Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Young Adult; The Muppet Movie; We Need To Talk About Kevin; The Comedian

Young Adult

Charlize Theron gives a brilliant performance as Mavis Gary, the unfulfilled belle of a small town, who left for the big city and a career as a ghost writer years ago, only to find disappointment and disconnection as she exists on junk food, one night stands and writer’s block about 10 years after that would stop being fun.
On receiving a round robin email with the picture of an old flame’s new baby, she decides to go back home to try and get a little self confidence from those left stuck behind, only to find them more happy and content than she. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be!

Finding her old schoolmates mainly underwhelmed by her being back, she tries to get back in with her old flame, despite his being married and newly a father. In the meantime she meets an old classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt) who was crippled by homophobic jocks, despite his being straight, and they form a disjointed friendship based on the perceived failings of others.
Her stay at home spirals into a nosedive of epic proportions as she combusts in front of a large part of the town, but moves on, still thinking she’s better than them.

There’s a lot of bite in the dialogue from Diablo Cody’s script, directed again by Jason Reitman after the success of Juno, and it feels like there’s not a little self-deprecating autobiography about it.

Despite her overwhelming flaws we still come to care about Mavis, enabled by Theron’s unflinching portrait of a self-obsessed but self-deluded depressive. 

The Muppet Movie

It seems that Gary‘s (Jason Segel) brother Walter is essentially a muppet and grows up in awe of the show, feeling out of place in his all-American small town.
After some to-and-froing with Gary’s sweetheart Mary (Amy Adams) the trio travel to Hollywood to visit the old muppet theatre, only to find it under threat by mean old developers. Off they go to find Kermit and persuade him to put the gang back together for a fundraiser that will save the theatre.

There are quite a lot of in jokes about the muppet’s waning fame and a bucket load of musical numbers, but the most enjoyable scenes are those with the evil developer Chris Cooper and his muppet henchmen.
Whilst all the goody-goody wholesomeness overplayed by Segel and Adams is definitely tongue in cheek, it does get a little cloying. 

This is a better muppet movie than the last few to hit cinemas but still isn’t quite as funny as I wanted it to be, as a fan growing up with the TV show in the 80s.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Lyn Ramsey manages to take on a story of one of the most American of tragedies, the high school massacre, whilst leaving her unique painterly vision intact.
We’ve had arty versions of this story before, with Gus Van Sant’s 2003 Elephant, but whereas that imagining of the events of the real Columbine high school murders created a film whose interpretation sometimes veered more on the sleepy end of dreamlike, ‘Kevin’ is more visceral, if almost as light on dialogue.

Ramsey’s approach to the book is to get us inside Eva’s head through setting a tone, and using Tilda Swinton’s extraordinary abilities to convey the isolation, anger, frustration and resentment she feels alongside the occasional burst of joy.
It’s joy that opens the film, but even as Eva is carried above the crowd at the La Tomatina, the annual tomato-fight near Valencia, we are introduced to the recurring motif of Eva covered in red.

Moody washes of colour continue to set the tone as we continue to follow Eva’s pregnancy and the start of motherhood through flashbacks she has from her current life, what we later learn is a limbo she endures as her son rots in prison after murdering numerous classmates.
The scorn and attacks carried out by townspeople are accepted, begrudgingly, by an Eva who clearly feels somewhat responsible by the way her son turned out, though there is an anger there too, a suspicion that he emerged into the world fully formed and resentful of her.

John C. Reilly does well as the father, Franklin, totally manipulated by his son’s cynical act as the dutiful son, only when his dad’s around, whilst Ezra Miller and Jasper Newell are brilliant as the teenage and younger incarnations of Kevin, all malice and sly charm and convincingly different versions of the same person.

Unlike the book Ramsey’s film doesn’t focus very much on the massacre itself, instead when those scenes come up it mainly features outside the school, taking in the reactions of school kids and family, as well as Eva herself.

The film, like the book, is brave in depicting the conflicting feelings some mothers feel, rather than the assumed automatic motherly instincts, and questions how much influence we have in our children’s development.

