This may be unfair, and God knows there’s no real reason it should be getting any more exposure than it already has, but spare a thought for the people who put together the trailer for Term Life, the latest from Vince Vaughn, an actor who now wants to impose his tired, fast-talking idiot schtick on an action movie. This must have been a real challenge to assemble because this movie looks like it’d drain the life from you with every single minute of its running time (and do it deliberately). If this has anything going for it, the trailer fails to showcase it, and watching it gives the very real sense that the company responsible for the trailer must have been banging their heads against the wall trying to make the movie look less disappointing than the finished product’s likely to be. And when the trailer for your new movie makes it look this bad – even after a bunch of guys (presumably) have worked their asses off to make it look halfway decent – maybe it’s time to cancel any plans you had for promoting it, and just move on to the next project. If you’re still in any doubt about how bad this movie could be, then check out the trailer. And if after seeing it you think it’s not bad, or it’s a movie you’re now looking forward to, then drop me a line – I’d love to hear your reasons.
D: Kyle Newman / 96m
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Samuel L. Jackson, Sophie Turner, Jessica Alba, Dove Cameron, Toby Sebastian, Thomas Mann, Rachael Harris, Jaime King, Dan Fogler, Steve-O, Gabriel Basso, Rob Huebel, Jason Ian Drucker
Sixteen year old Agent 83 (Steinfeld) works for a top secret organisation called Prescott that adopts orphaned girls and trains them to be assassins. But she yearns for a more ordinary, regular life, glimpses of which she gets when on her missions. When a plan to capture wanted terrorist Victoria Knox (Alba) leaves Agent 83 missing presumed dead, she takes the opportunity to live a normal life. She changes her name to Megan Walsh, invents a back story for herself and enrols herself in a foreign student exchange programme that sees her living with the Larsons – mum (Harris), daughter Liz (Cameron), and son Parker (Drucker) – and attending high school.
Fitting in, though, proves harder than she’d imagined. Despite doing her research, Megan finds average life more demanding, and confusing, than anything she’s encountered before. With Liz wanting nothing to do with her, and her faux-Canadian background doing her no favours, it’s not until the intervention of high school heart-throb and teen singing sensation Cash Fenton (Sebastian) that Megan begins to be accepted. Megan develops an immediate crush on Cash, but she already has an admirer in tech-geek Roger Marcus (Mann). Having been tricked into applying for the role of football team mascot – and getting it – Megan gains true acceptance when she takes out three would-be kidnappers of the team mascot, a traditional prank foiled by Megan’s “special set of skills”.
The resulting video goes viral and leads to her being found by her instructor at Prescott, Hardman (Jackson). Along with fellow Prescott agent Pedro (Steve-O), Hardman interrogates Megan, believing she’s working for someone else. But when it becomes clear she just wants to lead a normal life, Hardman tells her she only has time to wrap things up before coming back to Prescott. Later, at a party where she’s looking forward to hooking up with Cash, she finds Agent 84 (Turner), aka Heather, in attendance. Annoyed that Hardman would use Heather to keep an eye on her, Megan is further annoyed when Heather makes a play for Cash.
Another meeting with Hardman reveals that Knox has escaped and will no doubt be looking to catch up with Megan and kill her. Despite his offer of protection if she comes back to Prescott, Megan refuses to leave her new home, and begins to take steps to ensure that the Larsons remain safe. And at the upcoming Homecoming dance, she hopes to finally land Cash as her boyfriend, though she has begun to have conflicting feelings for Roger. With all this going on, Megan has to fall back on her training in order to get through it all, and maintain her new lifestyle.
The idea of a teen assassin dealing with the pitfalls of high school is one that could have given new meaning to the phrase “mean girls”, but here it’s the starting point for an extremely lightweight, by-the-numbers movie that is pleasantly assembled, but astoundingly hollow at the same time. By bringing in such a talented cast, Barely Lethal (not the best pun for a movie, either), may give the interested viewer the impression that the movie is going to be better than it actually is. But in the hands of director Newman (whose previous feature, Fanboys (2009), was a surprise pleasure) and writer John D’Arco, the movie is one that struggles to maintain an even tone, and squanders many of its chances to layer its basic premise with appropriate levels of irony.
