A glut of lower key releases has meant that there simply wasn’t enough time this week to view everything that is coming out on Monday. Sorry PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 but you just didn’t make the cut (here’s a quick review anyway – after an hour and a half of shaky home video footage where nothing of any interest happens and that is largely indistinguishable from PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 1, 2 or 3 the realisation sets in that yes, you really did just choose to sit through that). It’s good that after last week’s SKYFALL induced wasteland there are actually a few new movies out to see, so let’s see what they have in store for us.
THE CORRIDOR is one of those science fictiony, horrory, independent films in the vein of DONNIE DARKO or perhaps CHRONICLE which sees a group of friends head out to an isolated mountain cabin to pay their respects to the departed mother of Tyler, one of the group who has just been discharged from a mental hospital where he was treated for psychosis brought about by the circumstances of her death. There’s something else on the mountain though, and it brings with it unusual powers that will test their kinship to the limits. It’s a thoughtful film, carefully paced as the pressure mounts on the friends, pressure which leads to some fantastic practical effects when rationality gives way to the mysterious forces at work. All told it’s pretty good, although it gets a little bit vague in places, especially when it comes to the who and whys but that does at least serve to get the brain working. If that’s your thing, you should get a kick out of this.
I fully expected to hate phone-sex-centric comedy FOR A GOOD TIME CALL. I’ve seen a slew of dreadful so-called comedies over the months (NEW YEARS EVE I’m looking at you!) so I have learned to approach them with basement level expectations but this one happily exceeded them with its bawdy (as opposed to simply crude) humour and upbeat tone. Katie (Ari Graynor, channelling early Streisand – think FOR PETE’S SAKE) and Lauren (Lauren Miller) are two former college enemies forced into being flat mates by circumstances outwith their control. To make ends meet they start up their own phone sex line, a bonding experience which helps them overcome their former animosity. Utterly predictable it may be, but it’s one hell of a lot of fun and good hearted to boot. The jokes work well, Graynor and Miller have great chemistry and the inevitability of each plot point actually seems to work to the film’s advantage, allowing you to concentrate on the fun stuff which to be fair there’s plenty of. They even manage to squeeze a couple of high profile cameos into the brisk eighty five minute running time, both of which manage to be pretty funny. On top of the laughs, there’s an interesting take on feminism and female sexuality that’s pretty refreshing, especially when you consider so many of these sex-based comedies are basically thirteen year old boy fodder that feature women almost solely as sex objects (attainable or otherwise). When it comes to comedies you can only really judge them on one thing – do they make you laugh, and on that basis this one is a success.
A film that could do with a bit more fun is KILLING THEM SOFTLY, where Brad Pitt is the man called in to deal with some unruly miscreants who have knocked off a mob card game and need to have some summary Mafia justice dispensed to them. Mr Pitt is joined by some real heavy hitters – James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins and ANIMAL KINGDOM’s Ben Mendelsohn – but sadly their talents are squandered in a film that is trying so hard to be clever and worthy that it forgets to be entertaining. It has its moments, certainly, and the parallels it draws between the collapse of the local criminal economy when the loot gets robbed and the broader economic collapse of the global financial crisis are of moderate interest, but there just isn’t enough of a solid foundation to get everyone through to the end. Perhaps my expectations were too high (the trailer looked good, the cast looked promising) but for me this was the hitman movie equivalent of CABIN IN THE WOODS – all clever ideas executed with a cold smugness that I completely failed to connect with. Mendelsohn turns out to be the best thing about the film, his mentally unstable Aussie crook is a definite highlight (although Gandolfini is pretty good too to be honest) but the whole fails to live up to the sum of its parts, leaving it feel like a missed opportunity.
If you’re looking for something a little less high brow PREMIUM RUSH might be more your cup of tea. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, a New York City based cycle courier who finds himself pursued by some dodgy characters when he’s enlisted to deliver a special package across town. Fair warning – it’s an extremely silly film, sort of like THE FAST & THE FURIOUS only for people who prefer push bikes to customised cars. Writer/Director David Koepp (who can list INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL amongst his writing credits, take from that what you will) has assembled a film that proves to be utterly ridiculous but surprisingly good fun as it tries to convince us we’re getting the inside track on the world of Manhattan’s cycle couriers. Particularly amusing is Wille’s “Google-streetview-vision”, presumably designed to convey the lightning speed with which he determines his route as he’s zipping through the busy city streets but which is the source of a lot of hilarious moments (I still can’t decide if these are meant to be as funny as they are or not, although clearly someone’s tongue is in their cheek somewhere). The bike stunts are actually pretty smart, even the stagier ones, but full marks go to Michael Shannon (BOARDWALK EMPIRE, TAKE SHELTER) who hams it up as the villain of the piece, and a dementedly fine villain he makes. It’s all very silly but surprisingly entertaining and I was getting a kind of CRANK vibe from it, only without the fighting.
