Thursday 20 December 2012

Jack Reacher review

Jack Reacher (12A, 130 mins)
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Fans of the Lee Child novels which brought us the character of Jack Reacher are apparently up in arms because he’s supposed to be a massive, hulking former soldier turned drifter. Reacher here is played by the distinctly non-massive Tom Cruise, but that really isn’t a problem unless you’re totally hung up on the height thing, because Cruise is a movie star of the highest order.

In a coldly terrifying opening, a gunman takes out random passers-by from a distance with a high powered rifle. An arrest is made, with Richard Jenkins as the DA looking to put the guy away and Rosamund Pike as his daughter, a defence lawyer who hires Reacher as an investigator to find out the truth.

This first adaptation of Child’s books is being sold as some sort of revenge thriller in the style of Taken, when in fact it’s much more of a traditional police procedural, albeit a highly compelling one. Reacher is a man of action though, and capable of beating up anyone who crosses his path, which he does frequently.

Everything about it screams ridiculousness, and luckily it knows it, otherwise the would-be slick banter and clunky exposition would be too hard to swallow with a straight face. Reacher’s past gets explained to us in a way that would be moronic if it weren’t so tongue in cheek, but it could sometimes do with an injection of pace or a complete commitment to luridness to match its silliness.

Werner Herzog of all people turns up as the bad guy heading the conspiracy, and he adds ripeness, Cruise is magnetic, and Pike is terrible, all making for a hugely enjoyable slice of pulp.

Life of Pi review

Life of Pi (PG, 127 mins)
Director: Ang Lee
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Yann Martel’s award-winning 2001 novel, Life of Pi, has long been considered unfilmable, and without advances in visual effects technology, it may well have been.

This is a film in which, for probably half the running time, there’s a computer generated tiger on screen that for not one second looks anything other than real. That’s a remarkable achievement, up there with your Gollums and Jurassic beasties in terms of quality and realism, and not one that should be taken lightly.

The fact it’s in service of an ambitious but ultimately less than fully satisfying story doesn’t necessarily add credence to the unfilmable debate, but does perhaps reveal that it’s the kind of material that simply works better on the page.

That’s further backed up by the necessity of an all-encompassing narration to get the story across and accompany the episodes because, in its protagonist Pi, we don’t have a character forging his own path, at least initially, but being swept along by fate.

We begin in Canada, where Irrfan Khan’s adult Pi is telling his story to Rafe Spall’s author in a framing device that may at first seem clumsy, but which actually proves to be central to the film’s thematic intent.

“Believe what you want”, he tells him, as he recounts how he began life in India as a young boy called Piscine, after his uncle’s great love for swimming. Shortened to Pi, he follows three different faiths while his parents run a zoo that houses a tiger called Richard Parker. Pi doesn’t understand the nature of animals, thinking he and Richard Parker can be friends, but by the time he’s a teenager (and played by Suraj Sharma) his family are forced to sell everything and move abroad, transporting the zoo to Canada with them.

This makes for a stately first three quarters of an hour or more, until a stunningly executed shipwreck leaves Pi and Richard Parker on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific, along with a zebra, an orang-utan and a hyena, although the latter three don’t last long.

What follows is a battle for survival against the elements, hunger and the tiger, which while frequently exhilarating, can become repetitive. Though ostensibly a family film, it acknowledges the violence, the nature of nature as it were, though there are lots of animal antics for kids to coo over, and meerkat fans will be in raptures.

The vast amount of CGI is brilliantly realised yet never draws attention to itself, and there has rarely been a film this gorgeous, especially once we’re out on the open sea with its fantastic pastel shades. But it’s also quite static and given to treading water, missing that vital kick of emotion so that while beautiful, it’s never transcendent, and interesting without ever being able to fully exert a grip.

There’s empathy but never real soul as it rambles towards its point. Because, above all, Life of Pi is a rumination on the power of metaphors, in both storytelling and religion. Depending on your point of view it’s either a stirring parable or a nice story, well told. Its ultimate gambit is a bold one, but it’s not going to be for all tastes.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12A/PG-13, 169 mins)
Director: Peter Jackson
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Over the Christmases of 2001, 2002 and 2003, New Zealand director Peter Jackson delivered with The Lord of the Rings a trio of rich, rewarding fantasy epics that garnered billions at the box office, 17 Oscars and left a lasting legacy as one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema.

It was a well too deep not to return to, and after years of legal wrangling and delays that eventually saw the departure of would-be director Guillermo del Toro, Jackson returns for a new prequel trilogy. And we all remember what happened the last time someone made prequels to a beloved trilogy.

Jackson has only made two films since the trilogy closed nine years ago, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, and the fear that he’s sunk into self-indulgence (something never exactly far from the surface when it came to The Lord of the Rings, if truth be told) is confirmed here.

The final instalment of Harry Potter started an insidious trend towards splitting films adapted from popular books into as many parts as possible for maximum profits. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is not a long book. And yet it’s one to which Jackson will devote around 500 minutes of screen time between now and the summer of 2014.

Though it’s a chance to reunite with some old friends, in one of the many instances of padding that stretch this first film’s ridiculous running time, we begin on the same day that The Fellowship of the Ring did; the birthday of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit.

As Bilbo (Ian Holm) writes about his adventures that he will tell to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), we also get a separate prologue about the great dwarf city of Erebor, which was devastated and then occupied by the fearsome dragon Smaug.

From there we jump back to 60 years earlier, when Bilbo was a younger hobbit, and now played by Martin Freeman. He meets the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who along with a bunch of dwarfs, descends on Bilbo’s home wanting him to join an adventure, a quest to take back Erebor from Smaug.

It’s really an awful lot of extraneous gubbins, watching 13 dwarfs turn up and eat and sing and carry on for what would be about a quarter of the running time of most normal films. Where The Lord of the Rings took its time to establish a world of richness, this is simply characters sitting about, and it’s deeply indulgent.

