August 2013


closed_circuitThey say that London has more closed circuit TV surveillance per head of population than any other city on the face of the earth, more than 20 times that of Paris. They also say that in London, you’re caught on camera around 300 times a day. For all that, though, if you were to sit in front of a bank of CCTV monitors, you would be forgiven for being overwhelmed by this information, excited perhaps. However, after a few minutes of watching Cockneys going about their average day of eating jellied eels and not squealing on their own, no doubt it would become exceptionally tedious and boring and you’d start to wonder why you’d bothered watching it in the first place.

Closed Circuit, then, is a case of art imitating life.

It starts promisingly enough. Through a bank of the aforementioned CCTV monitors, we watch the residents of a London borough go about their day. In a marketplace, a white van reverses into a space it’s not supposed to be and while stall holders and customers protest, it explodes. In echoes of July 7, 2005, it would seem that terror has hit the shores of the UK.

This accounts for the first five minutes of the movie and just as it’s getting exciting, we jump six months in the future where we learn that a supposed Islamic terrorist mastermind is being held awaiting trial for the atrocity and from this point on the CCTV device is all but abandoned and it becomes about as interesting as guarding the sandwich aisle of Boots in the last half hour before closing.

We’re introduced to divorcee Martin Rose (Eric Bana), a lawyer for the defense who only winds up with the job because his predecessor took a long walk on a short rooftop. Or did he? Rose’s job is complicated because due to the nature of the crime, there is some information that cannot be divulged in open court and wouldn’t you know it but it’s the pointlessly hyphenated Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), Rose’s ex-mistress and reason for his divorce, who has already been appointed as special counsel and who is privy to all the juicy stuff that Rose doesn’t, and shouldn’t, get to hear. This clear conflict of interest is happily ignored until the plot demands that we all pay attention to it. And wouldn’t you believe it, but it turns out that the supposed terrorist may have some connections to the establishment that people would rather keep quiet. Nothing happens here that you don’t expect.

Bana and Hall deliver their exposition-laiden dialogue, from a Steven Knight script that has all the subtlety and style and nuance of a school nativity play,  with such wooden determination it becomes something of a surprise that they manage to last the movie’s 96 minute duration without being felled by Brazilian loggers and turned into a pack of Ikea’s finest. Only two performances leave the wrap party with anything like dignity and both are woefully underused. Jim Broadbent does what Jim Broadbent always seems to do and excels as a pathetic weasel of an Attorney General, and Riz Ahmed (star of Four Lions, a far more compelling view of terrorism in the UK) is convincing and threatening as an apparently wet-behind-the-ears intelligence officer.

Basics in terms of thrillers and in terms of general film-making simply fail. It may be worth mentioning to the editor that when you have the camera on Character One as they’re talking to Character Two and then cut to Character Two while still offering the back of the head of Character One while they complete their speech, it’s probably best to make Character One’s jaw move so it looks like he’s still talking, otherwise the spell gets a tad broken. Twice. Similarly to the music director, if you insist on breaking out the cello to deliver some thrilling music, it’s probably best to save it for when something thrilling is actually happening on screen and not using it at every opportunity. For example, watching Rose row along the Thames doesn’t meet this criteria.

It’s a turgid waste of time and even when, in the last ten minutes, it finally manages to become thrilling, it’s far too little, far too late. No matter how many cameras you choose to waste on a turkey, it’s always going to be a turkey. There’s a lesson for us all there.

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The_World's_End_posterEveryone has moments from their formative years that they wish had ended better. If we’re lucky, it’s stuff we did do. If we’re unlucky, it’s things we didn’t, because therein lies regret. For me, I really wish I had gone to the lavatory before attempting to cycle from Falkirk to Stirling at the age of fourteen.

Regret for not seeing stuff through meets up with delayed male adolescence to form the bones of The World’s End, the latest movie from Edgar Wright and the conclusion to his Cornetto Trilogy of comedies featuring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Other entries, of course, are the first zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead which was followed up by pseudo-buddy-cop flick Hot Fuzz.

