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.

The Switch review

The Switch (12A, 101 mins)
Directors: Josh Gordon, Will Speck
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston are platonic friends who hit a snag when she announces she wants a baby through artificial insemination and finds a donor in Patrick Wilson. Thanks to a moronic chain of events, Bateman drunkenly replaces Wilson’s sample with his own so that when Aniston turns up seven years later with a son in tow who’s as odd and neurotic as he is, Bateman finds himself unable to tell her the truth. It would be wrong to label this as a rom-com as it’s not really played for laughs except when their respective friends are at hand to offer pithy advice, and though not too objectionable, it’s just a bit stale with little character momentum driving it forward. It’s usually hard to go too far wrong with the likes of Bateman and Aniston at the helm, but it’s such an ill-advised idea to begin with that they're mostly powerless to save it.

Jonah Hex review

Jonah Hex (15, 81 mins)
Director: Jimmy Hayward
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The first warning sign that all is not well with this fantasy western is the running time which, taking the closing credits out of the equation is barely 70 minutes, with reports suggesting at least half an hour of it has been left on the cutting room floor. It’s yet another comic book adaptation, with Josh Brolin taking the title role as a back-from-the-dead bounty hunter tracking down the man who killed his family (John Malkovich) and who now plans to unleash a WMD on Washington. It’s visually impressive if ear-splitting, with a pounding rock score and frequent bruising action, and Brolin growls and scowls like a good ‘un throughout. But though it’s generally coherent, its brevity means it goes straight from the setup to the climax with almost nothing in between.