Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Rampart

“The most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on-screen,” boasts the poster for “Rampart,” a police procedural character drama from second-time director Oren Moverman. This is a bold statement, not least because of the somewhat recent release of “Bad Lieutenant,” a madcap 2009 drama which saw a wide-eyed Nicolas Cage starring as a raping, murdering, drug-abusing man of the law, but also because the co-writer of “Rampart,” celebrated crime novelist James Ellroy, wrote the book upon which “L.A. Confidential,” perhaps the greatest police corruption picture ever made, was based.

It would seem that the inevitable comparison and unspoken promises that come with this connection would kill or at least maim “Rampart,” as they would most films approaching similar ground. Surprisingly though, the film stands rather sturdily on its own two feet, thanks to the unique identity the film discovers and stubbornly stays true to, as well as a fascinating central character whose presence is felt in every scene. As a movie about police corruption, it certainly ain’t no “L.A. Confidential,” but it doesn’t need to be and it doesn’t want to be; “Rampart” wants to be its own movie, and it achieves this very admirably.


The corrupt cop at the centre of “Rampart” is LAPD veteran Dave Brown. Dave is played by Woody Harrelson, a very talented and very versatile actor with a unique voice and a unique charm. Here, his charm is less obvious than usual, more in tune with his tremendously unhinged performance in Oliver Stone’s cult classic “Natural Born Killers,” in which Harrelson played a psychopathic mass murderer on the run from the law. His character here is certainly a murderer, or at least an alleged one, and possibly psychopathic in nature, only his character is operating on the opposite end of the law.

Dave could best be summed up by stating that he is an asshole who knows he’s an asshole and likes being an asshole. As an enforcer of the law in the streets of L.A., he is forever stuck in “bad cop" mode, spending his days brutally beating up crooks, insulting citizens, judging them and spouting politically incorrect terms as if they were just part of everyday communication. And when he’s not in uniform, he’s hitting on women in bars, sleeping with them in hotel rooms or whispering come-ons into the ears of both of his ex-wives while they dine together with their children.


His family is a strange one; it seems Dave married a woman, had a child with her, divorced her, then married her sister, had a child with her, divorced her and now lives in one of their homes, which sits right next to his other ex-wife/ex-sister-in-law’s house. As he points out to his youngest daughter, technically all of this is perfectly legal, frowned upon as it is by the rest of society; whether or not we’re frowning is up to us to decide.

One hot summer day in 1999, Dave gets himself in some trouble: as he’s cruising down the street in his patrol car, a car unexpectedly smashes into his side. The driver, an unarmed Mexican man (or “wetback,” as Dave would call him, probably to his face), runs off and is mercilessly beaten half to death by Dave with his trusty truncheon. Unfortunately for Dave, the second half of this event is captured on video, ends up on the news and becomes something of a national scandal. This isn’t the first time Dave’s been in trouble on the job: he once killed a suspected serial rapist, perhaps by accident, perhaps on purpose, and has since been nicknamed “Date Rape” around the precinct.


The scandal isn’t necessarily the focus of the film; it’s simply something that happens as a result of Dave’s behaviour, wins Dave some negative attention and has no notable conclusion. As a character piece, the film’s focus really is just Dave and nothing more; we watch him go about his everyday life, being a racist, a sexist and an asshole, and caring not about what others may think of his actions or words. This slack narrative proves problematic on occasion, one's attention drifting a few times too many, but Oren Moverman's slick direction and Harrelson’s high-strung performance are absorbing enough to compensate for this.

Harrelson and Moverman worked together before in “The Messenger,” for which they both very deservedly received Academy Award nominations. As a daring and startling look at the effects of war, that was a very different movie from “Rampart,” although both are stirring character studies, and very effective ones. Moverman has extracted two great performances out of Harrelson, a leading one this time, the Israeli filmmaker clearly aware of how to use and display Harrelson’s talents to their fullest. As a team, they’ve made two fascinating works and two fascinating characters for Harrelson to play; I hope to see more from them in the future.


“Rampart” is a film that lives or dies by the viewer’s tolerance of its main character. I myself had a high tolerance for him, thanks in large part to the glimpses of humanity and sense of purpose Harrelson gives to the character, and as such I enjoyed the film very much. Your experience of the film may be very different, perhaps because the narrative is too loose to hold your interest, or maybe because you simply don’t have much fondness for morally repugnant assholes.

8/10

Friday, 24 February 2012

Safe House

There’s something oddly enticing and almost appealing about a character who is a dangerous and cunning sociopath. Look back through the history of cinema and you will find many characters of this ilk in villainous and anti-hero roles, most notably cannibalistic mass murderer Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” and clown-faced criminal mastermind The Joker from “The Dark Knight.” Perhaps it’s their steely-eyed stare or their philosophical monologues, or maybe even their startling inhumanity, but for every frame in which these characters appear you are as unable to take your eyes off them as the characters in the film are.

Denzel Washington plays such a character in “Safe House,” an action-thriller in the vein of the brilliant “Bourne” trilogy. Washington’s character is Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA agent who went rogue ten years ago. Now a wanted fugitive and something of a legend in the agency he betrayed, he spends his days doing dirty deals with crooked crooks as he outruns the law and the criminal underworld, both of which seem to intertwine in certain areas.


Immediately after gaining possession of a mysterious microchip, Frost narrowly escapes an onslaught of bullets and car crashes in the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa. Frost then unexpectedly waltzes into a US embassy, is arrested and is taken to a private and secure CIA-owned safe house, the “housekeeper” of which is young rookie agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, “Green Lantern”). Weston can’t believe his eyes: after 12 months of doing absolutely nothing in his safe house but wandering its empty rooms day after day, he’s standing face-to-face with Tobin friggin’ Frost, albeit through two-way glass.

And then all hell breaks loose: the safe house is ambushed and all CIA agents are killed, leaving only Frost handcuffed to a chair in the interrogation room with Weston nervously guarding him. Frost reminds Weston that he is responsible for his houseguest. “I’m your houseguest,” he says calmly. And with that, Weston flees the invaded safe house with Frost in tow, starting a battle of wits not only between them and their relentless pursuers but also between wannabe-escapee Frost and determined rookie Weston.


This is grungy, noisy, violent action stuff that, on a visual level at least, channels both Tony Scott (“Man on Fire,” “Unstoppable”) and Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Green Zone”). Just like in the “Bourne” trilogy, we have white-knuckle fistfights and heart-racing rooftop-leaping, destructive car chases and intricate on-foot chases. And indeed, the film is shot by the “Bourne” trilogy’s cinematographer, Oliver Wood, and looks almost identical with its shaky-cam style and frenetic editing.

For the most part, the action works like a charm; it’s fast, thrilling, loud and constant. That’s the key thing here: it’s constant. Nary a conversation goes by in the film without it being interrupted by the swinging of a fist, the pulling of a trigger or the smashing of a household object. I suppose this keeps us on the tips of our toes, but soon enough it all becomes too much and eventually gives in to monotony, especially during a climactic battle which relies on the cinematic cliché of the “unexpected bullet” about three times too many.


