Saturday, 13 June 2015

Danny Collins - Review

James Burgess 

Danny Collins, 15, 106 mins (Big-Indie Pictures) - Released: 29th May 2015.

There aren’t many comedy- rama films any more. Usurped by the genres of either romantic, or more populist trend of ‘gross- out’ comedy (as Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, James Franco, and Seth Rogen et al will testify), the lost sub-genre of the understated, quietly touching drama-comedy has become lost by its rather niche wayside.

Similarly, the titular protagonist played expertly by Al Pacino here - is also the product of a somewhat bygone era. Very much a fading, edgier version of a Rod Stewart figure.

Down on his luck, long estranged from his family, he’s become jaded with the excess of celebrity. At The Hilton he meets Mary (Annette Bening) who has charms and flaws of her own. She convinces Danny to regain his life and reconnect with his family...

After somewhat of a fallow stream of middlingly successful, more independent fare (Stand Up-Guys), Pacino’s performance here is almost revelatory. Subtle, witty, quick-fire and extremely funny, when next January’s awards-season begins, he’s already being touted as a possible front-runner.

As should Bening; natural, sweet, charming and a greatly charismatic foil for Pacino, the two share a very easy connection on-screen, thanks to a glittering screenplay: ‘While you check me in, I’ll check you out!’.

Writer Dan Fogelman gave Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone similar ‘patter’ in Crazy, Stupid Love. His directorial debut is so self-assured, confident and natural, rather similar to the tone the film itself often strikes.

There’s exceptional support from Bobby Cannavale as Pacino’s son harbouring a secret, and veteran octogenarian Christopher Plummer who’s every bit the charmer now as Captain Von-Trapp was half a century before! It’s his wiry curmudgeon of a manager that provides Danny with a long-lost letter from a certain John Lennon. This is made all the more compelling as it’s inspired by truth; the life of British folk-singer Steve Tilson.

All these elements might just mean that by the unique alchemy of charm, terrific performances, growing word-of-mouth and a hint of adapted-biopic, its the sleeper-hit of the summer, and prove to be the rarest of double-whammy’s: a hit both critically and commercially. Its closest cinematic cousins (although not always in those respects) are possibly 2005’s Shall We Dance with Richard Gere (also starring Cannavale), or Curtis Hanson’s film of the same year: In Her Shoes with Cameron Diaz and Toni Colette. Human-driven stories, that refreshingly put heart, love and more than a little ‘soul’ in place of visual-effects. Terrific.

Rating: * * * * 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Saving Mr. Banks

Christmas 2013


Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson and Jason Swartzman.

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 125 mins.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Saturday, 7th December, 2013.

In 1964, an incredible fifty years ago, Julie Andrews became an overnight sensation, winning an Oscar for her portrayal of the flying, singing, magical nanny Mary Poppins – who was of course: ‘Practically perfect in every way’. 

But, not a lot is known about the lady who created her – P.L. Travers, and her twenty-year-long persuasion to agree to hand over the rights to Mr. Walt Disney himself, to turn her literary invention into that timeless Technicolor classic. Family crowd-pleasers such as Poppins belong to that most particular ilk in cinema history. Along with: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, The Sound Of Music, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, Snow White and Bedknobs and Broomsticks – they only grow richer on repeated viewings, and are a customary fixture inside the pages of Christmas TV-listings magazines year after year.

This film, is both a fantastically entertaining and fascinating behind-the-scenes account of a long-standing battle-of-wits, between an initially austere, solitary and deeply fractured author, and the incomparable king of family movies who built the ultimate place where dreams came true – and was not accustomed to hearing the word no.

Mrs. Travers has obtained offers from Mr. Disney about his wishes to turn her creation into his next feature – and she has repeatedly turned him down – before finally giving in reluctantly, owing to a lack of money. She’s not impressed with the bustling, sun-drenched, palm-tree-strewn streets of Los Angeles upon arrival, and is even less impressed when she sees Mr. Disney’s elaborately joyful plans for her beloved Mary, ‘Poppins – never ever just Mary’ – she insists, to the eager studio-executives.

