26 February 2011

Movie Review: Black Death

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B+

Black Death
2010, 97mins, 15
Director: Christopher Smith
Writer: Dario Poloni
Cast includes: Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Carice Van Houten, David Warner, Kimberley Nixon
UK Release Date: 11th June 2010


Christopher Smith’s “Black Death” is a hardened picture, but maybe not in the way you expect. An apocalyptically vicious examination of the damage that can be wrought through religious fanaticism, “Black Death” is a taut and thoroughly uncompromising affair. Constructed with a liking for eerie visuals and haunting imagery the film is a winner, albeit not one likely to rake in much box-office gold.

In 1348 the bubonic plague is tearing through Europe, leaving thousands and thousands dead in its wake. However for young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne,) the sickness isn’t even his greatest concern. Torn between his commitment to God and the love of a local villager (Kimberley Nixon), Osmund is left tormented and confused. When a righteous knight named Ulric (Sean Bean) and his band of warriors ride into town they enlist Osmund as a guide, their quest to track down a Necromancer holding power over a marshland community. On arrival they are shocked to find an ordered and pleasant society free from illness, but the almost ghostlike local herbalist (Carice Van Houten) makes both Ulric and Osmund suspect that something sinister is afoot.

Smith isn’t interested in crafting a sword and sorcery adventure with “Black Death”, instead applying his focus to more substantive matters. In a fashion almost akin to something like “The Wicker Man”, Smith probes matters of faith and religion, showcasing the horrors that these ideologies can be responsible for. The screenplay courtesy of Dario Poloni is a mature piece of work, especially when it comes to the tensely executed and intelligently composed finale. “Black Death” avoids taking sides (it depicts Christianity as brutally as it does any sect or cult), instead focusing on the harm and emotional turmoil that rigorous fundamentalism can trigger.

Eddie Redmayne gives a great performance here, convincing as an innocent man of god tempted by human companionship. “Black Death” makes it fairly clear that Osmund genuinely loves his mistress; he isn’t simply drawn to the pleasures of flesh. As a result he makes for a sympathetic leading man, gifting “Black Death” a dose of humanity to slot between its gory violence and spiritual debates. Sean Bean is as always perfectly watchable, although Ulric probably doesn’t rank as one of his more ambitious turns. All the actor has to do is tackle the role with a steely determination and an unrelentingly grim devotion to his cause, both of which he supplies amply. As the potential necromancer Van Houten is both icy yet attractive, adding effectively to the script’s sense of mystery.

The film’s tone is grimy and sullen, “Black Death” rarely stretching to achieve anything resembling a sense of humor. Instead Smith utilizes the occasional burst of bloody violence to keep energy levels high, one such being a bone crunching battle that pits Ulric’s group against a band of vicious forest dwellers. Throw in a torture device and some crucifixion and you’ve got a fairly accurate approximation of the feral and unrelenting attitude toward violence featured in “Black Death”.

The landscapes are beautifully photographed, registering a memorable sense of place and mood. Smith showcases a terrific mastery of his environments in “Black Death”, a sure sign of a competent filmmaker. I’m not sure if “Black Death” is better than his last venture (2009’s Triangle), but it’s certainly of an equal caliber, and given the distinct differences between the two projects it’s refreshing to see Smith attack two different types of genre film with such startling bravado.

I suppose it’s the film’s desire to ask big questions that sets “Black Death” apart, although the solid acting and bloodcurdling combat found within also help. It’s an infinitely more complex picture than most are likely to anticipate, with more to offer than plain mutilation and spooky goings on. The similarities to last month’s “Season of the Witch” are there, but “Black Death” is a much more rewarding endeavor. I strongly advise you to seek it out.

(“Black Death” is currently available on VOD in the USA and on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK)A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

24 February 2011

Movie Review: Drive Angry 3D

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BDrive Angry 3D
2011, 104mins, 18
Director: Patrick Lussier
Writer (s): Patrick Lussier, Todd Farmer
Cast includes: Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, David Morse
UK Release Date: 25th February 2011
A thriller of epically ridiculous proportions, “Drive Angry 3D” is pure schlock from start to finish. Helmed by Patrick Lussier (he was behind the agreeable 2008 revamp of “My Bloody Valentine”), “Drive Angry 3D” has no doubts about what it wants to be, fulfilling its ambitions royally. Combining oodles of destructive action with a knowingly lewd comic sensibility, “Drive Angry 3D” also has the benefit of decent genre performances. Nicolas Cage is watchable in a rather contained fashion (a little more lunacy might actually have helped), but Amber Heard, Billy Burke and most notably William Fichtner are all delights.

