Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Death Race (2008)

Title: Death Race
Director:  Paul W.S. Anderson
Released: 2008
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Max Ryan, Jason Clarke, Frederick Koehler, Jacob Vargas, Justin Mader, Robert LaSardo, Robin Shou, David Carradine

Plot: Prison warden Hennessey (Allen) runs the the Terminal Island Penitentary which has a side line running ultra-violent races called “Death Race where prisoners compete to win five races and with it their freedom.  Now former NASCAR driver Jensen Ames (Statham) framed for the murder of his wife, he is offered a shot at freedom by impersonating the popular racer Frankenstein who was killed in the previous race but who Hennessey is keen to use keep alive to maintain her ratings.

Review: I don’t know what is the more surprising aspect of this remake, the fact that its as good as it is or the fact that its directed by Paul W.S. Anderson a director whose had more hits and misses than most directors manage in their career and leaving you never quite sure what to expect when you see his name in the director’s chair.

Spending over 13 years in pre-prodution the film was originally envisioned as a sequel to the cult classic original were it would have been called “Death Race 3000”, what we get instead is what Anderson views as being more of a prequel to the original film as the cross country race were competitors score points for running over pedestrians is instead replaced with a more traditional race format with the added bonus of weapons and a trap laden course. At the same time Anderson clearly seems to be working from the George Miller playbook when it comes to crafting the film with the film being built around practical effects, vicious looking vehicles and a heavy dose of vehicular carnage.

This change in format while unsurprisingly met with murmurs of disapproval from the established fans does however surprisingly work, thanks to the cast of colourful characters which Anderson populates the film with, each racer driving their own distinctly unique vehicle from Frankenstein’s Mustang through to Machine Gun Joe’s (Gibson) heavily armoured truck which makes a break from the usual fancy street cars we have become accustomed to seeing in the “Fast and Furious” films especially when they vehicles are not about looking pretty, but rather causing as much carnage as possible in the bid for ever higher ratings that these races attract. At the same time the use of practical effects and some extremely fance driving means that each crash or racer killed has the feeling of having some presence to it which is always lost when such scenes are shot in CGI so to see such a throwback to the classic car smash movies like the “Mad Max” films makes for a refreshing change let alone a fun thrill to see such carnage being unleashed on the screen.  

Outside of the action on the track Statham here once again hones his usual gruff asskicker persona as he essentially transfers Frank from “The Transporter” into this pre-apocalyptic setting as he spends most of the film either kicking ass on or off the track, though at the remit of Statham the action this time is largely vehicular based clearly not wanting the comparisons to “The Transporter” to be too clearly drawn. Here Statham is also joined by a great cast with Gibson bringing a fun ruthless and competitive edge to the character of Machine Gun Joe and makes for the perfect rival on the track, while Allen in a departure from her usual roles makes for a great villain off the track as she cares for nothing other than the ratings and thinks little of the racers for the most part other than them being a disposable commodity especially when she has a full prison of competitors to replace them with. Ian McShane meanwhile provides most of the laughs with as Ames head mechanic and essentially steals the film whenever the camera is on him with his dry whit.

Plot wise the film is unsurprisingly pretty minimalistic with most of the focus of the film being based around what is happening on the track and trying to survive whatever new twist Hennessey chooses to thrown at the racers next with the film clearly being based around spectacle than anything else as no better shown than when Hennessey unleashes her heavily armoured 18 wheeler known as the Drednought and which we get to see spectacularly flipped in one of the many grandstand moments throughout the film and one which was suprisingly overshadowed by the lesser truck flip seen in “The Dark Knight”. As such some may choose to view the film as being loud and dumb especially when its choosing not to get bogged down in angst and attempts to add some kind of social commentary to what is happening. Instead what Anderson is doing here is showing that he recognises his audience and the fact that they are showing up to see cars get wrecked and Staham kick a lot of ass and that is exactly what he gives them, putting the film in the same category as “XXX” doomed to be critised by the critics for the sheer reason of giving the audience what they really want.

To compare this film to the original is a futile exercise as both exsist truly within their own rules while at the same time doing what we want them to do, according to the rules and confines of their individual worlds. As such its better just to enjoy both films for what they are, rather than attempting any kind of tit for tat comparison between the two. Instead  leave your mind at the door and enjoy the full throttle carnage rush it more than provides.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Hateful Eight

Title: The Hateful Eight
Director:  Quentin Tarantino
Released: 2015

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Channing Tatum, Dana Gourrier, Zoe Bell, Lee Horsley, Gene Jones, Keith Jefferson, Criag Stark, Belinda Owino, Quentin Tarantino

Plot: Bounty hunter John Ruth (Russell) and his fugitive captive Daisy Domergue (Leigh) are forced to wait out a blizzard along with a collection of assorted strangers including bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) and the local town’s new sheriff Chris Mannix (Goggins). However its not long before tensions between the group start to rise as it becomes clear that some is plotting on helping Daisy to escape the hangman’s noose.

Review:  Watching a Tarantino film in the cinema for the first time I always find comes with the same thrill, as those familiar yellow block front titles appear on the screen while at the same time introducing the film as the “8th film by Quentin Tarantino” once more reminding the audience just how important Tarantino views his filmography, more so as he continues to threaten us with a pending retirement once he completes his 10th film. That being said this film certainly owes a great debt to Samuel L. Jackson who convinced Tarantino to make the film after the script was leaked online with Tarantino choosing at the time to respond by refusing to make the film. It would of course be a decision changed by a script read and the aforementioned involvement by Jackson and having now seen the finished film I’m so glad that he did.

Clearly not ready to move on from the western genre after giving the world his own addition to the long running Django series with “Django Unchained” a film which was a much a continuation of sorts for that series as it was a homage to its director Sergio Corbucci who here aswell appears to be a key influence for Tarantino who at the same time seems equally keen to take his film making back to the simplicity of “Reservoir Dogs” by keeping all the action for the most part inside the walls of “Minnie’s Haberdashery”. While the western genre is far from a favourite for myself and probably placed somewhere just above “French New Wave” yet somehow Tarantino has crafted here a western that even those of us who aren’t fans of the genre can still enjoy, especially as here it is essentially just more of a setting for him to tell his own reworking of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” in much the same way as John Carpenter did with “The Thing” which itself makes for the other main influence at play here.