I’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time, so much so that I found myself watching it at 10pm on a school night, the very first screening I could possibly make without flying 3,500 miles a couple of weeks ago. Anticipation and expectation have hardly reached such heady levels. Surely I was setting myself up for a fall? Surely it would end up being a massive disappointment? Surely Wright, Pegg, and Frost would find it impossible to close out the trilogy as strongly as they started it?

In short, the answers are no, no, and no. It’s great. I loved it. It’s funny, honest, bizarre, and an utterly compelling way to spend an hour and fifty minutes.

Twenty years ago, five school friends embarked on a legendary pub crawl — The Golden Mile — in their hometown of Newton Haven, where their goal is to have a drink in all twelve pubs. After pints, brawls and a quick fumble in the disabled toilets, the gang fail to stay upright enough to reach the final pub, The World’s End. Despite this, the night would linger with Gary (Simon Pegg, in a more anti-hero role than we’re used to seeing) as the best of his life. In the two decades that have followed, the other four friends have moved away, grown up, become responsible members of society but Gary has always lingered in the same alcohol-fuelled hedonism of his youth. After a therapy session, he employs charm, stupidity, lies, and emotional blackmail to reunite the gang and convince them to give The Golden Mile another shot and this time finish what they started. The hardest to persuade is the now tee-total Andy (Nick Frost in a role far removed from the buffoon that featured in Shaun and Fuzz), bruised physically and emotionally by his former best friend.

Upon their return, Gary learns that his friends aren’t the only things that have changed over the years. He’s not recognised as the local hero he believes himself to be. The town itself has grown more bland, more homogenised. Foreboding things to come, the first two pubs are carbon copies of each other, stripped of charm and tradition; they’ve been Starbucksed.

It’s a wonderful introduction to the movie, where the soundtrack and the group dynamic combine to be nostalgic of lost youth, reflective of how memory tends to be selective, and also serve a reminder of how priorities change as we grow up. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think I would have been quite happy if the rest of the movie stuck to the pub crawl and things didn’t go a bit mental.

But at the fourth pub, things do indeed go a bit mental. In the gents’ toilet of The Cross Hands, Gary gets into a fight with a local teenager where, after a collision with the porcelain, the teenager’s head comes off and an inky blue liquid pours out rather than blood. Soon after, the gang discover that the population of Newton Haven has been replaced by a robotic alien army. With Gary deciding that the best way to deal with this is to continue with The Golden Mile and pretend that it isn’t happening, as they get drunker, it becomes funnier watching them deal with the madness going on around them.

The primary joy comes from the chemistry between Pegg and the magnificent Frost whose relationship, despite the off-type in character, is as entertaining as ever. The moment where Frost finally flips and rips off his cardigan is fantastic moment. Peter (Eddie Marsan), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Oliver (Martin Freeman with an omnipresent bluetooth headset) all put in fantastic turns, particularly Marsan, as the other members of the troop.

The nods to Shaun and Fuzz are clear. It’s not a huge leap from zombies to mindless robots and we’re presented again with the population of another small sleepy town hiding a shared dastardly secret. It’s a testament to the charm and humour of the movie that these similarities plus this sudden genre turn don’t really jar or feel contrived.

Edgar Wright’s direction is as crisp and energetic as the script he penned with Simon Pegg but if I have a complaint about his work in general it’s that he plays about too much at the end a film. Usually, he gets away with it. The six-ending ending of Hot Fuzz worked as an exaggerated pastiche of action movie denouements where the dead bad guy is never really dead at the first time of asking. The supposed extended closing fight in Scott Pilgrim vs The World (Scott vs Nega Scott) turned out to be thankfully brief. Here, there’s one scene out of the final three which doesn’t earn its place, seems to switch the main voice of the movie, and just feels odd.

And so we come back to regret. This team of directing and acting talent works so well together and provides such guarantees of comedy and entertainment that it would be a real shame if the circle and trilogy does close here, even if it is on such a high note.

A triumph. A veritable one at that.