Having managed the seemingly impossible feat of escaping from Hell (it’s never explained how), Milton (Nicolas Cage) goes on the hunt for a cult leader named Jonah King (Billy Burke), the man responsible for the death of Milton’s daughter and the kidnapping of his granddaughter. On his travels Milton meets Piper (Amber Heard), a sassy waitress with a penchant for short shorts and the owner of a fast set of wheels. Convincing her to join him on the hunt, Milton pursues Jonah with fierce commitment, offing the villain’s numerous henchmen as he goes. Milton needs to stop Jonah from performing a deadly ritual on his granddaughter, the evil ringleader planning to sacrifice her blood for his own nefarious gains. However making matters trickier is The Accountant (William Fichtner), the devil’s most powerful associate, sent by Lucifer to return Milton to a life of eternal torment and fiery damnation.

“Drive Angry 3D” is fully aware of its own ludicrousness, embracing its demented sensibility at every possible juncture. The action is wildly overblown, the dialogue riddled with one liners and the performances beyond cartoonish. Lussier shoots every frame with the intention of soliciting throaty chuckles, with the odd moment of 3D infused awe tossed in for good measure. Of course the story is utter bobbins (in fact it’s downright illogical in places), but hey, that’s all part of the show.

Cage favors the strong silent approach as Milton, only occasionally cracking out the insanity we’ve come to know and adore. It’s a pretty decent turn, the actor fully aware of the film’s limitations and its chief aims. He scowls a lot, growling his lines without a hint of irony. Basically, he’s exactly what “Drive Angry 3D” needs in a leading man. Amber Heard gives a career best performance here, combining her natural sex appeal with a no nonsense attitude. It’s a memorable bit of work, showing that the actress is just as keen to be involved in sweaty action as she is to make cheeky comic contributions. Billy Burke is genuinely quite nasty as Jonah King, yet it’s William Fichtner who steals the show. The actor plays his part with a gloriously offbeat sense of humor and a triumphant swagger, walking away with the film as a consequence. He’s a bad guy, but due to the sheer coolness his performance radiates the character is thoroughly likable. It’s a remarkably fun portrayal.

Lussier’s handling of the wilder sequences is sound, mixing bursts of manic road rage with various shootouts to fill the movie’s action quota. The picture starts as it means to go on; the opening car chase cum gunfight is terrifically executed, thrusting viewers headfirst into the filmmaker’s crazy vision. Other set pieces of note include one involving a police barricade, plus the now seemingly obligatory trashy moment in which a man violently defends himself whilst having rowdy intercourse. Obviously with a title like “Drive Angry 3D” you’d expect some pretty frantic motoring sequences, Lussier serving up the automotive carnage with aplomb. There’s also blood, guts and nudity aplenty, all of which are complimented by the film’s cheesy use of 3D. The actual quality of the 3D is perfectly satisfactory, “Drive Angry 3D” simply being more interested in using it to emphasize maimed bodies than immerse audiences in its sun baked environments.

The storytelling gets very slack toward the end, resulting in a disappointingly generic final showdown. Lussier seems to lose some of his confidence as “Drive Angry 3D” reaches its close, using an obvious macguffin to put an end to the silly shenanigans. True, this section of the movie does feature a character drinking beer from a freshly mutilated skull, but on the whole “Drive Angry 3D” opts for an oddly safe conclusion. It’s adequate, but given the daring enthusiasm evidenced throughout the majority of the film, this denouement feels a tad sedate. Similarly a subplot involving a wasted David Morse (as Milton’s ex-buddy) is needless. Lussier should have just axed it and tightened up the film’s running time.

“Drive Angry 3D” is definitely worth a watch for connoisseurs of deliberately junky cinema. Those easily offended or liable to take the film too seriously had best steer clear, but everyone else is likely to have something resembling a blast. Much like last year’s “Piranha 3D” this is a feature that revels in its own crude absurdity. I rarely champion unrestrained stupidity, but in the case of “Drive Angry 3D” I’m happy to make an exception.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

23 February 2011

DVD Verdict Review: Conviction

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B-
Review Link: http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/conviction.php

DVD Verdict Review: Never Let Me Go

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B+

Review Link: http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/neverletmego.php

20 February 2011

Movie Review: True Grit (2010)

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B+

True Grit
2010, 110mins, 15
Director (s): Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writer (s): Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Charles Portis (novel)
Cast includes: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
UK Release Date: 11th February 2011

The Western has never been my favorite genre, a fact that might go some way to explaining why I’m unfamiliar with 1969’s “True Grit”. A certifiable classic in some cinematic circles, the original movie was directed by Henry Hathaway and featured one of John Wayne’s most iconic performances. Now over 40 years later the Coen Brothers attempt to have their way with the material, forging an unusually linear film in the process. Well for them that is. “True Grit” circa 2010 is definitely an entertaining and solidly rendered beast, bolstered by some terrific performances, but is perhaps a little too obvious and anticlimactic to be regarded as a major Coen highlight.