Reynolds and Washington are great on-screen together, so much so that the less interesting scenes between Matt and his increasingly worried girlfriend suffer by comparison. Reynolds gets to play the inexperienced rookie who goes from zero to hero within a matter of hours, while Washington gets to play a smooth, charming, manipulative and quietly cunning action man who casually leaps from troubled anti-hero to flat-out villain and back again in a heartbeat. They’re an interesting pair, sometimes at odds with each other, sometimes practically bonding, but always very watchable and rather intriguing.

There’s a strong supporting cast at hand, though their characters remain thin at best. We have Brendan Gleeson (“The Guard”) as David Barlow, a CIA pal of Weston, putting on a slightly dodgy American accent, his Irish tongue slipping out on occasion. Vera Farmiga (“Source Code”) plays Catherine Linklater, a CIA operative who works alongside David as they deal with the increasingly tricky Weston-Frost situation. There’s also talented up-and-comer Joel Kinnaman (“The Killing”) as a CIA housekeeper who takes part in a brutal, bloody fight with Weston through the walls and windows of a rural safe house as Frost watches indifferently from the distance, handcuffed to a pipe.


Stuffed with enough action clichés to keep Steven Segal’s career going for another twenty years, “Safe House” is pleasingly entertaining and sometimes exhilarating fluff that allows its two leading men to flex their muscles as well as some of their previously established acting talents. Perhaps its plot and its characters need more meat on their bones, but the relentless, rip-roaring action makes it a safe bet for junkies of the genre.

6/10

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

This Means War

As an action film, “This Means War” doesn’t provide the heart-racing thrills or the nerve-shredding suspense to make it worth the price of a ticket. As a romance, it doesn’t provide the heart-warming sweetness or the syrupy-tasting tenderness to make it worth the price of a ticket. And as a comedy, it doesn’t provide the rib-tickling gags or the side-splitting wit to make it worth the price of a ticket.

It seems there’s not a lot in “This Means War” to make it worth the price of a ticket, outside of the mouth-watering eye candy of Reese Witherspoon for the guys and Tom Hardy and Chris Pine for the ladies. But come on, people, let’s not be shallow: eye candy is simply not enough to hand over hard-earned cash for what is essentially a poor man’s “True Lies,” even when Tom Hardy is running and leaping about a paintball arena in a tight-fitting V-neck drenched in his own sweat. Well, not quite enough.


“This Means War” comes a whole year after the never-ending assortment of action-packed rom-coms Hollywood churned out in 2010, including “The Bounty Hunter,” “The Tourist,” “Killers” and “Knight and Day;” three of those films I very much disliked, the other was a bit of a guilty pleasure due to my undying fondness for Mr Tom Cruise. With its appealing cast and boundless energy, “This Means War” had all the potential to be a guilty pleasure just like “Knight and Day” was, but ultimately ends up providing all the guilt and none of the pleasure.

The film centres on a love triangle shared between two CIA agents and a perky blonde. The two CIA agents are womanising bachelor FDR Foster (Pine) and divorced father-of-one Tuck Henson (Hardy), and the perky blonde is product-testing executive Lauren Scott (Witherspoon). FDR and Tuck are best buds, do practically everything together and are highly skilled in their top-secret line of work. Lauren is a distance-staring singleton looking for the right guy but not finding him.


One day, Lauren’s best friend, Trish (Chelsea Handler, “Hop”), makes a profile for Lauren on a dating site without her knowledge. And voila, she gets a reply: it’s Tuck! Lauren meets him, has lunch with him and the two hit it off rather well. That same day, Lauren coincidentally bumps into FDR in a DVD rental store, where he almost instinctively begins to flirt with her. After annoying the crap out of her and stalking her at work, FDR eventually convinces her to go on a date with him, completely unaware that she is currently seeing Tuck. Lauren suddenly realises something: she’s dating two guys at the same time! Oh my!

FDR and Tuck also discover this to their shock horror, and decide to turn the tricky situation into something of a competition where the winner gets to keep Lauren. They set out some rules: no telling Lauren that they know each other, no interfering with each other’s dates and no hanky-panky with Lauren, even if she asks for it. Unsurprisingly, every single one of these rules is broken within a very short amount of time, resulting in their competitiveness becoming more and more intense. Oh, and there’s something about a badguy with weapons of mass destruction wanting revenge for the death of his brother, but whatever, that’s not important.


As the film goes on, FDR and Tuck both become increasingly ruthless and creepy in their gamesmanship. They bug Lauren’s house, survey her every move, shoot each other with tranquiliser darts and, in a scene calling to mind “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” throw each other around a restaurant. All of this is mildly amusing, sure, but it’s always saddled with the overwhelming problem that the story is completely preposterous and entirely unconvincing: I mean, why on earth would two supremely skilful CIA agents (who are already in trouble following a covert mission cock-up) risk losing their jobs by abusing their powers, wrongfully using millions of dollars-worth of high-tech gizmos just to spy on Reese Witherspoon (who’s certainly attractive but not exactly chin-droolingly irresistible) when they’re supposed to be hunting down an incredibly dangerous criminal mastermind gunning for revenge? I’d consider it all a social commentary on the stupidity of men, but I don’t believe the film’s director is the slightest bit capable of that amount of depth.

This director, by the way, is McG, the one-named former record producer and music video-maker who previously brought you “Charlie’s Angels,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “Terminator Salvation.” He directs “This Means War” with a self-impressed visual slickness, but struggles whenever it comes to doing anything that is not shooting action or shoving Apple products down the viewer’s throat; it’s remarkable the amount of times you hear that undeniable click of the unlocking of an iPhone throughout the film.


What keeps “This Means War” from completely sinking is its three leading actors, who share a pleasing chemistry and all seem to be having quite a bit of fun; I can’t say I can empathise. We have Chris Pine as a douchebag American James Bond who lives in an insanely expensive apartment with a glass ceiling that serves as the bottom of a swimming pool; international espionage pays well, it seems. We have Tom Hardy as a more sensitive, more British spy with a buzz cut, tattoo-covered muscles and a seven-year-old boy whom he takes to karate lessons. And we have Reese Witherspoon playing her usual perky self with a winning smile, sweet personality and an extra touch of sluttiness.

“This Means War” tries to please everybody and ends up pleasing nobody. It tries to please the men with the action, and the women with the romance and the comedy. Trouble is, it’s clumsy with all three genres and can’t quite decide what it is: is it an action flick with a bit of rom-com on the side or a rom-com with bursts of action sprinkled throughout? Unlike “True Lies,” it never really finds a balance, and the end result is a jumbled mess.

4/10

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Vow

Released just four days before the annual love-fest that is Valentine’s Day, “The Vow” is a film that many will describe as the perfect date movie. I respectfully disagree; “The Vow” is not a perfect date movie, it’s only an adequate one. If you’re looking for a perfect date movie, buy or rent a masterfully crafted film such as “(500) Days of Summer” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” or maybe even go see the newly released “The Muppets” at your local cinema; I guarantee a fun and magical time with your partner/date out of the last one.

“The Vow” is none of these films; it doesn’t have the heart, the soul or the brain to compete with them. And while it certainly has all the elements of a perfect date movie (the romance, the breakup, the weeping, the laughing), its handling of them will satisfy only the least demanding of audience members. I would say, however, that there’s potential for some back-row smooching and cheeky groping during the film’s plethora of boring moments; just make sure you’re discreet, lest you distract and disturb your fellow movie-goers with your semi-public naughtiness.