There will come a point in any conversation I have about Tim Burton where I will lay down the gauntlet and challenge people to name anything he made after ED WOOD which was actually any good. Apart from a few stalwart SLEEPY HOLLOW supporters, evidence is thin on the ground that Burton actually has any ideas left in him. None of this of course has been an obstacle to a highly successful career as being the director of choice for undiscerning Goths who think his aesthetic style is all you really need and probably believe THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS was all his own work. FRANKENWEENIE, a stop motion, feature length remake of a 1984 shrot film by Mr. Burton is yet another style over substance footnote in an increasingly dissatisfying career. The idea itself isn’t a bad one – young Victor’s pet dog (and best friend) Sparky gets hit by a car before being resurrected by Victor using the power of science, much to the suspicion and hatred of those around him is superb, even if it is just a direct lift from (sorry, homage to) Mary Shelley, but in its execution it becomes yet another exercise in the trademark Burton aesthetic as he tacks on as many tributes to classic horror and monster movies as he can. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the excellent PARANORMAN (which is not just vastly superior in terms of story and character but also in animation too) but FRANKENWEENIE just doesn’t cut the mustard. Like the reanimated pets that pepper the story, it’s a bit soulless, a hollow facsimile of the classic films it’s attempting to homage. If you are a fan of Burton’s work you will doubtlessly enjoy this as much as anything else he’s done in the last ten years, but it really doesn’t do it for me. At all.
Which brings me to this week’s PICK OF THE WEEK. Jacques Audiard’s (writer/director of the spectacular A PROPHET) latest film, RUST AND BONE, is a slab of French social realism that is not to be missed. A nightclub bouncer who finds himself caught up in an illicit bare knuckle boxing ring is equally drawn to a woman he meets while at work and when she suffers a traumatic accident they find themselves strangely dependent on one another. Matthias Schoenarts and Marion Cotillard (who you may remember from such films as CONTAGION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) shine in the leads, both carrying off characters who are crumbling under the weight of their problems and who are clinging to each other for dear life with complete conviction, as Audiard delivers another film that packs a punch on an emotional as well as social level. It’s a film about damage and the things that people do to try and overcome, or at the very least mask the symptoms of, that damage. Moving, sometimes funny and occasionally gut wrenchingly emotional it forces you to empathise without ever resorting to cheap, mawkish theatrics. Essential viewing.
It’s one of those weeks this week where a mammoth release from a single studio is enough to get everyone else running for the hills. This time the honour goes to one of the biggest films of last year (and one that looks set to be just as gargantuan on its home video release), the 23rd instalment of the official James Bond franchise, Skyfall. As it’s also being released in a box set along side Daniel Craig’s other outings as Bond I thought this would be a great opportunity to talk about the last three Bond films in one fell swoop (for more Bond related shenanigans, check out my Bondageddon podcast).
When Daniel Craig took over the mantle of the world’s most famous secret agent it had been four years since the last Bond film, DIE ANOTHER DAY, which if we’re all honest was a low point of a franchise that had seemed to reach a particularly low point of self parody with its invisible cars, dire Madonna theme and all round vapidity. Sure, Brosnan may have proved himself a half decent Bond but boy was he saddled with a bunch of substandard films that pushed the Moore era formula to breaking point and lacked any real teeth. When Craig was announced as his replacement I wasn’t convinced, at least not until I saw the entertaining LAYER CAKE which showed that maybe he might have what it would take to fill the enormous shoes of the legendary 007.
I first saw CASINO ROYALE in the cinema, back in 2006 and with a completely open mind. From the pre-credits sequence alone, a noirish, black and white segment that are, in my opinion, four of the most exciting and impactful minutes of the entire franchise, I knew I was watching something different, that Bond had evolved. The brutality of Bond’s first kill, the icy calm with which he executes his second in order to earn his double-oh status, were unlike anything that had come before. Sure, Dalton touched on the professional murderer side of the character way back in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and LICENCE TO KILL but here Craig completely nails the notion of a professional killer unencumbered by petty concerns like conscience or regret.
What follows is two and a half hours of so of a Bond pared down to the bare essentials. Gone are the frivolous gadgets and idiotic attempts at humour (whoever thought John Cleese was a sensible addition to the Bond universe needs their head examined) and instead we have a bold, exciting and – dare I say it – edgy rendition of the character as Bond leaves a trail of bodies in his wake as he pursues international terrorist financier Le Schiffre (played by the superb Mads Mikkelsen on fine villainous form). Clearly taking its cues from the highly successful THE BOURNE IDENTITY, the action is more brutal, more realistic and more vital than anything seen in a previous Bond. An early chase scene has Bond pursuing a bad guy through a construction site, his quarry effortlessly negotiating obstacles with finely tuned Parkour skills. In a wonderful bit of action choreography, Bond gives chase in his own style, far less graceful but no less inventive as he takes a route that suits his skills. It’s subtle but exciting and it’s the sort of dynamic set piece that characterises the rest of the film.
