D: Baran bo Odar / 95m
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Dermot Mulroney, Scoot McNairy, David Harbour, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, Gabrielle Union, Octavius J. Johnson, Tim Connolly
Vincent Downs (Foxx) is a crooked Las Vegas cop. Sean Cass (Harris) is his equally crooked partner. Together they steal twenty-five bundles of cocaine (though why they do this is a little fuzzy). Their use of department issue weapons gains the attention of Internal Affairs officer, Jennifer Bryant (Monaghan), who immediately suspects Downs of the theft. Convinced by her own intuition that he’s dirty, she brings her suspicions to her partner, Doug Dennison (Harbour), but he’s not convinced. Meanwhile, Downs – who has an ex-wife, Dena (Union) and teenage son Thomas (Johnson) – is trying to maintain a semblance of post-divorce family life when Thomas is abducted by local casino-cum-crime boss Stanley Rubino (Mulroney). The reason for this? Simple: the cocaine is his and he wants it back, or Thomas will pay for Downs’ actions.
Downs takes the cocaine to Rubino’s casino, but in one of those plot “twists” that never make sense, he hides twenty-three of the bundles in the casino, gives Rubino the other two and bargains for his son’s life, stating that he’ll hand over the rest when he knows his son is safe. Rubino agrees, but when Downs tries to retrieve the rest of the cocaine from its hiding place, he discovers that Bryant (who has been following him) has taken it, and in a move that would have her investigated by Internal Affairs as well, has hidden it elsewhere in the casino. But there’s a further wrinkle: the cocaine is owed to gangster Bobby Novak (McNairy), and he’s there to collect…
Nuit blanche. That’s the title of the French/Belgian/Luxembourgian co-production, released in 2011 that, in its English language guise, has become Sleepless. If it matters to you, Nuit blanche (aka Sleepless Night) has a score of 75 on Metacritic, while Sleepless has a score of 33. Which version would you rather see? (Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question.) Inevitably, Sleepless – a title that makes no sense without the word “night” attached to it – is professionally made, glamorous to look at, has Foxx and Monaghan working really hard to overcome the preposterousness of Andrea Berloff’s urgent-but-empty screenplay, and never once makes you care about Downs or his son’s predicament. It tries to, on several occasions, but thanks to a combination of Berloff’s writing and director Odar’s reliance on style over substance, it has a shallow, seen-it-all-before vibe that harms the movie more than it helps it, and which stops it from letting the audience in on the – sadly – warmed over intrigue.
Remakes of foreign language movies often suffer in comparison because there are more things that can be lost in translation than just the dialogue. Tone, the original movie’s rhythm, its location, its visual aesthetic, any subtexts – all these and more can be either abandoned or discarded in the process of “re-imagining” a movie for audiences who speak another language (though surely that’s what subtitles are for?). There may be an element of “we can do better” about these remakes, and though that certainly isn’t the case with Sleepless (and despite any intentions its makers may have had), this is still a bad idea that lets down audiences at every turn. Even its fight scenes, which see Foxx get pummelled regularly but to minimal effect even though he has a stab wound to deal with, don’t elicit enough reaction to be successful in themselves. And if an action thriller can’t get those scenes right…
Rating: 4/10 – lacklustre, and padded out with way too many establishing shots of Las Vegas itself (we know where we are, for Foxx’ sake), Sleepless is a run-of-the-mill effort that tries hard but doesn’t know how to deliver; an over-complicated script proves too much for the cast to deal with, and despite its relatively compact running time, you’ll be wishing for a quicker resolution than is actually on offer.
D: Danny Boyle / 117m
Cast: Ewen McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Anjela Nedyalkova, Kelly Macdonald, James Cosmo, Shirley Henderson, Pauline Turner, Scot Greenan, Kyle Fitzpatrick, Gordon Kennedy, Irvine Welsh
Choose life, choose four characters who have led miserable lives for the past twenty years and can’t overcome their failings. Choose redemption if only because it sounds good and it might make you feel better. Choose old friends, however much they might hate you, because making new ones is too difficult. Choose Scotland. Choose to make amends. Choose the past over the future because it’s safer. Choose remorse. Choose anger at seeing your dreams go unfulfilled, and try to make new dreams to stop yourself from feeling angry. Choose revenge if remorse won’t work. Choose life over a slow, drawn-out, painful trudge towards non-existence. Choose drugs to soothe or melt away the pain of choosing life. And choose the path of least resistence so that choices become easy. Choose football, music, sex, anything to make the emptiness inside you feel less overwhelming. But above all, choose life, and live it with everything you’ve got, even when you feel that you don’t have anything to offer, and if you did, that no one would want it.
Twenty-one years on from the events depicted in Trainspotting (1996), we finally have the sequel that’s been mooted for so long (Danny Boyle first voiced the idea back in January 2009). Back then, the original movie ended with Renton (McGregor) stealing the proceeds of a drug deal – £16,000 – from his friends, Simon aka Sick Boy (Miller), Spud (Bremner) and Begbie (Carlyle), and heading off to live a normal life. But that “normal” life, which included living in Amsterdam and being married, has fallen apart, and now Renton is back in Edinburgh. His mother has died, he’s staying with his dad (Cosmo), and looking to hook up with his old friends – if they’ll let him. He visits Spud first, only to find him trying to asphyxiate himself with a plastic bag. Saving an initially ungrateful Spud, Renton learns that Begbie is in jail serving a twenty-five year sentence, Simon is the landlord of a rundown pub that an aunt has left him, and Spud himself is a drug addict.
Renton reconnects with Simon, but Simon holds too much enmity towards his old friend because of the money from the drug deal. Along with his business partner, Veronika (Nedyalkova), Simon offers Renton the chance to become part of a scam to acquire European development funds that Simon can use to open a “leisure” club above the pub. Renton agrees, and ropes in Spud to help design the club and oversee its construction once the funds are awarded. Meanwhile, Begbie finds a way out of prison and back home to his wife, June (Turner), and teenage son, Frank Jr (Greenan). Begbie takes his son with him when he burgles properties, but is sidetracked from his endeavours when he learns from Simon that Renton is back in Edinburgh. Begbie’s thirst for revenge is exploited by Simon, and a chance encounter at a nightclub between the AWOL gaolbird and Renton leads to a showdown above the pub, and the chance to settle old scores the hard way.
If you enjoyed Trainspotting, then T2 Trainspotting is likely to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Laced with affectionate nostalgia and perceptive notions of what it is to be middle-aged and treading water, this looked-for sequel isn’t as iconic as its predecessor – and to be fair, it was never likely to be – but it does have an erstwhile melancholy feel to it that accurately reflects the regrets of its four main characters. Like everyone else, Renton is the architect of his own downfall: drug-free but without any purpose in life, he’s come home because he’s not been able to make a go of it in Amsterdam; he’s adrift in his own life, and lacking ambition. Conversely, Simon has nothing but ambition, a drive to better himself financially, but he lacks foresight and cohesive thinking; his plans always backfire as a result. Spud is an addict who wants to swap his drug habit for something more meaningful, another addiction preferably, but one that has a positive effect on his life; writing down stories from twenty years ago helps him on this path. And Begbie – well, Begbie’s only regret is that he’s only just now got out of prison.
With the characters locked in place, John Hodge’s screenplay is free to explore themes of personal responsibility, misplaced nostalgia, revenge, deceit, and compromised friendships. It looks back further than Trainspotting itself, to when all four friends were much younger, pre-teens with the whole world ahead of them, and all the promise that entailed. It provides flashbacks to the first movie, and reintroduces other characters from twenty years before, such as Renton’s girlfriend, Diane (Macdonald), now a successful solicitor. And it shows how stagnant each of the main characters’ lives have become, how mired in mediocrity they are thanks to emotional malaise and impulsive behaviour. There’s little in the way of meaningful progress for any of them, just a desire to lead brighter, better lives that is slipping away from them with every passing year.
This gloomy, regret-laden approach could have made the movie too depressing or downbeat for audiences unfamiliar with the original (which was itself a frank, unapologetic examination of the joys and horrors inherent in taking drugs), but there’s too much mordaunt humour and scabrous comedy on display, and Hodge and returning director Danny Boyle have made a movie that connects on various, different levels, and which does so with Boyle’s trademark visual stylings. This is still a movie that fizzes with invention, from its seemingly scattershot, haphazard camera angles, complex yet rewarding editing rhythms, exceptionally well chosen soundtrack, and emphatic performances, and all the way down to the integration of “old’ footage with new, including a recreation of that classic moment from the original where Renton is almost knocked down by a car – and then stops to revel in the moment.
It’s a Danny Boyle movie through and through, with several moments where the semi-linear narrative seems unlikely to knit together into a satisfying whole, until by the end, everything has been explained and the various strands all neatly tied up. And there are fitting outcomes for all the characters, with all bar one back on the road to self-respect and potential absolution. In bringing back the original cast, and at a point where their own ages reflect the passing of time more effectively than if it had been achieved through make up, the movie offers a kind of shorthand for new viewers, introducing each character they play with an economy of purpose that’s admirable and effective. McGregor still retains some of that boyish charm that made the younger Renton so attractive to watch, while Miller takes glowering to new heights, his features displaying the frustration of Simon’s life with an icy conviction. Carlyle is still effortlessly frightening as Begbie, a man who may not be as comfortable in his own skin as we thought, but who can still inject menace and venom into the most unremarkable line of dialogue.
But if there’s one performance that stands out from the rest, and unexpectedly so, it’s that of Bremner as Spud. Spud is the eternal fuck-up, the addict with the unenviable ability to still feel deeply and profoundly despite the mental numbing he endures, and Bremner is simply superb in the role. Spud is the only character that the viewer can sympathise with, as his motives are selfless, and focused (as best he can) on providing for his partner, Gail (Henderson), and son, Fergus (Fitzpatrick). There’s an innate bravery about Spud that Bremner underplays with skill, making the moment where his writing skills are acknowledged by Veronika, a touching and heartfelt one. Through Veronika’s eyes we see Spud as more than just an addict, and unlike his friends, he can be cheered on with affectionate glee. But friendship is still the key ingredient in what makes these four people tick, even if they’re at odds with each other over past indiscretions. And some bonds, however stretched or damaged they may have become, will, as the movie tells us, withstand much more besides, and still prove beneficial to everyone concerned, no matter how much life has battered them.
Rating: 8/10 – an invigorating if pensive look at middle-aged bitterness wrapped up in a blanket of repentance, T2 Trainspotting doesn’t match the heights of its predecessor, but in fairness, it never actually tries; as much a product of its time as the first movie, there’s a heartache about this movie that is genuinely affecting, and which allows new viewers to see Renton et al as far more than cyphers in a movie about trying not to let the past inform and dictate the future.
D: Barry Jenkins / 111m
Cast: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland, Patrick Decile
Chiron (Hibbert) is a young boy living in Miami who is being bullied at school. Avoiding another attempt by his classmates to harrass him, Chiron seeks refuge in an abandoned property. He’s discovered by local drug dealer, Juan (Ali), who takes him under his wing. With his girlfriend, Teresa (Monaé), Juan looks after Chiron overnight, and learns that his nickname is Little, because of his shy, withdrawn nature. The next day, Juan takes Chiron home to his mother, Paula (Harris). The only person he likes is his schoolmate Kevin (Piner), and they become firm friends. When Juan sees Paula with one of his customers, he berates her but she responds by criticising his supplying drugs to her. Chiron keeps going back to see Juan and Teresa, eventually revealing that he hates his mother.
At the age of sixteen, Chiron (Sanders) is still being bullied, now by a specific classmate, Terrel (Decile). His mother is now addicted to crack and prostitutes herself to support her habit. Chiron still visits Teresa, and his relationship with Kevin (Jerome) becomes more intimate following a party. But Terrel’s bullying takes a more sinister turn when he pressures Kevin into taking part in a hazing ritual that requires him to punch Chiron in the face. The ritual leads to Chiron taking out his anger and his frustration on Terrel in front of his classmates, and being arrested.
As an adult, Chiron (Rhodes), now known as Black, has moved to Atlanta and followed in Juan’s footsteps and become a drug dealer. He’s estranged from his mother, but she keeps asking him to visit her. One night, out of the blue, Chiron receives a call from Kevin, who is still living in Miami. Kevin apologises for his actions years before, and this in turn prompts Chiron to visit his mother at the drug treatment facility where she now lives. She too apologises for the way she treated Chiron when he was growing up. He then travels to Miami and meets up with Kevin who is working in a diner. And Chiron reveals a surprising truth to his old schoolfriend that allows for a reconciliation between them.
A surprise hit at several festivals in 2016, Moonlight is a heartfelt, emotionally charged drama that portrays the experiences of a young boy as he grows into a teenager and then a young man. Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, as well as both McCraney and director Jenkins’ experiences growing up with similar family backgrounds to that of Chiron, Moonlight is a superb example of low-budget, independent movie making that’s by turns intelligent, compelling, meaningful, vital, and above all, crafted with a tremendous amount of heart and soul.
In telling Chiron’s story across three different time periods, Jenkins is able to show the slow, inevitable loss of innocence that comes from living in an environment where life is held in poor regard, and regret is a squandered by-product of selfish need. Already having seen and heard far more of the adult world than is good for him, as well as facing the daily trial of being the target of bullies, it’s no wonder that Chiron is withdrawn and non-communicative. What voice does he have? Who will listen to him? The lack of a father in his life doesn’t help, making his relationship with Juan, however inappropriate, the nearest he has to having a male role model. With his mother worried more about satisfying her own needs, Chiron is adrift in life. Only his friendship with Kevin provides him with hope of something better; Juan and Teresa offer him support but on a limited basis, and when he learns that Juan has sold drugs to his mother, it’s another disappointment that reinforces his view that adults don’t care. In this, the movie’s first section, Jenkins displays a sureness of touch in detailing Chiron’s sense of alienation, a situation he has no control over. It’s heartbreaking to see this young boy, treated so unfairly, both directly and indirectly, and to know that whatever is in store for him in the future, it’s unlikely that his situation will improve.
And so it proves when we see Chiron as a teenager. Still the victim of bullying, still withdrawn and being emotionally neglected by his mother, the young boy sitting on a powder keg of ill-formed anger is now older, but still struggling to find a place for himself in the world, and trying to make sense of his burgeoning feelings toward Kevin. It’s this section that delves deeply into the pain and frustration that he feels more and more, and when he does connect with Kevin it’s a rare moment of joy in an otherwise unrewarding life. But Jenkins is ahead of his audience. Just as viewers might be thinking, “Well, this happiness can’t last”, he subjects Chiron to further pain and betrayal. This, Jenkins seems to be saying, is Chiron’s lot in life: for every good thing that happens to him, a reversal must come along to balance things out.
And in the final section, where we see Chiron as an adult, and it appears as though his future will be short-lived due to his being a drug dealer, the movie also makes it seem as if Chiron will remain adrift for the rest of his life. But Jenkins and McCraney have other plans for him, and by subtly shifting the focus from Chiron’s distrust of life and the pain it has caused him, the movie offers hope in the form of the one thing that ever brought him happiness: his sexuality. This allows the movie to end on a triumphal note that is both unexpected and incredibly moving, and though you might argue that Chiron’s life won’t change irrevocably, he does now have a chance at changing some things for the better.
Moonlight is an audacious movie that explores notions of identity and belonging with a great deal of conviction and confidence. Jenkins and McCraney have constructed a delicate, thought-provoking screenplay that offers no easy answers to the various predicaments Chiron experiences, and which does so out of a sense of fidelity to their own lives growing up. There are further themes around personal responsibility, parental neglect, peer pressure, and flexible morality, and Jenkins juggles all these elements with admirable ease, presenting Chiron’s world with a deceptively fluid directing style that’s enhanced by James Laxton’s often luminous cinematography, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders’ intuitive, languorous editing, and a beautifully redolent score by Nicholas Britell. But it’s the performances that impress the most. As the three incarnations of Chiron, Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes are all equally impressive, while Ali underplays his role as Juan to such good effect that you really want him to break the stereotype and be the male role model Chiron needs. And for someone who didn’t initially want to play the role, Harris is magnificent as the mother whose love for her son is diminished by addiction but not abandoned entirely.
Rating: 9/10 – an immensely personal and rewarding movie that paints a vivid picture of a life recognised but rarely this effectively examined, Moonlight is unapologetic and touching at the same time; treating its characters with a compassion and a tenderness that belies the life that Chiron is a part of, the movie is a wonderfully realised testament to the idea that connections can be made in the most inauspicious of situations, and that love – really and truly – can make all the difference.
Original title: Jue di tao wang
D: Renny Harlin / 107m
Cast: Jackie Chan, Johnny Knoxville, Bingbing Fan, Eric Tsang, Eve Torres, Winston Chao, Youn Junghoon, Shi Shi, Michael Wong, Kuo Pin Chao
Here’s a question for you: when did you last enjoy – really enjoy – a Jackie Chan movie? Was it Dragon Blade (2015)? Or Chinese Zodiac (2012) perhaps. Or was it even further back? The Karate Kid (2010) maybe. If it’s been even further back, don’t worry, it’s likely you’re not on your own.
Back in 2012, Chan told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival that Chinese Zodiac was going to be his last action movie. He was getting too old, and he felt the world was “too violent”. And for a whole year it seemed that Chan was sticking to his word… and then he went and made Police Story: Lockdown (2013). So much for that, then. And now he’s back again with another action movie, Skiptrace, and this time, it’s… practically dead on arrival.
