December 2013


grudge-match-posterIt’s good to do things you don’t enjoy every now and then, and going to see a bad movie is no exception. A bad movie is the sliver of ginger you get with sushi. It cleanses the cinematic palate. It readjusts the benchmark so that good movies, movies without James Franco, can be enjoyed to their fullest. But sometimes, the bad movie doesn’t have the sense to keep its end of the bargain.

Grudge Match is one such example. On paper, it looks like someone watched Rocky and Raging Bull back-to-back and wondered who would win in such a match-up if the two were to fight today. Inside that person’s head is where the idea should’ve stayed. Instead, it got into the hands of director Peter Segal, who must have photos in a safe somewhere because people keep on letting him make movies, and he somehow convinced Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro to sign up, and would you believe it, the idea has made it to the screen.

De Niro plays Billy “The Kid” McDonnen. Stallone is Henry “Razor” Sharp. I was Gavin “Not Holding Out Much Hope” Broom. The two boxers had something of a rivalry 30 years ago. The Kid destroyed Razor in their first match-up. Razor got his revenge in bout two, although everyone knew The Kid wasn’t fit. And then right before fight three, Razor retired for reasons unknown. This stalemate sits uncomfortably in The Kid’s craw for three decades until the two are inadvertently reunited when they turn up in dotted suits at the same studio to record animation for an Xbox boxing game and get into an actual fight while their computerized avatars try to keep up. Cutting an already long story short, circumstances contrive to allow the rematch to take place with both pugilists in their sixties. With a curmudgeonly Alan Arkin turning up to train Razor, it’s The Kid’s estranged son BJ, so-called because they need to use it in a batch of obvious gags at later points, who reunites with dad to put him through his paces and rebuild their relationship. Throw in Kevin Hart as the fast-talking promoter and Kim Basinger as Razor’s lost love and BJ’s mom and there you have all the set-up you need for a 90 minute sporting comedy. Segal, in his wisdom, stretches it out to two hours.

The fact of the matter is, though, that in places it is actually pretty funny. Admittedly, it takes a while to get to its fighting weight, but when it does I was pleasantly surprised at the chemistry between Stallone and De Niro and I laughed out loud several times, especially when Arkin was on the screen being offensive to people.

Although it has its moments — the best of which comes during the credits with a couple of cameos that will make your jaw drop — there’s no getting away from the fact that, as sure as Rocky III follows Rocky II, it’s desperately predictable, it’s too long, it has an annoyingly cute kid with too many lines, and while both leads genuinely look like they’re having fun, De Niro is operating at 70% and Stallone … well, Stallone can act. He really can. But when he’s asked to sell a big ticket moment in a movie, he’s not that reliable, even in a boxing movie where one would imagine him being at his most comfortable. Give him some mumbly asides, give him some natural dialogue and he’s pretty good, but that speech just before the montage simply doesn’t work. Perhaps most damning of all is the fight that the whole movie is working towards is as dull as actual boxing.

So while it’s not bad enough to be true sushi ginger, it’s not remotely good enough to be wasabi. It’s somewhere in between and I’m afraid I don’t know enough about Japanese cuisine to know what that is.

american_hustleIt’s been something of a regret of mine that I didn’t fully embrace the years when I had good hair. Because between 1994 and 1998, I did have good hair. Then it started to fall out and I started to try and cover up that fact. This supposed ruse lasted far longer than it should have. More than ten years too long. I finally took the decision to shave the lot off in 2010 and since then I’ve been bald and proud. I’m glad I got that off my chest. Thanks for listening.

American Hustle opens with a card that tells us that some of what we’re about to see actually happened. Then we’re offered a two minute sequence of a tubby Christian Bale trying to construct what little hair he has into a decent comb-over, and even though I was in a cinema, a state, a country, where only one person knows of my own old follicle issues, it was enough to make me shrink in my seat.

As David O Russell (The Fighter which I loved, and Silver Linings Playbook which I hated) introduces us to the world of American Hustle, we get a stark reminder of how truly diabolical the 70s were. This reminder particularly takes the shape of Bradley Cooper’s tight curly perm and more generally anything that anyone wears in the entire movie.