Significantly, although 007 is his usual womanising self, it feels out of place in the twenty first century. In fact, the film seems to take a disapproving stance to some of the more ridiculous elements of the series (see the disdain both Bond and his Treasury babysitter/Bond girl in chief Vesper Lynd have for her cover name “Stephanie Broadchest”). It either plays with or outright ditches many of the Bond clichés in favour of something more modern. Its references to the earlier movies (witness the understated appearance of a 1964 Aston Martin and an arrogant country club member who mistakes Bond for a parking valet and who bears more than a passing resemblance to Auric Goldfinger) are subtle and welcome, clearly affectionate nods by filmmakers who have a love for the films of the past but who clearly were on a mission to bring the franchise kicking and screaming into a modern age.
The only weak points in the film are the “climactic” poker scenes where James faces off against Le Schiffre over a poker table. Poker is hardly cinematic, and the constant, expositional commentary by one of Bond’s allies might be useful for members of the audience who don’t know how to play the game but they are hardly dramatic. It’s a minor quibble (and completely forgivable given the quality of the rest of the film) and as it’s a pivotal part of the story I’ll let them off, but I can’t help but wonder if there might have been another way to play these scenes out that would have felt less mechanical.
The follow up, 2008′s QUANTUM OF SOLACE is a film that didn’t fare quite so well as its predecessor. It’s a film that seems to be slammed almost universally as something of a let down, I would say somewhat unfairly. It does seem a little more lightweight than CASINO, that’s for sure, but I wonder how much of the derision pointed at it is a result of unfairly high expectations in the aftermath of CASINO ROYALE. Personally, I feel there’s a lot to like in the film, which continues in the tradition breaking (which I suspect lies at the heart of most of the criticisms levelled at it) vein of CASINO, not the least by being a direct sequel to the earlier film. It carries on from the moment CASINO leaves off, with an exciting, bullet riddled car chase that is full of promise for what lies ahead. I’m particularly fond of a knife fight between Bond and a bad guy that sees our hero get slashed in as realistic a fight scene as you’re ever likely to see within the franchise and that ends with Bond failing to hide his impatience as he waits for his assailant to die, knife plunged deep into his femoral artery. Could it be this callous indifference from Bond that turned people against the film? I suspect it may be part of the problem.
The continuity between the two films is a first for the franchise, and while there has always been a very loose continuity (maybe consistency is a better word) from film to film over the decades, there hasn’t been such a direct follow up to any of the films. I love this as it gives everyone the opportunity to explore the shadowy Quantum organisation whose existence is briefly revealed at the end of Craig’s first film and then explored more here. Of course, Quantum is the twenty first century equivalent to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and seem to share similar goals to Bond’s traditional foes (world domination, the pursuit of power and wealth) only without the comic-book style overlord. In fact, the story arc across the two films echoes the involvement of S.P.E.C.T.R.E from the earlier movies, with Bond seeking vengeance for the death of his beloved at the hands of the secret organisation, going “off the reservation” to achieve his ends. This isn’t the only callback to earlier instalments. There’s a death that evokes the woman-painted-gold trick from GOLDFINGER and Bond’s escape from his fellow S.I.S. agents is straight out of LICENCE TO KILL, even down to his semi-sanctioned getaway courtesy of M. These references work for me in much the same way as the ones in CASINO did, recalling memorable characters and incidents from the franchise without ramming them down your throat with big neon signs saying “LOOK AT ME I’M A REFERENCE”.
Maybe the stumbling block for QUANTUM is its lacklustre conclusion that comes straight out of the classical Bond movie playbook. There are only so many remote, exotic bad guy’s lairs that Bond can blow up before the novelty wears off and the explody bits at the end of QUANTUM feel a little bit out of place. It’s got one of those twists that isn’t really a twist and I suppose comes as a bit of a comedown after all that has transpired before. This weakness stems from the writing, likely a symptom of a script that was being polished on the fly. That said, I think it’s more or less compensated by the good stuff. I’d take the fiery conclusion of QUANTUM over the painful “Confessions Of A Spy”, Scottish Laird segment of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE for example, any day of the week.