Let’s try another question: when did you last enjoy – really enjoy – a Renny Harlin movie? Was it The Legend of Hercules (2014) Or Devil’s Pass (2013)? Or something from the time when his name on a picture was reason enough to see it, say back in the Nineties. Unlike Chan, Harlin has never announced his “retirement” from action movies, and now he’s back with Skiptrace, and this time… well, you get the picture.
There are many, many, many movies that are made because somebody somewhere thought they would be a good idea. Movies like Skiptrace, which are made both for a domestic market (in this case, China and Hong Kong) and a wider, international market, show up each and every year. Some succeed in gaining that wider, international success the makers hope for – the Internal Affairs trilogy, for example – while the majority barely make an impact. In between are movies such as Skiptrace, with its bankable, internationally famous star; less bankable but still well-known co-star; even less bankable but still fairly well-known director-for-hire; country-hopping locations; uninspired action set-pieces; and a patience-testing script that has no intention of making any kind of sense at any point in the movie.
The plot, such as it is, has Chan’s dogged cop, Bennie Chan, still trying to avenge the death of his partner (Tsang) at the hands of criminal mastermind the Matador. Nine years have passed since that terrible event, and Bennie has spent the years since in trying to prove that high-profile businessman and philanthropist Victor Wong (Chao) is the Matador. Of course he’s been unsuccessful, and his latest attempt leads to the kind of property destruction that warrants his being told to take a month’s leave of absence. In the meantime, his deceased partner’s daughter, Samantha (Fan), has infiltrated Wong’s organisation in an attempt to find some evidence against him… but she’s drawn a blank too. It’s not until con man and gambler Connor Watts (Knoxville) turns up at a casino run by Wong and witnesses a murder that Bennie has a solid chance of bringing Wong to justice.
So far, so straightforward. But the script, already over-complicating things by having Bennie as Samantha’s guardian, introduces us to Connor by putting him in jeopardy in Russia thanks to an ill-advised relationship with a mobster’s daughter. A series of non-linear flashbacks to the previous twenty-four hours reveals Connor’s actions at the casino (including winning a large amount of money), his meeting Samantha, trying to avoid the Russian mobster’s goons (out to bring him back to Russia so he can be put in jeopardy), witnessing a murder in the process, and coming into possession of a mobile phone that will reveal the identity of the Matador. Too much already? Don’t worry, there’s more – much more.
What follows is a tortuous road movie that sees Bennie and Connor eventually learn to respect and admire each other, and which takes in such locations/developments as the Russian bowling alley where Connor finds himself in peril, a train that both men jump from as soon as they hear the ticket inspector approaching, buying the slowest vehicle in Mongolia without ensuring it has enough petrol to get them anywhere, an encounter with a group of Mongolian tribespeople (more of which later), a game of bluff and double bluff at the Chinese border that sees them arrested, their opportune “rescue” by the Russian mobster’s goons, a whitewater raft ride, and eventually, a zipline escape from Wong’s men.
There’s more still, but it’s all too tiring, a series of desperate attempts by the screenplay – step forward writers Jay Longino and BenDavid Grabinski, whose first collaboration this is – to keep viewers from nodding off or asking themselves why they’re still watching after the first half an hour. If the events listed in the previous paragraph sound exciting, don’t be fooled: even handled by Harlin, not exactly a slouch when it comes to action movies, those sequences lack energy and are shot through with the kind of slapstick humour that Chan’s movies are famous for. And it needs to be said: Chan is getting on. His decision to “retire” back in 2012 should have been followed through, because in Skiptrace you can see just how slow he’s become. The speed and intricacy of his past fight scenes are absent here, with blows and parries signposted well in advance and Chan being given more than enough time to get into position for each.
And then there’s the encounter with the Mongolian tribespeople. It’s a standard sequence to begin with, a misunderstanding leading to Connor and then Bennie squaring up against the tribe’s best fighters. The misunderstanding is resolved and the tribespeople take to the pair as if they were long-lost relatives. A feast ensues, and after a few too many drinks, Bennie begins to sing a song. A young woman joins him, and soon everyone is singing along as well, word perfect and in perfect harmony. The song is Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, and it’s possibly the most bizarre moment you’ll ever see, and hear, in a Jackie Chan movie. It’s also the best example of how haphazardly the script has been assembled, with sequences obviously arrived at and decided on before a plot was actually dreamt up.
Like so many of these productions, the editing is the worst aspect of all, leaving the movie looking like a cinematic patchwork, with shots truncated and poorly framed, and the performances (such as they are) suffering as a consequence. Chan is his usual amiable self, unstretched by the material, while Knoxville’s comic relief portrayal of Connor serves as a reminder that when a script is this bad the actor doesn’t have a way of countering it. Elsewhere, the supporting cast do what they can with their underwritten roles, with only ex-WWE wrestler Torres standing out thanks to her impressive physicality. Harlin is a bland presence in the director’s chair, his regular visual flair absent from the mix. It’s hard to believe that this is the same man who directed Die Hard 2 (1990) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). But then, it’s hard to think of anyone who could have made something even halfway decent from the material on offer.
Rating: 3/10 – not the finest moment in Chan’s career, Skiptrace is hard to sit through and barely acceptable as entertainment; with all the vitality of a contractual obligation, the movie crams in a surfeit of incidents that, ordinarily, would keep at least another two movies happy – but ultimately, it doesn’t have any idea of what to do with them.
D: Pedro Morelli / 93m
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Alison Pill, Mariana Ximenes, Tyler Labine, Don McKellar, Claudia Ohana, Michael Eklund, Jennifer Irwin, Jason Priestley, Clé Bennett
A worker in a factory that produces state of the art love dolls. A movie director trying to make an artistic masterpiece. A model who discovers she has a talent for writing. Three people who aren’t connected. Or are they?
That’s the question you’ll be asking yourself if you watch Zoom, a freewheeling, energetic look at three lives that may or may not be intertwined, and one of which is presented in the same rotoscopic animation style as A Scanner Darkly (2006). Unafraid to take chances with its narrative, the movie invites the viewer along on a cleverly structured, and constructed, meta-ride that rewards them over and over again as the movie progresses. It’s a likeable, good-natured movie that appears to veer off in unlikely directions in an effort to be “different”. But this veering off is a major part of the movie’s charm, and while some twists and turns may seem frivolous, they all add to the huge amount of fun that can be had from Matt Hansen’s lively screenplay.
It certainly begins in an unexpected fashion, with two workers at a love doll factory, Emma (Pill) and Bob (Labine), having sex surrounded by the fruits of their labours. It’s both funny and disconcerting to see Emma and Bob being “watched” while they copulate, but it’s done in such a matter-of-fact way that the disconcerting aspect soon goes away (even if the love dolls’ voyeuristic perspective doesn’t). Alas, Bob’s post-coital attempts at conversation soon fall flat and he makes unflattering comments about the size of Emma’s breasts. An aspiring comic book artist, Emma has drawn a picture of herself as a voluptuous warrior princess; using this and Bob’s attitude as a spur for doing so, she goes ahead and has a breast enlargement.
Emma has also been chronicling the story of a movie director, Edward (Bernal), as he nears completion of his latest feature. Edward is known for making popular action movies but wants to make an artistic statement this time round, a fact he’s trying desperately hard to hide from studio head Marissa (Irwin). Meanwhile he lives a hedonistic lifestyle, often bedding two women at the same time. When Emma decides to put an end to this behaviour by severely reducing the size of his penis, Edward’s resulting loss of confidence begins to affect his ability in making his movie. And when Marissa finally sees a rough cut that ends too abruptly for her liking, Edward is persuaded to oversee further shooting that will add an action climax much like the ones he’s famous for.
Edward’s movie is about a Brazilian model, Michelle (Ximenes), whose career is far from fulfilling. An encounter with a publisher leads her to turn her back on modelling in order to write a novel. She leaves behind her less than supportive boyfriend, Dale (Priestley), and heads for a beach town in Brazil where she continues to write her story about a young woman who works in a love doll factory and wants bigger breasts. As Zoom continues, each story, already inextricably linked, reveals different facets of the wider story being told, and challenges our notions of what’s real and what’s fantasy.
Morelli juggles the various storylines and multiple perspectives with a confidence that draws out the subtle nuances and refinements of the script. Visual clues and riffs abound throughout, and there are a number of verbal references that serve to enhance the quick-witted nature of the narrative, and it all helps to take the viewer on a multi-stranded journey of discovery that never skimps on invention. Emma and Bob find themselves in possession of a large quantity of cocaine, the sale of which will help pay for the breast reduction she now wants. Michelle finds herself on the verge of a relationship with local bar owner, Alice (Ohana). Edward goes to ever-increasing lengths (no pun intended) to reassert his masculinity, even as his control over his movie defaults to his scheming colleague, Horowitz (McKellar). Each story grows closer and more connected to each other, until Hansen and Morelli manage to pull off something of a magic trick: three narratives become one and they all fit seamlessly together.
A tremendous amount of thought has been put into Zoom, and though a handful of scenes have the feel of having been added during shooting, the movie as a whole has a gleefully anarchic approach that is helped immeasurably by the commitment of its cast. Bernal, his performance augmented by the comic book style animation his storyline is presented in, plays Edward as a combination of preening pleasure seeker and tortured artist, and does so without making his character seem at odds with himself. Ximenes has arguably the most dramatic role, but acquits herself well, portraying Michelle’s determination and vulnerability with a poise and conviction that feels entirely natural. Labine provides his usual slacker screen persona (which isn’t a bad thing; he hasn’t worn out his welcome in the way that Seth Rogen has, for example), Michael Eklund adds another oddball role to his CV as a love doll customer with an uncomfortable demeanour, and McKellar is suitably venal and crafty as Edward’s “successor”.
But it’s Pill who most impresses. As the outwardly mousy Emma, Pill delivers a pitch perfect portrayal of a woman with bigger (pun intended) plans than anyone can imagine. Always undervalued and unappreciated for herself, Emma has a better focus on her life and what she wants than anyone else, and Pill is the movie’s consistent source of emotional honesty. Her open, expressive features (even when hidden behind some very large frames) have the ability to convey so many different feelings and emotions that watching her is always a pleasure. Just watch her in the scene where she tries to insist that her breast enlargement be reversed; the combination of her countenance and her vocal delivery is expressed with such delicacy that it’s a shame when the scene ends.
Zoom premiered a year ago today at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, but has since been released in only a handful of countries. This is a shame as it’s an imaginative, skilfully handled tale that wears its quirkiness on its sleeve with pride, and offers anyone lucky enough to see it a very good time indeed. Morelli, Hansen, the cast, and everyone else involved in the movie should all be congratulated for achieving something that doesn’t conform to the moribund excesses of current Hollywood movie making.
Rating: 8/10 – an extremely pleasing mix of animation and standard photography, Zoom establishes each of its three storylines with speed and efficiency, and never relaxes in its efforts to surprise and entertain the viewer; a small-scale gem that deserves a wider audience – like so many other indie movies out there – it’s diverting and rewarding in equal measure and well worth checking out.
D: Amber Dawn Lee / 85m
Cast: Amber Dawn Lee, Noelle Messier, James Black, Darin Cooper, Jeff Chassler, Ron Allen, Eugenia Care, Leif Gantvoort
You’re an aspiring actress who wants to be known for more than roles as The Hottie in short The Bigfoot Hunters (2013), or as Hippie Barfly in lame horror Butterfly (2010). So what do you do? Simple: start your own production company and put your other talents as a writer and a producer and a director to the fore. Amber Dawn Lee did exactly that in 2010 when she formed Abovo Films. Six years on and we have the first feature made by Lee through her own production company, the abrasive romantic drama, Black Tar Road.
Originally titled A Junkie Love Story before its release, Black Tar Road is a bleak, occasionally disturbing look at love amongst the ruins of two women’s lives as they come together and find a semblance of happiness while nothing around them changes. Heather (Messier) is a hooker who finds her customers at a local truck stop. She’s tall, skinny, and by her own admission, not the prettiest woman to look at. But she has nowhere else to go, and no real ambitions to better herself other than to travel west to Pasadena. But even then she has no idea what she’ll do when she gets there. Charlie (Lee) is a trucker, working off a debt to a criminal gang by transporting illegal items around the American southwest. She’s a drug addict, too, injecting heroin at an often alarming rate but somehow managing to function. Beyond clearing her debt she too has no ambitions or plans; the only difference between her and Heather is that she at least has travelled, even if it is behind the wheel of a truck.
Their relationship begins in an offhand, casual way, in a bar. There’s an attraction on Charlie’s part that happens straight away, but Heather is looking for a friend to help make her life more bearable. She’s not looking for love as she doesn’t think it’s real anymore. Charlie thinks along similar lines, but the ease with which they come together as friends makes it inevitable that they’ll fall in love. As both director and writer, Lee doesn’t shy away from how broken these two women are, nor how much they want to feel normal (whatever that means for them). As their friendship develops and becomes sexual as well as more emotional, Lee’s script allows them a respite from the pain and disappointment of their regular lives. Together, they can block out all the bad stuff and ignore it for a while, but thanks to their own failings and their own individual problems, all that stuff is still going to be there to trip them up.
As Heather and Charlie become closer and more committed to each other, as well as the idea of their being a couple, there’s the likelihood that we’ll get to know more about them. Up til now, Lee has provided very little back story for either character, and while this doesn’t hinder our understanding of the two women, it does create a distance between them and the viewer that restricts the amount of sympathy we feel for them. Heather was popular in high school, and is reminded of this from time to time, but we don’t know the circumstances that have led her into prostitution. Likewise, Charlie’s addiction to heroin is presented as an integral, and important, part of her lifestyle and character. Lee refrains from exploring each character’s unwillingness to change (or at least try to); instead she makes their determination not to change a kind of feminist badge of honour, as both women try to convince each other, and the audience, that this is who they are and they don’t need to be any different.
Lee paints a pretty miserable picture of both women’s lives from the outset, and the first half an hour may test the patience of viewers who don’t like their movies to be quite so grim, but once Heather and Charlie begin their relationship in earnest, then Lee allows the movie to breathe a little. She lets the two women experience joy and hope in equal measure, and changes the parameters by which they relate to the world. Lee shoots several scenes in black and white to highlight the difference that their romance means to them, how simple their lives have become in these moments of intimacy and love. These are affecting moments, driven by the closeness and the bond between Heather and Charlie, and by Lee’s careful, though obvious, signposting of the way in which things might change for the worst.
As the beleaguered women, both Lee and Messier are on fine form. Lee plays Charlie as a more internalised role, a mostly quiet(er) counterpoint to Messier’s garrulous Heather. Charlie’s drug habit leaves her looking haggard and on the verge of death a lot of the time, and Lee isn’t afraid to look suitably ghastly. Heather has a nervous laugh that animates her face in a way that shows off her insecurity around other people; like Lee, Messier isn’t afraid to look worn-down or exhausted. Both actresses express a degree of fearlessness in their roles that adds texture and a coarse vitality to their roles, but they’re equally adept at showing the vulnerability and the tenderness that Heather and Charlie are able to show each other, and no one else.
For all its positive qualities though, Black Tar Road does founder at times, and Lee makes some narrative decisions that don’t make a lot of sense. Charlie does something that should see her pursued by the police, but once it’s done and she’s panicked a bit over it, it’s forgotten and never mentioned again. It’s a very unlikely outcome, and some viewers may well continue watching the movie waiting for this “something” to come back and bite Charlie in the ass. That it doesn’t is unfortunate, and the sequence in which it occurs ends up feeling like an unnecessary addition to Charlie’s storyline. Heather, meanwhile, looks after her grandmother, who is borderline catatonic. This never amounts to anything significant, unless it’s to show that Charlie and Heather aren’t entirely self-centred; if that’s the case, then it’s a very clumsy way of telling viewers something they’ll already have guessed for themselves. There’s also way too many scenes of Charlie shooting up and then waking up – often in the street – some time later; each time, she comes to, she gets up, and carries on as if it’s never happened.
At times unremittingly bleak – Heather contributes a voice over in the opening ten minutes that will have some viewers convinced this is going to be a suicide tale – Black Tar Road uses a framing device to provide a degree of optimism as to the movie’s eventual outcome. But said optimism is ultimately in short supply, and while this is in keeping with the not-so-cautionary tale that Lee is telling, any viewer approaching this movie expecting a happy ending, may be better off looking elsewhere.
Rating: 7/10 – a gritty drama that doesn’t send its main characters on a search for personal redemption – and is all the better for it – Black Tar Road overcomes some narrative fumbles along the way to become a low-key, bittersweet tale of love against the odds; at times earnest and impassioned, and buoyed by two impressive performances from Lee and Messier, the movie may appear too dour for its own good, but it’s a look on the dark sides of hope and personal need that succeeds more often than it fails.
D: Brett Rapkin / 90m
Cast: Josh Duhamel, W. Earl Brown, Winter Ave Zoli, Ernie Hudson, Carlos Leal, Caroline Aaron, Claude Duhamel, Stefan Rollins, Wallace Langham
If you’ve heard of Bill Lee, one-time pitcher (and a left-handed pitcher at that) for the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos, then chances are you also know about his drug-related background, his independence and need to challenge authority, plus his support for Maoist China, Greenpeace and school busing in Boston (amongst others). He was a well-known counterculture figure who appeared in an issue of the pro-marijuana magazine, High Times, and who once threatened to bite off the ear of an umpire in a 1975 World Series game. In later life, while still involved with baseball on a variety of levels, he was also asked to run for President of the United States on behalf of the Rhinoceros Party (his slogan: “No guns, no butter. Both can kill.”) If nothing else, Bill Lee has led an extraordinarily rich and eventful life.