Emma Thompson gives an absolutely exceptional, pitch-perfect performance here. She’s fully deserving of all the awards attention, having been nominated for both a Golden-Globe, and a BAFTA. She is, like her character’s invention, perfect - as the brittle, edgy, acid-tongued Travers. Her timing at delivering sarcastic barbs is unparalleled. When noticing that one of the Sherman brothers (the duo behind those unmistakable tunes) has a limp and learns that he was shot, she simply retorts: ‘Hardly surprising’. She states her reasons for reluctance to hand over Mary: ‘I know what he’s going to do to her – she’ll be cavorting – and twinkly’. She’s set against making everything rose-tinted and lovely: ‘What is all this Jollification?’ When she’s first shown into her hotel suite, greeted by an assortment of Mickey-Mouse shaped balloons and Winnie The Pooh cuddly toys, she mutters: ‘Poor A. A. Milne’ and gets rid of all of them. She’s also suddenly horrified at seeing pears in the fruit bowl, and throws them out of the window into the swimming pool, because they are connected to a tragic memory from her childhood…

Some of the best scenes in the film take place in the rehearsal room, where ideas are being discussed. With the Sherman brother’s halfway through writing Chim-Chim-Cheree, Travers suddenly stops proceedings: ‘No no, ‘responstable’ is not a word!’ ‘We made it up’ they reply. ‘Well…unmake it up’. The copy of the score for a certain song entitled: ‘Supercalifragalisticexpialidocious’ is quickly covered up! When considering possible choices for who to cast to play Bert in Mary Poppins, the brothers agree that Dick Van Dyke is one of the greats. ‘Dick Van Dyke?’ she asks incredulously. ‘Olivier is one of the greats’. The dialogue, by first time screenwriter Kelly Marcel, is full of these comic gems.

Score, is also an absolutely outstanding element of this film. The great composer Thomas Newman (American Beauty, The Iron Lady, Skyfall, Revolutionary Road, Finding Nemo) knows that as an audience, we’ll be expecting to hear an homage to Mary Poppins’s classic score. His brilliant method, is to seamlessly intertwine subtle reference to them immediately and throughout, whilst also creating his own trademark simple, melodic, uplifting score on top. The film opens with floating clouds, and those unmistakably magical first piano bars of ‘Chim-Chim-Cheree’ , with Colin Farrell narrating its lyrics: ‘Winds in the East, Mists Coming In, Like Something Is Brewing, About To Begin. Can’t Put My Finger, On What Lies In Store, But I Feel What’s To Happen, All Happened…Before…’.

From here, structurally, the film cross-cuts between the 1960’s present, and Travers’s childhood. We learn that her family were forced to travel a lot. Her mother, played by Ruth Wilson, was rather pre-occupied with the running of the household. She was incredibly close to her father, Travers Goff, a banker, who loved his daughter enormously, and was the one who encouraged her creativity and more fantastical flights of imagination. Tragically though, he was also an alcoholic, but wanted desperately to be there for his family. In one heartbreaking scene, he gives a speech, drunk on a podium, and collapses…

Colin Farrell’s a brilliant actor, and gives a wonderful performance here, making him an utterly sympathetic character. I think it’s one of his very best performances. We all empathize with his desperation for redemption – and now understand why P.L. Travers is the way she is.

Also on top form is Tom Hanks. He injects Walt Disney with just the correct mixture of ‘loveable grandfather of genius invention’, but also the fact that Disney was a lucrative business conglomerate. Walt Disney Pictures the studio, is accurately portrayed very much as his own personal dream factory. When Disney took on Mary Poppins, he assured Travers that her two stipulations: there was to be no singing, and absolutely no cartoons. Of course, both of those elements were integral to the finished film – which shows just how determined Disney was. She’s most annoyed – especially with the dancing penguins! But he also shows extremely well, the depth of what this project meant to him: ‘I won’t disappoint you. I swear every time somebody walks out of a movie-house – they will rejoice’. He learns as much as Travers does, why she is so protective of her property. ‘So, it’s not the children she comes to save. It’s their father. It’s your father. Don’t you want to finish the story…?’.

Artistically, this film looks absolutely beautiful – there’s a glowing warmth, a rich glossiness to its cinematography – which only makes it all the more magical. I have huge fondness, admiration and excitement for films whose subject matter is about the making of films. In 2004, Quantum Of Solace director Marc Forster lifted up the gossamer veneer of fantasy filmmaking on Neverland, to similar wide-eyed wonder and glowing sense of sentiment in the J.M. Barrie/Peter Pan family drama: Finding Neverland. Earlier this year, Anthony Hopkins donned the latex to show, together with Helen Mirren, how the seminal shocker Psycho made it to the big screen, in Hitchcock. All of these films and many more share the same ‘Hollywood back-lot behind the scenes’ quality I’ve always found fascinating. 

