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It's safe to say that Seth Rogen and co's brand of humour is not for everyone, though credit to them for trying to do something with it in This Is the End, an uproariously funny meta-comedy which has Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel and Craig Robinson playing versions of themselves as the world appears to come to an end.
The movies takes place largely inside James Franco's home, where a party is taking place when the apocalypse begins - and many famous faces are summarily killed off - at which point the surviving actors must band together to take on whatever lurks outside. Though it would be easy for a film of this kind to become smug and self-indulgent, the self-mocking performances instead make it clear that nobody is taking themselves too seriously or above being torn to shreds.
It's crude, childish, violent, and basically everything you expect from a movie by these guys. If you're not into their previous offerings, then there's probably not a whole lot here to change your mind, but the meta-spin certainly gives their comic stylings a fresh flavour. To say that the movie goes to some strange places in its third act is, well, an understatement, but it's all in the pursuit of greater laughs.
Easily the funniest film of the year so far, This Is The End delivers completely on its oddball premise, right through to an ending that has to be seen to be believed. If you're a fan of any of the principal actors, this is one you cannot afford to miss.
Richard Linklater's Before Midnight is the third part in an ongoing romantic drama series, which began with 1995's Before Sunrise (where we were introduced to Jesse and Celine, an American guy and French girl who meet on a train and fall for each other), continued with 2004's Before Sunset (where, 9 years later, they meet again in France, and feelings are clearly still lingering), and now enjoys its third installment in 2013.
After the cliffhanger of the previous film, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are partners with two children, living in Greece. However, with that comes a whole new host of problems with which the pair are not particularly equipped to deal, namely how life seems to get in the way of aspirations and, indeed, love. It's safe to say that this is easily the darkest and most downcast of the three movies, though still retains the witty spirit of the prior films, as well as the beautiful cinematography and characteristically long takes.
What really keeps it compelling, though, is the exceptional acting; though the bit-parts (usually by unknown actors) are sublime, it's the two central performances that are utterly transfixing. Delpy and Hawke get the best material of the trilogy to chew through here, notably a late-day argument scene set in a hotel room. The scene in question goes on for what must be about 20 minutes, and is nothing if not a masterclass of performance.
Whether a fourth film ever abounds remains to be seen, though if there's still material to mine, I'm sure none of us would complain, given how stunningly consistent it has been up to this point.
Woody Allen is nothing if not an inconsistent filmmaker; it seems that for every masterpiece the director releases, we have to sit through several average-to-mediocre efforts created simply so that Allen can stake his claim to putting out a new movie every year. His latest effort, a wrly funny, devastating and incredibly acted drama, however, is one of his best ever films, benefiting hugely from an astonishing central performance by Cate Blanchett.
Jasmine (Blanchett) has had to leave her charmed New York life after her real estate mogul husband (Alec Baldwin) was indicted on fraud charges, causing her to move back to California with her lower-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine instantly disapproves vocally of her sister's lifestyle, and the two butt heads over how life should be lived. As Jasmine comes to realise the futility of her existence, it's clear that something vicious and dangerous is brooding beneath the surface.
This is Allen's most astute and brilliant film in years, relevant in a time in which belt-tightening is more important than ever, and crucially ensuring to make fun of both higher and lower class values. This is also one of Allen's darkest recent efforts, depicting the nature with which people allow their possessions to act as a label for who they are, and essentially define their life. It's all tied together by an array of excellent performances, though the real reason to see it is Blanchett, who is sure to be Oscar nominated next year in what is a quintessential Allen performance.
Easily one of the best films of the year so far, you absolutely must see it.
Rockstar's highly-anticipated fifth entry into the GTA franchise brought with it a massive amount of expectation, and boy, did they deliver with GTA V. After the regrettable disappointment of their scaled-back GTA IV, number five brings back everything the previous game was missing - purchasable property, motorbikes, planes and so on - as well as a highly innovative three-character narrative, whereby players can swap between the characters at will.
The story and missions might be relatively standard as far as the series goes, but it's all about the execution; this is easily the most brilliantly cinematic - not to mention absolutely hilarious - of the games to date, working as a thrilling action game and as a potent satire on the nature of the American dream. It's fair to say that the story alone will keep you busy for 20-25 hours, while the sheer wealth of side missions, quirky characters to meet and collectibles could push to well over double that.
This is without even mentioning GTA Online, which launched last week and, despite a few teething problems, adds a seemingly exponential amount of value to the game. Having spent a large amount of time on it, I can safely say that it's one of the most maddeningly addictive, ridiculously entertaining online titles I've yet played. You're thrown into a 16-player free-roam map, and are then free to take on missions, races, deathmatches, and even parachute jumps with as many other players as you please.
If the game feels ahead of its time in terms of content, it's fair to say that the visuals are a tad disappointing, but that's more a case of current-gen hardware struggling to keep up with the game's demands. Still, this is a mind-blowing technical and narrative achievement, one that again sets the bar incredibly high for Rockstar's next title.
Originally written for WhatCulture.com by me!
