudge movies (Japanese and American) has all the hallmarks of an intriguing mystery thriller, with its characters trapped in a confined space, supernatural elements, strange occurrences, and growing sense of menace. But as so often happens with this type of movie, the script is unable to support its own premise and soon gets bogged down in one unexplained phenomena after another, making several attempts to increase the tension and heighten the dread the passengers and crew are experiencing, but falling short each time.
Further problems arise from the characters themselves, with perfunctory back stories for all that resist any depth being added, and wallow in cliché: the stewardesses with relationship problems (are there any stewardesses in the movies that don’t have relationship problems?), the couple splitting up who re-commit through being put in peril, the “wild child” who just happens to have the explanation for what’s happening, and the new wife whose OCD traits are jettisoned at the first opportunity. With so little to work with, the more than capable cast are left adrift, with Shimizu opting to focus on poorly lit visuals and less than satisfying “scares”.
By the movie’s end, 7500 has descended into a collection of disjointed and there-for-the-sake-of-it scenes that fracture the narrative beyond any possibility of recovery, and it concludes with a scene so derivative and redundant it beggars belief. (It shouldn’t be surprising then that the movie was filmed back in 2012 and has only now found a release via home video.)
Rating: 3/10 – with its cast doing just enough to achieve lacklustre performances, and Shimizu matching them with his direction, 7500 soon plummets into mediocrity; this is definitely one flight that can be missed in favour of the next one.
D: Curtis Hanson / 110m
Cast: Annabella Sciorra, Rebecca De Mornay, Matt McCoy, Ernie Hudson, Madeline Zima, Julianne Moore, John de Lancie
Pregnant with her second child, Claire Bartel (Sciorra) attends a routine check up and finds she has a new obstetrician, Dr Mott (de Lancie). During the examination he sexually molests her; later she reports him to the police. Further women come forward and to avoid being brought to trial, Mott kills himself. His pregnant widow (De Mornay) loses her child as a result, and while she recuperates in hospital, she learns of Claire’s involvement in her husband’s problems.
Six months pass. Claire has given birth to a baby boy, Joey. With her husband, Michael (McCoy) and young daughter Emma (Zima) they make for a happy family, but it becomes clear that Claire can’t juggle the needs of looking after their home and children as well as the part-time work she does at a garden centre. They decide to hire a nanny, and soon after, Mott’s widow, posing as Peyton Flanders, gets the job. She moves in and soon begins to undermine the Bartels’ stability: she breast feeds Joey at odd hours so that he won’t feed from Claire; she persuades Emma to keep secrets from Claire; and she intimidates Solomon (Hudson), a mentally challenged man from a local charity home who does odd jobs around the Bartels’ garden.
Peyton does her best to make Claire seem like a bad mother, and tries to upset her relationship with Michael. When Peyton suggests to Michael that they organise a surprise party for Claire, and include their friend Marlene (Moore) in the planning of it, it leads to Claire believing that Michael and Marlene are having an affair. She accuses him on the evening of the party, unaware that Marlene and the rest of their guests are in the next room. Later, Claire tells Michael that she is beginning to have her suspicions about Peyton; this leads to Peyton booby-trapping Claire’s greenhouse in an attempt to kill her. However, the next day Claire goes out instead. Meanwhile, Marlene discovers Peyton’s true identity and rushes over to tell Claire what she’s found out, but Peyton tricks her into going into the greenhouse. The booby-trap works and Marlene is killed. When Claire finds her it triggers an asthma attack that sees her hospitalised.
When she returns home Claire decides to find out why Marlene was at the house that day. She discovers the same truth about Peyton that Marlene did, and tells Michael. They confront her and she leaves… but not for long.
While there have been plenty of variations on the “home invasion/cuckoo in the nest” storyline prior to the release of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle – Pacific Heights (1990) for example – and a whole shedload of further imitations and variations since its release – Trespass (2011) anyone? – the strength of this particular movie is in its confident direction courtesy of a debuting Hanson, a career best performance from De Mornay, and one of the most impressive (and crowd-pleasing) punches in cinema history.
The basic premise is as old as the hills, but in the hands of Hanson and screenwriter Amanda Silver, it receives a jolt in the arm that elevates the material beyond the type of hokey predictability we’re used to seeing nowadays. The “examination” Claire endures at the hands of Dr Mott is still one of the most uncomfortable scenes you’re ever likely to encounter in a mainstream thriller, a testament to the staging of the scene by Hanson and de Lancie’s disturbing performance. It’s matched by the moment when Peyton stands over Joey’s crib with a cushion in her hands, the viewer unsure if she’ll really smother him. And even though we all know it’s been planted there, the discovery by Claire of a pair of Emma’s panties in Solomon’s toolbox carries a frisson that is somehow all the more effective because of what it will mean for Solomon (though the script, conveniently, lets him off rather lightly considering the allusion being made).
There are other scenes that, while not carrying such dramatic weight, still manage to hook the audience and not let go. Peyton’s machinations are well-constructed and thought out, De Mornay’s icy beauty a perfect match for the character’s psychotic nature; even when she smiles it’s unnerving. Every time she sees an opportunity to further her plans for vengeance, Hanson ratchets up the tension and keeps it there until the inevitable payoff. As the Bartels continue to find their lives falling apart around them, it’s De Mornay who remains the focus, her unsettling malevolence waiting for yet another dastardly manoeuvre to present itself. She’s a hypnotic presence, alluring yet callous (to Solomon: “Are you a retard?”), outwardly supportive yet inwardly seething, and too dangerous to live. De Mornay is impressive from start to finish, playing Peyton as a calculating whirlwind of anger and violence whose path can lead to only one outcome.
As Peyton’s main protagonist, Claire, Sciorra matches De Mornay for intensity but faces an uphill struggle in trying to keep Claire entirely likeable. The script needs her to be too susceptible at times: Peyton only has to mention that she feels something is wrong and Claire will believe her, which, while it helps to drive the narrative forward, leaves the viewer wondering when she’ll stand back and see what’s really happening. Hampered by this too convenient character trait, Sciorra nevertheless succeeds in making Claire sympathetic, and when she unleashes that punch, any doubts the viewer has had about her will evaporate there and then.
With two such compelling performances from its female leads – plus an unsurprisingly strong supporting turn from Moore – it’s a shame then that the male characters suffer in comparison. Michael is a bit of a damp squib, easily sidelined by Peyton at the crunch, and played with a degree of reticence by McCoy, as if he’d realised the character’s shortcomings at an early script reading and decided to play the role accordingly. But it’s Solomon who really drags things down, a slow-witted simpleton intelligent enough to make jokes at the Bartels’ expense, but not so intelligent as to deny an accusation of inappropriate behaviour with a child. It’s not so much a terrible performance, but a terrible and unnecessary characterisation, and the kind that nowadays would be booed or jeered off the screen.
Played out against a background of white and brightly lit interiors, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is buoyed up by a great original score by Graeme Revell, well-lit and sometimes unnerving photography by Robert Elswit, and in the last fifteen minutes, an effectively staged showdown that benefits greatly from the editing skills of John F. Link. But above it all, Hanson directs with all the skill and confidence of somebody making their tenth movie and not their first. Whether he’s using a Louma crane to follow Peyton from the house to the greenhouse, or employing a close up when she attacks Michael, Hanson makes the right choice of shot every time, and shows an economy of style that benefits the movie throughout.
8/10 – some minor issues aside – why don’t the Bartels check Peyton’s reference?, why isn’t anyone questioned about Marlene’s death? – The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is a classy, confidently crafted thriller that touches on themes of motherhood and sacrifice while rightly focusing on Peyton’s thirst for revenge; hard-edged and nail-biting in a way that has been watered down by repetition ever since, this is a thriller that deserves to be remembered for its transgressive moments as well as its formidable performance by De Mornay.
D: J. Searle Dawley, Charles Kent, Ashley Miller / 11m
Cast: Marc McDermott, Charles Ogle, William Bechtel, Viola Dana, Carey Lee, Shirley Mason
Ebenezer Scrooge (McDermott) is a businessman with no time for pleasantries or charitable endeavours. He rebuffs three men looking for aid, and when paid a visit by his nephew Fred (Bechtel), spurns him also. Later, Scrooge arrives at his home and sees the face of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, on the door knocker. Marley visits Scrooge in his bedroom, warning him of the arrival of a ghost who will show Scrooge the error of his ways.
The ghost appears and shows Scrooge scenes from his youth, including his time at boarding school, working at Fezzywig’s, and his relationship with a young woman whom he rejects. Then the ghost shows him a scene from the present, at the home of Scrooge’s assistant, Bob Cratchit (Ogle), where a party is under full swing and everyone is enjoying themselves.
Then the ghost shows him scenes from the future. Scrooge sees himself die, followed by his headstone, which reads, “Ebenezer Scrooge – he lived and died without a friend”. He also sees his nephew’s fianceé reject him for want of money. Scrooge attempts to help his nephew but of course it’s only a vision.
The next morning, Scrooge awakes to find himself alive and with sufficient motivation to put things right in his life. He makes a donation to the charity fund, makes Fred his partner (thus ensuring his future marriage), and visits the Cratchits accompanied by his nephew and his fianceé and a huge goose for their dinner.
If the above synopsis seems a little too detailed given our familiarity with A Christmas Carol, it’s intended to show just how much of Dickens’ classic tale can be crammed into such a short running time – and still prove effective (even with a few minor adjustments). This version – there’s an earlier adaptation from 1901 but it’s no longer complete – is a marvel of economy, getting to the heart of the story with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of style.
Made by the quaintly named Edison Manufacturing Company, and one of dozens of literary adaptations they released around the time, A Christmas Carol is a great example of how silent cinema condensed often complex novels and plays into one-reel wonders. Using the audience’s awareness of the tale, A Christmas Carol dispenses with title cards and focuses instead on getting the story across by making the visual content as clear and precise as possible (a restored version from 2010 contains title cards but they add little to the movie other than to confirm what we already know). There’s never any doubt as to what’s happening, even when some aspects have been altered to suit the running time. A good example is Scrooge seeing himself die, a much better way of discovering his fate than learning of it by overhearing the conversations of others (and being more difficult to film).
With a variety of different sets, and quite a big cast, the movie appears to have benefited from a larger budget than usual, and under the auspices of Dawley (assisted by Kent and Miller) proves engrossing to watch. As the highlights of the story are ticked off one by one, the movie becomes more and more enjoyable to watch, its depictions of past, present and future presented with an artistry and a skill that even modern audiences can appreciate. As the mean-spirited old miser, McDermott – at the time only twenty-nine years old – plays Scrooge with a great deal of verve, making his transformation from pinchfist to philanthropist with sincerity and conviction. It’s a performance that tones down the usual elaborate theatrical flourishes of the time, and is more measured and realistic.
The special effects employed to show the various scenes from Scrooge’s life – double exposures for the most part – are well done, and the scene where Marley sits opposite Scrooge (prompting him to pass his hand through him) is one of the better examples, and may well have appeared astonishing at the time. Scrooge’s reactions to these images, and the timing of them, are also well realised, adding to the overall effectiveness of the movie, and reinforcing the effect these visions are having on Scrooge’s character.
It’s always interesting to look back and see how movie makers adapted novels in the early silent era, particularly in terms of what they leave out or add in. Here there’s no Tiny Tim and only one ghost to represent the usual three spirits, while the addition of Fred’s less than supportive fianceé is a subtle reflection on the loss of romance in Scrooge’s life. But again, with such a familiar story, these are minor changes that don’t detract in any way, and show Dawley and co working with a greater degree of finesse than might be expected. It all helps to make this version of A Christmas Carol a joy to watch, and a fine example of silent era, one-reel movie making.
Rating: 8/10 – far more subtle and expressive than some of its more expanded successors, A Christmas Carol is a well-conceived and executed version of a classic Christmas tale; “God bless us, everyone!” indeed for such a masterful adaptation.
D: Josh Boone / 126m
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Ana Dela Cruz, Mike Birbiglia
Teenager Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is suffering from stage 4 thyroid cancer; she is on oxygen 24/7. While attending a support group she meets Augustus ‘Gus’ Waters (Elgort), who is in remission after losing his right leg to osteosarcoma. Gus and Hazel hit it off and soon they’re hanging out together and swapping life stories. At one point, Hazel tells Gus about her favourite book, “An Imperial Affliction”, a story about a young girl suffering from leukaemia. Gus reads it and is surprised to find the novel ends in mid-sentence; like Hazel he wants to know what happened next. Hazel tells him she’s written to the author on several occasions but he’s never replied to her.
A few days later, Gus announces he’s found the book’s author and has had an e-mail from him. Hazel is amazed and follows this up; she too receives a reply, one that includes an invitation to visit him in Amsterdam, where he lives. Hazel is overjoyed and tells her mother, Frannie (Dern), but the financial reality is that her parents aren’t able to afford the trip. Gus comes to the rescue when he arranges for the Genies (a make-a-wish organisation) to cover the costs. Hazel, Gus and Frannie travel to Amsterdam and the two teenagers meet the novel’s author, Peter Van Houten (Dafoe). However, their excitement is soon tempered by Van Houten’s behaviour towards them, which is boorish and rude. When they leave, Hazel is angry and upset, but they are followed by Van Houten’s personal assistant, Lidewij (Verbeek) who takes them to the Anne Frank museum. There, Gus and Hazel share their first kiss. With their relationship deepening, everything is looking positive, but before they return home, one of them has some bad news…
A teen version of Love Story (1970), but with less angst and more of a sweet-natured approach, The Fault in Our Stars is a movie with so many good intentions it’s almost overwhelming. First there’s Gus’s unremitting refusal to be anything other than upbeat, a reasonable enough reaction given what he’s gone through personally, but there are times when you wonder if anyone would be like that. Then there’s Hazel’s determination to ignore the limitations her cancer is putting on her, as in the scene where she doggedly climbs to the top floor of Anne Frank’s house, her breathing getting more and more laboured as she ascends. These are two incredibly determined individuals, aware of their circumstances but doing their best (Gus, especially) not to let it interfere with their daily lives and their burgeoning relationship.