What is clear though here though especially with Tarantino’s much use of film over digital especially from the Roadshow presentations of the film which included an intermission and prelude both cut out of the general release with Tarantino believing that they wouldn’t work with your average movie going audience. A risk it seems he wasn’t willing to take again after the disappointing reception that greeted “Grindhouse” and which lead to the film ultimately being split into its separate films when it was released outside of the states. True this is all essentially window dressing, but it’s clear at the same time that Tarantino is trying to once more make movie going an experience again, something that he clearly feels is being lost with the use of digital over the more traditional use of film. The downside of course being that while the intermission has been removed, Tarantino’s narration remains reminding us of what we watched 15 mins ago, despite the fact the audience on these non-roadshow screenings haven’t actually gone anywhere.

As with “Django Unchained” Tarantino’s vision of the Wild West is once more a rough and dirty place and one in which the smallest dash of light and happiness can suddenly be dashed out in an instance, while strangers all carry their own agenda and should only be trusted with caution, a trust which is truly stretched between the group as they begin to suspect that someone amongst them might not be who they seem.  At the same time Tarantino is in no rush to tell his story as he spends the first half of the film cranking up the tension and establishing the setting, which did towards the end of this section really feel like the film was dragging itself through a quagmire before ensuring that he ends this first half on a suitably shocking note.  Its once we get into the second half though that the film really gets going and the violence is cranked up to suitably bloody levels.

I guess it should however come as little surprise that the film is exceptionally bloody and violent in places, as heads are blown off, bullets tear through bodies and the disgusting effects of a pot of poisoned coffee are suddenly revealed, yet at the same time while easy to consider gratuitous is still used at key moments to provide the right amount of shocks. The same can also be said for the large amount of violence inflicted on the character of Daisy which unquestionably shocking when we first see it can see be seen as justifiable considering how she is after all a criminal and in fitting with the period likely to have hardly been treated with the most gentlemanly behaviour as we frequently see here. Tarantino though being the maestro of violence he is though never seems to push things too far as might be seen with a lesser director at the helm. That being said the ending did feel perhaps more sadistic than I personally liked it to be and kind of left me wishing that he gone for the more bloody proposed ending than the one we got but it’s a fun ride until this point and seems like a justifiable end for the events which have transpired.

Unquestionably by going back to his “Reservoir Dogs” roots and keeping the action in one location here it frees him up to craft a truly memorable group of characters who are all distinctly different from each other, while at the same time the dialogue is arguably its most memorable since “Jackie Brown” which is only further advantage here when so much of the action is based around the characters trying to figure each other’s motives out before communication breaks down and the bullets start to fly. At the same with the cast he has assembled here being as good as they are really makes for an engrossing experience once the film finds its rhythm which coming as late as it does may mean that the film comes off perhaps a little plodding for some, even if it more than makes up for things in its second half.

Ultimately this is an improvement over “Django Unchained” and an enjoyable addition to his filmography even for non-western fans like myself, at the same time though I really hope that he decides to move onto another genre for his next film, especially when he continues to taunt us with such tantalising project such as “Wild Crows” and “Kill Bill Vol.3” though I’d be personally be happy to see him doing anything other than another western, but then I guess it all rests on him being able to get hold of enough film stock, so let’s hope that someone is keeping Tarantino a private stash.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Wish I Was Here

Title: Wish I Was Here
Director:  Zach Braff
Released: 2014
Starring: Zach Braff, Josh Gad, Ashley Greene, Kate Hudson, Joey King, Mandy Patinkin

Plot: Aidan (Braff) is a struggling actor living in LA while being supported by his wife Sarah (Hudson) and relying on his father Gabe (Patinkin) to send his kids to a good school.  However Aiden finds himself forced to examine his life when his father’s cancer returns.

Review:  Coming ten years after his critically acclaimed indie hit “Garden State” this follow up is probably better known for the controversy Braff caused by trying to use Kickstarter to fund part of the film after being inspired by the success of the “Veronica Mars” campaign to try the same for this film. It’s still unclear why everyone was so upset by this move, perhaps believing that Braff should be able to fund his own movie but yet these same people have little concern about raising funds to bring back MST3K which had a decent run to begin with.

Once again here Braff plays an actor (way to branch out) though here it’s clear that things aren’t exactly going according to plan as he goes from one failed audition to the next all while his wife Sarah is forced to work a tedious job in data entry to pay the bills while also being forced to share a cubicle with her douchbag co-worker who constantly makes inappropriate jokes about his penis. Despite the comfortable setup Aiden has for himself there is a sense of him feeling lost and without purpose, especially with his acting career having seemingly stalled and is only thrown into further confusion when his father stops funding the expensive Jewish school his kids had been attending and leading Aiden first of all on a misguided attempt to home school before ultimately re-examine what he wants to do with his life.

Despite clearly aiming for the same element of indie cool that his debut had it’s ultimately a missed bag of ideas that we ultimately end up with here as he drags his kids Grace (King) and Tucker (Gagnon) along with him on his journey of self-discovery, while his daughter deals with life outside of the tight restraints of her Jewish school, a situation she chooses to deal with by shaving her head and in doing so spends the rest of the film wearing a bright pink wig. Tucker meanwhile…..well not a lot changes for him as seemingly its enough for him to just be the bratty younger brother.

Elsewhere Aidan has to also help reunite his brother Noah (Gad) and father the two having drifted apart under Gabe’s continual criticism of his son, which has seemingly now turned Noah into a slovenly shut in. Sadly Gad is sorely under used here, especially when he so much fun when he is on the screen making demands for a Lego Death Star to babysit the kids or getting in an argument with his neighbour (Greene) over whether she should be classed as a furry while at the same harbouring feelings for her he’s seemingly only able to show via showing up in his own costume at Comic-con leading to one of the more original sex scenes ever.