Sundance smash hit Winter's Bone has been rightly touted as 2010's Frozen River; an indie darling that intimately examines a disparate environ cut off from society, as those irrevocably confined to its spaces attempt to wriggle free for the hope of something better awaiting them.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year-old girl residing in America's far and away Ozark mountains, caring for her young brother and sisters after their mother falls ill. However, after her father - a crystal meth cook - misses a court date, she must track him down through the mountains, otherwise she will lose the family home, for the father put it up as his court bond. However, the surrounding residents - many of them meth cooks and dealers themselves - are none too keen on Ree's snooping around, and want to put a stop to her quest.
There is a profound sense of Neorealism percolating beneath Winter's Bone's noirish mystery plot, for in early moments we observe Ree taking her siblings to school and teaching them to count on the way amid the miasma of their meth-addled, hope-spare surroundings. How aptly this plight has been captured - of one family's abject poverty in already miserable conditions - is staggering. Ree is basically a surrogate mother, and takes onto herself some form of courageous-domestic-Goddess once things heat up. Ree may be young, but she is smart and resourceful, and that is ultimately what just might see her through: she has considerable knowledge of both the law and the streets for someone who might otherwise be easily dismissed as a bumpkin. Her only flaw, if any, is her pride, in not wanting to ask for handouts from the neighbours, at least one of whom happily lends her a wood splitter and shares her provisions.
Socially, the film's most resonant interaction is with regard to gender; the brief appearance of Ree's sister - a character unmistakably domineered by her husband - only serves to foreground how desperately Ree refuses to be resigned to the same fate, even as the ramifications of her fleeing father hang over her like a spectral manifestation of both "the man" and "the law". The fact that Ree wants to enlist in the Army instantly brings to mind Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley from the Alien films, yet unlike Weaver, Lawrence is far from masculinised in her female constitution; she is still an attractive young girl, and throughout, carefully mixes a strong spirit and a tender, maternal assertiveness.
Only once John Hawkes appears as Ree's ambiguous toughie uncle Teardrop, however, does that eerie sense of the meth-belt's danger creep convincingly to the surface. As a bridging vessel between Ree's salt-of-the-Earth honesty and the outright moral bankruptcy of the surrounding areas - not to mention the inherent corruption of the police force - Hawkes plays the moral duality of the role perfectly. Teardrop's desperate desire to learn the circumstances of his brother's disappearance jostles with his similar desire not to become victim to a similar fate should he follow the rabbit hole further.
The mystery plot itself is essentially standard breadcrumb-following detective fodder under an indie guise. Ree's trek through the mountains, where she stops and speaks to her dad's various acquaintances, is structurally repetitive, but the strikingly photographed imagery and immaculate performances keep things interesting. Each repetition also serves a purpose, in cementing our inkling that the residents aren't telling Ree something, hinting at a possible twist to come. Intrigue slowly gathers, as people try to cover up Ree's father's disappearance in various ways, and the mountain's denizens become increasingly defensive. By mid-way, things are agonisingly hopeless; no help is given by Ree's catatonic mother (in a devastating scene), and Lawrence completely conveys the despair with a nuanced interpretation of someone given the grim task of either hunting down their father, who presumably doesn't want to be found, or finding his corpse.
Though the slight nature of the narrative is a matter of give-or-take, there are only two especially grating flaws in the film. Thanks probably due to both the Southern accents and the low-budget production, several characters do seem to mumble their way through their lines, causing some moments to seem barely comprehensible and, as a result, quite underwhelming, to the point that the big reveal itself might require a double-take just to be sure. A mid-film dream sequence also borders on pretension, cutting to a 4:3 ratio, utilising black and white photography, and depicting a forest being chopped down as various birds flee. Is it beautifully dream-like or, more likely, a forced, clunky metaphor for Ree's home being threatened? It is the film's worst and most lazy moment by miles.
Though it is chiefly Lawrence who received the praise, this is an exceptionally well-played film by all, even with regard to the minute bit parts. Still alluring all these years later despite rarely showing up in anything is Twin Peaks starlet Sheryl Lee who, as a former lover of Ree's father, pours her heart into a brief emotional scene, which adds further to the soul-crushing anxiety. More enticing still is an excellent scene between Ree and an army recruiter, as he explains to her the fallacy of attempting to join the army while trying to raise two children.
The tenable sense of dread and tension built by the climax will keep you on your toes; a tense in-car standoff is especially notable, though the resolution of the central mystery is itself rather understated, solved through a tiny sliver of exposition, which is bookended with a particularly grim sequence that likens the picture more favourably to the Coen Brothers' superior Fargo, providing Lawrence with her best moment at the same time.
Though unsettling in the extreme, there is room for both hope and humour (no matter how dark) in Winter's Bone. The film will be best remembered for both Lawrence's gripping - if perhaps over-praised - performance, as well as for Debra Granik's well-photographed glimpse into a mostly unseen place. Thematically, it has a particularly unique, philosophical regard to notions of violence and revenge; after all, for Ree, retribution will only doom her further, and that might be the saddest part of it all. There is plenty left unjust by the time the credits roll, but there is something more important, also; a little glimmer of hope.
note: originally written for What Culture by me, thanks!
There are many ways to sell an animated film, but having it directed by the man responsible for the more painful of the two horrid Garfield films - listed among Bill Murray's sole regrets, no less - is not one of them. But a solid cast is a solid cast; Hop boasts the voices of Russell Brand, Hugh Laurie and Hank Azaria, while featuring live action turns from James Marsden, Kaley Cuoco, Elizabeth Perkins and Gary Cole. Are they slumming it, or can they somehow elevate an idea that so brazenly rips off Tim Allen's The Santa Clause?