Based loosely on the Abscam scandal, Hustle tells the story of Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), a small time con man who earns his money by offering loans to people which he never intends on fulfilling and instead nabs their sizable application fees, whilst also dabbling in stolen art. Although he’s married, he soon hitches up with Sydney (Amy Adams and her side-boobs which have never had such exposure) whose impression of an English lady helps the scam. However, they’re soon stung by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper and his formidable perm) and forced to help him bring down bigger con-men, more corrupt officials. DiMaso’s ambition knows no bounds, though, and they soon find themselves involved with big government and the mob and completely out of their depth.

It’s a movie that very much takes from other sources. Watching it, I was reminded of Goodfellas, Oceans Eleven, Boogie Nights amongst others. This isn’t a problem as such, but in terms of sting movies, we know to expect the unexpected, we know that side deals have been struck, and there’s always going to be another twist. In these respects, we’re not disappointed.

So for me, this was always going to be a movie that was more about performances than it was story and in that regard it really excels. Christian Bale with his oozing sleaze, Jeremy Renner as a New Jersey mayor, the magnificent-as-ever Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s crazy wife and the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate, and even Bradley Cooper and that perm all put in some great work. Most surprisingly, Robert De Niro actually turns up for work playing a high ranking Mafioso dude, rather than phoning in his performance which he’s been more than guilty of doing in recent years.

And it’s very funny. It’s not funny in a gag type way, but just by the nature of the situation and people’s natural interactions with each other. Some trailers bill it as a comedy. It really isn’t, but I laughed more here than I did at Anchorman 2, which perhaps isn’t saying an awful lot. So it’s funny and it’s cleverly told. There’s a lot of joy to be had from how the story unfolds. Science Oven Conversations deserves its own movie.

On the downside, at 138 minutes, it feels at least 20 minutes too long. This isn’t a story that should take more than two hours to tell, especially given that it’s a story that feels like it’s been told before. Plus, like the comb-over, it flatters to deceive, only in this instance it does so by having the audacity of having a fantastic cast working at their peak and a more than competent director / writer at the helm, rather than a good comb, plenty of sculpting time in the morning, and some industrial-strength hairspray. The story convinces. But only if you don’t prod it too much.

saving_mr_banksIn September of 1999, I saw American Beauty in a cinema in Cambridge, MA. A few months later, I saw it again in Glasgow. The dreaded C word crops up in it, and I remember being surprised at the different reactions to this one sweary word between the American and Scottish audiences. In the US, there were gasps of shock. In Glasgow, they laughed.

In Saving Mr Banks, the latest effort from director John Lee Hancock, Emma Thompson’s portrayal of P L Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, made me wonder if there would be a similar difference in reaction on either side of the Atlantic.

P L Travers isn’t very nice, you see. In fact, she’s a bit of a cow. And she’s English (kinda). So she doesn’t care about being rude. And she’s very rude. And every time she was rude, the audience was utterly shocked. I got the feeling that people were giving serious thought to walking out, such was the level of impoliteness. I can’t imagine a Glaswegian audience taking it so badly, although I can imagine them muttering something under their collective breaths about typical bloody English.

The movie details the rather difficult relationship between P L Travers and Walt Disney (a very convincing Tom Hanks) over the rights to make Mary Poppins. Disney has been coaxing and cajoling Travers for twenty years, desperate to make the movie and fulfill a promise to his daughters who had fallen in love with Travers’ book. For her part, Travers hates cartoons, musicals, and pretty much everything Disney stands for. She insists on being involved in the script-writing process and that every interaction she has with anyone at Disney is taped. Disney does his best to placate her, but knowing what we know about Mary Poppins, we know that there’s going to be a clash of heads and someone is going to have to back down. Between all this, Travers frequently thinks back to her childhood in Australia and the relationship she had with her alcoholic father (played rather too excitedly, too animatedly and too over the top for my liking by Colin Farrell).