While the key theme of the film is clearly about the discover of self, here Braff also appears to be asking the question of when if ever is it okay to let your dreams die, in this case Aiden’s refusal to give up on his acting career. With Aiden though so self-focused on his own journey it does at time feel that we are watching Braff play the cool babysitter running around with someone else’s kids rather than his own. At the same time Aiden frequently drifts off into “Brazil” inspired daydreams where he is running around as what appear to be a medieval astronaut, which Braff attempts to nail some importance on, but largely these come off more as whims and left off plot devices which could have gone somewhere but ultimately never do, something all the more frustrating when such importance seems to be placed upon them.  

Despite the plotting issues which run throughout the film it is another great cast which Braff has assembled here with Joey King once again proving herself a charming young actress and certainly a talent to watch. The downside though is that despite having a great cast, the script never gives many of them anything particularly interesting to do especially as in the case of Hudson who spends most of the film outside of her harassment plot line pushed to the back of the film and there mainly to provide the moral support and be the rock of her relationship with Aiden. Mandy Patinkin meanwhile is on hand to provide food for thought, but gives a very sedate performance even outside of his character dying from cancer, it feels like he was autopilot for the most part here.  

Outside of the issue the film is enjoyable enough, though lacking in the same spark which made “Garden State” such a memorable indie classic while at the same time leaving little to discover on a rewatch, especially when things generally happen around the characters as they move towards the inevitable conclusion of the film which you will no doubt see coming early on. Still as the kind of movie that you throw on a lazy Sunday you could do a lot worse while making me curious to see what Braff does next and whether “Garden State” was the fluke many now seem contempt to proclaim it as being.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Sympathy For Lady Vengeance

Title: Sympathy For Lady Vengeance
Director:  Park Chan-wook
Released: 2005
Starring: Lee Young-ae, Choi Min-sik, Kwon Yea-young, Kim Shi-hoo, Oh Dal-su, Lee Seung-Shin, Kim Byeong-ok, Ra Mi-ran, Seo Young-ju, Kim Boo-seon

Plot: Wrongly imprisoned for the kidnap and murder of a young boy, Lee Guem-Ja (Lee Young-ae)  has spent the last thirteen years plotting her revenge on the man responsible Mr Baek (Choi Min-sik). Now with the help of the prisoners she helped while serving her sentence she sets out to put her plan into action.

Review:  The third and final film in Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy” following on from “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Oldboy” while it is also a trilogy more in the sense of reoccurring themes and ideas rather than characters, while Chan-Wook’s trilogy can equally be known for just how beautiful he manages to make the look of revenge, despite the fact that he has his characters over the course of the trilogy carry out some truly ugly acts. More frustatingly though is the fact that the bookend films in this trilogy are generally overshadowed by “Oldboy” a film which has gone onto alongside “Battle Royale” and “The Raid:Redemption” become one of the few subtitled movies that everyone including none subtitle fans have seen. This of course is only more of a shame especially when this film alongside “Symphony for Mr. Vengeance” are equally as good if not better than the middle film in this trilogy a case I have especially argued for this film.

Opening with the release of the angelic Guem-Ja its hard to imagine that she will soon transform herself into an Angel of Vengeance but as she rejects the offer of snow white tofu from the gathering of Christians outside the prison its clear that she has no plans of living pure as her consumption of the tofu would symbolise. Soon though she is wearing her trademark red eye shadow and leather coat but not before she has attempted to apologise to the parents of the boy she is accused of murdering by cutting off her finger in an attempt it would seem to cut them all off which goes down as well as can be expected.

One of the great aspects of this film is how this time is seeing how Geum-ja puts her plan into action, visiting paroled inmates she helped while in prision she is quickly able to assemble everything she needs and it’s during this portion of the film that we not only get to meet this colourful group of characters including my personal favourites the husband and wife bank robber team and a plump lesbian responsible for killing and barbequing her family, while we also learn the things that Geum-ja did to help each of them from caring for them to the more extreme donating of a kidney and slowly poisoning the prison bully making it little surprise with so many selfless deeds being done by her that they are so keen to help her with her plans for revenge. Of course the path to revenge is never a straight path and it was never truer than here as even with all the tools required to carry out her revenge she soon discovers that her situation may just be a small part of a much larger picture which soon leads to a much more chilling finale which comes completely by surprise yet at the same time makes for a fitting finale for the trilogy as a whole.

As with the previous entries in the trilogy Chan-Wook once more brings a distinct visual look to the film as here the grim cityscapes are countered by the purity of nature, with his use of snow being especially effective as we are reminded once more of how effective blood on snow can look. Despite more once containing some memorable scenes of violence throughout, though perhaps nothing to the levels seen in “Oldboy” here he goes more for subtly over splatter while at the same time making it look stunning to watch, proving once more that such stunning visuals shouldn’t be kept solely to arthouse and prestige pictures.

For those coming to the film after the spectacle of “Oldboy” they may find themselves slightly disappointed by the slower pacing of this film, much less the lack of shocking scenes as no one is eating live squid or taking on multiple thugs with a hammer here. This is of course not to say much like “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” that the film is lacking in its own memorable moments such as the touching reunion with her daughter now living in Australia with her adopted parents or the showdown with a pair of thugs in which Geum-ja constantly has to keep judging her position to ensure her gun is in range. Geum-ja constantly proving that she is far from the fragile doll despite the angelic persona she equally hides that of a devil aswell as she proves herself more than capable of handling herself or carrying out ruthless deeds without any concern for the morals of her actions.

