Friday 25 June 2010

Get Him to the Greek review

Get Him to the Greek (15, 109 mins)
Director: Nicholas Stoller
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

A couple of years ago, when the Judd Apatow comedy train was still at full steam and everything he touched turned to gold, one of his strongest producing efforts was Forgetting Sarah Marshall, written by and starring Jason Segel. The film contained a mid-sized role for Russell Brand as Aldous Snow, an eccentric British rock star whom Sarah left Segel for but who turned out to be a fairly decent chap.

Now we have Get Him to the Greek, a spin off from Forgetting Sarah Marshall in which Brand returns as Snow, a fading egotist who likes to set his music videos in African war zones, amid plummeting sales, public humiliations and widespread derision.

Also returning from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but playing an entirely different character from his original role as a waiter is Jonah Hill as Aaron, a lowly employee at Snow’s record label who is charged with bringing him from London to Los Angeles to play an anniversary concert at the Greek Theatre. Snow doesn’t exactly prove to be an easy person to wrangle, what with his second-long attention span and fondness for substances and female companionship.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall was grounded by the likeability of Segel, with Brand both used sparingly as a comedy device and emerging as a surprisingly rounded character. But here he’s a spoiled, uncontrollable child and that makes for a difficult time. Aldous is alternately bullying or supportive towards Aaron and this inconsistency of character soon becomes tiresome.

With Aaron only having 48 hours to get Aldous to LA, the countdown element should be exploited to far greater effect, but the necessary focus is absent, the film ending up as simply a lot of broad comic incidents, generally drink or drugs related. This means a surplus of vomit and a dearth of real wit or ideas.

A subplot involving Aaron and his girlfriend starts out sweet but eventually becomes a bit of a distraction. Likewise Aldous trying to reconnect with his father (Colm Meaney, rivalling Anthony La Paglia when he played Daphne’s brother in Frasier for worst English accent) and his ex-girlfriend (Rose Byrne, whose accent isn’t much better than Meaney’s).

These both highlight the sparseness of the plot and act as unnecessary asides to a meandering story that begins to outstay its welcome long before the end of its excessive running time.

When In Rome review

When In Rome (PG, 90 mins)
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

This stupefying fantasy rom-com stars Sarah Marshall herself, Kristen Bell, as Beth, a workaholic who goes to Italy for her sister’s wedding where she takes a shine to the groom’s best man (Josh Duhamel). She also takes some coins from the Fountain of Love, the legend telling that doing so means the person who threw it in will fall in love with you. As luck would have it, each of the coin owners lives in New York, and stalk Beth while she and Duhamel gambol through various misunderstandings. Sticking closely to the kind of moronic template that typifies the 21st century romantic comedy, this is remarkably dippy stuff that’s marginally less hateful than some examples of this doomed genre, but it’s still hard to care whether Beth gets the man of her dreams or drowns in the fountain.

Whatever Works review

Whatever Works (12A, 91 mins)
Director: Woody Allen
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David plays the latest surrogate for Woody Allen to carp about death and the miseries of life for 90 minutes. David is physicist Boris, a deeply unpleasant man who’s middle aged, divorced and hates the world and everyone in it. But when he unexpectedly takes in a young runaway (Evan Rachel Wood), he finds himself beginning to soften. Like a lot of Allen’s work in recent years, there’s a sheen of bitterness here barely tempered by any discernible warmth or wit. Most irritatingly he throws up continual reminders of his best films; the to-camera narration of Annie Hall, the age gap romance of Manhattan that only serve to highlight this film’s flaws. But it’s not entirely without chuckles and Boris’ misanthropy almost becomes endearing, so though it’s by no means vintage Woody, he’s made a lot worse in recent years.

Tetro review

Tetro (15, 127 mins)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Godfather is beginning to look like another lifetime for Francis Ford Coppola. His latest sees a young American travel to Buenos Aires to visit Tetro (Vincent Gallo), the brother he hasn’t seen in years. He wants to reconnect and learn about their family past but the truculent Tetro wants little to do with him. Lengthy for such a slim story, this is tough going. Shot in shimmering black and white, it’s beautiful but often impenetrable, and, with its theatricality and frequent allusions to the cinema of Powell and Pressburger, too much like Euro art-house for its own good. It’s far from the most expansive or interesting work Coppola has done and hard to recommend even for die-hard fans, although his name remains the only reason Tetro is getting a cinema release. But just because you directed the best film ever made doesn’t mean you can get away with anything.