Perhaps the one refreshing thing Hop has going for it is a surprising lack of 3D, especially considering the visually elaborate opening; a pass through the Easter Island factory, where all the chocolate is made, replete with CGI fountains of the tasty stuff. The sickly visuals will certainly tempt anyone with a sweet tooth, and kids will doubtless be left salivating, for the visual effects are impressive for a film produced on a tighter budget than most mainstream animated fare. However, this promise soon goes to pot once the live actors are forced to interact with their animated co-stars, as is true of so many films of this type.
An overabundance of pop music, a dull, inane plot, and a criminal squandering of Russell Brand's wily charms are just a few of the reasons why Hop ostensibly fails. Instead of crafting a storied celebration of Easter, Hop feels desperately keen to stay relevant, shoehorning in pop culture references into a story about a teenage rabbit, E.B. (Brand) who shirks the responsibility of taking up the mantle of the Easter Bunny in favour of pursuing a drumming career in Hollywood. E.B. plays the video game Rock Band incessantly, as though contractually-mandated, and it would seriously be of little surprise.
In Hollywood, E.B. lives with a human, Fred O'Hare (Marsden), a slacker who accidentally hits him with his car and decides to adopt him out of guilt. Frankly it's a shame the script is so pat, because Brand's colorful vocal work lends itself very well to animated fare such as this, even though his own act is generally inappropriate for children's eyes and ears. The real impropriety, however, comes from a script hurtling along a misguided trajectory, giving way to unsavory potty humour, such as E.B.'s ability to excrete jelly beans, setting up for the inevitable gag in which a human eats one. If the writers wanted to make Easter festivities appealing, this isn't the way to do it...
The one thing the film does of interest is to strangely draw attention to the fact that people aren't freaked out by seeing E.B., yet it never dares to go further with this admittedly quite interesting, postmodern idea. While one gag is cute and funny - as E.B. pretends to be a toy while Kaley Cuoco cuddles him - the gags generally hit rock bottom by the time David Hasselhoff shows up as a Simon Cowell-type talent show judge, which naturally gives way to an absurdly forced impromptu dance number, executed with such aggressive glee that it almost works, and will probably make you laugh out of sheer incredulous embarassment.
The hijinx become increasingly tiresome very quickly, however, culminating in E.B. sabotaging slacker Fred's important job interview by playing the drums with a gang of blind musicians. By the end, its already spotty focus is lost, and not even the rousing voice work of Brand, nor a blatant live action cameo by the man himself, can save things.
It offers few surprises, and for your buck all you'll essentially get is a cringe-inducing dance number, lame gags and an admittedly alluring display of oversized chocolate. Avoid.
note: appears on my film review site, TheFilmBlogger.com
Critics and fans alike have savaged the Resident Evil film series thus far for its lack of regard to the video game source material, and more apparently, its simple disregard for basic storytelling hallmarks, like intelligent characters, engaging dialogue and exciting action. Though I was among the few critics to give the first film a break - in as much as it enthusiastically embraced its B-movie origins - we have since had to endure a further two films, and now, the fourth entry into the successful series, Resident Evil: Afterlife, comes to us in 3D, just in case you had forgotten how much of a soulless cash-grab the series really is.
Continuing where Resident Evil: Extinction left us, Alice (Milla Jovovich) and her various clones are attempting to take the evil Umbrella leader Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts) out once and for all. After a bungled attempt leaves her stripped of her powers, she decides to head for Arcadia, a supposed Haven for survivors of the zombie apocalypse. This search brings her quickly back in touch with old comrade Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), who has lost her memory, and they also meet a small group of survivors along the way, with whom they will attempt to find salvation at Arcadia.
Though in virtually all filmmaking terms, Afterlife is an abject failure, it at least has more regard for its video game namesake than the previous films, especially the dreadful Resident Evil: Apocalypse. There isn't a single shoddy latex suit in sight, and most of the film's mildly rousing moments result from a few liftings from the game's most recent entry, Resident Evil 5; the curious mind-control device that Jill is fitted with appears here, as does the fifth game's hulking executioner character, and there also features a showdown on a boat. Still, while it might be more relevant and a touch more gratifying to those who enjoy the games, we must never forget that Afterlife is still directed by schlock master Paul W.S. Anderson, and therefore it is mostly a bust.
The hackneyed dialogue and lazy plotting is a prerequisite by this point, but what really hurts this film is Anderson's juvenile handling of a mass-budget project like this. The 3D is, in fact, the least of the problem - it clearly was not an afterthought, and during the film's opening hallway shootout, chunks of concrete hurtle towards the audience jubilantly - rather, Anderson seems to have spent most of his time in the edit suite gawking slack-jawedly at the time-dillution benefits of a camera with a high frame-rate. From the opening credits scene, which spends three minutes showing a female zombie turn around and eat a man, to the painstaking slow-mo fight between Claire and the aforementioned executioner, Anderson appears irresponsibly out of control on a project this flush. He indiscernibly ramps the action up and down, yet not in a way that is remotely exciting, as in Zack Snyder's hyper-kinetic 300.