“The Vow” is a chick flick, and it certainly pushes all the buttons of one. It is a romance, but it is not a boy-meets-girl story; it is, in fact, a girl-forgets-boy story. The boy is Leo Collins (Channing Tatum, “Haywire”), a hunky owner of an independent recording studio in Chicago. The girl is Paige Collins (Rachel McAdams, “Morning Glory”), Leo’s wife, who spends much of her day in her art studio, blasting loud music as she sculpts lumps of clay. The two have been married for four years and are very much in love, as shown in the opening scene when Leo passionately belts out the lyrics to “I’d Do Anything for Love” to Paige when the song plays on the car radio. Aawwr.

And then, shock horror, something very bad happens to them. One snowy night, as they sit and wait at traffic lights, the couple are rear-ended by a truck. Leo wakes up in hospital with some minor injuries. Paige, however, ends up in a drug-assisted coma and is predicted to suffer some brain damage. When she wakes up, she can’t remember her life with Leo or ever having met him; indeed, when she first wakes up and sees him standing at her hospital bed, she mistakes him for a doctor. It is at that point that the violins begin playing.


Paige’s estranged parents (Sam Neill, “Daybreakers,” and Jessica Lange, “Broken Flowers”) come to the hospital and ask Paige to come back to their home to live with them. Leo, whom Paige’s parents know nothing about, instead asks Paige to stay with him and get back into her normal routine to see if any memories come back to her. Hesitantly, Paige decides to stay with the husband she doesn’t recognise, who quickly becomes determined to reignite his wife’s forgotten memories and make her fall in love with him all over again. Aawwr.

There is potential for an emotionally stirring, dramatically rich story in “The Vow;” we have a woman living with a stranger who is her husband, while the man she loves, ex-fiancé Jeremy (Scott Speedman, “Underworld”), wants her back. The film strives for enthralling, stimulating drama and strives too hard, ultimately coming across as forced, schmaltzy and manipulative. Content-wise, it has all the workings of a Nicholas Sparks novel; unfortunately, its execution is like that of a Nicholas Sparks movie, and one that is most definitely not “The Notebook.”


Tatum and McAdams look very comfortable in their roles, and why shouldn’t they? They’re certainly not unfamiliar with the weepy-eyed romance genre; McAdams starred alongside Ryan Gosling in the aforementioned “The Notebook” in 2004 and alongside Eric Bana in “The Time Traveler’s Wife” in 2009, while Tatum starred alongside Amanda Seyfried in “Dear John” in 2010. Both give performances that are emotionally convincing and admittedly charming, but it’s their characters that do them a bit of a disservice.

Right from the beginning, I disliked both of their characters. Call me a heartless cynic, but their overdone cutesiness, ever-widened smiles and tendency to smell each other’s farts (I’m not kidding) bugged me from the get-go. As a couple, they’re rather obnoxious, which is a definite problem when the film’s concept relies wholly on the audience’s wanting for the couple to get back together. There’s a convincing yearning to Tatum’s “hunk with a heart of gold” performance, sure, but good ol’ potato face just isn’t enough to save the film.


I would say that young women in the audience will find “The Vow” to be pleasurable, but fortunately I’m not a patronising, sexist prick. What I will say is that there is a certain audience for this who will enjoy the film for what it is and care not for what it isn’t. What it isn’t is a passionate, breathtaking tale of heartfelt romance that is as touching as it is riveting. What it is is cookie-cutter Hollywood fluff that is mostly passable for a Friday-night date movie but not for very much else.

4/10

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” is an absolute headache, and I’m not just talking about the sloppy 3D. What I am talking about is a furiously mediocre sequel-slash-reboot to a comic-book stinker from 2007 that saw Nicolas Cage wearing shiny biker gear and having his dodgy hairpiece set on fire along with the rest of his goofy face. Its newly released follow-up is a minor improvement, sure, but that still doesn’t stop the film from being so helplessly inept that it will make you feel like setting your own head on fire – heck, your head may very well just spontaneously combust from the unrelenting tedium of it all.

Last time, the main man behind the camera was Mark Steven Johnson, the director who also gave us second-rate superhero flick “Daredevil” in 2003. This time, there are two main men behind the camera: these are Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the dynamic duo who previously gave us nutty 2006 exploitation flick “Crank” and its even nuttier 2009 sequel, “Crank 2: High Voltage.” As expected, their madcap, B-movie style is out in full force here, intended to solve the overwhelming woodenness that plagued the first “Ghost Rider” five whole years ago; trouble is, the film’s script – written by Scott Gimple, Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer – falls flat as a pancake and consequently spoils all the mischievous surrealism that Neveldine and Taylor have tried to infuse into the film. The end product is a bit of a train wreck – or a motorcycle accident, I suppose – that’s hopelessly disjointed, increasingly wearisome and, most shocking of all, quite a bit dull.


In “Spirit of Vengeance,” Hollywood’s Master of Madness, Mr Nic Cage, returns as former stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze, who years ago went all Faust and sold his soul to the Devil to save the life of his dying, cancer-ridden father. Ever since, Blaze has had a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde act going on, regularly transforming into a flame-skulled, chain-wielding, leather-clad demonic bounty hunter who rides about in a fire-spitting Yamaha V-Max and hunts for sinners supposedly deserving of some unholy punishment, Old Testament style.

At the film’s beginning, Blaze is hiding out in Eastern Europe, attempting and struggling to keep the Rider at bay. That is, until warrior monk Moreau (Idris Elba with a dreadful French accent) locates Blaze and requests his help to stop the Devil (a heartily hammy Ciarán Hinds, taking over from the first movie’s Peter Fonda) from getting his hands on a thirteen-year-old boy who is apparently of biblical importance. In exchange, Blaze will be granted the one thing he’s been yearning for ever since he first morphed into a soul-devouring petrol head: freedom from his horrible curse.


And thus the Rider is unleashed, and what an insane creation he is. As played by Cage this time (played by a stuntman in the ’07 version), the Rider is a merciless lunatic who lassoes his victims with his red-hot chain whip and pulls so tight they crumble into burning piles of jet-black charcoal. He can also perform the Penance Stare (killing his victims by gazing long and hard into their defenceless eyeballs), turn mechanical devices he uses into fire-coated machines from Hell, survive ginormous explosions and, as happens in one scene, ride missiles that are launched at him at very, very close range.

Naturally, the scenes featuring the Rider are the most enjoyable parts of the film, but even they are clunky and illogical; take, for example, the Rider’s grand entrance: the Rider crashes the party of a bunch of thugs, slowly crawls off his bike, stands for a while, swaying about awkwardly, grabs one of the thugs, performs the Penance Stare on him for about 30 seconds (displayed much better in the previous film) as the other thugs just stand around and watch from a distance, and then goes back to yet again standing around for a while before finally attacking them; it’s like a clumsily designed fight level of a video game where the player keeps putting the controls down to go do something else – I can’t say I blame the player.


