Wednesday, 30 July 2014


Hard Labour

Can you smell what the Rock is cooking? Yes, I can, and it stinks.

Former WWE wrestler Dwayne Johnson plays the eponymous Greek hero. After his twelve legendary labours are complete the famed demi-God is living in exile with his band of merry mercenaries, including Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell. When a Thracian King (John Hurt) offers him grand riches for taking down a rampaging warlord, the invitation proves too good to refuse.

Hercules is disappointing because it has little to say for itself. Did everyone turn up exclusively for the paycheck or did they have an illusion of how this was going to be different from every other fantasy hero adventure. At times its a PG-Gladiator, then a CGI Ben Hur and finally a self-aware Samson and Delilah. Once again a British attempt at a popcorn summer hit is way off the mark, channelling a lame formula which is far too similar to the disastrous King Arthur keep my nightmares at bay.

Not even the unashamed shoehorning of eye candy into the story, in the form of a beautiful Amazonian warrior-princess (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), is enough to lift proceedings beyond mediocrity. It ain’t clever or grown up, guys. Still, when it is done right...

At least a few interesting quirks survive for me to praise. Having Hercules as a savvy opportunist, rather than the genuine son of Zeus, is a fresh novelty in the genre and sparks the better fragments of dialogue.

Also, with an easily recognisable cast of British and Scandinavian television names, it is not all bad news. Ian McShane is a class act in any production and manages to fuse a bit of credibility in some very hammy lines. On the other hand, there is something very wrong with Peter Mullan cracking a whip at half naked men. Strangely enough, his grizzly Scotsman routine looks a little out of place in Ancient Greece.

Then there is Hercules himself. Johnson is a likable actor in the same vein as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Coincidentally, Arnie began his English language career playing the same character, albeit in modern day New York. Their physical peculiarity (i.e. they both have giant muscles) gives the two hulks a sort of licence to get away with some laughable moments of ‘acting’. Whether you are laughing at them or with them is open to your interpretation. I am all for the latter.

Admittedly, this review confirms the prejudices most of you will have had beforehand. Sometimes life is annoyingly predictable. Here is the proof.


Monday, 28 July 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

World War Chimpan-Z

2014 is proving to be the year of the great science-fiction revival. After the success of Edge of Tomorrow, the two biggest and most exciting summer blockbusters are both proudly of the nerdy genre. Munching on the box office before Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy hits the screens is the sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and prequel to the original Charlton Heston classic.

In the wake of a global pandemic and apocalyptic war, a fledgling colony of human survivors based in San Francisco begins negotiations with a neighbouring society of intelligent apes, led by the inspirational patriarch Caesar (Andy Serkis). Neither side wants war, but will their mutual mistrust escalate into an armed crisis?

All of the good things you have heard are true. Dawn feels so organic there were times when I forgot it was largely manufactured on a computer screen. From the first scene, where an ape hunting party ambushes a group of deer, the habitats and motion-captured simian characters are convincingly realised in painstaking digital and CGI. Sometimes the highly developed primates generate more empathy, charisma and emotional sincerity than their human co-stars. Typically difficult effects to cultivate like rain, fur and ambivalent facial expressions all come together in unblemished harmony to make for the best visual effects I have ever seen.

It is a triumph that when Caesar faces off with Malcolm, the human protagonist, the audience is left with split sympathy. At no point is it a case of four-foot good, two-foot bad; more like humans and apes just as good/bad as each other.

With a script that favours almost every character and has a plot which makes sense beyond adding up the dots, this is also an unusually smart piece of popcorn fare. The action sequences are enough to raise the film’s pulse and remove the slight threat of impending boredom. But having a cast of interesting faces like Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke and Keri Russell, there is nothing ordinary about the people on screen.

By the third act the pace begins to wane and more could have been made of exploring the dynamics within the humans’ panicky fortress. Even so, Dawn is undemanding entertainment, delivering another major sci-fi commercial success, and making a sure claim to being the best ape film since 1968.