On equally great form is Choi Min-sik who after playing the antihero lead in “Oldboy” here returns as the villain of the film Mr Baek and who like Geum-ja does his own great job of showing two very different sides to his personality as he hides behind the persona of being a friendly primary school teacher who we see in one seen happily entertaining his class with a rendition of “Two Little Dickie Birds” before showing him at home brutally abusing his wife, who it turns out is also a former cellmate of Geum-ja who married him as part of her revenge plot which makes you wonder what else Geum-ja did that we didn’t see to inspire such loyalty and favours from these former convicts.   The fact that he is such a hedious character certainly makes his fate easier to accept, especially from the surface details such as him being an abusive husband, but the fact that Chan-Wook is able to add further grime to his character as Geum-ja gets closer to completing her revenge only hightens the film above just another run of the mill revenge flick.

While it’s true that this entry is more concerned with its styling and cinematography than the previous entry, much less slower paced this is far from a boring watch, thanks to its interesting characters and Chan-Wook’s ability to

Monday, 11 January 2016

Elwood's Essentials #13 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Title: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Director: Michel Gondry
Released: 2004
Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson

Plot: When Joel (Carrey) discovers that his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Winslet) has had her memories of him erased via Lacuna, Inc. he undergoes the treatment himself to remove his memories of their relationship only to soon find himself wanting to hold onto his memories of her and attempting to hide the subliminal Clementine within his own memories as a unique chase soon begins to unfold.

Review: Occasionally as a avid movie watcher you will encounter a film which for one reason or another seemingly hits you on a deeper level, making the experience take on a whole new level. It’s something that has only happened a few times with Donnie Darko, Southland Tales and A Clockwork Orange all providing this kind of viewing experience, to the point where I can still remember every detail about those initial viewings.  The same thing would also happen during the opening to this film as Joel suddenly decides to blow off work and take the train to Montauk, while her reels off his thoughts as a voice over from the random such as critising sand for being “Just tiny rocks” to suddenly hitting on two thoughts which hit me hard

“Random thoughts for Valentine’s day, 2004. Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.”

“Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?”

And it was these two quotes which made me suddenly realise that I had found in this film a kindred spirit,  knowing in the back of mind that no matter what happened next I would love this film forever.  Thankfully the rest of the film is just as great as this opening with the perfect storm of the visually driven director Michel Gondry and the highly unique writing of Charlie Kaufman with this film being their second time collaborating after the hit and miss “Human Nature”.

Being a Kaufman script it should come as little surprise that the films narrative is less than traditional, with the opening introduction of Joel and Clementine whose mismatched personalities somehow gel together into a believable relationship not that we get to enjoy it for long as we cut to a post break up Joel struggling to deal with the fallout from their break up while more confusingly why she suddenly doesn’t seem to remember who he is. Needless to say it’s a disorientating style of plotting, but Gondry trusts enough in his audience not to baby them through the film as he throws out bursts of information along with a heavy dose of his visual styling and leaves the viewer to piece it all together.

While the lead up to Joel undergoing the treatment might be confusing its none the less of a rough ride once we get into his memories as we are confronted with the bitter end of his breakup as these two characters we see falling in love now seemingly can’t stand a thing about each other. As each of these memories are deleted though we inevitably come to the turning point in the relationship when things weren’t so bad and it’s this sudden realisation on Joel’s part where the films emotional centre lies especially as Joel now realises that he’s not ready to give her up. The added twist here though are the frequent cuts back to the real world as Lacuna technicians Stan (Ruffalo) and Patrick (Wood) carry out their work and as Joel decides to go on the run in his own memories struggles to delete the memories of Clementine he’s attempting to save, especially as his body remains paralysed while undergoing the treatment.  

While these two plots would be perfectly sufficient for the film to be an intresting and unique film, we also get another and more creepy aspect added with Patrick attempting to seduce Clementine using her deleted memories of her relationship with Joel with little regard for the ethics of doing such a thing. This role being the start of a chain of interesting roles for Wood who at this point was coming off his lead role in “The Lord of the Rings” and here really manages to tap into a surprisingly creepy side while equally happy to brag about his involvement with her to Stan and makes for an interesting antagonist of sorts for Joel as he constantly tries to figure out who he is from the fragments of memories of him he has.

Perhaps because Gondry is such a visually driven director that the film is almost too perfectly suited for him, as here he shows scenery rapidly disappearing as memories are deleted, while using visual trickery to shrink Carrey without the use of CGI as seen during the scene in which Joel hides out in his childhood memory of hiding under the table while Clementine remains fully grown as she takes on the role of his mother’s friend. Its also during these diversions into his childhood memories or when memories start merging into each other that the film is at its most arresting and memorable.

At the same time the films characters are as equally memorable and intresting as the visuals happening around them be it the free spirited Clementine whose introduction is her voicing her desire to have the job naming hair dye such creative names as “Agent Orange”. Joel on the other hand while depressed and withdrawn when we first meet him, soon starts to show a variety of levels throughout the film including a fun and creative side that Clementine brings out in him, with Carrey playing it largely serious once more, yet somehow still manging to work in some of his natural clowning abilities. However the person seemingly have the most fun here is Winslet, who shugs off her usual well-spoken persona and embraces an anarchic side not seen from her since “Heavenly Creatures” and one which perfectly gels with Carrey despite the unusual pairing and making me wish that they would team up together more often.

Unquestionably this is a highly unique film and the kind which seems to be sadly increasingly a rarity in these times were studios are favouring tentpole and prestige pictures over the risks of more imaginative and creative works. At the same time this remains currently the high water mark for Gondry who while certainly none the less creative with the films which he has made following this has yet to produce anything which has come close to matching the surprisingly emotional yet entertaining trip that he takes us on here.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Squid and he Whale

Title: The Squid and The Whale
Director: Noah Baumbach
Released: 2005
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin, Halley Feiffer, David Benger, Adam Rose
Plot: Set in 1986 Brooklyn where Walt (Eisenberg) and his younger brother Frank (Kline) attempt to deal with the fallout from their parents’ divorce.