Kick-Ass-2Back in 2010, I remember looking forward to Kick-Ass. I also remember being disappointed in it a little. I had high expectations but it wasn’t as funny as the trailer made it appear and really, a couple of set pieces aside, it wasn’t nearly kick-ass enough. I’ve watched it a few times since then and while it’s still a decent enough movie, it still leaves me wishing it had been just a little bit better.

Three years later and I wasn’t looking forward to the sequel. At all. It seems that every other movie that’s released these days is inspired by one comic book franchise or another so the freshness that was part of that whole expectation package with the original has gone black and moldy and now not even the dog will eat it. On top of that, it’s been taking something of a kicking from the critics and Jim Carrey, the biggest star in the movie, is refusing to promote it due to the levels of violence.

Imagine my surprise, then — just imagine — when I came out of the cinema thinking, ‘Y’know? That was pretty good.’ And yes, even the thought of ‘I probably enjoyed that more than the original’ crossed my mind and found nothing to the contrary to hinder its progress.

It’s not without its problems, but after a fairly ropey start, strewn with one dud line after another — usually delivered by a below-par Christopher Mintz-Plasse — the second half was full of action, funny, and did kick some serious ass.

We pick up the story pretty much where we left off. Thanks to Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his exploits in taking down a crime syndicate boss, New York is now awash with wannabe superhero vigilantes and one particular super-villiain (Mintz-Plasse) who has cast aside his Red Mist identity and reinvented himself as the — ahem — Money Funster and who is assembling an army of baddies to destroy Kick-Ass to avenge his father’s death (aforementioned syndicate boss) from the first movie. Meanwhile, Hit-Girl (the utterly fantastic Chloe Grace Moretz) finds herself promising her guardian she will no longer take to the streets fighting crime and will try to assimilate herself back into high school and a normal teenaged life, forcing Kick-Ass to find some new partners to help him in his quest.

It very much feels like a movie comprised of separate threads, especially in the first half, and some threads work better than others. The one involving the taming of Hit Girl is probably best, simply because Hit Girl is a far more interesting character than Kick-Ass. Not at all hindering the character in terms of popularity is the fact that Moretz has a wonderful screen presence and there are times — many times — when she carries the weight of the entire movie on her shoulders and even though this thread has been plucked from the Mean Girls rug, it builds to a quite hilarious climax. Jim Carrey, despite his change of heart towards the movie, is also something of a revelation. Barely recognisable, he gives a storming performance as Colonel Stars and Stripes, the leader of the band of heroes ultimately joined by Kick-Ass. Sadly, though, he’s not in it enough. The thread involving — ahem — Melon Farmer probably remained the least interesting for the longest time but even that eventually found its starter button and when the threads combine at the end, the disjointed feel at the start feels just about worth the effort.

I suppose I’d better say something about Kick-Ass himself, considering it’s in the name of the film and stuff. Taylor-Johnson’s acting has certainly improved in the last three years, but for a supposed super-hero, he sure does get beat up an awful lot (and yes, I get the irony) and he spends far too large a chunk of the first hour of the movie whining on the phone to Hit Girl, begging her to return to her crime-fighting ways.

It’s nowhere near a triumph, and director Jeff Wadlow, while handling the action sequences beautifully, seems to struggle with maintaining momentum on the multiple threads in a script that he, along with Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar, was responsible for. It’s very violent, mostly in true overblown comic book fashion, very profane and there are a few scenes that perhaps shouldn’t have escaped a sharp pair of editing scissors. But given the low expectations, bad reviews, and abundance of similar movies that have either been and gone or are coming up this year, it managed to entertain me enough to encourage my thumbs to the “up” position.

elysium-firstposter-full2Neill Blomkamp burst on to the scene with one of the first movies I reviewed on this blog. Unapologetically casting South Africa’s apartheid past into the future, District 9 was a bit special, even though it kinda lost its way when it discarded the documentary feel of the first half. Blomkamp returns with a bigger budget, Hollywood A-Listers, and with his bleak brush turned to Los Angeles, he tries to repeat the magic trick he pulled in 2009.

