Friday 24 December 2010

The Way Back review

The Way Back (12A, 132 mins)
Director: Peter Weir
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Inspired by the real life tale of a small group of prisoners who escaped a Siberian gulag early in WWII and walked all the way to India, this is a sort of Great Escape: What Happened Next. Facing certain death, the men break out of the camp prepared for a trek of many months, among them a Pole (Jim Sturgess), an American (Ed Harris) and Colin Farrell’s Russian psycho. This leads to a plodding midsection that threatens to become repetitive through endless cycles of watching them walk for a bit, camp for a bit then walk some more as they battle hunger and thirst through deserts, forests and mountains. It’s solid, handsomely mounted and on an epic scale, but there isn’t a great deal of meat to the drama, nor any particular tension, though the three stars offer commanding portrayals of characters of limited interest.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Gulliver’s Travels review

Gulliver’s Travels (PG, 87 mins)
Director: Rob Letterman
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Jonathan Swift’s 18th century novel, Gulliver’s Travels, will know it doesn’t contain a great deal of Star Wars references. With this modern day updating of the story throwing in countless 21st century cultural nods, purists may well baulk. But with a movie that’s positioning itself as a big daft Christmas effects bonanza, they're by no means the intended audience.

It clearly takes place in a world where Swift’s novel doesn’t exist, since Black’s character is called Lemuel Gulliver and no one else in the movie seems to think this is worth commenting on. He’s a schlubby nerd working in a newspaper mail room, and with a longstanding crush on the travel editor (Amanda Peet).

Gulliver somehow manages to bluff his way into getting a writing assignment from her, which involves him heading to the Bermuda Triangle where his boat is consumed by a vortex and he wakes up in the land of Lilliput where the tiny people there mistake him for a giant beast and imprison him.

This is where we’re given the first indication that all is not well with a script that rather throws us into situations, asking us to accept a lot of things without much introduction or explanation. Any sort of close examination will reveal that the writing is feeble, with great chunks of story appearing to be missing.

And yet it keeps on delivering uncomplicated fun and so, powering on, Gulliver meets Horatio (Jason Segel), a commoner in love with the princess (Emily Blunt), whom Gulliver subsequently saves and becomes a hero.

There’s also a subplot involving the jealous and deceitful Lilliputian general Edward Edwardian (Chris O’Dowd) that comes to the fore since the filmmakers don’t really seem to know what to do with Gulliver other than trot out references.

And yet this is where the movie delivers its funniest and most imaginative material, with Black’s semi-improvised shtick often hard to resist as he pretends that all the biggest movie plots of the last 30 years are episodes from his life.

Elsewhere it’s largely juvenile set pieces that offer a lot of bum and pee related stuff. And, as is invariably the case these days, the 3D is largely pointless though it does sometimes cover up the shoddiness of the special effects.

But it’s saved from disaster by the appeal of the cast, especially Black and Segel. Chuck in the likes of Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate as the king and queen of Lilliput and it gets by on its sheer silliness and goofy charm.

And unlike recent fantasy epics like Narnia or TRON, Gulliver’s Travels is never boring, it knows what story it wants to tell – even if it doesn’t always tell it too well – and for all its stupidity, it offers consistently undemanding entertainment.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Fred: The Movie review

Fred: The Movie (12A, 83 mins)
Director: Clay Weiner
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

In which whiny high school kid Fred (Lucas Cruikshank) spends a weekend pining for his neighbour Judy (British popstrel Pixie Lott), talking to the camera or fantasising about them doing musical numbers together that are like High School Musical re-imagined by the Chuckle Brothers. Script, acting and production values are all at a garden shed level and it’s just scene after scene of Fred squealing and throwing a tantrum like a toddler, or moronic slapstick that six year olds would dismiss as childish. And that’s it. Honestly. That’s the film. Five minutes in Fred’s company is taxing; 80-odd minutes of his unspeakable nasal screeching is truly jaw-dropping, hand-over-the-mouth horror, and it’s simply staggering that someone considered this fit for cinema release. All flippancy aside, it’s no laughing matter that some poor unsuspecting souls are going to pay good money to watch this, and the people responsible for that should be ashamed.

Sunday 12 December 2010

The Tourist review

The Tourist (12A, 103 mins)
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck 
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Angelina Jolie pouts and sashays her way through this ridiculous caper as a mysterious woman who meets Johnny Depp’s innocent tourist on a train from Paris to Venice and ropes him into an international conspiracy. With everyone thinking Depp is the guy they're after, he’s chased all over the city by a gangster for stealing his billions, and by Scotland Yard for reasons that are never quite clear, while Jolie strings him along in a succession of revealing dresses. Though fun, it falls some way short of what you’d have a right to expect from the talent involved, mainly due to a wildly veering tone that goes from stale action to clumsy farce to police procedural. And yet the whole is miraculously palatable considering how crummy many of the ingredients are, and watching Depp and Jolie generate just a little chemistry is still better than watching most other actors, with the best scenes generally just involving them doing their superstar thing. Throw in the glorious waterways of Venice and a couple of nice plot developments, and in the end you’re left with a big steaming pile of highly enjoyable nonsense.

Friday 10 December 2010

TRON: Legacy review

TRON: Legacy (PG, 125 mins)
Director: Joseph Kosinski
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

A quick bit of internetting reveals that the longest period between a movie and its directly related sequel is the 30 year gap between The Odd Couple and The Odd Couple II. The problem faced there came with revisiting a classic, so the makers of TRON: Legacy shouldn’t be overly concerned about the 28 years that have passed since TRON given that, as anyone who has watched the original recently can confirm, it’s actually a load of old rubbish.

And yet for all that it’s tatty and incomprehensible, it retains a certain place in the affections of many people, partly due to a blind nostalgia for all things 80s, and partly because of its status as the first film ever to make extensive use of computer generated visual effects, something that was more or less unheard of in 1982.

Occasionally as much rehash as sequel, TRON: Legacy starts out in 1989, where Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tells his young son Sam stories about the video game he invented called TRON. But when Kevin goes missing and is presumed dead, Sam grows up as a rebellious orphan, and 20 years later (and played by Garrett Hedlund), his father’s software company is being mismanaged in his absence.

This means there’s some irrelevant corporate shenanigans to wade through first, before Sam is told by his father’s old friend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) that he received a message from him. Investigating, Sam stumbles across his father’s secret office at his video arcade and, just like Kevin before him, is sucked into the video game world.

This is where the movie ought to take off as a riot of fights and races, as Sam is mistaken for a computer programme and forced to take part in gladiatorial style combat. He meets who he first assumes to be his missing father, but is in fact Clu (also played by Bridges), a programme Flynn created and who has designs on breaking out into the real world. But his real father is also there, and they must team up to try and stop Clu.

Once the plot is explained it hits something of a higher gear and there’s a certain amount of pleasure in soaking in its sheer moxie and goofy mythology. But it’s all somewhat uninvolving, essentially just a parade of shiny things that combines buckets of cool but empty pyrotechnics with out and out craziness, much of which seems plucked from someone’s imagination with no thought as to how it might fit into a cohesive whole.

In the plus column is a thunderous Daft Punk soundtrack but one of the most entertaining things about it is actually just seeing Jeff Bridges looking like he did in the 1980s, while there’s a bizarre cameo from Michael Sheen who seems to be channelling Malcolm McDowell doing a Bowie impersonation.