The Comedian

Low budget British mumblecore drama about a 32 year old for Sheffield trying to make it as a stand-up comedian whilst hating his day job in a call center, torn between his feelings for his French housemate and a young man he recently met on a bus.
Conversations and relationships feel realistic, with no overly scripted elements, people mumble, pause and talk over each other in a way which demonstrates writer-director Tom Shkolnik‘s ear for dialogue.

All the main parts are well played, Edward Hogg as Ed exuding a rumpled tiredness as he flits through life like a man in his 20s but ten years on. Nathan (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Misfits) is good as a younger man living an artist’s lifestyle, unwilling to be collateral damage from Ed’s early/mid-life crisis, and Elisa Lasowski (as flat mate Elisa) offers a mix of friendship and intimacy that makes it easy to believe when Ed feels torn and can’t make up his mind.

‘Raw’ would have the wrong connotations for the atmosphere created in this snapshot of London life and love, but there is an unflinching honesty to this take on the directionless life of 20 to 30 somethings, come to the capital to seek their dreams only to find them hard-won.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Lockout; The Bridge; The Stuff; The Hunt; Tangled; The Princess And The Frog


Since the early days in the 80s soap Neighbours, Guy Pierce has had the good fortune to shine in roles as diverse as a drag queen, by the book detective, revenge fuelled amnesiac, inventor of the time machine, a king, a bomb disposal expert and an aged billionaire, but he’s rarely been called on to flex his chops as an action hero.
In Lockout, Pierce plays Marion Snow, the archetypal wise cracking anti-hero who is overwhelmingly world-weary and has seen it all before, numerous times.
Still, in this case the daughter of the president is being held on a maximum-security space station prison, where the detainees are on the loose, so Marion is forced to board the station, get the girl and get her out alive.
He has ulterior motives as he’s been framed for murder and the man who might have the evidence to save him is also on the station. 

Cue the usual wandering along space corridors punctuated by torrents of sardonic comments, snippets of violence, a damsel in distress and incompetence and betrayal by authority.
So far, so so, but Lockout also features the most scenery chewing ham you will ever have seen in your life, as the excellent Joseph Gilgun grasps the opportunity to play the baddie in both fists and tics and jumps his way around the set as unhinged murderer Hydell, clothed in scars, tattoos, a Mohawk, a thick Scottish accent and a dead, milky eye.

Peter Stormare echoes his performance of a menacing baddie with a debilitating weak spot from the Brothers Grimm, Vincent Regan is good as the leader of the cons Alex, whilst Maggie Grace has the thankless task of basically being the princess that needs rescuing.

This isn’t vastly different to the multitude of one cynical man army films that have hit the screens since the 80s, but some of the performances give it an edge, particularly if you’re already a fan of this kind of thing. A hoot!

The Bridge

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is a notorious suicide spot, with 19 jumping a year on average. Director Eric Steel shot footage of pedestrians over the course of 2004, inevitably capturing the moments that a number of people decided to jump.
His documentary combines this footage alongside interviews with friends and family of the jumpers, helping us get to know the people behind the statistics and try and understand the reasons behind their feelings.
It’s pretty harrowing in combining an insight into these people’s situations, albeit from the outside, along with showing us their final movements, some walking back and forth along the bridge for what seems like hours, some hesitating at the barrier, some returning after repeat visits.

Ultimately it serves as an example of the places people can get to in their lives where they see no way forward, though it’s disturbing when reading around the subject to find that a study from 1978 found that only 6% of 515 people prevented from jumping went on to kill themselves in other ways, and 87% of suicides live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so the signs point to the fact that many of these people wouldn’t kill themselves in other ways if the Bridge wasn’t an option, and these people are dying needlessly.

The Stuff

Another entry in the crappy straight to video style horror stable that tried its best to lure me in when I used to visits Blockbusters back in the 80s.
Finally getting round to watching it, I’m pleasantly surprised to find it’s a pretty whacky take on the classic alien body-takeover movie.