Which makes Spaceman all the more confusing for focusing on the period that immediately follows the end of his professional career. Fired for one challenge to authority too many (walking out before a game in protest at the release of a fellow player), Lee (Duhamel) expects to get right back in the game, so confident is he that his unique skills as a pitcher will be more than enough to offset his off-the-pitch behaviour. But when the offers don’t come rolling in, Lee finds himself at a loss. His agent (and friend), Dick Dennis (Brown), keeps getting the runaround when he tries to contact the big league teams, and soon the message gets through: nobody wants him because everyone is tired of his shenanigans. He’s also thirty-six, and time isn’t on his side.
Lee’s also trying to do right by his three kids. He’s separated from his wife (Zoli) and can only have them over by arrangement. He’s as unorthodox a parent as he is a baseball player, but his relationships with his children are one of the few aspects of his life that he gets right. Otherwise, Lee smokes a lot of weed, drinks a lot of booze, and dreams of making it back into the Big Leagues. But the offers don’t come, his eventual divorce sees him deprived of any visitation rights, and to cap it all he receives an invitation to play for a Canadian seniors team. Intrigued and offended at the same time, Lee attends one of their matches, and helps them win. His need to play keeps him with the team for a while, until Dennis swings him a tryout for San Fran at their training facility in Phoenix. Lee motors all the way down there, only for the head coach (Langham) to dismiss him, and for Lee to learn that he won’t ever be taken back into the Big Leagues. A coaching offer comes along too, but the lure of playing sees him contemplating returning to Canada and resuming playing in the Seniors’ league.
Director Brett Rapkin has been here before. In 2003, he and fellow movie maker Josh Dixon joined Lee on a trip he was making to Cuba. The resulting footage made up the bulk of the documentary Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey (2006). Ten years on and Rapkin’s decision to revisit Lee’s life (or at least a part of it) has led to his making a movie that starts off strong with Lee’s determination to stand up for his teammate, but then it settles into an amiable groove that is pleasant to watch but eventually becomes so placid that not even the scene where he loses his visitation rights scores any dramatic depth.
By focusing on a period when Lee wasn’t playing baseball, it seems that Rapkin (who also wrote the screenplay) has chosen to explore the nature of the man behind the legend. But when the man is the legend, there’s little room for any real exploration, and so we have several moments where Lee informs anyone who’ll listen that he needs to play baseball, several scenes where Lee mooches around at home in his Y-fronts, and even more scenes set in a bar where he squanders his time in playing the wounded, unappreciated hero. With the introduction of the Canadian seniors team, the movie does find something more interesting to focus on, but even then it continues to be more amiable than sharply detailed.
As the Spaceman, Duhamel makes up for his appearance in the dreadful Misconduct (2016) by infusing Lee with a great deal of charm and affability. The employment of a scruffy beard adds to the character, while his scenes with Zoli reveal the pain Lee is suffering at the collapse of his marriage (something that didn’t happen in real life). But on the whole, Duhamel has little to work with, and while he’s able to give a warm, occasionally disarming performance, he’s too confined by the conventional nature of the material and the flatly handled narrative. The supporting cast have even less to hang a performance on, with only Zoli making any kind of impression, playing Lee’s wife with a brittle dismay that seems all too appropriate.
While the movie as a whole is affectionate in its view of Lee and his anti-establishment outbursts, and his self-aggrandising, it does make an effort to remind viewers that for all his grandstanding he was an exceptional pitcher. At the San Fran tryouts, and before he’s sent on his way, Lee’s gift with a baseball is used to outclass an arrogant batsman, a scene that trades on an overly familiar scenario in sports movies while doing so with a valid sincerity (look closely at any shots of Lee pitching though and you’ll see that the shot has been reversed; Duhamel isn’t a leftie). Sadly, there are too few scenes of Lee doing what he did best, but thankfully, when there are they lift the movie out of the doldrums.
Rating: 5/10 – not a bad movie per se, but one that never aspires to be anything more than good-natured, Spaceman struggles to find any dramatic traction that might keep an audience from losing interest; ultimately, Rapkin’s debut feature shows him working at a purposely even keel and forgetting to add some highs and lows to give texture to his otherwise genial look at a baseball hero and his fall from the Big Leagues.
D: Richard Linklater / 117m
Cast: Blake Jenner, Glen Powell, Tyler Hoechlin, J. Quinton Johnson, Ryan Guzman, Temple Baker, Wyatt Russell, Juston Street, Will Brittain, Austin Amelio, Forrest Vickery, Tanner Kalina, Zoey Deutch
Fresh from his success with Boyhood (2014), writer/director Richard Linklater has created a movie that begins where that movie ended – albeit with different characters. Set over a long weekend before the start of college, Everybody Wants Some!! sees freshman pitcher Jake (Jenner) arrive at a college in Texas and ready to see where college life will take him. It’s not long before he’s introduced to most of the rest of the team, and it’s even sooner when it’s suggested they all go out for a beer. While travelling round they try and tempt girls into coming to their frat house that night, but have middling luck; two girls in particular turn them down flat, though one of them does indicate she thinks Jake is attractive.
Over the course of the day Jake gets to meet everyone on the team, from coolly confident and loquacious Finnegan (Powell), to roommate Billy (renamed Beuter by his teammates) (Brittain), to knowledgeable, helpful Dale (Johnson), all the way to Jay aka Raw Dog (Street), a gonzoid character whose pitching speed is said to be around 95mph. Jake soon fits in with the established team’s sense of camaraderie, and the way they haze each other. Made to feel at home he soon becomes aware of the various dynamics within the team and learns from other players such as Willoughby (Russell) and McReynolds (Hoechlin) that even though they might party each and every night, nothing is more important than the team and supporting each other, and that they take playing baseball very seriously indeed.
Over the course of the weekend, Jake learns some very valuable lessons and takes a chance on contacting the girl who thought he was attractive. While his teammates concentrate on having as much “fun” as they can possibly manage with as many girls as is humanly possible, Jake gets to know the girl, Beverly (Deutch), and discovers that he likes her very much. An invitation to a Sunday night party Beverly is helping to organise for the college performing arts students leads to the team coming along too, and Jake worrying that their behaviour may cause problems, and especially for him with Beverly. But it doesn’t go entirely the way he believes based on his experiences of the previous two days.
Everybody Wants Some!! – the title comes from a Van Halen track off their Women and Children First album – looks at first as if it’s going to be yet another generic coming of age movie where the hero struggles to fit in and must find a way of being accepted by the clique or college fraternity he’s been assigned to. Even Jake’s first encounter with McReynolds, where he makes it clear he doesn’t like pitchers, seems to confirm the antagonism and animosity that Jake is likely to face as he tries to establish himself. But Linklater is not a director who deals in cliché, and what feels like the first of many obstacles Jake has to overcome in order to be accepted, proves to be the last, as his arrival is welcomed and he’s accepted into the fold with alacrity.
Linklater is clever enough to make Jake quietly likeable and offhandedly friendly, taking each new introduction as it comes and avoiding being fazed by a lot of the seemingly unfriendly behaviour exhibited by his teammates. He soon comes to realise that he’s no longer the big fish in the little pond of high school, but just a little fish in a much bigger pond, and others on the team – Beuter, fellow freshman Plummer (Baker) – are in the same predicament. Jake doesn’t know how things are going to turn out but he learns early on, that whatever happens his teammates will be there to support him. From the vagaries and disappointments and minor successes of high school, Jake now has to prove himself all over again, but thankfully in a much more encouraging environment.
Of course, this being college, high spirited behaviour is the order of the day, and the movie excels in recreating the kind of unabashed hedonistic lifestyle of the very early Eighties, where excessive drinking and smoking weed and pursuing women for sex was regarded as normal for young males at the time, and whose testosterone-fuelled exploits were (rightly or wrongly) regarded as the stuff of future legend. Out of this, Linklater shows how these young men bond unconditionally, and treat each other with respect even while they’re playing pranks on each other, or treating each other with an apparent disregard for their feelings. They might not say it to each other, and Linklater stops short of saying it directly, but there is a love here that is stronger than any individual relationships they may form outside the team. And they do know how to party, whether it’s at a disco, or at the frat house, or at a country and western bar dancing to Cotton Eye Joe – these guys live for the moment in a way that successive college students (and not just in America) have been trying to emulate ever since. It was in many ways a simpler time: pre-AIDS, pre-designer drugs, and pre-social media, and Linklater highlights how little pressure college students felt as they navigated the rocky road to adulthood.
What’s also clever about the movie and its ensemble cast of characters is the speed and succinctness that Linklater employs in allowing the viewer to get to know them. Faced with around a dozen characters, most of whom are given little or no background information to help the viewer distinguish them from each other (at first), the movie could have stumbled around introducing them, and made no impact at all. But Linklater doesn’t put a foot wrong with any of them, and broadens each character’s screen time and appeal as the movie progresses, so that by the time the movie’s reached the halfway point you may well feel you’ve known them a whole lot longer. Linklater is helped in this by some terrific performances, and though it would be a little unfair to pick out any one actor ahead of anyone else, special mention must go to Glen Powell as Finnegan. His performance is the jewel in the movie’s crown: self-assured, confident, engaging, overtly dramatic when required, and quietly impressive throughout.
Of course, Everybody Wants Some!! wouldn’t be a Richard Linklater movie set in the early Eighties without it having a killer soundtrack, and that’s exactly the case, with the director choosing a selection of songs that help both recreate the times and the social atmosphere that went along with them. There’s some iconic tunes to be sure, but it’s the way Linklater uses them that’s so effective, with the likes of Heartbreaker by Pat Benatar and Hand in Hand by Dire Straits used in support of the material and not just because they might sound good at a certain moment. The movie is also beautifully lensed by DoP Shane F. Kelly, which in turn highlights the wonderful period production design and costumes – take a bow Bruce Curtis and Kari Perkins respectively.
Rating: 9/10 – a delightful mix of comedy and drama that doesn’t short change or undermine either discipline, Everybody Wants Some!! is a movie that offers a whole host of rewards for the viewer; with a cast and crew at the top of their game, the movie is honest, reflective, heartfelt, genuinely affecting in places, and a near-perfect example of a simple story told simply and without unnecessary affectation.
D: Tim Story / 102m
Cast: Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt, Olivia Munn, Tika Sumpter, Bruce McGill, Michael Rose, Sherri Shepherd, Tyrese Gibson
Overheard at a cinema in Boise, Idaho (or somewhere like that – you get the idea):
Assistant: Hi, how can I help you today?
Customer: Hi. I’d like two tickets for Ride Along 2, please.
Assistant: Two tickets? Why?
Customer: I’m sorry?
Assistant: Why do you want two tickets? Don’t you like the person you’ve come with?
Customer: I beg your pardon.
Assistant: Look, it’s no skin off my nose, but wouldn’t you rather see something else? Like Norm of the North perhaps?
Customer: No, we’d like to see Ride Along 2. We like Kevin Hart. He’s funny.
Assistant: He is, yes. But unfortunately the movie isn’t.
Customer: Well, that’s your opinion. Now, can I have two tickets to see Ride Along 2? Please.
Assistant: Well, okay, I guess you’re old enough to know what you’re doing.
Customer: You know, you’re being very rude. I don’t think I’ve ever been so insulted before.
Assistant: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we? Wait until you’ve seen the movie, then decide, huh?
Rating: 3/10 – a dire sequel that recreates several of the first movie’s so-called “funniest moments”, Ride Along 2 proves that recycling isn’t as good for the environment (and particularly a cinema screen) as we’ve all been told; formulaic in the extreme, and low on real laughs, this is the kind of movie that studios make when they can’t think of anything that’s better/more original/more entertaining to make.
D: Alex Brewer, Benjamin Brewer / 93m
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Elijah Wood, Sky Ferreira, Ethan Suplee, Eric Heister, Kenna James, Keston John, Steven Williams, Jerry Lewis
When you’re watching The Trust, the latest no-brainer, substance-lite thriller starring Nicolas Cage, spare a thought for Jerry Lewis (yes, the Jerry Lewis). Urged by Cage to appear as his on-screen dad, Lewis appears in three scenes and amasses roughly a minute of screen time. What, you may be asking, was the point? In fairness, Lewis is ninety, so he may have worked to his potential, but it’s the kind of unkind cameo that will either have audiences, a) wondering if it’s really him, or b) asking themselves, isn’t he dead? The answers (already established) are yes it is, and no he’s not. The better question is, was he so bored that he didn’t have something, anything, better to do?
As it turns out, Lewis gets off lightly, sharing his scenes with Cage and Wood, while the two lead actors get to spar with each other for almost the rest of the movie. Cage is Jim Stone, an evidence technician for the Las Vegas Police Department, stifled by his bosses lack of vision when it comes to his ideas for gathering evidence more efficiently, and treated like a nuisance caller who makes the mistake of giving his name every time. Also working as an evidence technician for the LVPD is Wood’s character, David Waters. Waters is good at his job but he’s too fond of a joke, and smoking weed, to be as uptight as Stone; he’s coasting along, none too ambitious but clearly lacking the wherewithal to make his life better.
At an auction of property seized by the LVPD, Stone is shown one clever way that drugs have been transported. Looking through the paperwork that went with the bust, Stone spots an anomaly: the guy who was caught was a low-level criminal and yet his $200,000 bail was paid quickly and without fuss. Wondering why someone so inconsequential would have that kind of support, Stone begins to follow him to see who he’s affiliated with. What Stone discovers is a hidden vault located in back of a laundry. But what is actually in the vault? Stone, along with Waters’ help, determines to find out.
Viewers of The Trust – should anyone take such an ill-advised step – will find themselves unsurprised at the dearth of reasonable ideas, the lack of credibility, and the complete absence of tension or drama. They’ll be equally unsurprised at the way in which the narrative unfolds with all the urgency of someone with crippling arthritis trying to navigate a particularly steep set of stairs. In the hands of its directors, the movie stumbles around looking for reasons to keep Stone and Waters together, while ignoring the plain and simple fact that despite the “best” efforts of Cage and Wood, the movie can’t come up with any reason they would ever team up in the first place. It’s the elephant in the room: why would Waters go along with Stone’s plan when there’s so much they don’t know, and so much that could go wrong?
But hey, this is the movies, and people do the funniest things in the movies, like purchase expensive drilling equipment from a German manufacturer because it’ll be harder to trace (really?), or let a hostage make a phone call during the middle of a heist (that won’t come back to haunt anyone, surely?). It’s a truism that the cleverer the concept the sillier the execution, and The Trust is no different in its attention to making things look and sound absurd. From the now traditional discussion where one person outlines their criminal plan to another in a public place (a Vegas casino bar on this occasion), to Stone and Waters being able to just drop their day job and concentrate on breaking into the vault, the script by co-director Benjamin Brewer and Adam Hirsch cuts narrative corners as if it’s de rigeuer for this sort of movie, and never once gives the viewer the sense that this is all happening in a world anyone could recognise.
And it’s yet another movie that features a performance from Nicolas Cage that has little to offer other than the actor’s trademark tics and quirky line deliveries. It seems incredible that you have to go back to 2013 to find a Cage performance worthy of his talent, but that’s how long it’s been (it was a banner year for Cage, with roles in Joe, The Frozen Ground, and The Croods all reminding us of just how good he can be). Here he looks tired, not quite going through the motions but perilously close to it, his mannerisms and reactions just a touch off from what they would be if he were fully engaged with the material. It’s a shame to see Cage at such a remove from what he can achieve as an actor; perhaps his upcoming turn in Oliver Stone’s Snowden will help turn things around.
Playing opposite him, Wood does his best but may now be wishing that original choice Jack Huston had been able to play Waters. It’s the “anxious partner” role, the doubting Thomas who sees the potential for disaster at every turn, and who’s proved right (and suffers for it). Since playing a certain Hobbit back at the turn of the century, Wood’s career has been a varied one, but mostly played out in shorts and TV shows. Here he’s competent enough, but like Cage he can’t wrestle anything from the script that will allow him to improve on what he’s been given to work with. As a result, it’s to Wood’s chagrin perhaps that, on occasion, he looks like he’s lost.
Rating: 4/10 – with the narrative proving only occasionally interesting or absorbing, and with the actual vault break-in taking up far too much of the running time, The Trust is more laborious than it needs to be; tedious then, and a waste of both Cage and Wood, and punctuated by unnecessary bursts of violence, it’s a movie that never settles for, or decides on, a consistent tone to help tell its story.
Black comedy, Blackmail, Craig Roberts, Drama, Drugs, Ed Skrein, Georgia King, James Corden, John Niven, Junkie XL, Literary adaptation, Murder, Music industry, Nicholas Hoult, Owen Harris, Review, Unigram
D: Owen Harris / 103m
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Craig Roberts, Georgia King, Joseph Mawle, Edward Hogg, Tom Riley, Jim Piddock, James Corden, Ed Skrein, Rosanna Arquette, Moritz Bleibtreu, Dustin Demri-Burns, Osy Ikhile, Ella Smith
For a movie that’s set in 1997 and focuses on an ambitious A&R man, Kill Your Friends actually has little to do with the music of the time (except when it comes to its soundtrack), and instead creates its own musicians and bands for the audience to groove to. It’s a curious thing to experience, that such a movie would choose to ignore the music that was around at the time, especially when there was so many good records out there. ’97 was the year that The Verve gave us their Bitter Sweet Symphony, Chumbawamba were Tubthumping, Natalie Imbruglia was Torn, and Elton John reworked Candle in the Wind in tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales. But Kill Your Friends operates in a bubble of its own making, restricting itself to a narrow musical world where the deal is all important and not the music, and the means absolutely justifies the end.