The film very clearly believes itself to be totally badass; grungy guitar riffs blare over the soundtrack as the Rider struts about, rides his bike, pisses fire and vomits lava; one can only wonder what it is that he shits – this film’s script, perhaps? I guess “Spirit of Vengeance” has every right to think of itself as totally badass; the elements are all there for the film to achieve this (the strutting, the riding, the pissing, the vomiting), but the trashy, jumbled script just doesn’t allow for these elements to ever click together in a fluid, coherent fashion, resulting in the film becoming a monotonous bore that struggles to even get its engine started – that’s something one certainly doesn’t want out of a film featuring a gurning Nicolas Cage shrieking into a man’s face, squealing about how the Rider is “scraping at the door” and how he is going to “eat” the man’s “stinking soul;” this is an Oscar-winning actor reading these lines, ladies and gentlemen.

Neveldine and Taylor apply their wildly anarchic filming style wherever applicable, catapulting their cameramen into the air and putting roller blades on their cameramen’s feet for them to chase speeding cars; I must say, the behind-the-scenes stuff I found on YouTube was much more fun than the film itself. The film is certainly creatively shot and uniquely so for the superhero genre. The special effects are also rather nifty; the CGI used to create the Rider here is at least a vast improvement over the Rider of ’07. From a purely visual standpoint, the film would be perfectly fine, had it not been for the utterly useless, thoroughly flat 3D and the drab middle-of-nowhere locations in which the film is primarily set; I don’t believe “flat and drab” is a glowing recommendation for a film that’s supposedly all about a glorious, explosive spectacle of hellfire and damnation, do you?


Could the character of the Ghost Rider ever work on-screen in the same way it apparently has in the Marvel line of comic books? Well, considering the fact that the character is little more than a walking tattoo, I very much doubt it could; this is a character who, by his very nature, has no soul in his chest and no meat on his bones – truly caring about him seems an impossible task, and one that Neveldine and Taylor have failed to resolve here. The end result is a film in which we are entirely unable to care about any of the characters or action set-pieces because the script is so utterly useless at dealing with character interaction and narrative coherency that we spend much of the film scratching our skulls in cock-eyed confusion over what the flaming hell is going on – all the wacky visuals and gurning Nicolas Cages in the world can’t save this unholy mess.

3/10

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Woman in Black

What “Psycho” did for showers and what “Hostel” did for Eastern Europe, “The Woman in Black” does for rocking chairs. This is achieved through a scene that chilled me to the bone more than any moment from any recent scare-em-up picture to splatter its way across a cinema screen near you. This scene saw solicitor Arthur Kipps, played by ex-Hogwartsian Daniel Radcliffe, on his lonesome in a possibly haunted house when he hears a monotonous noise, a creaking, seemingly emitting from the nursery room that sits upstairs.

Hesitant but curious, Arthur wanders up the staircase and down a long and darkly lit corridor to inspect the strange, almost menacing noise that seems to be getting louder and louder as he approaches the locked door. He enters the nursery room and discovers that the deafening racket is coming from, you guessed it, a rocking chair. But not just any rocking chair, oh no; a rocking chair that is furiously swinging back and forth apparently of its own free will. And here’s the kicker: there’s no one in the room who could have possibly touched it and there’s no one in the house but Arthur. I’ll tell you one thing: I won’t be stepping foot anywhere near my local furniture store anytime soon, that’s for sure.


Based on the wonderfully chilling novel by Susan Hill and the subsequent stage play and 1989 TV film, “The Woman in Black” is the latest release from recently resurrected film studio Hammer Horror, and is the first Hammer production to be filmed in the studio’s rightful home of England in over 30 years; it certainly proves itself worthy of the title. Under the careful direction of James Watkins (“Eden Lake”) and the skilful writing of Jane Goldman (“X-Men: First Class”), this haunted house chiller-thriller is an expertly crafted return to Hammer’s origins that will remind you of the sheer, unrelenting terror of the things that go bump, creak and scream in the night.

In the gratuitously gothic Edwardian era, Arthur Kipps is a young, widowed solicitor who is summoned to the North East of England to sort out the paperwork of a recently deceased client of his firm. This client was the elderly Alice Drablow, who up until her death lived in Eel Marsh House, a cobweb-decorated remote mansion that sits on an island linked to the nearest town only by a horribly dangerous causeway that disappears on high tide.


Leaving behind his four-year-old son for the week (don’t worry, he’s with his nanny), Arthur sets off to the North East, where it turns out the locals are less than welcoming; they refuse him board, refuse him a room and basically tell him to bog off. Eel Marsh House turns out to be even less welcoming: for one, there’s a ghost in it, and two, there’s a goddamn ghost in it.

Yes, as Arthur quickly discovers upon stepping through the doorway, Eel Marsh House is haunted by the presence of a sinister spectre which reveals itself in the form of a woman clad entirely in black. But Arthur has paperwork to do at the old and decrepit abode and decides to put the fearsome ghostie out of his mind, a task that proves increasingly difficult when he begins to hear things and see things that he really ought not to be hearing and seeing.


This is a classic, old-fashioned ghost story brought to life by some very well-executed modern sensibilities. The old-fashioned stuff would be the spine-chilling atmosphere expertly built up by Watkins and Goldman, as well as the primary setting of the crumbling mansion of Eel Marsh House, a triumph of production design, and the ever-reliable fear of the unknown. The modern stuff, on the other hand, would be the louder, more violent moments, which are fused rather brilliantly with the nerve-racking atmosphere, making for some truly inspired and genuinely terrifying moments of unadulterated horror; I shan’t give any scares away, but be warned that you may lose a few handfuls of popcorn when shit in Eel Marsh House starts to get real.

With a big, dark, Hogwarts-shaped shadow looming over him, Radcliffe gives a very fine leading performance in what is his first film since the “Harry Potter” saga concluded last year. Long gone is his lightning bolt scar and round-lensed spectacles, replaced with an unshaven jaw and a rather impressive pair of sideburns. Yes, Master Radcliffe is now all grown up apparently, and therein lies a bit of a problem; you see, it is an integral part of his character in “The Woman in Black” that he is a widowed father of a four-year-old child, and yet the 22-year-old Radcliffe still looks like a 16-year-old schoolboy, in spite of the unkempt stubble and extended sideburns decorating his fresh face. Radcliffe’s performance is a very engaging and very enjoyable one, but I believe his casting may have been a bit of a misstep. I still love you, though, Harry; you’re bloody magic!


Radcliffe’s co-stars are also on fine form, most prominently the very talented Ciarán Hinds (“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”) as Sam Daily, a kind and wealthy landowner who is one of the few to not tell Arthur to go back where he came from, and recent Oscar-nominee Janet McTeer (“Albert Nobbs”) as Sam’s possibly insane wife. There are also some splendid performances from those playing the superstitious locals, too many to mention, but the sense of community and mounting dread that they portray is extraordinarily well managed, and only adds to the intriguing mystery that surrounds the film: what exactly is going on at Eel Marsh House and what do the locals know about it?

“The Woman in Black” is a film that absorbs its audience, teases them, startles them and finally scares the living bejesus out of them, and it does this all pretty goddamn well. While it certainly has its fair share of well-worn clichés (cheap jump scares, haunted house, insanely creepy children’s toys), it is nevertheless a supremely entertaining horror film that succeeds where most fail miserably: genuinely frightening every single person sitting in the audience.