This never feels on the wrong side of being too overly sentimentalized. Travers struggles at learning to let go of something so dear to her and her father’s heart, is one of the most moving pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. As with another magical nanny of hers, Nanny McPhee, she manages to construct mainstream, very funny, deeply emotional family crowd-pleasers incredibly well. Make sure you stay for the credits for extra insight.

This is certainly in my Top 5 films of the year. As funny and magical as it is moving, with perfectly judged performances, a fascinating look at the story of two unique figures, and the even more unique characters that inspired them – and all without too many spoonfuls of sugar.

Rating: * * * * *

Monday, 9 June 2014

Total Recall

Total Recall

Action/ Sci-Fi/ Remake

Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston & Bill Nighy.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Sunday, 9th September, 2012. 

Paul Verhoeven’s original Total Recall burst onto the cinematic scene in 1990, in typically overblown, unsubtle but ultimately deeply inventive style – (he would later direct Sharon Stone again as the quintessential femme fatale in 1992’s Basic Instinct).

Now, director Len Weisman takes over for a remake twenty-two years later, where those striking, even arguably ground-breaking practical effects have, in the majority, been traded, in favour of glossy, deeply stylistic and immersive CGI.

It’s another example of Hollywood’s current trend of remaking beloved hits and updating them for a twenty-first century audience, very much in a similar mould to Dredd, Robocop, Blade Runner and Starship Troopers.

Colin Farrell (one of the most prolific and underrated leading men), brings his customary intensity to Quaid, an ordinary citizen of a dystopian, clinical totalitarianism. He of course, steps into the shoes of Arnold Schwarnegger, who was rather wooden and stilted in the original. Farrell is infinitely better. Farrell proves yet again to be absolutely perfect in this role as an emotionally conflicted every-man. Quaid is plodding along as an unfulfilled factory worker, who stumbles across ‘Rekall’ a shady, memory experiment where all your dreams and fantasies come true...

So begins a fugitive-esque race against time as the lines between reality and fabrication become increasingly blurred. For there, the loud, machine-gun-toting set-pieces keep coming, as do references taken - liberally but fondly - from every blockbuster from Rollerball to I, Robot and Inception to Minority Report. A brilliantly threatening sense of perilous atmosphere is conjured up, both throughout and immediately, with the opening shots beginning directly in the middle of an action sequence. It has far more high-concept gravitas than the original.

Once again, there are clever touches in the production design, such as slide-able fridge photographs. There are also clever nods to some of the predecessors' most memorable and quotable surprising moments, such as the shape-shifting ‘Two Weeks!’ woman at customs, and the infamous three-boobed lady. It’s daring, clever and playful in its exploration of the multitude of identity. Notches start turning up when Quaid’s double-dealing wife Lori (played by Sharon Stone in the original, and the director’s wife Kate Beckinsale this time) transforms from conservative, well-meaning American, to British-accented killing machine.

Beckinsale is clearly having great fun playing the icy villainess, and she totally steals the limelight from Jessica Biel, who plays Quaid’s girlfriend quite seriously.

Tonally, it’s played almost deadly straight - (bar the occasional quip from Beckinsale) - it lacks the wit and trademark Schwarnegger one-liners of the original. But what this version misses out on in comedy, it more than makes up for in action, and truly spectacular GCI visuals.

The futuristic environments are stunningly crafted and realised - ultra-modern skyscrapers and cityscapes are made even more tactile in 3D - never more so than in an exhilarating flying car-chase sequence. They zoom up free-ways, dodge slow-motion bullets and crash and speed past your head.

Harry Gregson-Williams’s score is very inventive, mixing the orchestral with the synthesised and electronic, which blends perfectly with the aesthetic of a technologically-driven world.

Some of the supporting roles are rather underwritten: Bill Nighy’s character could have been more significant, and considering Bryan Cranston is playing the lead villain, oddly, he’s not introduced properly until the final third.

But otherwise, this is a deeply immersive, state-of-the-art blockbuster with a real action-man-defining performance from Farrell - which achieves a rarity: being the surprise of the summer, and actually surpassing the original.

Rating: * * * *

Friday, 2 August 2013

Oz The Great And Powerful

PG / 130 mins. approx.

Seen Twice At Didsbury Cinemas On: Saturday, 16th March, and Thursday, 4th April, 2013.