This leaves the movie feeling for the most part like a teen romance with “issues”, and ones that threaten to overwhelm the narrative at times. As cancer sufferers, both Hazel and Gus are plucky “survivors”, both of them putting on a brave face while unable to stop doubt and fear from eating away at them on the inside. While the issue of cancer is never very far away – Hazel wears a cannula in her nose for pretty much the entire movie – at the outset it’s treated more as an inconvenience than a life-threatening condition (which it is for both of them). This allows the movie to avoid being too heavy-handed or depressing, but leads to the suspicion that what we’re seeing is two young people who are so well adjusted to the vagaries of their respective diseases that the chance for real drama is going to be avoided as well.
That this doesn’t prove to be the case is, naturally, to be expected, but the movie takes a long time in getting there, and its continual positivity begins to wear as it progresses, with Hazel suffering the kind of occasional setback that happens, is shrugged off, and appears to have no toll associated with it at all. If this is a relatively true depiction of dealing with cancer, then full marks to those dealing with it on a daily basis, but in terms of the movie it’s like a tick-box exercise. Leaving notions of personal courage aside, what The Fault in Our Stars is telling us is, don’t let any disease stop you from living as full a life as possible.
While this is entirely commendable, what it isn’t is fodder for a movie that wants to be as “relevant” as The Fault in Our Stars wants (or tries) to be. If the movie is about anything it’s about the need for reassurance where very little can be given, and in circumstances where each day has be taken as it comes. Hazel and Gus’s meeting with Van Houten highlights this perfectly, his refusal to answer their questions or validate their concerns is the one moment in the movie where their attitudes around cancer are challenged. It’s an abrupt change in both pace and tone, and one that the movie badly needs as it staves off full saccharine overload. The repercussions from the meeting help the narrative immensely in the movie’s final third, and there’s a rewarding pay off at the end that would have seemed false otherwise.
As the embattled teens, Woodley and Elgort are a good match, clearly enjoying their roles and shading them more effectively than the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber actually allows. Woodley is as good as you’d expect, investing Hazel with a strained insecurity that keeps her apart from others, including at times her parents. Elgort has the more outgoing role, and while he’s occasionally annoying he makes up for it by balancing Gus’s good nature with an underlying pathos. As Hazel’s mother, Dern does concerned and protective with ease, Wolff cements his reputation as a young actor to watch as fellow cancer victim Isaac, and Dafoe gives the movie a much needed shot in the arm as the truculent Van Houten.
The movie has humour aplenty in its opening scenes, and its gradual descent into full-fledged drama is handled with consistent surety by director Josh Boone, keeping a tight grip on the script’s more overly sentimental moments and grounding the emotional content without recourse to too much melodrama. The movie is lensed to good effect by Ben Richardson, and there’s a low-key score from Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott that underpins the various elements in an unfussy, often touching way.
Rating: 7/10 – bolstered by good performances and confident direction, The Fault in Our Stars avoids movie-of-the-week mediocrity by approaching John Green’s original novel with an appreciation for its attempt to do something a little different; funny and affecting in equal measure, fans of the book won’t be disappointed, while newcomers should be won over nevertheless.
Bard the Bowman, Bilbo Baggins, Cate Blanchett, Erebor, Galadriel, Gandalf, Ian McKellen, J.R.R. Tolkien, Legolas, Literary adaptation, Martin Freeman, Middle Earth, Orlando Bloom, Peter Jackson, Richard Armitage, Sauron, Smaug, Thorin Oakenshield
D: Peter Jackson / 144m
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Ken Stott, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Graham McTavish, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Sylvester McCoy, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Billy Connolly, James Nesbitt, Ian Holm, John Bell, Mikael Persbrandt, Manu Bennett, John Tui, Benedict Cumberbatch
Angered by the attempt to kill him, Smaug (Cumberbatch) leaves the Lonely Mountain and the dwarf city of Erebor to wreak his vengeance on Laketown and its people. As he lays fiery waste to the doomed town, Bard the Bowman (Evans) seeks a way to defeat the dragon. With the aid of his son, Bain (Bell), Bard succeeds, but the town is in ruins. With winter fast approaching the inhabitants of Laketown look to Erebor and the promise made by Thorin (Armitage) when he was aided by Bard. But Thorin is in the grip of dragon sickness, his mind fixed on protecting the gold in the mountain, and he refuses to give the people of Laketown shelter; instead they are forced to take refuge in the ruined town of Dale.
Inside Erebor, Thorin’s madness worsens with the absence of the Arkenstone, the jewel that ensures his position as king of the dwarves. It transpires that Bilbo (Freeman) was able to take the jewel during his encounter with Smaug, but he fears giving it to Thorin. Meanwhile, the woodland elves, led by Thranduil (Pace), arrive in Dale with supplies for the humans and with the intention of reclaiming some jewels that are owed to him by Thorin’s forebears. Bard attempts to reason with Thorin but the dwarf leader refuses to yield. With an army of Orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Bennett) almost upon them, Gandalf (McKellen) arrives in time to provide support for the human-elf alliance.
Bilbo sneaks out of Erebor and gives the Arkenstone to Thranduil. One last attempt is made to avoid bloodshed but Thorin is adamant he will have war. With the arrival of a dwarf army led by Thorin’s cousin Dain (Connolly), a battle between the dwarves and the elves begins but is interrupted by the arrival of Azog’s forces. The dwarves and the elves and the humans all join forces against the orcs, while in Erebor, Thorin is on the brink of being completely subsumed by madness. And to make matters worse, Legolas (Bloom) and Tauriel (Lilly) discover that there is a second army of orcs heading for Erebor as well.
And so, in true George Lucas/Star Wars fashion, we come to the end of the journey – in the middle of it. Heralded as the “defining chapter” this is the movie that Jackson needed to get right above all the other Hobbit movies. Everything has been a prelude to this, the linking chapter in a six film series that has come to define fantasy movie-making on an epic, unprecedented scale, while always retaining a true sense of what’s most important: the characters. Whatever your thoughts on the idea that two movies would have been better than three, what can’t be disputed is the care and attention that Jackson and co-scripters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (with additional input from Guillermo del Toro) have taken in their efforts to bring Tolkien’s short novel to the screen.
Dispensing with the traditional prologue that shows previous events, The Battle of the Five Armies picks up directly after The Desolation of Smaug and throws us into one of the trilogy’s most exciting action sequences, as the dragon vents its wrath on the unfortunate Laketown. It’s a bravura piece of movie making, each burst and eruption of flame so convincingly rendered it’s hard to believe that most of the action has been created in a computer. With Smaug’s death it’s full speed ahead to the climactic battle that involves dwarfs, men, elves, orcs and eagles. It’s a fast-paced, often relentless movie, tilting headlong from one skirmish to another, barely pausing for breath, and yet able to maintain an emotional intensity that other fantasy movies can’t even begin to come near. It also shows Jackson near the height of his directorial powers – that honour goes to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – firmly in command of the material and assembling it all in a way that looks far too easy.
Jackson’s decision to make The Battle of the Five Armies the shortest of the Hobbit movies is a wise one, making it a more immediate, thrilling experience, but still with that depth of emotion that we’ve come to know and expect from each trip to Middle Earth. The relationship between Bilbo and Thorin is this movie’s finest flourish, so adroitly handled and acted by Freeman and Armitage that their scenes together are capable of making the viewer hold their breath. The added romance between Tauriel and Kili (Turner) is perhaps more perfunctory but is still touching enough to warrant its inclusion. In truth, the whole cast excel, with McKellen, Armitage and Evans the standouts in a movie with more than its fair share of superb performances. It’s been said before, but Jackson has created such a vivid world that even when he introduces creatures that very closely resemble the worms from Tremors (1990), they still feel a part of Middle Earth. This attention to detail, this “world building”, is what separates these movies from all the rest. And of course, there’s the action, inventive, compelling, and wonderfully choreographed for maximum effect. It’s impressive stuff – as you’d expect – and full of horror, humour, seamless CGI (unless, for some reason, it involves Radagast the Brown), and stirring feats of physicality (Legolas vs Bolg). But best of all, and after all has been said and done, and the battle is over, Jackson treats us to a wordless scene between Bilbo and Gandalf that is perfect in its simplicity.
With an ending that blends effortlessly with the beginning of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the movie also doesn’t outstay its welcome, but mostly because this isn’t the end of an era, but the opening chapter in a much grander tale. As such its shorter running time is to be applauded; though don’t be fooled, the movie packs so much in it’s a masterclass of concise plotting and scripting. Some fans may still complain about the treatment of certain characters – Beorn (Persbrandt) has even less to do here than before – and the similarities between the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and this one are self-apparent, but all in all, Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit has been a success. To those who say The Hobbit trilogy is less dramatic or satisfying than The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it should be mentioned that they are very different “beasts”, one originally intended as a children’s novel, its follow-up more for older audiences. What Jackson has done is to keep the essential ingredients of the novels and expanded the material around them to make one long story albeit in two sections and with sixty years between them. It’s still a staggering achievement and worthy of as much high praise as can be doled out.
The same can also be said for the movie’s crew, including director of photography Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hennah, and composer Howard Shore (and not forgetting the sterling work of second unit director Andy Serkis). These and the thousands of other people who have worked on the movies deserve some kind of reward for their efforts.
Rating: 9/10 – a rip-roaring, spectacular action movie to wind up the trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is guaranteed to put a smile on the face of fans, and reassure those doubters that Jackson had made a mistake by manipulating the novel into three movies; but take heart anyone who thinks they’ve seen the last of all things Middle Earth, there’s still an extended edition of the movie to come.
The Girl from 10th Avenue (1935)
The poster for this romantic drama from Warner Bros. is surprising in many ways. As a vehicle for Bette Davis, it’s appropriate for her to be front and centre in the design, but the way in which she’s depicted is a little offbeat. The early to mid-Thirties was a period when Davis was still a long way from being the forceful actress we all know today. A lot of her early roles were in movies such as this one, but this was the first time she was pictured as the type of hard-boiled, predatory character more suited to, say, Jean Harlow.
The image is also at odds with the character she plays, a shopgirl who marries a man on the rebound from a failed relationship. The challenging stare, the casual draping of the arm over the back of the chair, the cigarette caught between two fingers, the red gloves and hat (hints towards her being a “scarlet woman”), and the shapely legs so prominently displayed – all these point to a character who knows what she wants and how to get it. It’s an almost defiant image, daring the viewer to have an opinion about the character before seeing the movie.
The background is surprising as well, its heavy combination of black and brown almost swallowing the chair and Davis within it, only the well-chosen colours of Davis’s outfit keeping her from disappearing altogether. But then there’s the choice of yellow for the title, a bright distraction from the rest of the image, and making for a strangely effective contrast with the grey used for Davis’s name. With the other credits in orange on the opposite side, the overwhelming dourness of the design is undercut a little further, but all eyes will still be on the image of Davis, staring out at you with all the intensity of a woman from 10th Avenue, and not the girl she’s meant to portray.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.
D: Rob Reiner / 94m
Cast: Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Sterling Jerins, Frances Sternhagen, Annie Parisse, Austin Lysy, Scott Shepherd, Yaya Alafia, Andy Karl, Rob Reiner, Frankie Valli
Since the death of his wife, realtor Oren Little (Douglas) has become self-absorbed and somewhat of a misanthrope. He’s trying to sell his house – for $8.6m and not a penny less – while living at a waterfront four-plex property he owns. His neighbour, Leah (Keaton) is also widowed, and is trying to make a go of being a lounge singer; she continually tries to be friendly to Oren but he always rebuffs her. Only his fellow realtor, Claire (Sternhagen), is allowed to challenge him, and only because of their long working association.
Oren’s life is turned upside down by the reappearance of his estranged son, Luke (Shepherd). Luke is due to go to prison and wants Oren to look after his nine year old daughter, Sarah (Jerins). Oren reluctantly agrees but palms his granddaughter off on Leah. Leah and Sarah quickly establish a close bond, but Oren is less enamoured, his continuing efforts to sell his home in order to fund his retirement taking up most of his time. His feelings begin to change one evening when Leah has a gig and Oren has to look after Sarah himself. He finds himself getting along with her, and when Leah comes home he feels a twinge of reluctance about Leah taking her back.
With Sarah acting as a common denominator, Oren and Leah begin to spend more time together, and Oren takes an interest in Leah’s singing career. He becomes her manager and gets her a booking at an up-market venue. At the same time they act as grandparents for Sarah and when her tenth birthday comes around, they both take her out for the day. Their relationship becomes closer and closer, and even though it has its ups and downs, they both realise how important they’ve become to each other. And then Oren finds he has a buyer for his home…
It’s incredible to think that thirty years ago, Rob Reiner made the seminal This Is Spinal Tap (1984), the first in a run of seven movies* that brought him both critical and commercial success. Back then, Reiner could do no wrong, but with the release of North in 1994, his career began to seem less sure-footed and more haphazard. And over the last twenty years, his reputation has increasingly foundered, to the point where movies such as The Story of Us (1999), Alex & Emma (2003) and Rumor Has It… (2005) have slowly but surely eroded his reputation. It would be wonderful to report that And So It Goes is a welcome return to form, but unfortunately, this is Reiner’s worst movie yet.
While the script by Mark Andrus is tired, predictable, corny and nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is (or wants to be), Reiner’s direction is the very definition of uninspired. Simply put, the movie is a lifeless, hapless mess chock full of tedious scenes, cumbersome plot developments, awkward dialogue, poorly drawn and motivated characters, and a central relationship that could only exist in the most perfunctory of romantic comedies. Oren’s granddaughter is unsurprisingly cute but not even manipulative enough to make much of an impact (the script could have had Oren looking after his son’s dog and it would have had the same resonance). Not content with making things as easy as possible for Oren and Leah and Sarah to become their own family unit, the one potential moment of real drama is over in two minutes flat: Sarah’s first meeting with her mother, a terrible instance of misguided gravitas that shows just how much Reiner’s ability behind the camera has waned. If ever a scene could be described as “just sitting there”, that’s the one.