8/10

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a film that thrives on weepy-eyed sentimentality, almost to a fault. It has a premise that so naturally provides this that even if the execution of the film had been utterly incompetent, the images recalled and the memories revisited by the premise would nonetheless still hit home and hit hard. As it turns out, the execution here by director Stephen Daldry (“The Reader”) and screenwriter Eric Roth (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) are more than competent, resulting in a film that is cloyingly saccharine but agreeably sweet and dramatically engaging.

The premise is this: Oskar Schell (newcomer Thomas Horn) is an eleven-year-old boy living with his mother (Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side”) and father (Tom Hanks, “Larry Crowne”) in a New York apartment. Oskar’s beloved father, a jeweller, is on the 105th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre when a plane hits the building on September 11th, 2001. Oskar’s father dies, having presumably been one of the many who were forced to jump to their death on that fateful day.


A year later, now living with his widowed mother, Oskar searches in his father’s closet and discovers a small envelope sitting inside a blue vase. Inside the envelope is a key, and written on the front of the envelope is the word “Black.” Oskar can’t think what the key could be for or where it could possibly fit, but, having been filled with a sense of adventure by his late father, becomes determined to find out the answer.

And thus we have an adventure on our hands, an adventure through the five boroughs of New York, as well as a possible sixth borough Oskar’s father had previously asked him to find. Oskar tries to fit the mysterious key into every lock he comes across, to no avail. He decides to visit every person with the surname “Black” living in New York. He meets some interesting characters, most notably a woman (Viola Davis, “The Help”) whom Oskar doesn’t seem to notice is going through domestic troubles.


Oskar himself is also a very interesting character. As played with much talent by 14-year-old Horn, Oskar is emotionally cut off and socially inept, much more so than most boys of his age. He has a fear of many everyday things (public transport, elevators and bridges, for starters) and walks the streets of New York shaking a tambourine to comfort himself. We are left to believe that he may have Asperger’s syndrome, although this is never clearly stated in the film. As a main character, Oskar’s emotional blankness is occasionally problematic, but Horn’s performance nonetheless remains captivating and also a very promising start to the young boy’s acting career.

Oskar confides in an unexpected source: the elderly stranger who has recently moved in with his kind and caring grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), who lives opposite Oskar’s apartment building. Known only as the Renter (Max von Sydow, “Minority Report”), this man does not talk, instead communicating through pen and paper. The two quickly befriend each other and decide to tackle Oskar’s ambitious quest together, knocking on doors, ringing doorbells and trying out locks for the key to fit in. At age 83, Sydow turns in a fine supporting performance here that is deep, delightful and emotionally compelling, all done without the slightest utterance of a single syllable.


It would be all too easy to brush “Extremely Loud” aside as nothing more than manipulative Hollywood tosh, which in some ways it is. Unlike many, I don’t believe the film is tastelessly using the real-life tragedy of 9/11 for the sake of cheap and fast emotional resonance; even if it were, surely it should be Jonathan Safran Foer’s original book receiving the blame for that. What I think the film is is a direct and earnest reaction to that horrible event, intended to simply view the event and its aftermath from the POV of a young boy who has lost his father and wants him back; in that sense, it works rather well, but it is nonetheless the case that our heartstrings are yanked on far too often an occasion, which does eventually become slightly irritating.

The real heart of the movie is the father-son relationship, which is moving and convincing, thanks in large part to Horn and Hanks' tremendous performances. Oskar and his father have an uncommonly touching relationship; in his spare time, Oskar’s father prepares wide-scale scavenger hunts for Oskar to go on so that Oskar may build up his social skills and mental abilities by meeting strangers and setting his mind to a challenging task. This helps to heighten the sense of the loss that Oskar experiences when his father is suddenly taken from him; it also helps to make the resulting sentimentality not feel false or forced but earned and heartfelt, we as an audience having grown to care for the character of Oskar’s father.


“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is as easy to like as it is to dislike; it all depends on one’s tolerance of shameless sap. While it’s overly self-important and contains a few too many teary eyes and trembling lips, Daldry’s fourth feature film is nonetheless a moving and charming melodrama that is handsomely directed, poignantly written and impressively acted. As a post-9/11 drama, it’s no “The 25th Hour” or “United 93,” but it’s a fine enough film and a successful tear-jerker.

7/10

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Muppets

“Life’s a happy song,” sing a bright-eyed Jason Segel and his Muppet brother Walter in the unashamedly joyous opening musical number of Disney’s “The Muppets.” And indeed, “The Muppets” is a happy film, perpetually happy in fact, and it doesn’t care who knows it. It’s bright, it’s colourful, it’s silly and it’s sweet, all in a way that calls to mind the ever-beloved “Muppets Show” that was transmitted onto TV screens all the way back in the mid-‘70s. Here is a film so exuberantly fun and endearingly cheerful that to nitpick away at its occasional faults seems a wholly pointless task.

Directed by “The Flight of the Conchords” co-creator James Bobin, “The Muppets” works essentially as a revamp of the Muppets brand, as well as a comeback for Kermit and pals. Created of course by the late great Jim Henson, the Muppets haven’t appeared on the big screen since 1999, the year that their sixth film, “Muppets from Space,” was released in theatres. Since then, they’ve done two television films – 2002’s “It’s a Very Merry Muppets Christmas Movie” and 2005’s “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” – and sadly not much else of note.


This is reflected in the film itself; at the film’s beginning, the Muppets are all washed-up and long-forgotten by the general public. They’ve drifted far away from the spotlight in which they once shone bright, and have also drifted apart as a group, all having gone their separate ways. In fact, there seem to be only two people in the whole wide world who still remember and still adore the Muppets: brothers Gary (Jason Segel, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” in human form) and Walter (a Muppet voiced by Peter Linz) from Smalltown; question not how these two can be genetic brothers – it somehow makes perfect sense within the context of the film.

Along with Gary’s long-time girlfriend Mary (the delightful, though underused Amy Adams, “Enchanted”), the two Muppet-worshiping brothers go on a vacation to Los Angeles for two reasons: one, to celebrate Gary and Mary’s ten-year anniversary; and two, to take a tour round the grand old Muppet Theatre, which Walter in particular is over the moon about. However, once they get to the theatre, which is now all dusty and derelict, Walter discovers something horrible: Tex Richman (a tremendously hammy Chris Cooper, “The Company Men”), a mean and nasty corporate businessman, wishes to purchase the theatre, knock it down and drill for oil that lies underneath.


Mortified, Walter goes to see his hero, Kermit the Frog (voiced by Steve Whitmire), at his mansion and explains the situation to him: that if Kermit doesn’t somehow raise $10 million, Richman will have the theatre completely destroyed. Kermit, Walter, Gary and Mary then hatch a plan together to raise the money: getting the old Muppet team back together again and performing a show – but will they be able to find all of the ex-Muppets and convince them to do the show? Oh who am I kidding, of course they do.

Yes, all of your favourite Muppet characters are here to help you raise your hands in the air and surrender to sweet, beautiful nostalgia; I won’t list them all (there are far too many to mention), but the obvious highlights are the gloriously glamorous Miss Piggy (voiced by Eric Jacobson), dodgy stand-up comic Fozzie Bear (also Jacobson), psychopathic drummer Animal (Jacobson again), droopy-nosed goof Gonzo (voiced by Dave Goelz) and everyone’s favourite zinger-spouting critics, Statler (Whitmire) and Waldorf (Goelz).