In 1939, L. Frank Baum’s classic tales of wicked witches and flying monkeys were immortalized in glorious Technicolor, and the memory of an innocent, apple-cheeked Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow – an iconic cinematic image for multiple generations – was born.
   Now, almost 75 years on, a new generation of children are treated to a version which both encapsulates and capitalizes upon the current trend  in the mainstream 21st Century cinematic experience: obtaining exactly the correct balance of 3D – used as a tool to surprise and occasionally, mildly shock.
  Although purists may raise more than a few eyebrows, it’s important to judge this entirely on its own, but also to acknowledge those numerous references hidden away for an homage to posterity.
  Who else could make this work better than Disney, who couldn’t have been cleverer in their choice of director, a man who’s more than accustomed at bringing culturally iconic figures to particularly vibrant life – Sam Raimi.
    Of course, he was tasked with rebooting the first trilogy of Spider-Man movies – beginning back in 2002 – with resoundingly joyous success. Those films, as with Oz - have two magic potions in common.
   Stylistically, they’re operated on a complete dream-time-level canvas thanks to the first of these - Raimi. Just as his contemporaries such as Tim Burton especially, and also Christopher Nolan, did as well.
   Of course, this doesn’t examine those vastly paradoxical complexities that Inception does – but what is does share, is a similar sense of unlimited grandeur.
   There’s a sense with this very specific set of directors, that even when adapting source material, their inventiveness can propel their films anywhere. Nolan made his Batman trilogy a brooding, seminal paradigm for our time, delving into territory other filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch.
  Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, (although far sunnier tonally), embodied a similar sense of inventive audacity, using not just entirely believable computer-generated imagery, but a far more old-fashioned sense of grounding the narrative in an almost kinesthetic believability for the audience. Spider-Man and the teenager under his mask were just as important as the spectacle around him.
  What impressive spectacle it was though – the action-set pieces used cinematographic technique that fizzed with colour, and explored camera angles that panoramically encircled villain, hero and victim simultaneously – often without the usual rapid cutting between shots. It was the nearest equivalent at that point to the quintessential blockbuster comic-book movie – with the comic-book climbing to web-slinging life before our eyes.
  The second, and equally crucial, is the casting of James Franco. Propelled into stardom by that same Spider-Man trilogy, is was his character - that of the villain’s son, Harry Osbourne – that was far more interesting to me – not Tobey Maguire’s somewhat pedestrian take on the iconic red-and-blue-suited hero.  Franco’s Harry was the far more ambiguously complex of the two: soulful, conflicted, and, the series progressed, driven by vengefulness…
   Franco’s immense charisma was obviously something Raimi noted, and here he returns, perfectly cast in the title role, but formally as Oscar Diggs, a failed and fraudulent travelling magician, conning and frequently charming his way - out of trouble.
Commencing as the original did, in narrow-ratio black-and-white, with a terrific paper-cut-out, kaleidoscope title-sequence (in eye-popping 3D), an  early moment sees a girl in wheelchair ask Oscar to make her walk. ‘Not now kid’ is his dismissive reply. Even earlier, after a completely fictitious tale of how a relation of his died in battle, when asked which one, his get-out clause is: ‘There are so many’.
  Franco is always an actor with such a twinkle in his eye, never more-so than in this film, which is why we forgive Oscar these lines instantly – they were funny.
It is his performance alone - redeeming Oscar Diggs from resourceful trickster to genuine hero - which solidifies both the comic, and emotive centre of the film. His physicality, vulnerability, but above all his sheer range of facial expressions that are so accomplished. Like Johnny Depp and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Franco shares their effortless charm, flair for soulful, subtle nuance, coupled with a mischievous, impish smile. These brilliant character actors always portray the balance of emotion through the truthfulness in their eyes. Whoever their character, you’re always on their side.
  Franco shares another shares other similarities with the two actors. An eclectic choice of project: whether in mainstream blockbusters like Oz, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes or Raimi’s 2002-2007 Spider-Man trilogy - or much smaller independent gems - such as Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, the recent Spring Breakers and clever self-parody This Is The End or 2010’s exceptional biopic Howl – each genre is given equal weight.
   He’s also turning to directing films himself. This probably won’t be an Academy Award-nominated performance, but like all the aforementioned actor’s work, it’s extremely heartfelt, and should be an Academy Award-winning one.
   Caught up in a tornado-storm in a hot-air balloon, (cue more spectacular use of 3D, as ropes snap, dust settles, and his top-hat nearly swirls onto our heads), Oscar soon finds himself in Oz. The rotoscope then slowly opens out into widescreen, the black-and-white traded for vibrant Technicolor. This is where the artistry is really allowed to flourish – literally.
  Speaking of Oscars, this is a production of the most beautiful order. It’s due to the brilliant production designer Robert Stromberg, winning twice for Avatar and Alice In Wonderland. There’s a definite influence of the latter particularly, and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory – not only the sense of the central protagonist being somewhat of a misfit in a totally unfamiliar landscape, but also the glossiest, most colourful landscapes imaginable. An actual yellow-brick-road was fully constructed, flowers bloom, and flocks of tiny bluebirds soar over our heads. The river-fairies, repeatedly whistle the first eight notes of Pop Goes The Weasel. When Oscar whistles back the reply, he and we thanks to 3D – both get a face-full of spurted water!
Bubbles the key protagonists fly in, fog, lightning, broomsticks, waterfalls, candy-floss-clouds, and all-important fireworks – all feature substantially – and are beautifully designed and lovingly crafted to dazzling effect.