Clearly the effects here are infinitely superior to those featured in the first movie, but that doesn’t necessarily make what we’re watching any more fun or exciting. Yes, it’s all incredibly dazzling and gleaming, but it never sets the pulse racing, is frequently rather dull and, most of all, makes absolutely no sense. Just like the original then.

Monday 6 December 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader review

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (PG, 112 mins)
Director: Michael Apted
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The third instalment in the movie adaptations of CS Lewis’ beloved series of fantasy novels brings them back to their traditional Christmas release date following the disappointing summer performance of Prince Caspian.

The first impression it gives is of being nowhere near as epic in scale as the first two films, probably in part due to a budget cut following on from the box office underperformance of the previous film. More discouragingly though, it’s also nowhere near as fun, as thrilling or as involving.

With World War II in full swing, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie (Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley) are staying with their uncle when once again they're transported the magical land of Narnia, this time via a painting that comes to life. They wind up on a ship called the Dawn Treader, where they reunite with Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) from the previous entry.

Narnia is at peace, so why have they been brought there? Trying to find out, they sail to the Lone Islands, where people are being sacrificed to a mysterious mist. It’s from here that this episode loses its way somewhat, with a plot that’s both undernourished and by the numbers.

There’s some guff about seven lords with seven swords that must be reunited in order to defeat evil, and it all makes for a rather follow-the-breadcrumbs fantasy quest that bumps along from one fight or escapade to another with little narrative cohesion.

It’s more of a Greek seas or Pirates of the Caribbean style adventure than the Christmas snows and epic battles we’ve been used to, and compared to the likes of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, quite weak in its mythology.

Temptation is the key theme, but it seems foisted on in order to give the characters some sort of arc to ensure the film isn’t just a special effects extravaganza. Even on those terms it’s hardly earth shattering, and what’s especially disappointing is that it’s actually quite an ugly film, with clumsy action that’s really quite tedious in places.

There’s solid if unremarkable acting from its young leads, but the newcomer to the series, Will Poulter, who plays Lucy and Edmund’s annoying cousin Eustace, is the only thing about the movie that approaches freshness.

There’s a little amount of magic and a well staged finale, but it’s quite an arduous journey for the audience to get there for a reward that’s not quite worth the effort.

Monday 29 November 2010

Monsters review

Monsters (12A, 93 mins)
Director: Gareth Edwards
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Probes that were sent into space some years ago have crash landed back on earth with something on board, and now most of Mexico is a quarantined infected zone. With enormous tentacled beasties on the loose, an American photographer is tasked with escorting the daughter of his wealthy boss across the zone back to the States. Like District 9 before it, Monsters is sci-fi that wears its allegory on the front of its jumper, but unlike District 9, it’s a shallow, rambling effort with little beyond its initial premise. It should be commended for what’s been achieved on a tiny budget, with a wonderful sense of mood and place, but there just isn’t enough incident. And that doesn’t necessarily mean we need more monster attacks, it simply means we’re entitled to more interesting drama than the rather tepid road movie cum romance foisted on us. There’s a train of thought that because it's low budget and a bit quirky, it’s automatically better than a Hollywood equivalent costing 100 times as much. But you still need the storytelling, and for long stretches of Monsters, particularly in the middle, absolutely nothing happens, with no real payoff for all the teasing we have to endure.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest review

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (15, 147 mins)
Director: Daniel Alfredson
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Picking up exactly where The Girl Who Played With Fire left off, this conclusion to the blockbusting Swedish trilogy that began earlier this year with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is anticlimactic in the extreme. Given the glacial pacing and the fact that a large percentage of the antagonists are very elderly men, The Girl Who Kicked the Zimmer Frame would be a more accurate title. When we last saw our heroine Lisbeth Salander, she’d had a showdown with a Russian defector who turned out to be her father, which has left her in a hospital bed with a bullet lodged in her skull. Meanwhile journalist pal Mikael Blomkvist is trying to clear her name and expose a bigger conspiracy involving Swedish government officials during the 1970s. For an alleged thriller, this is one of the most sluggish pieces of cinema of the year, an almost completely inert slog through scene after flabby scene of people talking about a plot instead of actually giving us one. Clunky direction facilitates some lazy performances and the occasional rather tepid action beat and, just like the major flaw of the second part, Salander and Blomkvist share almost no scenes. Considering the weakness of the final two films, the best thing now might be to view the terrific Dragon Tattoo as a standalone movie.

Monday 22 November 2010

London Boulevard review

London Boulevard (18, 103 mins)
Director: William Monahan
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

London hard-man Mitchell (Colin Farrell) has just been released from prison when he is hired as a minder cum handyman for Charlotte (Keira Knightley), a world-famous but semi-retired actress. As a constant target for paparazzi, she lives practically as a recluse, and Mitchell divides his time between her home and trying to avoid the attentions of the local crime lord (Ray Winstone, naturally) who sees big things in him. This latter aspect provides passing interest in a very sub-Carlito’s Way manner, but when the screen is given over to the impossible to swallow romance between Mitchell and Charlotte, London Boulevard attains school play levels of badness. Whether it’s the dreadful dialogue, the complete lack of characterisation in their non-existent relationship or the amateur hour acting from an unusually stiff Knightley and deer-in-headlights Farrell, the result is less a movie than a flimsily connected patchwork of scenes, many of which look as though they were shot without the benefit of a director.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One (12A/PG-13, 146 mins)
Director: David Yates
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

And so we come to the beginning of the end, and there’s good news, bad news and some slightly disappointing news. The good news is that the producers have abandoned their plans to do a last minute retrofit of this second to last Harry Potter adventure into 3D. The bad news is that we still have to wait until July for the conclusion of the conclusion.

The slightly disappointing news is that is probably the weakest entry in the series for quite some time, and certainly a major step backwards from the stunning sixth part, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. That’s partly because it’s only half a film, so hopefully it will be a game of two halves, with a lot more to enjoy after the interval, but it's also partly because it's often more than a little dull.

Since we’re getting to the end of the adventure, it’s probably worth recapping how we got to this point for those not in the know. As a baby, Harry Potter was orphaned by the dark lord Voldemort and sent at the age of eleven to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he’s spent the last six years learning magic and about his destiny as the chosen one.

Along the way he’s made some friends and some enemies, and the formula up until now has been fairly uniform – a new school year at Hogwarts, with lessons and spells to be learned, and dangers to faced, alongside all the normal perils of being a teenager. But Harry and his friends have bigger things to be concerned with now, like the fate of the world for example. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his minions, the Death Eaters, have been spreading terror and violence throughout the wizarding world, and even into the human one.

They’ve also infiltrated the Ministry of Magic, and traitors abound. Harry is under the protection of the Order of the Phoenix, but isn’t safe, and Voldemort’s plan is a simple one – kill Harry Potter, the one thing standing in the way of him being all powerful.

So Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) head out alone into the wider world to search for the remaining Horcruxes, devices that contain pieces of Voldemort’s soul. They already have one Horcrux that they can’t destroy, and no idea whatsoever where the others are or even what they look like.

This forlorn journey takes up most of the running time here, and allows for a sense that they're finally putting their years of training at the school to use, that it’s all been building to this. But it’s a film cast in doom and gloom from its very opening that sees that the Warner Bros logo turn to rust.