Based on its rather large profits, 20th Century Fox are bound to add more films to the franchise in future years.


Monday, 21 July 2014

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Knockout Blow.

When Paul Thomas Anderson first told reporters that he wanted to work with Adam Sandler they laughed, politely went quiet, then moved on to their next question. A harmonious collaboration between the director of well-received art house ensemble pieces, such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and the regular Razzie nominee seemed like a faint plausibility.

Finally, when the result of the pair’s labours was released at the 2002 Cannes festival, the critics discovered that the joke was on them. But not every naysayer was silenced by the film’s quirky chemistry. Even now, Punch-Drunk Love tends to provoke polar emotional judgements between viewers.

Anderson’s excellent script revolves around Barry Egan, a businessman bullied into submission and destructive rages by his cohort of seven sisters. The love of an exciting woman (Emily Watson) might be enough to wrestle Egan away from his inner demons. All the while, jeopardy lurks when the owner of a telephone sex-line (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plots to blackmail the hapless salesman.

Sandler is a revelation as a brooding, messed up human being. Roger Ebert wrote that the comedian “liberated from the constraints of formula, reveals unexpected depths as an actor. Watching this film, you can imagine him in Dennis Hopper roles. He has darkness, obsession and power. He can't go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he?" I guess that is what you would call a backhanded compliment.

For someone, indeed myself, who actually likes Sandler’s back catalogue, the film gains a greater power by so boldly casting its lead actor against type.

Paul Thomas Anderson tends to make weird, non-conformist movies and this is no different. Bright colours bounce around the sets, locations and costumes, which include the protagonist’s own distinctive blue suit, and big, noisy events regularly occur in the background of scenes. With unnecessarily long tracking shots and improvisational dialogue, there is a realism here that would be inimitable for any other filmmaker.

Sandler is supported by some excellent supporting actors and a few cameo stars. While Emily Watson’s performance is beautifully restrained, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s memorable pantomime villain has gone down in cinema history as yet another platform for his phenomenal talent. Even Luis Guzman appears as one of Egan’s employees. The Hispanic actor has been in everything from Carlito’s Way to The Limey. His name may not be famous but you will definitely recognise his face when you see it.

When it comes to Punch-Drunk Love the seemingly unlikely pairing of Anderson and Sandler created a strikingly memorable dark comedy which can also hold its weight as an unconventional romantic piece. It won’t be to everyone’s liking but that is what proper cinema is all about.


Sunday, 20 July 2014

Witness (1985)

Once every year there tends to be a studio concept doing the rounds which is impossible to ignore. In 1985 Witness fitted that bill. Its intriguing premise is the best that Hollywood has ever dreamt up over its long history.

If you are ever fortunate enough to meet a screenwriter, ask them about Peter Weir’s great feature and watch as their eyes light up in excitement.

Ingeniously playing on Harrison Ford’s usual role as the reluctant hero, he is cast as John Book, a straight-laced city detective who must protect an Amish boy when he witnesses a murder. It just so happens that the culprits are crooked colleagues of the protagonist, meaning it is a case of good cop versus corrupt cops, played out in one of the small villages where the ultra-conservative religious communities live. Book’s sense of duty is heightened when he falls in love with the child’s mother, played by Kelly McGillis.

How does a close knit pacifist society cope with a man that uses violence as a pragmatic necessity in their midst? That is the most fascinating question which the script throws up in its thrilling and moody narrative.

Although he ultimately embraces the community and partly adopts their values, the Amish collective cannot bring themselves to accommodate to Book’s tough worldliness. When his job is done, having inevitably seen off the villains (including a pre-Lethal Weapon Danny Glover), the honourable policeman packs his bags and drives away. There is no weepy farewell from the would-be lovers, instead favouring a true ending, devoid of the usual fairytale conclusions and sanctimonious Hollywood moralising.

After all, it must have been very tempting to finish the last scene with the mother and child abandoning their home to live with the good looking hero. Thank goodness the writers managed to ensure the ending remained downbeat.