The Collector review

The Collector (18, 90 mins)
Director: Marcus Dunstan
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Arkin (Josh Stewart) is a handyman who likes to break into the houses he’s been working at. On one particular safecracking job he finds someone is already there, a psycho who has rigged the house with Saw-style booby traps and is torturing the owners, meaning Arkin must go from burglar to hero to save the family. With a stuttering pace and a bland lead, The Collector is odd rather than creepy, before it explodes in gallons of blood and attempts to find increasingly gruesome ways to spill it. Tension deficient, persistently preposterous, farcically sadistic and not even related to entertainment, if you think this constitutes good horror, you’re welcome to it.

Friday 18 June 2010

Killers review

Killers (12A, 100 mins)
Director: Robert Luketic
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Essentially taking the basic plot of True Lies and stripping it of all wit and invention, Killers is a dull plod through a succession of badly written setups that, for a lightweight action comedy, is nowhere near breezy enough, and offers a dearth of laughs or rousing conflict.

It kicks off with singleton Jen (Katherine Heigl) on holiday in France with her overbearing parents (Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara).  She meets the handsome, frequently shirtless Spencer (Ashton Kutcher) whom we know is actually an international assassin there for a job, but who doesn’t tell her that.

Not long after meeting her, and none too believably, he begins to question his career choice and decides he wants a normal life. So, back in the States, and a quick jump to three years later, they're happily married and living in suburbia with Jen still having no idea that Spencer used to be a hired killer. But just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in, with his old handler telling him if he doesn’t do another job, there’ll be a bounty on him, and seemingly every one of his neighbours could be out to kill him.

Little about Killers works. There’s not really much going for it in the early stages except some nice French scenery, followed by a black hole in the middle where absolutely nothing happens for a good half of the film’s running time. Then it turns frenzied for an all-action final stretch that becomes little more than a series of shoot outs and car chases and throws in a couple of Bourne style fight scenes only without the necessary expertise.

A subpar level of scriptwriting should take the blame for most of the problems, with Jen and Spencer going from deliriously happy to bored to bickering without once coming close to believable. Throw in characters who are barely introduced but yet later become pivotal, farcical coincidences and revelations that make no sense whatsoever and you’re left with a clumsy mess.

Kutcher shows more charm than he usually manages, but unfortunately he’s dragged back by Heigl who, reuniting with her director from The Ugly Truth last year, proves that her unappealing turn in that catastrophe was no fluke. But worst of all, the genuinely good actors in O’Hara and Selleck are wasted, her only character trait being that’s she’s a lush, his that he has a Tom Selleck moustache.

Please Give review

Please Give (15, 90 mins)
Director: Nicole Holofcener
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet are sisters whose grandmother lives next to Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt, vultures who buy and sell the retro furniture of dead people and who want her apartment when she dies. Keener obsessively gives to charity and the homeless, but thinks nothing of ripping off her customers in a low-fi drama about people who are alternately venal, caring or hypocritical. Refreshingly, Please Give is pleasingly light on angst, meaning we’re not asked to wallow in misery, but instead examine reality in an everyday way rather than a painfully penetrating one. These are flawed but basically decent if somewhat damaged individuals, inhabited by wonderful actors. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has mined similar seams in her previous films, and the results are highly reminiscent of Woody Allen, but more insightful and funnier than anything he’s done recently - see next week’s Whatever Works for proof of that.

MacGruber review

MacGruber (15, 99 mins)
Director: Jorma Taccone
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

A Saturday Night Live sketch stretched to feature length and almost to snapping point, MacGruber is inspired by the resourceful 80s TV action hero, MacGyver. MacGruber (Will Forte) thinks he can take out the bad guys with some dental floss and a stick of celery, the joke being that he’s completely useless but somehow manages to get the job done, a la Inspector Clouseau, and his limitless stupidity is the source of most of the chuckles. He’s brought out of retirement to tackle Val Kilmer’s Russian arms dealer, whose character name is dangerously close to a very bad word and therefore unrepeatable here, although rest assured no one in the film squanders an opportunity to say it for a cheap laugh. That’s indicative of the flaws of a movie that’s uneven and often goes for the easy joke rather than something truly clever, but it’s fun for fans of cheesy action films will who appreciate the digs at the likes of Rambo and Lethal Weapon.

Our Family Wedding review

Our Family Wedding (12A, 103 mins)
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Right now, in South Africa, the world is being shown that what once seemed impossible can be made attainable and the spectre of racism can be overcome. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, they're still making films where a character faints at the sight of a black person. That’s the low point among many dreadful moments of this rancid little comedy that pretends it’s only about racist people but is actually rotten to the core. Perpetuating stereotypes from the off, two men, one black (Forest Whitaker) and one Hispanic (Carlos Mencia) have an altercation when the latter tows the former’s car. Then they discover that their respective son and daughter (Lance Gross and Ugly Betty’s America Ferrara) are marrying each other, leading to wedding planning hijinks, moronic slapstick incidents and hateful characters revealing all sorts of bigotry, before asking us to root for them during a sentimental finale. Loathsome.