It will come as no surprise to learn that in Blomkamp’s vision of 2154 is pretty depressing. It seems that due to horrendous world over-population, all the rich and well-to-do have abandoned ship and now live in a Utopian space station, the titular Elysium, where every house has a fancy contraption that heals all wounds and cures all diseases, while everyone else has to scratch a living in the fancy-contraption-free dusty shanty town that LA has become.

Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con trying to rebuild his life working in a factory that builds the robots and munitions that keep Elysium such a safe haven. He gets involved in a nasty accident at work and finds himself with radiation poisoning and five days to live. He has to get himself up to the fancy contraptions to get himself cured and to do that he has to turn to one of his old gangster friends who has a plan. The plan involves transplanting data from the brain of the CEO of the guy who runs the robot factory into Max and, inexplicably, fitting Max with an exo-skeleton over his t-shirt. The Secretary of Defense up on Elysium, played by Jodie Foster, gets wind of this and sends her star henchman, Kruger (District 9‘s lead man Sharlto Copely) to stop him. Max’s long lost love, Frey (Alice Braga) and her annoying dying daughter are thrown in as an afterthought and set up very early how the movie is going to end. Honestly, the plot is even more convoluted than I’m making out and so ridden with holes that any socio-political point the movie strives to make about class ends up leaking out and making a terrible mess of the carpet.

I doubt there are many directors working today who can present as convincing a view of the future as Blomkamp. Everything about the visuals of Elysium are as impressive as its predecessor. You live and breathe the world he creates and it’s an unsettling atmosphere that’s well realised. Where he fails, though, is in the suspense department. Elysium is an oddly dull affair and in its 109 minute duration there’s very little to raise an eyebrow, never mind the pulse.

Matt Damon is, despite Team America: World Police‘s best efforts, a fine actor. His desperate portrayal of Max is a definite highlight and he does his best to distract us from everything else that doesn’t work as well. Like Jodie Foster. Equipped as she is with an awful British accent, it’s difficult to take her role of prime antagonist seriously. Worst of all, it would appear that most people in this future world need little more than a cursory glance at a scrolling page of the machine code that winds up inside Max’s head to decipher its true intent. Oh, and on Elysium, no one ever seems to be at home.

Conceptually, it’s surprisingly weak and leans too much on its inspirations, by and large the same inspirational nods that were visible in District 9, and the last five minutes are so unforgivably frustrating that seats in movie theatres around the world will end up with chunks ripped out of their arm rests. It’s hard not to be disappointed that the result of four years of Blomkamp’s efforts has turned out so average and will linger so briefly in its viewers’ minds after the end credits have rolled.

millersWe’re The Millers is an odd beast. It’s quite a rarity, in actual fact. As I type, there’s probably a lab full of Judd Apatow wannabes dissecting it to its very bones to understand how it ticks. Because the most interesting thing about it is that somehow it manages to be far better than anyone could rationally expect it to be, and yet simultaneously it’s still a bitter disappointment. The clues, though, were always there. They were there at the start. They were scattered throughout. They were there at the end. It was always going to be so.

The first clue is right there in the lobby of the movie theatre, before you even buy the ticket. At the top of the billing we have a certain Jennifer Aniston. I’m all for a female having a top billing in a comedy, but The One That Had The Hair That Somehow Made Her Really Popular Twenty Years Ago from Friends has a dismal track record when it comes to picking the vehicles to display her talents. Her back catalogue from 2004 is a litany of excruciating romantic comedies with a formula that, God bless her, she stuck to until 2011’s Horrible Bosses where she abandoned the girl-next-door persona in favour of a more edgy, unlikable image. Neither really work.

The second clue is the premise of the movie. An episode of South Park once suggested that the gags in Family Guy were actually generated by a tank of manatees who selected five random elements from a bunch of idea balls that would be turned into a joke. For example, Laundry, Date, Winning, Mexico, Gary Coleman combine to inspire a Peter Griffin memory of neglecting to do the laundry but then winning a date to Mexico with Gary Coleman. I suspect the creative masterminds behind We’re The Millers were equally aquatic: Jennifer Aniston, Stripper, Drug Mule, RV, Mexico.