After her father is slain by outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is keen to bring justice upon the cowardly killer. Mattie turns to a local sheriff and general ruffian Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) for help, the alcoholic lawman initially reluctant to lend a hand. However after Mattie makes a generous financial offer, Rooster is persuaded, he and the young girl headed deep into dangerous Indian territory in search of Chaney. However complicating matters is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) a cocky Texas Ranger also on the lookout for Chaney, intending to bring him back for crimes other than the murder of Mattie’s father. LaBoeuf simply wants Chaney in order to claim a hefty reward, a fact that disrupts Mattie’s plans for good old fashioned retribution.

Hailee Steinfeld is superb in “True Grit”, the youthful and (almost completely) inexperienced actress handing in a dominatingly intelligent turn as Mattie Ross. Even against veterans like Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin she holds her own fantastically. She is both strong and memorable, her high standard of acting collaborating nicely with the efficient script to form an impressive breakout performance. As Cogburn Bridges provides exactly what you’d expect, a turn steeped in aggression and dark humor. It never surprises, but it is unquestionably effective work from a legitimately great actor. Matt Damon fills the film’s lightest role; LaBoeuf often used as a primer for comic relief, yet the Oscar nominated actor deserves credit for making a potential creep halfway likable. It’s not a performance of much depth, but it’s bunged with a genuine sense of fun. Josh Brolin has barely any screen time as Chaney, but in fairness still makes the villain standout during his few brief scenes. Certainly any qualms I might have with “True Grit” can’t be sourced to the quality of acting present, everyone honoring their various roles to at least a moderate degree.

The story is simplistic but involving, occasionally enriched via bursts of the offbeat comedy we’ve come to expect from the Coens. There are few filmmakers daring enough to play a hanging sequence for a laugh, but in “True Grit” this happens within the first act. However for the most part “True Grit” is less about its directors and more about staying true to genre style; had some of the odder comic elements been abandoned then it would be hard to identify this remake as a Coen product. The narrative is driven by a powerful thirst for revenge rather than the inventive plot developments found in pictures such as “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo”. “True Grit” is very possibly the most generic motion picture the Coen Brothers have thus far produced, well made and undoubtedly enjoyable, but unlikely to attain the same sort of cult appeal that much of their previous work has deservedly garnered.

The cinematography supplied by Roger Deakins is phenomenal, granting “True Grit” the organic Western feel its script so obviously demands. The landscapes are beautifully shot, Deakins injecting as much life into proceedings as any other component of the feature. The musical score courtesy of Carter Burwell isn’t as remarkable, but it adequately fills its respective void during the picture’s quieter and more visually stimulating moments. Most of the set-pieces in “True Grit” are well executed, in particular a tense nighttime shootout involving all of the main protagonists. However whilst the finale builds itself up to a roar, the end result is more of a whimper. Naturally the Coens tack on a mournful and oddly appropriate epilogue to conclude the picture, but the final showdown with Chaney and his band of misfits isn’t really up to snuff. Given the momentum evidenced for much of the movie’s opening sections, it’s somewhat disappointing to see the Coens conclude the tale on such a perfunctory and unspectacular note.

“True Grit” is on the whole a gratifying endeavor; it’s flawlessly performed, relatively witty and more often exciting than not. Still, it lacks the same personality and scale as their 2007 Western epic “No Country for Old Men”, or the unparalleled creativity evidenced in some of their more notable motion pictures. I have no problems with recommending “True Grit”, but I’d be lying if I heralded it as an unforgettable piece of work. It’s a very good film, but not as striking as some might anticipate.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

15 February 2011

Movie Review: Paul

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C-

Paul
2011, 104mins, 15
Director: Greg Mottola
Writer (s): Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
Cast includes: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kristen Wiig, Seth Rogen, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, John Carroll Lynch, Jane Lynch
UK Release Date: 14th February 2011

I used to be all for geeks inheriting the Earth, but if that means more films like “Paul” then maybe now I’m not so sure. Written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (also the film’s stars), “Paul” is an overindulgent and only sporadically amusing sci-fi farce, undone thanks to a lackluster screenplay and some problematic pacing issues. There’s definitely a better film wrestling to get out, but in its current uninspired incarnation “Paul” is disappointing.

Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Nick Frost (Clive Golings) are two super nerds on the adventure of a lifetime. Having already visited the San Diego Comic-Con, they embark on a road trip to check out the USA’s prominent UFO attractions, enjoying the country’s delightful scenery in the process. Whilst driving their RV late at night the pair accidentally stumble across Paul (voiced by a game Seth Rogen), an alien running from the law. Initially shocked, Graeme and Clive eventually agree to help the extraterrestrial stowaway, Paul’s goal being to reach an appropriate destination for a rendezvous with his own people. The quirky group also ends up collecting another member, a repressed Christian named Ruth (Kristen Wiig), forcibly taking her hostage after she unwittingly finds out about Paul. As the protagonists race up the country they are pursued by a team of FBI agents (including a deliciously dry Jason Bateman) and Ruth’s enraged father (John Carroll Lynch).

“Paul” is totally unmemorable. The invention of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” is completely absent, everything from the storytelling to the characters hitting a duff note. If it weren’t for the eclectic supporting cast then “Paul” would be virtually worthless; Pegg and Frost simultaneously failing to impress as either writers or actors here. One would also expect a keener sense of comedic assurance from “Superbad” director Greg Mottola (although he did last helm 2009’s vastly overrated “Adventureland”), but he too appears largely oblivious to the project’s blatant mediocrity.

Frost and Pegg rehearse the same bromantic shtick we’ve seen them utilize before, the film reaching dizzying new heights for unfunny gay jokes. Both are extremely colorless in “Paul”, the absurdist energy of their previous performances substituted in favor of bland idiocy. Even their chemistry feels forced, and that’s a criticism I never thought I’d be leveling at the movie. Rogen certainly brings plenty of enthusiasm and his trademark riffing earns a few laughs, but his determination can’t compensate for Pegg and Frost’s flaccid efforts. The character of Paul is rendered fully by CGI, the digitals holding up well throughout the production. In terms of appearance Frost and Pegg endow their title character with a very classical look, honoring the science fiction imagery of old in the process.

The amount of geeky references and in-jokes featured is ludicrous, most of which are irritating rather than hysterical. Simply rehashing a sequence from “Star Wars” isn’t funny, nor are random nods to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Trek”. There’s a splendid “Mac and Me” moment, but that aside none of the masturbatory fan service on show really works. The broader and less exclusive humor definitely operates more effectively, albeit even it’s pretty patchy. It’s hard not to giggle when one of the movie’s key plot mechanisms is a pair of urine stained jeans, but similarly you can only hear so many dick jokes before they grow wearisome. “Paul” provides a few chuckles, but probably more in the way of sighs and groans.

The storyline is formulaic and dull, a problem exacerbated thanks to an uneven pace. Mottola’s previous works have all been relatively beefy (at 113 minutes “Superbad” must be one of the longest sex romps committed to celluloid”), but “Paul” easily feels like the most unnecessarily drawn out. It’s just a basic road trip adventure, one that would have been slicker at 80 minutes rather than the 104 it actually lasts for. By the time “Paul” reaches its obvious conclusion I was gagging for the picture to end, but even the movie’s finale is strung out to a ridiculous degree. Most of the subplots tossed in aren’t effective either, particularly the arc that focuses on a burgeoning romance between Pegg and Wiig. It’s thoroughly boring stuff.

Kristen Wiig does the best she can with a limited character, whilst around her other notable comedians (including Bill Hader, Jane Lynch and Joe Lo Truglio) are only afforded sparse opportunities to impress. Of course Sigourney Weaver also has to make an obligatory cameo (LOL, it’s funny because she’s done lots of movies about aliens), the actress looking as tired as audience members will likely be feeling. Jason Bateman on the other hand is hysterical as the quiet and threatening Agent Zoil, throwing out some sublime barbs and using his stern expression to delightful effect. He easily provides the picture’s sharpest performance.