They and their many Muppet co-stars are all wonderfully Muppeteered by the incredibly talented voice actors, who wring both comedy and sentimentality out of the widely adored characters. Writers Segel and Nicholas Stoller clearly understand what makes these characters tick and what it is that fans love about them, and at no point do they betray this for the sake of pointless modernisation; the Muppets have not been twisted and tarnished by modern-day Hollywood – they’re just as wild, crazy and boundlessly charming as they always have been, free of snarkiness and full of good old lovability.

This is old-fashioned, song and dance, variety show Muppets; indeed, there’s a fair share of toe-tapping, head-nodding, memory-imprinting musical numbers, as supervised by Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords” fame and performed by both the Muppets themselves and the human performers. We have the aforementioned opener, “Life’s a Happy Song,” the wryly funny and genuinely poignant (and now Oscar-nominated) power ballad “Man or Muppet,” and also a hilariously abrupt sing-along rap by Chris Cooper; that’d be fun to see being performed at the Oscar ceremony. We also have a whole boatload of cameos from a few familiar faces, the identities of which I would never dream of revealing; that of course would only spoil the pleasure of the many surprises held within.


“The Muppets” is a family film in the purest sense of the term; it is a film for youngsters, for teenagers, for parents and for grandparents. Regardless of your age, “The Muppets” will not fail to raise a smile, tickle a funny bone or warm the heart. It is gleefully anarchic, infinitely energetic, riotously nutty, enormously entertaining, magnificently self-referential and utterly riveting; it is a glorious comeback for a timeless creation that will delight loyal fans and enthral newcomers. Simply put, it’s phenomenal. Do doo be-do-do…

9/10

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

Lizards are punched, pecs are flexed and bumblebees are mounted in Brad Peyton’s relentlessly goofy follow-up to “Journey to the Centre of the Earth,” the 2008 family adventure flick that helped kick-start the ongoing 3D craze (damn that film!). “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” is much the same as its worldwide hit of a predecessor; it’s a family-friendly B-movie, it’s presented in three eye-prodding dimensions and it’s stuffed full of oversized, computer-animated creatures. What’s missing, aside from Brendan “Furry Vengeance” Fraser, is an engaging narrative, heart-racing set-pieces and a competently written script, although “Journey 1” could hardly preach about these attributes.

Taking over the leading role abandoned by Fraser (perhaps he’s busy filming “The Mummy IV: The Search for More Mummy”) is a head-shaven, muscle-bound Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who here furthers the family-friendly image he displayed very well in “Race to Witch Mountain” and not so well in “The Tooth Fairy.” In “Journey 2,” Johnson plays Hank Parsons, the concerned step-father of Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson, reprising his role from the first film), to whom we are reintroduced as he attempts to outrun the police on a motorbike.


He is caught, but no charges are pressed against him. As it turns out, Sean was attempting to break into a satellite research facility to strengthen a signal broadcast he picked up at home. Together, Sean and Hank decode the message, which reveals that the fictional islands portrayed in Jules Verne’s “The Mysterious Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” are in fact the same island, and that this island is real; it also leads them to discovering the exact coordinates of this mysterious island, which it turns out is right next to Palau.

So, step-father and step-son head off to Palau, where they enquire about a guide; what they get is a dodgy helicopter pilot named Gabato (Luis Guzman, “Arthur”) and Gabato’s daughter, Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens, “Sucker Punch”), with whom Sean immediately falls in love. The foursome head off in the helicopter towards the island’s coordinates and encounter a tornado, into which they are all sucked and wind up on the shore of – gasp – a mysterious island!


This island, a mostly tropical one, is a technical marvel and a feast for the eyes. It’s vibrantly rendered, epic in scale and would provide plenty of excitement for Indiana Jones, let alone the five protagonists of “Journey 2.” Among other things, the island contains giant lizards, giant ants, giant millipedes, tiny elephants, treacherous mountains and a smoking volcano. The trouble is, it becomes a bit samey after a while, which is problematic, given that the story can’t rely on the generally uninteresting characters to sustain one’s attention, instead having to constantly rely on ginormous creatures crawling and gliding their way across the screen; by the time you get to the giant spiders, you’ll be a little too indifferent to roll your eyes.

It is on the island that Sean finds his long lost grandfather, Alexander Anderson (Sir Michael Caine, if you can believe it), an enthusiastic adventurer. It was Alexander who sent the broadcast, a distress signal, and it turns out a signal can only be sent out from the island once a fortnight, so the five will have to stay put until then. They also discover that every 140 years or so the island is entirely immersed underwater, and it seems the next big flood is fast approaching.


I believe “Journey 2” was written with a love and admiration for the works of Jules Verne, author of both “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and indeed “The Mysterious Island.” Unfortunately, the film’s two writers, cousins Brian and Mark Gunn, are the guys who previously gave us “Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” so any respect the two have for Verne is generally clouded over by an air of gormless stupidity. Indeed, their script is a classic case of dumbed-down source material, ending up as a sloppily written clash between CGI-laden adventurism and painstakingly unfunny banter shared between the characters. And the wittiest the film gets is the pun in the title; it’s “journey 2 (to) the mysterious island,” geddit?

Your children will enjoy “Journey 2,” of this I have no doubt. You may also find yourself enjoying the film, but I think this is significantly less likely. The film is pure nonsense from start to finish; it’s moderately amusing and perfectly harmless nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless. If you like that sort of thing, go for it. If not, avoid it like you would a giant buzzing bumblebee being ridden by Sir Michael Caine; just out of interest, would the Queen take away a knighthood for bumblebee-riding or hand one out for it?

5/10

Monday, 6 February 2012

Man on a Ledge

The premise of “Man on a Ledge” naturally calls for a constant assortment of nausea-inducing visuals; I trust you can decipher the reason why just by reading the film’s brilliantly blunt title. The film takes a man, takes a ledge and places the man on top of the ledge; it’s as simple a concept as that one from a few years back that placed some snakes on a plane – the film’s name escapes me. At many points throughout “Man on a Ledge,” we look down from the ledge and over the man’s feet to peer at the street 21 stories below, director Asger Leth playfully poking away at the audience’s tolerance for eye-crossingly big heights. As I’m sure you can imagine, this creates some hair-raising suspense and churns the stomach quite a bit, although the level of this nail-biting intensity is sadly not high enough to rescue the film from its aura of drabness.

I suppose this is only heightened by the recent release of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” an action sequel in which director Brad Bird took Tom Cruise, handed him some high-tech sticking gloves and dangled him off the 100th-plus storey of the Burj Khalifa, aka the tallest building on planet Earth. That was a tremendously dizzying sequence, a result of excellent craftsmanship from Mr Bird; unfortunately for Leth, his film can merely wobble in comparison with “MI4”’s vertigo-provoking sequences and consequently finds itself hurtling down towards the ground, arms and legs violently flailing, its teeny tiny brain quickly splattered all across the pavement below; I apologise for the graphic image, but it seemed necessary.


But Tom Cruise clinging onto the side of a national landmark is not the only hurdle “Man on a Ledge” clumsily trips over; I shall get to those later. First, though, I want to tell you why this man is on this ledge. To begin with, we don’t know why; we simply watch an American man, played by a mullet-sporting Sam Worthington (“Avatar”), going up to a room on the top floor of a Manhattan hotel. He orders room service, fails to eat the food, opens the window, takes a deep breath and climbs his way out to the ledge outside. Our first thought is that he is going to commit suicide; well, it would be, had the film’s trailer not given away 90% of the film’s content.