Given that the film would run in at probably about an hour were it played entirely at full speed, it is unsurprising that the cynical laziness of the project creeps - nay, smashes - through in myriad other ways; the film's key-set pieces blatantly plagiarise some of the very best action films from the 1990s, such as a chaotic hallway shootout lifted from The Matrix, and a high-wire dive from a roof that mimmicks Die Hard. Perhaps scarier than the pilfering itself is the contentedness of Anderson and co. to coast by on this MO, for the film's climax provides little resolution and only sets things up for yet another sequel, setting the scene for what appears to be a final, final showdown before promptly smash-cutting to black. The smarminess of excising what could have been a fun action scene from the film purely to keep the moneyball rolling - in a film that barely runs 90 minutes, and could have definitely benefitted from more firepower - makes Afterlife one of the year's most infuriatingly complacent works.
So, why two stars? There is a certain perverse pleasure to seeing 3D utilised this way, and it does add to the experience, in that it is good 3D; yes, Anderson throws a lot of objects at the screen, but during those few times when slow motion is actually employed well, it does create a few striking images, particularly of rain droplets, bullets, and some gore. Tomandandy should also be commended for a musical score that generates palpable atmosphere, yet Anderson unfortunately has not found many accompanying images worth filling the screen with. Talented yet frequently slumming character actor Kim Coates is also delightfully hammy in a small role, in as much as he seems to be the only actor in the film who gets the material, while many of the other performers are guilty of the Jack Bauer-inspired serious, dramatic whisper (Jovovich and Wentworth Miller especially).
Afterlife otherwise fits every expectation of a Resident Evil film; it is dumb as a lug, horridly acted, and written without the flair or personality that makes the video games so much fun. How Anderson is going to wring yet another sequel out of this franchise, short of initiating a lesbian sub-plot between Jovovich, Larter and Sienna Guillory, is anyone's guess.
Red Dead Redemption, in its simplest terms, is basically a Western version of GTA. You play John Marston, a man bent on revenge against those who double-crossed him, and so an epic quest begins, with you having to kill, maim and kidnap, all in the name of revenge while atop a trusty horse.
Presentationally, this really is a marvel. The sound effects are superb and reminiscent of many a Western film. The voice work is typically sublime as usual from Rockstar, with Marton being voiced in a tough yet charming way. The weapons also sound superb, heightening the tension when a foe comes to assail you.
Visually, it is even more impressive. There is a sense of time and place that few games achieve here; everything revolves around the Sun and the environments react to the positioning of the sun. The characters look excellent, making the game work not only as a sublime actioner, but as a compelling bit of character-driven fiction.
Much like the better moments of GTA, the game really promotes free roaming, and the missions are almost an aside to the exploratory elements. You can just ride around for hours without encountering the same place twice, and there are living breathing towns for you to explore. There is also a moralty gauge which tracks how good or bad you're doing.
The icing on the cake is the insane multiplayer offering, where you can play online against others in epic Wild West showdowns, allowing you to rank up to Level 50. This, combined with plenty of challenges and things to bring you up to 100% ensures that this game will keep you occupied for ages, and is certainly well worth buying. One of the best of this generation so far.
note: also appears on my website, TheFilmBlogger.com
Though the opening credits - which feature amusing depictions of love throughout the ages - suggest there might be more to Letters to Juliet than your run of the mill rom-com, sadly there really isn't. Aside from the luminescent Amanda Seyfried, and a few winning moments from her co-stars, this is a fairly bland romance that's fortunate enough to be set in Italy, such that the gorgeous vistas serve as a palpable distraction from the fairly muddy love plot.
Sophie Hall (Seyfried) is a researcher at The New Yorker, yet she hopes to one day become a writer. While off on a "pre-honeymoon" with her business-minded restaurant owner fiancé Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), she comes across what was supposedly Juliet Capulet's home, a shrine on which jilted lovers and heartbroken souls pin their love letters for hope that she - or rather, a group of agony aunts who call themselves Juliet's secretaries - will reply with sage advice. Sophie comes across an old, discarded letter written in 1957 - from a woman named Claire, who fell in love with an Italian man, yet bolted out of fear at the last minute - and decides to reply, before the now-aged Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) returns to Italy with her cynical grandson Charlie (Chris Egan), to try and track her prized Italian down.
While it succumbs too often to rote formula, Letters to Juliet is certainly not without its pleasures, for if the lush expanses and gorgeous architecture doesn't whet your appetite, the film's love for Italian culture - from oil-soaked bread to luxurious wines - certainly will. Furthermore, one gets the impression that the cast had a damn fine time making the film - hardly surprising given the setting - especially Bernal, whose wacky and exaggerated turn is one of the film's more giddy treats.
However, after the smooth introduction, the film quickly settles into a comfortably formulaic routine, with Sophie, Claire and Charlie taking a road trip across Italy in search of Claire's lost love. Of course, posh tosser Charlie has a heart of stone - explained rather lazily later on with a car accident sob story - while Claire and Sophie are old optimists, and over the course of the film, they prove him wrong, while Sophie also has to consider if Victor is really who she wants to be with.