The general set up gives me a wee problem. I had a similar issue round about this time last year with Hitchcock which told the story behind the making of Psycho. We all know Psycho got made and was a success. Here, we know Mary Poppins got made and whether Travers liked it or not, it has animation and songs. Actually, it has lots of both. So the drama can’t exist in terms of whether the movie gets made or whether the rights get signed over. Instead, it needs to exist in terms of how Walt Disney managed to change Travers’ mind. In that respect, the movie does deliver that pivotal moment but it feels strangely underplayed and telegraphed through the flashback sequences and, to a lesser extent, the line “It’s not about saving the kids” and the actual movie’s title. When the movie ended, I felt as though I had been bashed with the movie’s thematic intentions to the point where a flock of animated bluebirds were on the verge of doing laps of my head.

This complaint aside shouldn’t detract from the fact that both Hanks and Thompson put in stunning performances. Thompson already has a Golden Globe nomination and it’s hard to imagine her not getting an Oscar equivalent. Hanks is surprisingly believable as Disney. Both are backed up well by the supporting case. Paul Giamatti who plays Travers’ driver and Anne Rose Buckley as the young Travers are both wonderful in completely different ways.

Director Hancock keeps the mood light for the most part, genuinely funny in many places, and he saves the tear magnet for just the right moment. However, he does seem to rely too heavily on the flashback sequences to tell his story and ensure we all get it.

Is it the best movie I’ve seen this year? Well, no. Is it the best movie I’ve seen this week? That would also be a no. Overall though, it’s a very decent way to spend a couple of hours, the journey is enjoyable despite the lack of surprises and by the end, I suspect you’ll feel pretty good, despite a moistening of the corner of the eye, regardless of which side of the Atlantic you happen to find yourself.

walter_mittySome movies were just made for me. The Breakfast Club, for example. Yeah, you’ve probably seen it, but it was made for me. Same goes for Baseketball, Scott Pilgrim and Zombieland — yep, they were all made with me in mind. Well, it turns out that unbeknownst to me, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was actually made for me too. That’s okay. I’ll let you go see it. I’m nice like that.

Walter Mitty, played by Ben Stiller, is an introverted, timid, awkward kind of soul who, as you already know, spends portions of his day zoned out in daydreams where he is the heroic, romantic figure he fails to be in real life. When he’s not daydreaming, he’s a negative asset manager for Life magazine, in charge of all the photographs that make it to print. Despite the importance of the role, he’s a very small cog in the machine. Times are tough at Life and soon everyone’s job is on the line as the title transfers to an internet-only publication. Acclaimed photojournalist, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), sends Mitty a roll of negatives, one of which — number 25 — apparently contains the absolute essence of Life magazine and should be used as its final front cover. The only problem is, number 25 is missing. Gradually, Mitty’s co-worker and potential love interest Cheryl (Kristen Wiig, who I half-expect to see in my refrigerator as she’s in everything else right now) and his mother (Shirley MacLaine) convince Mitty to track O’Connell down in the hope that he still has the negative. The only problem is, other than the other only problem I mentioned earlier, the last anyone heard of O’Connell he was in Greenland and as the unadventurous Mitty notes, you can’t get there by train.

There will be absolutely no prizes on offer for anyone correctly guessing the themes that are employed here. Yes, Walter is on a literal and figurative journey. And yes, during that journey in search of Life’s final front cover, he’s going to find a life for himself, he’s going to become his own daydream. And yes, I find myself in that middle-aged demographic that the movie is aiming at, telling me it’s never too late to seize the moment. But I have to say, for its two-hour length, it absolutely charmed me. It’s one of my favourite movies of the year. I didn’t expect to be saying that.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is undoubtedly Ben Stiller’s most ambitious directorial project to date, not that there’s much in the way of competition, but I was impressed with how well-controlled and considered the story-telling is. He’s offered spade-loads of help from Steve Conrad’s excellent script, which isn’t short on comedy when it needs it, handles the sentimental moments without resorting to shmaltz, and is genuinely thrilling during the more adventurous scenes — particularly the downhill skateboarding — where it forced me to hold my breath.