These five randomly selected elements were generated into the following synopsis. David (Jason Sudekis) is a small time, nickel-bag drug dealer. When he and his young, simpleton neighbour Kenny (Will Poulter) attempt to prevent the mugging of a young girl called Casey (Emma Roberts), it’s David himself who loses out, robbed of tens of thousands of dollars and a big ole bunch of weed. David’s supplier (Ed Helms off of Hangover, Hangover Part II, Hangover Part III) is understandably pissed off by this and instructs David to pick up some marijuana from Mexico and smuggle it back into the US to pay off his debt. Deciding that the best way to do this is by posing as a family on vacation in a massive RV, he enlists stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold-sorta, Rose (Aniston), to be his pretend wife with Kenny and Casey posing as his kids. The audience probably figures out that the Mexican weed doesn’t actually belong to Ed Helms and in fact is the property of a Mexican drug baron long before the scriptwriters did. Somewhere along the way, hilarity was meant to ensue but kinda got sidetracked by every Mexican character either being a part of a drug cartel, horribly impoverished, or a corrupt cop.

Clue number three. The movie is basically National Lampoon’s Vacation meets Scarface meets that episode of Frasier where they accidentally take an RV into Canada.

It’s not entirely without a few chuckles — I smiled a couple of times, mostly on the inside — and Will Poulter in particular is something of a breath of fresh air, and the weirdo Fitzgerald family in another RV on the same road provide a few funny moments and are hugely more interesting as a family unit than the Millers. In all honesty, I didn’t expect to take that much from it. But at the heart of the movie’s problems is the fact that we have largely unlikeable characters smuggling drugs into the US and we’re supposed to be sympathetic with their cause.

Clue number four comes at the end. When all is said and done and the funniest things in the movie are three shots of a swollen testicle, and the Friends theme tune on the blooper reel — and oh, jeez … a blooper reel? Seriously? — you know the bar was never set that high to begin with.

red-2-teaser-poster

As a species, we’ve accomplished a lot. We’ve achieved things that we should all be terribly proud of, things that are really impressive when you think about it. For example, we put a man on the moon a mere sixty-odd years after we discovered flight. How incredible is that? Think of all the brain power and ingenuity that went into building something like the Large Hadron Collider. Or the minds that dared to dream up the concept of convincing everyone that they should carry a phone around with them wherever they go. So yeah. We should all give ourselves a pat on the back. We’re pretty smart cookies.

And yet.

And yet, as a species we still haven’t figured out a way to stop Bruce Willis from making movies. Humbling, isn’t it?

RED 2 is another sequel where I haven’t seen the first movie but I was told that the first one was a “lot of fun.” That may well be the case.

RED 2 isn’t a lot of fun. In fact, it isn’t any kind of fun.

What RED 2 is, is a perfect storm where anything that can go wrong in the making of a movie, does go wrong. This is what happens when actors, writers, and the director simply don’t care. You’re not telling me that Helen Mirren doesn’t know how to act, or John Malkovich doesn’t know how to act, but they both give staggeringly lifeless performances. You’re not telling me director Dean Parisot isn’t aware that Bruce Willis is treating each and every line he has to utter with contempt (deservedly so, by the way) and yet he can’t be bothered to shoot a retake.

The script was … well, I suppose the word is “written” … by Jon and Erich Hoeber. These people have other credits under their belts (not for anything decent) but they manage to give the impression that they have only seen a script once and just have a basic understanding of the English language. The thing that in proper movies would be called a “plot” but here is really just a collection of sounds and shapes, has to do with a special kind of time bomb in the Kremlin or something and Bruce Willis and John Malkovich, who play ex-CIA agents, have to stop it and some other people want to stop them from doing stopping it. Or want to do other things, like kill them. I’m not sure. It’s largely pointless and doesn’t make any kind of sense and while it isn’t making any kind of sense, it’s trotting around the globe increasing everyone’s carbon footprint.

Here’s an example of it not making any sense. They break into the Kremlin by knocking down a wall in the basement of a Papa John’s Pizza, which presumably is next door.

