Nov 29 2011

Review: Horrible Bosses

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 12:10 pm

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 classic thriller Strangers on a Train, a tennis star Farley Granger meets Robert Walker in a train compartment. Walker recognises the sportsman from the gossip rags and is aware of Granger’s marital problems. He proposes that if Granger were to kill Walker’s father and Walker were to take care of Granger’s wife, they’d both get what they want and neither of them would get caught because the killers would have no obvious motive.

Horrible Bosses uses this conceit of criss-crossed murders as a jumping off point. Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day are three long-time friends who completely hate their bosses: Kevin Spacey’s manipulative and sadistic corporate shark; Colin Farrell’s balding, coked-up kung-fu enthusiast; and Jennifer Aniston’s sex-pest dentist. With the help of an ex-convict named Motherf***er Jones (Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx), they concoct a plan lifted from Strangers on a Train: they‘ll kill each other’s bosses. It’s a plan that could theoretically work were it not for the fact that all three friends are total idiots.

In setting up the plot, the screenwriters seem to be bending over backwards in order to create a situation where normal guys are willing to commit murder. Technically there’s nothing stopping any of them from quitting their jobs –apart from the inconvenience of finding a new one—plus Sudeikis and Bateman seem to have no qualms about killing a woman for the heinous crime of being sexually aggressive.

After a short period during which they scope out their targets’ houses, director Seth Gordon and his writers make it clear that none of them are actually going to do the deed. They completely defuse any stakes they’ve created by making it patently obvious that the guys are either too cowardly or stupid to commit murder: Sudeikis seems mostly preoccupied with getting laid while Day looks like he’s having a grand ol’ time hanging out with the guys.

Okay, we’re being a little harsh on Horrible Bosses because the writing is unnaturally lazy for a movie with this kind of talent behind it, but there is a certain charm that comes from its all-star cast. Spacey, Aniston and Farrell are all good in their slightly underwritten roles while Bateman and Sudeikis play well-honed straight-men. The real revelation of the movie however, is Charlie Day. Known to TV fans from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Day has taken the highly strung yet naive persona from that show and made it work for him on the big screen. In the same way that The Hangover made a star out of Zach Galifianakis, I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot more of Day in the near future.

Though the premise is weak and the characters are thinly written, the genial performances elevate Horrible Bosses into an entirely watchable affair.

Nov 24 2011

Review: Take Shelter

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 4:44 pm

Curtis LaForche is a working-class husband and father in rural Ohio whose recurring dreams have caused him to panic. He wakes up in a sweat after experiencing visions of a coming storm that rains thick liquid like motor oil, turning both animals and humans into savages.  The question for Curtis is whether these vivid delusions are indeed premonitions or perhaps the first signs of an hereditary mental illness that he has been expecting for years. As the visions escalate, second-time director Jeff Nichols shoots them like the early scenes from a horror film: the pervasive sound of distant thunder signalling something terrible. It may (or may not) be a world-ending deluge, but it’s going to be something big.

Playing Curtis is Michael Shannon, an actor whose demeanour is never anything short of intense. Scratch that — with his pock-marked face and dark, probing eyes, he probably emerged from the womb at intensity-level 10. Best known as the (intense) prohibition agent in Boardwalk Empire, Shannon creates a nuanced performance that balances paranoia, fear and insanity with a level of sympathy that suggests that an Oscar-nomination wouldn’t be out of the question.

At its core, Take Shelter is about what a man does to protect his family. Curtis looks like he has it all: a wife, a daughter and a house. His best friend and colleague, Dewart (Shannon’s Boardwalk Empire cohort Shea Whigham) tells him he has the perfect life, but to Curtis that also means he has the most to lose. As he begins to load his tornado shelter with enough supplies to outlast the apocalypse, he conceals his visions from his wife (Jessica Chastain). In order to expand the shelter to accommodate his daughter, he ‘borrows’ equipment from work, putting his job at risk. His deaf daughter is scheduled for an operation to restore her hearing but it’s entirely dependent on his insurance, which relies on him keeping his job, which requires him not to be insane. And there’s the rub.

The term ‘psycho-thriller’ would be both an apt and misleading label for Take Shelterafter all, Curtis’ possible psychoses pose the biggest threat to his family. How will they eventually manifest themselves? In trying to save his family, will Curtis end up being the one who endangers them?

Shannon’s performance is an absolutely fascinating look at a man aware of his own decline. In a scene where he seeks help from a counsellor, Curtis presents her with the results of a self-administered paranoid schizophrenia test that he found in the back of a medical textbook. He is conscious that he may be becoming ill (as his mother did many years before) but still compelled to act on his dreams. Before he begins his project to expand the storm shelter, he draws up a line budget in order to determine whether he can afford a project that logically, he knows is insane.