From an acting perspective, I’ve enjoyed most of Stiller’s oeuvre, and he’s note-perfect here, convincing through the various stages of the journey where it was interesting to see him play a very everyday sort of character. Kristen Wiig is fast becoming one of those dependable names and while her role perhaps could’ve been expanded, she’s there as more than a mere love interest and she plays the part with a quirky heart.

Visually, it’s magnificent. Bear in mind that I saw The Hobbit yesterday, so the fact that I even noticed more than the fact it’s in colour speaks volumes, but it felt like every frame could have been lifted out of National Geographic. Even the credits and super-impositions are fantastic. It’s an absolute treat on the eyes. Lucky, lucky eyes.

So yeah. It was made for me. I’m conscious that this is probably blinding me to some of the movie’s shortcomings which will be blindingly obvious to anyone who the film wasn’t made for. For those people, I feel truly sorry.

I loved it. A triumph.

o-THE-HOBBIT-2-POSTER-570It’s such a terrible title. For a start, I’m not quite sure how I’m meant to pronounce Smaug. And I’m not alone, because the actors in the movie can’t seem to agree either. We get Smog. Smowg. Shmowg. Smohg. Secondly, when he finally appears, he’s not that desolate. A more apt title would’ve been The Hobbit: Oh, He’s a Grumpy Dragon.

That notwithstanding, after a short and informative prologue, we pick up the story shortly after the end of the last movie, where you may remember being confused as to why the band of interchangeable Scottish dwarves and their hobbit burglar were dropped off by some massive birds who insisted on doing the Middle Earth equivalent of “refusing to go south of the river”. This leaves our merry band with a spooky, spider-ridden forest to contend with and a corrupt human island settlement before they reach their goal of Lonely Mountain, the titular dragon and the dwarves get a chance to get back what’s rightfully theirs. Or something.

It’s long. It’s 2 hours and 40 minutes long. But hey, the first one was pretty long too, right? Well, right. But this installment is not only long, but it also suffers from a chronic case of middle-episode-in-a-trilogy syndrome. Remember that excitement of returning to Middle Earth with An Unexpected Journey? Yeah, we don’t really get that any more. We’re here. We’re settled. We want an ending. We’re not going to get one. The Two Towers suffered from this to a certain degree, being as it was a travelogue of walking from one tower to another in an attempt to set-up the third part. Here, there’s less walking, although fair warning: there is some. But where The Hobbit differs from Lord of the Rings is that the former doesn’t have three endings. It doesn’t really have two. So there’s a sensation from the outset that we’re pretty much heading for an anticlimax. You’ll have to wait 2 hours and 40 minutes for this to be confirmed. And it will be.

It bears repeating that this takes us up to hour six of an adaptation of a 300 page children’s book but the good news is this second chunk kicks-off in a far more satisfying manner than last year’s An Unexpected Journey. Thankfully we’re saved from 40 minutes of set-up, mostly indulging interchangeable Scottish dwarves and their propensity for singing and eating buffet. We land in the middle of action and it has to be said that the writers and Peter Jackson do a pretty spanking job at keeping the octane levels high throughout. There’s little in the way of a lull in proceedings as we bounce from one sequence to the next and this is done while maintaining a reasonably clear narrative flow.

Visually, it’s as stunning as ever, Howard Shore’s sweeping soundtrack is predictably immersive, the direction and cinematography is as on the money as you’d expect if you care to ignore an occasional awkward-looking CGI beast or two. But it’s Martin Freeman’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Bilbo Baggins that, once again, is likely to stay in your mind to the foyer and beyond. Freeman himself plays down Peter Jackson’s assertion that he’s the only person on earth who could play Bilbo, but it’s hard to argue against the director. Every expression, every twitch of the nose, every baffled double-take, every arched eyebrow are all slap bang on the money. Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo Baggins is Martin Freeman. It’s a more courageous Bilbo we get in this movie, he’s more of a hero, he’s pivotal throughout to the band’s progress, and this makes the role even more enjoyable.