That the world of the A&R man is a cutthroat world where everyone is out to succeed at the expense of everyone else shouldn’t come as any surprise, but the movie is often grindingly obvious in its approach to this idea, and the level to which it takes this idea is often glaringly excessive. The movie’s anti-hero, Steven Stelfox (Hoult), is determined to get to the top and he’s not too worried how he gets there. When we first meet him he’s in the company of fellow A&R man Waters (Corden), snorting cocaine and mixing drug-fuelled cocktails in an attempt to render his colleague either dead or too far gone to function. (Sadly for Steven, Waters’ ability to ingest hard drugs and still come to work the next day is quite impressive.)
With record deals to be made and hits to be manufactured, Steven takes a young talent scout called Darren (Roberts) under his wing, and starts to teach him how to get ahead in the music business. But Steven’s idea of “teaching” consists of constant reminders that no one knows anything (as in the movie industry?), and to misquote Sparks, that “talent isn’t an asset”. When an old friend of Steven’s, Rent (Skrein), introduces him to the girl band he’s managing, it’s no surprise that they’re four tuneless, talentless wannabes, manufactured into producing a “surprise” number one record. It’s at moments like these that the satire slaps the viewer in the face and yells, “Did you see what we did there? Did you?” If the movie wasn’t so tiresome and cynical, the viewer wouldn’t be either.
As Steven connives and manipulates and eventually murders his way to the top, the movie does its best to get the audience to root for him, but it’s not actually possible. Despite Hoult’s best efforts to make him likeable, Steven is a crude caricature of a man, his better qualities stifled to the point of non-existence and lacking any kind of moral attributes – however deeply buried – for the viewer to latch onto. He’s an ambitious, soulless, predatory, evil-minded bastard, a lower-tier monster who doesn’t deserve to make it to the top, or gain our attention. There’s a moment when he’s talking to a band in a club and they’re asking him what will happen if they sign with his record company. For around thirty seconds Steven regales them with the various ways in which he and his company will abuse and mistreat them, and then spit them out when they’re no longer viable. It’s meant to be funny and disturbingly honest all at the same time, but instead it’s another heavy-handed example of what we already know: that in the music industry you should always beware: because you’re swimming with sharks. (And, predictably, it’s all a dream sequence.)
With the movie lacking subtlety or appreciable flair throughout, there’s little beyond the traditional topics of sex and drugs and work envy to get excited about. Owen Harris’s direction consists of throwing the characters into sharp relief, such as when Steven’s PA, the equally ambitious Rebecca (King), blackmails him into helping her reach the top. It’s not exactly a surprise – this movie doesn’t do surprises – and most viewers will have been waiting for her to drop the faithful servant routine, but as one of the few characters we can have some sympathy for (at least to start with), her transformation into calculating co-conspirator smacks of laziness on the part of John Niven (here adapting his own novel).
With so much amoral, yet banal behaviour going on, it’s amazing then that the movie retains as much energy as it does, claiming the viewer’s undivided attention from time to time (often in its club scenes) and using said energy to push the rest of the scenes through in a kind of bizarre version of cinematic life support. There are also sporadic moments of humour, but none memorable enough to help the movie overall, and certainly not enough to help erase the memory of Edward Hogg’s dumb-as-a-bag-of-nails policeman, a character so brain-curdlingly simplistic in his creation that he’s not even of the rank of caricature.
But what of the music itself? As created by Junkie XL (aka Tom Holkenborg), the original songs are the movie’s best feature, an apropos mix of Nineties indie vitality and modern day stylings, anthemic when necessary, and completely free of any relevance to the story or the plot. You could take each tune and play it in a club or music venue and attract people’s attention. It’s the same here, and leads the viewer to wonder if there’s a cut of the movie where every scene takes place in a club or at a concert. But anyone paying attention will appreciate the dichotomy of what the movie is saying, that the music isn’t important, that it’s the last element of the deal that’s taken into consideration, but thanks to Mr Holkenborg and his “killer” tunes, it’s a boast that Kill Your Friends gets spectacularly wrong.
Rating: 4/10 – if you’re going to make a movie about the cutthroat nature of the music industry, then it’s important that your characters are at least halfway relatable – a point that Kill Your Friends ignores deliberately – otherwise it will look and sound like the naïve fantasy of a teenager; with thematic nods to American Psycho (2000) that are awkward and misjudged, this is a movie that skimps on the pleasantries and drags the viewer through a mire of its own choosing, and without ever offering said viewer any reward for the experience.
D: Jason Moore / 118m
Cast: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, James Brolin, Dianne Weist, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Madison Davenport, Rachel Dratch
Making the transition from TV to movies can be tough. For every Mike Myers or Johnny Depp, there are dozens more actors and actresses who make the leap only to find their particular schtick isn’t as popular with cinema audiences. Often it’s down to their choice of material, sometimes they make the mistake of doing exactly the same thing as they do on their TV show, and sometimes there’s just no explaining why their movie doesn’t click with audiences. Many persevere, trying time and again to make it work and be successful, and just as many fail.
Welcome then to Sisters, the latest attempt by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey to translate their TV personas into box office success. It’s a mix of teen party with adults, sibling dependency, and awkward romance, and it struggles to make any of these aspects even remotely entertaining. The teen party with adults is the worst of Sisters’ many creative decisions. Maura and Kate Ellis (Poehler, Fey) are middle-aged sisters. Maura is a nurse whose need to help others can be suffocating, and who hasn’t been in a relationship for some time. Kate is a nail technician who has a teenage daughter, Haley (Davenport), but no man, and has trouble keeping it together. When she loses her job it coincides with an invitation from their parents (Brolin, Weist) to come visit their childhood home before it’s sold.
Maura and Kate are horrified by this, especially as the invite has really been about them coming to clear out their room. Left to get on with it, Maura and Kate decide instead to have one last party in the house, and set about inviting all their old schoolfriends – with the exception of realtor Brinda (Rudolph) – along with a neighbour, James (Barinholtz), that Maura has the hots for. Everyone turns up as expected but as everyone is as middle-aged as the sisters are, the party isn’t as exciting as they’d hoped for. The intervention of local drug dealer, Pazuzu (Cena), leads to a much wilder, much more enjoyable party, and inevitably, the house suffering some extreme wear and tear. And then Kate learns that she and Maura stand to benefit from the sale of the house. But by now it’s too late to put a halt to all the damage that’s been done, and matters are made even worse by the efforts of Brinda to crash the party, and the imminent arrival of Maura and Kate’s parents.
There’s no denying that Poehler and Fey are two very fine comediennes – on TV. With Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock respectively, both women have carved out hugely successful careers for themselves, and earned a sackload of respect and admiration in the process. But on the big screen the results haven’t exactly been that impressive. Fey’s attempts have included Date Night (2010), Admission (2013) and This Is Where I Leave You (2014), while Poehler, who admittedly has been trying for longer, has struck out with the likes of Spring Breakdown (2009), Freak Dance (2010), and A.C.O.D. (2013). The idea of them appearing together as sisters sounds like a great idea on paper (and the roles of Maura and Kate were written specifically for them), but it’s the movie itself that stops them from making much of an impact.
There’s plenty of scope to be had from making Maura and Kate as different as chalk and cheese – Maura is the dependable, slightly strait-laced sister, Kate is the carefree, mainly irresponsible free spirit – but without any friction between them until very late on, most scenes they appear in until then tend to focus on highlighting those differences to the point where even someone whose not even watching the movie will be aware of them. But still they’re no cause for disagreement or arguments or any kind of falling out. As a result, the movie plods along, content to find humour in the behaviour of secondary characters such as grinning hound dog Dave (Leguizamo), and mildly depressed Kelly (Dratch). But even then the laughter is thin on the ground, and has to be propped up by some actually quite funny verbal barbs courtesy of Kate.
And once the party gets really started, and several chocolate brownies have allowed the guests to loosen up, the movie encounters another problem. It wants to be a raucous comedy at this point, a la American Pie (1999), but as that series discovered when it arrived at American Reunion (2012), the idea of adults behaving like teenagers isn’t inherently funny, and something that audiences don’t really want to see. So the behaviour in Sisters is toned down to such an extent that whatever shenanigans or hijinks do happen, they’re about as funny as watching Amy and Tina trying on party dresses while a shop assistant drones that their outfits suit them (when of course they don’t).
Another part of the problem with Paula Pell’s script – and by extension Jason Moore’s direction – is that early on, scenes drag on past their proper length, partly in an effort to provide both actresses with equal screen time, and partly in an effort to wring out some extra laughs from situations and scenes that don’t support many laughs in the first place. That’s not to say that the movie isn’t funny it places, because it is, it’s just that it’s not funny consistently. It also tries too hard, and to the point where it tries to provoke a laugh from Weist using the C-word. When your comedy movie can’t manufacture enough laughs to maintain interest over nearly two hours, then you’ve got a problem.
As the sisters, Poehler and Fey are likeable enough, but even they can’t do much with a script that lacks substance as well as sustained humour. Rudolph pulls a lot of faces to make up for the one-note character she’s been given, Brolin and Weist have to settle for being constantly annoyed by their daughters’ behaviour, Leguizamo is wasted in the kind of minor supporting role he takes on every now and then, and Moynihan, tasked with playing the kind of too loud funny man whose jokes are always awful, is saddled with mimicking Al Pacino in Scarface (1983) in a charades scene that feels like it’s never going to end. Only Cena as the taciturn drug dealer (whose safe word is “keep going”) avoids being hampered by the material, and the movie picks up whenever he’s on screen.
Sisters would be a better movie if it was twenty minutes shorter and if Pell’s screenplay had concentrated on laughs rather than giving its two main characters “life lessons” to learn. Viewers looking for a great time in the company of two very talented comediennes would do better to try their respective TV series’, while anyone unfamiliar with their TV work, but thinking of giving the movie a try on the off chance that a movie featuring Poehler and Fey must be good (right?), should take a hasty step back and save themselves from being disappointed.
Rating: 5/10 – sporadic laughs do not a comedy make, and Sisters struggles repeatedly to get the mix of visual and verbal humour to work effectively, leaving it feeling and looking dull and uninspired for long stretches; best viewed as a valiant attempt to give Poehler and Fey their big screen breakthrough, but otherwise a movie that fails to deliver both for them and for the audience.
Acting, Affair, Antonia Scalari, BP, China, Cholera, Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Drugs, Edward Norton, Floodtide, Freebasing, Giulio Marchetti, Giuseppina, Gordon Jackson, Historical drama, Italy, Jack Lambert, James Hill, John Curran, John Laurie, Literary adaptation, Marina Zenovich, Naomi Watts, Oscar winner, Petrol station, Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, Romance, Rona Anderson, Ship design, Shipyard, Short movie, Stand up comedy, The Clyde, W. Somerset Maugham
Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (2013) / D: Marina Zenovich / 83m
With: Richard Pryor, Jennifer Lee, Rashon Khan, Thom Mount, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Patricia von Heitman, David Banks, Skip Brittenham, Paul Schrader, Stan Shaw, Robin Williams, David Steinberg, Rocco Urbisci, Lily Tomlin
Rating: 6/10 – a look back over the life and career of Richard Pryor featuring comments from the people who lived and worked with him; if you’re familiar with Pryor and his work then Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic won’t provide you with anything new, but its concise, straightforward approach is effective enough, even if there’s an accompanying lack of depth to the way the material has been assembled.
Floodtide (1949) / D: Frederick Wilson / 90m
Cast: Gordon Jackson, Rona Anderson, John Laurie, Jack Lambert, James Logan, Janet Brown, Elizabeth Sellars, Gordon McLeod, Ian McLean, Archie Duncan
Rating: 7/10 – an eager to succeed shipyard worker (Jackson) earns both the respect of the shipyard owner (Lambert) and the love of his daughter (Anderson, who Jackson married in real life), as he climbs the ladder from metal worker to ship designer; the kind of cottage industry movie that Britain made in abundance in the late Forties/early Fifties, Floodtide has a great deal of charm, and an easygoing approach to its slightly fairytale narrative.
Giuseppina (1960) / D: James Hill / 32m
Cast: Antonia Scalari, Giulio Marchetti
Rating: 9/10 – on a slow, sunny day at an Italian roadside garage, young Giuseppina (Scalari) finds that life isn’t quite as boring as she thinks; an Oscar-winning short, Giuseppina is a total delight, with minimal dialogue, some beautifully observed caricatures for customers, and a simple, unaffected approach that pays enormous dividends, and makes for an entirely rewarding experience.
The Painted Veil (2006) / D: John Curran / 125m
Cast: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg, Anthony Chau-Sang Wong
Rating: 7/10 – bacteriologist Walter Fane (Norton) takes his wife Kitty (Watts) to China as punishment for an affair, but in combatting an outbreak of cholera, discovers that she has qualities he has overlooked; previously made in 1934 with Greta Garbo, The Painted Veil (adapted from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham) is a moderately absorbing, moderately effective romantic drama that never quite takes off, but does feature some beautiful location photography courtesy of Stuart Dryburgh.
D: Asif Kapadia / 128m
With: Amy Winehouse, Juliette Ashby, Nick Shymansky, Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Lauren Gilbert, Sam Beste, Raye Cosbert, Andrew Morris, Lucian Grainge, Tyler James, Yasiin Bey
One of the most talented singers of her generation, Amy Winehouse “arrived” on the music scene in 2003 with the release of her first album, Frank. Eight years later she was dead from alcohol poisoning. She was in the public eye so often, and so often for the wrong reasons, that a lot of people felt they knew her. Unable to deal with the fame and fortune she so justly deserved, she retreated into a life of alcohol and drug addiction and repeated, unsuccessful attempts to throw off the demons that plagued her. One of her idols, Tony Bennett, said of her, “she was the only singer that really sang what I call ‘the right way’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer”. But why did she die at the age of twenty-seven, alone and with only her bodyguard checking on her occasionally?
Sadly, Amy doesn’t provide any answers. Nor does it probe too deeply into why the singer had such an addictive personality, or why she had been bulimic for most of her life (a topic which is mentioned partway through then dropped as a point of fact that needs no further investigation). It also fails to explore the differences between Amy Winehouse the world-famous singer/celebrity, and Amy Winehouse the private person. While there are times when her friends and family comment on her behaviour, and there’s a large amount of regret that can be felt, no one seems to have really known what made Amy tick during those brief eight years when she was so well known and so highly regarded.
The reason that Amy fails to do this is partly due to the very cleverly constructed way in which it recounts Amy’s life, charting her teenage home life and early success with Frank, through to her increasing use of drugs and her alcohol dependency before the further success of Back to Black. From there the pressures associated with such an unexpected and meteoric rise were compounded by her poor choice of partner – step forward, Blake Fielder-Civil – and the lack of support gained from her family, in particular her father, Mitch, whose lack of empathy for his daughter is incredible to witness. All this led to repeated, and entirely predictable relapses following stays in various rehab clinics. With no one attempting to deal with her bulimia – or get her to – Amy’s health was so compromised by 2011 that those close enough to her knew that her drinking would eventually kill her.
But Amy is effectively reportage, a trawl through the singer’s life that relies on a great deal of archival footage of Amy and her friends, Amy and her working relationships, Amy on stage, Amy in the public eye, and the contributions of many of the people who knew her personally and worked with her professionally. And while some of the early, pre-Frank footage is beguiling to watch, and fascinating in a morbid way (knowing how she would look in later life), the later footage, once her demons have made themselves felt, leads the movie into darker, more disturbing territory. It’s at this point that Amy moves away from bittersweet reflection and becomes a rehash of the public and private life we all saw develop over those eight years. We see the public appearances where she seems overawed and/or overwhelmed, the sight of someone with the light in their eyes slowly dying out, and we gain the sad realisation that this person’s life can only end in tragedy.
Did we always know this? Certainly Amy’s friends knew this, and it’s likely that her colleagues in the music industry knew this, and the movie, while not pointing any fingers directly (or with any intention of doing so), does however make one thing clear: no one did enough to stop it. Her friends stepped away because they couldn’t bear to watch her destroy herself, and her record company wouldn’t work with her unless she was clean (reasonable in itself but for Amy an ultimatum she was never going to achieve, not in the long-term). In the end, that’s why Amy died alone and with only her bodyguard occasionally checking in on her: she had nobody she could rely on to protect her.
The sadness and the largely unavoidable tragedy of all this is brought out by Kapadia’s firm control over the movie’s content, and while some people, particularly Mitch Winehouse, have subsequently decried Amy as having produced “an inaccurate narrative of Amy’s story”, there’s little doubt that in the last three years of her life, when her problems became insurmountable, that she was desperately unhappy and struggling to find direction in her life. You can see this illustrated best when she’s seen recording a duet with Tony Bennett, one of her life-long idols. The confidence that has seen her give outstanding vocal performances time and time again has deserted her; she keeps apologising for getting things wrong. Bennett continually reassures her but you can see from her eyes that Amy isn’t convinced; when the session is done, you can see how relieved she is that she’s got through it all. It’s moments like these, when she clearly wants to be at her best, but her best is too far away for her to grasp, that prove the most disturbing and the most upsetting.