It’s actually hard to describe just how bland and disappointing the movie truly is. With all the talent involved, both in front of and behind the camera, And So It Goes should have been a winner, but there’s a lethargy about it that thwarts any enjoyment the viewer might be expecting to experience. Scenes follow each other without any sense that they have any relation to each other, and there’s a complete lack of credibility in the relationships that make the movie almost unendurable. Oren is another in a (too) long line of cinematic curmudgeons who all have a hidden, kindly nature, and Leah is the earth mother who responds to children with consummate ease despite never having had any of her own. Everyone else is there for Oren to treat appallingly until he proves he’s just a misunderstood, unhappy guy with a real heart of gold – how else do you explain his being allowed to help one of his neighbour’s give birth without her being embarrassed/distressed/anything but insistent?
As Oren, Douglas vacillates between confused and embarrassed, as if even he can’t believe how he wound up in this mishmash of clichés, while Keaton reprises her role in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) to much lesser effect. Sternhagen swaps barbs with Douglas but looks bored throughout, Jerins fails to avoid from almost disappearing when she’s on screen, but the worst turn of all is from the director himself: as Artie, Leah’s badly-wigged pianist, he gives a cringeworthy performance that culminates in one of the worst pratfalls in cinema history. That one moment seems to sum up everything that’s wrong with the movie: when even the director can’t pull off his character’s “best” moment, you know it’s not going to get any better. And that’s the only way in which Reiner, and the movie, doesn’t disappoint.
Rating: 3/10 – complacency and insipidness abound in And So It Goes, making this a movie that audiences will struggle to get through; not even Douglas and Keaton can save this from becoming the latest nail in the coffin of Reiner’s directorial career.
*The other six movies: The Sure Thing (1985), Stand by Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally… (1989), Misery (1990), and A Few Good Men (1992).
D: Wes Ball / 113m
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario, Dexter Darden, Chris Sheffield, Patricia Clarkson
Thomas (O’Brien) wakes in a rapidly ascending elevator that deposits him in a glade inhabited by other boys of a similar age to himself. He has no idea why he’s there, and he can’t remember anything that happened before waking. Scared, he attempts to run but soon discovers the glade is surrounded on all sides by a huge wall. The group’s leader, Alby (Ameen) explains their situation: no one knows why they’re there, a new member arrives each month with supplies, and the wall opens each day to reveal a maze that may or may not provide a way out of the glade altogether.
Thomas is given a job to do like everyone else, but he keeps looking to the maze and has thoughts of escaping. He wants to be a maze runner, someone who goes into the maze each day and maps its twists and turns. When one of the group, Ben (Sheffield), is stung by a creature known as a Griever (and which lives in the maze), he becomes violent and attacks Thomas. With no cure available, he’s forced into the maze at sunset; in effect it’s a death sentence as no runner still in the maze when it closes at the end of the day has ever returned.
Alby decides to enter the maze the next day and find out what happened to Ben. He enters with lead runner Minho (Lee) but they don’t reappear until just as the wall closes, and Alby is injured, having been stung by a Griever. Thomas rushes in to help them and the wall closes behind him, leaving the three of them trapped. Night falls and they find themselves hunted by a Griever, a huge spider-like creature. Thomas succeeds in killing it, and they return to the glade. While Alby remains unconscious, the elevator returns. In it is a girl, Teresa (Scodelario); she carries a note that states “She’s the last one ever.”
Another glader, Gally (Poulter) calls for Thomas to be punished as he’s brought danger to the group. But Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Alby’s second-in-command sees merit in Thomas’s actions and makes him a runner. The next day Thomas, Minho and some of the other boys go into the maze where they discover the corpse of the Griever contains an electronic device with a display showing the number 7. Minho explains that the maze consists of different sections and when the Griever attacked them, number 7 was open. With this knowledge, Minho believes they can use the device to help them escape the maze. A further trip inside the maze reveals a sewer opening that leads to the outside but time runs out before it can be opened and they return to the glade where Teresa is now awake. She and Thomas share brief memories of their lives before the glade, and she reveals she has two syringes. They use one on Alby and he recovers. And then the wall opens and Grievers come spilling out…
Along with superhero movies, and Paranormal Activity-style shockers, the current trend for dystopian teen sci-fi seems unlikely to abate any time soon, and with The Maze Runner another (potentially) long-running movie series is born – a sequel, Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, will be with us in 2015, and as of 2016 there will be three further novels that could be adapted. On the one hand, Hollywood’s commitment to literary adaptations is to be applauded, but on the other, is yet another foray into a world where specially chosen teens are the central protagonists really what audiences are looking for?
Well, as it turns out, the answer is yes, and particularly in the case of The Maze Runner. Outperforming its two main rivals, Divergent and The Giver at this year’s box office, the movie has garnered a strong following allied with mostly positive reviews. With the future of the franchise seemingly secured, the question still remains: is this a story compelling enough to warrant our commitment over the next few years?
Predictably, the answer is yes and no. Where The Maze Runner scores highly is in its look and feel, a mix of the pastoral and the mechanical that keeps the movie visually interesting throughout. It’s a combination that works most effectively when the Grievers invade the glade, their rapacious presence exposing the frailty of the society the boys have built up. It’s also highly transgressive, the lurking threat made all too real, despite what the boys believe they know already. As a set piece, it’s incredibly effective, and solidifies the danger the boys face in trying to escape.
And the movie needs the Grievers because without them, this would be The Lord of the Flies without the angst or the grim brutality. There’s also problems with the basic set up, as the script asks us to accept that a group of teenage boys, stranded in a glade for up to three years, will all agree to cooperate with each other and create a benevolent social order. It’s an unlikely, and not entirely convincing conceit, and one that is compounded by the need for the wall to open at all. While there is a reason for the boys to have access to the maze, viewers may be wondering why that’s the case if the boys have established such a utopian existence. That something is going on outside the glade is obvious, but even when the why for everything is (partially) revealed at the movie’s end it still doesn’t make sense.
With the plot suffering from a case of constructus awkwardus, The Maze Runner also isn’t helped by its perfunctory characterisations – Thomas is the rebel, Alby the patrician leader, Gally the blinkered thug, Teresa the aloof female – and some trite dialogue (“Be careful. Don’t die.”). But the maze itself is an impressive creation, and the movie picks up every time the boys venture inside it, its crushing walls and huge metal plates that can trap and isolate working like a device dreamt up by a crazed Heath Robinson.
The cast provide serviceable performances, held back as they are by the lack of fully rounded characters, and even Poulter can’t do much with his role, leaving it difficult to root for anyone in particular. Clarkson pops up in a role that’s similar to those played elsewhere by the likes of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Kate Winslet, but isn’t given enough to make more than a fleeting impact. Behind the camera, Ball directs competently enough but without displaying too much in the way of flair, and relies heavily on Enrique Chediak’s cinematography and Marc Fisichella’s production design.
Rating: 6/10 – unable to overcome the shortcomings of the source material (or in some cases, even address them), The Maze Runner falls short of reaching its full potential; uneven but visually arresting, it’s dystopian sci-fi with plenty of ideas but none that resonate too far beyond the movie’s own environs.
It was a sad day for the movie world when on 17 December 2014, Sony announced that they were cancelling plans to release The Interview in any format.
On the face of it, it seems Sony has decided to give in to the bullying, threatening tactics used by the so-called ‘Guardians of Peace’, and their efforts to stop the movie’s release. While it certainly must have come as a bit of a shock to the execs at Sony to see internal e-mails, employment records, and financial information relating to the movie – such as the salaries of stars James Franco and Seth Rogen – being made public, this kind of cyber attack is hardly unheard of these days. Even when further information was leaked a couple of weeks later, was anyone really that worried by the hackers audacity?
The answer is obviously, yes. After the second release of information was made on 8 December, The Interview had its L.A. premiere on 11 December (and received mixed reviews). On 16 December, the hackers issued an ultimatum to movie theatres in the US and anyone planning to see the movie: “keep yourself distant from the places [cinemas] at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)” The reaction: Sony removed all mention of The Interview from its web site, Franco and Rogen both stopped doing publicity for the movie, and its planned theatrical release on 25 December was cancelled.
In effect, the so-called ‘Guardians of Peace’ made some vague threats and Sony threw in the towel before they’d even gotten in the ring.
There are wider implications involved here that Sony hasn’t – apparently – considered, such as the precedent they’ve now made for every other production company, investor, studio, or organisation involved in the making and promoting and showing of movies, whether in the US or abroad. Which movie will be next? Putting aside the subject matter of The Interview itself – the planned assassination of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un – what’s to stop another hateful organisation like the so-called ‘Guardians of Peace’ from popping up and voicing their dislike of any other movie? And threatening violence if it’s shown?
With theatre chains in America such as AMC and Cineplex deciding to either drop the movie altogether or delay it until all the fuss has died down, Sony took the opportunity to withdraw the movie – and not release it at all (not even on VOD which would have allowed them to recoup some of the movie’s costs). Instead of standing up to what amounts to the worst kind of schoolyard bullying, the company used the cinema chains’ reluctance to see their premises and/or staff put at risk as an excuse to bow to the pressure placed on them. And they had the nerve to say in their statement: “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression…” Is anyone really impressed, or convinced, by this assertion?
The role of Franco and Rogen in all this is disappointing as well. Their silence on the matter (and apparent willingness to stop promoting the movie) infers a lack of commitment to their movie that’s as worrying as the attacks on Sony’s computer systems. That too such vocal and usually forthright performers haven’t the cojones to stick up for their own movie, or voice any anger at the actions of the so-called ‘Guardians of Peace’, is baffling and regrettable. Don’t they have anything to say about what’s happened?
Whether they do or not though, the fact remains that Sony has done an incredible disservice to moviegoers everywhere – The Interview won’t even be released outside of the US. There’s a bigger, more important principle at stake here (and whether the movie is good or bad), and that’s free speech. For Sony to cave in under pressure so quickly and cravenly is disgraceful, and especially in light of the US Department of Homeland Security stating there is “no credible intelligence” of an active violent plot against cinemas. This makes their decision one of the most ill-considered, and – let’s say it – cowardly responses to a threat anyone’s heard in a long time.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.
D: Pierre Morel / 93m
Cast: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Olivier Rabourdin, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Holly Valance, Katie Cassidy, Gérard Watkins, Xander Berkeley
Retired government agent (or “preventer”) Bryan Mills (Neeson) is divorced from his wife Lenore (Janssen) and struggling to re-connect with his daughter, Kim (Grace). He’s over-protective, which works against him, and never more so when, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, Kim tells him she’s been invited to stay in Paris during the summer. He’s against the idea at first, but eventually gives his permission for her to go. Travelling with her friend, Amanda (Cassidy), Kim arrives in Paris and they settle into the apartment where they’re staying. But on the first night, intruders break in to the apartment, and Kim, who’s on the phone to her father, watches as she sees them grab Amanda, and then come looking for her.
Bryan learns that her abductors are Albanians who specialise in human trafficking, kidnapping young female tourists to be sold as sex slaves to the highest bidder. He travels to Paris, and with the help of old friend, Jean-Claude (Rabourdin), devises a plan to find Kim and get her back. He learns about a construction site where there is a problem with “new merchandise”, but Kim isn’t there; instead he finds a woman who has Kim’s jacket. He leaves with her and holes up in a hotel room where she tells him about a house in the Rue de Paradis. The house proves to be where the Albanians have their base. Bryan kills all but one of them, whom he tortures for more information.
The Albanian tells Bryan about a man called Saint Clair (Watkins), who hosts parties that act as cover for the buying and selling of any kidnapped women. Brian sees Kim there, but before he can rescue her, he’s knocked unconscious. When he comes to, Saint Clair and his henchmen have Bryan tied up, and are about to kill him…
Back in 2008, the idea of Liam Neeson playing a full-on action role was regarded as a bit unusual, partly because few of his previous roles had been in the action genre, and partly because of his age (he was fifty-six at the time). But despite the preposterous, gung-ho approach taken by writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, Neeson’s über-serious portrayal of Mills somehow offset the movie’s cocksure silliness, and made Taken a huge success at the box office (the movie took around $225 million worldwide).
The idea of a man with “a special set of skills” running riot in Paris with a flagrant disregard for the law or due process, while not exactly new, benefits hugely from Neeson’s performance. His single-minded pursuit of his daughter’s kidnappers grounds the movie so effectively that even when Mills is directly in the line of fire of a man with a semi-automatic weapon and he doesn’t receive so much as a scratch, it’s almost like an entitlement; he’s a father, and what he’s doing is right (godammit).
This leads to a lot of indiscriminate killing, and in one sequence casual maiming, as Mills sense of justice borders on the psychopathic (he shoots one Albanian in the back, something our cinematic heroes are very rarely seen to do). This unapologetic violence is what gives the movie its edge, as Mills’ unfettered brutality keeps the audience wondering just how far he will go to rescue his daughter. Neeson is completely focused and convincing, and when you realise just how committed he is, you almost begin to feel sorry for the bad guys – they really don’t stand a chance (even with the nature of the script and the storyline, they really don’t stand a chance).
Away from the continual bloodshed, the earlier scenes where we first meet Bryan and Kim are more compulsory than enthralling, while the idea that Bryan sees his daughter as being younger than she is and in need of more “protection” is never fully developed (when he tells Lenore Kim’s been abducted you half expect him to say, “I told you so”). This is less a kind of over-developed fatherly concern and more of a deep-rooted paranoia, which might have had a more effective pay-off if Kim had been kidnapped because of something he did in the past. As it is, it still leaves Bryan Mills as one seriously screwed-up ex-government agent, and his morally dubious approach to “working” makes him more interesting than most armed avengers.
