30 May 2011

Movie Review: NEDS

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B+

NEDS
2011, 124mins, 18
Director: Peter Mullan
Writer: Peter Mullan
Cast includes: Conor McCarron, Martin Bell, John Joe Hay, Peter Mullan, David McKay
UK Release Date: 21st January 2011

Peter Mullan’s “NEDS” isn’t an uplifting watch, but it does deliver some of the most authentically upsetting cinema of 2011 so far. Set in the seventies, the picture uses gang based hooliganism as its backdrop, focusing primarily on the self-destructive attitude of a once promising young teen. The film is staggeringly violent in spots, but thanks to both a brilliant central performance from Conor McCarron and Mullan’s well written script, the film’s more visceral elements don’t overpower the production at large.

John McGill (Conor McCarron) is a gifted student, but also the product of a severely dysfunctional home. His father (played by director Peter Mullan) is a vile alcoholic who torments his family on a nightly basis, whilst sibling Benny (Joe Szula) has become a NED (non-educated delinquent) of some notoriety within the local community. Eventually worn down by the low expectations of those around him, John forgoes his academic ambitions, instead using his time for less savoury pursuits. As a whirlwind of violence, drugs and alcohol begins to destroy John’s hope of a decent future, his family try to interject, afraid that John might turn out to be just another NED.

Conor McCarron’s performance is a case of less meaning more, the young and inexperienced actor handing in a turn beyond his years. A largely silent piece of acting, McCarron’s contribution works on the back of the thespian’s oddly expressive face; Mullan utilizing this wonderfully to help communicate the character’s inner turmoil to the audience. Despite the horrific nature of John’s downward spiral, it’s hard not to sympathies with him, Mullan’s natural depiction of Conor’s tragic home life and his presentation of the thug filled schools highlighting perfectly the hopelessness of John’s situation. “NEDS” is clearly interested in exploring the sociological implications of “the self-fulfilling prophecy”, and it does so effectively, Mullan’s depressing narrative beautifully showcasing how easy it is to fall victim to circumstance.

“NEDS” is a brutal film, Mullan using these brash moments of carnage to paint a graphic picture of gang violence in Scotland. Apparently Mullan walked within such dubious circles during his youth, an autobiographical touch that almost certainly injects “NEDS” with more realism than it would have otherwise boasted. The picture never aims for cheap shock factor, Mullan always using the ghastly violence to help further illustrate John’s dissent into chaos. Some scenes are unbelievably aggressive, one in which John batters an enemy before delivering a crushing final blow is particularly appalling, but Mullan knows how to wield it within a worthy plotline, granting “NEDS” artistic justification for its sickening mayhem.

Mullan isn’t afraid to apply more traditional genre beats to the tale, several key segments playing out purely for thrills. There’s a brief but tumultuous home invasion clip that helps solidify the dangers at hand, whilst a few doses of street warfare excite thanks to the energy supplied by the actors. “NEDS” also has its fair share of haunting imagery, one of the most notable examples being a slowly maddening John gliding through the council estate, with a pair of butcher knives strapped to his hands. It’s a powerful visual to behold, and not the only one “NEDS” offers.

At 124 minutes the production is somewhat overstretched, meandering towards its ambiguous climax without the cutting ruthlessness of the previous two acts. There are also obvious tonal blunders, such as a bizarre scene in which a drugged up John is attacked by a Jesus figure, the sequence seemingly looking for black laughs, but finding few. When “NEDS” tries to be overtly amusing it fails, the movie’s hostile themes not combining well with stabs at funny business. The thick Glaswegian accents evidenced in “NEDS” are another point of advisement; if you have access to subtitles you might very well need them.

“NEDS” depicts an ugly yet engrossing journey, refusing to sugarcoat its central thesis for the benefit of anyone. Mullan has created something pretty special here, and even if it suffers from a rough around the edges sensibility, the picture deserves a viewership on the back of its courageously truthful screenplay. “NEDS” won’t be for everyone, but those able to tolerate harsh reality shouldn’t pass it up.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

28 May 2011

DVD Review: Drive Angry

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B

A thriller of epically ridiculous proportions, “Drive Angry” is pure schlock from start to finish. Helmed by Patrick Lussier (he was behind the agreeable 2008 revamp of “My Bloody Valentine”), “Drive Angry” 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” 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” 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” 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” 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 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” 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” 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” 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” I’m happy to make an exception.

“Drive Angry” plays nicely on a second viewing, although in regular definition 2D, the 3D effects are brutal. Like really brutal.