Could Amy Winehouse have conquered her demons and still be making great records today? We’ll never know, but one thing we can be sure of: her short career gave us many wonderful recordings, and it’s these lasting treasures by which we should remember her, not as the drunk, confrontational, tragically lost figure she was in her last few years. She was talented, incredibly so, and Amy reminds us of that constantly, even as it charts her downward spiral. She was always about the music, always about the irresistable pull of it, and thanks to Kapadia’s inclusion of several of her most iconic and meaningful songs, Amy is still a reminder of just how talented she was, and how much she will be missed.
Rating: 8/10 – a fascinating documentary that tells a fascinating story, even if we think we’ve seen it all before, Amy mixes archival footage of the singer along with candid commentaries from the people who knew and worked with her to create a devastatingly human story of tragedy borne out of success; that it doesn’t make judgments (except very cleverly) or arrive at any conclusions are the only things that stop this from being any better than it already is.
D: Adam Salky / 85m
Cast: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski, Skylar Gaertner, Shayne Coleman, Mia Barron, Terry Kinney, Chris Sarandon
When we first meet Laney Brooks (Silverman), she’s in her bathroom, looking out the window at her husband Bruce (Charles) and their two young children, Eli (Gaertner) and Janey (Coleman), as they all shoot hoops. But she’s not actually seeing them. Her gaze is too distant, too removed from what’s going on outside. Instead she’s remembering recent events in her life: taking her kids to school, getting Chinese at a local restaurant, a dinner party with their friends Donny (Sadowski) and Susan (Barron), the unexpected arrival of a dog called Bingo… and then she snorts cocaine before taking a bath.
Faced with this kind of introduction to a character, some viewers may feel that they don’t want to spend any more time with them and will decide to go watch something else, something more light-hearted perhaps. But they would be missing out on one of the most impressive performances by an actress in the whole of 2015.
As I Smile Back progresses we come to realise that Laney has a heck of a lot more problems than just taking cocaine. She drinks to excess, pops pills like they’re sweets, and is cheating on Bruce with Donny. As well as struggling with being a wife, she struggles with being a mother, being overly fearful for Eli in particular, while proving unable to manage something as simple as bringing her school I.D. badge with her when she drops the kids off. She’s always a second or two behind everyone else, always a little distracted, always a little “vacant”.
It’s at around this point in Adam Salky’s take on the novel by Amy Koppelman (who also co-scripted with Paige Dylan) that the viewer begins to realise that Laney is suffering from depression and has mental health problems; the irresponsible behaviour is merely a sign of her inability to cope with every day life and its responsibilities. The average viewer will also realise that the movie can now only go in one of two ways: either Laney will hit rock bottom, get help, and get better, or she’ll spiral out of control until tragedy strikes. But Koppelman’s story takes a third way, one in which Laney has every opportunity to avoid ruining the rest of her life, but the question is: will she?
Thanks to the aforementioned impressive performance by Silverman, the answer to that question is not as simple as expected. There are some formulaic twists and turns to the story that most viewers will see coming, but on the whole, Laney is a character to root for, even when her self-destructive behaviour would have most people walking the other way. Silverman is incredibly good as a woman weighed down by the trauma of being abandoned by her father when she was nine, and whose inability to deal with the subsequent issues that have grown up around that event has led to the addictive behaviour that dictates her daily life. She has a loving husband, two great kids (though the movie hints that Eli may end up emulating his mother when he’s older), and an outwardly envious lifestyle. But for Laney, everything comes to an end; why not her marriage and all that goes with it?
After she drinks and takes too many drugs one night, Laney has a spell in rehab, and the movie starts to give her a chance, though there’s a noticeable distance now between her and Bruce that doesn’t bode well for the future. She talks about her father, and the fact that even though she knows where he lives, she hasn’t contacted him in thirty years (and vice versa). It becomes a challenge, to visit her father, and when she does Laney discovers that seeing him wasn’t such a great idea. From then on, things begin to spiral out of control again.
Let’s say it again: Silverman is magnificent as the self-torturing Laney. It’s the kind of dark, messy role that comediennes seem to be able to pull off without any problem at all, and Silverman gives a breathtakingly honest portrayal of a woman whose feelings are so raw, and yet who can’t connect with her emotions. And if you thought that this wouldn’t be an uncomfortable movie to watch because of Silverman’s presence, then there’s a scene involving a stuffed toy that shows just how committed the actress was to the role.
But, sadly, Silverman’s performance isn’t matched by Salky’s direction. The movie suffers from an icy tone that matches the wintry New York state locations, and Salky never fleshes out the characters around Laney, leaving Bruce to look and sound like a self-important grump with no amount of sympathy for Laney’s problems, while Sarandon as Laney’s father can only do limp regret in his brief scenes. The camera spends quite a lot of time observing Laney, and only gets in close when she’s really hurting or in trouble. Otherwise there’s a detachment going on that hampers the viewer from connecting with Laney, and stops any sympathy for her from becoming full-blown. It’s as if Salky has decided that, despite the obvious emotional traumas that Laney experiences, his movie is going to be more of an intellectual exercise, an examination of a character as they descend through their own personal hell. It’s not an approach that works, and detracts from the limited “enjoyment” the movie has to offer.
The script too has its faults, not least in the way that it avoids providing a convincing explanation for Laney’s mental illness/depression, and instead shows her popping pills, snorting coke, and gulping wine over and over, as if we won’t be aware of how addictive her behaviour is unless we keep seeing it. Eli’s problems are introduced but no attempt is made to resolve them, and her affair with Donny (which has so much dramatic potential) is dropped without a backward glance. Also, the scenes at the rehab centre are too short and too lacking in depth for them to be anything other than a bridge between two sets of aberrant behaviours, and the advice and comfort given by Laney’s psychiatrist (Kinney) is banal to the point of, well, extreme banality. But the final scene in the movie is thematically perfect, and ties in neatly with Laney’s problems, albeit to heartbreaking effect.
Rating: 7/10 – if it wasn’t for Silverman’s superb, and often harrowing, performance then I Smile Back wouldn’t be an attractive prospect, thanks to Salky’s distant feel for the material, and the repetitive nature of Laney’s behaviour built in to the script; but Silverman is superb, and her performance holds the movie together in a way that should be rewarded come Oscar time, but which will probably be ignored in favour of more mainstream, multiplex-friendly portayals – and that really is depressing.
D: Jon Watts / 86m
Cast: Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Shea Whigham, Camryn Manheim
Two boys, Travis (Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Wellford) have run away from their respective homes, and are travelling across country when they stumble upon a police cruiser in a small wooded area. Nervous about being discovered and taken home, they approach the vehicle with caution but soon realise that whoever it belongs to isn’t anywhere nearby. They get in and pretend to be driving it when Travis finds the keys. Caught up in the excitement of finding the car, they drive off, eventually reaching a main road where they almost collide with a woman driver (Manheim).
Meanwhile, Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon), whose cruiser it is, is busy disposing of a body he had in the trunk. When he returns to the car to dispose of a second body, he of course finds it’s gone. Confused, he uses his mobile phone to call Dispatch and ask the operator if she’s heard anything unusual over the radio. Kretzer is relieved when she says no, but knows that it could be just a matter of time before his car is seen or stopped. He begins to run across country until he comes to a trailer park. There he steals a car, and uses it to head home where he can regroup. When another call to Dispatch reveals reports of a stolen cop car, he dismisses the idea and arranges for all the local units to switch to another channel.
That done, he uses the radio in his truck to try and contact whoever’s stolen his cruiser. The boys don’t hear him at first, but they do hear a noise from the trunk. When they open it they discover a badly beaten man (Whigham) who is also tied up. He implores them to free him, saying the sheriff is a bad man and his life is still in danger. But when Travis and Harrison do free him, he overpowers them, and when Kretzer calls through again, the man forces Harrison to give him their location. While Kretzer heads to meet them, the man takes the sheriff’s assault rifle and hides nearby with the intention of killing him when he arrives. But when the sheriff does arrive, he senses something’s wrong, and so begins a game of cat-and-mouse that sees the two friends trapped in the back of the cruiser, and at the mercy of both the man and the sheriff.
Cop Car‘s basic premise is a simple one: boys steal a sheriff’s cruiser, sheriff tries to get cruiser back, things get messy and complicated very quickly. In fact, it’s such a simple premise that it doesn’t need much more embellishment than a woman driver who can’t believe what’s she seen (two boys driving a sheriff’s car). And director/co-writer (along with Christopher J. Ford) Watts knows it, paring down the action and the drama to the point where only the most essential requirements are needed or used. It makes a refreshing change to see a thriller that’s pared down in such an effective way, and it’s all credit to Watts and Ford that they maintain such a tightly focused narrative throughout.
Of course, they’re helped enormously by the presence of Bacon (sporting a moustache that could qualify as either a special effect or a character in its own right). As the cocksure sheriff whose crooked endeavours are brought to heel by the intervention of two unsuspecting ten year olds, Bacon is a mix of sweaty terror and ambivalent menace; there’s a moral compass in there, but thanks to the script and Bacon’s interpretation of the character the viewer can’t be sure which way he’ll turn when it comes to dealing with the two boys (as opposed to Whigham’s unequivocally bad guy, who in the movie’s most cruelly effective scene, tells the boys just what he’ll do if they try and double cross him).
With Bacon on such fine form, it’s a good job that Freedson-Jackson and Wellford are able to match him for credibility, their easy-going camaraderie and childish naïvete another of the movie’s wealth of positives. In this day and age of computer whizz-kids and their seemingly inevitable rush to adulthood, it’s good to see a couple of kids who aren’t tech savvy, don’t know about safety catches on guns, and believe that someone they find bound and bloodied in the trunk of a car isn’t on the wrong side of the law (their ease in driving does raise a few questions however). Travis is the more confident of the two, and Freedson-Jackson – making his feature debut – shows how vulnerable he really is beneath all the bravado. By contrast, Harrison is the more cautious and reserved of the two, and Wellford portrays his gradual toughening up with a skill that belies his age and experience.
There’s very little in the way of subplot either, with Kretzer’s pursuit of his car, and the man’s determination to kill him providing all the required tension and drama. By putting the two boys square in the middle of the two men’s determination to kill each other, Watts adds a layer of vulnerability to a story that would otherwise be a straightforward slab of testosterone set in wide open spaces. And what wide open spaces they are, the Colorado locations beautifully lensed by Matthew J. Lloyd and Larkin Seiple, the rolling grasslands often overwhelmed by some impressively glowering skies. The locations give the movie a sense of place and dimension, making even Kretzer’s run across country seem entirely possible, despite the seemingly endless vistas he has to travel through.
For all Watts’ and Ford’s careful attention to detail and the way in which they’ve carefully structured their story, there are still a few problems. The scene where Kretzer persuades the woman driver to look for his keys isn’t as clever or convincing as it needs to be, and leaves the viewer feeling a little disappointed at the way in which the movie is heading towards its conclusion. And the outcome of the sheriff’s showdown with the man feels forced, while what follows seems hopelessly contrived, as if the movie needed to be a certain length and this was the best way they could come up with to meet that need. It undermines all the good work that’s gone before, but not so much to negate it entirely, though some viewers will probably be left shaking their heads in dismay.
Rating: 7/10 – let down by a final quarter hour that flouts the carefully constructed narrative that’s gone before, Cop Car is still a great little thriller that is much better than you’d expect; eschewing cynicism (in a genre that can’t help itself sometimes), and focusing on the situation the boys find themselves in, it has a knowing depth that rewards on closer examination.
Original title: Grupo 7
D: Alberto Rodríguez / 95m
Cast: Antonio de la Torre, Mario Casas, Joaquín Núñez, José Manuel Poga, Inma Cuesta, Lucía Guerrero, Estefanía de los Santos, Alfonso Sánchez, Julián Villagrán, Carlos Olalla
Seville, 1987. With five years to go before the city plays host to the 1992 World Expo, the authorities are determined to root out any and all crime in the city, and particularly the drugs trade. Spearheading this attempt is Unit 7, made up of four officers: tough, uncompromising Rafael (de la Torre), young, ambitious Ángel (Casas), jovial, emotional Mateo (Núñez), and vain, homophobic Miguel (Poga). Using informants such as Joaquín (Villagrán) the team begins dismantling the various dealers and suppliers that threaten the Expo’s success. But their initial busts don’t amount to very much. It’s only when they find a substantial amount of heroin at the apartment of a prostitute known as Mahogany (de los Santos), Ángel takes some of it, and the team agrees to use it to create more informants, and thereby catch more dealers and suppliers.
Over the next four years their plan comes to fruition, and to such an extent that the team are responsible for fifty per cent of all arrests made by the Seville police. But tensions arise within the group as Rafael, nominally the group’s leader, is challenged more and more by an increasingly erratic and unpredictable Ángel. Ángel becomes more and more intolerant of the drug dealers and the junkies, and often violently assaults them in the way that Rafael used to. But where Ángel becomes more inured to the violence, and emotionally closed off – and which affects his marriage to Elena (Cuesta) – Rafael becomes more relaxed and indifferent, due to his relationship with a young junkie, Lucía (Guerrero).
The team’s high arrest rate also begins to attract the attention of Internal Affairs, and the team find themselves being followed. With an increasing media spotlight on them as well, a misguided raid on a home in the suburbs causes them to lose some of their credibility (and sense of invincibility). And when Ángel becomes the target of someone who knows why the team are so successful, and is prepared to use terror tactics to undermine them, their efficiency continues to falter. When they’re ambushed and humiliated in a similar fashion that they used to intimidate some junkies once before, and the identity of their tormentor is revealed, it leads to Ángel and Rafael going back to deal with their tormentor once and for all.
Incorporating contemporary footage of the World Expo site being developed and built over the years between 1987 and 1992, Unit 7 provides a social, political and historical perspective to its story that adds some degree of depth to the material, and while this is to be applauded, the episodic nature of the story ultimately works against it, leaving the viewer wanting to know more about the characters and their motivations, and with the feeling that there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than we ever get to see or know about.
The trickiest (and not entirely convincing) aspect of all is the character of Ángel, set up as the rookie of the group and suitably naïve when the movie begins. An unfortunate encounter with a drug dealer leaves his lack of experience exposed, and his attempts to gain promotion are hampered by his diabetes – a plot device which is used in such a haphazard manner it might as well not be mentioned. But from the moment he picks up the pack of heroin and hides it he becomes a different man: arrogant for the most part and acting more like a vigilante than a cop. It’s a swift, unexpected change in direction, and while it helps set up the rest of the movie, appears too much out of the blue for comfort.
In contrast, Rafael’s turn to the “softer” side is given more room to develop, and while his relationship with Lucía provides more of an emotional component for the movie than it has anywhere else, the whole thing ultimately doesn’t go anywhere and leaves Rafael just as embittered and alone as he was at the beginning. With Mateo equalling comedy relief and Miguel placed firmly in the background, screenwriter Rafael Cobos’ more random approach to characterisation has the effect of distancing the viewer from the team, even though strong efforts are made to show their camaraderie and their combined sense of purpose. Certainly the cast, all well chosen for their roles, put in strong, confident portrayals – with de la Torre and de los Santos proving especially convincing – and make more of their roles than the script allows for.
Thankfully, Cobos’ script does work extremely well in its attempts to portray the effort made to break up various drugs rings and the kind of intimidation and violence that goes with it. The team regularly use excessive force, and while it’s probably not a misrepresentation of the times or the police attitude towards criminals, the savagery of their actions is remarkably one-sided – even when their tormentor reveals himself he doesn’t treat them as harshly as he was by them. This difference again has the effect of distancing the viewer from the group, and their subsequent actions, plus their ultimate fate come 1992, lacks the resonance it should have had.
That said, the action scenes are well-mounted, and Rodríguez shows a flair for unusual camera angles that makes – in particular – the opening rooftop chase such a visceral and propulsive experience to watch. With so many movies like this being made across the world (and too many in the US), Rodríguez’ visual acuity helps lift the movie above many of its competitors, and while this is his first attempt at making a película policial, bodes well enough if he should decide to make another. Aided by regular collaborators DoP Alex Catalán and composer Julio de la Rosa, Rodríguez has fashioned a hard-hitting, if emotionally distant crime drama that, fortunately, scores more often than it misses.
Rating: 7/10 – though struggling to offer a connection for the viewer on an emotional level, Unit 7 does provide a solid, impactful ride for most of its running time; with a firm sense of place and time, and an often impressive look and feel to it, this movie is still worth tracking down.
D: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas / 102m
Bill Hicks, Dwight Slade, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Lynn Hicks, Kevin Booth, James Ladmirault, David Johndrow, John Farneti, Andy Huggins, Steve Epstein
From an early age growing up in Houston, Texas, it seems that Bill Hicks knew he wanted to be a comedian. At the age of thirteen he joined forces with his friend, Dwight Slade, and they started writing comedy material together. At fifteen, they snuck out of their homes to attend an open mic evening at the Comedy Workshop – and were a hit. But then Slade had to move away, leaving Hicks to build a career for himself.
He acquitted himself well on the comedy circuit, but early signs of alcohol abuse became more prevalent – and obvious – as Hicks used drinking in his act. While this allowed his true comic persona to show through, it lead to his addiction to cocaine, and a period in which his career virtually stalled. His initial promise, and fame, waned and it wasn’t until the late Eighties that he put his addictions behind him (though he continued to chain smoke throughout the rest of his life, even incorporating into his act). In 1990, Hicks’ career took an upturn when he appeared at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival. And later in the same year he appeared for the first time in the UK, where his brand of confrontational comedy caught on with audiences in a way that had never happened with US audiences; in short, they got him.