And for all its stunning spectacle and massive action, it was at its heart a story of friendship and overcoming adversity, and peaceful creatures showing courage in the most trying of circumstances. This deals with similar themes, and Freeman is well cast as the reluctant hero, but it’s often much too beholden to a formula.

The opening half is leisurely beyond necessity, with only the occasional raised eyebrow from McKellen to keep you going. A stop at the realm of Rivendell offers some more recapturing of past glories, as Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett’s elf lords return, alongside Christopher Lee’s Saruman, but it’s a brief respite from the drudgery.

And then of course there’s Gollum, the computer generated foe voiced and motion captured by Andy Serkis, who was such a highlight of the original films. His smaller part here is very welcome, and his battle of wits with Bilbo showcases the film’s strongest moments.

On the action front, Jackson has revealed his cards one too many times, and every sequence follows an identical pattern: the introduction of an enemy in the shape of an orc or a goblin or a troll, then an extended chase and battle, before a saviour appears from off-screen to rescue the situation.

But beyond the lack of involving incident, it’s also shorn of any character depth or range. Most of the dwarfs (and there are 13 of them, remember) are entirely anonymous. Those that get a bit of screen time, James Nesbitt and Ken Stott among them, offer no real lasting impression, leaving the rest to simply get lost in the mire.
Mention must be made of High Frame Rate, a process in which the film is shot and projected at 48 frames per second rather than the traditional 24. This is no mere aesthetic misstep, but a hideous error that blights the entire production, rendering the image like a 1970s TV show shot on videotape, flat and shiny and just plain odd.

On the one hand, the story and the content must be king. But there’s no escaping that the visual majesty of Jackson’s original films played a significant part in their success, and to have that diluted is a tragedy. Why spend this much money to make something that looks like an Australian soap blended with the old ITV fantasy adventure show, Knightmare?

It just adds to what is a supremely disappointing spectacle that alternates between boredom and silliness. The genuine hope has to be that Jackson was rushing towards the Christmas release date for this opener, and with a year until he unleashes Part II, let’s pray he has the time to fix his mistakes.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Amour review

Amour (12A, 127 mins)
Director: Michael Haneke
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Michael Haneke picked up his second Palme d’Or at Cannes this year but, unlike his previous winner, The White Ribbon, the punishing ordeal that is Amour offers little reward beyond its surface grimness and gloss.

It opens with fire and police officers breaking into an apartment, where an elderly woman is found in a sealed off room, dead on her bed and surrounded by flowers. Let this opening be a warning as to where the film is headed, as we go back to meet Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a well-healed Parisian couple in their 80s. They still enjoy an active lifestyle, but Georges begins to notice Anne sort of spacing out, and it’s discovered that she’s suffered a stroke.

As Anne becomes progressively more sick and dependent, Georges struggles to care for her through daily life, as Haneke probes and lingers, and as the indignities for Anne increase, the reasons for continuing to watch slip away. Other than a concert visit at the beginning we don’t leave the apartment, and it soon becomes oppressive, as the Austrian director exhibits his talent for presenting horror in the mundane. It’s a demanding film, and one that never feels sorry for itself, or lapses into melancholy, utterly rejecting sentiment. Obviously it’s hardly a laugh riot, but nor is it entirely devoid of humour. But it’s such a cold, composed affair kept at such a clinical distance that there’s no way of penetrating its armour.

Many scenes outstay their welcome and the overwhelming desire grows just to see it end. What keeps it from being just too taxing for words is what gives the film its title - the 50 or 60 years of love that exist between these two that the ravages of illness and death can’t rend, and Georges’ commitment to Anne is quietly heartbreaking.

The acting is small, subtle, and beautiful, and every moment is crafted with precision and the utmost skill by Haneke. But it’s not really enough. As a piece of filmmaking, Amour is a towering achievement, but it’s near unwatchable cinema, and it’s difficult to fathom why anyone would want to put themselves through it in the name of entertainment.

The Master review

The Master (15/R, 143 mins)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Paul Thomas Anderson’s long awaited new film, his first since the monumental There Will Be Blood five years ago, is a drifting, enigmatic thing that is bound to please some audiences more than others.

On the surface it’s a film about a cult which some have likened to Scientology, which may well be the case. It’s not really important. The sceptics do get a voice, but it’s not an attack on it, put it that way. Disappointingly, it never fully succeeds as character study either.

Anderson’s skill at conveying character through action rather than words does drive the early stages though, as we encounter Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) just as the end of the Second World War brings his days in the navy to a close.

Something of an oddball, seemingly sex-obsessed and suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he drifts from job to job in the years following the war, never sure what to do with himself and subject to bouts of rage.

Freddie likes to make his own hooch, almost as much as he likes to drink it. On the run after being accused of poisoning someone with it, he stows away on a boat in San Francisco bound for New York.

It’s here that me meets Lancaster Dodd, played by Anderson’s frequent collaborator, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher”, any of which may or may not be the truth, but what most certainly is true is what a powerful and magnetic figure he is.

He leads a group called The Cause, and claims he can explore a person’s past lives through time-travel hypnosis, and that through this he can cure cancer and mental illness. Dodd sees the lost soul in Freddie and sets about trying to initiate him into their ways, but Freddie’s erratic behaviour consistently comes between them.

Deliberately paced, The Master lacks the clarity of intent that made There Will Be Blood so memorable. Like that film it has at its core a man of power and ambition and great will, albeit one who is most likely a brain-washing charlatan. It takes a while to show its hand, if it ever does, but the presence of its actors keeps you watching, and the technical expertise with which it’s all put together is beyond reproach.

But the content is the key, and it’s here that The Master both triumphs and frustrates. In a second half that’s largely unchecked by narrative conventions, it jumps between scenes that don’t necessarily relate or follow on to what’s come before. It’s never dull, but nor does it ever grab you by the throat and force you to engage with it.