The disc comes with a frenzied commentary from Lussier and writer Todd Farmer, both of whom appear wildly proud of the final product. They clearly had a lot of fun making the movie, something that other cast members echo in the 15 minute featurette “How to Drive Angry”. It’s a very congratulatory offering, but it’s amusing to watch the participants fawn over such blatantly trashy fare, with a special giggle coming in the form of Billy Burke mentioning a possible sequel (“Drive Angry” is one of the highest profile box-office flops of 2011 so far). Two pointless deleted scenes also feature, as does a bizarre little thing named “Milton’s Mayhem”. This odd trinket basically edits together the film’s action set-pieces with a scoreboard attached; awarding points arcade style as the protagonist obliterates numerous scumbags. It is total filler, but I suppose the idea at its heart is sort of cool.

“Drive Angry” is available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-Ray from July 4th 2011.

(N.B - LionsGate provided a screener of “Drive Angry” for review, and thus because it may not be representative of retail quality, I have neglected to assess the disc’s audio and video capabilities)

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

25 May 2011

Movie Review: The Hangover: Part II

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B-

The Hangover: Part II
2011, 102mins, 15
Director: Todd Phillips
Writer (s): Scot Armstrong, Craig Mazin, Todd Phillips
Cast includes: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong, Justin Bartha
UK Release Date: 26th May 2011

"The Hangover" was a phenomenally funny film and a surprising box-office success back in 2009. Mixing an adept cast with a strikingly inventive storytelling method, the movie hit a chord with modern audiences; viewers clearly excited by the promise of a bawdy American comedy doing something fresh. However that clearly isn’t the message director Todd Phillips took away from his runaway hit. “The Hangover: Part II” feels more like a remake than a sequel, the filmmakers hitting the same beats, obviously fearful that new innovations might cause fans to run for the hills. The picture boasts several moments of genuine hilarity and a much grimier tone than the initial product, but the lack of creativity applied to the plotline is borderline offensive.

With Stu (Ed Helms) about to wed Lauren (Jamie Chung), Phil (Bradley Cooper), Doug (Justin Bartha) and eccentric Alan (Zach Galifianakis) fly out for the ceremony in Thailand. In order to avoid a repeat of their escapade in Vegas, they opt for a quiet pre-wedding drink, sipping beers and toasting marshmallows on the beach. Cut to the next morning. Phil, Stu and Alan find themselves in a skuzzy Bangkok hotel, with no memory of the night before. Lauren’s little brother Teddy (Mason Lee) is missing, whilst flamboyant face of the past Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) is drugged out on the floor. Rallying themselves to track down the missing teen, the boys meet a variety of bizarre and seedy individuals, their antics from the evening before finally coming to light.

“The Hangover: Part II” is a reasonably funny feature, but it lacks the spark and imagination that rendered its 2009 sibling so memorable. The picture is happy to simply rehash the same plot points and comedic grooves, generally relying on Galifianakis’s childish nature, gross bodily harm and ill judged drunken dalliances to score the majority of its laughs. The Bangkok setting provides the picture with a grittier aesthetic (although I felt the original boasted a pretty good line in dried out landscapes), but it doesn’t excuse the frustrating similarities that bond these movies so tightly. Phillips even takes the desperate phone exchange which bookended the first production and replays it without alteration. That sort of laziness just won’t do.

What works about “The Hangover: Part II” is the cast, who bring true exuberance and comic dexterity to the movie. Galifianakis is on fine form (after his slightly stale turn in “Due Date”), powering the film forward with his juvenile ramblings, and keeping several weaker sequences afloat through sheer force of will. Once again he steals the film, even though co-stars Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms also deliver when it matters. As a trio they retain strong chemistry, although unlike last time “The Hangover: Part II” seems more focused on Stu than the other participants. Phillips seems particularly fascinated by Stu’s dark side, the usually mild dentist once again unleashing a torrent of bad decisions when subjected to intoxicating substances. This I suppose is sort of rewarding, there’s a certain enjoyment to be garnered from watching Helms recount his horrific sins, mere hours before marrying his angel of a fiancée. Ken Jeong pulls out the same old camp routine, although the filmmakers wisely dilute his contribution, allowing the brash comic to delight in small doses, nudging him out of frame just as his high-pitched tones threaten to become irksome.

There’s a heightened sense of dirtiness to proceedings, “The Hangover: Part II” doing Bangkok no services with its dreary and morally decayed interpretation of the city. Unlike most directors of his ilk, Phillips actually cares about how his movies look, ensuring “The Hangover: Part II” benefits from the same stylish cinematography as the rest of his back catalogue. He creates an effective atmosphere here, a squalid and believable insight into the more indecent recesses of Bangkok. This is just one example of “The Hangover: Part II” trying to actively one-up the previous adventure, the godforsaken streets of Bangkok making Vegas look like an airy picnic. Other instances of blatant showboating include a drug dealing monkey (as opposed to the bathroom dwelling tiger) and a selection of indigenous hookers packing something extra (instead of Heather Graham).