Friday 11 June 2010

Brooklyn’s Finest review

Brooklyn’s Finest (18, 132 mins)
Director: Antoine Fuqua
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Offering the value of three police thrillers for the price of one, Brooklyn’s Finest is a bruising, but far from perfect drama from the director of Training Day. And given the way it follows three very different New York cops through their day jobs and personal lives, it certainly seems as though Antoine Fuqua has spent a lot of time watching The Wire in the years since he guided Denzel Washington to an Oscar.

It’s a multi-character drama that refreshingly doesn’t try to bring all the stories together in convenient Crash style, although a masterful three-way crescendo around the half way point comes closest.

Ethan Hawke’s narcotics’ officer wants to better the lives of his family, but with four kids and two more on the way he finds he can’t do it on an honest cop’s salary. Richard Gere is the cliché of the hard drinking, one week from retirement veteran who has given up on the world. Don Cheadle is deep undercover and wants out, although his association with Wesley Snipes’ gangster is going to put a strain on that.

With such familiarity of setup and content the execution becomes all important, and Brooklyn’s Finest is equal parts compelling and flawed. Each storyline offers something of interest but it’s sometimes so clichéd that most character actions or developments can be seen coming from a mile away.

Which makes it all the more frustrating because somewhere in there is a top drawer police thriller that could have been teased out with a little more discipline and tightness and at least 20 minutes off the running time. A lot of stuff is piled on then forgotten about, such as Gere mentoring a rookie, and a young black man murdered by a cop that looks like it’s going to become the film’s focus but disappears entirely.

As is par for the course in films where tortured men posture and shout at each other, it’s steeped in machismo. Even Ellen Barkin gets in on the tough guy act, turning up in a sizzling cameo to bellow profanities as a high ranking officer who wants Cheadle to put away Snipes.

For the longest time, Cheadle’s seems like the most vital thread before it falls away into confused motivations, leaving Gere’s as the most redemptive, even though for a while it looked like being the most pointless.

Fine actors elevate it; a wired Hawke, weary Gere and Cheadle offering more power and rage than he’s often allowed to show. It’s handsome and gritty, intense and grave, with admirable, far reaching intentions and layered characters.

And yet it never wholly offers the sort of moral examinations necessary to make it truly complex or memorable, while an overblown and unsatisfying finale suggests Fuqua was beginning to run out of ideas.

Black Death review

Black Death (15, 101 mins)
Director: Christopher Smith
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
 It’s 1348 and the Black Death is in full swing throughout England. Enter Sean Bean, seemingly straight off the set of Lord of the Rings, as an envoy of the bishop charged with finding a village where it is claimed the plague has no effect and the suspicion is that devilry is afoot. Though a bit of a slog at times, Black Death benefits from an interesting character in Bean, who’s not so much a hero as a murderer for god, and it becomes a far more fascinating movie when he and his men reach the village. It’s grim and grimy, like something Hammer rivals Tigon would have churned out in the early 70s, with some brutal and chaotic swordplay and a nice line in anti-ecumenical rancour, even if it ultimately doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

Letters to Juliet review

Letters to Juliet (PG, 105 mins)
Director: Gary Winick
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
 Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is an aspiring writer on holiday in Verona with her fiancé (Gael Garica Bernal), a food obsessed chef more interested in pasta than her. With plenty time to explore the city on her own, she finds herself at Juliet’s house where the lovelorn write letters to Shakespeare’s most famous heroine. When she replies to a 50 year old letter, Vanessa Redgrave arrives from England and they go in search of the man she knew when she was teenager, bringing along her grandson along to add a romantic complication for Sophie. Taking place in a fantasy Italy, this is fluffy, bland and inoffensive, with no forward momentum to speak of and no real interest in who Sophie ends up with. One for hopeless romantics only or those with a pathological aversion to the World Cup.

Greenberg review

Greenberg (15, 107 mins)
Director: Noah Baumbach
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

If you can cast your mind back to the psychotic boyfriend of Rachel that Ben Stiller played in Friends, his portrayal of the titular Roger Greenberg here might give you some idea of where that guy ended up. Greenberg is an unemployed misanthrope, always seemingly little more than a step away from returning to the mental hospital he recently left, with an affair with the much younger woman (Greta Gerwig) he meets while house-sitting for his brother doing little to lift him. It’s a brave move for Stiller, who has never shied away from unlikeable characters, but rarely played one so dark. Greenberg is Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David without the sunny personality, and watching him interact with others can be painful to behold. It’s all very well giving us an insight into a troubled soul, but it’s just so stifling and mannered, too uncomfortable as a comedy and not meaty enough as drama.