Take Shelter is very much a product of our time: with the economy in its current condition, many families in America are dependent on a single parent’s income. A lost job will very often mean no health insurance for the family and a defaulted mortgage. Households are on the knife edge between living comfortably and being completely screwed. Perhaps Curtis’ fears are the same as many other parents: do they have enough to tide their families through the mother of all rainy days? When the storm comes, will they have the choice to take shelter?

Nov 18 2011

Review: Bridesmaids

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 4:48 pm

Very few people could have predicted how big a hit Bridesmaids would turn out to be. A true word-of-mouth sensation, this female-led comedy (first of its kind from the Apatow stable) stayed in the box-office top ten for almost 10 weeks, shattering all expectations. Then, of course: critics, journalists and moviegoers started asking: If Bridesmaids could make it big, why aren’t there more comedies for women?

The sad answer is that there are plenty of comedies ‘made for women’ but most of them are tragically awful from conception to execution. The average studio comedy would suggest that most women’s primary goals in life were to get married, shop and be taken seriously in man’s world (and to be fair, the third point can take a hike if there’s a sale on at the bridal department at Macy’s). Okay, so Bridesmaids does end in a wedding and there is a gross-out sequence in a shop but that’s where the similarities end.

Co-writer Kristen Wiig (Saturday Night Live, Paul) is a single woman in her 30s who’s coming close to hitting rock bottom: her dreams of running a cake shop have evaporated as has her long-term boyfriend. She is engaged in a destructive relationship with handsome cad Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and to make it worse, her best friend Maya Rudolph is getting married. Wiig is drafted in as maid of honour alongside a motley crew of bridesmaids including Melissa McCarthy’s boorish tomboy and Rose Byrne’s snooty trophy wife. With Rudolph marrying a richer man, Wiig quickly realises that she’s  being priced out of her best friend’s life.

Sometimes the humour feels like it comes from the Ricky Gervais School of Embarrassment Comedy:  during an engagement party, Wiig and Byrne engage in a game of one-upmanship that stretches longer and longer in an almost excruciating way . The movie isn’t afraid of going scatological either: in another sequence, the bridal party attend a dress fitting immediately after dining at a Brazilian meat buffet of questionable hygiene with consequences that may be too much for some viewers

Marketed as The Hangover with women, it has a lot more in common with producer Judd Apatow’s movies. The comedy set-pieces are essentially sketches but they’re kept together by Wiig’s evolving and honestly played relationships with Rudolph and romantic interest Chris O’Dowd (in his first American  lead, playing –somehow- an Irish highway cop in Milwaukee). Embracing Apatow’s now-almost-clichéd mix of raunchy humour and poignancy, Bridesmaids manages to keep the characters grounded enough for the audience to care about what happens to them.

So: is Bridesmaids really only for women?

Quite simply: no. Sure,  it’s written by women and features mostly female characters but it’s not like Twelve Angry Men is considered to be a movie  for the lads. The more innovative gags deal with ideas unique to women and their relationships to each other but in comedy: specific is funnier than generic. The writing and performances possess the kind of detail that makes a movie re-watchable. Don’t be surprised if -like Dirty Dancing or Pretty Woman- Bridesmaids becomes a perennial favourite for girls’ nights in everywhere .

Bridesmaids is the funniest and freshest studio comedy this year and one that the boys will enjoy as much as the ladies, I suspect. Perhaps in a few years when The Hangover 3 is inevitably released, they’ll be calling it “Bridesmaids for guys”. Now that would be something.

Nov 16 2011

The Killing (Forbrydelsen)

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 11:00 am

What is The Killing and what is all the fuss about?

Since it originally aired in 2007, the Danish crime series The Killing (Forbrydelsen) has become an international hit (scoring phenomenal ratings on the traditionally unwatched BBC4, largely from word-of-mouth), inspired a US television remake and spiked the popularity of those dowdy Faroese cardigans (see below) worn by its protagonist, Detective Inspector Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl). But in an age where absolutely every single show on television is a police procedural, what about The Killing makes it stand out from the pack?