Hicks’ reputation increased off the back of his time in the UK, but even with such a boost he was still an acquired taste in the US. In 1993, he was scheduled to appear on Late Night with David Letterman, but his entire performance was cancelled from the show because the producers felt the content – which included references to the anti-abortion movement and religion – was unsuitable (the routine was finally aired on the show in 2009, and can be seen here). By this time, however, Hicks had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which had also spread to his liver. He kept it quiet, but began joking that each performance he gave might be his last. He died in February 1994, aged just thirty-two, but he remains one of the most popular, and influential, comedians of the last twenty-five years.
If you’ve never seen any of Bill Hicks’ stand up routines, or watched one of his live videos, then it’s difficult to understand just how good a comedian he was. He used his keen intelligence and acerbic wit to poke fun at US mainstream society and its relation to politics, religion, consumerism, and state controls. He was often vitriolic in his routines and unflaggingly dismissive of social apathy, refusing to accept that as one audience member once said, “We don’t come to comedy to think!” If you were in the audience at one of his gigs, you had to be ready to be challenged, and not in a softly, softly way either; Hicks was uncompromising.
In telling his story, from his early life growing up in Houston, through to his final gig in January 1994, American: The Bill Hicks Story picks out the highs and lows of Hicks’ life and career, and paints a portrait of a man who left behind an indelible body of work, and who was taken from us too soon. The movie benefits from the involvement of his family: mother Mary, sister Lynn, and brother Steve, all of whom speak candidly about Hicks and his various battles with addiction, as well as the effect these had on his career. Hicks also spoke about these issues in his routines (though he remained an advocate of LSD, psychedelic mushrooms and marijuana), and he did so candidly; it’s somehow reassuring to learn that his family are the same. With their honest, heartfelt contributions, the movie is able to acknowledge Hicks as a troubled individual, but also one who was able to deal with it all, and use it as a tool to inform and educate his audiences.
Co-directors Harlock and Thomas have done a great job in assembling the various interviews that pepper the movie and give it a great deal of balance throughout. There are dozens of clips of Hicks doing what he did best, and they’ve been chosen with obvious care – one montage of Hicks accepting or having a drink onstage shows just how bad his addiction was. There’s plenty of archival footage of Hicks growing up, and the makers have adopted a graphic animated style to the material that keeps things interesting away from Hicks’ routines, and often proves inventive. Using cut-outs and graphic overlays, the movie is visually engaging and compelling, and although some viewers may have trouble keeping up with who’s providing the voice over at any given time, it doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of the material.
Hicks, like Lenny Bruce before him, was unafraid to challenge the establishment, and his disillusion and anger towards the powers that be are given full expression, and allow the viewer to see the passion Hicks displayed on stage. Whether or not the movie is entirely successful in showing the man behind the comedian is open for debate, as Hicks’ private life is barely touched upon unless it involves his family (for example there’s no mention of a girlfriend, or indeed, any kind of significant other), or the friends he made on the comedy circuit in Texas. But the movie’s focus is clearly on Hicks the comedian rather than Hicks the private individual, and as such, works supremely well at providing a fitting eulogy for a man who once said, “Do I have a message? Yes, I do. Here’s my message: as scary as the world is – and it is – it is merely a ride…”
Rating: 8/10 – an enjoyable, affectionate look back over the life of one of America’s finest – if not fully appreciated – comedians, American: The Bill Hicks Story is a worthy endorsement of Hicks’ life and career; by turns funny, sad, poignant and moving, but above all funny, the movie is a celebration that is both imaginative and sincere.
1977, Adrien Brody, Ben Gazzara, CBGB's, David Berkowitz, Disco, Drama, Drugs, Homosexuality, Jennifer Esposito, John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Punk, Relationships, Serial killings, Sex, Son of Sam, Spike Lee, True story
D: Spike Lee / 142m
Cast: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Rispoli, Saverio Guerra, Brian Tarantina, Al Palagonia, Ken Garito, Bebe Neuwirth, Patti LuPone, Mike Starr, Anthony LaPaglia, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ben Gazzara, John Savage, Michael Badalucco, Spike Lee, Jimmy Breslin
New York City, 1977. The serial killer known as Son of Sam (Badalucco) is terrorising the city, randomly shooting people. He sends taunting messages to the police who are no nearer to catching him after seven murders than they were after the first. Against this backdrop, a group of friends try to make sense of what’s happening as well as trying to deal with their own problems. Vinny (Leguizamo) is a hairdresser working in the Bronx. He’s married to Dionna (Sorvino) but cheats on her every chance he gets. His best friend, Ritchie (Brody) has adopted a punk lifestyle, complete with spiked hair and punk clothing. It bothers Vinny and the rest of their friends, but proves attractive to Ruby (Esposito), who’s treated poorly by everyone else because she’s perceived as “easy”.
With the police struggling to make any headway in the Son of Sam case, the lead detective, Petrocelli (LaPaglia) approaches local crime boss, Luigi (Gazzara) for help in catching him. His men begin compiling a list of suspects, an idea that spreads throughout the neighbourhood and which is taken up by Vinny’s friends, led by Joey T (Rispoli). Suspicious of Ritchie’s new lifestyle, they add him to their list. Meanwhile, Vinny and Dionna’s marriage is unravelling. Vinny is still seeing other women – including his boss, Gloria (Neuwirth) – and he’s flirting more and more with drugs. He and Dionna are invited to a gig that Ritchie’s band is playing at CBGB’s but Dionna refuses to go inside. Vinny suggests they go to Studio 54 instead but they’re not able to get in. A photographer (Savage) who’s coming out of Studio 54 takes a liking to Vinny and they go with him to Plato’s Retreat, a swingers club. There, Dionna and Vinny have sex with other people, but on the way home Vinny becomes resentful and accuses Dionna of being a “lesbian freak”. Outraged by his accusation (and his double standards) she reveals she knows about his affairs and leaves him stranded at the side of the road.
Ritchie’s relationship with Ruby, however, is going from strength to strength, even though he dances at a gay club and prostitutes himself with the clientele. When Brian (Garito), one of Vinny’s friends, discovers this and tells Joey, it serves to make Ritchie more suspicious in everyone’s eyes, and when an artist’s impression of Son of Sam is published in the newspapers it looks enough like Ritchie for Joey to believe he is the killer. With Dionna having ended things with Vinny, and his reliance on drugs taking over his life, he’s persuaded by Joey to lure Ritchie out into the street where he can be attacked by his “friends”. But what none of them realise is that the police have made a breakthrough in the case, and that a terrible injustice is about to be carried out.
Filmed in and around the actual areas where David Berkowitz killed six people and wounded seven others between July 1976 and July 1977, Summer of Sam is a jarring, hedonistic movie that paints an hallucinatory portrait of the time, and which acts like a fever dream of desire and mistrust. It’s a scurrilous, profane movie, sometimes scabrous and full of bile, as its characters deal with their own personal hells, all potent counterpoints to the madness experienced by Berkowitz. It deals with themes of betrayal and promiscuity, xenophobia and suspicion, and is unforgiving in its attempts to shine an unforgiving light on the social mores of the time.
The time period is recreated with verve and attention to detail (though it does get quite a few of the punk-related details wrong), and Ellen Kuras’ cinematography captures the vibrancy of the era, as disco battled with punk, and misogynism and distrust maintained a firm stronghold in Italian neighbourhoods. The lighting often makes scenes, and especially interiors, look grimy and slightly soiled, a trenchant reflection of the characters and their rude approach to life and each other. Lee explores and exploits the late Seventies with gusto, ramping up the intensity of the emotions and the spirit of the times, and encouraging a handful of career-best performances from his cast. The movie benefits enormously from its depiction of the fear and terror people felt in the wake of Berkowitz’s murderous activities, and the closed-minded vigilantism that grew out of them.
The movie generates such a speed and a momentum that it propels the viewer toward its denouement with alacrity, and through the machinations of Vinny and his friends, with undisguised relish. All this leads to a movie that operates at such a pitch that there’s little room for subtlety or tenderness. However, Lee’s confident handling of the narrative more than compensates for any rough handling or delirious imagery. When the heatwave of the time results in a power outage which in turn leads to rioting and vandalism, it’s depicted with a torrid matter-of-fact quality that it fits in completely with Lee and co-scripters Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli’s aggressive, no holds barred approach to the various storylines.
Lee is incredibly well served by his cast, who enter into things with complete commitment. Leguizamo, one of the most prolific and versatile actors working today – he currently has five movies in various stages of post-production – puts in a career best performance, expertly displaying the narcissistic selfishness of a man who projects strength but who is battling his fear of commitment every day. It’s a riveting portrayal, and even when he’s not the focus of a scene the viewer’s eye is drawn to him, as if at any moment he’s going to demand their attention again. He’s matched by Sorvino, whose quiet, unassuming portrayal of Dionna in the movie’s early stages gives way to a gutsy, impassioned performance that matches Leguizamo’s for emotional ferocity. Like her co-star, it’s a career best outing, and it’s a shame that post-Summer of Sam she’s not appeared in any movies that have allowed her to shine as she does here.
Brody offers strong support though he’s given less and less to do as the movie progresses, while Esposito suffers the same fate. Badalucco is an imposing presence as Berkowitz, and sharp-eared viewers will recognise John Turturro’s voice as Harvey the Dog (who tells Berkowitz to “kill”). LaPaglia’s detective flits in and out of the narrative (and is nowhere to be seen when Berkowitz is arrested), Gazzara coasts as the local mob boss, and Savage is on screen for all of a minute. The soundtrack consists of a great mix of contemporary songs alongside Terence Blanchard’s driving score, and there’s terrific use of The Who’s Baba O’Riley two thirds of the way in to accompany a brilliant montage (another song by The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again, is used near the end for another very dramatic sequence, but it’s not as effective).
Rating: 9/10 – Summer of Sam won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is one of Lee’s most daring, uncompromising movies, and has a charge that few other movie makers could achieve or maintain over such a long running time; demanding and uncompromising, it’s a movie that doesn’t pull any punches and is all the better for it.
D: David Burris / 119m
Cast: Noah Wyle, Jeremy Irvine, Minka Kelly, Adelaide Clemens, Steve Earle, Marcus Hester, Haley Joel Osment, Alex Van, Robin Mullins
North Carolina, the early Seventies. Travis Shelton (Irvine) is seventeen and without much of a future ahead of him. He’s a high school dropout, can’t hold down a job, and spends most of his time hanging out with his friends. When he discovers some marijuana plants growing in back of a property in the woods, he takes a few and sells them to local small-time drug dealer, Leonard Shuler (Wyle). When he goes back to get some more he steps into a bear trap and passes out. When he comes to he finds himself confronted by Carlton Toomey (Earle) and his son Hubert (Hester), the owners of the marijuana plants and the area’s most prominent – and feared – drug dealers. Toomey strikes a bargain with Travis: in return for his silence about the plants, they’ll take him to the nearest hospital. Travis agrees.
While he recovers at the hospital Travis meets Lori (Clemens), a nurse he was in school with. They begin a tentative relationship that continues once he’s allowed home… which proves to be out of bounds, due to an argument Travis had with his father (Van) before his accident. With nowhere else to go, Travis persuades Leonard to let him stay with him for a while. His stay isn’t appreciated by Leonard’s girlfriend, Dena (Kelly), but he and Leonard form an unlikely friendship, with Leonard’s interest in local Civil War history, in particular the Shelton Laurel massacre, piquing Travis’s enthusiasm. As he delves deeper into what happened during the massacre he learns that several of his ancestors were killed there, including a thirteen year old called David Shelton.
He and Leonard visit the site and discover a pair of glasses that might have belonged to David. Dena becomes increasingly annoyed at Travis’s presence; one night while they’re all at a carnival, she disappears. Later on at Leonard’s she returns, accompanied by Toomey, to collect her things. Much later, Travis and two of his friends go to Toomey’s to score some drugs; there he discovers that Dena has been forced into letting men have sex with her to settle a debt Toomey says he owes her. Travis returns to free her, and he takes her to Leonard. Knowing that Toomey will come looking for her, he tells them to make a run for it. And sure enough, shortly after they leave, Toomey arrives looking for restitution.
The second screen adaptation of a novel by author Ron Rash in four months – the other being Serena (2014) – The World Made Straight is a meditation on the prolonged effects of the past on the present. It highlights the ways in which past events can influence the behaviour of people even a hundred years after they’ve happened, and emphasises the toll such an influence can have.
In Travis we have a main character who – surprisingly, given the nature of his Appalachian heritage – is unaware of the massacre and his family’s unfortunate involvement. But this is a journey of discovery, one that takes Travis away from his cloistered home life and into a world where he struggles even further to make any headway. His unexpected friendship with Leonard (who helps him pass his GED test) and his romance with Lori both point to a brighter future, but his increasing obsession with the massacre and his family’s history keeps holding him back, his need to know what happened there and why stopping him from moving forward. Irvine plays him with a swagger he hasn’t earned yet, and keeps Travis from becoming too irritating because of the mistakes he makes. It’s a rough and ready performance, in keeping with the character, and allows for a depth of feeling that pays off when Travis and Leonard visit the massacres site.
He’s not the only one haunted by the past, though. Leonard is a small-time drug dealer who was once a schoolteacher. He lost his job when a student he’d caught cheating on a test and failed, hid some drugs in his car. There’s an irony in his current “career path” and it’s not lost on him. His fascination with the past is seen as a by-product of this turn of events, as if by seeking answers to the events of the past he can find answers to his own predicament. Through Travis, Leonard is hoping to make some small amends for the way in which his life has taken a wrong turn, and for the way in which he let it happen. Wyle gives a quietly compelling performance, making Leonard’s sadness with his life all the more effective due to the losses he’s suffered. He has some difficult choices to make at the end, and while one of them seems designed more to provoke the eventual denouement, he still makes it work – just.
Sadly, while Travis and Leonard are characters given the room to live and breathe within the movie’s narrative, the same can’t be said for Dena and Lori. Dena’s drug addiction makes her manipulative and self-absorbed, almost a caricature, particularly when she attempts to seduce Travis. Lori is the wholesome alternative to Dena, her fresh-faced appearance and blonde locks the opposite of Dena’s sallow complexion and lifeless hair. Kelly struggles to make more of Dena than the script will allow, and Clemens is hamstrung by Lori’s less than consistent presence in the narrative (she’s a glimpse of what Travis could have, but little more). However, the movie does have one performance that is authoritative and commanding, and that’s provided by the singer Steve Earle, whose portrayal of Toomey is soft spoken, low-key and infinitely more menacing as a result.
Shane Danielsen’s script leaves some plot lines dangling – at one point, Dena tells Travis that Leonard is his kin even though he has a different name and family background – and just why Travis becomes so enthralled by the massacre and its connection to his family is never really explained (or explored). Also, the relationship between Leonard and Dena creates its own problem as it’s difficult to work out why he’d be with her. And the ending, while not entirely unexpected, is arrived at by a series of convoluted changes of character but remains surprisingly satisfying.
Making his feature debut, Burris directs things with one eye on the performances and one eye on the beautiful North Carolina countryside. Thanks to some stunning compositions, Burris and DoP Tim Orr make the movie a pleasure to watch, even if there’s an often wintry feel to the locations used, and there are several shots of a river that acts as a metaphor for the passage of time. It all makes the movie look more impressive than it is, but it’s not for want of trying. Burris has a good feel for the subject matter but can’t overcome the deficiencies in Danielsen’s script, and while the sense of history weighing down on the present is occasionally overdone, it doesn’t detract from the fact that, as debuts go, this is a pretty good start.
Rating: 7/10 – slow paced and not fully realised, The World Made Straight is still an auspicious debut from Burris, and lingers in the memory; worth seeing for Earle’s cobra-like performance and an atmosphere that builds to a conclusion that is both febrile and understated.
D: Brian A. Miller / 93m
Cast: Jason Patric, Bruce Willis, Jessica Lowndes, John Cusack, Gia Mantegna, Jeong Ji-Hoon, Johnathon Schaech, Don Harvey, Tyler J. Olson, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson
Paul (Patric), a mechanic working in a small town in Mississippi, has an only daughter, Beth (Mantegna), away at college. She’s due home for a weekend visit but she fails to show up. Worried that something has happened to her, Paul travels to the college and checks her room, where he finds a picture of Beth and another girl outside a bar. He goes to the bar and in time the girl turns up. Her name is Angela (Lowndes), and while she can’t tell Paul where Beth is, she does know that she was seeing a dealer called Eddie (Olson). She helps him track Eddie down to New Orleans, and in the process, comes to learn that Paul isn’t just a mechanic, but that he has fighting skills she’s never seen before.
When he finds Eddie, Paul discovers that Beth has left him to go live with a more dangerous drug dealer known as the Pharmacy (Jackson). Paul pledges to rescue her and tries to persuade Angela to go back home, but she refuses. Meanwhile, Paul’s arrival in New Orleans is reported to ruthless crime boss Omar (Willis). Twenty years before, Paul was responsible for the deaths of Omar’s wife and daughter. Now, Omar sees his chance for revenge. Paul seeks help from old friend, Sam (Cusack) while he goes to rescue Beth. He discovers that the Pharmacy has been told by Omar to keep Paul there, but he takes Beth and escapes during the subsequent gunfight. Back at Sam’s, and as they’re preparing to leave, Omar’s second-in-command, Mark (Ji-Hoon), ambushes them and manages to get away with Beth. Paul follows him to Omar’s, and a final confrontation between the two.