“Paul” lacks atmosphere or personality; it’s a pallid and underwhelming motion picture. The fanboys for whom it is squarely aimed at will probably lap it up, after all nothing sates ignorant dweebs like the ability to laugh at something no one else gets, or watch one of their own kind score with an SNL superstar. However for those of us who prefer are comedies funny and are filmmakers creative, “Paul” is a decidedly less than stellar offering.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

13 February 2011

DVD Review: The Kids Are All Right

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B-

"The Kids Are All Right" is a Best Picture nominee. This is a fact that can’t be changed. This is a fact which history can now only treat as truth. This is a fact which should mystify the majority of film fans worldwide. It’s not that “The Kids Are All Right” is a bad film, it’s actually moderately decent, what surprises is that a production only a few jumps above blatant mediocrity could cultivate such rampant acclaim. Leaving aside the generally excellent performances it boasts, “The Kids Are All Right” just doesn’t have the storytelling zing or substance to deserve Academy recognition; indeed the picture thinks it’s a whole lot more emotionally perceptive than it actually is. The word sitcom frequently jumps to mind.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a married couple with two kids, college bound Joni (Mia Wasikowska, the title star of Tim Burton’s underwhelming “Alice in Wonderland”) and the mildly troubled Laser (Josh Hutcherson). With Joni about to set sail for the realms of higher education, she and Laser decide to track down their biological father. Their search leads them to hunky hippy Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a guy who donated sperm back in the early nineties for a couple of extra bucks. Paul is delighted when the teens express an interest in contacting him, assuming a paternal attitude after just a few quick meetings. When Nic learns of this she blows a gasket, worried that the interloper might disrupt her position as head of the quirky family. Jules on the other hand views Paul as a curiously sexual presence, and before long she finds herself sleeping with him regularly. Complications ensue.

“The Kids Are All Right” does feature a bevy of terrific performances, particularly those handed in by Bening and Moore. The actresses respond to the task at hand brilliantly, cooking up two very unique characters involved in a loving yet complex relationship. Nic is clearly the more dominant presence; she’s the breadwinner and is consistently controlling. Jules on the other hand occupies a quieter and softer role, occasionally flirting with the concept of work, but with unfaltering devotion to her clan. Moore and Bening both convince effortlessly and as a result anchor the film in a vitally realistic fashion. Ruffalo is low-key but charming, the actor’s natural charisma besting his occasionally wooden delivery. Rounding out the central figures are Hutcherson and Wasikowska, the latter notably improving on her work in “Alice in Wonderland”. She’s still a little drippy from time to time, but there’s definitely more personality on display here. Hutcherson is as dependable as ever, continuing to prove himself as one of the stronger young thespians in Hollywood.

The film captures the day to day routines of a family rather sharply, but unfortunately the overarching narrative is no more ambitious or resonant than your average episode of “8 Simple Rules”. Director Lisa Cholodenko seems primarily interested in examining how Paul fractures the picture’s lesbian relationship, leaving the more fascinating children/biological father dynamic in the shallow end of the pool. “The Kids Are All Right” is at its most compelling when trying to excavate the pleasantly unsettling effect Paul has on Joni and Laser, the stuff between Nic and Jules despite the best efforts of Moore and Bening just isn’t as invigorating or fresh.

The film climaxes on a sour note, Cholodenko leaving one character out in the cold whilst the rest move forward with their lives. It’s a frighteningly unsatisfying moment on which to complete the film, I can only assume it was inserted to help overcome the generic family fallout stuff that inhabits the majority of the movie. I should stress that “The Kids Are All Right” is an appropriately watchable affair, but it completely lacks the lasting impact the best examples of its genre possess. Adding slightly to the project’s troubles is its hit and miss comedic style, Cholodenko opting for the easy gag too often. There are moments of tremendous wit (many of which are bettered thanks to Bening’s acidic touch), but some of the sight gags are shockingly predictable. Kids hearing their parents getting freaky with a porno tape? A somewhat perverted Mexican laborer? A teenage boy having his concerns misconstrued as burgeoning homosexuality? Surely we covered these beats when “Married with Children” was airing.

Ultimately I have to admit disappointment with “The Kids Are All Right”; it’s not a ruinous mess, but I would never associate it with greatness either. Maybe had the feature not been privy to such an ecstatic critical reception I would be a little warmer, but it was and so subsequently I’m not. Those who thirst for family dramas will probably take to the production, but otherwise it’s a just an adequate watch for a Sunday afternoon. Oscar quality this ain’t.

Universal sent out a screener copy so the disc’s audio and video capabilities haven’t been addressed. The DVD comes with a selection of bonus features, including a listenable commentary with Cholodenko. The director occasionally conveys her thoughts in a jumbled fashion, but she evidences an admirable amount of passion for “The Kids Are All Right” in the process. The featurettes included are considerably less impressive, all running for a perilously short time (about 5 minutes each), and failing to dissect the process of filmmaking or the movie itself with any real insight. A mixed disc then, although for fans of “The Kids Are All Right” the commentary is worth a look.