The first series follows the investigation into the murder of Nanna Birk Larsen, a teenage schoolgirl from Copenhagen. With each episode representing another day in their investigation, DI Lund and her unorthodox partner DI Jan Meyer (Søren Malling) find themselves wrapped in a  plot that involves city hall, shady communities and grieving families. By only dealing with one case over the course of the season, The Killing is able to set itself apart from your case-of-the-week  shows like Miss Marple or The Mentalist: it can dig deeper into its characters and cater to hardcore DVD box-set fans in a way that only a serialised drama can. Instead of being like CSI or Inspector Morse, the twisty plot that winds its way around the first season makes it feel like a slow-burn version of 24 or perhaps a darker, less goofy take on Twin Peaks. Also, it’s rare in a cop show to gain an authentic sense of grief from the family of victims: over its 20 episodes, we see Nanna’s parents go through the heart-breaking process of coping with her death and watch as Lund deals with her own existential crisis.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we’ve seen a recent explosion in Scandinavian mysteries with Wallander and the Stieg Larsson novels. There certainly is a melancholy that infuses the setting; a land far north that feels perpetually near dusk that fits well into the noir mould. The photography in The Killing is shot in such a way that it feels like it’s always about to rain, or already has: the muted grey tones make you wonder why Lund doesn’t just pack it in and leave the country already. But then again, she’s not like any other TV cop: Lund doesn’t have any discernible ‘gimmick’ like most modern TV cops. She doesn’t have the ability to talk to ghosts or use Holmesian deduction to arrive at epiphanies after having seen only a single nail-clipping. The writers seem more interested in how she reacts to new discoveries instead of how she arrives at them and it pays off—watching her balance her home life and work life is as interesting as seeing the political intrigue unfold (which, to be honest, was a bit grinding at times).

Nov 10 2011

Review: Tactical Force

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 12:02 pm

In densely populated regions of the United States, SWAT teams are elite tactical units employed by the police to perform counter-terrorism or hostage retrieval missions. The term itself stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. In the opening scene of Tactical Force -a new film starring former WWE wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin- the SWAT team, led by Austin, are called into a supermarket hostage situation. On this mission, their ‘tactics’ involve running straight at armed suspects, pushing them into stack of cans and the ‘special weapons’ in question are Austin’s fists.  One of his partners uses a BB-gun to take out a baddie and remarkably, no-one is killed.

What happens next comes straight out of every cop film: the chief chews out Austin’s unit for needlessly endangering civilians and the SWAT team laughs this off in a way that suggests that they probably shouldn’t be policemen. Instead of being fired and jailed, their punishment is to go on a training mission in an abandoned warehouse. Unbeknownst to them, this warehouse is where an eclectic group of gangsters have planned an exchange. That’s right: the gangs have chosen to do their business in an ACTIVE police training facility. Trapped in the building without live ammunition, Austin’s group of maverick cops engage in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the mobsters.

Obviously shot on a budget -a good chunk of the film takes place in an empty warehouse- Tactical Force also manages to be a lot of fun: the bad guys are ridiculously accented (and prone to making some truly awful decisions) and the salty one-liners don’t feel out of place at all. The fight scenes owe more to the recent explosion of mixed martial arts than it does to professional wrestling and the stars/stuntmen are more than capable of delivering the body blows.

Despite having appeared in a few films including last year’s The Expendables, Stone Cold hasn’t become the household name that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is, but his beer-swilling good ol’ boy persona translates quite well to film. It’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing him in any romantic comedies anytime soon, but he could easily find himself fitting into more movies like this.

Don’t get me wrong: Tactical Force is an utterly ridiculous film – but it knows it is and plays to that strength. It’s a perfect one to rent on a Friday night when you and your mates just want to drink beer and shout at the telly. Now give me a hell yeah!*



*This was one of his wrestling catchphrases. Sadly, it will mean nothing to most of you.

Nov 10 2011

Review: The Awakening

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 11:59 am

A lot of ghost stories start the same way: a rational person of logic or science is placed in a situation where their scepticism in the paranormal is put to test. From there, the plot can go in one of two directions: 1) our hero discovers that ghosts actually exist and he promptly soils himself; or 2) the ghost turns out to be the butler or the janitor in a costume. The trouble with the first case is that we feel cheated by the lack of a payoff when the thing that everyone says is true turns out to be true. The issue with the second outcome is that it ends up being the plot of a Scooby-Doo episode. The Sixth Sense (a modern classic by any standard) works around these problems by there being no doubt that spirits exist.  But director Nick Murphy’s The Awakening does hinge on that one question: are there such things as ghosts?

Set in England after the First World War, Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a popular author renowned for debunking the paranormal and exposing mediums. Her various methods of revealing the truth behind ‘ghosts’ involve setting up traps with tracing powders, directional thermometers and multiple cameras (ingenious bits of old technology that suggests the possibility of an Edwardian prequel to Paranormal Activity). Hall is approached by The Wire’s Dominic West, a brooding teacher from a boarding school asking for her help catching a ghost thought to be responsible for a young boy’s death. Though reluctant at first, she agrees, setting in motion a plot that finds her questioning her very beliefs.