Review:  One of a series of smaller independent films startng Jesse Eisenberg along with “Adventureland” released during the period in which his star was unquestionably on the rise, especially after the success of both “Zombieland” and “The Social Network” while at the same time this was one of the last films in the golden period for American independent cinema. This is also a film which when it was released there seemed to be a time were all everyone wanted to talk about was this film, over for it over the years seemingly become all but forgotten perhaps due to Baumback remaining so fiercely a part of the independent scene as he drifted into making mumblecore films such as “Greenberg” and the equally underrated “Frances Ha”.
Produced by fellow indie darling Wes Anderson, this semi-autobiographical tale would at the time be seen as a real breakout film for Baumbach, no doubt due to the fact that despite the plot hardly sounding like the most fun time, somehow manages to craft here a story which is both frequently funny as it is engrossing. Here the boys are shown growing up with parents who are both academics and writers. Their father Bernard (Daniels) a former big name writer, struggling to deal with his fading celebrity who now teaches while frequently critical and opinionated when it comes to the work of others in particular their mother Joan (Linney) who he is especially keen to critise as her own writing career starts to take off as his own remains seemingly stalled.  Walt meanwhile hero worships his father, frequently recycling his opinions to impress girls, while struggling to find his own area to excel in especially as he feels that he has to live up to his father’s legacy, regardless of the fact that he has been all but forgotten by most.
Once again channelling his brand quiet awkwardness Eisenberg once again gives us another great performance and one which never seems to carry across to his more mainstream films, which often feel like he is being forced to push the humour rather than rely on a more natural humour which is what he often does best as especially seen here especially as he plays Walt the wannabe academic. Often it feels like few opinions that Walt has are his own often rechurning his father’s opinions regards of if he has any reference for these opinions, disregarding Charles Dickens “Tale of Two Cities” as a minor work while raving about Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” despite not having read either and yet when caught out by calling Kafka Kafka-esq he is somehow able to charm his way out of the situation. This pursuit of acclaim also sees Walt trying to pass off a Pink Floyd song of as his own for the school talent contest, which when he is caught out serves to highlight the increasing divide between his parents. His father’s influence however doesn’t just stretch to opinions as he soon starts questioning his relationship with his girlfriend Sophie (Feiffer) after Bernard promotes the idea of sleeping with other women while his still young to his son, while in many ways begrudging his own life choices.
Elsewhere Frank whose seemingly happy charting his own path with dreams of playing professional tennis seemingly takes his parents’ divorce the worst as he starts secretly drinking and more shockingly engaging on a campaign of public masturbation which the less said about is probably the better. Such extreme actions coming with no real kind of explanation though other than perhaps a feeling of being overlooked during the ongoing turmoil with this being his attempt at getting attention especially when everyone is seemingly caught up in their own issues to focus on this youngest family member.
Unquestionably it’s a great cast which Baumbach assembles here with Daniels really working his dramatic skills as he refuses to accept that he is ever at fault, while embarking on a relationship of sorts with one of his students Lilli (Paquin) which screams mid-life crisis and who more creepily Walt is also trying to pick up at the same time. Its interesting to think at the same time that this role at one point had been considered for Bill Murray making me wonder if the role would have been played any differently had he took the role, especially when Daniels plays the role with such a hair trigger that the smallest thing can seemingly set off Bernard as we frequently see throughout the film. Equally on fun form is William Baldwin as the new age tennis coach Ivan with the habit of calling people brother and whom Joan embarks on a relationship with while generally seemingly like divorce really works for her, especially when it seems like a continual stream of positives that she gets from the divorce.
Due to its short runtime and tight editing the film never drags while its catalogue of awkward situation and interesting interactions keep things interesting, while the believability of the characters ensures that it never feels too fantastical especially when dealing with a family as dysfunctional as this while perhaps in many ways making this a spiritual sibling to producer Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”. At the same time the largely handheld shooting style gives the film as real fluid feel while adding to the indie charms of the film which deserves to be rediscovered rather than left to languish in its current seemingly forgotten status.

Thursday, 7 January 2016


Title: Adventureland
Director: Greg Mottola
Released: 2009
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig

Plot: Set in the summer of 1987, were James (Eisenberg) has graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in comparative Literature and looking forward to a summer spent touring Europe before going to New York to study journalism. However these plans are soon sunk when his parents announce that they won’t be able to finance his trip as originally planned. Now faced with having to find a summer job, he soon finds himself working at the local amusement park Adventureland.

Review:  Sometimes it takes just one movie to launch a career, or so it would seem at least for Jesse Eisenberg, who always seemed to be lurking below the radar of the moving going public making films like “Rodger Dodger” and the much underrated “The Squid and the Whale”. That was until the double punch of “Zombieland” and “The Social Network” wich for a period truly launched him into the mainstream. Now while these two films were both undoubtedly great (jaw dropingly so in the case of “The Social Network”), it is the films which he made in between these two career milestones which for myself are the most interesting films and sadly also the most overlooked, especially when it comes to this film.

From the start its clear that James believes that he knows his path in life, having spent his life living in his intellectual bubble which has seemingly also shielded him from the real world until now as he finds himself further shell shocked when his preferred career choice at “Adventureland” of working on “Rides” is rejected in favour of “Games”. A role it soon seems is more hazardous than you would expect especially when employees can be fired for giving away one of the oversized stuffed panda’s, which is less of a problem when most of the games are fixed, so that no one ever wins any of the big prizes, as highlighted by the tour given by his co-worker and fellow intellectual Joel (Starr) while also being introduced to Em (Stewart), whose combination of troubled home life and shared musical tastes makes her a source of instant interest to James.

James himself while not exactly have much in the way of assets outside of his supply of joints which soon proves all he really needs to win over his fellow employee’s, aswell as covering for his shortcomings such as his virginity and bookish naïveté, both things we expect him to loose by the end of this summer, yet it is really the intellectual slacker charm of Eisenberg which makes this character work so well, as he bumbles his ways through casual conversation with Em, while at the same time convincingly discussing the relevance of “Moby Dick” with Joel. The rest of the cast while varying in terms of star power all embody their various characters with Ryan Reynolds and Kristen Stewart proving once more that their best work is found away from their more mainstream projects with Stewart in particular being especially of note, especially as she finds herself more and more frequently tied to her millstone of “Twilights” Bella, she is here on much more enjoyable form, as she oozes a damaged yet unquestionably cool aura which would give even Scott Pilgrims Ramona Flowers a run for her money.