It’s a dark and dangerous world that aches with melancholy, with internal disputes among the trio about their lack of progress only adding to the growing sense of despair. A little darkness is all well and good, but this is supposed to be a magical adventure, and the mood of desolation is almost too much at times. But while it might not entertain young children anymore, as a mature mystery it just about keeps the series on track.

Much of that is to do with the strength of the acting from the three leads, and it’s remarkable to see how far they’ve come since their first stilted efforts eight years ago. New characters played by the likes of Bill Nighy and Peter Mullan are briefly fun, while some returning ones like John Hurt barely get a chance to show their face. Maggie Smith doesn’t appear at all, but most missed is Alan Rickman, who has long cast such a devilish shadow as the treacherous Snape. He turns up briefly at the beginning before disappearing along with just about everyone else, and hopefully there will be much more of him come the finale.

In terms of action, it mostly involves Harry, Ron and Hermione being attacked by Death Eaters. Wand battles abound, and they play just like gunfights, which is fun at first but grows repetitious, and there are quite a few dead ends in a plot that meanders and sags in the middle when the three of them go to the Ministry building. Some events are given far more screen time and magnitude than they could possibly deserve, while others are skipped over with one line of dialogue.

The visual effects are as top drawer as you’d have a right to expect from something with a budget of several hundred million dollars and the production design is as rich and detailed as always. But a change in cinematographer from Half-Blood Prince means it’s not quite as dreamy looking, though in fairness the greyer, colder look here reflects the content.

But the highlight of the entire film might well be a mesmerising animated sequence that reveals just what the Deathly Hallows of the title are all about. It’s an exquisitely eerie segment that should provide the jumping point to a rollicking last half hour, but instead we’re taken to a slightly damp finish when we might have been expecting a devastating cliff-hanger.

What we have here is an uneven movie that is at turns touching, exciting and tedious. But ultimately it’s a movie that gives a distinct sense that maybe there isn’t enough content to justify it being split into two parts after all.

Friday 12 November 2010

Skyline review

Skyline (15/PG-13, 92 mins)
Directors: Colin Strause, Greg Strause
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

A bastard mash-up of Independence Day, Cloverfield and War of the Worlds, Skyline begins as a number of what appear to be bright blue meteors crash into the streets of Los Angeles in the middle of the night, waking up our main characters.

This is actually a flash-forward and we go back to earlier that day to find out a bit more about them: there’s Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his pregnant girlfriend Elaine (Scottie Thompson) who’ve just arrived in LA to visit Terry (Scrubs’ Donald Faison) and stay at his fancy apartment, along with another pair of young ladies who remain largely anonymous.

Formalities over, we get back to where we came in, as they look out to see a giant alien craft that has opened up over the city and is lifting thousands of people into it, while smaller ships go from building to building hoovering up the stragglers. And then there are the aliens themselves to contend with....

Though far from a disaster, and not without its fun moments, Skyline is a bit if a waste of time. The biggest problem is that the whole thing is entirely absent of context, variety or nuance. There’s an attack, they run, someone might die, then they squabble some, followed by an attack by a slightly different beastie, then they squabble some more and run some more.

With its modest budget, the action is confined almost entirely to the apartment building and its immediate surroundings, which just adds to the sense of repetition and staleness. And while the visual effects sometimes really hit the spot, occasionally they're as sketchy as hell.

It’s also not in the least bit shy about pilfering from its forebears, so look out for the dogfight from ID4, the invasive tentacles and semi-organic stylings of WOTW, and any number of checkpoints from The Fly to The Matrix.

Throw in dull characters, a risible epilogue, a good deal of smell the fart acting and a score straight from Star Trek: TNG and you’d probably be as well giving an alien invasion movie from your DVD collection a spin instead.

Monday 8 November 2010

Unstoppable review

Unstoppable (12A/PG-13, 98 mins)
Director: Tony Scott
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

As a well established star and director partnership, Denzel Washington and Tony Scott have made some sweet music and churned out some desperate nonsense together over the years. From the success of Crimson Tide, it’s been a slow decline into the very silly Deja Vu and last year’s lumbering The Taking of Pelham 123. Their latest venture finds them back in the world of trains, but at least it’s a significant improvement over that pudding.

Inspired by an actual incident that took place in Ohio in 2001, Washington stars as a veteran engineer, while Star Trek’s Chris Pine also jumps onboard as a rookie driver just out of training who accompanies him as they shift freight around southern Pennsylvania. But thanks to the actions of a moronic employee, there’s an unmanned train heading towards them from the other end of the state.

To make matters worse, it contains several cars of hazardous chemicals, and if it makes it to the town of Stanton and a 15 mile an hour bend, there’s no way it will be able to stay on the track. When various attempts to slow it down or derail it fail, the only option left is for Pine and Washington to couple an engine to it and slow it down from behind before it reaches Stanton.

It’s a solid setup for an old fashioned disaster movie that may not quite have the momentum of a runaway train, but that provides enough goofy fun in enough places. There are some well staged collisions and derailments as the train ploughs its way through anything in its path, and it’s not too much of a Tony Scott film, with the director thankfully keeping his flashy visuals and hyper-editing to a minimum.

Because they need something to talk about, Pine is involved in a legal dispute with his wife, and Washington is estranged from his teen daughter, while they also have to contend with bosses more concerned with the financial implications than safety. These are fairly pointless distractions, but thankfully we’re in the presence of very good actors playing dependable characters, and their byplay manages to keep the interest. Rosario Dawson has a rather thankless role as a controller, but she gets to have some sparky exchanges to distract us when there isn’t really that much happening out on the tracks.

Friday 29 October 2010

Due Date review

Due Date (15, 95 mins)
Director: Todd Phillips
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Due Date is very much being pitched as a companion piece to The Hangover, sharing as it does its director and one of its stars, Zach Galifianakis. What it’s really a companion piece to is John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles, with a basic setup (man has only a few days to get across the country with someone he despises) and character dynamic (one is straightfaced, the other a boorish nincompoop) that could not be more borrowed from PTA if it were an official remake.

Robert Downey Jr. is Peter, a fretful father to be, trying to get home from a business trip on the other side of the country in time for the birth of his first child in a few days time. Thanks to an incident on the plane caused by the idiotic Ethan (Galifianakis, more or less reprising his Hangover character), both men get chucked off the plane and banned from catching any other flight.

Peter’s wallet is on the flight with the rest of his baggage so his only hope of getting from Atlanta to LA is by sharing a car with Ethan. Cue the cross-country road trip between two thoroughly mismatched souls, and plenty of trouble in the shape of Ethan’s ‘medicinal’ marijuana, lack of sleep, car crashes and run-ins with the law.

Downey plays it more or less straight, not going for glib as he has in his recent action comedy roles, with his exasperation at being driven to distraction by the morons he meets along the way allowing for a very welcome dark edge.

At least with John Candy in PTA, you always knew his heart was in the right place. Here Ethan begins as dumb and inappropriate before it soon becomes clear that he’s an irredeemable sociopath. Mind you, to its eternal credit, the film never quite asks us to accept him as anything else, also managing to avoid the mawkish conciliation so often foisted upon audiences.