This is all the more exasperating because, in Hoffman, we’re watching one of the finest actors on the planet command the screen. Phoenix is almost as magnetic in an astonishing physical performance, hunched and gaunt, his face perpetually contorted in a Brando sneer. Their initial scenes together electrify, as Dodd probes the weaker man into revealing the details of his past.

But it loses its way somewhat in a midsection that feels aimless and a final third that becomes increasingly obtuse and unaccommodating, and in the end The Master is an occasionally stunning but more often than not maddening experience.

Friday 26 October 2012

Blu-ray prizes to be won

Win A Royal Affair on Blu-ray

Ravishing period drama A Royal Affair is released on DVD & Blu-ray on October 29th, and we have three Blu-ray copies to give away thanks to Metrodome.

To be in with a chance of winning, simply send an email with your name and postal address to by Friday November 2nd.

Terms and Conditions

Only one entry will be accepted per person.
Entrants must be UK residents and aged 18 or over.
The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

Monday 22 October 2012

DVD Review

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Powell and Pressburger’s 1943 masterpiece arrives in a spanking restored version, ripe for rediscovery if you’re a fan, or demanding to be discovered if you’ve never seen it. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the comedic, romantic and epic story of General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) that kicks off at the height of WWII, before flashing back 40 years to his adventures as a young officer.

In Berlin in 1902 his involvement in a duel with a German officer, Theo (Anton Wolbrook), leads to the pair becoming lifelong friends, even though Theo marries the girl (Deborah Kerr) whom Candy realises too late he’s in love with.

Racing through the First World War and beyond, with Kerr playing three different women in the three timelines, it’s a beautifully observed character piece about a man who refuses to change with the times, who still believes in a war fought by gentlemen.

With its glorious Technicolor photography, ravishing production design and costumes, it’s quite stunning to look at, but that’s just gravy. The range of the wit and humour on offer is remarkable, in a film that can be droll, satirical, farcical and sometimes just plain silly. Colourful characters blustering about can give it the air of a farce, but while it can work as an indictment of colonial warmongering and military incompetence, this isn’t dwelt upon.

At its heart, it’s about the friendship between Candy and Theo. Initially it may seem like it’s setting up characters like Candy to be objects of ridicule, full of pomposity and elitism. In fact it becomes evident that Powell and Pressburger have nothing but admiration and empathy for him, and for decent Germans tainted by Nazism.

It’s sweeping yet intimate and for a near three-hour film, it moves at a fair old lick, anchored by a quite astonishing performance from Livesey, who brings remarkable range, passion and warmth to all the iterations of Candy. Spanning his 20s to his 60s, the combination of makeup and prosthetics used to age him has quite frankly never been bettered.

Colonel Blimp underwent a painstaking digital restoration recently, and the results are magnificent. Colours pop and detail is fine, and you’re not going to find a better example of a 70 year old film on DVD. Just imagine how good the Blu-ray must look.

A tasteful doc that looks like it probably dates from the mid 90s (judging by how slim Stephen Fry is) takes us through the production of the film in insightful detail, with contributions from Pressburger’s grandson Kevin Macdonald and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, as well as various well informed historians. There’s also a fine restoration piece hosted by Martin Scorsese that shows how the manky old print was cleaned up frame by frame, and text biographies of all the main players.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Skyfall review

Skyfall (12A/PG-13, 143 mins)
Director: Sam Mendes
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Bond 23, as it was once known, the first James Bond adventure for four years due to legal wrangles, finally arrives with the rather more evocative title of Skyfall, alongside what’s sure to be a collective sigh of relief from audiences that it was worth the wait.

Like its predecessor, Quantum of Solace, it begins with a rip-roaring chase, as Bond (Daniel Craig) and his colleague (Naomie Harris) pursue a suspect through Istanbul. He’s in possession of a file containing the names of MI6 moles, something that M (Judi Dench), controlling operations from London, is desperate not to lose. Unsuccessful in his mission, the pre-titles sequence ends with Bond being accidently shot and presumed dead.

Back in London, Ralph Fiennes is the government lackey who wants to fire M for the loss of the file. Meanwhile, having been off the grid for months, Bond returns when MI6 comes under attack from former agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), who is waging a personal vendetta against the agency, and M in particular.

From that opening sequence, one that reveals the ruthlessness of M (Judi Dench) while suggesting Bond has some humanity, it’s clear that this is a film with more on its mind than simple action. It’s the kicking off point for a drama that actually has its characters at its heart and isn’t just an excuse for exoticism and mayhem.

As we travel to China and back, it retains the glamour of a Bond film while sending up their inherent silliness, managing the extremely difficult task of being both knowing and deadly serious about its plot machinations, even while providing some huge laughs.

It’s the most introspective of Bonds, one that dares to consider the possibility that maybe everything about it is getting a little long in the tooth, from M to Bond to the spy game itself. But there’s also humour, with touches that nod to the 50 years of Bond without falling into the cartoonish self-parody that blighted Die Another Day on the occasion of Bond’s 40th.

It’s also a triumph for Craig, who in his third outing has truly made the role his own. He was allowed some room to breathe in Casino Royale but in Quantum of Solace, which looks more and more of a dud with every viewing, he was basically the Terminator, rampaging through action scenes with an unstoppable dourness. Here he’s human, real and flawed, and when he returns from his extended absence, he’s even lost much of his physical ability and lethal skills.

And far from being an indicator that the franchise is ready to be pensioned off, Skyfall actually feels like a breath of fresh air. This is a Bond movie for the ages, at once a culmination of what the Craig movies have been working towards, as well as a tribute, a reinvention and a continuation, and it works on every level imaginable. Adele’s title song is the best for many a long year, and there are a few surprises, the meaning of the film’s title simply being the start of them.

On top of that there are a couple of true masterstrokes. One aspect that’s going to get a lot of attention (and hopefully an Oscar) is the work of Roger Deakins, long-time director of photography for the Coen brothers, and more recently for the director here, Sam Mendes. Whether it’s the neon skyscrapers of Shanghai or a rainy London street, Skyfall is just gorgeous.