  We then meet the first of three witches, the beautiful and sultry Theodora The Good – played with a great sense of unbalanced moral ambiguity by Mila Kunis. Her costume, as is the case with all of them, is particularly striking, all deep-plum hat and luscious lipstick.
  My favourite scene in the film hints at how ‘good’ Theodora may indeed be – or not. After the introduction of Rachel Weisz’s stealing turn as Evanora – the Wicked Witch of the East. ‘What do you know about goodness?’ she asks Theodora: ‘Deep down you are wicked’. ‘I’m not WICKED! Fireballs suddenly shoot out from both Theodora’s hands. ‘Sister, that temper really is wasted on you’. The two siblings’ animosity only seeks to intensify when Oscar meets the third and final witch – Michelle Williams’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Glinda The Good.
   Adorned in white silk finery throughout to signify connotations of purity, Williams succeeds with the most difficult role: making a character infused innately with moral goodness be earnest, instead of overly sweet or sentimentalized. It’s a stunning achievement by Williams – one which is fully deserving of another nomination.
  He said we’d rule Oz together…’ exclaims an unstable Theodora in a pivotal exchange. A particularly clever touch sees Theodora’s tears burn up like licks of flame down her face as she becomes manipulated into an increasingly desperate sense of jealously which Kunis conveys wonderfully – Theodora’s certainly the witch that’s given the most interesting transformation…
   Did he...?’ is Evanora’s chillingly rhetorical whisper, feigning a suspiciously sarcastic sympathy. ‘Are you quite sure it wasn’t you who said it to him…’?
  Of the three witches, Weisz’s green and black-costumed Evanora (the perfect juxtaposition of envy and deliciously relentless intent) – is the one who’s plight I was the most enthralled by. She adopts diction that could break glass, a personification in perfect poise no citizen of Oz would ever dare cross, and is Shakespearian in her quietly domineering method of delivering dialogue. Without giving too much away, don’t trust her with apples! ... ‘Oh it’s nice isn’t it? How clear everything is…It’s just your heart withering away’… Citizens of Emerald City – witness what happens, when you defy me’...
  Raimi has brilliantly expanded upon a world universally adored for 74 years, elaborating on an endlessly magical landscape faultlessly for an entirely new generation or two - on characterization, origin-arcs but most movingly – themes, themes that spellbound the globe all those years ago. Redemption, good triumphing over evil, these are timeless lessons for all families. There’s even the inclusion of a somewhat shall we say emotionally ‘fragile’ little china girl whose family were taken.
  Never at any point do we actually know her name – might it just be Dorothy? With her simple white apron over a powder-blue dress – that’s certainly my estimation as to what Raimi and his team of visionaries may be alluding to.
  There’s a near-heartbreaking scene where her legs are broken off when we find her in the decimated Chinatown: ‘I’ll never get back together…I don’t know if I can’. Ever the friendly optimist, Oscar says: ‘I think you can’. Improvising with some very traditional, boarding on the rustically rudimentary use of some superglue (key later as projections, theatrics and majestic duels come to climactic fruition (‘What’s the matter Glinda?’ Out of Bubbles?’) – she’s quite literally, back on her own two feet – along with an adorable monkey-butler Finley, who’s miles too small to fit Oscar’s top-hat on his head.
  There’s more than a fair few flourishes of old in here, the classic iconoclastic nature of Raimi as director, is fondly acknowledged with exuberant verve. Munchkins – ‘Thank you, you put the merry into the merry Land of Oz…but guys – take five’ – he insists, after they’ve barely had the chance to burst into a welcoming refrain.
  There’s a fleeting appearance from a lion, a brief tantalizer of what may be around the corner for the future – not to mention the famous, or should that be infamous Flying Monkeys. ‘Do not fail me, a second time’. Fearlessly obedient, off they screech almost directly into the lens, in all their shrouded, GCI, 3D horror, to chilling effect. The Wicked Witch of the West, just the slimily-tainted shade of green - has a horrific line: ‘Each brick in the road that was once yellow will now be made red with the blood of every, tinker, tailor and munchkin throughout all of Oz…’.  TEAR THEM APART!’ is the monkeys’ blood-freezing command.
   The action-sequence enthusiast in me, was hoping for the heightened, gripping, deeply fantastical sense of jeopardy or peril to be pushed to the near-approached 12A-Level, but after the previous smash-hit of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s Alice In Wonderland, Disney again followed suit, and stuck with the choice of a PG rating, presumably to hope for the broader appeal of a more family-dominated audience.
  The final, most cruicial of elements arrives in the exhilarating sound of the score. Is there anyone who writes populist, memorable, wholesome, wonderfully orchestral blockbuster scores quite like the astoundingly prolific Danny Elfman?
  From the opening second, when those beyond-iconic gates of Magic Kingdom’s castle promise adventure in the rare form of black-and-white stock, the opening titles play out akin to a puppet-theatre, as wistfully inventive shapes spin, twirl and swipe into our very faces – foregrounding  the unfairly malighned tool of 3D, fulfilling it to the very pinnacle of its technical potential immediately. Mariah Carey sings the wonderful ‘Almost Home’ over the final credits, which is emotional, gutsy and punchy in equally proportionate thirds.
  Magical, in the most transporting, unapologetically joyous way that it is possible to reach on celluloid. Here’s hoping the rumoured two further sequels in the proposed trilogy’s artistry is realized with every bit as much verve, exhilaration, care, visually stunning detail and fun. An experience I was privileged to enjoy twice in the cinema, and one I’ll never forget, thanks to the perfect directorial choice of Raimi, and flawless performances all round. It’s populist, studio-based cinema at its most elaborately exuberant – a trait quintessentially Raimi.
 Walt Disney himself, rather like when his medium-changing studio made their debut with Snow White in 1937, would be every bit as reverently proud, and if I daresay just as moved and humbled as I, to see a timeless classic be reinvigorated into the next ether of the cinematic realm with a perfectionist passion similar to his own…
My favourite film of the year by quite a distance…
 And to you ‘Oscar’ Diggs, I say finally: Best of luck in 2014, where Oscars of a similarly celebratory sort, will hopefully be awarded to all!