“The Kids Are All Right” is available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-Ray from March 21st 2011.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

DVD Verdict Review: It's Kind of a Funny Story

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D+

Review Link: http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/itskindfunnystory.php

7 February 2011

Movies I Missed (Part 2): Kicking & Screaming (2005)

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It’s time for Part 2 of “Movies I Missed”. This month I’m taking a look at 2005’s Will Ferrell starring “Kicking & Screaming”, a kid friendly soccer flick produced by none other than Judd Apatow.

Kicking & Screaming
Release Year -2005
Worldwide Box-Office – $56,070,433
Critical Reaction – Mixed and fairly unenthusiastic (42% on Rotten Tomatoes)

When “Kicking & Screaming” was released I wasn’t yet a Will Ferrell convert. I hadn’t seen “Anchorman” at the time (I believe I first watched it in 2006), and whilst I had enjoyed “Elf”, one film alone was not enough to convince me that Ferrell’s participation was worth the risk of suffering through a generic underdog sports picture. The fact it was directed by the man behind the nauseatingly bad third instalment of the “American Pie” series also didn’t help matters. Things have changed in 2011. I now consider myself a major fan of Ferrell’s, and am one of the few people I know who still maintains oodles of patience with the comic (I actually liked “Land of the Lost”), so over the last few months I’ve slowly been working through the more forgotten components of his CV. Last year I checked out and kind of appreciated “A Night at the Roxbury” (a complete turkey on release), and just yesterday I got the chance to take my first look at “Kicking & Screaming”. Despite my love of all things Ferrell I still wasn’t super excited, for instance the presence of filmmaker Jesse Dylan still sickens me as much now as it did in 2005. Similarly in order to refresh my memory I took a quick gander at the movie’s promotional material, the trailer not exactly amounting to a fountain of promise. Ultimately “Kicking & Screaming” was many of the things I feared it would be, unnecessarily cheesy in parts and with a story so obvious an unborn foetus could probably accurately predict the finish. However the movie skates by on the strength of good intentions and Ferrell’s surprisingly barmy turn. It’s hard to label the film as anything more substantial than Saturday morning fodder, but for the duration of its 95 minutes it holds together adequately.

The film’s plot is simplistic. Phil Weston (Will Ferrell) has always felt undervalued by his competitive father Buck (Robert Duvall). Never good at sports, Phil instead opted to open a vitamin store and settle down, rather than chase the athletic dreams his father paved out for him. When Phil’s son Sam (Dylan McLaughlin) is traded by Buck from little league titans The Gladiators to bottom of the league no hopers The Tigers, Phil decides to take matters into his own hands. Phil garners the coaching job at The Tigers, determined to whip the squad into shape and grant the children a legitimately fun experience. However when The Tigers actually start to stitch together a run of wins, Phil becomes obsessed with victory, forgetting the innocent dynamic that initially helped him spur the unskilled Tigers forward.

Will Ferrell is the only proper reason to watch “Kicking & Screaming”, handing in a performance that slides perfectly from warm and likable to unhinged tyrant. Ferrell has stacks of energy and works well alongside a game Duvall (never taking it too seriously), resulting in a hostile father/son dynamic that actually spits out a credible handful of laughs. Dylan seems fixated on utilizing Ferrell’s more manic tendencies as often as possible, a subplot involving a bizarre coffee addiction resulting in some pretty steady amusement. You get the sense that the former SNL comedian is applying as much effort as possible here, using his own acute skills to overcome the screenplay’s pedestrian formula. It never totally works (“Kicking & Screaming” is just too familiar in design), but he grinds out enough giggles to halfway compensate for the lack of narrative invention.

Dylan does a good job of shooting the soccer matches; “Kicking & Screaming” isn’t as ignorant a depiction of the sport as most American projects that feature it. There’s a semi-keen eye for the proper mechanics of soccer, the film even featuring some tasty skill from a pair of talented Italian youngsters. Of course there’s a lot of goofball activity present on the pitch, as one would expect from a picture about athletic misfits, but from time to time “Kicking & Screaming” actually has the decency to back its moments of football with a little heat and composure. As a soccer fan, I really appreciated that facet of the film.

The story is peppered with saccharine interludes and it climaxes with a scenario stolen from just about every genre counterpart “Kicking & Screaming” has. The final message (forget winning and just ensure you enjoy yourself) isn’t original, but I suppose to a younger audience it’s actually quite beneficial. I know it’s delusional to not pre-empt such weaknesses in a picture of this nature, but just because it’s become the norm doesn’t make it beyond criticism. The slavish devotion to convention evidenced in “Kicking & Screaming” is its most frustrating flaw, one that almost overcomes the production’s welcome PG themed tomfoolery.