More effective is the film when it discards the "will they, won't they?" mystery that we all know the answer to, and just allows Egan and Seyfried to play off of one another, as they have sure chemistry and are quite a likeable pair (though Egan's toff accent is painfully heavy-handed). Unfortunately, though, the precious ambiguity of their relationship is pigeon-holed through most of their scenes together, stilting the film's comic momentum. Furthermore, the dramatic interludes - such as when the pair compare their tragedies - fatally deflate any sense of urgency, given that the characters aren't nearly interesting enough for us to care about their parent issues.
What works unclouded, however, is the chemistry between Redgrave and Seyfried. To the untrained eye, they could very well be blood relatives, and their exchanges come off as far more natural, surely because they aren't dripping with the same desperation as the Egan/Seyfried dynamic to push things forward.
The final reel, though, unfortunately ensures the film's solid features - the acting, the setting, the smartly postmodern premise - are ultimately quite negligible, as Juliet devolves into a prototypical romantic comedy. As with so many malnourished rom-coms, the frisson between the two leads simply isn't potent enough for us to believe that our protagonist would risk everything they have for it. The notion that even young people have the tendency to drift apart is refreshing, yet everything resolves all too easily, and we're never really asked to invest much in what's going on.
Seyfried is lovely as usual, and Vanessa Redgrave is a welcome third wheel, yet the toothless third act prevents this initially inventive rom-com from securing a safe landing. It is a sight more tolerable than most of its contemporaries, and it's hardly a painful watch, but it's evident that with attractive actors and a beautiful Veronian setting, director Gary Winick got complacent.
note: also appears on my film review website, TheFilmBlogger.com!
If you dismissed comic loon Ben Stiller as a one trick pony - perhaps quite rightly - Greenberg proves, beyond all doubt, that this isn't the case. Noah Baumbach - who previously wrote and directed the excellent The Squid and the Whale - successfully mutes Stiller's more familiar persona, guiding him to what is undoubtedly the best and most restrained performance of his career. The intellect demonstrated in his smarter projects such as The Cable Guy and Tropic Thunder is more adequately realised in this stark and well-drawn character drama.
Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a forty year-old nobody who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown, and is presently house-sitting for his successful, well-to-do brother (Chris Messina). While their lush home and exuberant holiday reminds Roger of his own failures, it also brings him into contact with his brother's personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), a pretty, yet introverted younger woman. Keeping on an even keel with her is just the beginning, though; can he keep his self-sabotaging persona and misanthropic worldview at bay?
It goes without saying that this is Ben Stiller at his most understated, yet the nature of Baumbach's tale - revolving around a mentally unstable man - nevertheless allow some of the better, wackier glimpses of, say, Derek Zoolander to glint through, as Stiller portrays the various tics and facial quirks of his character with the usual enthusiasm. The real triumph, though, is how Stiller fails to deign to indulgence, and when he's playing Greenberg as crazy - notably during one drug-fuelled party scene - it serves a purpose, in order to foreground not only his failure, but his absolute lack of connection with any other human being (Florence notwithstanding).
Curiously, Baumbach has tamed not only one but two off-the-rails comedians, the other being Rhys Ifans, who plays Ivan, Roger's former band mate and best friend. Cleverly shedding his usual hedonist role, Ifans here plays an old rocker in remission, married with kids and teetotal, delivering a stellar performance in this stead, and cementing the futility of Greenberg's attempts to rekindle the days of old.
The major find, however, is Gerwig, who manages the staggeringly challenging balance of being vulnerable enough to make her relationship with Greenberg convincing, while also being charming enough that we find her likeable and desirable. Also of praise is her willingness to disrobe for the role; the nudity here is far from titilatory, and its awkwardness helps cement Baumbach's bourgeois neorealist tone.
Even the most brilliant recent dramedies, such as Up in the Air, eventually make their jackass protagonist likeable or at least a charming jackass, yet Ben Stiller's jackass is neither charming nor that likeable by film's end. It's safe to say that some will find Roger Greenberg simply too impenetrable to care about, yet for those prepared to stay the course, it is a sure testament to Baumbach's integrity as a writer. Greenberg's misanthropy - such as commenting on a boisterous group enjoying themselves in a restaurant - runs deep enough that any sort of character reversal would betray the good work Baumbach had done up to this point. While his pessimism is surely grating, some of his painfully on-the-nose remarks - especially about the pomp of the L.A. scene - are at once excruciating and hilarious.
Though there is plenty of agreeable metaphor to be found throughout - such as the brother's ailing dog clearly representing Roger's clash with this lifestyle - it is Baumbach's firm grasp of character and consequence that, channelled through these excellent performances, is the true reward. So authentic-sounding is the dialogue that, as Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Stiller chat away in a quaint little café, it seems as though Baumbach just invited them out, pointed a camera at them, and began rolling.
Nevertheless, be warned: those expecting a chuckle-fest because Stiller's mug is on the poster are sure to be disappointed, for humour is found mostly through Roger's neurosis rather than one-liners or savage raunchiness. The film is undoubtedly more rewarding as a drama than a comedy, for its psychology is smart and the plotting - though sparse - surprisingly veers away from the rom-com formula you might expect (Gerwig, for one, is scarcely in the third act).
There are no histrionic moments of breakdown or confession here, nor are there any overwrought declarations of love, and no, the dog doesn't die. Minimalist almost to a fault - but not quite - Greenberg is another immaculately told story from Noah Baumbach that remembers the key truth that so many overblown dramas forget; life is taken in baby steps. Baumbach manages to say a lot without having to spell it out, thanks to a script that's not always pleasant, but always smart and attuned to the intuitive performers he is directing. How he manages all this while still following through with a rewarding finale is anyone's guess.
note: also appears on my film review website, TheFilmBlogger.com!