Then, in a dream piece of casting, there’s Bardem. In the role of a flamboyant villain once again, you might have expected something of a rerun of his Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, when what he actually serves up is so unexpected, so delicious, that you can’t takes your eyes off him from the moment he makes his sensational entrance.

Too many times recently we’ve heard characters in Bond movies talking up the bad guy, only for the reality to be a bit of a letdown. But Silva lives up to the billing, and though his scheme seems simple, he’s always a step ahead. In that respect he’s very much a successor to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, an agent of chaos rather than a supervillain who’s a physical match for Bond.

Fights are choreographed, not edited into existence, and thankfully any pretence to be being a Bourne film, with jittery hand-to-hand combat and all that free running guff, is jettisoned. Though it may not be on the scale of some previous adventures, the action sequences still have ambition and audacity while never losing sight of the characters.

It’s a complicated juggling act for Mendes, and he and everyone involved in Skyfall has risen to the challenge.

Friday 19 October 2012

Blu-ray Prizes to be Won

Win Werewolf: The Beast Among Us on Blu-ray

WEREWOLF - THE BEAST AMONG US is the latest incarnation of the monster movie, brought to you by Universal studios, the studio behind the legacy of werewolf movies from The Wolf Man, American Werewolf in London and most recently The Wolfman.

Full of gore and bloodthirsty attacks, this action-packed horror thriller takes Universal Studios’ historic monster legacy to an all-new level of chilling action and terrifying suspense!

Werewolf: The Beast Among Us is released on DVD and Blu-ray on October 22nd, from Universal.

To be in with a chance of winning a copy on Blu-ray, simply send an email with your name and postal address to by Friday October 26th.

Terms and Conditions

Only one entry will be accepted per person.
Entrants must be UK residents and aged 18 or over.
The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

Blu-ray Review

Werewolf: The Beast Among Us Blu-ray

Movie: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Featuring a hodgepodge of accents and idioms, and vague in its setup, Werewolf: The Beast Among Us takes a while to find its feet. Taking place in what appears to be a 19th century eastern European village, yet populated largely by Americans, it offers a curdled mythology of a beast that feeds for three nights around the time of the full moon. Having ripped apart a village, a hunter and his gang are hired to destroy it, shamelessly riffing on Jaws. Stephen Rea is ripe as the town doctor, whose young apprentice longs to join up with the hunters. Werewolf: Etc trades in care and coherence for fine looking sets, grim humour and no qualms about buckets of blood and gore, while also chucking in some passable plot developments. The makers have sourced some terrific locations that with just a bit more budget and richness to the cinematography could really have raised it another notch. Still, it’s a couple of rungs above the kind of similar guff you’ll regularly stumble across on the SyFy channel. It isn’t doused in unnecessary CGI, with many of the shots of the fairly decent looking beast done with animatronics, and although there is a fairly shoddy transformation sequence, as straight to home market Halloween fare goes, this is perfectly presentable stuff.

A/V: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Picture quality is as clear and detailed as you like, and backed up by a robust audio track that’s well distributed around the channels.

Extras: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
A couple of brief featurettes go behind the scenes and are largely EPK affairs, while there’s also a very quick look at Universal’s long tradition of monster movies. There are also some deleted scenes and a commentary from the director and producer.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 review

Paranormal Activity 4 (15/R, 87 mins)
Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Films like Paranormal Activity 4 are a true gift to moviegoers. Rarely do you get the opportunity to spend 90 minutes in a cinema entirely alone with your thoughts, with absolutely nothing on screen to distract you. It’s a great chance to make a start on that novel perhaps, or plan for your retirement. It’s only been three years since the first Paranormal Activity arrived as a breath of fresh air for horror fans, and became a surprise smash. With their tiny production costs and insatiable fanbase they can be churned out indefinitely, but three films down the line it’s clear the makers are all out of ideas. With the need to introduce ever more convoluted backstory into the timeline, this one kicks off in 2006 with the kidnap of a baby seen in one of the earlier movies. We then jump to 2011 and a new family, and predominantly the teenage daughter, as they start to experience strange goings on after they take in the weird young boy from across the street while his mother is in hospital. The now thoroughly redundant found footage conceit necessitates someone filming all aspects of the family’s daily life, and there’s simply no justification for some of the things shown here being filmed. It also begs the question, if this is all supposed to be home footage, why is it whenever something happens on screen it’s accompanied by a loud bang on the soundtrack? It’s all incredibly stupid and desperately tedious, with literally nothing happening for most of the running time, interspersed with nonsensical poltergeist interaction. Take along your tax forms to keep you entertained.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Taken 2 review

Taken 2 (12A/PG-13, 91 mins)
Director: Olivier Megaton
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Following the surprise success of Taken a few years back, this significantly less accomplished sequel opens with the funerals of the Albanian gangsters slaughtered by Liam Neeson’s ex-CIA agent Bryan in the first film, and their relatives swearing revenge. In Istanbul with his daughter and ex-wife, Bryan and his ex are taken, and their daughter must shake off her victim role to come to their aid. The family setup is clunky but necessary, but movies like this live and die on their action. Chases are fine, but punch-ups are frantic and shaky, given no room to breathe by a director who might have watched The Bourne Supremacy a few times, but which doesn’t qualify him to shoot an intelligible fight sequence. And, neutered to a 12A certificate, much of the satisfaction, and sometimes coherence, is taken out of the kills. Lacking the purity and single-mindedness of the original, Taken 2 just doesn’t move forward with the same sense of purpose, though it is still passable fun to watch Bryan employ his lethal skills.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Looper review

Looper (15/R, 118 mins)
Director: Rian Johnson
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Much like Duncan Jones, Rian Johnson has been a director to watch over the last few years. His debut Brick was an ice-cold neo-noir of startling confidence, which he followed with the enjoyably quirky The Brothers Bloom.