It’s at its strongest in a first half that stays quite small, with a few antics on their pit-stops that offer a fair amount of fun. But as it progresses and the need for the set pieces to become more elaborate increases, it loses much of that good will. It doesn’t really offer any tension with the timescale and the introduction of one or two other characters are pointless red herrings.

But it’s all about making you laugh and succeeds on that basis at regular intervals. In terms of laughs generated, it’s not quite on a par with The Hangover when it comes to either quality or quantity, but it’ll do just fine until the real sequel arrives in the summer.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Saw 3D review

Saw 3D (18, 90 mins)
Director: Kevin Greutert
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Considering the star attraction of the Saw franchise, Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw, was killed off at the end of Saw III, the plot contortions necessary to allow Bell to appear in the subsequent outings have become increasingly farcical in the years since. Sensibly, he barely appears in this reportedly final entry, but given how dull every other character in the movie is, you actually kinda miss him after a while.

It’s a Saw film and, as such, it’s no better and no worse than the largely indistinguishable previous four entries in the franchise. The days of the inventive and original original, and the fairly watchable first sequel are long gone.

The only reason the Saws still exist is for another round of rusty clockwork contraptions to rip someone’s jaw apart or send spikes into throats and eyeballs. As usual, gorehounds will feel in no way short changed, with blood flowing like half price wine and buckets of flying flesh. Typically though, the 3D adds absolutely nothing, save to make the image even darker than it already was. Appalling acting across the board and rampant idiocy are a given.

After a completely unconnected and irrelevant prologue in which three people are shown trapped in a Jigsaw device in full public view, we move on to the main thrust of the story, which concerns Bobby (young Indiana Jones himself, Sean Patrick Flanery), who has made a nice living from the book and talk show circuit by his supposed status as a Jigsaw survivor. But he’s no such thing, and is brought in to Jigsaw’s game to show him the error of his ways.

Meanwhile Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who some time ago was revealed as Jigsaw’s accomplice, is out for revenge against Jill, Jigsaw’s wife, who left him for dead at the end of Saw VI (if memory serves). It’s entirely possible that if you sat and watched all seven Saw movies back to back, this may all make some kind of sense, but in such an endeavour madness surely lies.

So while the cops look for Hoffman, Bobby negotiates Jigsaw’s traps to try to save his wife. To take things full circle, Cary Elwes from the original returns. And if you can’t work out the series’ ultimate gambit from that piece of information alone, well then you're even more stupid than the makers of this thing.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Burke and Hare review

Burke and Hare (15, 91 mins)
Director: John Landis
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

It’s Edinburgh in 1828, a time of great scientific endeavour. But the medical schools are running low on fresh cadavers, which means a fine chance for a pair of enterprising Irish immigrants like William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis, who came on board after David Tennant dropped out) to make some easy money.

Beginning with their newly deceased tenant, Burke and Hare discover that Dr Robert Knox will give them £5 for each corpse. But with the bodies not all that easy to come across, they're forced to turn to murder to supply the demand.

With the subject matter, the release date and the fact it’s from the director of An American Werewolf in London, you might be going in to Burke and Hare expecting a horror. In actual fact it’s a knockabout black farce, and a reasonably funny one at that. Considering they barely scratch the morality of the situation, it’s probably the only way to make the material palatable.

Filmed mostly on location in a foggy and dank Edinburgh, the alleyways and cobbled streets of the capital look absolutely glorious. Burke and Hare themselves aren’t actually all that interesting, hence the need for loads of side characters and subplots, like Burke financing a play by the actress (Isla Fisher) he takes a fancy to.

Serkis is funnier and more invested than Pegg by some distance, but supporting players like Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry all get a chance to try out their Scottish accents and mostly do quite well - Fisher not so much.

This is a true story expect for the parts that are not, says the blurb at the start, but that’s neither here nor there. What matters is that it’s fun, and on that count Burke and Hare just about delivers the goods.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Paranormal Activity 2 review

Paranormal Activity 2 (15, 91 mins)
Director: Tod Williams
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Released just under a year ago to decent acclaim and boffo box office (considering its miniscule budget), Paranormal Activity was a horror success story of near Blair Witch proportions. Its simple device of presenting camcorder footage of a couple, Katie and Micah, being terrorised by unseen forces was stunningly persuasive and genuinely frightening.

This quick-out-the-blocks sequel is actually a prequel, set a few weeks before the events of the first film, with the focus now on the family of Katie’s sister, Kristi. As before, everything we see is shot on their own camera, beginning with Kristi and her husband Dan returning home with their new baby, Hunter.

We get snippets of footage of Hunter going from baby to toddler, taking us up to a break-in at their home that leads to Dan and Kristi installing security cameras all around the house, which allows for the action to be covered from various vantage points at all times, rather than just when the video camera is being used.

This means we get to see the increasingly strange goings on around the house, with inanimate objects moving by themselves, and Hunter and the family dog fixated by something in the corner of the bedroom that only they can see.

In many respects it’s the same movie as the first, just done less effectively. The manifestations of malevolent force are far more physical in nature, with cupboards flying open and people being thrown about. But the overriding condition is LOUD, and this is what really cheapens PA2.

Where the original used suggestion and shadow to instil slow creeping dread by making you think you could see monsters in every corner, this simply clatters you around the head with thunderous noises every 10 minutes or so.

While this might instinctively provoke a jump the first time it happens, it soon becomes terrifically boring. In its defence, the overlap with the first film is clever when it comes, although the setup for a third entry is irritating. But, as feared, the rash of imitators in the wake of Paranormal Activity just don’t seem to know what made the original and best tick.

Friday 22 October 2010

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole review

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (PG, 96 mins)
Director: Zack Snyder
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Idiotic title notwithstanding, this is a handsome animation that aims for richness and depth rather than light family fun. Taking place in an owl world, it’s a visually and thematically dark adventure that follows two impetuous brothers who are taken prisoner by evil owls intent on domination and who must find the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole if they're to save the day. There may never have been a more visually ravishing animated movie, but it often seems to be enraptured by its own beauty and story-wise it’s only so-so. Many of the individual flying sequences are staggering but that’s really the only time it comes to life, though it builds well to an all out war between blade-wielding owls, with director Zack Snyder skilfully bringing the same sort of slo-mo carnage that he did to his live action movies, Watchmen and 300.

Alpha and Omega review

Alpha and Omega (U, 88 mins)
Directors: Anthony Bell, Ben Gluck
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Kiddie-friendly animated antics are the order of the day here, with wolf pals Kate and Humphrey unable to mix since she is an Alpha hunter and he is a lowly Omega. With their hunting sources getting scarce, Kate’s father enters her into an arranged marriage with an Alpha from a rival pack to prevent war, but this is jeopardised when Kate and Humphrey are caught by humans and taken from the wilds of Canada to a national park in the US. Little of note or wit happens in this deeply unappealing adventure that’s lacklustre in every department. From a perfunctory script that offers no fun and not very appealing characters to distinctly unremarkable animation, this is a near total bust.