With both an American remake and a canonical sequel out a mere two years after its release, the brilliant Spanish horror film [REC] has encountered a turnaround period matched only in speed by the Saw films. However, a far better film than any but the original Saw, [REC] offered a riveting take on the handheld horror pic, and the thought of a sequel was as bemusing as it was exciting. Though the original film's status as the scariest horror film of the decade remains untainted after this sequel, [REC] 2 is nevertheless an intense thrill-ride that's an honourable and unique follow-up to the sublime original.
Continuing literally where the first film left off, [REC] 2 has a crack Special Ops team sent to the tenement block from the first film to control and contain whatever is inside, accompanied by an envoy from the Ministry of Health who is far from what he seems. Very much a film of thirds, [REC] 2 follows several perspectives, including the above team and also a small group of unruly teenagers, before serving up a final reel that answers each and every question lingering from the first film, chiefly the fate of TV reporter Angela (Manuela Velasco).
Though its comparisons to Aliens are favourable and true - in that it's a more action-packed sequel to an atmospheric and more stoic forebear - the real delight of [REC] 2 is in revisiting the same blood-stained locale of the first film, acutely aware of what lurks beneath each door, and observing as our hapless protagonists fall prey to the horrors therein. Reminiscent of many a scary video game, [REC] 2 masters the art of repetition, in that even though we know there's an infected little boy skulking around in the attic, it's still intense and terrifying when he finally jumps out and tries to eat everybody.
Through a series of cameras attached to each of the squad members' helmets, we're given extensive coverage of the chaos, making for a tight and bloody first act that's both a brilliant interpretation of first-person-shooter video games and an atmospheric reconfiguration of the first film's events. Though it rattles along at a far more frenzied pace than the first film, several portions - chiefly when one squaddie is trapped in a crawl space as the beasties approach - genuinely get the blood pumping.
The second act, which revolves around a group of delinquent teens who rather stupidly break into the building, is no doubt the film's weakest portion. However, it's also the shortest section and still features several inspired moments, including quite possibly the best moment in either of the films, involving one of the infected and a firework...
Needless to say, not much can be said about act three for the sake of remaining spoiler free, other than that it answers just about everything you'd want to know about the infection and the whereabouts of Angela, delivering a trio of nifty twists that make an easy gangway into a third film without seemingly overly manipulative or contrived. One of the turns - which involves the team's use of night vision - is especially inventive, seamlessly expanding on the first film's events in a clever and surprisingly coherent way.
Though it fails to learn from the first film's mistake of killing the post-film atmosphere with a noisy soundtrack over the credits, [REC] 2 is everything a horror sequel should be and usually isn't; intense, funny, scary, a little ridiculous, and absolutely convincing in its right to exist. The best horror film of the 2000s gets a mighty, muscular follow-up that loses only a little steam from sequel syndrome, and is quite simply one of the genre's most exhilarating and entertaining efforts in some time.
note: also appears on my film review site, TheFilmBlogger.com
Joe (Clive Owen)'s wife dies from cancer, and he is left to tend for their odd young son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). A fairly trite flashback within the first few minutes paints a portrait of his departed wife, Katy (Laura Fraser), as a dedicated mother, helping her son to read. There's also plenty of middle-class whimsy, and indeed, The Boys Are Back, the latest film from acclaimed Shine director Scott Hicks, layers the sentiment on thick from the outset. However, it's redeemed largely by a rare prestige-pic foray by talented lead Clive Owen, who proves himself among the first-rate of British actors working today.
There isn't a moment where this film doesn't belong to Owen, and it's clear from minute one that he is the buoyant force. If the overt sentiment is the adversity for mild prestige films like this, then Owen is the gallant hero smiting it down with a turn that is two parts suave, and three parts sympathy incarnate. The script, while platitude-infused, doesn't go totally wrong; it cements Joe's isolation, given the inability or simple disinclination for his son to truly come to terms with the death of his mother. The kid can't empathise with those horrifying nights that Joe cradled his dying wife in his arms as she took what might be her last breath (in the film's grimmest scene).
Where the film goes wrong is with the family drama clichés; Artie acts out, but comes across more as annoying than in any way sympathetic, while Joe appears the saint even if his "just say yes" attitude to fill the void left by Katy is, of course, totally irresponsible. At times, this method is harmless, in allowing Artie to perform dive-bombs into the bathtub, but this also extends to allowing him to run riot with immature fits, and so Joe has to slowly learn how to balance fun with responsibility. Joe's development as a parent is spelled out all too easily, though, with Joe's wife popping into frame every so often to offer a bit of wisdom, lazily spelling out what a tighter script could have managed without such well-worn contrivances. It's not that The Boys Are Back doesn't hit any emotional notes, because it does, but Hicks plays so eagerly with your heart-strings, in filling the film with plenty of "poignant", dialogue-free, picturesque scenes backed by tender music, that the result is often more alienating than emotive.