For his third film, the daring, inventive Looper, he’s chosen the path of smart, challenging sci-fi, and created something that skirts with greatness before coming up just short.

A Looper is a specialist assassin, working here in the year 2044, when time travel has not yet been invented, but 30 years down the line it will have been. It’s outlawed though, and so only used by criminal organisations who send people they want rid of back in time to be executed.

The target is sent back from the future, where the waiting Looper despatches them, swiftly and mercilessly. They're well paid, on the understanding that one day they’ll have to close the loop and kill their future self. But at least you’ll know you’ve 30 good years left and plenty cash to sweeten the deal.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper, working for crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels). When Joe’s future self is sent back in the shape of Bruce Willis, a moment’s hesitation allows him to escape, sending young Joe after old Joe, and Abe after both of them.

Meanwhile the Rainmaker, the villain of the future, is determined to wipe out all Loopers. The rest of the story is best discovered as you go, but there’s also the matter of Emily Blunt’s farmer and her young son that adds another layer of emotion and complication.

It’s not an action film, or not as much of one as the trailers might suggest. But that’s fine. This is a film of big ideas and profound questions, executed with verve and intelligence. It’s about people wanting to better their lives and about how far it’s permissible to go to achieve that, going deeper still with ruminations on memory and reality and love.

One smart idea follows another. Where something like In Time had the bones of a good concept but couldn’t follow through on it, this, like Source Code, is a film that puts emotional investment and character development ahead of spectacle. When the action does come, it’s bold and crisp, though for budgetary reasons nothing like as groundbreaking as The Matrix or Inception.

Like Minority Report, this is a world that’s futuristic without being too futuristic, and the design is pleasing without a big thing being made of it. Sure the buildings are taller and some vehicles fly, but people still live in ordinary houses and drive around in crummy cars.

Gordon-Levitt is immense. We’ve seen in the last few years that he can act, but here he also proves himself a movie star, with every bit of the charisma and presence of Willis. He’s even been made up to look like the younger version of Willis, all eyebrows, busted nose, and smirk.

Their scenes together crackle, especially the one in which they discuss their predicament, which neatly sidesteps the usual issues of paradoxes and self-fulfilling prophecies thrown up in time travel movies in a couple of killer lines. Similarly, the filling in of the details of how future Joe came to be in the situation he is gets presented as a montage that’s an exemplary piece of screenwriting.

There are a couple of issues holding it back from hitting an unstoppable home run however, particularly the familiarity of some of the plot points, while the pace does markedly slacken during the lengthy period spent on the farm.

It must be near impossible to make a time travel movie without in some way referencing the two great touchstones of the genre, Back to the Future and The Terminator, but it’s a shame that Looper has to so blatantly borrow a key element from Cameron.

Viewed more as homage than a steal though, Johnson can be given the benefit of the doubt on that one, because in every other regard he has created something really rather special.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Blu-ray Prizes to be won

This competition is now closed.

Terms and Conditions

Only one entry will be accepted per person.
Entrants must be UK residents and aged 18 or over.
The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

Jaws Blu-ray review

  Jaws Blu-ray 
 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

“You yell shark, and we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”

The one that started it all is back, as the original summer blockbuster that had the crowds queuing round the block in 1975 arrives on Blu-ray for the first time. With a 25-foot great white shark terrorising the shores around a New England island community, the chief of police (Roy Scheider), a scientist (Richard Dreyfuss) and an egotistical hunter (Robert Shaw) venture out to the open water to destroy it. Young upstart Steven Spielberg, with only his second theatrical feature, presided over a production beset by problems, from a spiralling budget to a malfunctioning mechanical shark, and crafted a lasting masterclass of pacing, tension and characterisation, propelled by John Williams’ legendary score. The result is as close to perfect as movies get.

The beautiful restored transfer is sharp and clear, cleaned up without being scrubbed of its filmic look, and rich in detail. It’s backed up by a robust 7.1 surround track that fully envelops, particularly when the music starts to build.

Produced by fans (which isn’t as worrying as it might sound), The Shark is Still Working is a splendid 100 minutes of everything Jaws related, from its production problems to the revolutionary marketing that contributed to its phenomenal success, while filmmaking fans like Bryan Singer and M. Night Shyamalan discuss the impact it had on them. The highlight might be the candid footage of Spielberg at the moment he learns he didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for best director.

The Making of Jaws is a thorough two-hour doc from a few years ago that focuses on anecdotes and stories surrounding the filming, and gets plenty of involvement from Spielberg.

Jaws: The Restoration details the huge amount of work that went into the making of the Blu-ray, and there are also a handful of deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.

Quite simply one of the most entertaining movies ever made, and looking fantastic on Blu-ray with hours of fascinating extras, this is one of the top releases of the year and a must-buy.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Dredd Review

Dredd (18, 95 mins)
Director: Pete Travis
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

As is often the case with futuristic thrillers, America is a wasteland, with 800 million people living in the walled off Mega-City One. Only the Judges, who are in fact judge, jury and executioner rolled into one neat package, keep any sense of order. The most feared of these would appear to be Dredd (Karl Urban, never unmasked), although any introduction or backstory is dispensed with, and we should just take it as read that he’s the baddest of the bad-asses. But they're losing control of the city, and on the same day Dredd takes on rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who happens to be psychic, a talent that comes in handy during their day, they find themselves trapped in a 200-floor tower block controlled by vicious gang leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). With the building locked down and Ma-Ma telling the residents she wants the Judges dead, the film takes on the mantle of The Raid from a few months ago, as Dredd and Anderson make their way up through the levels, eviscerating goons at every turn. Amid the slaughter, it’s smart enough to pause for a moment to consider the moralities and consequences of a system that endorses this savage avenger, this Dirty Harry in a Robocop mask, before barrelling ahead anyway with the massacre. As an action blast it ticks most boxes; justice is swift, merciless and bloody, and the impact of this is often troublingly satisfying. It looks absolutely glorious, and Ma-Ma has unleashed a new drug called Slo-mo, the effects of which give rise to a few visually stunning, super stylised slow motion sequences, as blood and bits fly everywhere. But it’s single-minded to a degree that can occasionally become repetitive and tedious, and though there’s enough style and zip to banish memories of the widely derided Stallone version from 1995, it’s just a shame The Raid has already set the bar so high for this sort of thing.