The movie makes no effort to avoid or subvert the standard tropes of high school movies, and instead embraces them wholeheartedly without doing anything new with them. This leaves the movie looking and feeling like any other generic high school movie and even the introduction of Megan and her special skill set doesn’t hamper or redefine it. This level of familiarity works against the movie and though Steinfeld et al. waltz through it all with confidence, for them it must have been like the acting equivalent of treading water. Even Jackson and Alba can’t do much with characters that scream “simple movie stereotype”. With every character and situation proving lacklustre as a result, the movie never really manages to take off and become as enjoyable as it should be.
The humour in the movie is also quite forced, from the youngest Prescott recruits being called “grandma” when their driving skills don’t come up to scratch, to Megan’s first day outfit, to creepy teacher Mr Drumm (Fogler) and his stalking of Cash, to Roger’s even creepier father (Huebel) whose conversation is almost entirely inappropriate – none of it is as funny as it probably seemed at the time of filming, and even with the best efforts of the cast. Newman’s direction doesn’t help either, as each development in the script is allowed to play out with little emphasis on the drama involved, or what reaction it provokes in the characters, and the humour doesn’t leaven things either.
As the girl who’s more comfortable deciphering weapons schematics than the pitfalls of high school life, Steinfeld is an engaging presence but settles for doing just enough to satisfy the demands of the script. The same is true of Turner, who pouts her way through the movie as Megan’s chief rival, and Alba, playing an impression of a caricature of a stereotype as the villainous Knox. Mann emerges relatively unscathed by the experience, and Jackson is predictably hard-nosed (but with a heart of gold), but by and large the performances are as blandly likeable as the material. And the whole thing is rounded off by the kind of soundtrack selections that attempt to mirror the on screen action for emotion but lack any real nuance.
Rating: 4/10 – a missed opportunity, Barely Lethal is so humdrum it should be called Barely Lethargic; with a lack of flair behind the camera allied to a below-par script, the movie sinks under the weight of its own low expectations and despite an opening sequence that passes muster, never amounts to much more than being acceptable.
D: John Carney / 104m
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Yasiin Bey, Catherine Keener, CeeLo Green
Record label executive Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo) is struggling to keep up with the changing pace of the modern music industry. Separated from his wife Miriam (Keener) and estranged from his daughter Violet (Seinfeld), Dan’s partner in the record company he co-founded, Saul (Bey) fires him. He goes on a drinking binge that sees him end up in bar where English singer-songwriter Gretta James (Knightley) is persuaded to take to the stage by her friend, Steve (Corden). The song she sings captivates Dan and he approaches Gretta with the offer of signing her.
Gretta isn’t interested in Dan’s offer because she’s planning to return to England the next day. She’s in the US because she came over with her boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Levine), when he was signed to a record label. While on a promotional jaunt, he slept with a record label executive; unhappy and discouraged, Gretta just wants to leave and put her relationship with Dave behind her. The next morning, though, she takes up Dan on his offer. This forces him to come clean about his position, but he convinces her to go with him to see Saul; Dan is sure Saul will sign her, but without a demo to give him, he passes.
Undeterred, Dan comes up with a plan to make an album of Gretta’s songs by recording them all over the city: on rooftops, subway platforms, alleyways, wherever they can. Dan assembles a team of musicians that includes Steve, while Gretta, in an attempt to reunite him with his daughter, arranges for Violet to play guitar on one of the songs. With the album completed they see Saul again but leave without a deal having been reached (Gretta wants Dan to get his job back as well as a bigger cut of the profits).
Shortly after, Gretta sees Dave accepting an award on TV and believing him to have sold out, pours out her feelings in a song she sings and leaves on his voicemail. Dave gets in touch with her and asks to meet when he’s back in New York. Greta agrees but finds that her feelings for Dan are changing from professional to personal. Unsure of which way to turn, Gretta meets Dave in the hope that she’ll be able to decide which path to take.