This extra-added depth to the main character, allied with Neeson’s compelling performance, makes Taken a bit of a guilty pleasure. Benson and Kamen’s script does its best to plug up any plot holes when they crop up, but it doesn’t always succeed – Bryan’s friend, Sam (Orser), identifies the kidnapper Bryan speaks to over the phone with only two words to go on (that’s some voice recognition software they’ve got there!) – and outside of Bryan, Kim and Lenore, characterisations are kept to a minimum, with broad brush strokes used throughout. As the bad guys, the Albanians could have been Russian or Croatian or any other Eastern European ethnic minority, and lack an identity as a result: they’re just there to be despatched as quickly as possible.
The fight scenes are cleverly constructed and choreographed to make Neeson look like he’s doing most of his own stunts (though when he’s not it’s a little too obvious), and it all looks appropriately bone-crunching and painful (the sound effects guys must have a field day on these kinds of movies). And as if to pour scorn on the idea that French stunt drivers aren’t the best in the world, there’s a short sequence involving Bryan chasing a boat that is as brazenly exciting and well edited as any in, say, The Transporter movies, or Ronin (1998). Having cut his teeth on The Transporter (2005), Morel directs with confidence and knows enough to let Neeson take the reins and do what he does best, while injecting a fierce intensity into the action scenes. Janssen and Grace provide adequate support (though Grace does overdo the squeals of delight when Kim gets something she wants), while a sub-plot involving a pop star (Valance) comes and goes so quickly that you wonder why it was included.
Rating: 8/10 – a thudding, crunching, pumped-up action movie shot mostly at night for maximum atmosphere, Taken is a supremely confident addition to the lone avenger sub-genre of action movies; with a commanding central performance by Neeson that re-energised his career, this should be filed under “Gratuitous Violence – for the enjoyment of”.
The latest from Robert Zemeckis tells the true story of Philippe Petit, the man who attempted to walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in August 1974. With an October 2015 release date, it’s still a long way off, but expect it to be hyped up for the Oscars in 2016.
D: Marcel Sarmiento (Vicious Circles)/Gregg Bishop (Dante the Great)/Nacho Vigalondo (Parallel Monsters)/Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead (Bonestorm)/ 82m
Cast: Justin Welborn, Emmy Argo, Gustavo Salmerón, Marian Álvarez, Nick Blanco, Chase Newton, Shane Bradey
The latest in the found footage horror series, V/H/S Viral strays further and further from the original concept, partly it seems to avoid accusations of “more of the same”, and partly in recognition that the VHS format is now too outdated to work effectively (either way, just how many empty houses full of old tapes can there be?).
Beginning with the wraparound story, Vicious Circles, where a guy ends up chasing the ice cream van that he believes holds his kidnapped girlfriend (and which is already being chased by police), the movie then tells the bizarre story of Dante the Great, a magician who comes into possession of a cloak (once owned by Houdini) that allows him to really do magic – but at a price. It’s a bit of dumb fun, more interested in showing off it’s gravity-defying stunt work than exploring the idea of possession by an object. In terms of found footage it’s also the most contrived, with camera placements in places where they’re really unlikely to be, and with too many used sources for the footage to have been put together in the way in which the segment is presented.
The middle tale, Parallel Monsters, concerns a scientist, Alfonso, who creates a doorway to an alternate universe – in his basement. He meets a replica of himself and the two explore each other’s houses, but while they seem identical, Alfonso soon discovers that not everything is the same in this other universe. It’s a mix of Cronenbergian body horror and sci-fi conventions that has an unintentionally hilarious bedside moment before reaching its predictable climax.
The last tale, Bonestorm, features a couple of skateboarders who travel down to Tijuana to skate at a remote storm drain only to find they’ve upset the local devil worshippers who try and kill them before the devil in the drain tries as well. Of the three stories this is the worst, mixing POV shots of the skaters offing dozens of extras dressed as devil worshippers with the kind of crass dialogue that makes you wish they’d die before they even get to Tijuana.
With the wraparound story proving too confusing to make sense, as well as having no connection to the three tales – a fourth tale, Gorgeous Vortex, was cut to provide a “smoother” running time (whatever that means) – V/H/S Viral is too far removed from the first two movies to be effective, and the material is weak throughout (it’s like watching Halloween (1978) and Halloween II (1981) and then wondering if Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) was really the best they could come up with).
Rating: 3/10 – a very poor sequel that can’t even be bothered to put its tales into any kind of context, V/H/S Viral is lacking in almost every department; tired, and horrible (as opposed to horrifying), this sequel is one that even fans will want to disown.
A documentary that follows the Italian artist Blu on a tour of South America, Megunica – the title is an amalgam of the countries visited: Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Argentina – is represented by a poster that is literally a work of art. Designed and drawn by Blu, the fun here is in interpreting the image and what it might mean.
I say “fun” because this is a movie I haven’t seen, but the poster is so intriguing it’s already had me trying to locate a copy of Megunica so I can discover if the image is relevant to a sequence in the movie, or if it’s a stand alone piece that the makers felt would be fitting just for the poster. (This is what a really good poster should do: not be just part of a marketing exercise, but grab the attention and be fascinating enough to make someone want to see the movie it’s promoting, even – and especially – if it’s a movie they might not plan to see normally.)
When looking at the poster, two things spring to mind immediately. The first is the idea that the man we see painting a wall and covered in flies is somehow attempting to wipe the slate clean. With South America’s history of exploitation and corruption in mind, Blu’s painter could be trying to make the point that it’s time for change, a time to start over. If so, it’s a powerful statement, at once provocative and profound. The second possibility is that it’s a self-portrait, a representation of Blu himself, an artist known for his murals and graffiti work the world over. What better way to “introduce” him than as the focus of the poster, and doing what he does best?
Both ideas, of course, may be erroneous, but again, that’s part of the fun. The flies may be representative of the conditions where the movie was made, or a metaphor for South American societies, or they could be “just” flies. But whichever notion is correct, or if they’re there for another reason entirely, the fact that this poster can prompt even this much debate is a triumph.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know (especially if you’ve seen the movie).
Action, Alex Hyde-White, Ben Grimm, Doctor Doom, Drama, Jay Underwood, Johnny Storm, Marvel, Mr Fantastic, Rebecca Staab, Reed Richards, Review, Roger Corman, Sci-fi, Sue Storm, The Human Torch, The Thing, Unreleased
D: Oley Sassone / 90m
Cast: Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab, Michael Bailey Smith, Joseph Culp, Ian Trigger, Kat Green, Carl Ciarfalio, George Gaynes
College friends Reed Richards (Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Culp) have built a machine that they hope will harness the energy from a passing cosmic phenomenon, but their experiment backfires and Victor is horribly injured. Believed to have died from his injuries, Von Doom is spirited away to his home country by two of his followers.
Ten years later, the cosmic phenomenon has returned and Reed has built a spaceship to take him and a hand-picked team – his friends Ben Grimm (Smith), Sue Storm (Staab) and her brother Johnny (Underwood) – near enough to it that they can collect data about it. Reed acquires a large diamond that will allow them to harness the power of the phenomenon’s cosmic rays, but on the eve of the flight it’s stolen by a criminal called the Jeweler (Trigger) who replaces it with a fake. As a result, Reed’s ship is bombarded by cosmic rays and forced to crash land back on Earth. The four survive but discover the rays have altered them in different ways: Reed can stretch his body, Sue can turn invisible, Johnny can control fire, and Ben has been changed into an orange-skinned stone-like creature (Ciarfalio).
Picked up by Doom’s henchmen (posing as Marines), the four are held at Victor’s mountain hideout (where he is now known as Doctor Doom). They use their newfound powers to escape and head back to New York, where they try to work out what to do next. Ben leaves and ends up being inducted into the Jeweler’s gang. While there he learns that Doom needs the diamond for a laser cannon that he wants to use to destroy New York. When Doom subsequently steals the diamond, Ben alerts Reed. Together they all don costumes Sue has created and travel back to Doom’s mountain hideout, where they attempt to stop Victor from carrying out his plan.
Famous for being the Marvel movie that’s never been released (but which can be seen on YouTube), The Fantastic Four makes for fascinating viewing. It’s as bad as bad can be – though there are worse movies out there – and plays like a Saturday morning serial, but without the tension of a cliffhanger moment. Its low budget, let’s-make-it-to-keep-the-rights approach stifles any creativity, and even though a lot of the origin material is taken directly from the comics, there’s a spark missing that keeps The Fantastic Four from being more than just a curiosity.
On the positive side, the movie does move at a good pace, and most scenes don’t outstay their welcome, but there’s very little energy within them. The dialogue is clunky and/or chock full of needless exposition, and the cast don’t always succeed in making it sound convincing. Some of the sets have that “one puff and they’ll fall down” look to them, and the photography by Mark Parry is often static and poorly framed, making some scenes so bland and uninteresting to watch that you end up pitying editor Glenn Garland (also an associate producer) for having so little effective coverage to play around with.
The whole sub-plot involving the Jeweler and his “dregs of society” underlings feels forced and his philosophical musings feel like they’ve been drafted in from an amateur Shakespeare production. Doom has two senior henchmen who do the bulk of his dirty work for him, but are about as threatening as day-old kittens, while Doom himself is too prone to posing and making fancy hand gestures to be menacing; he’s like the camp uncle who only gets to visit at Xmas. As for the Fantastic Four themselves, Reed’s elasticity is used at one point to trip some of Doom’s henchmen; Sue’s invisibility is sometimes only partial, leaving her head and/or upper body exposed as in the good old days of silent cinema; Johnny acts like a gosh-darn college student who wants to put on a show in the old barn; and Ben as the Thing gets to say, “It’s clobbering’ time!” on three separate, yet underwhelming occasions.
With all this it’s no surprise that the cast – apparently unaware that the movie wouldn’t be released – display all the vitality of actors attending a read-through. Hyde-White aims for gravitas but misses by a mile, making Reed seem out-of-touch instead (even when Sue is practically throwing herself at him). Staab matches him in terms of banality, and delivers her lines with a breathless urgency that befits an ingenue rather than an actress in her Thirties. Underwood has plenty of energy and enthusiasm but doesn’t know what to do with it, his wide-eyed mugging making Johnny look like an idiot. And Smith isn’t on screen long enough to make much of an impact (Ciarfalio does much better in the Thing suit, even without his own dialogue). With these four making very little impression, it’s left to Culp to provide the unintentional laughs, and once inside his Doctor Doom outfit, he does so with camp abandon.
Watching The Fantastic Four it’s hard to believe that even the Seventies’ Spider-Man movies that were made for TV are better viewing experiences – but they are. It’s also difficult to work out just what the $1 million budget was spent on, what with the shoddy sets, the below-par special effects – Johnny’s full-body Human Torch effect is rendered as animation rather than live action – and the “don’t touch too much” props (though, surprisingly, the costumes are not that bad). With Sassone unable to provide much in the way of capable direction, it’s amazing that the movie can be construed as anything even close to entertainment, but even with all its failings some fans may well be prepared to forgive much of what makes the movie so bad in the first place.
Rating: 2/10 – with its behind the scenes machinations finally revealed in Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s “The Fantastic Four” (2014), the actual movie retains its standing as one of sci-fi’s greatest misfires; made for the sake of it, The Fantastic Four continually trumps each terrible scene with another – and that’s some feat in itself.
D: John Carney / 104m
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Yasiin Bey, Catherine Keener, CeeLo Green
Record label executive Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo) is struggling to keep up with the changing pace of the modern music industry. Separated from his wife Miriam (Keener) and estranged from his daughter Violet (Seinfeld), Dan’s partner in the record company he co-founded, Saul (Bey) fires him. He goes on a drinking binge that sees him end up in bar where English singer-songwriter Gretta James (Knightley) is persuaded to take to the stage by her friend, Steve (Corden). The song she sings captivates Dan and he approaches Gretta with the offer of signing her.
Gretta isn’t interested in Dan’s offer because she’s planning to return to England the next day. She’s in the US because she came over with her boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Levine), when he was signed to a record label. While on a promotional jaunt, he slept with a record label executive; unhappy and discouraged, Gretta just wants to leave and put her relationship with Dave behind her. The next morning, though, she takes up Dan on his offer. This forces him to come clean about his position, but he convinces her to go with him to see Saul; Dan is sure Saul will sign her, but without a demo to give him, he passes.
Undeterred, Dan comes up with a plan to make an album of Gretta’s songs by recording them all over the city: on rooftops, subway platforms, alleyways, wherever they can. Dan assembles a team of musicians that includes Steve, while Gretta, in an attempt to reunite him with his daughter, arranges for Violet to play guitar on one of the songs. With the album completed they see Saul again but leave without a deal having been reached (Gretta wants Dan to get his job back as well as a bigger cut of the profits).
Shortly after, Gretta sees Dave accepting an award on TV and believing him to have sold out, pours out her feelings in a song she sings and leaves on his voicemail. Dave gets in touch with her and asks to meet when he’s back in New York. Greta agrees but finds that her feelings for Dan are changing from professional to personal. Unsure of which way to turn, Gretta meets Dave in the hope that she’ll be able to decide which path to take.
A fresh take on an age-old story, Begin Again belies its Svengali-like origins to give its audience a modern day interpretation that sidesteps many of its genre conventions with a knowing wink and a shrug of indifference. Working from his own script, director Carney fashions a story of two peoples’ separate roads to personal empowerment and redemption that neatly avoids the clichés inherent in such scenarios, and makes the movie feel like a breath of fresh air.
Playing around with the structure in the movie’s first half hour, Carney introduces the viewer to Dan and Gretta with a view to telling their back stories in such a way that by the time they begin to make the album they’re like old friends we’ve known for ages. We get to see Dan at his worst and Gretta at her most trusting. We see them come together and start to rely on each other as they begin to rebuild their lives. It’s in these opening scenes that Carney draws the audience in and sets up the dramatic elements that will pay off later on in the movie (but not in the way that you might expect). And he doesn’t fall into the usual traps, for example: despite the predictable nature of Gretta and Dave’s break up, it’s presented in the kind of “adult” way you rarely see in movies. It’s a relatively short scene but Carney packs it with an emotional punch that is frankly disarming (and he’s ably abetted by Knightley and Levine).