It soon transpires that the man is a fugitive ex-cop named Nick Cassidy. Nick has recently escaped from prison; his charge was the theft of a $40 million diamond stolen from corrupt businessman David Englander (Ed Harris, “The Way Back”), for which Nick was going to serve 25 years. However, Nick stubbornly claims that he is innocent and that Englander set him up; his method of proving this is apparently to stand on a ledge, cause a media storm and attract the attention of every citizen in New York – but that’s only half the plan; with all eyes on Nick, there are no eyes on the building across the street, where the diamond Englander reported stolen and missing is sitting in Englander’s vault, ready to be found by Nick’s brother, Joey (Jamie Bell, “The Adventures of Tintin”), and Joey’s sexy girlfriend, Angie (Genesis Rodriguez, “Casa de Mi Padre”).


Aside from the cheering crowd that gathers on the street below with sadistic watchfulness, Nick’s actions are an irritant for many. For example, there is negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks, “The Next Three Days”), whom Nick specifically asks to come talk to him on the ledge. Lydia is currently on leave following an incident in which a depressed cop she tried to coax out of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, well, jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s also Englander, a cardboard cut-out of a villain, played with shark-eyed intensity by an oddly committed Harris. While at first uninterested in hearing about the jumper on the building across the street, Englander’s ears suddenly prick up when he discovers that the jumper is the man he recently had sent to prison for a quarter of a century.

The film has a decent cast, and I’m including the usually charmless Worthington in that mix; surprisingly, he makes for a rather good leading man here, albeit occasionally stumbling back into the characteristic woodenness he displayed in “Clash of the Titans” and “Avatar.” Banks is also on fine form, as are Harris and Bell, who gets to perform some high-tech “Mission: Impossible”-esque stunts throughout the film; oh look, I’ve somehow managed to circle back to the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. Unfortunately, thanks to a dodgy, formulaic script, none of them have much to do outside of standing around and reading clunky dialogue; writer Pablo Fenjves seems to think in terms of plot points as opposed to character development and character distinction. As such, the cast is wasted and can do very little to engage the audience into the narrative, leaving us feeling indifferent about the advancement and outcome of the story; also, one would have to be blind, deaf and dumb to wrongly predict any of the increasingly hackneyed plot points.


I believe many will gain some enjoyment out of “Man on a Ledge;” it is, after all, slickly directed popcorn fluff that provides moderate thrills and a twisty turny plot. But I would be lying if I were to say I enjoyed it to the point where I liked it; I found myself rolling my eyes and shaking my head on far too often an occasion for me to call it a good movie. I see it as a slightly less gripping “Phone Booth,” a Joel Schumacher thriller from 2002; that film also contained a sadistic crowd of bystanders watching the troubled hero in eager excitement – here, I found the crowd much more difficult to empathise with.

5/10

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The curiously titled “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is an independent film and is shot like a typical independent film. It is also a horror film, although it is not shot like a horror film. It is not a horror in the typically terrifying or immediately noticeable sense; you will find no axe-wielding maniacs or vengeful spectres here. But what you will find is an overwhelming feeling of dread and an acute sense of paranoia, both of which surround the film and suffocate the viewer; I’d call the film a psychological thriller had it tried to be thrilling, but it did not, so it is a horror.

The film stars in its leading role the undiscovered Elizabeth Olsen, aka the younger sister of the (in)famous Olsen twins. This is the 22-year-old’s acting debut, which is not the slightest bit evident at any point in the film. Olsen performs like an experienced professional of the acting business, offering a dramatic performance that is a raw, emotional and captivating beginning to a potentially luxurious career; one can only wonder why Olsen’s older sisters rose to bright and shining fame instead of their tremendously talented little sister.


Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who we watch flee from a small community that resides in a farmhouse by the woods in New York state. Martha has an older sister, Lucy (Kristen Wiig lookalike Sarah Paulson, “New Year’s Eve”). Lucy hasn’t heard a peep from Martha in two years, so it’s quite the surprise when Martha calls her out of the blue one day, sounding upset, but not willing to admit it. Lucy picks her up from outside a diner and takes her to her lakeside home. Martha claims that she has just broken up with a boy who lied to her; we know this to be false.

Lucy has a husband, English architect Ted (Hugh Dancy, “Adam”). Lucy and Ted allow Martha to stay in their home for a while, until Martha is ready to get a job and get her own place somewhere. Martha is flattered, but soon becomes an irritant for her big sister and brother-in-law, not because she stays too long, but because of her strange invasiveness and emotional instability. Martha also seems to be suffering from mass paranoia, resulting in some uncomfortable situations, such as when Martha attacks a stranger in the middle of a house party.


At many points throughout the film, we flashback to Martha’s past, specifically to the time she spent with the community we watch her flee in the film’s opening moments. It’s never explicitly stated at any point who these group of people are or what exactly it is they do, but common sense tells us they’re some sort of cult, and an abusive and manipulative one. Martha was recruited by them, stayed with them, lived by their ways, eventually had enough of them and bolted without warning.

This cult is led by a man named Patrick, played by John Hawkes. Patrick is charismatic, seductive and skilled in the art of persuasion, which aids in the commanding power he has over his loyal followers. He is manipulative and possibly insane. Whether or not he truly believes in the lessons he teaches we don’t know, but his followers certainly listen to and are swayed by every word he says. He is the puppeteer and they are his poor, helpless puppets; it seems Martha smartly cut her strings while Patrick wasn’t watching.


Hawkes recently rose to fame for his menacing supporting performance in Debra Granik’s 2010 drama “Winter’s Bone.” Here, Hawkes is equally as intimidating, creeping across the screen with a quiet, understated menace. At no point in the film does Hawkes’ character become angry or yell, yet his presence is an exceptionally scary one; it’s the subtleties in Hawkes’ strangely charming performance that prove the most threatening and the most enthralling; it’s a villainous role that is not overacted but performed with convincing realism.

In the present day, Martha is haunted by her memories of the cult. She has nightmares about them, daydreams with terror about them and sees its members wherever she goes. This is where the horror elements creep their way in, although very little of the film is presented in a typical horror fashion. Martha is convinced that the cult is still watching her and that they are coming for her; as such, much of the film makes for supremely intense viewing as we too wonder whether or not the cult is coming to hunt Martha down.


For his feature film debut, writer-director Sean Durkin has made a film that is hypnotic, disturbing and deeply penetrating. It is beautifully photographed by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, effectively acted by Olsen, Hawkes, Paulson and Dancy, and more unsettling and spine-chilling than most horror films produced today. One hopes Olsen will make good use of her incredible talents and not tumble into the abyss as her admittedly very rich sisters have done; she certainly has the skill to achieve the same level of fame and fortune enjoyed by those devilish twins and watched presumably in understandable envy by the Olsen of “Martha Marcy.”