Which brings me onto the latest addition to the James Bond canon, SKYFALL. I desperately tried to manage my expectations for SKYFALL. I carefully avoided too many previews and trailers, I tried not to speculate on what delights it might have in store. The thought of Javier Bardem as a Bond villain was an exciting one, the idea of Sam Mendes directing not so much. On the basis of Daniel Craig’s previous films though, the prospects were good. Then came early plaudits from people who managed to see it before me. “Best Bond Film Ever” they said. The word on the street was Q was back. People were bandying around phrases like “a return to form”. And I got worried.
As it turns out, my misgivings were far from unfounded. A lacklustre theme song follows a by-the-numbers opening and suddenly all the good work, all the progress made over the previous two films is thrown out of the window as Mendes drags the franchise back in time, as far back as the Moore era with its patronising approach to women and overblown ridiculousness. Clearly, as I appear to be very much in the minority here, this would seem to be the Bond film that “the people” actually want (something that would explain the lukewarm at best reception to QUANTUM OF SOLACE), but for me it just took everything that made Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond great and threw it out the window.
Lessons learned from SKYFALL: Women can’t cut it in the field, they make better secretaries. Computer hackers can (somehow) cause gas explosions. Helicopter gunships can operate in Scottish airspace unmolested. CGI Komodo Dragons look shit.
Compared to CASINO and QUANTUM there is a severe lack of danger during the action sequences. It’s all been done before (even the actually not bad conclusion is lifted from HOME ALONE) and for the most part it’s been done far better. There are occasional moments of interest – Bond’s backlit, neon fistfight in Shanghai at least looks interesting, even if it doesn’t quite pack the same punch as his battles from earlier instalments. The evil henchman being eaten by a computer generated lizard is awful though. They aren’t even well animated. It’s indicative of a general lack of subtlety that has tainted the entire film.
The references to earlier films are the worst. There’s the good old Aston Martin DB5. Not just a DB5, but the DB5, revolving number plates and ejector seat et al (the source of some risible repartee between M and Bond). “What did you expect, an exploding pen?” quips Q when he issues Bond with his kit. All very smug, all very knowing, all totally unnecessary. They feel like big placards declaring the mission statement – to purge the modernity from the franchise and rehash the outmoded ideals of the past. Maybe that suits the film’s theme, that of Bond as a relic of a bygone age, a blunt instrument, physical media in a digital age. It’s all done with computers now. Q is a hacker. Silva, the film’s villain, is a hacker. The peril comes in the form of misappropriated information. Very good. Somewhere along the line though (as Bond himself points out) a trigger has to be pulled. Of course the conclusion proves the old ways are the best. That’s at least true in respect of the story, not so much for the film.
And here lies a major issue with SKYFALL. There are no exciting action films about computer hacking. There are decent films about hacking – SNEAKERS and WARGAMES spring to mind, I’d even give you THE SOCIAL NETWORK – but there are no decent action films about computer hacking. If you don’t believe me, try to sit through DIE HARD 4.0. One problem is that cinema is tragically prone to exaggerating the capabilities of hackers, under the same sort of misapprehensions that led people to fear the Millennium Bug that somehow access to a computer allows you to control every aspect of the world. The other is that they tend to overlook the fact that by its very nature, hacking is un-cinematic. Some wee guy, sitting on his own, tapping away on a keyboard does not an exciting plot device make, never mind a convincing one.
The real tragedy of the film is the sense that by the end, Mendes’ work is complete. All the things I loved about CASINO and QUANTUM have been erased, and that there’s been a complete return to the archaic formula that made the Brosnan movies so tiresome and CASINO so fresh and exciting for breaking. It bodes ill for future instalments, especially given the success of SKYFALL, hopes of further innovation dashed under the commercial realisation that multiplex audiences apparently resent change. Most unforgivable of all is its concluding “gag”, a reference back to the classic Bonds that is the final nail in any sense of modernity in the franchise, a definitive indicator that all hope is lost. I won’t spoil it for you, you’ll know it when you see it.
That said, I’ll be buying it tomorrow. I need it to fill the empty space in my Bond box set….
Everybody knows that Dreamworks are pretty much a solid second place in the world rankings for producers of quality, family friendly CGI animations (and considering the holders of first place are the mighty and pretty much unwavering Pixar that is much more of an accolade than it sounds). If you’re in any doubt that they deserve the second place rosette just compare something like ICE AGE 4 to MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED, the latest instalment of the popular franchise that follows the adventures of a gang of animals who are trying to find their way back the to Central Park Zoo from which they escaped waaaay back in 2005. With the law of diminishing returns almost always applying to sequels it’s only reasonable to expect some deterioration in quality by the third outing but Dreamworks have managed to keep the decay to a minimum and deliver a kids animation that is funny, a little bit heart warming and, visually, wonderfully vivid. As far as rip roaring chases across Europe with anthropomorphised animals who join a travelling circus go, it’s pretty darn entertaining. One word of warning though, you are likely to be singing Marty’s Circus song for some considerable time after viewing.