Hall finds herself surrounded by a cast of suspicious characters, each with their own secrets: school matron Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) seems very much taken with Hall and her books while a draft-dodging groundskeeper roams the estate with a loaded shotgun, ensuring that the film is stocked-up with a healthy supply of red herrings. Long confined to playing supporting roles and love interests, Rebecca Hall makes for a compelling and smart leading actor who can also look petrified and run for her life as well as anyone. In believably portraying an independent professional woman in 1920s Britain, she manages to bring a certain authenticity to a story that otherwise didn’t need it.

Of course, the film does have its issues. The story falls apart in the third act with a few twists that come almost out of nowhere.  In the wake of similar works like The Orphanage and The Others, you can sense that the writers felt pressure to deliver an ending that transforms everything that came before it. Certain characters make some frankly baffling decisions and there are enough endings to rival the last Lord of the Rings movie.

It almost chugs to a halt at the end but The Awakening is still an atmospheric, slow-boiling horror film with some genuinely tense moments and well-earned scares. You’ll be looking around the edges of every frame to try catch a glimpse of the ghost that lurk in the shadows. Or maybe it’s just the butler.

Nov 04 2011

Review: The Adventures of Tintin

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 5:53 pm

After almost two decades of development and pre-production, Steven Spielberg has finally brought his vision of the ginger-quiffed boy reporter and his globetrotting escapades onto the big screen. But was The Adventures of Tintin worth the wait?

Combining a few of Hergé’s graphic novels, the screenplay (penned by British heavyweights Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish) finds Jamie Bell’s Tintin and his faithful terrier Snowy on the trail of a lost pirate treasure belonging to an ancestor of drunken seaman Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Hounded by a sinister figure named Sakharine (Daniel Craig), the gang find adventure everywhere: from the city streets to the high seas and the scorching desert. Along for the ride are fan favourites, bumbling policemen Thompson and Thomson, played by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg.

Utilising the same performance capture system used in Avatar, the technology has evolved to the point where it no longer suffers from the dead-eyed “uncanny valley” quality that plagued earlier photo-realistic CG projects (for the most grotesque example, check out the strutting corpses from 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within). The most exciting part of this development is that Spielberg and his co-producer Peter Jackson have created a fully animated film that looks and feels like a Steven Spielberg movie: his regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is credited as cinematographer and John Williams provides a score reminiscent of his treatment from Catch Me If You Can. There are extraordinary visual sequences including pirate battles and a car chase that could have come straight out of the Indiana Jones films, a franchise that owes a lot to the Tintin stories.

Some of the characterisations are a bit on the un-PC side, notably the Arabic millionaire Omar Ben Salaad and Serkis’ drunken Scotsman (alcohol to Captain Haddock is like spinach to Popeye). Also, in an age when most family films have been sanitised to a U certificate, there’s something both jarring and nostalgic in seeing Tintin carry a gun so casually.  It’s old-fashioned and very much part of the movie’s throwback charm.

Critical response to The Adventures of Tintin have been notably tepid so far but one can’t help suspect that if this film had been live-action, it would be lauded as a return to form for Mr Spielberg, providing all the thrills and spills of a Boys’ Own adventure with the scope of a blockbuster.

Nov 04 2011

Review: Makers – Our Story

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 2:58 pm

The opening title cards of Makers: Our Story remind us of how big the UK film industry remains: £4.3billion is added to the country’s economy by the film business, with British productions accounting for 7% of the global box office. Not bad for a small island. In the 70s and 80s, business was booming: Hollywood blockbusters from Star Wars to Superman and Full Metal Jacket were all shot in the UK. The sound stages at Pinewood and Shepperton hosted some of the world’s biggest film stars. Even these days, the Bond and Harry Potter franchises are made in Britain, albeit with much of the profit flowing back to American studios. However, this film comes at a crossroad for the UK film industry: the Potter films –which for a decade had kept legions of cameramen, actors, designers and post-production houses in steady work– have come to an end, leaving a wizard-sized hole in the business. In addition, the coalition government has recently abolished the UK Film Council, which provided funds for producing and distributing UK features and short films.