In this case miners hit a vein of white marshmallowy goop that tastes delicious, prompting the swift creation of a company to package it, market it and ship it out across America. Once it becomes a huge hit, the heads of the rival snack companies call in ex-federal agent David ‘Mo’ Rutherford for a bit of corporate espionage. Michael Moriarty plays Mo, and does a brilliant, drawling job of putting across an anti-hero whose motivations and intentions are hard to pin down.
Mo quickly discovers that The Stuff is an alien intelligence which takes over the minds of those that consume it, and his mission changes to the traditional saving the human race, along with help from a fast food celebrity ‘Chocolate Chip Charlie’, a plucky kid whose family have all turned, advertising executive Nicole and a mad, racist, self-styled general of a private army (played by Paul Sorvino).

The whole thing is tongue in cheek with excuses for having gun battles and explosions alongside mad ‘possessed’ acting, and ultimately the energy on display won me over. 
The Stuff genuinely feels like an attempt to have a lot of fun within the straight to video horror genre, rather than being a cynical money spinner, and the shonky special effects from the time before CGI only add to the charm.

The Hunt

Mads Mikkelsen stars as a primary school teacher wrongly accused of abuse and ostracised by the town.
Detailing the breakdown in relationships with former friends, the film is a starkly observed study of how rumours can quickly destroy a life without the burden of proof, and Mikkelsen is fantastic as a man stubbornly trying to carry on as normally as possible, confident in his innocence.
While much of what happens is predictable to an extent, there’s enough threat on offer from his fellow townsfolk that you’re not sure how the story will go, and indeed the end leaves things open with many relationships mended but underlying resentment still seeping in the cracks.


Disney’s take on the Rapunzel fairytale makes for an enjoyable knockabout comedy.
In this adaptation Rapunzel was kidnapped as a baby by a witch, who now pretends to be her mother, because her hair has rejuvenating properties.
On her 18th birthday when the witch is out, the tower prison is invaded by the bandit Flynn who is on the run, and thus begins a hearty adventure involving a stubborn horse, bandits with hearts of gold and a fair amount of slapstick.

Inevitably Rapunzel is restored to her rightful royal place, gets the guy and the witch pops her clogs, happily ever after etc., but the journey is an amusing one and it’s quite fun to spend time in the company of these characters.

Not a Disney classic but certainly one of the better of the more recent non-Pixar efforts.

The Princess and the Frog

Very much in keeping with Disney’s middle era, the Princess and the Frog is a transplanting of the classic fairytale to 1920’s New Orleans, cueing a focus on food, music and voodoo.
The first Disney film to return to traditional animation techniques since 2004’s Home on the Range, this is an old school musical fairytale with a heavy New Orleans influence on the tunes.
As the saying goes, the devil has the best tunes, and that’s true of this film, with the better songs, scenes and characters related to the world of voodoo and the recurring antagonist, Dr. Facilier.
Tiana, our heroine, is the first African American Disney princess, but her character is rather damp and earnest, dreaming of opening the restaurant her late father always wanted, only ending up with her prince due to the twists of the story rather than her own grand designs.

As Disney films go it’s certainly watchable, but it won’t be joining a list that you’ll be happy to sit and watch with your kids over and over again, except maybe if you skip forward to the best tunes.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Sightseers; Wreck It Ralph; Jack Reacher; Sixteen Candles; My Brother The Devil; Prometheus


Coming in between Kill List and A Field In England, Ben Wheatley’s murderous love letter to English eccentricity and camping holidays shares a certain tone with his other films.
More black comedy than horror, Sightseers still offers a fair helping of gore as sociopath Chris (Steve Oram) takes girlfriend Tina (Alice Lowe) on a tour of England’s lesser-known camping spots which mainly involves killing off people who get on his nerves.

The supporting characters are nicely observed, with Tina’s overbearing mum and the middle-class couple they meet on their journey being stand-outs, but the main cast is great, with Lowe perfect as a slightly naïve shut-in thrilled to be shown the world by the confident Chris, portrayed by Oram as a loner with particularly strong ideas about camping and plastics.
It’s not just the dark tone that’s shared with the director’s other films, with a visual style that often has a dreamlike, ethereal quality, no doubt thanks to the director of photography who has worked with Wheatley on all his films, Laurie Rose.