SAVAGES sees Oliver Stone take the helm on an action thriller centred around marijuana cultivators Ben and Chon (yes, Chon…) and their oh-so-Californian shared girlfriend O (short for Ophelia) as they are forced to take on a Mexican drug cartel headed by the ruthless Elena (played by Salma Hayek, presumably in a nod to real life Medellin Cartel kingpin Griselda Blanco who turned the South Florida cocaine business into a bloodbath during the eighties). Its main stumbling block stems from risible writing (“I have orgasms, he has wargasms” she declares – via tedious voice over – of her ex Navy SEAL lover Chon) and the clumsily handled Ying/Yang nature of peace loving hippy Ben and psychotically violent Chon’s relationship. Redemption is almost found in the form of Benicio Del Toro sporting a fabulous mullet/quiff combo as the dementedly murderous cartel enforcer Lado, and the action scenes are passable (some of the scenes involving the cartel’s punishments are particularly gruesome) but this feels more like it’s been cobbled together by a sub-par Tarantino, rather than the man who brought us Platoon.
Regular readers will know how much admiration I have for Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, so I was extremely curious at how the Richard Coyle starring, English language remake of Refn’s first film PUSHER would turn out. The short answer is, actually pretty well. Mid level drug dealer Frank (Coyle) finds himself in a bit of a predicament when police interference causes the loss of a large quantity of drugs and the money he was supposed to sell them for. His supplier, the superficially affable Milo (Zlatko Buric, reprising his role from the Danish original) is not happy that he won’t get the money he’s owed from Frank which sets him off on a frantic attempt to raise the cash by other, even less legitimate, means. It’s a pretty straight remake but like all duplicates, it’s lost a little bit of the quality of the original. If Refn’s movie had never existed, or I hadn’t seen it, I’d have probably enjoyed it more but it lacks a lot of the punch of the Danish version. The attempt to recreate Refn’s frenetic movie with its thudding techno soundtrack and maniacal editing is partially successful but has lost a little bit of its intensity in translation. The biggest loss is the replacement of the tremendous Mads Mikkelsen as Frank’s sidekick Tony with Bronson Webb. It’s not that Webb isn’t any good (he is), it’s just that he can’t touch Mikkelsen’s performance in the original. A bit watered down then, but still a decent watch, especially if you haven’t seen the original.
Ethan Hawke stars in SINISTER, a horror from the makers of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS, as a true-crime writer who has moved his family into the house of the family at the centre of his latest, gruesome book. It very nearly lives up to its name, especially when it comes to the rather fiendish, Super 8 movies that chart the grizzly story behind the horrific multiple murder he’s investigating which are actually pretty effective, but these are the highlight of a film that is strained by its own silliness. For every moment of tension and atmosphere there’s some flailing loose end that doesn’t make sufficient sense to sit comfortably within the story, critically breaking the atmosphere as your brain struggles to reconcile the lack of basic logic. This is a shame as some of the ideas the film explores are quite interesting (not the lifted from THE SHINING hard drinking, struggling author plot thread though) but just don’t feel sufficiently thought through to make the film work as a whole. Horror fans should get a kick out of most of it though, especially those freaky 8mm “home movies”.
Majestic. That’s the word that springs to mind when I consider my PICK OF THE WEEK, the universally acclaimed BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. I can’t help but be suspicious of films that are this hyped having been burned too many times in the past by high expectations that have been mercilessly dashed by average movies but in this instance the praise is well deserved. Six year old Hushpuppy lives with her father in The Bathtub – a community on the edge of the New Orleans bayou that seems to exist outside the straightlaced restrictions of normal society. Her life is turned upside down though when her father succumbs to a mystery illness and the water level rises, setting Hushpuppy on a journey of discovery and survival. It’s quite a difficult film to pin down, a whimsical almost fairy-tale like affair that’s cut through with drama and comedy and imagination. It hinges on the excellent performances, none more so than the stupendous turn from Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy. It’s mythical quality put me in mind of the equally brilliant Thai film UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES, a film it feels like it has a lot in common with, not least the way its relatively humble story is enhanced by folk tradition and wild imagination. Great stuff, that no doubt has set BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD up for some serious award season silverware.