The movie is not, however, a perfect viewing experience, chief amongst the spoiling culprits being a bizarre inter-species love story angle between an interchangeable Scottish dwarf and an elf who isn’t Liv Tyler (and who is, in fact, Evangeline Lilly — the freckled one out of Lost). A dishonorable runner-up is Orlando Bloom’s ever-dull portrayal of Legolas, who never looks remotely interested in anything that’s going on around him and dispatches a cohort of orcs with hardly flicker of emotion or a hair out of place. I know he’s probably attacking the role as directed but his lackluster approach manages to suck a bit of excitement from his scenes. Third place goes to Gandalf and his wandering ways. Again.

More positively, Stephen Fry is a welcome addition as the Master of Laketown and the introduction of Smaug and his realisation is hugely impressive. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the ending is a letdown and judging by the collective tut in the screening I attended, I’m not the only one struggling to come to terms with the fact that I need to wait until next Christmas, and another three hours, before I get a decent ending.

The Hobbit: You’re Going To Be Pissed Off. Yeah. That would’ve worked too.

Anchorman-2-The-Legend-Continues-posterFor a time, it seemed that the only people who weren’t interested in an Anchorman sequel were its stars. Although it didn’t set the world alight when it was released in 2004, since then it’s gained a remarkably loyal cult following and it’s become one of those movies that if I happen upon it while trawling the late-night backwaters of the channel guide for an excuse to stay up a little longer, I’m more likely than not to watch it.

So it was with much excitement that I accepted the news of the sequel, and I was not alone. Such is the love for these characters that in recent weeks real life local news stations even let Will Ferrell don his sports jacket and guest anchor in character. Surely it couldn’t live up to the hype?

Well, kinda.

Just like the time between movies, the story picks up about a decade after the original. Ron & Veronica are married with a son but are soon to be split when Veronica is offered a night-time news slot and Ron is offered the door. Rather inexplicably, Ron finds himself attempting to provide commentary to a dolphin show in San Diego when he is approached by a representative from Global Network News to join in at the ground floor for a new initiative: 24 hour news. Ron agrees and, of course, sets about rounding up the old crew. Just like The Muppets.

Champ Kind (David Koechner) is selling Kentucky Fried Bats, Brian Fontana (Paul Rudd) is California’s leading cat photographer, and Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) is dead. But only for about three minutes. With the crew reunited, they return to New York, bump into an antagonist in the shape of Jack Lime (James Marsden) and a world that is skeptical about the merits of round the clock news.

During the time it takes to get through this set-up, I sat with the expression of a man with a laugh built up in his throat, waiting for any old excuse to let it go and for the most part, this potential energy wasn’t spent. It’s weird. Because it is kinda funny, but it’s like the cast and characters feel the hype as much as the audience and are so conscious of the act they’re following that they’re trying too hard.

Story-wise, there’s probably more substance here than last time, which is pretty unusual for a comedy sequel when it’s all too easy just to stick the characters in a foreign country of have them re-enact It’s A Wonderful Life. As Ron works on getting 24 hour news into the public’s living rooms, with an anitpodean station owner no less, there are a lot of satirical observations on the evolution and definition of news. Cute animal stories. Live freeway car chases. Things that we take for granted are revolutionary here, all in the march towards ratings. Ron, as it turns out, is cutting edge.

The laughs come a bit more freely in the second half of the movie, mostly from the wonderfully oddball relationship between Brick and Chani (an excellent performance from Kristen Wiig), but it’s an affair that does its best to strangle its own efforts. It’s hampered by plot points that should really have been cut out and relies too heavily and easily on motifs from the original (jazz flute, news team brawl) that here feel tired and out of place. There’s a lengthy shark taming scene that really serves no purpose. There’s a very worn racial storyline where Ron comes to terms with having a black female boss that culminates in an awkward family dinner scene that does absolutely nothing other than to extend an already wafer-thin gag.

Overall, there’s probably enough to keep fans entertained and think the wait was just about worth it. But in years to come, when I’m scanning the channel guide, I suspect I may skip over yet another late-night airing of Anchorman 2 and instead I’ll probably just go to bed.