With Dan and Gretta’s relationship so well cemented the movie’s central section becomes a joyous evocation of making an album. This is Begin Again at its most winning and infectious, the sheer pleasure of making music in a live environment so evident you can’t help but tap your feet along with the songs. And thanks to the efforts of composer Gregg Alexander these are terrific songs indeed, catchy and effortlessly perceptive about life and love and the pitfalls of both. Knightley, who hadn’t sung before, is assured here, her soft, soulful voice a perfect match for the material.
Alas, the final third, with its need to wrap things up, undermines some of the good work Carney has put in. Gretta and Dan each arrive at a place that befits their individual struggles, but there’s a sense that they’ve been let down by Carney’s determination not to play it safe and to avoid the movie having a predictable ending. Even with this, his leads remain convincing throughout, handling their characters’ journeys from start to finish with skill, confidence and conviction. Ruffalo gives such an impressive performance it’s hard to take your eyes off him, while Knightley invests Gretta with a stubborn, earnest vulnerability that is mesmerising. When on screen together they spark off each other, each raising their game, each making the movie even richer. In support, Steinfeld, Keener and Corden all provide charming turns, while Levine (from Maroon 5) makes his feature debut and is very good indeed.
With its emotional content linked directly to, and expressively through, its songs, Begin Again is a musical drama that packs several unexpected punches, and if its near rags-to-riches feel has an unavoidable touch of whimsy wrapped around it, then it’s no bad thing. This is a feelgood movie, and unashamedly so.
Rating: 8/10 – guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face during its musical numbers, Begin Again is a lively, effervescent movie that is both delightful and poignant in equal measure; with assured turns from its two leads, it’s a movie that entertains and rewards far more than it should do given its bittersweet ending.
D: Kevin Smith / 102m
Cast: Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Guy Lapointe
Popular podcast hosts Wallace Bryton (Long) and Teddy Craft (Osment) have built up their following by finding videos of people doing stupid and/or humiliating things and re-broadcasting them. When they find a video of a young Canadian whose swordplay proves disastrous, Wallace determines to follow it up by meeting him. His girlfriend, Ally (Rodriguez), wants to go with him but he dissuades her. When Wallace arrives in Manitoba, though, he finds the story is a dead end. Later that night in a bar, he comes across a flyer from someone offering free lodging in return for listening to a lifetime of interesting stories. Intrigued, Wallace calls the man, Howard Howe (Parks) and arranges to meet him where he lives.
Their initial meeting goes well. Howe does indeed have some remarkable stories to tell, and Wallace is fascinated by them. Howe’s home is also full of mementoes and keepsakes from his travels. But as he begins to tell Wallace about the time he was stranded on a small Russian island with only a walrus for company, the podcaster begins to feel tired. Soon he passes out. When he comes to he finds himself in a wheelchair and very groggy. Howe explains that Wallace was bitten by a poisonous spider – which caused him to pass out – but he’s been seen by a doctor, though in order to stop the poison from spreading, Wallace’s left leg has been removed below the knee.
Wallace soon learns that the story of the spider is untrue, and that Howe has plans for Wallace that involve transforming him into a walrus. Wallace manages to call both Ally and Teddy but his calls go to voicemail. Howe finds out what he’s doing, and so speeds up his plan. The next morning, Ally and Teddy find Wallace’s calls and head for Manitoba. When they get there they find there is little evidence to go on, but the local police put them in touch with an ex-detective of the Sûreté du Québec, Guy Lapointe. Lapointe has been chasing a serial killer who’s been responsible for dismembering and mutilating young men for years, twenty-three in total. Together, he, Ally and Teddy trace Wallace’s journey from Manitoba to Howe’s home. But will they be in time to save Wallace from an awful fate?
The last few years have seen writer/director Kevin Smith broaden his cinematic horizons away from his New Jersey roots – and the dialogue heavy movies he made there – to incorporate ideas and places far removed from the kind of movies we’ve become used to. Cop Out (2010) was a serious misstep, working from someone else’s script and having no real feel for the material; in many ways it looked like a movie made by someone who didn’t give a toss (it also has one of the most embarrassing tag lines ever: “Rock out with your Glock out”). Red State (2011) was a better choice of material but was too unsure of what it wanted to be to be entirely successful. Now, with Tusk, Smith returns with a more focused, more accessible movie, but one which also has its fair share of needless longueurs.
Using Long and Osment as on screen versions of himself and long-time producer/friend Scott Mosier, Smith opens the movie with a podcast that recreates the vibe of his own podcasts: funny, irreverent, and with a healthy disdain for “holding back” (the video they show is both predictable and yet shocking at the same time). It sets up Wallace as a bit of a horrible jerk, something that is confirmed later on when we learn that he doesn’t want Ally to go on trips with him because it cuts down on his opportunities to get some “road head”. He’s not a likeable guy, but as he tells Ally, he’s the new Wallace, whereas the old, pre-podcast Wallace was a loser. It’s a neat trick on Smith’s part, that the object of a painful physical transformation has already undergone a mental one, and it’s this that will (hopefully) see him through his ordeal. Long makes Wallace objectionable and crass in his dealings with others, but this makes it difficult for the audience to fully sympathise with him when Howe’s plan swings into action. It’s a measure of Smith’s confidence as a director, and Long’s performance, that this hesitancy doesn’t undercut the movie’s effectiveness, and instead, adds to the tension.
However, with the introduction of Lapointe, Smith scuppers both the momentum he’s built up up to that point, and a large portion of the goodwill the movie needs to keep the audience with it (it’s a far-fetched tale requiring a healthy dose of acceptance, especially in the later stages). Lapointe is played by a very well known actor who is simply credited as Guy Lapointe, but it’s a mannered caricature of a performance that stops the movie cold and ruins the tone completely. Lapointe is in many ways the comic relief, but it’s an extended turn that doesn’t work and includes an awkward flashback that adds little to the movie other than the chance to see Parks play old and bordering on senile (as opposed to old and way past disturbed).
Parks is on fine form, his verbose dialogue made into polite expressions of personal experience in his opening scenes with Long, and then given a more florid, cod-Shakespearean approach once his plan is under way. It’s an operatic performance in many ways, and leans toward tragedy by the end, but Parks is quietly, authoritatively magnificent in a role that could so easily have descended into high farce (especially when Smith’s script skirts it quite often). In support, Osment has a subdued role that doesn’t allow him to stretch as an actor, while Rodriguez gets to emote to camera but with very little reason for her to be doing so.
Tusk is an odd little movie that will likely divide audiences, and in certain quarters will find itself the object of unintentional laughter, but the nature of the story is such that this is unavoidable. Like many of Smith’s movies it’s not the most visually compelling of projects to watch, and the score by Christopher Drake doesn’t highlight the drama as well as it could have done, often feeling perfunctory rather than part of the movie’s fabric. However, in the editor’s chair, Smith really shows his strengths – the sequence with Guy Lapointe in the diner aside – and he makes good use of long shots to evoke menace (Howe walking the length of the dining table to see to Wallace’s cries for help is a great example).
Rating: 7/10 – with often superb dialogue that any actor would relish delivering, and a sense of the truly macabre that most horror movies can’t even fake properly, Tusk sees Smith on fine form; this may well turn out to be a future cult movie, while its scenes of Cronenberg-style body horror are grim and uncompromising to watch.
D: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith / 92m
Cast: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare
Antarctica: three wilful penguins, Skipper (McGrath), Kowalski (Miller) and Rico (Vernon) rescue an egg from an abandoned ship full of leopard seals. The egg hatches to reveal a baby penguin they call Private (Knights). After seeing off the seals they find themselves adrift on a small patch of ice.
Ten years later – and following on from the events in Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012) – the team decide to leave the circus. They break into Fort Knox so that they can celebrate Private’s birthday by treating him to some Cheezy Dibbles, a snack that has been discontinued but which can still be found in one of the Reserve’s vending machines. However, the vending machine proves to be a trap and the team are kidnapped by Dave (Malkovich), an octopus bent on revenge against all penguins thanks to his treatment in various zoos where they were the star attraction and not him.
The penguins escape his clutches and find themselves in Venice. Cornered by Dave’s squid “henchmen”, they find themselves rescued by members of the North Wind, a secret, undercover, inter-species task force dedicated to bringing animal villains to justice. Led by Agent Classified (Cumberbatch), they view Skipper and the gang as unreliable and refuse to team up with them; instead they have the gang transported to one of their remote bases (ironically, on Madagascar). But the gang escape and make their way to Shanghai where they manage to capture Dave. He escapes though, and manages to kidnap all the city zoo’s penguins, and Private as well. At his remote island base, Dave shows Private his plan to use a Medusa serum on all the world’s penguins, and which will turn them all into horrible, mutated creatures.
Meanwhile, the penguins and the North Wind argue about the best course of action. They do agree to attempt a rescue mission but are all captured. Private manages to free the North Wind but instead of freeing the penguins they depart for reinforcements. With Dave heading for New York City to release the Medusa-affected penguins on an unsuspecting public, it’s up to Private to find a way of saving his friends, and all the other penguins as well.
With Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private proving the most popular characters in the Madagascar franchise, it was inevitable that after several short movies and their own TV show, that a feature-length movie would happen eventually (in fact it’s been on the drawing board since 2005). Thankfully, all the well established quirks and traits of the characters have been retained, along with their Bond-style theatrics, and at the service of a half-decent plot that, while not entirely too imaginative, still makes for a lot of fun and keeps the movie entertaining as a whole.
There’s a lot going on in Penguins of Madagascar: it’s an origin story (not that it was really needed), a revenge tale, a spy caper, a personal empowerment yarn (Private feels like a lesser member of the team because he doesn’t have a specific skill), and a family saga. Mixing all these elements could have led to the movie having an identity crisis, but under the auspices of Darnell and Smith, the movie weaves these various strands to such good effect that each one plays out with to its full potential. It’s good to see so many elements in a movie given enough space to work effectively, and not feel under-developed. And even if these elements are entirely familiar or lack a degree of originality, there’s enough verve and vitality about them to offset any disappointment.
With a lot going on, there’s also a lot to enjoy, though some of it – such as the inclusion of several movie star names amongst Dave’s instructions to his squid squad, e.g. “Nicolas! Cage them!” – may require repeat viewings to fully appreciate or pick up on. (There’s been some criticism that with so much going on this leads to some of the humour being hit and miss, that if one joke fails it’s not a problem as there’ll be another one along in a minute. Not to be too obvious about it, but it’s a rare movie that has a 100% hit rate when it comes to jokes or visual humour.) But as with most big budget studio animation these days, it’s all part of the enjoyment to be had, with references for kids and adults alike, making the movie work on several levels, and providing entertainment for as broad an age range as possible.
Whatever your reaction to the material may be, Penguins of Madagascar is still a fast, funny, visually inventive movie that is a treat to watch. The glossy, vibrant animation is sharp and richly detailed, and has a spirited zest to it that makes watching the movie a complete pleasure. From the crisp whiteness of Antarctica, to the bright, colourful showdown in New York City, this is animation that zings and pops off the screen with fizzy, glorious abandon. The various set pieces are handled with skill and imagination, and the characters are so cleverly drawn and animated that certain habits almost go unnoticed (Agent Classified can’t say “penguin”; instead he says “pengwings”). With so much going on visually, it’s fitting that the voice cast is able to match the animators with their performances. Cumberbatch and Malkovich are great choices, their vocal styles complementing their characters’ looks perfectly and adding a further layer of richness to the proceedings. As the titular team, McGrath (who created the characters), Miller, Knights and Vernon have been doing this for so long that they don’t put a flipper wrong throughout, and there’s solid support from the likes of Jeong and Stormare (and yes, the documentary filmmaker at the beginning is Werner Herzog; who knew he liked penguins so much?).
It looks like it’ll be a while before we see Skipper and the gang again – not until Madagascar 4 reaches us in 2018 – but for now this outing for the spy-centric birds acts as a wonderfully anarchic, hugely enjoyable showcase for their particular brand of well-meaning chaos. Heartwarming at times, highly silly at others, and with something for everyone packed into its ninety-two minute running time, this is an exuberant, rewarding di-version (or should that be div-ersion?) that succeeds admirably in expanding the world of four very individual penguins.
Rating: 8/10 – glorious fun throughout, Penguins of Madagascar is another sure-fire success from Dreamworks Animation; it may lack depth and play fast-and-loose with subtlety – “No one breaks the Wind” – but as an exercise in well-crafted lunacy, this fits the bill entirely.
D: George Gallo / 82m
Cast: Selma Blair, Amy Smart, Jason Lee, Beau Bridges, Kevin Pollak, Giovanni Ribisi, Jason Antoon, Robert Guillaume
Abigail Clayton (Blair) lives alone in her penthouse apartment overlooking Columbus Circle, and has done so for nearly twenty years. She communicates with only two people: in person with her physician and long-time family friend Raymond Fontaine (Bridges), and by note with concierge Klandermann (Pollak). Her quiet, ordered life is disrupted following the death of her neighbour. The investigating detective, Frank Giardello (Ribisi), isn’t convinced it’s the accidental death it looks like. He speaks to Abigail (much to her dislike); she in turn alerts Fontaine who reassures her that Giardello’s talking to her was just routine.
Abigail attempts to buy her neighbour’s apartment to further maintain her privacy but to her dismay a couple move in shortly afterward. Charles (Lee) and Lillian (Smart) seem like a young, prosperous, happy couple but one night, Abigail overhears an argument the couple have in the corridor. The argument becomes violent and Lillian is hit by her husband. Lillian’s cries for help prompt Abigail to do something she would never have thought possible: help the injured woman. Once inside Abigail’s apartment, Lillian makes excuses for Charles’s behaviour before she falls asleep. The next morning she thanks Abigail for her help and the beginnings of a friendship are established.
Meanwhile, Giardello’s investigation reveals a link between Abigail’s neighbour and Fontaine. When Giardello visits him, Fontaine lets slip that he knows Abigail as well. The detective begins to suspect that Abigail isn’t who she seems to be, and is probably wealthy heiress Justine Waters, who disappeared on her eighteenth birthday and hasn’t been seen since.