I think I’m just about the only person in the world who wasn’t particularly taken by the first TAKEN, the Luc Besson produced Liam Neeson vehicle that amounted to little more than a poor man’s MAN ON FIRE. It’s sold tons on DVD, has proved a massive hit with the viewing public and seems to have established Neeson as a bona fide action hero. TAKEN 2, therefore was something of an inevitability. This time around, the family of the Albanian people traffickers that former C.I.A. killer Bryan (Neeson) dispatched in the first film have come after him and his family for a spot of revenge. Cue lots of running about, calm cell phone conversations whilst under extreme duress and a bunch of violence as Bryan once again has to keep his family safe from evil non-Americans. This time the action seems to have been toned down somewhat (presumably to secure a more financially lucrative 15 certificate) which is a tragedy as the action sequences were one of the strengths of the first film. Here, they’ve been fast cut to within an inch of their lives, and returning helmsman Olivier Megaton disappoints by employing undercranked cameras to fake a sense of dynamism in the fight scenes. This would be less frustrating had they not proved themselves capable of more in the previous film. I have serious issues with the story too. As implausible as the original TAKEN was, this one makes less sense. The villains have been seriously under-written, especially the vengeful father of the people smugglers, in fact the whole film suffers from a general lack of a script. What little there is to pass as a story is just a flimsy framework upon which to hang the action set pieces. Had they been better, they might have pulled it off. Special mention must be made of Maggie Grace in her turn as Kim (Bryan’s daughter) who looks every one of her thirty years of age which wouldn’t be an issue if she wasn’t playing a nineteen year old. Never since Steve McQueen’s turn in THE BLOB has an actor been so creepily mis-cast as a teenager.
Speaking of older than they should be teens, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA sees Dracula’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) desperate to explore the outside world on her one hundred and eighteenth birthday, much to her father’s horror. He built the titular guest house as a safe haven for all monsters where they could be protected from the rampaging mobs of humans determined to pitchfork and burning torch them into oblivion. Released hot on the heels of last week’s marvellous PARANORMAN, its timing couldn’t be worse as the film strains under the burden of comparisons to that vastly superior movie. The animation is pretty mediocre, the story dull and there are a couple of dreadful songs thrown in for good measure (the closing musical number is particularly cringeworthy) all of which drown out the occasional funny jokes. The realisation that this was directed by the normally excellent Genndy Tartakovsky (you may be familiar with his body of work which includes THE POWERPUFF GIRLS, SAMURAI JACK and STAR WARS: CLONE WARS) is an extra kick in the guts as his stuff is normally top notch. Even so, I think younger kids should get a kick out of it and there are a few jokes thrown into the mix for adults that are actually quite funny but it lacks a lot of the charm and grace (and sheer aesthetic beauty) that made PARANORMAN so enjoyable.
Aesthetics and affectation triumph over story and character in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA. Set in 19th century Russia it’s a period drama centred around a scandalous affair between Anna (Kiera Knightley) and the dashing and affluent Count Vronksy (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). I don’t really go in for period dramas much, and films like this are pretty much the reason why. Oh, I’m sure it’s a fascinating essay into the hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies of the Russian aristocracy (and on this evidence it’s little wonder the rest of Russian society rose against them) but really, for me, it was just a slow grind to nowhere. Sure, it’s aesthetically rather charming and the theatrical production design might even at times seem a bit clever, but for a film about tragically fated love it doesn’t seem to have much in the way of heart. All the parts seem to be in place – decent cast, decent writer, even director Joe Wright has got form for this sort of thing, but they don’t really form a cohesive whole. No doubt it will be Oscar fodder, it all feels very worthy and artistic, but ultimately it feels very hollow.
The same (thankfully) cannot be said for this week’s PICK OF THE WEEK. In THE INTOUCHABLES (a.k.a. UNTOUCHABLE in the U.K. for reasons that don’t seem clear), wealthy tetraplegic Philippe (Francois Cluzet) engages the services of the straight talking if a little bit rough and ready Driss (Omar Sy) to be his live in assistant. It’s one of those films that manages to be heart warming without being saccharine or patronising, Philippe and Driss’s ODD COUPLE style behaviour and ribald banter proving to be both funny and touching. It’s part comedy, part love story, part drama and it manages, like so many French films seem to do, to pull it all off with real class and style. It’s nice to see stories about people who can see through the bullshit of existence and get to the actual hearts of people, in this case real people with the film being based firmly on real life. As if all that wasn’t enough, it also has a bad ass funk and blues soundtrack that complements the film wonderfully. Check it out.