Easy A review

Easy A (15, 92 mins)
Director: Will Gluck
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Teenager Olive lies to her best friend about having a wild weekend fling with a boy to cover up for actually being rather boring. But the rumour escalates and soon Olive has gained notoriety throughout the school, and she starts using her reputation to help the socially impaired improve theirs by being associated with her. Though that may sound tacky on paper, Easy A is actually a cut above the usual high school comedy hijinks thanks to a refreshingly honest approach, uncommonly well written characters and a clutch of superb performances. In the lead the wonderful Emma Stone gives Ellen Page a run for her money in the smart and sassy stakes, but the entire movie is hijacked by the miraculous Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s parents who, if not exactly realistic, are endlessly calm, supportive and hilarious.

Red review

Red (12A, 111 mins)
Director: Robert Schwentke
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Based on a graphic novel, this fun action romp stars Bruce Willis as a former CIA agent who’s designated RED (retired, extremely dangerous) by his old employers who send an army of hitmen after him, forcing him to go on the run with the help of his old colleagues, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich. Don’t worry about the daft plot and just enjoy some cool moves and slick action and comical byplay from a first rate cast. There’s an easy charm that comes from no one trying too hard, with a low key, softly spoken Willis reaffirming how likeable he is when he isn’t being smug and Malkovich a riot as his wildly paranoid pal. And even though it loses some zip in a protracted finale, it might be the only chance you’ll ever get to see Helen Mirren in evening dress firing a machine gun the size of a giraffe.

Monday 18 October 2010

The Arbor review

The Arbor (15, 94 mins)
Director: Clio Barnard
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Arbor is the name given to a street on the Bradford housing estate that was home to the late playwright Andrea Dunbar, and this documentary consists mainly of her daughters recalling their troubled upbringing both before and after her death in 1990. It’s a film that works well when showing actual footage shot in the 80s, but the device of having actors lip-synching over the real people’s speech is one that distracts. Why not simply show the people themselves speaking or else have actors re-enact their words? This halfway house may be a novel approach but there’s more than a whiff of Nick Park’s Creature Comforts about it, and that coupled with the unrelenting grimness makes The Arbor something of a chore.

Carlos review

Carlos (15, 165 mins)
Director: Olivier Assayas
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

There’s a disclaimer at the beginning of Carlos stating that much of what is to follow is fictionalised. Given that, you may have had a right to expect something a good deal more involving than this plodding account of the career of Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos the Jackal.

From being recruited in 1973 to his arrest and imprisonment in the 90s, we follow his reign of assassinations and bombings throughout Europe, with Saddam Hussein numbering among his fans and associates. His goal is a campaign of terror to unite revolutionary groups around the world and his notoriety turns him into a celebrity, but it’s never demonstrated just why this is.

As presented here, Carlos is a far from compelling central character who proves himself to be nothing but a lot of talk and a gun. He may start out as charismatic but our interest wanes as the film progresses and he never proves himself to be particularly skilled or useful. One scene where he has to plead with his Lebanese boss that he can do better if given the chance plays like something from The Apprentice.

Like the very similar Baader Meinhof Complex before it, the problem is that for all its style and technical bravura, the film is nothing more than a sprawling collection of incidents, throwing around a lot of historical names and events to little effect.

A solid, but not revelatory turn from Édgar Ramírez in the title role lifts some of the burden, and he impresses whether speaking his dialogue in English, Spanish, French or Arabic. But with most of the characters speaking English most of the time, quite a few of the foreign actors struggle to give convincing performances.

A lengthy hostage sequence in the middle eats up a good portion of the running time but gets us nowhere and for the most part it’s a bit of a slog. At two and three quarter hours, this is the short version, with those who can stomach it able to seek out the full five and a half hour cut made for French television if they so wish.

But for all that spending the same amount of time again in this company sounds like a cinematic nightmare, it may fill in a lot of holes and prove to be more cohesive than this version, particularly in an extremely choppy final hour that consists almost entirely of Carlos moving from country to country looking for sanctuary or being struck down with mysterious ailments without explanation.

Ultimately your appreciation of Carlos may depend a great deal on how you feel about watching terrorists in silly hats sitting around talking about Leninism.

Monday 11 October 2010

The Social Network review

The Social Network (12A, 121 mins)
Director: David Fincher
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

A year or two ago there came a flurry of announcements about upcoming movies based on the most unlikely of properties, chief among them board games like Monopoly and Battleship (which is currently in production by the way).

One such curious idea was Facebook: The Movie, and the question on everyone’s lips was how on earth a convincing film could be made based on a website. But that’s pretty much what has transpired in the shape of The Social Network, which details how Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg created The Facebook in 2003, becoming the world’s youngest billionaire in the process.

What keeps it compelling is a clever structure that intercuts the story of the website’s creation with not one but two legal hearings that take place a couple of years later. In one, Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is being sued by fellow students who claim that what eventually became Facebook was their idea and they had hired him to work on it. In the other, Mark’s best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who financed the site in its infancy but later had his percentage share vastly reduced, is suing him for $600m.

This comes about after Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, is drafted in to help with the site’s expansion, adding conflict as Mark and Eduardo’s ideas begin to diverge and their relationship is tested.

It’s this deeper look into friendship and loyalty that gives the movie a human angle not immediately apparent in what essentially is a story that boils down to not much more than a bunch of supremely arrogant and irritating rich people redistributing hundreds of millions of dollars between themselves.

But it grips relentlessly, thanks to a trio of first rate performances and lightning fast, scintillating dialogue exchanges in a screenplay from the creator of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin, that’s as revealing of character as it is bitterly funny.

Being a David Fincher movie it was always going to be visually striking, and it may be the best looking college film ever, bathed in a murky, vaguely menacing half-light. This is a director at or near the top of his game, and he propels the film through exquisite use of editing and music, not getting bogged down in ponderous detail like he did in his last two movies, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Zodiac.

If there’s a nit to be picked it’s that while many individual scenes are electrifying, the whole doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts. And we never quite get to the bottom of what is driving Zuckerbeg – he’s a genius, always the smartest guy in the room, but no effort is made to paint him as anything other than deeply unlikeable, something pulled off remarkably well by Eisenberg. The final irony of this superb drama is that, just maybe, all he really wanted was to be liked.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Life As We Know It review

Life As We Know It (12A, 114 mins)
Director: Greg Berlanti
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
We’re on the rom-com trail once again, this time with Josh Duhamel and Katherine Heigl as our would-be romantic pairing whom we initially meet when they're set up on a disastrous blind date by mutual friends. This was some years earlier and they now treat each other as good natured antagonists who suddenly find themselves thrown together by a slightly tasteless twist of fate that sees their friends die and them named as joint guardians of their one year old baby. This means moving into their friends’ house, where they must contend with the usual nappy and feeding escapades that represent the movie at its most painful. It’s otherwise made palatable by more or less believable and likeable characters, with Duhamel as a sort of low rent Timothy Olyphant offering better value than he did in the atrocious When In Rome from earlier this year, while Heigl has been nowhere near this appealing since Knocked Up. But it can swing from tragic to kooky in the space of a scene, there’s never any doubt where it’s heading and it takes an awfully long time to get there.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Buried review

Buried (15, 95 mins)
Director: Rodrigo Cortes
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The ‘what if’ question is one that has lent itself to many fine (and not so fine) movie ideas over the years. The central conceit of Buried, ‘what if you were buried alive?’, has surfaced in any number of movies and TV shows, but never before has it been the focus of an entire film.