Abigail and Lillian grow closer, while Charles becomes more and more aggressive in his behaviour. One evening, he and Klandermann are in the elevator together when the concierge remarks that Charles is familiar to him but he can’t place where they might have met. Charles thinks it unlikely but Klandermann is convinced that he’ll remember. When he does, it brings to light a conspiracy that involves the search for a missing heiress…
Making out like a Hitchcockian thriller, Columbus Circle has a basic plot that seems clever at the outset but which quickly abandons plausibility in favour of a more tired and derivative approach, and wraps things up so awkwardly that it makes you wonder if co-scripters Pollak and Gallo really had an ending in the first place. With any thriller there’s an accepted – indeed, expected – amount of suspension of disbelief, and Columbus Circle is no different in this respect, but sometimes it’s a matter of how many times that suspension is required that defeats everything. No matter how much good will a movie generates during its running time, sometimes it’s never enough. And so it proves here.
Abigail’s reclusive lifestyle is explained via a mix of flashbacks and exposition, and is used as the basis for her helping Lillian. So far, so good. But when we see Lillian playing amateur therapist and helping Abigail down the corridor in an attempt to conquer her fear of leaving her apartment, then things begin to tumble downhill with ever increasing speed. And even later still, when the movie requires Abigail to leave the safety of her apartment altogether, she does so without a backward glance. It’s moments like these that prompt the question, why make Abigail a recluse in the first place? For ultimately it doesn’t matter. Nor does the issue of whether or not she’s really a missing heiress (something the movie gives up quite early on). What Columbus Circle does, and with a clumsiness that does itself no favours, is to take a fairly run-of-the-mill scenario and then try to make it more intriguing by having its lead character driven by a deep-rooted phobia – which it then ignores/drops/abandons in order to provide the movie with a “satisfying” ending.
Long-time mystery fans will spot the mechanics of what’s happening from a mile off, while even newcomers shouldn’t have too many problems spotting the bad guys. It all leaves the movie appearing less effective than it should be given the calibre of the cast involved. Blair is a perfect choice for Abigail, her injured looks and awkward physicality providing more character development than her dialogue, but the rest of the cast struggle to make more of their characters than is on the page or the script allows. As a result, generic performances abound, particularly from Pollak who you’d be forgiven for thinking would have given himself a better role. Ribisi takes a secondary role and employs his trademark blank-faced stare to minimal effect, and Bridges (sadly) reminds us once again why his brother gets all the good roles. Worst of all, Lee and Smart fail to convince as Charles and Lillian, displaying a lack of chemistry that hurts the movie whenever they’re on screen together.
Organising it all, Gallo starts off strong but fumbles things almost from the moment Giardello talks to Abigail. Their encounter is stiff and unfriendly and it sets the tone for many of the scenes that follow, even amongst other characters. As the mystery unfolds and the movie heads into unashamed thriller territory, Gallo loses his grip completely, leading to a final fifteen minutes that defies the movie’s own logic and screams “convenience” at the top of its lungs. The movie also looks like it was made for TV, with Anastasia Michos’ photography battling against an incredibly bland lighting design. Add an equally bland score by Brian Tyler and you have a movie that seems content to settle for second best in its endeavours.
Rating: 4/10 – of passing interest only, Columbus Circle undermines itself by dispensing with its mystery elements early on, leaving any tension or drama feeling forced and artless; the only puzzle here is why Gallo and Pollak thought this would pass muster as either a mystery or a thriller.
D: Paul Tanter / 82m
Cast: Tom Benedict Knight, Simon Phillips, Christina Bellavia, Ewan Ross, Zara Phythian, Ben Loyd-Holmes, Kye Loren, Lorraine Stanley
A ruthless gang of terrorists led by Holt (Phillips) kidnap the British Prime Minister’s daughter, Alice (Bellavia) and some of her friends from a nightclub. At a nearby multi-storey car park they barricade themselves in and wait for the authorities to find them. When they do, the officer in charge, Detective Carpenter (Ross) advises caution but an SAS unit led by Christopher Lowe (Knight) goes in without orders. They find each level rigged with explosives. Meanwhile, Holt waits for his larger plan to come to fruition, and when he becomes aware of the SAS, exhorts his gang to kill them. A cat and mouse game ensues as the SAS make their way through each level, while on the outside Carpenter tries to figure out how the gang can possibly make their escape, or if they really are intending to blow up the car park and themselves with it.
With so many independent, low budget gangster/crime movies having been made in the UK over the last ten years – often by the same people – you could be forgiven for thinking that with all that experience the movies would get better over time. But you’d be wrong. And He Who Dares is a perfect example of a genre that has nothing left to say, and even less to offer in terms of entertainment. It’s a grim, depressing movie that ranks as amateurish drivel; its below-par heroics and poorly choreographed action scenes are so bad that it makes even Steven Seagal’s run of Made-in-Romania movies look good.
There’s really no excuse for the appalling dialogue, the ridiculous and unconvincing set up, the woeful plotting, the atrocious acting, the clumsy direction, the lacklustre photography, the unimaginative fight scenes, and worst of all, the over-indulgent use of freeze frames, superimpositions and distressed image effects that passes for editing. Put all these things together and you have an appalling mess of a movie that seemingly has no idea of how stupid it is.
We have Phillips to thank for the risible story, and director Tanter, along with James Crow, to thank for the terrible dialogue and plotting. Tanter and Phillips are frequent collaborators – the White Collar Hooligan movies, Shame the Devil (2013) – and really should be kept apart from each other if this is the kind of movie they’re likely to come up with. What defeats the imagination is the possibility that these two men, with all their (limited) experience, can’t see that the movies they’re producing are so bad as to be almost unendurable. It’s worrying that movie after movie goes by and there’s no improvement in quality.
Rating: 1/10 – with nothing to recommend it, He Who Dares is an embarrassing, unintentionally hilarious movie that exposes the limitations of its makers, and would have gained more kudos if it had been a student movie; with a sequel – He Who Dares: Downing Street Siege – already completed (and which sees Knight, Phillips and Bellavia reprising their roles), it seems there’s no likelihood of things improving any time soon.
D: Tony Mahony, Angus Sampson / 103m
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Ewen Leslie, Geoff Morrell, Georgina Haig, Noni Hazlehurst, John Noble
Melbourne, 1983. Ray Jenkins (Sampson) is voted player of the year at his local football club, and is included in the team’s trip to Thailand as part of its end of season celebrations. With the trip funded largely by local businessman Pat Shepherd (Noble), the team’s vice captain, Gavin Ellis (Whannell) makes Ray an offer: while they’re in Bangkok they can pick up a kilo of heroin, and smuggle it back by putting it in condoms and then swallowing them. Ray reluctantly agrees, but when the time comes only he swallows any condoms.
Back in Australia, Ray behaves suspiciously at the airport and is detained by customs officials. They suspect him of carrying drugs but he refuses to be x-rayed or be given any laxatives (Ray has to give his consent for either to happen). Ray is handed over to the Australian Federal Police, led by Detectives Croft (Weaving) and Paris (Leslie). They take him to a nearby motel where they keep him under surveillance for seven days, and where they wait for one of two outcomes: either Ray confesses to being a drug mule, or he defecates twice. Ray makes the decision to keep quiet and resist going to the toilet for as long as he can.
Meanwhile, Gavin is avoiding Pat, for whom he was smuggling the heroin in the first place. However, Gavin was planning to double cross Pat and sell the heroin himself, but Ray’s detention has ruined things. With Pat after him, Gavin finds out where Ray is being held and books into a room in the same motel. On Ray’s second day he’s appointed a lawyer, Jasmine Griffiths (Haig). She advises him not to cooperate with the police and to hold on for as long as he can. As the week goes on, Ray finds himself being bullied by Croft and some of the other officers, while Pat learns of Ray’s involvement (Gavin was meant to be working alone). When Pat finally catches up with Gavin he gives him no alternative but to find a way into Ray’s motel room and silence him before he can tell the police anything. But when he does, what happens afterwards makes matters far more complicated than even he could have predicted.
Based on a true story, and set against the backdrop of the 1983 America’s Cup competition, The Mule is the kind of slightly warped, slightly off-kilter drama that Australian cinema does so well. Taking the bare bones of an arrest in the early Eighties, co-writers Sampson and Whannell, along with Jaime Browne, have fashioned a tale of personal endurance and criminal conspiracy that is by turns tense and dramatic, while also maintaining a fair degree of black comedy in its approach (see the above still). It sets things up with an economy and confidence that makes Ray’s dilemma all the more agonising, as he seeks to make it through his detention at the motel without giving anything away – literally.
Ray is initially presented as a bit of a quiet, unassuming, and gullible character, but there is an intelligence working beneath the furrowed brow that proves more than a match for the likes of Croft and his bully-boy tactics, and there’s a degree of fun to be had in seeing him turn the tables on the police, especially later on in the movie when he discovers a way out of his predicament. Along the way though, Ray has to make some hard choices in between the stomach cramps and protracted bowel spasms, and thanks to Sampson’s natural, perceptive performance, the viewer is sympathetic to Ray’s predicament throughout; he’s an easy character to like, and to root for. (Though one scene may well have audiences reaching for their sick bags, as Ray finds a temporary solution to his problems.)
With Ray’s predicament taking centre stage, the supporting storylines prove less original, though they do bolster the basic man-in-a-room-for-a-week scenario, and give the audience a break from Ray’s protracted agony. There is a twist that arrives partway through, but anyone who’s seen even a handful of crime dramas will see what’s coming based purely on its location, and it seems geared to provide a more “thrilling” ending to the movie than is actually necessary. As well as the criminal plotting going on, there’s some domestic drama ladled into the mix as well, and some crude sexism on Croft’s part that seems reflective of the period rather than an unnecessary character trait.
The cast all have enough to get their teeth into, with Weaving clearly relishing his role at the atavistic Croft, all macho posturing and sneering disdain. As his partner (and in a sense the straight man in their relationship), Leslie has the unshowy role that contrasts with Croft’s boorishness. Both actors put in good performances, and are matched by Haig’s idealistic public defender, Morrell’s shady stepfather, and Hazlehurst’s strong-willed mother. Noble exudes a cruel menace as the crooked businessman with a grim way of chastising his employees, while Whannell does sweaty paranoia with aplomb as the in-over-his-head Gavin. But it’s Sampson’s movie, his portrayal of Ray entirely convincing even when the script requires him to up the IQ points in his efforts to outsmart the police. It’s an often gruelling performance to watch, but as realistic in all likelihood as you’d expect.
Along with Mahony, Sampson also proves adept behind the camera, directing matters with an assurance and boldness that pays off handsomely. He even makes the many scenes where Ray is writhing around in pain as agonising for the audience as it is for the character, and ensures that the humour, when it’s included, isn’t there just for the sake of it. Two moments stand out: the two customs agents deciding who’s going to do Ray’s cavity search, and the police officer returning to Ray’s room and spraying some air freshener – small moments of hilarity that are also timed to perfection. There are also some inventive camera shots to keep things interesting from a visual perspective, and the editing by Andy Canny ensures the pace is kept tight and that scenes don’t outstay their welcome. On the downside, having the main character kept in the same location for so long does restrict the narrative, and while outside events prove engaging overall, without them the movie would have struggled to maintain the audience’s interest. There’s also the small issue of the police always falling asleep at night when they’re supposed to be watching Ray for signs of any “movement”. It’s a clumsy plot device, and is the one really false note in the whole movie.
Rating: 8/10 – thanks to the efforts of Sampson and Whannell – if they look familiar it’s because they play Tucker and Specs in the Insidious movies – The Mule is a little gem of a movie that deserves as big an audience as it can achieve; uncompromising in places, wickedly funny in others, this is an unusual tale that walks a fine line between implausibility and credibility, and succeeds in walking that line admirably.
D: Tristram Shapeero / 88m
Cast: Joel McHale, Lauren Graham, Robin Williams, Candice Bergen, Clark Duke, Oliver Platt, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tim Heidecker, Pierce Gagnon, Bebe Wood, Ryan Lee, Amara Miller, Mark Proksch, Amir Arison
As a child, Boyd Mitchler (McHale) had Christmas, and his belief in Santa, ruined for him by his alcoholic father, Virgil (Williams). As an adult with a family of his own – wife Luann (Graham), daughter Vera (Wood) and son Douglas (Gagnon) – Boyd is determined to make Christmas special for all of them, but especially for Douglas, who still believes in Santa. Boyd figures he can keep Douglas’s belief going for one more Yuletide before that particular layer of innocence is stripped away.
When his brother, Nelson (Duke) calls and says that he has a son, and the christening is on December 24th, and he wants Boyd to be a godfather, it means only one thing: Boyd and his family will need to spend Christmas with Boyd’s parents, including his father who he’s estranged from. Also there will be Boyd’s sister, Shauna (McLendon-Covey), and her family: husband Dave (Heidecker), son Rance (Lee), and daughter Pam (Miller). It isn’t long before Boyd and Virgil are butting heads and letting old animosities interfere with the festive cheer.
With the children all bedded down for the night, and Douglas reassured that Santa will still find him, even though he’s not at home, Boyd discovers that they’ve left Douglas’s presents back at home. Though it’s late, Boyd decides he can make it home, collect the presents, and be back in time for when the children wake up. He sets off, but he doesn’t get far before his car breaks down. Virgil comes to his rescue and together they head for Boyd’s home. Along the way both men begin to understand each other a little better, while back at Virgil’s, Luann and Boyd’s mother, Donna (Bergen), try to come up with some alternative presents in case Boyd doesn’t get back in time.
Of note for being the first of three projects to be released after Robin Williams’ death, A Merry Friggin’ Christmas looks, on paper, to be a sure-fire piece of Yuletide entertainment. It has all the ingredients needed: a dysfunctional family trying to get along, a great ensemble cast, a race against time, pratfalls, verbal insults, two kids you’d cross the road to avoid – even if they were your own, and a seasonal message of goodwill to all men (especially if they’re hobo Santas played by Oliver Platt).