  Rating: * * * * *


Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Watch


Starring: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade & Billy Crudup.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Monday, 3rd September, 2012.

Comedy in populist, mainstream Hollywood is currently in quite a transitional phase. The mid-to-late nineties were Jim Carrey’s broadly comedic rubber-faced golden years; with the likes of Dumb and Dumber The Mask, Liar Liar, but also the slightly darker, edgier, left-field idiosyncratic gem: The Cable Guy, in 1996, directed by a certain, (then up-and-coming) Ben Stiller.
  Late nineties teen-comedy, was the next order of the day, followed in the light of audiences Screaming for the parodied side of Wes Craven’s Ghostface thanks to Scary Movie, or high-school-set students either: cleverly consulting Shakespeare’s more shrewish side, to brilliantly decide exactly what were the 10 Things (they) Hate(d) About You in 1999. Just before that, a bunch of teenagers were ravenous for their next raunchy slice of American Pie.
In 2001, Stiller burst onto that very same mainstream scene with the uproarious Meet The Parents. Two sequels intermittently followed, with varying success, and a steady stream of commercially successful crowd-pleasers in between. Among them was 2004’s Dodgeball, an enjoyable, if somewhat rather overrated ‘gross-out’ sports comedy.
   This was the film that, if little else established the dynamite pairing of Stiller’s collaboration with one of my very favourite actors – Vince Vaughn.
  Now they’re starring again, as one half of four suburbanites, thrown together through the most implausibly outrageous of circumstances. An alien attack has come to fruition in a Costco-inspired megastore of all barely conceivable locations. Stiller and Vaughn, together with Moneyball’s Jonah Hill and British actor/director Richard Ayoade - playing a self-assured but ultimately unfulfilled misfit, form a Neighbourhood Watch group.
  The style and premise – namely that of forming a quartet of contrasting, 21st Century Ghostbusters, actually works (if not up to those dizzily entertaining, box-office-smashing standards) – considerably better, and in a slightly funnier, more involving way than Dodgeball did.
  That most fiendishly difficult of equilibriums – the one between broadly comedic laughs while coupled with the occasional innocuous scare – is actually obtained marginally successfully – if not particularly memorably.
  The dialogue is never quite as sharp as expected, but in Vaughn’s wonderfully cynical vernacular of course, is delivered with his now customarily quick-fire rapidity. He steals the film, away from Stiller in a sense, with Stiller still stuck to playing it rather straight-laced, while remaining a reliably staple presence in the comedy cannon.
  It’s more left to Vaughn (as a likeable everyman) and particularly Ayoade and Hill, to provide the majority of what are, more often than not, fairly muted giggles when they should be unstoppable ones.
  The aliens themselves - summoned after the impulsive meddling of a futuristic, spherical metal orb that blows up a cow (much to their open-mouthed, enthused incredulity) – are welcomed rather than run-from.
  One of the funniest scenes, involves them revelling in the prospect of having pictures taken with the seemingly dormant alien (now in sunglasses), only to be the perilous, hapless victims of another attack, moments later.
  Human form also comes under suspicious question, with a clever sequence where members of the public are assessed for their extra-terrestrial potential.
  First on the list of possible culprits, is a very funny performance from Billy Crudup as an outwardly sinister, voyeuristic next-door neighbour figure, somewhat reminiscent of Norman Bates – all squinty-eyed and cold emotion - a vast antithesis to the reveal as to what’s actually happening behind his front door!
  Proceedings become more elaborate, but slightly overblown in the latter stages, and it’s quite male-centric throughout, but overall this is fizzy, undemanding fare, with a typically appealing cast – it’s just not written with quite enough of the comic pop as you’d hope for, given the talent involved.

Rating: * * *

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Bourne Legacy

Action Thriller/Reboot

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Paddy Consadine & Albert Finney. 