Ryan Reynolds is the only credited actor in Buried which, though in English is actually a Spanish production. This is a country that has given us many of the best horrors of the last few years, so initial signs are encouraging.

An ominous, Jaws-like score over the opening credits gives way to complete darkness and total silence, which is broken eventually by the sound of someone breathing increasingly heavily. This turns to the noise of someone pounding and becoming more panic stricken until mercifully a lighter flickers and we see Paul Conroy (Reynolds), bound and gagged and trapped inside a coffin.

The how and why of his situation is supplied early on thanks to the mobile phone he has been left with. We learn quickly that he’s a contracted truck driver in Iraq whose convoy was attacked and if a $5m ransom isn’t paid within a few hours, he’ll never be found. Though he manages to contact the authorities, they've no idea where he is and the race is on to find him in time.

The potential problem for such a high concept is that there isn’t enough incident and development to sustain the running time. A man trapped in a box is all very well as an idea, but it can offer interest for only so long unless the stakes are raised; it is supposed to be a thriller after all.

And like other movies where there’s only one person on screen for most of the time, you need to ensure that your leading man has the chops to carry the film alone – most of what was good about the likes of Cast Away or I Am Legend came down to the presence of superstars like Tom Hanks and Will Smith.

In Reynolds we get an actor who has demonstrated extreme charm and likeability on many occasions, but Buried demands an awful lot more than that from him. Early details about who he is ensure we’re invested in him, and Reynolds’ range is impressive as he moves through panic, terror, frustration and impotent rage at those unable or unwilling to help him.

The tension is supplied automatically by the finite air supply that Conroy has, but by introducing ever escalating dangers, director Rodrigo Cortes ratchets the claustrophobia and terror to sometimes agonising levels. He also manages to keep it pacy and fresh by finding an infinite number of angles from which to shoot the action, and even an emotional element late on.

Thanks to a compelling and committed performance from Reynolds, and accomplished work from its director, Buried is a cracking thriller that for once carries a high concept from idea all the way through to execution.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps review

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (PG-13/12A, 133 mins)
Director: Oliver Stone
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

When we left Gordon Gekko at the end of 1987’s Wall Street, it looked very much like he was on his way to prison for insider trading. Michael Douglas reprises his Oscar winning role as the former superstar corporate raider, and we meet him at the start of this belated sequel just as Gekko is getting out of jail in 2001, penniless and a man out of his time.

Fast forward to 2008 and he’s written a book called ‘Is Greed Good?’, a riff on his most famous line from the original movie, and doing the lecture circuit. Meanwhile on Wall Street, Jake (Shia LaBeouf) is a young analyst living the high life on his huge bonuses with his girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who just happens to be Gekko’s daughter.

But as the depth of the bad times hit and shares plummet, Jake’s mentor (Frank Langella) loses a fortune and kills himself when his business is consumed by rivals. Jake goes toe to toe with Josh Brolin’s rival investor whom he blames for Langella’s death, hoping to take him down from the inside, with the aid of some advice from Gekko who hopes to reconcile with Winnie.

Given the monumental financial upheaval of the last couple of years, this seems like the ideal time to revisit these themes. The flash and vulgarity of the 80s is gone, replaced with the subprime excess of the 00s, and the overriding theme is that greed is not good.

Oliver Stone directs at a clip, delivering stunning photography of the New York cityscapes and boardroom scenes that are lit like something out of The Godfather, while clearly having something to say on the issue.

Gekko believes we are all to blame for this but the movie is not really about his comeback as such, nor is it simply a retread of the original with a new protégé in place of Charlie Sheen. It’s more a character study than a thriller but it’s still tremendous fun.

LaBeouf is charismatic though he has a tendency towards mumbling and Douglas is just as good as he was first time round, with an added dose of mischievous humour, plus fine support from a slimy Brolin and a sly cameo from an old friend for fans of the original.

Made in Dagenham review

Made in Dagenham (15, 113 mins)
Director: Nigel Cole
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

3000 cars a day were rolling off the production line of the Ford plant in Dagenham in 1968, which boasted a workforce of 55,000, of whom 187 are women. They're employed mainly as sewing machinists and are classed as unskilled, and therefore paid less than the men. It’s their story we’re told in this charming drama in which Sally Hawkins timid Rita is chosen to represent the workers at a meeting with management and more than holds her own. The result is that the women go out on strike, something unheard of in those days, with their actions threatening the future of the entire plant. Telling Rita’s story and the bigger picture of equal pay for all women, this is a crowd pleaser buoyed by a wonderful turn from Hawkins and backed up by a host of familiar faces from Bob Hoskins to Miranda Richardson. But it does have a tendency to go on a bit, subplots are undernourished and it never fully demonstrates why it’s not just a television drama.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Enter the Void review

Enter the Void (18, 143 mins)
Director: Gaspar Noé
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
It’s not often you begin to despise a film during its opening credits, but Enter the Void begins with a flashing, thumping, endless sequence that gives a good idea of the neon seizure that’s to follow. For the first couple of reels the camera is the eyes of a young American man in Tokyo, who takes and deals drugs and visits friends before being killed by cops in a nightclub. The film then becomes even more hallucinogenic, eventually teasing out a fragmented story of sorts about the guy and how his sister, who has followed him to Tokyo, ends up working as a prostitute. Enter the Void is more sensory assault than movie, a drug-fuelled kaleidoscope of strobing lights (at one point the screen convulses white for a full minute), with a swirling, hovering camera that can go through walls and inside bodies. The effect is nauseating, like being vomited on while on a rollercoaster and it’s one for people who like their cinema with an overdose of breathtaking pretentiousness matched only by unendurable tedium.

The Town review

The Town (15, 124 mins)
Director: Ben Affleck
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The Town begins with a title card telling us that the Boston neighbourhood of Charlestown has over the years produced more bank robbers than anywhere else in the world. One such villain is Ben Affleck’s Doug MacRay, who along with potentially psychotic partner in crime Jimmy (Jeremy Renner) holds up a city bank managed by Rebecca Hall’s Claire. When Doug is forced to make contact with an unsuspecting Claire to find out what she’s told the police, it’s the catalyst for a muscular crime drama that marries a classical cops and robbers thriller to a believable romance and a search for redemption. A lean Affleck impresses in his first starring role in years, as does an edgy Renner, and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm is superb as the unswerving fed trying to build a case against them. It’s the relationship between Doug and Jimmy that gives The Town much of its dramatic and thematic heft, neatly sketching a tight-lipped community of blood brothers and codes of honour. As director Affleck expertly orchestrates thunderous shootouts and dizzying chases, and as co-writer peppers what could be well-worn scenes with crisp and evocative dialogue, even if the movie as a whole never quite achieves the moral complexity of his magnificent Gone Baby Gone.

Sunday 19 September 2010

The Hole review

The Hole (12A, 92 mins)
Director: Joe Dante
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Has it really been 26 years since Gremlins was released? Indeed it has, but what’s just as astonishing is that its director, Joe Dante, has barely made another movie of note in the time since.

Sure, Innerspace was fun and Gremlins 2 had its moments, but outwith forgettable efforts like Small Soldiers and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Dante has more or less been working on TV ever since. Which is a shame, because he proves with The Hole that he’s still more than capable of making a cracking family horror, albeit one with a distinctly 80s vibe.