It’s hard to imagine a film so English to its core taking off elsewhere, but hopefully it will find an audience away from the curtain-twitchers of middle England over time.

Wreck It Ralph

It has to be said I had high hopes for this. An animated film set in and around retro video games? Excite!
As it is Wreck It Ralph has a lot of attention to detail and not a few little fan pleasing elements to spot, but the story only ranks as okay.

Ralph is the baddy of a hit retro game in a Donkey Kong style, and is fed up of living in a dump and getting no recognition of making the game a success after the game characters come to life in their arcade, once the gamers go home (in a Toy Story style).
After finding little help in a game villain’s self-help group (oddly including Street Fighter’s Zangief) he sets off into other games to try and get his own medal.
However, if you aren’t back in your game before the arcade re-opens, you run the risk of your game cabinet being shut down as faulty, so when Ralph sneaks into Hero’s Duty (a generic first person shooter aping everything from Call of Duty to Metroid), steals a medal and then ends up in the kart racer Sugar Rush, he’s putting his own game in danger.
Aside: there’s a myth going round the arcade about a character called Turbo who, upset at his game’s fall from favour, invaded another and caused both to be shut down.
Whilst in Sugar Rush Ralph meets Vanelope who’s a glitch, a character others shun as dangerous (due to said glitching) but who wants to race and become a selectable character in her own right.

Thus Ralph learns that helping friends is more important than helping himself, etc.

The visuals are great, lots of neat little cameos including everyone from Sonic to Bowser and Pacman to Q*Bert, but the obvious love that has been poured into the film doesn’t save it from being a little flimsy plot wise.
It’s diverting and no doubt colourful and eventful enough to keep most kids going, but no classic.

Jack Reacher

Functional and workmanlike as it is, Jack Reacher nevertheless has some charm, as any film which presents a man as capable, decisive and knowledgeable always will to some.

Reacher is an ex-army investigator who has gone off-grid, but finds himself in a city after an ex-soldier he had investigated in war time is accused as a suspect of a random sniping attack.
Whilst he has no love for the man, Reacher sets about an investigation, and after a botched attempt to throw him off the case he is even more resolved.

Tired of society and impatient of rules and regulations, Reacher is dogged, determined and dangerous, easily defending himself when attacked but also capable of bringing the fight to his enemies when necessary. Basically a pitch-perfect fantasy of individual power and freedom, Jack Reacher is designed to appeal to the American male, and is scraping the outside edge of being just another one-man-army trope from the 80s, but what with the whole investigative/detective angle in order to root out conspiracy, it has a little more going for it.

Werner Herzog pops up as a bizarrely threatening ex-con of the Russian penal system, with scars to match, but seems to have been drafted in mainly for his voice, and was presumably happy to pick up the check to fund his next run of documentaries.

Cruise is Cruise, ever the heroic cypher keen to be flattered, but he does a fairly decent job of fitting the role rather than have it fit to him.

Sixteen Candles

Famous for his 80s teen movies, John Hughes is responsible for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Weird Science and Some Kind Of Wonderful.
I’d heard good things about Sixteen Candles but had not had the opportunity to catch it until recently.

Hughes’ directorial debut in 1984, but 6th screenwriting credit, Sixteen Candles comes across as an early prototype of the ‘gross out’ teen comedies of the late 90s and new millennium, which were arguably just updates of 80s teen flicks.

Sam is glum as her family have forgotten her 16th birthday due to her sister’s impending wedding (this idea of being forgotten and overshadowed will recur in what is arguably Hughes' biggest hit, Home Alone). 
Through the course of a day at school she shows herself to be slightly more oddball than the high school mainstream, but also not off-puttingly different, and moons after the school’s handsome jock whilst simultaneously avoiding the advances of short, geeky Ted. There’s a high school dance and a house party, and by the end of the movie our heroine learns what’s important and has a high school teen version of happily ever after.

Aside from the formulaic template that so many films would copy afterward, some elements of Sixteen Candles struck me as bizarre. The grandparent’s exchange student Long Duk Dong strikes me as plainly racist, what with the oriental gong strikes that accompany anyone saying his name, and there are also some other problematic tones of sexual assault as the hunky Jake tires of his drunken, cheerleader type girlfriend, and basically offers her unconscious form to Ted to do whatever he wants with as long as Ted drives her home for him.