Friday 4 June 2010

The Brothers Bloom review

The Brothers Bloom (12A, 114 mins)
Director: Rian Johnson
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

It looked for a while as though The Brothers Bloom would never see the inside of a UK cinema, having done the festival circuit through 2008 and tanking at the US box office on its release last year. That’s probably because it’s a hard film to pigeonhole and therefore sell, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t absolutely charming and better than 99% of what’s currently clogging up our screens.

It’s the story of two brothers, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), who have been conmen since they were young boys, having found their calling when swindling money from their friends.

Stephen likes to construct elaborate long cons to relieve wealthy dupes of their treasures, but Bloom wants out, wanting what he calls an unwritten life away from his brother’s schemes and plans. So Stephen comes up with what he says will be their final mark; Penelope, a mega-rich New Jersey recluse (Rachel Weisz) whom they intend to take for a few million. But the bigger danger is that Bloom may be falling for her.

Though set in the modern day, Stephen and Bloom are an anachronistic, hat-wearing, steamboat-travelling pair, which adds to the breezy romantic allure of the enterprise. Ruffalo and Brody are perfectly cast, the former wry and inscrutable, the latter mopey and lugubrious. But it turns out to be Weisz who steals the show, turning in a captivating, beguiling performance as a woman who has never had any fun in her life and for whom being swept along through exotic European locales is adventure enough.

It’s dry and stylish without indulging in the sort of wilful quirkiness usually associated with the films of Wes Anderson. And if it doesn’t have the zip or panache of an Ocean’s heist, then it’s because writer/director Rian Johnson is not trying to emulate that.

What little concession there is to quirk comes from the casting of Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, an Oscar nominee for Babel, as the brothers’ accomplice Bang Bang, an almost dialogue-free turn that still manages to be funny and pivotal despite its eccentricity.

As should be expected with such films, things are never as they seem, but you shouldn’t necessarily expect the traditional con caper that The Brothers Bloom might appear to be on the surface. It’s a long setup, and we’re never really privy to the particulars of the con, but that’s because its intricacies are not as important as the character development that occurs during it.

She’s Out of My League review

She’s Out of My League (15, 104 mins)
Director: Jim Field Smith
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The latest spin on the boy-meets-girl formula is this likeable boy-thinks-he-doesn’t-deserve-girl romantic comedy. Kirk (Jay Baruchel, last spotted voicing the young hero in How to Train Your Dragon) is still in mourning for the girl he broke up with two years before when he meets the stunning Molly (Alice Eve) through his job at airport security. He’s a bit of a goofball but he’s a nice, funny guy who can’t believe she likes him, and so constantly thinks she’s out of his league, which forms the basis for the sometimes contrived conflict. It’s a premise that’s stretched out a little too thinly on occasion in a movie that stalls a bit when going for gross or farcical situations, particularly when dealing with Kirk’s boorish friends and insane family. But it’s sweet, sometimes very funny and most of all, Kirk and Molly are a couple to root for which means it’s built on solid foundations.

Death at a Funeral review

Death at a Funeral (15, 92 mins)
Director: Neil LaBute
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

As remakes go this has to be one of the strangest; an American re-run of a British comedy that came out less than three years ago which, though nearly identical in plot, has managed to lose everything that was good or funny about the original. It’s set entirely at a funeral where the extended family has gathered to bury Chris Rock’s father. The trouble starts when one of the guests (James Marsden, getting reasonable mileage) inadvertently takes a hallucinogenic pill and Peter Dinklage, reprising his role from the original, turns up to throw an unexpected spanner in the works. What should be high farce is botched in execution by a thoroughly bizarre choice of director in Neil LaBute, not exactly known for his lightness of touch. So it’s leaden when it should zip, timing is entirely absent and every burst of unfunny physicality is punctuated by a sitcom score. It’s broad, infinitely unsubtle and everything is dreadfully forced, not helped by some actors (Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan and Danny Glover being the worst offenders) mugging and screeching for all they're worth.

The Killer Inside Me review

The Killer Inside Me (18, 109 mins)
Director: Michael Winterbottom
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Pulp writer Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel is adapted for the screen for a second time following a 1976 version with Stacy Keach, replaced here by Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, a small town sheriff with a violent streak. He’s charged with running Jessica Alba’s prostitute out of town but begins an affair with her instead, kicking off a confused murder-blackmail plot that plays second fiddle to the exploration of Lou’s twisted psyche. But it’s a film that struggles to make an impact as neo-noir due to woolly plotting, an utterly repellent and irredeemable protagonist and a woefully miscast Affleck. He once seemed like an actor capable of anything but he’s let down here by the unfocused material and an unnecessarily grotesque level of violence that the story simply can’t justify.