Saturday 1 September 2012

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Sunday 19 August 2012

The Imposter review

The Imposter (15, 98 mins)
Director: Bart Layton
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

British filmmaker Bart Layton has managed to out-Herzog Herzog with this striking documentary account of the case of a missing boy, a vulnerable family and a brazen fraudster.

In 1994, 13 year old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his Texas home town. Three years later in Spain, tourists came across a boy who seemingly had no identity but who, as we learn very early on, was actually a 23 year old Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin.

Through resourcefulness, acting ability and a mountain of lies, Bourdin somehow convinced first the authorities, including child protection agencies and the FBI, and then the family that he was in fact Nicholas.

He returned to Texas to live with them, and through newly filmed interviews with Bourdin and Nicholas’ family, who even now speak in the context that what transpired was real, the story develops into a heartbreaking insight into what loss and grief can do to people looking for answers.

What’s most significant is their utter willingness to accept the boy as Nicholas, even though physically he’s completely different and speaks with a French accent. Whether this is delusion or something else, something more sinister, is only one of many questions raised.

Bourdin all the while remains a slippery yet fascinating character at the centre of it, a fantasist, possibly a sociopath, who is up front about what he’s done and well aware of it. He’s a complex guy, who back in 1997 played the role and played the odds by doing things like talking as little as possible so as not to be found out. The fact that he’s still able to elicit mixed feelings, and even occasional empathy in the viewer, is a testament to how good an actor he is.

But it’s the skill and good taste with which The Imposter is structured and assembled that really marks it as the remarkable and gripping tale it is, its mystery and cinematic elements giving it a freshness and thrust not found in many docs.

In truth there does come a point, perhaps around the halfway mark, that it seems as though the story has played out, and familiarity and repetition threatens to set in. But then just when you think it has exhausted its potential, it takes a turn into a whole new territory, introducing a private investigator and all manner of developments that cast fresh light on everyone involved.

Aided by atmospheric dramatic reconstructions, it evolves into a mesmerising thriller, increasing the pace and the intrigue as suspicions are raised about certain things. And where it’s all going to go is a question even this terrific film can’t answer.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

The Expendables 2 review

The Expendables 2 (15/R, 102 mins)
Director: Simon West
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The proposed joy of mindless action-fest The Expendables from a couple of years ago was its bringing together of a marquee list of action legends old and new, from Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lungdren, to Jet Li and Jason Statham.

And yet it didn’t quite deliver on that promise, since it was never quite as silly as it needed to be and, since pretty much all of them made it to the end, they weren’t even that expendable.

Everyone is back (although some barely), plus a couple of new faces for this second go around, which begins with a rescue. The identity of who they're rescuing is cute, one of a lot of nice winking touches that make this a bit of silly fun for an audience in the mood rather than one looking for great cinema. This involves wholesale massacre of an entire encampment of goons, and sets the scene for an astronomical body count to come.

Their mission proper comes when the shady Church (Bruce Willis), who reckons Stallone owes him for a previous transgression, gives him a job to pay the debt which involves retrieving the contents of a safe.

But the contents are stolen by Jean-Claude Van Damme, who’s actually fairly decent value as a bad guy, leaving the Expendable team to slaughter their way through Albania, in what appears to be WWII judging by the sets and costumes, to find their way to Van Damme.

It all makes for a shameless 80s throwback where the object of the exercise is to blow things up often enough and loudly enough that no one notices the otherwise crippling flaws and gaping plot holes.

It’s spectacularly bloody, and delivers exactly what you might expect, no more, no less, and on those terms it almost succeeds, though it’s put together with no great precision or imagination. For all its ensemble appearance, it’s still largely the Stallone and Statham show. Li disappears completely after the opening salvo, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Willis don’t exactly figure highly, though there is much more of them than there was first time around.

Banter-wise, it’s a dead zone, which might not matter so much if there wasn’t so dang much of it. But it’s so ridiculously cheesy that still there are lines or the appearance of an iconic face to make you smile, even if more often than not you’re laughing at it and not with it.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy review

The Bourne Legacy (12A/PG-13, 135 mins)
Director: Tony Gilroy
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Reboot fever strikes once again, extending a franchise its owners obviously think has plenty life left in it, even if its star has other ideas.

Matt Damon’s departure from the spy series could have signalled its end, but in a rare move for a reboot, not only is its star replaced, but the main character.

Signs going in are encouraging enough, with a new star in Jeremy Renner who has shown twice in the past few months that he’s perfectly at home in an ongoing action franchise. And as we saw in The Bourne Identity, when it came to super-assassins, there was never just one, so the series has been primed from the start for spinoffs and continuations, even if unintentionally.

The Bourne Legacy begins as Identity did, and as Ultimatum ended, with a body floating in the water. But this is no corpse, it’s Renner’s Aaron Cross, on a training mission in Alaska fuelled by pills and injections.

Wisely it’s not a slave to formula, and Cross is not just another amnesiac. So we’re introduced to Rachel Weisz’s scientist as a way in to a government-backed conspiracy run by Ed Norton that’s been producing pharmaceutically enhanced soldiers, of which Cross is one.

The spectre of Jason Bourne still looms large over this, with the story actually taking place concurrently with The Bourne Ultimatum, for reasons that at first look like they might be quite interesting, but which turn out to be fairly spurious.