A fresh take on an age-old story, Begin Again belies its Svengali-like origins to give its audience a modern day interpretation that sidesteps many of its genre conventions with a knowing wink and a shrug of indifference. Working from his own script, director Carney fashions a story of two peoples’ separate roads to personal empowerment and redemption that neatly avoids the clichés inherent in such scenarios, and makes the movie feel like a breath of fresh air.
Playing around with the structure in the movie’s first half hour, Carney introduces the viewer to Dan and Gretta with a view to telling their back stories in such a way that by the time they begin to make the album they’re like old friends we’ve known for ages. We get to see Dan at his worst and Gretta at her most trusting. We see them come together and start to rely on each other as they begin to rebuild their lives. It’s in these opening scenes that Carney draws the audience in and sets up the dramatic elements that will pay off later on in the movie (but not in the way that you might expect). And he doesn’t fall into the usual traps, for example: despite the predictable nature of Gretta and Dave’s break up, it’s presented in the kind of “adult” way you rarely see in movies. It’s a relatively short scene but Carney packs it with an emotional punch that is frankly disarming (and he’s ably abetted by Knightley and Levine).
With Dan and Gretta’s relationship so well cemented the movie’s central section becomes a joyous evocation of making an album. This is Begin Again at its most winning and infectious, the sheer pleasure of making music in a live environment so evident you can’t help but tap your feet along with the songs. And thanks to the efforts of composer Gregg Alexander these are terrific songs indeed, catchy and effortlessly perceptive about life and love and the pitfalls of both. Knightley, who hadn’t sung before, is assured here, her soft, soulful voice a perfect match for the material.
Alas, the final third, with its need to wrap things up, undermines some of the good work Carney has put in. Gretta and Dan each arrive at a place that befits their individual struggles, but there’s a sense that they’ve been let down by Carney’s determination not to play it safe and to avoid the movie having a predictable ending. Even with this, his leads remain convincing throughout, handling their characters’ journeys from start to finish with skill, confidence and conviction. Ruffalo gives such an impressive performance it’s hard to take your eyes off him, while Knightley invests Gretta with a stubborn, earnest vulnerability that is mesmerising. When on screen together they spark off each other, each raising their game, each making the movie even richer. In support, Steinfeld, Keener and Corden all provide charming turns, while Levine (from Maroon 5) makes his feature debut and is very good indeed.
With its emotional content linked directly to, and expressively through, its songs, Begin Again is a musical drama that packs several unexpected punches, and if its near rags-to-riches feel has an unavoidable touch of whimsy wrapped around it, then it’s no bad thing. This is a feelgood movie, and unashamedly so.
Rating: 8/10 – guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face during its musical numbers, Begin Again is a lively, effervescent movie that is both delightful and poignant in equal measure; with assured turns from its two leads, it’s a movie that entertains and rewards far more than it should do given its bittersweet ending.
D: McG / 123m
Cast: Kevin Costner, Amber Heard, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen, Tómas Lemarquis, Richard Sammel, Marc Andréoni, Bruno Ricci, Jonas Bloquet, Eriq Ebouaney
Veteran CIA agent Ethan Renner (Costner) is part of a mission to capture international terrorist The Wolf (Sammel). Acting on intelligence that his associate The Albino (Lemarquis) is selling a dirty bomb at a hotel in Belgrade, Ethan and his team attempt to capture him but the mission goes wrong when The Albino recognises one of Ethan’s team. The Albino makes his escape in the ensuing shootout; Ethan chases him but finds himself short of breath, and he collapses. Despite being wounded, The Albino gets away. Ethan blacks out. Later, in a local hospital, a doctor tells him he has cancer, and at best, has 3-5 months to live.