For the first episode of 2013 John, Lawrence and I convened for a chat about Tarantino’s latest masterpiece, Django Unchained. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should, it’s a fantastic, funny and dynamic revenge western with all the usual QT trappings, this time riffing on the Western genre. Also, if you haven’t seen it yet you maybe should before you listen to this episode of the podcast as it contains some major spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
Alternatively, you can download the episode as an mp3 from here: Episode 6 – Django Unchained
The schedule picks up a bit this week with some of the bigger releases from the tail end of last year getting their home video release. First up is Paul W.S. Anderson’s RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION, the latest instalment in his series of movies based around the popular video game franchise. Perhaps I’m at a disadvantage with this one, having not seen any of the previous four (four!) movies in the franchise and being only passingly familiar with the video games may well mean I lack the requisite grounding in the series to full appreciate it. But I doubt it. The popularity of the series is unquestionable, the fact a sixth episode is in the works is testament enough to that, but barring a gun toting Milla Jovovich in fetishwear the evidence as to why the RESIDENT EVIL movies are so popular is in short supply. The action sequences aren’t too bad I suppose, although they’re nothing that hasn’t been done before (and better) elsewhere. They certainly aren’t adequate compensation for the acting and dialogue. I can’t tell if the overall feel of a substandard video game cut scene is a result of a lack of skill and creativity on the part of the makers or if it’s a stroke of deliberate genius given the franchise’s origins, but if you ask me a sequence of video game level style scenes does not a good film make. I doubt it’ll be the worst film I see this year though.
There was probably a time when having Martin Sheen or Richard Gere in your film was probably a selling point in its own right, but on the strength of THE DOUBLE such days are long gone. Gere’s a CIA agent called out of retirement when a notorious Russian assassin whom he believes to be dead appears to have been reactivated to whack a U.S. Senator. It’s two main failings are a ham fisted script that fumbles the twists and turns of a plot that is far less convoluted than I think they’d hoped for, and painfully low production values that set actors who would in the past have had producers throwing money at a movie left to wallow in what feels more like a TV miniseries. That said, if you like espionage thrillers there’s probably enough here to get by on even if it is a little bit predictable and for some reason, reminded me of Kevin Costner’s 1987 spy thriller NO WAY OUT.
Another eighties stalwart puts in an appearance this week, this time in the shape of Elisabeth Shue in HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET. She plays the mother of Elissa (THE HUNGER GAMES star Jennifer Lawrence) who are in for a spot of bother when they move in next door to a house with a grizzly past. A text book teen horror, it’s a film that knows its target audience but sadly chooses to pander to it rather than challenge them, trotting out the usual American high school cliches and pretty faces at the expense of real tension and horror. They even manage to lever in a battle of the bands sub-plot in order to give them an excuse to have Elissa sing a couple of songs like it’s GLEE or something. I suppose these kinds of films exist to be a stepping stone for teenagers to bridge the gap between the likes of THE HUNGER GAMES and harder edged horror fare, and so maybe its intended audience won’t be as familiar with the tedious tropes as I am but if you’re a serious horror fan there’s not much on offer here.
My biggest cinema related regret from last year was not catching Rian Johnson’s sci-fi thriller LOOPER on the big screen. His earlier features BRICK and THE BROTHERS BLOOM are both phenomenally dense, complex thrillers, brilliantly written and performed. As such I was excited by the prospect of him turning his hand to science fiction, in this case a time travel tale that sees hitman Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) faced with the prospect of having to murder his own future self (played by Bruce Willis) when he’s sent back in time by the mysterious criminal kingpin, The Rainmaker in order to be executed. Johnson has built a convincingly dystopian vision of the near future and has done so with the minimum of clunky exposition. They’ve done a magnificent job of Willis-ing up Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the combination of make up, hair and Levitt’s convincing recreations of classic Willis mannerisms making for a convincing “younger-self”. Its one stumbling block, and it’s a minor one, is the same issue that’s faced by almost every time travel movie ever made (PRIMER being a notable exception) – there’s no escaping those temporal paradoxes. As much fun as Johnson has with the idea of manipulating an individual in the present to impact on the future version of that person there’s no escaping the fact that it throws up certain paradoxical issues of how it impacts on the future and consequently the events of the present. I suppose it’s a minor niggle, these things after all have to be expected when you’re dealing with time travel, but solid time travel logic is something that I’m always looking for in these kinds of films and that I’m always a little disappointed by when it doesn’t quite work. It’s still a cracking thriller though, with some neat sci-fi touches and slick production values.
My PICK OF THE WEEK this week is the family friendly, supernatural animation PARANORMAN. Norman’s the weird kid in class, constantly picked on for being different which he is – he can see and converse with the dead. People’s attitudes are forced to change towards him though when he and his misfit band of friends are the only things standing between their town and a three hundred year old witches curse that threatens to destroy it. This is traditional stop-motion animation pulled off with real class (apparently entirely shot with Canon 5D digital SLR cameras!!) with great character design and a charming, frequently witty script by writer/director Chris Butler. There are plenty of horror movie references (most of which will admittedly fly straight over the heads of younger viewers) and they do a good job of usurping the usual horror conventions whilst still finding time to have a positive moral for the kiddies. It’s a great film, hugely entertaining and a masterpiece of technical achievement. With zombies. What more do you want?