It’s easy to see how many people hold this in a special place in their hearts, as it clearly started a long tradition of broad comedy films about over privileged American teens, but it seems like the formula has been much improved on in the years since, if not perfected.

My Brother The Devil

A slightly new take on the recent run of London underworld films that focus on the urban youth and their part in the drug trade (rather than the semi-idolised gangster/geezer genre).

In this instance two brothers are the sons of Egyptian immigrants living on an East London estate. The eldest, Rashid, is already heavily involved in drug gangs, while the younger Mo is a schoolboy, but anxious to join with the bigger boys he sees on the estate and with his brother. After an encounter between gangs leaves Rashid’s best friend dead, he seeks to distance himself from his old lifestyle even while Mo starts to get involved.

The references to Islam and homosexuality mark out the difference in approach to most of the urban gang kids films that have come out in the last couple of decades, and it’s refreshing to see a depiction of UK urban Muslims that has nothing to do with terrorism, instead dealing with the pressures and temptations of any groups living on the poor fringes of the UK’s urban centres.


A big disappointment on my first viewing, I nevertheless felt that Prometheus deserved a revisit.

The flaws are the same - many of the characters lack character, including Logan Marshall-Green and Noomi Rapace as the leads. Noomi’s Elizabeth is unconvincing in her hazy faith represented in having a cross, and her emotional breakdown at the mention of her father seems unusual with Logan’s Charlie seeing as it’s implied that they have a fairly established relationship, this is unlikely to be old ground between them.
Charlie himself seems very odd when resorting to the bottle after they find their would-be creators dead, feeling more like a method of opening him up to David’s exploitation, where there was no obvious reason David couldn’t have been able to be more devious with a fully sober Charlie.

Whilst an air of mystery is appreciated, there’s nothing close to indicating an explanation as to why the ‘seeding’ aliens who spread their DNA on Earth were stockpiling a substance which destroys them at a genetic level and drastically increases the evolution of other organisms, in order to deliver it to Earth. Nor is there any hint as to why the alien they find alive, for all his technology and knowledge, would feel the need to just bludgeon everyone to death. It could be a result of what David said to him, but it’s unlikely that David would risk his own termination.

The actions of Sean Harris’ be-mohawked Fifield make little sense in the context of his role as geologist and mapper of the structure they explore. It’s he who is shown to know how to use the mapping technology, and even his bumbling biologist partner Millburn (Rafe Spall) is able to give captain Janek (Idris Elba) their precise location at one point, but somehow they get lost in the structure on the way out. This despite the rest of the team becoming more spooked than them by what they find and desperately rush out in advance of a storm - they seem to find their way out with ease.
Additionally, despite being a trained biologist Millburn seems quite happy to play nice with a newly discovered alien organism which looks and acts like a smooth white cobra with a lamprey mouth - sure signs of a predator or at least carnivore.
The fate of Fifield is a massive let down in terms of sci-fi cliché - he returns to the ship in some sort of undead/rabid form and proceeds to kill his crewmates with vast strength, seemingly with no other aim or goal, implying that he has become altered by the goo or the organisms and taken over, able to navigate back to the ship but not have much intelligence beyond that.

Less plot/character related but perhaps more idiotic: when the alien ship crashes back to the surface and rolls, Elizabeth and Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers both run from it in a straight line. The obvious plan would be to run at a 90 degree angle out of this path, further emphasised by Elizabeth’s quick roll out of the way after she trips and falls. I mean seriously, this is Looney Tunes stuff.

It’s not all a complete loss, however.

The design of the ship and structures is beautiful,but mainly Michael Fassbender's performance as the android David is pretty much a strong enough reason to watch the whole film, despite all it's faults. Every interaction, whether it be with other characters, plot-points or just the set, is laden with the feeling that his intelligence is something 'other', he is experiencing and thinking about things in a way that isn't human.

Deeply flawed, but some wonder there.