The kids featured are unusually tolerable, the filmmakers only playing the cute card sporadically. Some have gone onto enjoy healthy careers (a prepubescent Josh Hutcherson is an interesting spot), but for the majority one imagine s this will be the highlight of their professional output. They ought to be pretty pleased with their contribution; they’re a charming selection of fools, a few of them even displaying a natural touch for comedy. On another note “Kicking & Screaming” features an odd performance from NFL coaching legend Mike Ditka, portraying none other than himself. It’s a weird addition to the tale, but again good for a few zany chortles if you can stomach the ridiculousness of it all.

“Kicking & Screaming” didn’t set the box-office alight (its international gross particularly low, especially given the focus on soccer); Ferrell had to wait until “Talladega Nights” before he officially became a bankable leading man. However as an effective example of the actor’s talents the movie works, especially seeing as he has to grapple with such a lacklustre concept. It’s not a must see, but on a quiet Sunday afternoon you could do much worse.

Is it worth catching up with? - If you adore Ferrell and have some free time it’s a perfectly harmless way to spend an hour and a half. Not essential, but definitely watchable. For BT VISION costumers in the UK this film is currently available for free on the BT VISION FILM CLUB package, and will remain so until the 3rd of March 2011. (B-)

Daniel Kelly, 2011


DVD Verdict Review: Mean Girls 2

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F

Review link: http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/meangirls2.php

4 February 2011

Movie Review: The Fighter

0 comments


B+

The Fighter
2010, 115mins, 15
Director: David O. Russell
Writer (s): Scott Silver, Eric Johnson Paul Tamasy, Keith Dorrington
Cast includes: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee
UK Release Date: 2nd February 2011

“The Fighter” is a case of an unremarkable screenplay being elevated by fantastic performances. Chronicling the early life of Massachusetts born boxing hero Micky Ward and that of his troubled older brother Dicky Eklund, “The Fighter” is truly an acting tour de force. Christian Bale is given the biggest chance to shine as the coked up Dicky, but everyone from a feisty Amy Adams to a subdued Mark Wahlberg also inject further jolts of thespian class. Overseen by controversial filmmaker David O. Russell (helming his first picture since 2004), “The Fighter” isn’t quite a masterpiece, but it is consistently involving.

The year is 1993, and in the town of Lowell Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) is a living legend. Famed for once knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard in a boxing match, Dicky remains a popular local presence but his fearsome addiction to cocaine has rendered him an emaciated shadow of his former self. When Dicky isn’t satisfying his rampant drug habit, he trains his sibling Micky (Mark Wahlberg) in the art of boxing, a firm sense of brotherly love bonding the two together. However after Micky is forced into a series of unwinnable fights by Dicky and his tyrannical mother Alice (Melissa Leo), he decides to move away from his dysfunctional family in search of true athletic gratification. Spurred on by his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky’s new career direction works wonders for the boxer’s confidence and success rate, but leaves his family, most notably Dicky, in a tailspin of self destructive confusion.

“The Fighter” is more of a character study than a film devoted to the sport of boxing, examining its two central figures with daring intimacy. The actual storytelling is fairly predictable, but thanks to ace characterization and top class performances the movie always engages. “The Fighter” has been designed in the underdog mould of a hundred other pictures, but its attention to detail and ability to make viewers care about its protagonist sets it somewhat apart from the competition. I can’t see the production enjoying the same fist pumping longevity as a genre favourite like “Rocky”, but in truth it’s not far off.

Christian Bale does great work as Dicky, convincing both physically and emotionally as the still proud former darling of his community. The actor nails the local accent, and brings enough raw energy to power a small factory. It’s definitely the movie’s flashiest role, especially during the character’s numerous scenes of intense intoxication, but Bale never forgets to hit a deeper and more meaningful note as a man who tossed his grandest opportunity in life to the wayside. However Bale’s madness is only permitted on the back of Wahlberg’s assured and unselfish portrayal of Micky, quietly depicting his character’s inner angst with subtly and skill. The screenplay is evidently more interested in examining Dicky’s demons than Micky’s rise to fame; a fact that immediately puts Wahlberg on the back foot. Yet the Boston native manages to turn Micky into a three dimensional and sympathetic figure, which against Bale’s towering turn is an achievement in its own right. Wahlberg and Bale combine effectively during their many shared scenes, an intense sense of loyalty and eventually bittersweet realization dominating their onscreen relationship.