At ninety-three minutes, one thing that The Prince does have in its favour is a fairly short running time. Otherwise, this is yet another heavily padded, strictly by-the-books crime thriller with an invincible hero, a bad-ass villain, and a damsel in distress. With such a predictable nature, the movie struggles from the outset to provide its audience with anything new or different, even down to the scene where Omar has an employee killed for being out of line, just so we know how bad-ass he is (the fact the employee is standing next to a pool and looks incredibly nervous is also a bit of a giveaway as to what’s going to happen).
As the titular Prince, Paul is a methodical, no-nonsense, quietly threatening ex-hitman who hasn’t lost his touch, but who is also hard to like and thanks to Patric’s portrayal and the script’s lack of humour, comes off as colourless and remote. When he rescues Beth from the Pharmacy there’s so little emotion he might as well have been retrieving a can of peas he’d left behind at the grocery store. Paul is a character who seems estranged from everyone except Beth, and even then he seems to be trying a little too hard, as if he can’t quite work out if he’s doing things in the right way or not. It makes his interaction with Angela unnecessarily stilted and repetitious, and their scenes together suffer accordingly.
Paul’s determination to get Beth back is laudable, but with such a lack of emotion on his part, his efforts don’t have the resonance that even something as contrived as Taken (2008) and its two sequels have (yes, Taken 3 will be with us in 2015). What emoting there is in the movie is left to Angela – who keeps saying how shocked she is by each turn of event or revelation – and Omar, whose need for revenge is almost pathological (though as usual, he holds off on killing Beth long enough for Paul to turn the tables on him). Lowndes is okay, but Angela is a character that never rings true, allowing herself to go with a man she doesn’t know to New Orleans for $500, and who stays around when the bullets start flying and the bodies start piling up. Willis plays Omar as controlled at first but soon ramps up the ham, and by the movie’s end he’s dispensed entirely with characterisation and gone completely for caricature.
With minor support from Mantegna (sidelined for most of the movie), and Cusack (winning this year’s Nicolas Cage Award for Worst Hairstyle), The Prince ticks all the boxes when it comes to low-budget movie-making, with its dull, uninspired script courtesy of Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore; poorly edited and choreographed action sequences (the showdown between Paul and Mark is the worst example); trite, repetitive dialogue; clumsy framing and photography; lacklustre direction; and the kind of approach that almost screams “Doing it purely for the money!” Several moments are of the wince-inducing variety (e.g. Jackson’s attempts at acting), and despite all the gunplay and dead bodies, not one police officer makes an appearance at any point in the proceedings, which only serves to highlight the improbability of everything that happens.
Rating: 3/10 – a nail in the coffin of several careers (though probably not the last one), The Prince is a ham-fisted attempt at an urban western but without any of that genre’s appeal or distinctive flavour; entirely derivative and short on imagination, this is one crime thriller that can safely be avoided.
D: Jarand Breian Herdal / 34m
Cast: Henrik Plau, Ina Maria Brekke, Philip Bøckmann, Eirik Risholm Velle, Ruben Løfgren, Nicholas Rowley, Aksel Kolstad, Morten Müller
Having completed a two-year stretch in prison, Gary Clowne (Plau) is released, but there’s a catch: he must spend the rest of his sentence – three years – doing community service (he’s also tagged for his troubles). Once on the outside, Gary’s belief that he’ll be sweeping streets or cleaning toilets is cruelly dashed when his new employer, Vitaly (Løfgren) tells Gary he’s going to be a clown. Cue a selection of “gigs” (including a funeral) before Gary winds up at a hospital for patients with mental health issues. There he meets Jen Fliers (Brekke), one of the doctors; he’s immediately infatuated with her. To Gary’s surprise, Jen has sex with him in a supply cupboard almost immediately after he introduces himself. Finding themselves locked in, Jen calls on her boyfriend, Richard (Velle) to get them out. They leave the hospital together but get no further than Richard’s car; once inside they start having sex. Gary heads for home on foot, feeling sad and dejected.
A passing motorist warns Gary that there are lots of monkeys in the area. Baffled by the man’s comment, Gary continues walking until he finds himself in an alley, convinced someone is following him. He’s not wrong. A man in a monkey suit (and carrying a flick-knife) tries to attack Gary but he manages to run away. The man in the monkey suit chases after him. Gary finds himself back at the hospital car park where Jen and Richard are still parked up (and still having sex). The three of them manage to get away from the man in the monkey suit but not before he’s fired a gun at them. Later, at the flat Gary shares with his pothead friend, Tim (Bøckmann), Gary allows himself to be persuaded to feel better by smoking a joint, despite his initial resistance (his jail term was drugs related). The next morning, Gary wakes up to find that Tim has taken a heroin overdose, and is close to death. With the flat full of incriminating, drug-related paraphernalia, Gary can’t call the emergency services. So…what can a tagged felon who happens to be dressed as a clown do to get himself out of such a predicament?
If you’ve seen Everywhen (2013), Herdal and moviemaking partner Jens Peder Hertzberg’s debut feature, then you may have wondered what they’d do next. Well, wonder no more. Clowne is the entirely unexpected answer, a short feature designed as a pilot for a potential television series. It’s a bold move by the young filmmakers, and shows a growing confidence in their abilities. As a director, Herdal displays a keen eye for composition and has an instinctive knowledge of where to put the camera, and with co-creator and director of photography Hertzberg, often chooses odd angles to heighten a scene or, on occasion, keep the viewer wrong-footed (a great example is the shot of a man in a bus shelter looking at a timetable, and then the camera pans left to reveal Gary with his clown face pressed against the glass). Between them, Herdal and Hertzberg have come up with an offbeat visual style, and level of creativity, that belies their ages.
The script, also by Herdal, is inventive and irreverent in equal measure, the humour often laugh-out-loud funny, with a good mix of one-liners (“Jen, focus, I might get rabies here”), visual gags (Richard’s underpants, Tim’s new girlfriend), and the kind of crazy situations that only one of Life’s real unfortunates could find themselves in. The characters, from poor put-upon Gary to conspiracy theorist Vitaly to Müller’s gay police officer, are clearly defined and, though sometimes prone to exaggerated personal traits, suit the material well. Plau is great as Gary, his hangdog expression beneath the clown make up all the viewer needs to understand how he’s feeling. He’s also more than adept at showing Gary’s more vulnerable, nice guy qualities (which go some way to explaining just how he ended up in jail in the first place). It’s an assured performance, and Gary is all the more likeable because of it. As Jen, Brekke proves more flaky than some of her patients, and Bøckmann invests Tim with the kind of naive tunnel vision that so many weed fiends exhibit. Velle is a hoot as the passive-aggressive Richard, always apologising in a slightly whiny way, while Løfgren (in a role that would have been tailor-made for Alexei Sayle in his heyday), does paranoia with enough nervous energy to light several apartment blocks – and confirms what many of us have suspected about the Jonas Brothers for some time.
Inevitably, given that this is a pilot after all, none of the various plot strands are resolved, but as a self-contained short, Clowne succeeds in introducing us to a most unlikely “hero”. At this stage the prospect of a series is one to look forward to, though a full-length feature might be the better option, but judged on its own merits, Clowne is an entertaining, often hilarious, black comedy that confirms the promise Herdal and Hertzberg showed with Everywhen. There are some continuity issues: Gary’s red nose vanishes and reappears at will, often from shot to shot, and Tim’s car trails a vast amount of smoke when he’s the only one with a joint (it’s an easy visual gag, true, but still…). And on the trivia front, fans of that movie may notice that its star, Harald Evjan Furuholmen, has moved behind the camera to serve as production designer and set decorator; perhaps he’s the one responsible for there being a 1931 Dracula poster in the supply cupboard.
Rating: 8/10 – an equally impressive follow-up to Everywhen, Clowne is a likeable, surreal treat of a movie; all that remains is for Herdal and Hertzberg to channel their considerable talents into making a spin off movie for Hunch Backed Man (Kolstad) – now that would be welcome.
D: Michael Winterbottom / 100m
Cast: Steve Coogan, Anna Friel, Imogen Poots, Tamsin Egerton, Chris Addison, James Lance, Shirley Henderson, David Walliams
Presented as a series of flashbacks as Paul Raymond (Coogan) reflects on his life in the wake of his daughter Debbie’s death, The Look of Love takes us back to his early years as part of a mind-reading act, his early attempts at providing a show including static nudes, and the founding in 1958 of the infamous Revue Bar strip club in London’s Soho. From there he ventures into publishing, though it isn’t until 1971 that the publication of Men Only brings him success in that field. With pornography proving such a lucrative business, he stages risqué plays, and in the early Seventies branches out into real estate, mostly in Soho (there’s a scene early on in the movie where Raymond and his granddaughter Fawn are being driven through London and she has to pick out the properties he owns; later the scene is repeated but with a young Debbie).
Raymond is a somewhat mercurial man, adept at persuading those around him to follow in his wake, though his more personal relationships don’t fare so well. As he builds his empire his marriage to Jean (Friel) begins to show signs of falling apart, his affairs with other women proving too much for her (it’s a sign of the times that is cleverly subverted, this was the Swinging Sixties after all). His time with Fiona Richmond (Egerton) shows him at possibly his happiest, even when it leads to his taking drugs, but it’s a relationship that is doomed to failure, especially when her fame begins to outstrip his. And his daughter Debbie (Poots), who he hopes will take over his empire, has dreams of being a performer but she lacks enough talent, and he has to close the show he’s set her up in. From there, Debbie’s insecurities take hold and Raymond’s inability to support her leads us back to the movie’s beginning.
The Look of Love takes a conventional approach to the biopic format, and charts Raymond’s life with obvious respect, but in many ways it feels as if there’s too much of a distance between the movie and its audience for it to be completely effective. Despite the often challenging subject matter, and Raymond’s role in what was as much a cultural revolution as a sexual one, the movie is often like watching a mildly interested TV documentary, one that wants to say something about its subject but never quite manages it. Under the auspices of its very talented director, The Look of Love is still an intriguing viewing experience, and its success in recreating the Sixties and Seventies and the vibe that was around during those times helps bolster the sense of a period when society was changing (though for better or worse is another matter).
Winterbottom is aided by a clutch of great performances. Coogan, not a naturally gifted actor, works hard at presenting the various aspects of Raymond’s often contradictory nature, and – bad wigs aside – does an impressive, if at times awkward, job. Raymond is still a character (albeit one that really lived), and Coogan displays a remarkable intuition at times that offsets any doubts about the man’s behaviour. But there are also too many occasions when he affects a range of comic expressions that come across less as character detail and more as Coogan falling back on tried and tested habits. The actor is clearly having fun in the role, but perhaps a little too much fun.
As his long-suffering wife, Jean, Friel manages to avoid being pushed to the sidelines, and imbues her with a no-nonsense determination that makes the poignancy of her (later) photo-shoot all the more effective. Jean’s relationship with Raymond was mostly one-sided and her pragmatism in the face of so much “meaningless adultery” highlights the fortitude she had, and Friel brings these traits to the fore with an unshowy display that grounds her character completely. As porn icon Fiona Richmond, Egerton expertly navigates the character’s transition from eager free spirit to self-publicising brand name with persuasive ease. Her early scenes, as Raymond becomes more and more besotted with her, show both the carefree willingness to push boundaries alongside the more measured awareness of the benefits of doing so. It’s a much more subtle performance than it appears, and Egerton never puts a foot wrong throughout. As the emotionally wayward Debbie, Poots delivers an assured combination of vulnerability and self-destructive neediness, and her scenes with Coogan show the depth of their emotional co-dependency. It’s an assured performance, and Poots displays a maturity and depth that belies her years.
There’s the requisite amount of nudity throughout, though nothing that would embarrass anyone – this isn’t 9 Songs (2004) – and the casual sexism of the times is adequately reflected in the attitude of Raymond’s advertising associate Tony Power (Addison). The awkwardness and the inappropriate relationship between Raymond and Debbie is shown by their taking cocaine together, and there’s a perfectly judged moment at Debbie’s funeral where Jean accuses Raymond of failing their daughter by wanting her to be like him. The emotional fallout from all this leaves Raymond adrift, and although the movie doesn’t cover his final years, he spent most of them as a recluse.
Rating: 7/10 – an absorbing look at the life of Paul Raymond, The Look of Love recreates the times of his rise to fame in an earnest yet thoughtful manner, yet doesn’t quite manage to be impassioned about its subject; the supporting characters prove to be more interesting, and there’s a great deal of misguided humour that only serves to undermine the tragicomic atmosphere.
D: Phil Lord, Chris Miller / 112m
Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas, Nick Offerman, Jimmy Tatro, Caroline Aaron
Having saved the day in 21 Jump Street – and to everyone’s surprise – rookie cops Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are given another assignment, but this time instead of going undercover at a high school, they’re off to college instead. With the church at 21 Jump Street having been bought back by the Koreans, the pair are assigned to the Vietnamese church across the road at 22 Jump Street. Still under the command of the ever-cussing Captain Dickson (Cube), Schmidt and Jenko have to find who’s dealing a new drug on campus called WhyPhy (pronounced Wi-Fi), and who the supplier is as well.
College life proves to be divisive for the duo, with Jenko being welcomed into a jock fraternity headed by Zook (Russell), while Schmidt finds himself welcome amongst the geeks, in particular, art major Maya (Stevens). When Zook is revealed to have an incriminating tattoo, Jenko refuses to accept he might be the dealer; so strong is his new attachment to the fraternity life he decides he and Schmidt should go their own way. When the college counsellor is arrested and the case officially closed, neither Schmidt nor Jenko is convinced he’s the dealer. They resume their investigation and discover the supplier is a criminal known as the Ghost (Stormare). They also find out he plans to distribute the new drug at the upcoming spring break celebrations at Puerto Mexico. With the dealer’s identity still a mystery, Schmidt and Jenko travel there in a bid to apprehend him and stop the drug spreading nationwide.
The surprise success of 21 Jump Street meant that a sequel was inevitable, and returning writers/directors Lord and Miller have a great time subverting the pitfalls of such an endeavour, most notably in an extended sequence featuring the hangdog Deputy Chief Hardy (Offerman) where his instructions to Schmidt and Jenko to “keep things the same because they seemed to work the first time” are carried to their logical extreme (and then beyond). There’s even a reference to the increased budget for the movie – $70m as opposed to the original’s $42m – when Hardy says the top brass have given 22 Jump Street more money to help them with their investigation. It’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie, and played to perfection by messrs Offerman, Tatum and Hill.
As it turns out, the investigation is of secondary (hell, even tertiary) importance, as the movie focuses on the break-up of Schmidt and Jenko’s professional and personal relationships, with Jenko’s bromance with Zook taking up a great deal of screen time (as if we didn’t get how important it is to him), leaving Schmidt to act possessive and look broken hearted, even with his budding romance with Maya taking off at the same time. This jealousy angle, somewhat signposted from the beginning, is given far more emphasis than it needs, and there’s very little room for the actual investigation, other than a few half-hearted attempts at surveillance and a trip to the counsellor’s office that ends up mocking every couples therapy session you’ve ever seen. But, despite these scenes being very well played by Tatum and Hill, they often outstay their welcome, and could do with some judicious editing.
With plenty of scenes that could have been excised or shortened, 22 Jump Street is a movie sequel where the saying “Less is more” is definitely not adhered to. It’s as if Lord and Miller, by embracing the tropes and conventions that contribute to most sequels, felt that being self-referential was all they had to do, and that it would get them off the hook when things didn’t quite work out. But by following the template of the first movie so closely, what little originality there is on display is overwhelmed by so much that is familiar. It’s a tightrope walk, and one where not everyone manages to stay on. That said, the jokes about the stars’ age and looks come thick and fast and are very funny, with Hill in particular being given a roasting on more than one occasion.
Hill and Tatum still make for a great double act, though it’s Tatum who edges it here, his physicality and willingness to look foolish having more appeal than Hill’s strident comic style. Cube is, well, Cube playing every other foul-mouthed, aggressive character he’s ever played (he’s in danger of becoming his own caricature now), while the rest of the supporting cast deal well with a range of underwritten characters. There are cameos from Rob Riggle and Dave Franco, and the usual attempts to make it difficult to work out who the dealer is (not easy but not difficult either), and there’s a great moment when Jenko uses a girl on the beach to see off two of the Ghost’s thugs (who appear out of nowhere).
Enjoyable for the most part, with one absolutely standout moment about halfway through – watch for Jenko’s reaction when he finds out something about Schmidt’s love life – 22 Jump Street coasts along for much of its running time, riffing off the previous movie and doing just enough for the most part to avoid being looked on as a “contractual obligation”. There are laughs to be had, but the action scenes are low-key and not very exciting, and there’s an incredibly indulgent end credits sequence that is amusing to begin with but soon runs out of both steam and imagination.
Rating: 5/10 – too long, and too uninterested in its drugs-related storyline, 22 Jump Street will nevertheless please fans of the original; if there is a 23 Jump Street (as seems likely) then a tighter, less self-reverential storyline will be required.
aka Bad Ass 2: Bad Asses
D: Craig Moss / 91m
Cast: Danny Trejo, Danny Glover, Andrew Divoff, Jacqueline Obradors, Ignacio Serricchio, Melany Ochoa, Patrick Fabian, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Jonathan Lipnicki, Leon Thomas III
Three years on from the events of Bad Ass (2012), Frank Vega (Trejo) is mentoring young boxers at a community centre. One of his young proteges, Manny Parkes (Valdez), is poised to turn professional but has gotten mixed up with a drug dealer called Adolfo (Serricchio). Manny steals from Adolfo and is killed in retaliation. At first Frank leaves it to the police to investigate Manny’s murder, but when Manny’s mother, Rosaria (Obradors) asks him to look into it the obligation he feels convinces him. Suspecting another of the young boxers at his gym must know something, he trails them to an apartment block where the young boxer, Tucson (Thomas III), collects a packet of drugs from one of the rooms. Frank busts down the door, beats up the muscle, and burns the drugs.