Perfectly capturing the spirit of summer jobs, especially for those of us, whom like myself lived in towns which really were only ever alive during the tourist months and essentially dead the rest of the year and while I never worked in an amusement park, having opted instead to lifeguard at my local swimming pool stopping young kids from drowning themselves on the flumes and generally spending by day inhaling chlorine fumes and having random conversations with my friends, there is something which still rings so true about this movie. For here your summer job, much like my own summer jobs are less about career prospects and more about making money, random conversations with your friends and general misadventures all which form the general focus here, while refreshingly not overplaying the 80’s setting, by keeping it firmly as a background for the story to play out against solely, aswell as an excuse to dig out some of the better tracks of the era, with a particular affection for Lou Reed in particular the laid back tones of “Satellite of Love”.

An interesting follow up to the gleefully crude “Superbad” by crafting a film more in tune with “Dazed and Confused” than the gross out humour of his previous film, as he  marks a decidedly different change in direction if one still set well within the same general territory for director Greg Mottola, as he crafts a much more subtle and thoughtful film, while drawing inspiration from his own summers spent working at an amusement part of the same name in Farmingdale, New York and its these experiences which certainly help to craft a realistic picture of the monotony of the working day, especially not made anymore bearable when forced to listen to the same songs on a constant loop especially when one of those song is the hideous “Rock Me Armadeus” by Falco.

Within the confines of the park Mottola has staffed it with a colourful mixture of characters, who all in their own way help to shape the course of James summer such as the park’s maintenance man Mike (Reynolds) who bizarrely is never seen without his guitar and generally playing on claims of having jammed with Lou Reed. Equally memorable is Bill Hader as the eccentric park manager Bobby, who while more restrained than he was in “Superbad” still provides more than a few memorable moments, especially when getting to invoke his psycho side caused by people littering in the park or just from the general banter with his wife and co-manager Paulette (Wiig).

A fun and laid back indie comedy, it’s refreshing to finally have a comedy which harks back to the memorable dialogue favouring comedies of the 90’s such as “Dazed and Confused” and “Clerks”, rather than resorting to lazy and gross out gags and stoner humour, as Mottola not only gives his cast a chance to shine, but at the same time doesn’t sacrifice the story for the sake of getting extra laughs and while it might have somehow slipped under the radar, a fact which still confuses me even now yet despite this it is still truly worth hunting down.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Title: Kingsman: The Secret Service
Director:  Matthew Vaughn
Released: 2014
Starring: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Michael Caine, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Samantha Womack, Mark Hamill

Plot: Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) is an unrefined street punk who finds himself given a chance at redemption when he is recruited by Galahad (Firth) a member of the secret spy organisation Kingsman and soon tasked with stopping he villainous billionaire tech philanthropist Richmond Valentine (Jackson)

Review:  Having previously taken a stab at the superhero genre with “Kick Ass”, here Director Matthew Vaughn gives us his attempt to make spy movies fun again with the likes of Jason Bourne and the current more serious round of Bond film making the hayday of Bond, Flint and Harry Palmer seeing like a distant memory. Meanwhile the less said about teen spy Alex Cross  and the attempts to adapt his popular series with the abysmal “Stormbreaker” the better. Its also a project which sees him adapting another of “Kick Ass” creator Mark Millar’s comic books “The Secret Service”, while once more teaming up with long time writing partner Jane Goldman for the script.

Right from the start its clear that reality is very much an afterthought for Vaughn as his team of super spies set about taking out a group of middle east terrorists with the various explosions they cause turning into the title credits. At the same time the agents of the Kingsman organisation are undeniably British in their approach to their work, as they are made up of well-spoken and smartly dressed agents who use the names of the knights of the round table for their codenames, making them of course the polar opposite of Eggsy who lives in a council flat with his mum (Womack), baby half- sister and abusive stepfather.

While the two hour run time might seem bloated for this kind of popcorn spy film, the pacing is handled well by Vaughn who uses the first half of the film to cover Eggsy’s training by Merlin (Strong) whose methods frequently threaten the lives of the potential candidates, a fact actually pretty open about as he requests the candidates fill out the details on their personal body bags before they can start training. At the same time he thinks little about throwing them out of plane with a failed parachute or flooding their sleeping quarters while they sleep all which add to the films impressive action sequences, with Vaughn manging at the same time to work in a healthy dose of humour to the proceedings with Eggsy being lumped with a pug after mistaking it for a bulldog when the candidates are made to choose a puppy to look after and train.

Refreshingly Vaughn is continually more than happy to play around with the audiences expectations with the expected passing of training not happening and Eggsy failing to graduate rather than passing with the usual flying colours when he refuses to shoot his now beloved pug when requested by Kingsman head Arthur (Caine) making his eventual journey into the Kingsman ranks an interesting one to follow especially when we have such a fun relationship between Colin Firth’s super spy Galahad and Eggsy helped further still by the great on screen chemistry that both Firth and Egerton share. Firth of course playing up his established persona of the well-spoken upper class Brit as he takes Eggsy through the importance of tailored suits and attempting to bestow on him lessons in manners and chivalry. At the same time Eggerton’s journey from chav to gentlemen spy is made only the more believable thanks to a strong performance by the newcomer, who effortless transfers from one persona to the next.

Unquestionably the real draw here though is with the films action sequences, which manage to go well above the expectations laid out in the trailers, with Vaughn racking up an impressive pile of casualties, as he crafts huge set pieces such as the showdown in Valentine’s mountain top lair and more impressively Firth taking on a church full of people driven into a psycho frenzy by Valentine’s tech in a scene made all the more giddily enjoyable  by being set to the strains of Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Free Bird”. The action scenes throughout constantly providing to be inventive while the camera is held at the centre of the action and moving with such fluidity it really puts the action up with the likes of “The Raid” films and certainly a higher standard of action than we have come to expect from these kind of blockbuster. At the same time Firth whose only real action scenes before this have been his two fights with Hugh Grant in the Bridget Jones films, here shows himself to be the kind of surprise action hero that Liam Neelson proved himself to be in “Taken”, while the fact that Firth did 80% of his own stunt and fight scenes really only making it the more impressive when you see him effortless flowing from one opponent to the next, while amusingly even turning his umbrella into a deadly weapon.