Before then, the film also works wonders to highlight, as fairly as possible, the equal blessings and curses of the Amish way of life. For all the visual splendour and general calm of an old-fashioned agricultural living, anyone might die from basically treated conditions because ‘modern’ medicine is normally forbidden. And, of course, repeatedly throughout the movie, the challenges of adopting an absolutely pacifist philosophy is laid bare.

My favourite moment is when the mother and son are waiting in a train station to return home from the city. Their social discomfort at the crowds of people, added to the fear of being easily noticed and teased thanks to their puritan attire, is made so powerfully obvious that any viewer can see how brilliantly Witness has considered the sensitivity of what it is depicting. It is brilliant filmmaking made to look simple.

A smart concept alone is never enough to win prestige, but for its overall quality of assemblage and sheer intelligence, Witness is undoubtedly a movie masterpiece.


Saturday, 19 July 2014

Begin Again

Open Mic Knightley

In the same year that his Once has been reborn as a West End musical, John Carney’s latest film addresses the equal portions of cynicism and romanticism living in the modern music industry. He hit indie gold with the 2006 tale of an Irish busker and his Czech fancy. Unfortunately, Begin Again, for all its admirable qualities, probably won’t gather the same audience reception.

Decent sized budget – tick. Great cast – tick. Full soundtrack – tick. Media publicity and marketability – no chance!

A few adverts and the obligatory Keira Knightley broadsheet interview is all that has given a whimpering fanfare to the release of a noble film, fused with a timely mission of blending songs (and scenes) which are not driven by franchise possibilities and artistic posing.

A gloomy drunkard divorcee (Mark Ruffalo) loses his job as a record producer but is snapped out of his depression when he hears a song at a bar by a scorned woman (Kiera Knightley). “I want to make an album with you”, he says, without a penny to his name. She mumbles, he perseveres; a friendship blossoms.

With the same New York location and acoustic mix, Begin Again is somewhat akin to the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Nevertheless, the former is of a much lighter tone and lesser misery factor. With a good quality script and some decent songs there is very little to dislike. Even Knightley, who often inspires hostile sentiments for some reason, is at her most likable. As ever, Ruffalo is also a charming screen presence, especially when partnered with on-screen daughter Hailee Steinfeld.

It has to be said that the Big Apple, the music business and money are all things I know nothing about. A lot of the subtle strokes passed over my head and maybe some of the sentiments in the story do not ring true to more educated viewers. At least I could appreciate when the main character described Bob Dylan’s public persona as one of the most deliberately ‘cultivated’ in showbusiness.

Light and insubstantial, Begin Again is set to pass by as one of the near-misses of the more mainstream independent circuit. Maybe it is one for rental rather than raiding your wallet to snatch a ticket.


Friday, 18 July 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Does not drag-on.

“I am Fire. I am Death.” So claimed the beastly Smaug at the end of the most recent instalment of the Hobbit. The dragons in Dreamworks’ hefty box office property may not be as fascinating as Benedict Cumberbatch’s anthropomorphised titan, but then they are a whole lot better than Dragonheart, Eragon and all the other fantasy genre imitators.

After its embracing of the winged reptiles in the last film, the Viking town of Berk is a society thriving in prosperity and harmony. Once more, though, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his cantankerous companion Toothless cause a stir when they discover that a malevolent warlord is assembling his own dragon army to achieve world domination.

Since Shrek reluctantly went into retirement four years ago, the only Dreamworks property to commercially rival Disney’s animated output has been the adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s book series. To the many fans of the original, this eagerly awaited sequel has lived up to the expectations. Kids will enjoy the pratfalls more than their older companions. It is not something I personally get excited over but who am I to judge?

Despite a relatively loose plot, director Dean DeBlois and his creative team have developed a successful formula for children’s movies which has an easygoing appeal. His ace card lies in the deft computer animation of the fantasy world, where each creature and location is given its own unique identity. The detailed way in which the different dragons interact with each other is a particularly nice touch and provides background entertainment to some of the slower scenes.