Frank lives next door to a convenience store run by Bernie Pope (Glover), a grumpy old man with a serious liver problem that has left him with around six months to live. When Frank is ambushed by some of Adolfo’s goons, Bernie comes to his aid. Frank tortures one of the goons and learns about Adolfo’s involvement; hearing about Manny, Bernie offers to help. Despite warnings from Officer Malark (Fabian), Frank and Bernie track down a lead that takes them to a frat house and another of Adolfo’s street dealers, Hammer (Lipnicki). Hammer, encouraged by having a fan pressed against a tender part of his anatomy, tells Frank where Adolfo lives. Frank goes there and confronts Adolfo who ends up with an ice pick in his right eye; he also tells Frank that it was his father, an Argentinian diplomat called Leandro (Divoff) who ordered the hit on Manny. Frank and Bernie carry out a citizen’s arrest on Leandro but his diplomatic immunity means he’s released the same day.
Following Leandro’s release, Frank and Bernie trail him to a meat packing plant where they find out how the drugs are being smuggled into the country. They are captured, and Leandro tells Frank that he’s going to retaliate for Adolfo’s losing an eye by taking Rosario and her daughter, Julia (Ochoa), away from him. Frank and Bernie escape but are too late to stop Adolfo from kidnapping Rosario…
As a low budget follow-up to an equally low budget original, Bad Asses retains the first movie’s sense of its own absurdity and refuses to take itself seriously, eliciting groans throughout and an equal measure of affection. Both movies are cut from the same template, with an Eighties action vibe that is reflected in the fight sequences and the way in which the script connects scenes with only the merest nod to logical continuity. It’s easy to criticise a movie like Bad Asses but it’s mostly a pastiche of the kinds of movies that starred Chuck Norris or Michael Dudikoff, unrepentant in its paper-thin characterisations and their flimsy motivations, the meagre plotting, the dreadful picture car filming, the perfunctory nod to a romantic angle for the main character, and a villain who is both suave and slimy at the same time. And all wrapped up with a knowing, almost winking at the camera kind of humour that offsets the predictable nature of the script and stops the movie from being completely ridiculous.
Thanks to returning director Moss and his star, Bad Asses works for the most part and is genuinely entertaining. Watching Trejo and Glover riffing off each other is great fun, and even if they are “too old for this shit” their obvious enjoyment at working together boosts the movie immeasurably. The retooling of the plot of Lethal Weapon 2 isn’t as off-putting as it might seem, and while some moments seem misguided or out of place – Bernie chatting up a young girl who’s only wearing her underwear, Adolfo surviving having the ice pick go through his eye and into his brain, Frank taking out a helicopter with a grenade flung from a moving car – the good will the rest of the movie engenders allows these moments the equivalent of a free pass. (Even so, it’s inevitable the movie will have its naysayers but they won’t be picking up on the clear love of the genre the filmmakers have, and the necessity of embracing its faults as well as its good points.)
Rating: 6/10 – with Bad Ass 3 already in the can (and reuniting Moss, Trejo and Glover), Bad Asses is an unexpectedly enjoyable second outing for the vigilante pensioner; funny, derivative, good-natured, improbable, knowing, problematic – the movie is all these and more, and proof that some movies can be all the better for being uneven… but only when that was the intention.
aka Bad Blood
D: Mark H. Young / 92m
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Sean Bean, James Purefoy, Alexa Vega, Lew Temple, Jake Busey, Jody Quigley
Hannah Lee Baker (Breslin) and her sister Amber (Vega) live in a small Southern town. Both their parents are dead and they live with their uncle Donny (Temple). Hannah is something of a chess prodigy and views the world around her in terms of a tournament match, with the pieces on the board representing the people she interacts with. The king is her uncle Frank (Bean), the local crime boss. After receiving a threatening visit from the FBI about Frank, she hatches a plan to leave town and take her sister and Donny with her. She approaches Frank and asks for a job making drug deliveries at $20 a time. He agrees to the job but gives her only $10 a time. Picking up the drugs from the trailer where Donny cooks it, her first delivery is to biker Bill Owens (Purefoy), a meth dealer who acts as Frank’s distributor; unknown to Hannah, Bill has begun seeing Amber.
When some of the drugs Bill has been distributing prove to be cut with vitamins, he tells Frank about it and asks for compensation. When Frank refuses to pay, an argument breaks out between Bill’s buddy Jackson (Quigley) and Frank’s brother Bobby (Busey). Bobby is keen to hit back at Bill and Jackson for their being disrespectful but Frank needs Bill to continue distributing his meth. Nevertheless, Bobby kills Jackson and another of Bill’s associates, but Bill doesn’t retaliate. He tells Hannah (who he’s now befriended) that he doesn’t want a war. He’s also fallen in love with Amber and doesn’t want to jeopardise his relationship with her. Meanwhile, Hannah is trying to convince Donny to leave with her and Amber but he’s too afraid of what Frank will do if he does; he’s also addicted to the product he makes.
Things are brought to a head when Bobby, who has a crush on Amber, sees her with Bill. One night he goes to collect her at Frank’s request but she refuses to go. When he grabs her she fights back but Bobby overpowers her and beats her half to death before dumping her body outside town. When she wakes up in the hospital, Bobby pays her a visit and threatens to hurt Hannah if Amber says anything. But Hannah guesses the truth and seeks Bill’s help. He refuses to help, leaving Hannah to seek revenge on her own, and set in motion a series of events that will either see her plan come to fruition, or find her dead at the hands of her uncle Frank.
From its low-key opening, with Hannah playing chess against a little boy, to its downbeat ending at the trailer, Wicked Blood is a crime drama that aspires to be something more than just another tale of one person’s determination to break free from hometown ties. Hannah’s need to escape is highlighted by her seriousness: she finds it difficult to find any amusement in life, brushing off the attentions of a skateboarder with undisguised disdain, and being told by Donny that she doesn’t smile anymore. She relies on her plan, adapting it when necessary, refusing to let go of it, or come up with another one. The allusion to chess, that it’s not just a game, the same as Life, is firmly made, and Hannah’s focus is unwavering. It all adds up to a character who is entirely believable, despite her teenage years, and Hannah is ably brought to life by Breslin. It’s a strong performance, utterly credible and a clear indication that Breslin isn’t going to be one of those child actors that doesn’t make the transition to adult roles.
With such a strong central character it would be natural to expect a slight drop-off in the quality of the remaining individuals the movie is concerned with. But thanks to the quality of the script, courtesy of director Young, this isn’t the case. Frank is presented more as a businessman than a crime boss (though these days the two roles aren’t so dissimilar); for most of the movie he sits in a darkened office poring over balance sheets. It’s a given that he’s a hard man, but it’s a subtler performance from Bean that might be expected, and even when the expected outburst of violence occurs towards the movie’s end, it’s a tribute to Young’s script – and Bean as well – that Frank doesn’t just become a psycho with a gun. Equally memorable is Temple’s performance as drug-addled Donny, a man who recognises the dead end his life has become, and who clings to Hannah’s offer of a new life with a mixture of childish hope and diminished longing.
In comparison, Purefoy has the harder task of making Owens’ passivity credible, and it’s not until he makes an unexpected confession to Hannah that his reluctance to engage with Frank is fully understood. It’s a difficult role, and one of the few areas where the script doesn’t entirely convince, but Purefoy is such a good actor that he never quite loses the credibility the character needs. Amber is a secondary character, a little naive but with a good heart even if she and Hannah are at loggerheads like most sisters, and Vega brings a confidence to the role that makes Amber both level-headed and hopelessly romantic at the same time. As Bobby, Busey has the most generic role, that of slow-thinking muscle to Frank’s brains, but imbues the character with a kind of nervous puppy energy that makes Bobby scarily unpredictable.
The small-town milieu is well represented by a handful of recurring locations, and there’s an emotive score courtesy of Elia Cmiral. Young shows a liking for low-level camerawork which allows for several shots to stand out in terms of space and composition, and the violence, when it comes, is almost casually brutal yet effective. All in all, Wicked Blood is a well-paced drama whose only drawbacks are its predictability and its repeated use of chess as a metaphor for life, but thanks to Young’s assured handling of the material as a whole, it remains absorbing and potent throughout.
Rating: 7/10 – a well-worn idea given a spirited interpretation by Young, and bolstered by strong turns from its cast, Wicked Blood has a quiet, slow burn intensity that works well; easy to overlook considering how many other low-key crime dramas are out there, but definitely worth a look, and a rewarding one at that.
D: Geoff Moore, David Posamentier / 91m
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Norbert Leo Butz, Ben Schwartz, Ken Howard, Harrison Holzer, Ray Liotta, Jane Fonda
Another slice of American small-town life, Better Living Through Chemistry introduces us to pharmacist Doug Varney (Rockwell). Doug is married to Kara (Monaghan) and they have a twelve year old son, Ethan (Holzer). Kara is too absorbed in her work as a fitness instructor to pay Doug much attention and they haven’t had sex for ages, while their son is getting into trouble at school. At work, Doug has just taken over his father-in-law’s pharmacy business but is dismayed to find the sign isn’t changing from Bishop’s Pharmacy to Varney’s Pharmacy. Browbeaten and ignored by the people closest to him, Doug continually finds it difficult to stand up for himself, or make any lasting changes in his life. Seeing no way out of his predicament, he coasts along resignedly… until he meets Elizabeth (Wilde).
Elizabeth has recently moved to town with her husband, Jack (Liotta). She takes a lot of pills and drinks a lot of alcohol and tells Doug about her troubled marriage. They begin an affair, during which Doug takes one of Elizabeth’s pills, the first time he’s ever taken any drug, prescribed or otherwise. Gaining a liking for how drugs can make him feel, Doug begins to make his own, mixing various pills in order to maintain and then boost the wellbeing he’s experiencing. The drugs boost his confidence, and this in turn, helps him address matters at home. He reconnects with Ethan, and devises a plan to beat Kara in the annual cycling race she has dominated for five of the last six years. And as well as juggling work, his home life, and his affair with Elizabeth, Doug also has to deal with a routine investigation by DEA agent Carp (Butz), that might uncover his misuse of his stock.
Doug and Elizabeth’s affair becomes more serious and they plan to leave town together, but Elizabeth has signed a pre-nuptual agreement, and Doug will lose what little he has in a divorce. They decide to bump off Jack by making a slight change to his prescription. Elizabeth leaves town to establish an alibi, and Doug arranges for Jack’s medication to be delivered by assistant Noah (Schwartz). But their plans go awry, and in a way neither of them could have foreseen…
A bittersweet drama with comedic episodes woven into the movie’s fabric, Better Living Through Chemistry is an enjoyable though perilously lightweight movie that benefits tremendously from Rockwell’s confident central performance. There’s little here that’s entirely new but co-writers/directors Moore and Posamentier have done a good job in bringing together and exploiting both the humorous and the dramatic elements. The movie switches focus with ease from scene to scene, offering different moods at different times, but there’s nothing forced or contrived about the way events unfold, or how the characters react to or deal with them.
This is largely due to the script, which (as mentioned above) only occasionally strays towards depth, but does have a few things to say about love and marriage (even if we’ve heard and seen them many times before). Where it does do well is in its ability to upset the audience’s expectations. After the cycling race, Doug and Kara have sex, and it’s the most satisfying sex they’ve had in ages, but it doesn’t presage a sea change in their relationship. Instead, it reinforces Doug’s decision to leave Kara for Elizabeth. It’s this kind of twist in the tale that the movie does so well, and this and some other surprises stop it from being entirely predictable.
Unfortunately, the characters are mostly one-dimensional, especially as written, but thankfully the cast are more than up to the challenge of breathing life into them. Rockwell excels as the mild-mannered pharmacist turned would-be killer for love (you’ll never look at him in the same way again after seeing him in a leotard), and carries the movie effortlessly, making Doug an everyman character we can all sympathise with and root for. Wilde has the glamour role, and carries it off with ease, subverting expectations as to Elizabeth’s motivations at every turn. Monaghan has the least developed role but still manages to make Kara a shade more interesting than if she was just a hard-nosed bitch, and in minor roles, Liotta (providing what amounts to a cameo) and Butz add flavour to the proceedings. The oddest role goes to Jane Fonda who not only narrates the movie as if she’s been witness to everything that happens, but also appears briefly at the end, and is listed as herself in the end credits.
With its well-chosen cast and its carefree approach to recreational drug use, Better Living Through Chemistry is neither a cautionary tale nor an exposé of small town secrets. At its heart it’s a look at one man’s road to emotional self-recovery, and on that level it works splendidly. But without any appreciable depth to proceedings, the movie misses out on being as effective as it could have been.
Rating: 7/10 – a charming movie given life by its well-chosen cast (it’s hard now to envision first choice Jeremy Renner in the role of Doug), Better Living Through Chemistry often comes close to letting itself down but just manages to avoid doing so; an undemanding movie, but still a winning one for all that.
aka The Counsellor
D: Ridley Scott / 117m
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, Rubén Blades, Sam Spruell, Toby Kebbell, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic
An original thriller from the pen of Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor is a cautionary tale about what can happen when a good man does something bad. The ‘bad’ in this case is get involved in a drug deal where a $20m shipment, bound for Chicago from Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, is hijacked along the way. The good man is the titular (unnamed) counsellor, seen first expressing his love for Laura (Cruz). His plan is to use the money he’ll get back from the deal to set up their life together; he buys a very expensive diamond engagement ring for her, further stretching his finances. In on the deal with him is Rainer (Bardem, sporting another of his strange movie hairstyles) and Westray (Pitt). What none of them know is that Rainer’s girlfriend, Malkina (Diaz) is behind the hijacking. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse as all three men try and stay one step ahead of the cartel that suspects one or all of them are responsible.
Like a lot of Ridley Scott’s movies, The Counselor starts off promisingly enough but soon tails off into something completely at odds with the original mise-en-scène. The cautionary tale becomes a darkly-comic thriller that becomes a series of improbable scenes involving the Counselor’s efforts to extricate himself from the mess he’s got himself into, before becoming an equally improbable electronic money heist set in London. All the while, the movie is punctuated with the kind of profound monologues (Blades’ especially) that nobody really says in real life, and clinically-filmed set pieces that offer brief release from the turgid nature of the screenplay. There’s no doubt that McCarthy is a great writer, but film is a medium that, on this occasion, he’s failed to get to grips with. His characterisations are only occasionally compelling, while the Counselor is required to fall apart as soon as he hears about the hijacking and just plummet further from there. Malkina has no back story, no reasons given for her actions and Diaz is left playing a modern-dress version of Lady Macbeth, but without the informed psychology. It’s a tribute to Diaz that Malkina isn’t played entirely one-dimensionally, but there are times when it’s a close-run thing. And the character of Laura is given little to do other than to provide a reason for the Counselor’s getting involved in the deal in the first place; after that Cruz is pretty much sidelined.
As you would expect from a Ridley Scott movie, The Counselor is a visual treat, Scott painting celluloid pictures with the same verve and attention to detail that he’s been doing since The Duellists (1977). The desert vistas in Mexico are beautifully filmed, as is the US back road where the hijacking takes place – a brutally short but bravura piece that is a stand out, along with Westray’s eventual fate. Scott’s grasp on a script’s cinematic requirements is as sharp as always, and while he is a supreme stylist, he doesn’t appear to have kept a firm hand on what’s being filmed; as a result there are several nuances that are missing or undeveloped, not least in the encounter between Malkina and Laura which could have resonated much more than it does; instead it becomes just a scene where we learn Malkina can be manipulative for the sake of it.
While Diaz and Bardem’s characters make for an unlikely couple, their scenes together are fun to watch, but it’s Pitt who comes off best as the been there, seen-it-all, knows when to get out Westray. It’s he that predicts the movie’s outcome, he that tells the audience in his first scene what’s going to happen to at least two of the characters, and it’s he that has the best line in the movie: when talking about the cartel, he says, “…they don’t really believe in coincidences. They’ve heard of them. They’ve just never seen one.” There’s a great little cameo from John Leguizamo (uncredited), and as Malkina’s hijacker of choice, Sam Spruell exudes a cold menace that keeps you watching out for him even when he’s not on-screen. Fassbender has the unenviable task of getting the audience to sympathise with a character who looks for anyone else to get him out of the hole he’s dug too deep, and by the film’s end you wish the cartel would catch up with him and put him, and us, out of our collective misery.
The Counselor isn’t a bad movie per se, just a muddled, at times distracting movie that loses focus throughout, only to redeem itself with a scene or two of better impact. There’s a nihilistic approach at times, and often you don’t care what happens to anyone, even Laura, presented here as a (mostly) innocent bystander. It looks great, as expected, but there are too many hollow moments for it to work properly. As with a lot of movies, the script is responsible for this, and while this is only his second screenplay after The Sunset Limited (2011), McCarthy shouldn’t be discouraged from writing any more.
Rating: 6/10 – it could have been so much better, but The Counselor fails to engage on an emotional level, and while as you’d expect from Scott it’s a pleasure to look at, there’s too little going on too often for it to work as a whole.