Gremlins, along with another 80s horror classic, Poltergeist, was produced by Steven Spielberg, and The Hole is a film that seems to have his hand all over it. So it’s a surprise to learn he’s not actually involved given the Spielbergian setup of a single mother moving with her two sons to a new small town.

The boys are Dane (Chris Massoglia) and Lucas (Nathan Gamble) who discover a trapdoor in the floor of their basement not long after they move in that has a tendency to open by itself and seems to be bottomless. It’s not long before its contents and secrets are causing all manner of terrifying incidents and the result is a very well paced adventure that builds and escalates steadily, though it doesn’t quite unleash the funhouse you might be expecting, preferring to go even darker and stray into deeper themes that tap into childhood psychological trauma.

The relationship between Dane and Lucas of brothers who spend most of their time tormenting each other is wonderfully drawn and there are neat cameos as well as some nice updates on Gremlins gags. What lets it down is the 3D effects that are pretty much redundant for a good hour in the middle and then underutilised when it comes time for the action climax.

But Dante knows exactly how to deliver scares and fun in equal measure, although The Hole probably does lean more towards frights than frolics. In fact it’s profoundly creepy and really quite intense in places and though it has a child-friendly rating, be warned that youngsters could be terrified. Coulrophobes need not apply, with the scariest movie clown since Poltergeist terrorising Lucas in what is probably the best scene in the best horror of the year.

Friday 17 September 2010

Devil review

Devil (15, 80 mins)
Director: John Erick Dowdle
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

And so begins The Night Chronicles. With M. Night Shyamalan having demonstrated conclusively with The Last Airbender that he no longer knows how to make movies, he hands over the filmmaking reins on Devil, taking only story and producing credits and giving screenplay and directing duties to Brian Nelson (30 Days of Night) and John Eric Dowdle (REC remake Quarantine) respectively. An absence of press screenings didn’t bode well, but it turns out Devil is far from a disaster while also a good way short of memorable.

The basic conceit is that five people are trapped in a lift and one of them is the devil, but it begins with a suicide that’s being investigated by Chris Messina’s grieving cop. The lift in question is inside the building where his jumper fell from, and it’s stuck 20 floors up with no way of getting to it. Inside the five strangers are becoming increasingly anxious, and one of them is about to become increasingly violent.

With its darkening skies over a foreboding looking Philadelphia, Dowdle certainly manages to conjure a gloomy and portentous atmosphere. But inside the lift there’s not a great deal of fright-making going on. Anything significant tends to happen when the lights are off, so any sense of terror is hard to sustain and it just seems so much like a Twilight Zone episode stretched to feature length, with a lot of extraneous detail brought in to pad the running time.

But there are some decent moments of suspense, a lot of daftness and contrivance and, in true Shyamalan style, a passable twist as well as some rather pat themes of forgiveness and redemption teased out come the resolution. Still, there’s more to like here than in Shyamalan’s last three films put together, so here’s hoping The Night Chronicles can improve further with Twelve Strangers.

The Other Guys review

The Other Guys (12A, 107 mins)
Director: Adam McKay
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson are the toughest, craziest, best cops in town. Unfortunately they get killed on duty and so the ‘other guys’ must step in – Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, who initially hate each other but must find a way to work together if they're to solve the big case involving Steve Coogan and some financial irregularities. The best compliment that can be paid to The Other Guys is that it’s hilarious without being a spoof, with Ferrell and Wahlberg playing it dead straight and the movie also working as a pin-sharp takedown of every overly macho cop thriller since Lethal Weapon. Both actors are exceptional, managing to throw in some moments of semi-improvised insanity alongside great character work and there’s sterling support from Michael Keaton as their long suffering captain and Eva Mendes as Ferrell’s “plain” wife. It’s easily Ferrell’s best film since Anchorman and it might just be the year’s best comedy.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Winter’s Bone review

Winter’s Bone (15, 100 mins)
Director: Debra Granik
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

In the bleak and harsh Ozark mountains of rural Missouri, 17 year old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) looks after her sick mother and younger siblings, often forced to beg for food and charity from neighbours. Her no good father has skipped his bail and if Ree doesn’t find him within a week, they’ll lose their home.

It’s a place where crime is a way of life and practically the only employment is cooking methamphetamine. So no one is willing to help Ree, generally because it could cast a view on their own activities, and anyone asking questions for whatever reason, even if they're family (and most of the people in the region are family), are not to be entertained.

It’s a harsh land populated by hard people, many of them about one step removed from banjo twanging mountain folk, some of them not even that. It’s the sort of environment that’s usually home to horrors where teen partygoers get lost in the woods and are never seen again.

But here it’s the home to a sort of detective story in a world we never get to see in detail, with those in the know living by their own twisted code of honour. Full of local authentic flavour, it harkens back to something like The Wicker Man, with its closed, secretive, self-policing community.

With its simple, straightforward dialogue and brutally convincing characters, Winter’s Bone is a stunningly effective thriller that quietly grips and builds tension masterfully, offering some of the most dramatically and emotionally impactful scenes of the year so far.

Ree is a little girl having to grow up fast and Lawrence is exceptional, vulnerable and courageous in equal measure. But in a group of mostly unknown but perfectly cast actors, special mention should go to the outstanding  John Hawkes, who gives Ree’s unpredictable uncle, Teardrop, a razor sharp balance of menace, loyalty and unpredictability.

The only reason he, Lawrence and the film itself will probably not get the Oscar nominations it deserves is because it will end being very little seen, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek it out.

Saturday 11 September 2010

F review

F (18, 79 mins)
Director: Johannes Roberts
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The always dependable David Schofield takes a step up from character roles to leading man in this slick but empty Brit horror as a teacher who gives an ‘F’ grade to an unruly student and is assaulted for his trouble. Many months later the school is broken into by a gang of hooded youths who proceed to murder the staff while Schofield, who pulls off his part with conviction, tries to find his daughter. Though it may offer a chilling portrait of social ills and an extrapolation of the violence faced by teachers, F is repetitive and contrived in its execution, as the staff get isolated one by one and the faceless killers climb around the place like spider monkeys picking them off. It’s moderately effective once but not over and over, and as horror it simply doesn’t work.

The Kid review

The Kid (15, 111 mins)
Director: Nick Moran
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

True life misery-lit is brought to the screen in this account of young Kevin, who spends his teen years being routinely beaten by his hideous mother (Natascha McElhone) and placed in a series of foster homes. As an adult, played by Rupert Friend, Kevin enters a world of crime and bare knuckle fighting, but yearns to make something of himself. While reasonably compelling in a car crash sort of way, it’s just one thing after another, a wallow in misery with little balance. But there are some better times for Kevin, with encounters with the likes of Bernard Hill’s social worker and Ioan Gruffudd’s teacher offering him some hope, though he never seems able to get a break just when things are looking up. Friend is good value, twitchy and nervous but he’s let down by a truly horrible turn from McElhone, who thinks that impersonating Janet Street Porter is a performance.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Going the Distance review

Going the Distance (15, 102 mins)
Director: Nanette Burstein
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

In the league table of romantic comedy stars, if Sandra Bullock is Chelsea and Gerard Butler is relegation fodder, Drew Barrymore regularly hovers around mid-table, possibly underachieving. With the help of her co-star here, Justin Long, she might make it into a European spot this season.