Regular readers of my new release round up should know that I get my review copies of the new release movies from my local branch of hmv and those of you who pay any attention whatsoever to the world around them should also know that as of last Tuesday, said entertainment retailer has entered into administration. This is terrible news for the company’s four thousand or so employees, although early indications would seem that there should be little trouble in finding a buyer for the business which hopefully means their jobs will be safe along with a retail brand that is a genuine British institution. I certainly hope so. Why is this relevant to the new release round up? Well, it’s impacted on my access to this week’s new releases, most notably AMERICAN MARY, which I have been unable to see as of yet. As such there are a few titles missing from this week’s round up, but I’m sure you will agree that as far as issues go, this is pretty insignificant compared to the plight of hmv’s staff. I’ll do my best to add them later if I can get my hands on the relevant titles but I shan’t be picking a PICK OF THE WEEK until I’ve seen the missing ones.
In the meantime, let’s get the ball rolling with the latest vintage TV series to get the shiny reboot treatment, THE SWEENEY. Readers of a certain age (or UK Gold viewers) are likely to remember the original series starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman, a rough and ready account of Scotland Yard’s “Flying Squad” (a.k.a The Sweeney, from the rhyming slang “Sweeney Todd”) that followed the antics of the heavy handed police unit as they foiled various gangs of armed robbers. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the show which always had a little twinkle of humour in its eye as it went about its business, taking itself just seriously enough as police officers in various shades of brown took on villains with pick axe handles and some sarky remarks. Roll the clock forward to 2012 however and THE SWEENEY becomes a very different prospect. All that really remains of the original series are the main character’s names. Go to Cockney Ray Winstone plays the head of the squad, Jack Regan (in a much less likeable incarnation than Thaw’s seventies original) and instead of Dennis Waterman his right hand man George Carter is played by Ben “Plan B” Drew who I’m sure brings in a pre-established fan base but who is, in my opinion, cinematic kryptonite. Stripped of its sense of humour and with added machine guns, the twenty first century realisation of THE SWEENEY is a po faced, faintly ridiculous attempt at a gritty cop drama. Loaded with action it might be, but the American style shoot-em-up approach doesn’t feel right at all, seeming very overblown and completely unconvincing in a British cop thriller. At one stage someone orders Regan to “turn in your badge and your gun” like it’s LETHAL WEAPON or something. A tepid script and lukewarm performances conspire against it too. Perhaps if they’d had the sense to call it something else, make it a cop thriller in its own right, it might have lessened the disappointment, but as it stands this is mediocre at best.
When a young girl picks up a mysterious wooden box at a yard sale she and her family are in for a nasty surprise, what with it containing an evil spirit intent on conquering her innocent soul and all. That’s the (actually not bad) premise for THE POSSESSION, which sees WATCHMEN’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan battling his ex wife, her new boyfriend and an evil force in a bid to save his daughter. All the usual trappings are there (“based on a true story” opening credits caption included) and, as is so often the case, we’ve seen most of them before. The box idea is a good one, a Pandora-esque puzzle box that is inherently inviting yet not supposed to be opened but it’s not long before things degenerate into yet another possession movie. The biggest issue with that is that Friedkin and Blatty did it best way back in 1973 with THE EXORCIST; so much so that all other possession/exorcism movies that followed have always felt like pale imitations. That said, there are some genuinely unsettling images in terms of special effects (although they did squander at least one of them in the trailer), the Judaism angle is a bit different and it’s a damn sight better than the likes of THE DEVIL INSIDE, although that is not particularly difficult.
Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis star in THE CAMPAIGN, a heavy handed though often funny parody of the American electoral process which sees incompetent and slightly sleazy incumbent Democratic senator for North Carolina, Cam Brady (Ferrell) go head to head with a naive and slightly weird but backed by big business Republican opponent, Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) in a comedy of errors reminiscent of pretty much the main body of Ferrell’s work. It’s a pretty inconsistent array of largely predictable humour but when the jokes hit the right marks they are genuinely funny and there’s enough of these successes to pull the film through. Whether we really need the spelled out notion that the billionaires buy the politicians that help them make more money and unduly influence an electoral process that is more about the desire to win than the desire to do anything worthwhile when you do is open to question, and the predictability of the story is pretty dreadful, but like BLADES OF GLORY before it, THE CAMPAIGN has enough jokes that work to make it worth watching. Somehow they manage to tragically under use heavy hitters like Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow (not to mention Dundee’s favourite son, The Actor Brian Cox) but it manages to more or less work despite this. Imagine none of the insight into the American political system of the WEST WING combined with some of the jokes from ANCHORMAN and you are more less there I think.