It isn't until close to the half-way mark that Joe's miserable son from his previous marriage, Harry (George MacKay), abounds, giving Joe the job of breaking the dull sad sack down over a few dramatic scenes, before leaving the two estranged step-brothers together to bond. While the aforementioned is all sappy operating procedure, the film earns a few points for not taking the incredibly obvious love interest route with Joe's recently single friend Laura (Emma Booth), who is herself a single parent. However, it sidesteps that cliché before tripping over another one, as some very flimsy friction between the two emerges, and the term "in a relationship" is thrown around out of nowhere. From that point, there's more familial tension as Harry has a plate-breaking episode in the film's most overwrought moment, causing the audience to view Owen's character as the poor sap who has to apologise for near enough doing nothing wrong.
The bulk of the film's narrative consists of Joe's unruly kids doing progressively more stupid things, and a cheap melodramatic twist near the film's climax is especially cheeky, but The Boys Are Back may well be the most singularly potent examination of a single father since the 1979 masterpiece Kramer vs. Kramer. Owen's mesmerising performance brings soul to a film that concedes a lot through its predictability and occasionally overwrought tone.
note: also appears on my review site, TheFilmBlogger.com
The Descent was a diverting slice of Scottish horror that dealt aptly with the psychological implications of losing a child while delivering enough visceral excitement for the gorehounds. It was well acted across the gamut - a rarity in the genre - and after managing over $50m worldwide against a paltry £3.5m budget, it became prime franchise material, resulting in the disappointingly crass, cynically titled The Descent Part 2.
Part 2 is ripe to be compared to the original Descent as Aliens is so frequently compared to Alien, aside from the fact that placing this within spitting distance of anything James Cameron or Ridley Scott has touched would be sacrilegious. Part 2 is ever-so-slightly more high concept than the first film, but what makes it reminiscent of Cameron's film is how it depicts a woman returning to the hostile environment from which she just (barely) emerged, this time venturing in with a team of overzealous grunts, while also pondering the death of the protagonist's daughter. However, to expect a film with the depth or nuance of either Aliens or the original Descent is to be extremely disappointed by this soulless and trite sequel.
The film begins as Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is recovering from the events of the first film, presumed to be the sole survivor. The local police and rescue forces, however, discovering that the girls had ventured into uncharted cave systems, need Sarah to go back in with them, hoping that a simple nod of her head or vague memory might allow them to locate her friends, especially Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who happens to be the daughter of a Senator. Reluctantly, coaxed by the abrasive Sherriff Vaines (Gavan O'Herlihy), Sarah leads them through the cave systems, but, with the loss of her daughter and the events of the previous film still adversely affecting her, she may be more a hindrance than a help.
Director Jon Harris has worked as an Editor on various accomplished productions - Snatch, Ripley's Game, Layer Cake and Eden Lake to name a few - but those well-constructed films apparently haven't taught him anything about good narrative, because The Descent 2 is a mostly routine horror film that, aside from a few moments of intermittent tension, is mostly a shameless retread of the original film minus most of the suspense, wit and smart psychology. Just as the film's evil cave-dwellers hunt the poor saps that go spelunking, this film's creators have mercilessly pilfered elements from the original film and reduced them to tiresome horror clichés in the name of a quick buck (or if the film's #9 UK box office opening is any indication, maybe not).
While the premise isn't exactly illuminating, there was the potential for at least a serviceable horror film here, and in interviews, Harris claimed that, despite adding males to the serving platter, he had no intention of diluting the "girl power" motif that permeated through the first film's all-girl roster. Harris claimed in the press that his intention was to depict the men as bumbling, heavy-handed oafs, while the women as sleek and stealthy, but in all honesty, no characters come off as glaringly intelligent this time around, and the result is a mish-mash of extremely predictable jump scares and the occasional splash of Kool Aid arterial spray.
The film really misses the boat with the potential to further examine Sarah's disconnect from her dead daughter, particularly given that one of the rescuers, Elen (Krysten Cummings), is a mother herself. Instead of using this to exacerbate Sarah's loss and inform the admittedly almost-good finale, we get rote clichés, with Elen recording a message to her daughter in case she doesn't make it out, allowing the tension to fizzle out entirely. As for the rest of the group, they're quite plainly-drawn and charmless; one never cares when they die, and when the film's twist arrives, its sheer cartoonishness is at odds with what was up to this point trying to be realistic and divorced from Superman-esque deus ex machina.
At least The Descent Part 2 isn't very long, though, and it breezes through its shopping list of horror conventions quite hastily. The third act just about manages the intended intensity level, but shoots itself in the foot with a laughable addendum that screams "sequel". However, box office receipts give me hope that this one is now dead in the water.
note: also appears on my film review site, TheFilmBlogger.com!
Repo Men is a film I enjoyed more when it was called either The Running Man or Total Recall. Borrowing heavily from both, as well as Repo! The Genetic Opera, this is a charmless sci-fi actioner that could have been a biting social allegory in better hands.
Repo Men is a polarising film if only because it feels like a tonally awkward, wasted opportunity. Taking place in 2025, where synthetic organs can now be purchased for an unfairly exorbitant price, the premise revolves around two repossession operatives, Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whittaker), who are sent to retrieve organs from those who default on their payments. While this a concept ripe for incisive satire, especially in the context of the economic downturn, it's a tragically underwritten affair, which has a few fun moments - chiefly Liev Schreiber's slimy CEO character - but it often crassly attempts to tease humour out of gratuitously violent scenes that are not inherently very funny.