Alongside Baruchel, Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson return to lend their voices to the Vikings. Cate Blanchett also features in a role which is an already-spoiled spoiler from the trailers.

It is odd that half the cast speak in a Scottish highland accent while the rest settle for North American. But then, in a story where dragons are ridden like horses, you can’t really question the reality of the details.

Smaug would not be amused. Neither would Cnut (who was Danish – not Scottish).


Wednesday, 16 July 2014


In recent years, much has been made of the rise of television as a superior form of popular entertainment to film. It is said that a film cannot provide the prolonged character development nor capture the subtle nuances of their relationships the same way that a bulky box-set with several dozen hours worth of material can. Where are the cinematic equivalents of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad?

When Richard Linklater began shooting Boyhood way back in 2002, The Sopranos was only three seasons old while The Wire had only just begun - the golden era of TV was still in its infancy. Now, twelve years later, Boyhood is finally in cinemas and providing audiences everywhere with the same intimate, compulsive experience as the best HBO drama does.

The nearest small-screen precedent to Linklater’s film is however Up, the documentary series that airs every seven years to catch up with the lives of the fourteen people it first reported on in 1964 back when they were just seven years old. Similarly, Linklater has ambitiously shot the same cast for fifteen days in each of the last twelve years, although he has compiled all his footage for a single, feature length film that attempts to chart the protagonist Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) childhood.

What results is a unique cinematic triumph. Linklater has transcended the usual limitations of charting a character’s development into adulthood by coupling it with an actor’s development, rather than resorting to the usual methods of either using different actors or trying to make the same actor look older or younger.

Consequently, the film is startlingly authentic. The young actors have grown with their characters, and were apparently encouraged to collaborate with the script by drawing upon their own lives and the kind of things they get up to. The film functions as a kind of time capsule, documenting subtle period details in each year of shooting. Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ and The Hives’ ‘Hate to Say I Told You So’ open the film and date it in the early 00s, but what is really striking is the development of technology: Mason is shown playing on a Game Boy Advance, an X-Box and a Wii at different points in his life, mobile phones play an increasingly important role in the plot, and by the age of eighteen he’s considering deleting his Facebook account.

The film’s unique form grants it a fascinatingly dual perspective. In one respect it is shot in the present and therefore looks at things the way they were at the time, but the editing process has occurred years afterwards and perceives the same happenings as in the past. A scene set just before the 2008 presidential election, for instance, in which one woman is shown passionately enthusing about Barack Obama, evokes both the sense of optimism at the time as well as the feelings of disappointment and disillusionment that a contemporary perspective feels looking back.  

As for the characters and the story, Boyhood exhibits a naturalistic rather than melodramatic tone. Linklater seems to have gone out of his way to make the characters seem ordinary – Mason, his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and his mother (Patricia Arquette) make up a middle-class, middle-income family, and the film is full of easily recognisable circumstances, like Mason’s first day at school, his first crush, fights with his sister, hanging out in the suburbs, moving house etc.

As such there is little in the way of deep conflict or big drama – aside from the tension between the family and its estranged father (Ethan Hawke, possibly the most compelling performance of them all), and one episode involving Mason’s step-dad – and towards the end of the film the characters’ main concerns become more existential, fretting over who they are and where their life is headed. Nonetheless, the film remains absorbing throughout thanks to universally excellent acting and Linklater’s intimate, unobtrusive style, and it is a great pleasure to become so emotionally invested in these characters’ lives.

Following 2013’s Before Midnight, Linklater is possibly the most exciting director around at the moment. His eagerness for committed, long-term projects and his interest in themes of how relationships develop over time and the functioning of broken nuclear families are apparent in both, and few films have ever captured people so naturally. Boyhood will surely be remembered as a masterpiece, and if Linklater can continue to make films of this quality, he’ll keep audiences logging off Netflix to head out to the cinema.