Makers: Our Story is a documentary dealing with the next generation of film talent. Largely composed of interviews with independent filmmakers as well as industry figures, it plays out as a love letter to non-mainstream writers and directors who manage to produce films without council funding and occasionally with no money at all. We see young filmmakers of all races, gender and backgrounds cutting their teeth as directors; in a business seemingly run by old white men, it’s heartening to see a new generation of women and minorities breaking into the movie biz. In fact, it’s good to see that there is a thriving new generation at all: without the J Arthur Ranks, Harry Saltzmans and Cubby Broccolis around these days, the fear was that most British talent would go straight to America. Or even end up completely undiscovered.

The interviewees impart a lot of detail when speaking of their early works. Limits in budget resulted in many of them becoming very resourceful: begging, borrowing and stealing where necessary. Even if you don’t like the films they make (there do seem to be a lot of low budget shorts about geezers with shooters), the dedication required to make a film is obviously something to be respected.

At 135 minutes, Makers is way too long and sags under its own weight but still remains a testament to what can be achieved with hard work, creativity and a handicam.

Nov 03 2011

Review: Rio

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 9:44 am

It’s been a big couple of years for Rio de Janeiro. City of God was an art-house hit and the latest Fast & Furious movie was largely set there. Both of those movies take advantage of Rio’s reputation as a city riddled with crime and poverty, which I suppose is not untrue. But that’s not the city we see in 20th Century Fox’s new animate feature Rio.

Brazilian director Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age 2) takes us on holiday to a picture-postcard version of Brazil: the one where the beaches are beautiful and the radio always plays The Girl from Ipanema. Saldanha captures that atmosphere beautifully; though it’s a shame his characters aren’t as wonderful.

Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid And The Whale, The Social Network) leads the star cast as Blu, a flightless blue macaw who lives in wintry Minnesota with his owner Leslie Mann (Knocked Up). Their lives are turned upside-down when Mann encounters a handsome-yet-goofy Brazilian bird-scientist who convinces her to fly down to Rio so that Blu can mate with one of the few remaining females of his species (Anne Hathaway). Considering that all the animals are aware of what’s happening, this arrangement seems a lot like international sex trafficking. But let’s not mention that in front of the kids.

Before long, they’re kidnapped and involved in a plot to smuggle exotic birds out of Brazil (ah… the crime is never far away) and on their adventure, they assemble an unlikely posse including two jive-talkin’ canaries (Jamie Foxx and The Black Eyed Peas’ and a slobbery bulldog (Tracy Morgan).

There’s not a tremendous amount of originality in the characters. In fact: the marmosets that are drafted in by the bad-guys look and behave uncannily like the lemurs from Madagascar. Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords plays an evil cockatoo and uncharacteristically sings a musical number in the middle of the film that seems like some half-way house rip-off of the Conchords.

For its shortcomings, there are a lot of things in Rio that we’ve never seen before. There’s a great chase through the Carnival that’s a lot of fun, the soundtrack is vibrant and the film is really a beauty to look at. It has something for everyone and is as gentle and easy to take in as the breeze on Copacabana beach.

Nov 02 2011

Review: Contagion

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 8:37 am

A sick man touches a handrail in Hong Kong; a Japanese businessman in First class coughs and puts down his plastic glass; a young boy in Minnesota wipes his nose and pushes the door at his primary school. Steven Soderbergh’s newest film features many sequences and incidents as seemingly innocent as these but when the enemy is a virus, every sniffle and wheeze is as ominous as a teenager heading out to the lake alone in a slasher pic.

Detailing the life of a speculative epidemic, Contagion makes no secret of being influenced by the recent health scares with Avian Flu and Swine Flu and makes compellingly realistic case for how we as a society would handle such a situation. Families deal with sudden losses, government bureaucrats worry about balancing their budgets in the face of thousands of people dying and scientists stare down microscopes, desperately searching for a cure. It’s all pretty heavy stuff but played with utter believability.Even scenes of small-town Americans looting their high street in the face of a plague seem well observed in light of what we witnessed during the London riots this summer.

In less capable hands, the all-star cast featuring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet could have easily turned this film into an Ocean’s Eleven/Outbreak mash-up but the restraint of the performances really prop up the reality of the story as we discover early on that no star is too famous to be killed off. Damon’s performance as a grieving and protective father is particularly affecting and empathetic: he keeps getting better in every film and is truly one of our finest movie stars.

Only Jude Law’s snaggle-toothed Assange-alike conspiracy blogger jars slightly. Having his anti-capitalist activist be the only character trying to profit from the epidemic seems an unusually ultra-Conservative statement to make in this particular story.

Beautifully shot by Soderbergh himself (under his pseudonym Peter Andrews) and backed by a tense score from Cliff Martinez (Drive, Solaris), Contagion is a thrilling as any horror film you’re likely to see this year and will have you thinking twice about what you touch next time you’re out on the streets.