Running Time: 126 mins.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Saturday, 25th August, 2012.

Originally based on the pulpy series of bestselling novels by Robert Ludlum, in 2002 - when Matt Damon burst into the intelligence sub-genre with an unusually intelligent bang with The Bourne Identity – rivaling Pierce Brosnan’s ultimate exstravagant last outing as Bond (the spectacular Die Another Day – my personal favourite Bond movie; fantastical in every sense), Damon and director Paul Greengrass instead opted for gritty realism and brutally visceral fight sequences. Bond produces obviously took note of the surprising impact it made, as they of course then followed suit, choosing to next introduce Daniel Craig.
  Damon and Greengrass though, after the phenomenal success of Bourne’s Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum respectively, chose not to have the above-poster top billing, passing the mantle onto the increasingly popular Jeremy Renner – importantly though, not playing Jason Bourne, but rather in the role of brand new renegade agent Aaron Cross.
  For my money, Renner’s a far more unassuming presence on screen than Damon is, it’s just a shame that, rather like Damon, he appears so devoid of emotive facial expression, that it’s very difficult to, in turn, emotionally invest in his fate in almost any ensuing jeopardy.
  Incidentally, those distinctly intermittent, yet frenetically involving bursts of set-piece are extremely few and far between. For the most part this is driven on a fuel of dialogue, only with more of the dialogue and much less of the drive. James Newton-Howard’s only occasionally punchy score is often glaringly present to only act as ominously-strung padding from one action sequence to the next.
  The director is the very smart choice of Tony Gilroy. His film, Micheal Clayton is a fantastic, quiet, slow-burner of a thriller, full of superb performances – (in my opinion it was George Clooney’s finest ever dramatic performance).
 The action sequences themselves are actually extremely well-staged, make great use of bullet-ricocheting sound effects, and are similarly brutal to Damon’s, with Renner proving to be in fine physical shape – (he’s an increasingly dominant action star: Hawkeye in Thor and The Avengers -  and he’s previously played morally ambiguous agents already, in 2003’s S.W.A.T. and the fourth Mission: Impossible: - Ghost Protocol, so he would be. It’s just a rather ironic shame that, as Aaron Cross, he gives us his least engaging performance to date. It’s to the screenplay’s plodding detriment, not his own fault, which spends much of its very overlong running-time pre-occupied with what is often highly scientific expositional terminology, all concerned with how Cross is genetically engineered.
  Edward Norton is reliably terrific, equally morally ambiguous as a cool-headed manipulator, and Rachel Weisz is extremely strong in the somewhat thankless role of a scientist, but she is given a singularly affecting scene under house-arrest, where a suitably frantic infiltration follows.
  From the outset, the screenplay treats this installment very much as a continuation of the previous trilogy, with endlessly elusive reference to ‘Tredstone’ and the so-called urgent prospect of ‘Burning the programme to the ground’ without ever even remotely attempting to explain what the ‘programme’ actually is, or, more to the point, why Edward Norton and his shadow-lit team want to do that so badly.
  Previous, brilliant supporting talent such as Joan Allen, the fantastically eclectic David Strathairn, and even Albert Finney, are only there to make fleeting, blink-and-you’d-miss-them appearances.
  There is an excellent climactic, beautifully-shot red motorcycle chase, with Renner as always looking super-cool in simple, black sun-shades, and it’s good that Gilroy, as he did with Clooney for Micheal Clayton, gives his central protagonist of Aaron Cross, a surprisingly intriguing, and fairly dark back-story as to exactly why he is the way he is.
  This, solidly entertaining as it is, could be a potential reboot of the Bourne franchise, with Renner possibly in future sequels – if today’s Hollywood franchise factory is any accurate yardstick. If so, lets hope the next one’s screenplay sees that Renner packs a little more punch emotionally, as well as physically, with a lot less long-winded dialogue in between…