Norton has been looking into the CIA programmes that spawned Jason Bourne, Treadstone and Black Briar, which it would seem are only a small part of parallel programmes at risk if the Bourne situation explodes, leading Norton to shut it down, but not reckoning on Cross surviving.

Director Tony Gilroy comes on board to replace Paul Greengrass, who many credited for much of what was good about Supremacy and Ultimatum. Yet Gilroy has form, as writer of the original trilogy, and as director of Michael Clayton. And looking at the results here, Clayton is the film it resembles more than most, a talky yet largely compelling affair that forgoes action for intrigue, with a lot of science thrown around without pause for breath or explanation.

Every effort is made, sometimes too much effort, to shoehorn this into the Bourne universe, and it would certainly help to have some familiarity with the previous movies to have any hope of keeping up with a labyrinthine plot.

So it’s sure not dumb, its crisp, high-level dialogue driving several lengthy dramatic scenes. And yet the first proper action is a long time coming, with plenty downtime until the next sequence making this, whisper it, occasionally a trifle dull.

The bursts of hand to hand combat are as rapid and brutal as ever, but they're thin on the ground. Renner’s Cross is composed and wry, much more talkative than Bourne ever was, and when he’s able to use his skills and training to get out of impossible situations, the film certainly comes alive.

But the main vehicle action sequence, a frenzied motorbike chase through the streets of Manila, is more chaotic than precise; more edited together than envisioned with the skill of Greengrass, and with a disappointing recourse to CGI.

So if you're expecting more of the same, you’re not going to get it, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even if it often tries hard not to be, The Bourne Legacy is very much its own beast, a conspiracy drama that’s fine on those terms, but which suffers in comparison with its forebears.

Monday 6 August 2012

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Sunday 29 July 2012

Searching for Sugar Man review

Searching for Sugar Man (12A/PG-13, 86 mins)
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

This glorious music documentary begins in South Africa, where a record store owner called Sugar tells us about an album that was released there 40 years earlier by a little known American singer called Rodriguez.

We hear how he committed suicide by setting himself on fire on stage, so we head back to the late 60s and Rodriguez’s home city of Detroit to try to learn something of his story, of beautifully recreated smoky clubs, where he would sit with his back to the audience, his mystique and enigma building with each passing moment.

Rodriguez’s original recordings are used sparingly and often fittingly for what we’re seeing on screen, as the grimy streets of Detroit glide by. Though sometimes dangerously close to Dylan parody, the songs are mostly tuneful slices of troubadour folk and occasional pop, not a million miles from Cat Stevens.

As we hear from the producer who made his first album and others who worked with him, what comes through is the regret and astonishment that his music failed to find an audience. Yet people went wild for Rodriguez in South Africa, so we return there to pick up the story.

Amazingly, and completely unknown to anyone in the States, he had become a rebel icon, a figurehead for South African musicians singing out against apartheid in any way they could, which led to his songs being banned by the authorities.

But even with such a huge fan following, no one knew the first thing about Rodriguez, which adds an extra layer of intrigue. Even the suicide story is disputed, with some saying he shot himself on stage, others that he died of an overdose.

But with half a million record sales in South Africa, where did the money go? A former boss of Motown provides a tremendously prickly response to that question, as a South African “music detective” digs deeper and deeper into the mystery.

It would be unfair to reveal any more of where the story of Rodriguez goes from here, because this is a documentary that’s able to provide astonishing twists in the tale that would grace any thriller, as it builds up a portrait of a remarkable man.

Director Malik Bendjelloul has a great storyteller’s knack for getting information across at the perfect time for maximum impact, which means there are several moments when Searching for Sugar Man soars, achieving emotional peaks and troughs that are rare in documentary filmmaking or indeed any film. The result is a joyous triumph that’s instantly one of the year’s best docs.

Ted review

Ted (15/R, 106 mins)
Director: Seth MacFarlane
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, makes his feature writing and directing debut with this high-concept fantasy comedy that shares several cast members and jokes with his monumentally bad-taste TV animation. MacFarlane also voices the eponymous Ted, a teddy that comes to life after young John gets it as a Christmas present in the 80s. Now a grown man, John (Mark Wahlberg) still lives with Ted, and he’s been seeing Lori (Mila Kunis) for four years. But she worries Ted is preventing John from making a commitment with her, and that perhaps it’s time he moved out. Though the structure is essentially that of a rom-com, it’s the same premise and the same joke as Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s Paul from a couple of years ago, with a swearing, pot-smoking teddy bear replacing a swearing, pot-smoking alien. And like that film, it’s a moderately amusing one that doesn’t really know how to exploit the laughs beyond its central conceit. Like Paul, it relies largely on crudity and the sheer incongruence of its title character and, like Paul, there are fewer laughs than you might reasonably expect. It’s a case of throwing everything at the screen joke-wise in the hope that something sticks, with an OK number of guffaws among the ill-disciplined shenanigans. But it’s enlivened by some terrific cameos and is still a reasonably enjoyable movie experience, especially if you’re on the humour’s wavelength.

Brave review

Brave (PG, 100 mins)
Director: Mark Andrews
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Pixar’s 13th feature, a magical Scotland-set adventure that represents their first fairytale, is a triumphant return to form for the animation studio following the uncharacteristically poor Cars 2.

Though it’s the first Pixar film with a female lead, Brave develops along the lines that many a Disney princess fable does, where an independently minded character who yearns for something more in their life gets more than they bargained for in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for sort of way.

That lead is Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a flame-haired princess who is a bit fed up with the expectations placed upon her by her parents; the king (Billy Connolly), who years before lost his leg to a savage bear that still supposedly roams the land, and queen (Emma Thompson), who wants Merida to comport herself in a more princess-ly way.

She’d much rather be a warrior but instead finds herself betrothed, with a clan gathering organised to find her a suitable husband, the clan chiefs presenting their buffoons of sons to win Merida’s hand, much to her annoyance.