Here’s another example of it not making any sense. A helicopter crashes at Heathrow airport and no one turns up to see what happened.

Here’s yet another example of it not making any sense. Anthony Hopkins’ character has been in jail for 30 years but has no problem whatsoever in flying a Lear jet.

Sigh. It’s such a shame. There are some impressive names attached to this. It’s not the worst concept in the world. On paper it should be at least decent. But instead it’s proof, if it were ever needed, that actors can turn a good script into a bad movie but they can seldom do the opposite.

Okay. So back to the Bruce Willis thing. Maybe if we take turns at parking over his drive way. It’d be a start. Who’s in?

the-way-way-back-posterI wasn’t born in a country where the station-wagon has attracted any degree of popularity, and nor did I spend my formative years in a big family whose travel necessitated a people carrier. We all managed to fit in a Citroën AX, thank you very much. So “the way, way back” is a phrase that had to be explained to me. In the world of being a passenger in a car, you can sit in the front, the back, the way back, or the way, way back, which is essentially sitting in the boot space, facing the direction of where you’ve just been rather than where you’re heading to.

So the way, way back is literally where shy 14 year old, Duncan, (2012‘s Liam James) finds himself at the start of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s latest offering, sharing a car with his mum, Pam (Toni Collette), his mum’s overbearing new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his mum’s boyfriend’s daughter (Zoe Levin) as they head to a beach house in Massachusetts where they’ll be spending the summer together. Figuratively, that’s where he is too, something of an outsider in his own family. So. Awkward teenager on vacation reinvents self. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?

The first act of the movie is pretty pedestrian stuff. Because the premise and themes are so bereft of surprise, there really needs to be something happening in the first few scenes to grab the attention. There isn’t. We get lots about what’s driving these characters, but very little in the way of plot development to push the rather obvious story along. We know before we sit down that this is going to be a summer of discovery for young Duncan. We know very early on that Trent is bit of a dick and is probably playing away from home. We get the impression that Toni Collette’s character is rather downtrodden and probably scared of another relationship failing, desperate to fit in. These things, and more, are established while the popcorn is still warm but it’s reinforced so much that I ended up struggling to keep my eyes open.

And then we’re introduced to Sam Rockwell’s character, Owen; the owner of a scuzzy water park that satisfies the aquatic needs of those not rich enough to spend their summer days on a private beach, and he is utterly fantastic. He’s funny. He’s charming. He’s warm. Put simply, he steals the show and his performance is one of my favourites of the year so far. When he offers Duncan a job at the water park, he becomes the catalyst for Duncan’s metamorphosis and from here, the script sparkles, the jokes find their target with much more regularity, and even though the journey is heading to a predictable end, much like the rides at the water park, getting there is great fun.

Performance-wise, the adult actors are as good as you’d expect from a quick scan of the poster, although it does take a while to get used to Steve Carrell being such a dick. And given that the movie is billed as a comedy-drama, Carrell gets not one funny line — not one — which feels as though his involvement in this project stemmed from a worm hole in the space time continuum that worked its way to a parallel universe. It’s a little difficult and unnatural to watch this morally questionable Machiavellian character spin his web of deceit one moment, and then expect him to declare his love of lamp the next.

The kids, though, are a bit hit and miss. Duncan’s love interest, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb off of Jumper and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory), is capable but not really asked to do much that’s especially tasking. But it’s Liam James’ interpretation of Duncan that is probably least convincing. There are moments where you think he’s doing a great job with his awkward teenager remit, but then there are moments where the awkwardness itself seems awkward and a little bit forced and slightly stale. River Alexander, who plays Duncan’s friend, the lazy-eyed Peter, is the stand out of the younger cast and despite being the youngest, he’s the one showing the others how it’s done. It’s just a shame he didn’t have more screen time.

All this said, overall it’s a very enjoyable telling of a very familiar tale which easily delivers more than the minimum laugh-out-loud count required to be deemed a full-fledged comedy. With a stronger opening, it would be great. And with a running time of a little over 100 minutes, it’s something of a joy to discover that not all movies think they should last three hours.