Sadly, what the movie doesn’t have is a focused or funny script, or sharper direction. The script, by first-timer Michael Brown, provides a reasonable enough set up for what follows, but struggles to move things along or keep matters interesting, and loses what little momentum it has pretty quickly. By the time Boyd hits the road, any real drama has been sucked out of the movie, along with most of the humour, and it’s left to McHale, Williams and Duke to provide what little energy it retains. The antipathy between father and son is reduced to their calling each other “Sally”, and aside from one moment of unexpected pathos, is resolved so easily the viewer could be forgiven for wondering how they remained at odds for so long. Likewise the matter of Boyd and Luann’s increasingly celibate marriage, referred to twice but never properly dealt with (and just one of several loose ends the movie never ties up, like Boyd hating his job).
Just as unsatisfactory is the humour, or lack of it. When you have someone of the calibre of Robin Williams in your movie and it’s meant to be a comedy, the worst thing you can do is give him dialogue that he can’t do anything with, and restrict any chances of physical hilarity to zero. All Williams is required to do is snarl off some less than witty insults and comments, and then, later, act wounded and upset. It’s a waste of his talent, but it’s also a measure of the man himself that even though the viewer will realise quickly this is the case, they’ll keep watching in the hope Williams pulls something out of the bag and saves the day (or should that be “seizes the day”?).
The rest of the cast fare just as badly, with McHale looking miserable throughout (but then who wouldn’t be if your character comes across as a jerk for most of the movie?), Graham looking non-plussed, Bergen doing her best to make the material sound better than it is, and Duke doing his lovable schlub routine for what seems like the hundredth time in just this year alone. Platt is almost unrecognisable as a hobo Santa, while the one member of the cast who manages to make something of their role is Proksch, who rescues the movie whenever he’s on screen as a trooper who’s always around when Boyd is speeding.
Such a leaden endeavour isn’t all the fault of the script, though. Making his feature debut, TV veteran Shapeero drops the ball right at the beginning and never manages to retrieve it. Scenes play out with all of their vitality drained out of them, and there’s a noticeable lack of consistency in both the tone and the rhythm of the movie, making it seem disjointed and like a jigsaw puzzle with several of the pieces missing (there’s also the sense that he’s left the cast to interpret their roles without any input from him at all). There are also too many occasions where the camera’s focus is on the wrong person altogether.
Rating: 3/10 – ending up as more of a ho-hum dirge than a ho-ho-ho comedy, A Merry Friggin’ Christmas fails to deliver in almost every department, and should come with a warning that expectations need to be lowered before watching it; slow-going and less than engaging, this is a Christmas movie that doesn’t even provide any snow to add to the effect.
A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)
Chaplin’s final movie wasn’t the well-received swan song he may have hoped for, and it does try to tell a modern story in an old-fashioned way that doesn’t work for the most part, but this poster captures some of the light-hearted fun he was aiming for.
It’s a very Sixties poster, with lots of space left unused, and a slightly trippy feel to the border, the blue bubbles reducing and expanding for no particular reason but still suiting the design. The break at the top left for the stars’ names and the title disrupts the pattern, but it’s a break that doesn’t upset the overall style. Having the stars’ names in red makes for an obvious focus, and they pop out from the pale yellow background like an alert.
The images of Loren and Brando are appealing, especially Loren’s pout, though whether she’s doing so out of surprise or distaste is hard to tell at first thanks to the direction in which her eyes are looking, while Brando’s grin speaks of a man enjoying himself immensely (and if you’re sharing romantic scenes with Sophia Loren, why not?). They seem to be enjoying each other’s company, and it’s clear that they’re relaxed and comfortable with each other. It’s a lovely image, the kind it’s easy to imagine two lovers sharing. And then there’s the inclusion of Brando’s hand and arm, as he attempts to pull away the sheet from Loren’s upper half; it’s a neat touch, and explains the look on Loren’s face.
Below the image are the remaining credits, with Chaplin’s name highlighted in black, and then the supporting cast (also in black). With the bright, primary colours used elsewhere, it’s a bit of a surprise to see black employed so much, though it does make Chaplin’s name stand out (which may have been the intention). All in all, though, this is a fun poster to look at, and it brings together its few elements to surprisingly good effect.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.
D: Phillip Noyce / 97m
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift, Emma Tremblay
In the future, an event known as the Ruin has left the remains of North American society living in communities with rigid rules and hierarchies, and with no memory of the past. The stronger emotions such as love and fear have been quelled, leaving the world a literally grey, colourless place. On their eighteenth birthdays, friends Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan), attend a ceremony that determines their roles as adults in the community. Fiona is given the role of Nurturer, working with newborns in the Nurturing Centre, while Asher is chosen to be a drone pilot. Jonas, however, is initially passed over, until the Chief Elder (Streep) decrees that he will become the next Receiver of Memories.
The next day, Jonas begins his training with an old man who is the current Receiver (Bridges). The old man – the Giver – explains that he is the repository of all the memories of the past, from even before the Ruin, and this knowledge is used by the Elders to provide them with advice and guidance. Meanwhile, Jonas’s father (Skarsgård), a doctor at the Nurturing Centre, has brought home a sickly infant called Gabriel in the hope that more personal care can improve his health.
Jonas’s training continues and slowly the emotions that emerge lead to Jonas beginning to see colours instead of the grey. As Jonas starts to share his newfound experiences with Fiona and Asher, his increasingly erratic behaviour (by community standards) begins to attract the attention of the Chief Elder. She becomes worried that Jonas’ training won’t be successful, and stresses this to the Giver. To make matters more complicated, Jonas discovers that Gabriel has the same birthmark that he does, and that this means Gabriel will grow up to be a Receiver.
However, the next stage of Jonas’ training sees him learn about warfare and death, and he comes to realise that the community practices selective euthanasia as a way of maintaining the status quo, and of weeding out any infants who are too weak or sickly. When he learns this, he wants nothing more to do with being a Receiver, but then Gabriel is returned to the hospital to be “released”. Unable to let Gabriel be killed, Jonas has no option but to rescue the infant, and head for the boundary between the community and the rest of the world. If he can get them both safely across the boundary, then they will both be safe, and the community will undergo the very change the Elders are most frightened of.
While very similar in its set up to Divergent (2014), The Giver – based on the young adult novel by Lois Lowry – is lacking in many of the areas that made that particular movie so surprisingly effective. Even though the script is a largely faithful adaptation by screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, The Giver suffers from having a bland central character in Jonas, a social structure that clearly hasn’t done away with the emotions it abhors, and chief amongst a myriad of other problems, doesn’t even attempt to make any sense.
This is an adaptation where the faults of the original novel have been translated directly onto the screen, and where the novel’s flawed logic has been allowed to dictate events that should have been tightened up dramatically, and which should have seen the characters given a lot more to do than behave as nothing more than genre stereotypes. Good science fiction that depicts a future society – especially one born out of the ruins of an older social structure – always links back to that previous structure in ways that resonate and make an audience either blink in recognition or baulk in horror at the mistakes being repeated. All The Giver does is say, Here’s the community, here’s the set up, no one sees colours, nobody understands the concept of death, parents aren’t really parents, and there’s a whole other world out there but no one’s allowed to see it. And then: just accept it.
But even if the audience were to accept the world of The Giver, even if disbelief could be suspended, it would have to be suspended with pretty much every single scene. There are too many occasions where the viewer’s credulity is stretched to breaking point. Throughout, Jonas behaves as if he’s forgotten the community is littered with surveillance cameras, choosing to carry out his small rebellions while being watched continually. And then, the extent of what he’s been doing is only discovered once he’s chosen to flee with Gabriel (wasn’t anyone watching up ’til then? If not, why not?). It’s also clear that infants such as Gabriel aren’t allowed to stay with families they’re not assigned to, so why is Jonas’s father allowed to bring him home (other than to suit the needs of the story)? And why, in a society that is apparently crime-free and has never been the subject of attack from any other survivors of the Ruin, does it have a security force, or fighter drones to patrol its airspace? These and many more questions remain unanswered, but perhaps the biggest question of all is one reserved for the extended sequence that occurs once Jonas and Gabriel have fled the community and are on their way to the boundary: namely, when were pyramids built in North America?
With the material proving so shoddy and conflicted, audiences are likely to fall back on the performances for comfort but even here they’ll be disappointed. Thwaites seems a good choice for Jonas but within the first ten minutes it becomes obvious that the few demands of the role aren’t going to be met. He’s adequate, but in the way that allows some actors to appear to be giving a more competent performance than they really are. Surprisingly, he’s matched by Streep. Here, the three-time Oscar winner dons an unflattering wig and adopts the air of someone who’s signed on without realising just how bad the script is. As the Giver, Bridges – for whom this has been something of a pet project over the years – brings a gravelly voice and the occasional flash of emotion to his role, but even he can’t inject any life into proceedings, leaving his scenes with Thwaites as near to lifeless as you can get without needing to call an ambulance. (And spare a thought for Holmes, required to do little more than frown a lot and remind Jonas to be more precise in his speech; what a stretch.)
In the hands of veteran Noyce, The Giver has that Hollywood sheen that keeps things looking interesting even when they’re not, and with editor Barry Alexander Brown, manages to keep things moving, especially during a difficult final third that sees the script ramp up the awkwardness and the clumsiness of proceedings to such a point that some viewers may give up out of mounting frustration. It is a handsomely mounted production however (once the grey gives way to full colour), and Marco Beltrami’s score adds a much needed fillip to the overall blandness, but these are minor successes in a movie that remains sluggish and uninspired.
Rating: 4/10 – an unsuccessful adaptation that tests the patience of its audience, and which raises too many questions it has no intention of answering, The Giver is yet another teen vision of a future dystopian society that offers complacency of ideas over originality of thought; dull and meandering, this is one future tale that rarely warrants the attention it’s seeking.
1941, Favourites, Get Carter (1971), Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, Movie quotes, Muriel's Wedding, My Top 10, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Se7en, The Exorcist, The Haunting, Time Bandits
It’s always great when you recognise a line from the movies, whether it’s as iconic as “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, or as casually effective as “I’ll be back”. But I suspect most of us have our own favourites, those lines of dialogue that have stuck in our memories for one reason or another, and which we trot out whenever we can to impress our friends and families – or just anyone who’ll listen.
Here then are my top 10 quotes, listed in no particular order, but all “ear-catching’ in their own way. See how many you recognise.
1 – “Englishmen. You’re all so fucking pompous. None of you have got any balls.” – The Grim Reaper, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
2 – “You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full time job. Now behave yourself.” – Jack Carter, Get Carter (1971)
3 – “The dead are not quiet in Hill House.” – Mrs Sanderson, The Haunting (1963)
4 – “Get out of my way son, you’re usin’ my oxygen.” – Randall P. McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
5 – “It’s been emotional.” – Big Chris, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
6 – “This isn’t the state of California, it’s a state of insanity.” – General Joseph W. Stilwell, 1941 (1979)
7 – “You’re going to die up there.” – Regan MacNeil, The Exorcist (1973)
8 – “You’re terrible, Muriel.” – Joanie Heslop, Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
9 – “It seems that envy is my sin.” – John Doe, Se7en (1995)
10 – “Dead? No excuse for laying off work.” – Supreme Being, Time Bandits (1981)
Honourable mention: “Stack ’em, pack ’em and rack ’em.” – Trudeau, Die Hard 2 (1990).
Feel free to let me know your own favourites, and keep on quoting!
D: Ralph Ziman / 90m
Cast: India Eisley, Samuel L. Jackson, Callan McAuliffe, Carl Beukes, Deon Lotz, Zane Meas
Some time after the death of her parents, Sawa (Eisley) starts killing members of the criminal organisation headed by the Emir (Meas), the man held responsible for her parents’ deaths. Sawa is helped by Karl Aker (Jackson), a detective who was her father’s partner. As she kills the Emir’s people, she gets closer and closer to him, but her dependency on a drug called Amp causes her to begin making mistakes, and soon her identity is in danger of being revealed.
While Aker covers up any evidence she leaves behind, Sawa is also helped by a young man named Oburi (McAuliffe). He says he knows her from before her parents’ death, and that they were friends, but thanks to Amp, Sawa’s memories of him are hazy and indistinct (along with most of her past). When a hit sees her being chased by some of the Emir’s people, Oburi helps her escape and, with no access to Amp, her withdrawal symptoms begin to help her remember exactly what happened when her parents were killed. And when she finally comes face to face with the Emir, the encounter leaves her with more questions than answers.
A live action version of Yasuomi Umetsu’s A kaito (1998), Kite was probably hoping that arriving so long after the original might mean any comparisons would be kept to a minimum. Sadly for the makers of this version, the gap in time isn’t an advantage, and the decision to “go live” has led to yet another dystopian vision of the future where street gangs dominate, crime appears to be the only growth industry, and the police are so jaded as to be little more than bystanders. We’ve seen this kind of movie so often now that it’s hard to get any kind of enjoyment out of it; the viewer can only sit back and watch as Kite ticks the boxes it so resolutely refuses to think outside of.
In the end, it’s all about the action, but despite some well choreographed moments of mayhem, including a bathroom shootout that’s reminiscent of the one in True Lies (1994), there’s nothing here that has any real impact. The characters are bland and/or one-dimensional, and nothing the cast does elevates the material in any way (not even Jackson, not exactly a stranger to crass or unconvincing dialogue, can do anything with lines that include “I can’t do this anymore”). As a result, there’s no one to care about, not even Sawa herself, and as the plot staggers towards the inevitable “twist” (that can be seen coming before the movie even starts), the sense of despair rises accordingly.
Rating: 3/10 – looking and feeling like a compendium of scenes and locations from every other ghetto-based action movie made in the last few years, Kite suffers from leaden direction and a script that fosters complacency all round; tiring and dispiriting, with missed opportunities galore, potential viewers should skip this altogether.