9/10

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Carnage

The fact that “Carnage” is based on a stage play is very evident in the way in which the film is presented to its audience; if it weren’t already based on a play, I’m sure I’d be recommending that a stage production be based on the film. The play in question here is the Olivier Award-winning black comedy “God of Carnage” by French playwright Yasmine Reza. I’m afraid I haven’t seen any of the play’s many productions, but if the play contains as much wit and character as the film it’s spawned then I can certainly see why it and Reza have enjoyed such a plethora of critical and commercial success since the play’s debut in 2006.

The film is directed and co-written (the other writer being Reza) by Roman Polanski, a supremely talented filmmaker. In its four leading roles are four very talented A-listers, each of whom have been bestowed at some point in their career with either an Oscar nomination or an Oscar win. These are Jodie Foster (“The Beaver”), John C. Reilly (“Cyrus”), Christoph Waltz (“The Green Hornet”) and Kate Winslet (“The Reader”).


Foster and Reilly play Penelope and Michael Longstreet, a married couple whose young son has had two of his teeth knocked out by a schoolmate with a stick during a recent confrontation in a park. Waltz and Winslet play Alan and Nancy Cowan, the parents of the boy who threw the stick. Alan and Nancy have come over to the Longstreet’s Brooklyn apartment to settle what is to be done with the two boys. Penelope and Michael wish for Alan and Nancy’s son to meet with their son and apologise for what he has done; Alan and Nancy agree, sort of.

So, Alan and Nancy prepare to leave, they head towards the door, they walk out to the hallway, and within seconds they’re back in the apartment, sitting on the Longstreet couch, eating from a bowl of freshly made cobbler. This reoccurs time and time again, until the couple find themselves practically incapable of leaving the confines of Penelope and Michael’s luscious apartment. This is a result of, among other things, politeness, good manners, arguments, disagreements, general conversation and projectile vomiting.


Lasting a short but sweet length of 76 minutes, “Carnage” is shot pretty much in real-time. It’s 98% confined to the setting of Penelope and Michael’s spacious apartment, the other 2% consisting of the hallway outside the apartment and the opening and closing titles, which take place in a park. The apartment is a splendid and comfortable-looking home, and yet after a while it begins to turn oddly claustrophobic. Sure, it’s not quite as claustrophobic as the six-feet-under setting of Rodrigo Cortés’ “Buried,” but as it turns out, being confined to pretty much the same room for well over an hour can prove rather suffocating.

The film is an acting tour-de-force, an inevitably with such a prestigious cast. I wish I could name the actor who shines the most in their role, but alas, I cannot; none of the four stars stand out from the rest, nor do any of them fall behind. They each have intriguing characters to play, none of which we are specifically told to root for. Foster is a loving mother communicating with frequently unsubtle and occasionally unnecessary passive aggression. Reilly is a man trying to keep everything on the positive side, and ultimately failing miserably. Winslet is a seemingly gracious woman unsure if her son really is in the wrong. And Waltz is a work-obsessed attorney forever yelling into his cell phone and apparently indifferent to the situation at hand, although he nonetheless stays put.


It’s highly enjoyable watching these four actors and their diverse characters interacting with one another, even if the reasons for them staying in the same room together become somewhat far-fetched after a while. It’s also devilishly amusing watching their pearly-toothed politeness slowly but surely descend into immature bickering, thunderous yelling and foul-mouthed drunkenness. Voices are raised, scotch is gulped, tears are shed, fists are swung and priceless art books are vomited upon; perhaps “carnage” is an overstatement, but it most certainly is not civil.

Whether or not Reza’s play necessarily needed a big-screen adaptation is not for me to say; either way, it’s made for a splendid film that is wonderfully entertaining, smoothly directed, written with uncommon wit and intelligence and is superbly acted. While it may prove to not be particularly memorable, it’s joyously riveting and morbidly fun while it lasts.

8/10

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Chronicle

Josh Trank’s “Chronicle” further intensifies the stigma of being a creepy loner, almost as much as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” did all the way back in 1960. The only difference here is that the creepy loner in “Chronicle” is not a psychotic serial killer, but instead a teenage boy who is bullied by schoolmates and regularly beaten by his own father – the film shows how a boy such as this would deal with his personal problems if given superhuman abilities beyond our understanding; as it turns out, he’d use them very much to his advantage and very much to our disadvantage.

This boy is Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), a high school kid living with his father (Michael Kelly, “The Adjustment Bureau”), a drunken, abusive ex-fireman who now lives off insurance money following an injury on the job. Andrew’s mother is terminally ill and spends her days and nights coughing away in bed and feeding off expensive medication. Andrew has one friend, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who drives Andrew to school and doesn’t particularly like him, although he is mostly nice to him.


One night, during a rave party, Andrew, Matt and popular jock Steve (Michael B. Jordan, “Red Tails”) discover a small hole in the ground that leads to an underground tunnel. While exploring the inside of this dark and mysterious tunnel, they find a strange glowing object that they caress and are hypnotised by. Next thing they know, Andrew, Matt and Steve are suddenly granted with superpowers; they can move objects with their minds, make themselves impenetrable and also have the ability to fly.

Of course, they at first test their powers, develop them, learn how to properly use them and are soon using them to fool around and play pranks (moving parked cars from one parking spot to another, making a little girl forever terrified of teddy bears, etc.). The trio eventually decide together that they must not tell anyone about their newly discovered powers nor use them in public or on another human being; unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take very long for them to break these rules, especially for Andrew.


“Chronicle” is filmed in the found-footage format, which I’m not going to explain again; by this point, you really should know what a found-footage film is. It’s the first superhero flick to be filmed in the format and I suspect it will not be the last. The film is shot mostly from Andrew’s perspective; as it’s established in the opening scene, Andrew has recently taken up filming (or “chronicling”) his surroundings with a camera, and the footage he shoots serves as our eyesight for much of the film.

This format is used very well in the film; it doesn’t feel forced or unnecessary, instead feeling very natural and at times unnoticeable. This is a result of much creativity on the part of first-time director Josh Trank and first-time screenwriter Max Landis; for example, Andrew films much of his footage while making the camera levitate in the air and revolve around him and the other characters, almost as if the film is being shot in “normal” mode. Our eyesight is also taken from the perspective of other cameras at some points in the film, in particular during the explosive third act, during which we jump between police cameras and CCTV footage, all done with smoothness and clarity. Trank and Landis have taken this increasingly tedious format, picked it apart and have breathed new life into its wheezy lungs, which is a lot more than I can say for recent found-footage clunkers “Apollo 18” and “The Devil Inside.”


We have in Andrew a very interesting character, and the film handles him with care and attention. Andrew is a character who goes on a fully believable and, more importantly, convincing emotional journey throughout the film. He is a boy who is beaten, bullied and emotionally unstable, and is all of a sudden granted the powers of a god; how exactly he will use these powers to presumably strike back is intriguing and ultimately very compelling – not to give too much away, but if you’ve seen “Carrie,” you should have a general idea of how this all pans out.

“Chronicle” works as a high-school drama, as a science-fiction actioner and as a dark and intimate character study. It’s a carefully crafted blockbuster spectacle and a smartly constructed found-footage flick. It’s intelligent, cool, gripping, well-acted, well-directed, sometimes funny, sometimes exhilarating and always entertaining. It’s a refreshing superhero origin story, and also a wonderful morality tale, the moral being to never, ever, under any circumstances, allow a creepy loner to gain superpowers.

8/10