What is really surprising here though is just how violent the film is with fights frequently turning into bloody and brutal affiars with anything which can be turned into a weapon frequently being used so, while nothing compares to the mass head exploding sequence at the films finale set to the tune of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”, though the fact they are exploding not in bloody showers of brain and skull but rather colourful puffs of smoke like fireworks I couldn’t help but feel was more a decision to ensure the film wasn’t lumped with a higher rating. Needless to say it’s still one of the more memorable scenes.

The other strength of the film is in its casting with Samuel L. Jackson clearly having a blast as Valentine who shakes up the usual villain model with his aversion to violence and blood preferring to leave the heavy lifting to his henchwoman Gazelle (Boutella) and her razor sharp bladed prosthetic legs who might be the most interesting villain since the clockwork gasmask clad Karl Kroenen in “Hellboy”. Elsewhere Michael Caine is on great form as he continues to pick up the senior spy roles that would have gone to Sean Connery was he still acting though here he once more gives us the great personality shifts we got with “Harry Brown” while hinting that he too was originally from the same humble beginnings as Eggsy. More surprising though is the appearance by Mark Hamill which I couldn’t help but feel should have been accompanied by the same kind of highlighting arrow that he got in “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”.

On the downside Vaughn’s world crafting is painfully limited with society being divided into two groups of the privileged and lower class with no attempts to provide a middle ground for these two groups while at the same time no doubt reinforcing the general opinion that Brits are either cockneys or snobs. Equally frustrating is the sloppy ending which seems to deal that getting anal sex off a princess is in same way a modernisation of the typical Bond ending and as a result means that the film ends on more of a stumble than the high five its building up to.

Unquestionably this is an exciting and revival for the spy genre, reminding us that it doesn’t have to be bogged down with dour faced seriousness while laying the foundation which an exciting series can be built from, especially with a sequel already in the works at the time of writing which will no doubt determine if this series is more than a one shot film hung on a fun gimmick.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Title: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Director:  Terry Gilliam
Released: 1988
Starring: John Neville, Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Bill Paterson, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, Jack Purvis, Robin Williams, Valentina Cortese, Peter Jeffrey, Allison Steadman, Ray Cooper, Sting

Plot: The fantastical tale of 18th century aristocrat and teller of tall tales Baron Munchausen (Neville) who along with his band of talented henchmen and theatre owner’s daughter Sally Salt (Polley) must band together to save a city from the invading Turk army.

Review: Opening in an unnamed and war-torn city in Europe, during the late 18th century in a period dubbed “The Age of Reason” while more precisely on a Wednesday were a theatre troupe are putting on a production of Baron Munchausen’s life and adventures, despite the city currently being under siege and city official “The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson” (Pryce) continues to reinforce the city’s commitment to reason or more precisely uniformity. Its at this moment that an elderly man claiming to be real Baron Munchausen bursts into the theatre critizing the players for getting his story wrong and essentially setting in motion the many strange and wonderful events which follow, while equally setting the tone for this third and final entry in Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” which started with “Time Bandits” and “Brazil” and which could in many ways been seen as the films that the Monty Python team would have made, had they not called it a day with “The Meaning of Life”.

This film is also the one which has since its release become something around of a millstone around the neck of Gilliam’s career thanks to its trouble production and spiralling costs which saw his original budget of $23.5 million balloon into $45.63 million by the end of production, while Columbia’s new CEO Dawn Steel refusing financing previously agreed by her predecessor David Puttnam. The situation also not being helped by the film failing at the box office despite highly positive reviews it would only claw back a paltry $8 Million. Despite the film going on to become a cult favourite it has however continued to dog Gilliam career ensuring that he’s constantly had to fight for funding for the films which followed and no doubt explaining why he’s remained more of an indie director in the years which followed starting with his “Trilogy of Americana” made up of The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.

Unquestionably this film is one of Gilliams most fantastical films as he seemingly sets out with a vision to try and top the imagery of Brazil and Time Bandits, while crafting what could almost be seen as a “Gulliver’s Travels” style adventure as we follow this fantastical creation on a series of ever more fantastical adventures as he rides a cannonball, escapes a city in a hot air balloon made of women’s undergarments, meets the king of the moon (Williams credited here as Ray D. Tutto) and the roman god Vulcan (Reed) and even gets eaten by a large fish. It’s really the sort of film that only Gilliam could think about attempting while one he is yet to top in terms of imagery with “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” being the closest he’s come, though even that film doesn’t really come close to matching the feeling of scale and grandeur that this film has, no doubt as the result of this film being shot purely with the use of practical effects.

While it is easy to get caught up in the all the visual flair, this is actually a surprisingly straightforward tale with the Baron and Sally escaping the city and along the way meeting up with the older versions of the Baron’s loyal henchmen made up of Bethold (Idle the world’s fastest runner, Adolphus (McKeown) the crackshot marksman with superhuman eyesight, Gustavus (Purvis) the dwarf who not only has super hearing but also the ability to blow down an entire army and finally the super strong Albrecht (Dennis). More amusing is seeing these heroes as their younger selves in the Baron’s first tale of how he avoided being beheaded by Sultan Mahmud (Jeffrey) and then as we follow the Baron on his journey seeing them all as old men, with Gustavus now pretty much deaf while Adolphus is by all appearances now blind. Seeing them all pull it together for a final showdown with the Sultan unsurprisingly left me with a dopey smile especially when this battle contains so many comical moments such as Bethold attempting to outrun a snipers bullet only to turn it into the world’s greatest trick shot.