D: James Toback / 98m
Alec Baldwin, James Toback, Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Bérénice Bejo, Diane Kruger, Ryan Gosling, Jessica Chastain, Neve Campbell, James Caan, Mark Damon, Avi Lerner, Ashok Amritraj
Deciding to make a movie together, director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin first work out the kind of movie they want to make – a Last Tango in Paris-style project set in Iraq – and who they want to co-star with Baldwin, namely, Neve Campbell. Then, they take their idea to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in the hope of securing the financing needed to get the movie made. Along the way they speak to various people about the difficulties of getting movies made, the challenges in persuading potential investors to part with their money, and how easier/harder it was back in the Seventies to get a project off the ground.
The search for investors leads to meditations on money, fame, acting, glamour, even death, as Toback and Baldwin look at the wider aspects of movie making, and the constraints that stop some movies from being made as their makers intended. The movie also looks at the industry from both a creative and a financial standpoint, and features interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and their own experiences of funding and making movies.
Opening with a quote from Orson Welles – “I look back on my life and it’s 95% running around trying to raise money to make movies and 5% actually making them. It’s no way to live.” – Seduced and Abandoned is an often hilarious, witty and insightful look at contemporary movie making, made by a director whose own career has seen him struggle to get movies made, and an actor whose career resurgence since The Aviator (2004) has propelled him to the lower reaches of the ‘A’ List. Together, they take the viewer on a tour of the highs and lows of movie making, and even when they’re coming up against closed door after closed door, still manage to stay positive.
In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to discern if this apparent by-product documentary is the real movie or not, or just some idea they had on the back of trying to make their version of what Baldwin refers to as Last Tango in Tikrit. Although the pair are seen in several meetings pitching their ideas for the movie, they never seem entirely convincing that this is a legitimate project that they’re trying to get off the ground; they don’t even have a script yet, nor anything approaching a synopsis. (Asked point blank if she’d appear in the movie, Diane Kruger blanches and then falls back on the tried and trusted, “If I can see a script I’ll consider it” answer.) Matters aren’t helped by Baldwin’s continual references to the sex scenes the movie would include, making it seem like some weird, sexual fantasy of his own that he’s trying to get off the ground.
However unlikely the premise, though, we all know there are movies out there that have been made out of worse ideas – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), anyone? – but the reactions of veteran producers/distributors Avi Lerner and Ashok Amritraj provide a short, predatory lesson in how to get a movie made: always bear in mind the profits. Toback is told in no uncertain terms that with Campbell aboard he won’t get the $15-$20m he wants to make the movie; instead he’ll only get $4-$5m. Only in those circumstances will producers or investors feel comfortable that they’ll get their money back. It’s a harsh reality, and one that shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s so casually discussed that it’s like a slap in the face.
The case for Last Tango in Tikrit being entirely a fabrication is given further credence by Toback’s almost slavish reactions to suggestions for changes to the plot and the story, and the casting. He agrees to almost all of them, seemingly eager – maybe too eager – to please his potential investors in order to secure the financing he needs. In moments such as these, Toback seems uncomfortably close to abandoning the whole concept of the movie, just as long as he gets the money to make a movie, if not the one he’s there to try and get made. (It’s a shame no one asks him to replace Baldwin with a bigger name actor; it would have been interesting to see his reaction to that.)
With Toback and Baldwin being rebuffed at every turn, and to ensure that the movie runs for more than half an hour, there are plenty of interviews with industry notables such as Martin Scorsese, who recounts some of the issues that came up when he was making Mean Streets (1973); Bernardo Bertolucci, who talks about working with Brando on Last Tango in Paris (1972); Francis Ford Coppola, who conveys his dismay at making two Godfather movies and then not being able to get backing for a movie of his own; and Ryan Gosling, whose reaction to an airplane emergency isn’t quite what you’d expect.
The movie’s sly wit and acerbic humour help to keep things interesting, and it’s a good thing as Seduced and Abandoned is a documentary that will remain largely of interest to movie buffs and/or anyone trying to get their own project off the ground. The movie does assume a degree of awareness of what goes on at Cannes, and there’s also an assumption that viewers will be up to speed on the way in which movies are financed, but the lay person may well struggle, or find it less than fascinating. And Toback doesn’t always maintain a linear focus, letting the movie wander from one meeting to another but without any clear context (and reinforcing the idea that the movie is the movie, whatever Toback and Baldwin might say).
Rating: 7/10 – with its two “leads” obviously having a whale of a time, Seduced and Abandoned comes across more as a bit of a jolly boys’ outing to Cannes rather than a properly realised documentary; as a result it lacks focus and doesn’t entirely convince, instead making it seem like a huge in-joke that Toback and Baldwin have concocted for their own amusement.
D: Craig Johnson / 93m
Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason
Following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Milo Dean (Hader) agrees to stay for a while with his twin sister, Maggie (Wiig) and her husband, Lance (Wilson). Milo and Maggie haven’t seen or spoken to each other in ten years, and at first, they are hesitant with each other. Milo is gay, and getting over the end of a relationship (hence the suicide attempt), while Maggie appears happy in her marriage but is always off taking courses – currently it’s scuba diving – and while Lance is keen to have children, Maggie is secretly taking the pill.
While out one day, Milo sees an “old flame”, Rich (Burrell), working in a bookstore. He approaches him but Rich is hostile. Meanwhile, Maggie is becoming increasingly attracted to her scuba diving instructor, Billy (Holbrook). Milo begins helping Lance with his work clearing paths in the woods, and after a visit from their mother (Gleason) that doesn’t go well, Milo and Maggie take the first proper steps in rebuilding their relationship. The next day, Milo returns to the bookstore and things go better with Rich; Maggie though, goes to a bar after class with Billy and they end up having sex in the bathroom.
The issue of pregnancy and Maggie’s abilities as a mother lead to a falling out between her and Milo. They patch things up, and in the process, tell each other some secrets: Milo reveals he has had sex with a woman, while Maggie reveals she’s on birth control. She further reveals it’s not because she doesn’t want children, but that she always sleeps with her instructors; it’s a compulsion she can’t help. That evening, Milo meets up with Rich and they spend the night together (even though Rich has a wife and son).
Halloween comes round and Milo and Maggie decide to dress up and go out like they did as kids. While they’re in a bar, Milo goes to the bathroom and leaves his phone behind. It rings and Maggie sees that it’s Rich calling. This leads to a row between them. Soon after, Lance and Milo have a Dudes Day, during which Lance voices his concerns that he might be shooting blanks because of how long it’s taking for Maggie to become pregnant. Milo, still smarting over Maggie’s reaction to his seeing Rich, plants the seed that she may be taking some “medication” that Lance doesn’t know about. But unbeknownst to both Lance and Milo, Maggie just might be pregnant after all.
Early on in The Skeleton Twins we see Maggie holding a handful of pills with the intention of taking them and ending her life. She’s interrupted by the call that tells her about Milo’s failed attempt. Suicide is a big issue in the movie, and while it sets the scene for the movie as a whole, and is referred to on several occasions, it appears more as a deus ex machina than as a raison d’être, spurring the movie on when Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman’s script needs it to. There’s plenty of incident in the movie, and there’s more than enough to keep an audience interested, but the recurring use of suicide as a plot device makes it seem – by the movie’s end – artificial, and it loses its effect. If it had been used just to set up, or introduce, the characters of Milo and Maggie then it might have had more potency. As it is, their reasons for trying to end their lives – while obvious – are never really explored in any real depth, and what becomes clear as the movie progresses is that the viewer will only be given access to Milo and Maggie’s surface feelings and nothing more profound.
Which makes The Skeleton Twins a frustrating, though nevertheless enjoyable viewing experience. As mentioned above, there’s a lot going on in the movie, and a lot of it is very engaging, and even though it’s predictable in the way that indie movies that deal with fractured relationships often are, it’s that familiar sheen that carries the movie forward and makes it work (for the most part). Milo and Maggie live average lives that border on quiet desperation; they both want to feel something more than they usually feel, and both are searching for a contentment they can’t quite grasp hold of. Milo feels the need to brag to Rich about an acting career he doesn’t have, because he’s envious of the life Rich is leading. Maggie feels the need to have affairs because being settled scares her. Both of them want stability but don’t know to achieve or maintain it. In the end, they learn to rely on each other a little bit more than they used to, but they’re still a long way from finding the peace that has so far eluded them.
There are other angles and avenues that aren’t fully explored – their mother’s role in their childhood (and the same for their father), the previous relationship between Milo and Rich, Maggie’s compulsion re: extra-marital sex – and these add to the sense that the script wasn’t fully developed before filming began. However, the script does have its compensations, not least some terrific dialogue, and an often delightful sense of the absurd. And there’s a great sequence where Milo cheers up Maggie by miming to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, so vividly expressed by the pair that it’s easily the movie’s highlight.
What saves the movie completely, though, are the performances from Hader and Wiig. Wiig is on fine form, displaying an understanding of the character that makes Maggie a lot more sympathetic than she might be otherwise (both she and Milo are quite self-centred and narcissistic in their own ways, and these aren’t always attractive qualities in either of them). Maggie has a vulnerability about her as well that Wiig portrays with skill, and she pulls off the difficult moments when Maggie is overwhelmed by her own feelings with both talent and proficiency. But the real performance of note is Hader’s, shrugging off his usual comic schtick to provide an impressive, noteworthy portrayal of a man hoping to reconnect with a time when he felt valued and needed (even if it wasn’t the best of situations). There’s a soulful aspect to his performance that makes Milo the more likeable of the two siblings, and even when he’s messing things up in his relationship with Maggie, you can see clearly that Milo is doing his best, even if it’s coming out wrong. It’s a well-balanced rendition that is more affecting that might be expected, and shows Hader to be a far more intuitive actor than previous roles have indicated.
Alongside Hader and Wiig, Wilson takes Lance’s almost puppy-dog looks and personality and makes him the quintessential good guy, but not quite so bland or vanilla that you can’t see Maggie’s attraction to him. It’s the awkward, not-quite-so-invested-in-by-the-script supporting role that can seem a bit colourless, but Wilson is quietly effective throughout. As Rich, Burrell has the more dramatic role, and gives a good portrayal of a man afraid of his past and the feelings it brings up, matching Hader for intensity in their scenes together.
In the director’s chair, Johnson directs his and Heyman’s script with a delicate touch that, unfortunately, leaves much of the drama either quickly dispelled with or feeling lightweight and lacking in importance. He fares better with the visual look of the movie, the various locations and interiors given a sharp focus by Reed Morano’s complementary photography, and he uses close ups with a firm understanding of how potent they can be at the right time. Nathan Larson’s score is evocative and breezy, and full marks absolutely have to go to key makeup artist Liz Lash for coming up with Milo’s Halloween look – disturbing, for once, for all the right reasons.
Rating: 6/10 – with the material only scratching the surface of its characters lives and problems, The Skeleton Twins just misses out on being as poignant and as emotionally involving as it should have been; stellar lead performances aside, this is a movie that is still worth watching but with the proviso that it’s sadly less than the sum of its parts.
Oliver Stone’s controversial examination of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy is engrossing, challenging and provocative. This poster for the movie isn’t quite as powerful – though that’s not a bad thing – but it what does do really well is compile some very iconic imagery into an attractive, attention-grabbing whole.
There are three very potent images included here. The first is the shot of Jackie Kennedy reaching over the back of the car with the Security Service agent rushing toward her. Even if you were unaware of the context of that image, you’d still know there was something wrong there, that this woman was in trouble. Knowing the context adds sympathy, sorrow, grief and shock, and the image’s inclusion is a poignant and concise reminder of the events of 22 November 1963.
In contrast, the image of Lee Harvey Oswald clasping a rifle in one hand and copies of the Communist paper The Militant in the other, provokes a different reaction. Whether you regard him as an assassin or a patsy, there’s something about Oswald’s look to camera that makes the viewer a little uneasy. Whatever his involvement in the death of John F. Kennedy, Oswald is still someone who invites suspicion, and this image reinforces that feeling with quiet authority.
Lastly, and perhaps less obviously, there is the torn American flag, a symbol of the “loss of innocence” America as a nation felt in the wake of Kennedy’s death. This was an event that – if such a thing is truly possible – damaged the nation’s psyche. It’s inclusion is the poster’s most subtle aspect, and mixed with the other two images, creates a compelling reflection on the movie’s subject matter.
The further inclusion of an image of Kevin Costner as District Attorney Jim Garrison doesn’t really add anything to the overall design, and appears more of a marketing idea than anything else. But the tag line is certainly apt, and rounds off the poster’s effect quite nicely: “The Story That Won’t Go Away”. How true, indeed.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.
D: Jonathan Liebesman / 101m
Cast: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Pete Ploszek, Jeremy Howard, Danny Woodburn, Tohoru Masamune, Whoopi Goldberg, Minae Noji, Johnny Knoxville, Tony Shalhoub
Ten reasons NOT to see this movie:
1) Megan Fox – still trying too hard and still unable to display even a hint of a recognisable or credible emotion.
2) Splinter learns jujitsu from a book.
3) Splinter teaches the turtles jujitsu – after learning from a book.
4) April O’Neil saves the turtles and Splinter from a lab fire – only to dump them into a sewer.
5) The Foot Clan ninjas use automatic weapons – they never use their ninja skills.
6) April O’Neil tries to convince her boss that there are mutant ninja turtles acting as vigilantes – and doesn’t provide a shred of proof – twice.
7) The New York sewer system contains enough discarded electronic equipment to assemble a sophisticated, city-wide surveillance system.
8) The super-rich bad guy’s only reason for being the bad guy is so he can be even richer.
9) April O’Neil is the subject of constant sexual harassment from Michelangelo – this is regarded as humour.
10) Turtles – apparently – are bulletproof.
Rating: 2/10 – so bad it’s a crime, and continuing evidence that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes has no idea how to reboot a franchise or remake a movie from the Eighties; as poorly executed as you might expect, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles drains the life out of its own premise, and gives new meaning to the word “awful”.