Rating: * * *

Saturday, 22 June 2013



Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Seth McFarlane, Mila Kunis, Giovanni Ribisi, Patrick Stewart & Ryan Reynolds.

Running Time: 106 mins. approx.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Monday, 13th August, 2013.

I confess, I’ve never actually seen Family Guy. Based on Ted’s humour though, tonally at least, the two probably aren’t dissimilar. It’s directed by the show’s creator, the multi-talented talented Seth McFarlane, who also voices the title teddy.
  Mark Wahlberg, an actually now so associated with serious, conflicted anti-heroes, usually cops are redemptive troubled souls, now turns excellently to gross-out comedy in the Farrelly Brothers mould: fans of Dumb & Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and Me, Myself & Irene will know exactly how sharp the satirical edge will be.
  Narrated by the dulcet tones of Patrick Stewart, we see that John has the Christmas present of all, his own Teddy Bear and friend for life. In a very smart opening montage, eagle-eyed movie-fans will delight in references to their very cinematic appreciations, from queuing up in costume for The Phantom Menace, to a Raiders Of The Lost Ark poster on John’s bedroom wall. One particularly distinguishing feature (batteries not included*), is that fact that Ted can talk – and not just when you squeeze his paw. Rest assured though, the grown-up John and his deceptively cute-looking counterpart are suitably foul-mouthed, throwing parties of a vastly more alcohol-fuelled, adult persuasion. At one point, Ted introduces four young girls to an incredulous John and his girlfriend (Mila Kunis): ‘This is Angelique, Heavenly, Shareene and Sauvignon Blanc!’.
  The bar of what is deemed acceptable taste, doesn’t exist anymore. It seems literally that any lurid linguistic observation or highly puerile sexual reference can double as hilarity. It’s not that it isn’t funny – it is hilarious, but only at the expense of being shocking first, in an abundance of ‘How did they get away with that?’ - induced gasps from ours and plenty more a  screening, which immediately dilutes its comedic impact. Consequently, this means that the imminent sequel, perhaps won’t hold onto novelty for very long. Where McFarlane has succeeded far better, is in zeitgeist, and parody. There are a great many extremely well-judged referential gems hidden throughout, from an ongoing motif of a shared fascination with eighties’ nostalgia (the second Indiana Jones reference involves Ted’s torn ear and a door left ajar, and their shared love of Flash Gordon leads to a Sam Jones cameo).
  Lines of dialogue like ‘That’s my bad I was sending a tweet’, after bumping into another car, or: ‘Back off Susan Boyle!’ – Ted’s inevitable fame leads to kidnap from a scarily convincing Giovanni Ribisi as the father of an Omen-esque son - are surefire crowd-pleasers with a welcome absence of innuendo.
  It’s easy to overlook the technical skill of what’s been achieved through seamless CGI to create Ted. Instinctively, he can accomplish any action, without the audience ever knowingly marveling, very much in the style of what Robert Zemeckis achieved with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Death Becomes Her, and then much later, employing motion-capture with The Polar Express.
  Never in the best of tastes, but it is undeniably, very funny. 

Rating: * * *