The density of flashbacks and 111-minute runtime suggests that the writers are conceited enough to think that their film is something of substance, and it really hurts what could have been a brisk and unpretentious little farce. The extensive time devoted to what passes for character development is ultimately wasted, because none of it helps to make Remy's inevitable turn to the "good" side at all convincing emotionally. Similarly, a love interest - played by the gorgeous Alice Braga - is rushed through in the blink of an eye, and devolves into sure corniness by the time Remy asks what brand her apparently synthetic lips are. "They're all me", she replies.
There are long stretches of nothing in the film's mid-section, where the mistake was made to focus on ill-conceived drama which ultimately makes things a bit of a slog. Also, the voiceover narration is of the ho-hum sort that tries too hard to be witty while, again, being absolutely superfluous. Meanwhile, some of the attempts at humour are simply goofy, such as a joke about midgets, and Remy using a mascot suit to sneak into The Union HQ. In all of it, it is Schreiber's hammy performance that emerges unscathed, because all else the film has to offer later on is ridiculous magic contraptions that arbitrarily push the plot forward, and a flimsy twist that's barely believable even within this film's warped scope of logic.
There comes a point in most films like this where the wounded heroes recuperate from a beating and prepare for the final make-or-break battle, but not here. Repo Men lumbers to the end in a highly unimaginative fashion, giving little meaning to what has followed, and ultimately rendering about 30 of the film's 110 minutes redundant, given that they could have been trimmed without harming anything.
An Oldboy-esque hallway fight later on is admittedly a little diverting if only because of the excessive gore, but it's the only positively memorable scene in the whole thing. Otherwise, it all leads to a ridiculous but ultimately predictable end that would best be labelled as "unsatisfying" if only you cared enough to even label it.
Repo Men is one of the few films where I actually wanted a laugh track, if only to let me know that the film was being ironic and funny intentionally. It surely is intentional at some points, but not often enough to take advantage of a workable premise with good actors at the tip. The film's big twist isn't bad, but it will split audiences heavily, given that it's tacked on in the final five minutes, and ultimately negates a lot of what has transpired. Play safe and stick with your Arnold Schwarzenegger box-set instead.
note: also appears on my film review website, TheFilmBlogger.com
Following the audacious and gleefully nutty parkour-actioner District B13, and most recently the surprisingly entertaining Taken, barmy French director Pierre Morel, again under the tutelage of Luc Besson, throws another self-consciously ridiculous action pic our way in From Paris with Love, and while the results are more varied this time, it's still an admirable effort in all of its unapologetically silly glory.
James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a personal aide to the American ambassador stationed in Paris, while also moonlighting as a diminutive CIA operative, when he becomes embroiled in a terrorist bomb plot. Myers - who has quietly impressed in a variety of roles, chiefly as Woody Allen's slimier-than-shit antagonist in Match Point - plays Reece like James Bond's nerdier best friend, and manages a pitch-perfect American accent for the most part.
It goes without saying that Morel once again nails the harebrained tone of his previous films, but he also fields out the clichés thick and fast, and - as in the instance when Reece can't get a surveillance chip to stick to the underside of a table with bubblegum - it's also pretty goofy at times. However, it isn't long before Reece is informed by his superiors that he is to team up with a fellow operative, in Charlie Wax (John Travolta) - a foul-mouthed, energy drink-chugging badass - and the film picks up a lot once this happens, with Wax dragging Reece through several increasingly nuts scenarios without really clueing him in on what's going on.
Indeed, the film walks a fine line between sheer corniness and rambunctious, hilarious irresponsibility, but for every cringe-inducing one-liner, there is a dafter-than-daft set-piece to apologise for it. It's undoubtedly fun seeing Travolta - bald-headed and all - single-handedly taking down a mob of Asian gangsters, and later on sliding down a pole upside-down, shooting the baddies en masse, but much like Morel's other films, it all feels a bit too harmless, and had he gone the Crank route, filling the screen with rib-tickling volumes of gore, he might have better nailed that over-the-top tone he is so desperately reaching for, and almost grabbing.
It's hard to deny the action is well-staged, though Morel only really embraces the absurdity full-on in the film's latter half, with a rather inventive use of a time-bomb being a particular highlight. Aside from the action, there's little other than Travolta's occasionally cutting zinger worth paying attention to, but there are a few exceptions - such as Wax forcing Reece to snort a handful of cocaine while in a packed Eiffel Towel lift - and nine times out of ten, these scenes work because of the chemistry between Travolta and Myers.
The twist-filled final reel is appropriately off-the-rails, and the climactic chase sequence ensures that things go out with a bang (literally), allowing Morel carte blanche to go nuts, while once again demonstrating some of that gorgeous car-chase direction that he mastered on Taken. There's also a tinge of moral tension inherent in the film's final dilemma, which riffs quietly on the nature of terrorism, yet Morel also remains true to the film's tone, keeping things loose and light.
If you enjoyed Morel's other films, you'll likely get a kick out of this one; it's loaded with frantic action, is fast and light on its feet, and benefits from Travolta's go-for-broke performance, as well as Morel's confident direction. It begins slowly and is certainly cheesy at times, but it's also refreshingly un-PC and serves up a few head-turning twists.