We’ve seen Barrymore and Long in the same movie before, in last year’s ensemble effort, He’s Just Not That Into You, though they didn’t share any scenes. It’s their chemistry together here as a couple trying to make a relationship work on either side of the United States that elevates Going the Distance from run of the mill to really quite appealing.

As we meet New Yorker Garrett (Long), he’s in the process of being dumped for being an inattentive boyfriend. Barrymore’s Erin meanwhile is spending the summer in New York as an intern at a newspaper. They hook up in a bar and really hit it off, but she’s leaving in six weeks to go back to California.

They agree they’ll give a long distance relationship a go, and as the months roll by they stay in touch through phone calls and the occasional get together. Throwing down their main obstacle early makes for an involving setup, and things chug along nicely for a while but there has to be an escalation in conflict and as it gets more and more difficult for them to be apart, their future together looks starts to bleak.

Rom-coms seem to come from a production line these days, with the characters generally having kooky jobs and best friends on hand to offer zany counsel. Going the Distance is no different, but it is more honest and truthful than most, and unlike many recent efforts gives us characters who are easy to root for, which goes a long way.

That’s helped by the likeable stars, with Barrymore coming across as breezy and smart. Long goes full Schwimmer in his bid to be as sweet and charming as possible, although stooping to nicking the tanning booth mishap gag from Friends is a bit much.

That’s part of what doesn’t work here, with a couple of the set pieces becoming a bit laboured when we were doing just fine with the engaging characters. And unusually for this type of film it’s got quite a lot of adult content, chock full of swearing and raunchy scenes rather than aiming for the teen crowd.

Though it does kind of put all its eggs in the one plot basket, with characters and subplots left dangling, at least it manages to steer clear of the dopey misunderstandings that frequently blight such movies. It’s may not quite be Champions League material but everyone can be happy with their effort.

Tamara Drewe review

Tamara Drewe (15, 111 mins)
Director: Stephen Frears
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
A diverse bunch of people gather at a rural writers’ retreat run by the philandering Nicholas (Roger Allam) and his wife Beth (Tamsin Greig). Into their lives comes Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton), who used to live in the village but has been away for some years, and her return causes passions to run high among the group, as well as an out-of-town a drummer (Dominic Cooper). Based on a newspaper comic strip, this is a broad and overwrought comic drama, pitched like a sitcom in tone, delivery and situation. And just who is Tamara, what does she want and why are we supposed to root for her? It’s full of larger than life characters, not one of whom is remotely likeable or believable (with the possible exception of Beth) and the whole is really rather irritating.

Cyrus review

Cyrus (15, 91 mins)
Directors: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Divorcee John (John C. Reilly) is depressed and lonely, made worse by the news that his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) is remarrying. He gets a boost when he meets the lovely Molly (Marisa Tomei) but struggles to bond with her grown up son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), a forthright young man who is perhaps a little too close to his mother. As John and Molly see more of each other, Cyrus’ behaviour becomes increasingly odd and disturbing in a low-fi indie given polish by a highly creditable group of actors. It deals in discomfort and is grounded in reality, not slipping into the daft escalation of situations that you might expect, but where it stops, nobody knows. At the same time though, it’s all pretty slight but it’s worth it to see such a top rate cast come together, especially the wonderful Tomei. But it’s mostly Hill’s show, and he plays it quiet but intense, ably demonstrating that he might just have more range than his Superbad co-star Michael Cera.

The Runaways review

The Runaways (15, 106 mins)
Director: Floria Sigismondi
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
 1970s all-girl rock band The Runaways are the subject of this by the numbers biopic that focuses mainly on Cherie (Dakota Fanning) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), put together by Michael Shannon’s producer. In its early stages it’s a fairly straightforward look at a band getting together, practising, and establishing the clashing personalities, with the second half turning into the standard descent into pills and booze, and while there’s lots of moderately interesting details, there’s not much in the way of a compelling bigger picture. Shannon has loads of fun as their off the hook manager, but Stewart is her usual underpowered self and Fanning outclasses her at every turn. But aside from the checklist nature of the story, the biggest problem is that these 21st century actresses can’t really convince as 1970s gals.

Friday 3 September 2010

The Last Exorcism review

The Last Exorcism (15, 87 mins)
Director: Daniel Stamm
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Last Exorcism arrives looking very much like the first horror to try to cash in on the success of last year’s Paranormal Activity, by aping its faux documentary style to present its dramatised events as real.

The subject of the documentary is Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a Louisiana preacher who comes from a long line of exorcists. But following a crisis of faith, Marcus gives up performing them and instead sets out to expose charlatans by supposedly filming this documentary of him performing fake exorcisms.

This takes him to a remote rural community where a widowed farmer believes his 16 year old daughter Nell is possessed by a demon. Marcus and a film crew go to their home where he performs his “exorcism” by setting up speakers emitting demonic noises and strings to shake the bed.

But when the girl shows up at their hotel seemingly still possessed, and with the father ready to kill her to save her soul, what’s really behind these unexplained events?

A lot of skill is required to deliver performances that look as though they're real, and the doc style is highly convincing in the early stages. A bold, deliberately paced setup is also reminiscent of Paranormal Activity, but where that was full of suggestion, this is quicker to show its horrors, mainly involving Nell contorting her body in grotesque ways.

There’s some interesting ground being covered in its focus on debunking and scepticism and preying on the vulnerable, while also harkening after Rosemary’s Baby, REC and The Blair Witch Project.

But after a promising start, The Last Exorcism falls apart in spectacular style. A large part of the problem lies with it trying to have its cake and eat it in the way it tells the story. The fact that it’s clearly a dramatised movie is betrayed by the ominous score that flares up whenever something unsettling is supposed to be happening.

Worse than that though is the way it portrays events with a shaky handheld camera when it suits, but at other times the lens is all-seeing, leading to camera movements and edits that simply wouldn’t be possible if this were really a documentary. It’s a sloppy way to let something promising slide into incompetence.

Then there’s the fact that the slow build ultimately leads nowhere except a ridiculous climax. The first recourse in most films such as this is to loud noises and moving furniture but a novel approach is taken here in that it never really kicks off at all, meaning it’s dull when it’s not being farcical, and apart from a couple of jump scares, never remotely scary.

Dinner For Schmucks review

Dinner For Schmucks (12A, 114 mins)
Director: Jay Roach
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

In order to impress his loathsome boss, financial analyst Tim (Paul Rudd) must find the biggest idiot he can to bring to a dinner party and finds him in Barry (Steve Carell), who likes to spend his time dressing up stuffed mice and doesn’t appear capable of functioning in the real world. With its high concept in place, this desperate comedy then proceeds to ignore the dinner bit by spending most of the running time having Barry jeopardise Tim’s relationship with his girlfriend. By the time we actually get to the dinner there are finally a couple of laughs to be had, but only after scene upon scene that suffocate in a comedy vacuum of ridiculous situations and detestable characters. It’s another of those movies where 100 minutes of despicable behaviour is swept away by five minutes of moralising at the end. Just as bad is the total waste of two top drawer leading men, with Rudd as the straight man reduced mainly to reaction shots while Carell channels his inner Jim Carrey to mug as manically and gratingly as possible. If you want to see him play an idiot to infinitely greater comic effect, take another look at Anchorman instead.