Distancing herself from the goings-on, Merida stumbles across a witch from whom she gets a potion designed to change her fate. This leads to a major plot point around the halfway mark that is better left unspoiled, but let’s just say that fates are indeed changed.

What follows is a film about communication between parents and children, and listening to each other’s point of view, even as it deepens into a stirring mythology. Visually it’s an indisputable masterpiece, with every facial nuance and blade of grass and patch of heather alive with the shimmer that $200m worth of computer animation provides. A glorious Patrick Doyle score and a couple of splendid songs are just gravy.

The decision to use predominantly Scottish actors for the voices is an endlessly sensible one, and we can only imagine the kind of horrors the original choice for Merida, Reece Witherspoon, may have inflicted on our ears. Luckily we don’t have to, since the perfectly cast Macdonald combines spirit and warmth to create one of Pixar’s most memorable human characters.

Connolly is a delight, as are the trio of clan chiefs, voiced by Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson and the especially good Kevin McKidd, who also gets to add his Doric tones to his chieftan’s near unintelligible son. Even the non-Scots like Thompson and Julie Walters as the witch with a big part to play in the plot get it just right.

In particular, it’s the sense of Scottish-ness that Pixar absolutely nails, from the visual majesty to the smallest vocal intonations. You couldn’t call it realistic exactly, since it’s a medieval fantasy, but still it’s one of the most authentic Hollywood portrayals of Scotland you’re likely to see, deftly sidestepping the pitfalls of going all Brigadoon on us.

If a criticism is to be levelled, it’s that perhaps it’s a bit thin and one-note when it comes to the plot, that perhaps it resolves a bit easily, neglecting the depth of theme and character that graces the very best of Pixar.

But the flipside of that is that it chugs along at a lick, with little to no flab and a single mindedness of purpose that suitably reflects Merida’s character, with Pixar once again showing that when it comes to animation, even though they're not perfect, they're still the best in the business.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days review

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (PG, 94 mins)
Director: David Bowers
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

For the third summer running, the likeable family comedies based on the book series by Jeff Kinney get a cinematic outing. It’s the summer holidays for teenager Greg (Zachary Gordon), who’s looking forward to three months of playing video games. His dad (Steve Zahn) has more outdoorsy ideas for him though, and has also had his head turned by a fancy prep school that Greg thinks he might be sent to if he doesn’t buck up his ideas. Greg’s misadventures are good natured but starting to wear a little thin, with their episodic structure and gags that are sometimes left dangling. But there’s plenty zany slapstick that offers comparable chuckles to many grown up comedies and an ongoing streak of decency and integrity that lifts the series above a lot of kid-oriented fare. And at least there’s much more Zahn than there’s been in the past, which is always a good thing.

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Friday 27 July 2012

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Thursday 19 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises review

The Dark Knight Rises (12A, 164 mins)
Director: Christopher Nolan
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Having revitalised the Batman brand with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan has ensured The Dark Knight Rises arrives as the year’s most anticipated movie, and the pressure is on him to complete the trilogy in style.

Since taking the fall for the murders committed by Harvey Dent, Batman has been gone for eight years. In fact his presence hasn’t been required, since the work supposedly done by Dent has rid the streets of all the worst criminals. That’s until a metal-masked maniac named Bane (Tom Hardy) shows up, a hulking mercenary with a plan to unleash hell on Gotham.

With his cape tucked away, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a reclusive figure, broken in body and mind, and still mourning the death of Rachel. But the threat posed by Bane forces him to don the Batsuit once more and rise to the challenge.

Returning from previous instalments to aid Batman are Michael Caine as butler Alfred, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman as gadget provider Lucius Fox. As well as Hardy, new additions Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt provide a fresh spark. As, respectively, a duplicitous cat burglar, a philanthropist with an interest in Wayne’s business, and a rookie cop who knows a thing or two, they’re all integral to the story.

With such a vast cast and sprawling narrative, keeping tabs on everyone becomes a challenge for both Nolan and the audience. Actions and motivations can be murky and confusing, and characters often seem able to pop up whenever they're required, Gordon-Levitt especially seeming to be everywhere at once.

And though it may seem sacrilegious to suggest it, Nolan just doesn’t have an iron grasp on the material 100% of the time. The plot often hangs on the shoogliest of pegs, and any sustained scrutiny would see the whole thing fall apart. He’s also perhaps guilty of overreaching in a script that wants to target capitalism and the justice system yet leaves many details dangling and doesn’t quite seem up to providing the moral depth of its predecessor.

So it’s flawed then, more flawed than you might have reasonably have hoped. The problem is, after The Dark Knight, we demand perfection. Anything less than that is a letdown. And yet more often than not The Dark Knight Rises succeeds in the most breathtaking ways, especially if you see it in IMAX.

For carrying on plotlines and themes begun in Begins, it’s part of that rare thing, a fully-rounded trilogy. And while it offers fewer of the electrifying jolts that were part and parcel of The Dark Knight, the compensation is that it exists on a level of scale and ambition that demands our attention and respect.

Massive set pieces are brought off with seamless technical precision, and the action pounds to the bone. But first and foremost it’s about the characters, and the stunning line-up of actors, and the sincerity they each bring to their parts, is to be applauded. Bale reaches deep to show us the human side of Batman, and while the relationship between Bruce and Alfred takes a bit of a bruising, it’s still the beating heart of all three films.

Hathaway gets to show many faces, from demure to slinky to ferocious, and she comes close to stealing the show at times. Bane is a truly dangerous villain, one who has the measure of Batman physically, and their confrontations are monumental in their ferocity.

It’s in the final reckoning that the film really earns its stripes. There are twists galore, most of them stunning, and a crescendo of action, character and emotion that has been worth the wait.

So as a summer blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises is really solid. As a Nolan Batman film it’s perhaps a slight disappointment. But as the third part of a game-changing series of comic book crime epics, it’s a hugely satisfying capper to a tremendous trilogy.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

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