One of the real strengths of the film is in its casting especially when it comes to the supporting cast which amongst them sees Robin Williams here working for free camping things up as the king of the moon, whose head and body are able to work separate from each other, while more surprising is the fact that this role had originally been written for Sean Connery only for him to deem it not kingly enough for him. Oliver Reed meanwhile is equally fascinating to watch as the roman god Vulcan when the baron and his followers seemingly get sent to hell and were Reed seems to be more concerned with projecting his own performance and giving us odd little touches such as turning a piece of coal into a diamond. These stop off each coming with something different and it’s these characters we encounter on these stop off which make the journey so fun that you never really question the fact that none of it really makes a lick of sense.

For the established fans of Gilliam's work there is much to enjoy here, especially when he is playing up the visual side of things as much as he does, especially using some great touches such as theatrical flat screens to tell his story and while some aspects might not work such as the reoccurring character of the Angel of death whose effects are especially ropey and some of the plot might be more plodding than it needs to be this is still a highly memorable and entertaining film and one which is truly deserving of its cult status, even with its confused ending this is still a fun fantasy film directed in a way that only Gilliam can.  

Friday, 1 January 2016


Title: Lucy
Director:  Luc Besson
Released:  2014
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-sik, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton, Nicolas Phongpheth

Plot: When Lucy (Johansson) is tricked into becoming a drug mule by her boyfriend, she soon finds herself at the mercy of Korean mob boss Mr. Jang (Min-Sik) as she has a bad of the synthetic drug CPH4 sewn inside her. However when the bag begins leaking the drugs into her system she soon finds her physical and mental capabilities being increased

Review:  Why is it that Luc Besson never seems to get the kind of credit he deserves, so much so that when this film was released I had no idea it was even a Besson film! This of course is only the more astounding when you look back at his early career not only as a key director of the “Cinema Du Look” movement but films like “Subway”, “Nikita” and “The Big Blue” let alone “Leon” all which saw him classed as one of the rock star directors like Quentin Tarantino. For some reason though his later films have lacked the bravado of his name being attached even though he has continued to direct exciting and visually arresting films.  

“Lucy” doesn’t change the situation but what it does however is elevate a fairly simple idea by giving it a heavy dose of his visual style, while finding a great leading lady in Scarlett Johansson who here is clearly eager to prove she is more than one shot Marvel character, continuing the chain of interesting roles she has been playing even if she wasn’t Besson’s first choice having originally had Angelina Jolie in mind for the role only for her to drop out prior to filming and leaving Johansson to be cast instead. Besson at the same time here showing he clearly still having a thing for casting model style actresses in action roles as previously seen with the likes of Milla Jovovich, Lousie Bourgoin and Rie Rasmussen.

When we first meet Lucy she is the gullible and carefree American living and partying up in Taiwan and it’s fascinating to see her go from being scared and fragile to seemingly discovering her inner badass once she receives a dose of the synthetic drugs in her system, which constantly increase her cerebral capacity the increasing percentage being marked by title cards while intercut by a lecture being given by Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman as he explains the possibilities and changes each percentage increase opens up. So what starts with increased responses and fighting abilities soon turn into psychic abilities as she is able to toss enemies aside and manipulate radio waves, before finally venturing into god like territory. True by the end things get more than alittle silly with Besson going for what could be best described as his “2001: A Space Odyssey” ending yet somehow despite these increasingly super abilities that Lucy is gaining you never get the same feeling of pretension that we got when the Wachowski’s attempted to turn The Matrix’s Neo into a techo-Jesus.

At the same time Besson is keen to show that such rapid evolution is not without its costs, with Lucy’s body at one point seemingly vaporising before randomly turning up later and unexplainably in a hospital bed. We also get to see her spit up a handful of teeth after one of these evolutionary jumps reminding us that while she might be gaining a number of superhuman abilities her body is still very much mortal and not designed for such sudden changes and requiring Lucy to take more of the drug which caused these changes to handle the changes.

Due to these lecture sequences Besson gets away with many of the far-fetched moments of the film especially when Lucy starts entering the higher percentages as theories are tossed about with even Professor Norman admitting that he can’t really understand what is happening to here as his work is all based in theory. At the same time when the tone of the film is kept so light and fun its hard to question what is happening in the film especially when Besson is making it so entertaining to watch happen. Equally you can see throughout that in many ways he is trying to make a film with elements of “Leon” as once more he crafts a number of impressive action scenes such as high speed car chase through Paris which ends with multiple cop cars being flipped through to the police versus gangsters hallway shootout which is reminisant in many ways of the finale of “Leon” which with its moments of slow motion and stray bullets decimating a statue really elevate this above being another dumb action movie, as Besson like John Woo proves that even the most blunt material can still be elevated even if it’s the type of scene we have seen done numerous times before.  

Johansson unquestionably owns this film while continuing to prove herself capable to handling the action sequences even if Lucy has little in the way of any kind of emotional depth, as she becomes cold and detached when she starts to change from the effect of the drugs while Freeman is here to essentially provide some fun narration of sorts as he’s hired once more it seems for those silky vocals than anything particularly strenuous acting wise. Elsewhere Choi Min-sik no doubt known to most as the lead in “Oldboy” really is one of Besson’s best villians and more than on a par with Gary Oldman’s corrupt DEA agent in “Leon” and Tcheky Karyo’s equally corrupt detective in “Kiss of the Dragon” even if he isn’t as quick to anger as either of those characters, his quiet ruthlessness and little regard for human life ensures that he is just as memorable.

While this film is fun for its runtime, its ending does however mean that it does in some ways fee like it has jumped the shark, as Besson seemingly implies that by reaching 100% that Lucy in some way ascends to a god like status in a scene which comes off feeling like Besson just wanted an excuse to cram in a brief history of time style footage while at the same time not being sure quite how to end the film as seen by Lucy becoming a bio-supercomputer….atleast I think that’s what it was supposed to be anyway. That aside this is still an entertaining film which plays largely like a more action orientated version of "Limitless" while reminding us once again why Besson is still a director of note.
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