Having been pensioned off from the CIA, Ethan moves to Paris where his estranged wife, Tina (Nielsen), and daughter Zooey (Steinfeld) live. He tries to reestablish his relationship with Zooey but his first attempts are clumsy and backfire on him. When Tina has to go to London for a few days, Ethan persuades her that he can look after Zooey, and he moves into their apartment. That same day, Ethan is approached by Vivi Delay (Heard), a senior CIA agent who wants him to continue looking for The Wolf, and offers him an experimental drug that will stave off the effects of his cancer enough to extend his life by a few more months. Ethan accepts the job. He begins targeting known associates of The Wolf and The Albino, until he learns that The Albino will be in Paris in a few days’ time.
His relationship with Zooey improves slowly, and is cemented when he saves her from being raped in a nightclub. As their time together becomes more and more important to Zooey, Ethan has to juggle the demands made on him as a father, and as an agent. Tina returns home and is pleased to see Ethan and Zooey getting on so well, and she and Ethan have a reconciliation. His mission to capture The Wolf comes to a head when Zooey’s boyfriend Hugh (Bloquet) invites them to a party at his parents’ home, and in one of those amazing moments of serendipity that exist only in the movies, it turns out that Hugh’s father is The Wolf’s Paris business partner, and he’s there as well.
Another low-concept idea from the mind of Luc Besson, 3 Days to Kill bears all the hallmarks of a hastily put together movie production and lurches from one badly thought out scene to another, trading on Costner’s innate gravitas as an actor (and then doing it’s best to undermine that gravitas with some ill-considered comedy beats), and complete with awful dialogue and weak characterisations. Not one of the relationships foisted on us by Besson and co-writer Adi Hasak is at all plausible, and Ethan himself is a bizarre combination of action hero, concerned absentee father, and comedic torturer. The movie is full of awkward moments that add nothing to the plot but do succeed in padding out the running time. There is a whole third-string storyline involving Ethan’s apartment and the family of squatters that have taken it over; unable to evict them, Ethan allows his anger at their being there to develop into a strange paternal devotion: when one of patriarch Jules’s (Ebouaney) daughters has a child in the apartment, Ethan is on hand to become a de facto godfather (and hold the baby).
Even more bizarre is the character of Vivi Delay, portrayed by Heard as a mixture of modern-day vamp and emotionally vacant dominatrix. The actress’ interpretation of the role is (hopefully) based on what direction there is in the script, but if it’s not then it’s a freakish performance and one that makes Heard look like an amateur trying to break free from regional theatre. Even the way she delivers her lines – arch, and laced with undisguised sarcasm – makes them sound like a first draft reading, and it’s a relief that she’s not on screen any more than she is. Steinfeld is equally guilty of putting in a sub-par performance, giving us a moody teenager that no one would believe in, and failing to make Zooey’s relationship with Ethan anything other perfunctory and/or glib (depending on a scene’s requirements). Nielsen has the thankless role of mother removed for the sake of the plot, while Costner (who has said he liked the character of Ethan, but didn’t like the movie) does his best with one of the most uneven roles of his career. (You know an actor’s in trouble when his character name is a combination of Ethan Hunt and Jeremy Renner from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.) Looking uncomfortable throughout, and burdened with the daunting prospect of injecting some credibility into the proceedings, Costner does just enough to keep the audience from tuning out completely, and shows that it’s not only Liam Neeson who can still kick ass at an advanced age (Costner is 59).
Under the less than capable direction of McG, 3 Days to Kill is a mess of a movie that only moves up a notch with its action scenes, including a cleverly constructed kidnapping involving a bus, a bicycle, and a small claymore mine. The Paris locations are also worth mentioning, as is the somewhat bucolic score by Guillaume Roussel, and the often tightly-framed compositions of veteran cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. As a thrill ride, the movie is fitfully effective, but as an absorbing, entertaining piece it’s as lightweight as a feather, with too many narrative absurdities than it could ever overcome, including the experimental drug that only Vivi knows anything about (oh yeah?).
Rating: 4/10 – a second-hand script (replete with Besson’s recurring penchant for casual racism) masquerading as a polished action movie, 3 Days to Kill never lives up to its initial promise; with weak direction and the kind of cast that deserves more, the movie struggles to establish the same tone throughout, and boasts the kind of unlucky central performance from its star that, in the Nineties, would have doomed his career quicker than The Postman did.