Russell elects to shoot the boxing sequences as if they were being broadcast on HBO, lending them an appreciatively organic feel. The competitive set-pieces are technically composed yet emotionally heated, the director always keeping one eye on the fight and the other on the touchy ringside dramatics. Each of these sequences exudes a critical sense of scale and importance, the sporting triumphs and failures juxtaposing nicely with the picture’s family fuelled theatrics. “The Fighter” definitely has its share of dark moments, but there’s also some amusing comic relief to absorb; Micky’s clan of bitchy and overbearing sisters providing a host of hearty giggles.

The plot doesn’t offer too many surprises, and it short-changes the female entities at the expense of its masculine leads. However despite the fact they occupy underwritten roles both Amy Adams and Melissa Leo do powerful work, infusing their characters with strength and tenacity. I’m not sure either figure is particularly likable, but they’re undoubtedly commanding.

The feel good finale seems like an atmospheric concession by the filmmakers in order to appeal to a wider demographic, but then again that’s how it all went down in reality. Adding to the movie’s palatable taste is a zingy soundtrack, brimming with catchy yet wholly appropriate tunes. “The Fighter” is a worthwhile motion picture, perhaps not destined to become a classic, but filled with enough highpoints to render it a rewarding watch. It’s not quite a knockout, but “The Fighter” definitely packs enough punch to remain memorable.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011



2 February 2011

Movie Review: The Mechanic (2011)

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C+

The Mechanic
2011, 93mins, 15
Director: Simon West
Writer (s): Richard Wenk, Lewis John Carlino
Cast includes: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland, Tony Goldwyn, Jeff Chase
UK Release Date: 28th January 2011

A remake of a 1972 thriller I’ve personally never seen, “The Mechanic” is a watchable but completely unmemorable endeavour. Subbing Jason Statham into a role once occupied by Charles Bronson feels apt, but the film’s screenplay packs no surprises, bundling its growling lead from one predictable plot twist to another. Having a competent genre director like Simon West (1997’s eternally wonderful “Con Air”) at the helm helps, but it’s still not enough to render “The Mechanic” anything more than the passable January fodder it so blatantly is.

Arthur (Jason Statham) is a meticulous hitman, one of the most thorough and efficient in the business. Arthur is thrown into disarray when his boss (Tony Goldwyn) orders him to assassinate a loyal friend, in this case Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland). After reluctantly completing the mission, Arthur soon finds himself in the company of McKenna’s troubled son Steve (Ben Foster), a young man keen to learn the art of killing in order to respect the memory of his deceased father. Arthur agrees to train Steve, but soon both men find themselves at war with Arthur’s corrupt employers, violence promptly ensuing.

Jason Statham is Jason Statham in “The Mechanic”. The actor brings his usual rugged intensity to the role of Arthur, granting the picture a performance more interested in physicality and smirks than anything resembling an emotional core. He’s more than adequate during the explosion heavy set-pieces, but struggles when the script requires him to do anything more. It’s hard to buy any sense of regret or remorse concerning the character’s dubious career path from Statham’s turn, instead the plotting is relied upon to heavy handily imply such inner turmoil. Foster isn’t as dapper when it comes to stunt work, but he acts Statham off the screen during the film’s quieter and more considerate moments. They make for an acceptably odd couple, rattling around the movie with at least a semi-interesting dynamic. Tony Goldwyn is proficient but unspectacular as Arthur’s shadowy boss, whilst Donald Sutherland isn’t around nearly long enough to register.

Simon West continues to showcase a solid understanding of action, the “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” director juggling the fistfights and shootouts well. There’s nothing particularly fresh on display, but West keeps the energy high and his camera composed, resulting in a batch of comprehensible and modestly enjoyable instances of firearm obsessed bombast. There are sequences in which the editing choices grate (several gratuitously kinetic sex scenes), but on the whole it’s an aesthetically robust outing. “The Mechanic” is a sharp looking motion picture; stylistically it’s nicely arranged, with a glossy layer of attractive cinematography to coat the mayhem.

The screenplay is generic fluff, although “The Mechanic” does have the decency to offer at least one shock come its frenzied climax. Arthur’s guilt concerning the murder of Steve’s father only really comes to prominence at the end, the writers failing to dabble with this aspect during the movie’s opening acts. For fans of Statham it’s a cut below “Crank”, but better than the likes of “Death Race” and “The Transporter”. If you can assemble some beers and a pizza it might make for an agreeable Friday night rental, but otherwise I’d just be inclined to give it a miss.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011