If you’ve seen “The Hangover” you’ll be familiar with the story structure evidenced here, the writers tweaking the material only slightly in order to accommodate the alternative setting. The rambunctious set pieces and Galifianakis’s weirdo brilliance render it agreeable, but the lack of ambition means it never gets close to touching the 2009 classic. It’s adequate summer entertainment, but this is surely the last time these characters and this formula can be utilized without concocting something truly feeble.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

23 May 2011

Movie Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

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C+

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
2011, 99mins, U
Director: David Bowers
Writer (s): Gabe Sachs, Jeff Judah, Jeff Kinney (novel)
Cast includes: Zachary Gordon, Devon Bostick, Steve Zahn, Rachael Harris, Peyton List
UK Release Date: 27th May 2011

I missed last year’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, something which leaves me at a unique critical crossroads when reviewing its sequel “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules”. Adapted from a popular series of books by author Jeff Kinney, “Rodrick Rules” feels like a sketch show for nippers, a selection of gags coated with the thinnest conceivable layer of narrative. It’s a curious project to watch unfold, with random characters sifting in and out of proceedings without a hint of context, yet, thanks to some solid performances and genial tomfoolery it’s all remarkably tolerable.

After a stressful summer, Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) is eager for a return to school, so he might be reunited with tubby best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), and attempt to climb up the seventh grade social ladder. Taking a fancy to new girl in class Holly (Peyton List), Greg has his plan all worked out, but constantly finds his obnoxious and lazy older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) deflating his advances. With relations between Rodrick and Greg having hit an all time low, mother Susan (Rachael Harris) insists the two spend more time together. Against all odds the brothers begin to bond, finding joy in each other’s company through acts of silliness, but eventually things come crashing down when Rodrick’s big chance as an amateur musician is threatened.

The cast attack the material gamely, embracing the film’s goofy sensibility from the start. Seasoned performers like Steve Zahn (a scene-stealer as Greg and Rodrick’s neurotic father) and Rachael Harris don’t take the script too seriously, whilst the greener participants make for lovable protagonists. Lead Zachary Gordon grows in confidence as “Rodrick Rules” progresses, sparking effectively off the equally sprightly Bostick. The actors develop an agreeable rapport, the picture’s domestic setting exuding a relatable familial aura due to the relaxed and assured chemistry shared between the thespians. It’s simply pleasant to view a family orientated picture in which the children refuse to be gratingly irritating and the adults aren’t slumming for easy cash. It’s a low bar to set, but at least “Rodrick Rules” successfully clears it.

The screenplay seems predominately fascinated with the theme of brotherhood, neglecting the school subplots in order to focus on Greg and Rodrick. As a result this facet of the movie works best, “Rodrick Rules” boasting a crisply defined arc between the warring siblings, stocked with sound morals and enjoyable comedy. There’s a real charm in watching Bostick and Gordon reluctantly connect, the actors finding the correct amount of nuance to lace their relationship with a hint of believability. However the other components of “Rodrick Rules” are far patchier, some work due to laugh value, most should have been nixed early in production. Director David Bowers exhibits a rusty editorial hand here, keeping too many worthless tidbits in what is already a strangely overstretched product. Granted, despite the idea going nowhere, it is funny to watch a cherubic teen sing along to Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” for the YouTube derived amusement of his peers, but a useless segment in which an Indian classmate is treated like he’s invisible? Not so much.

I’m not sure how fans of the initial motion picture or even Kinney’s literature will respond to “Rodrick Rules”, but I found it to be sporadically diverting and totally harmless. The film hasn’t got a malicious bone in its body (heck, there’s a high school party depicted in which everyone appears to only be drinking soda), and the jokes should stimulate giggles from youngsters. Parents and babysitters really could do much worse.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

22 May 2011

Movie Review: The Roommate

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D+

The Roommate
2011, 91mins, 15
Director: Christian E. Christiansen
Writer: Sonny Mallhi
Cast includes: Leighton Meester, Minka Kelly, Cam Gigandet, Danneel Harris, Aly Michalka
UK Release Date: 15th April 2011

I’m not sure there’s a soul in the world who could be consistently scared by the flaccid efforts of Screen Gems’ latest thriller, "The Roommate". An extraordinarily vanilla affair, "The Roommate" takes pride in shamelessly recycling basic themes from over a half century of cinema, the result being a pot-boiler of immeasurable unoriginality. Peppered with a cast of hot television actors and helmed by a Danish director making his Hollywood debut, "The Roommate" is simply lifeless.

Sara (Minka Kelly) is a college freshman, eagerly anticipating her first year at university. Her roommate is Rebecca (Leighton Meester), a talented artist who openly admits to having endured an affluent but tumultuous upbringing. The two form a close bond, Rebecca apparently possessing an overprotective streak, jumping to Sara’s defence at even the faintest whiff of trouble. Eventually Rebecca’s intense attachment starts to grow creepy, Sara’s boyfriend Stephen (Cam Gigandet) starting to fear for his partner’s safety. When Sara begins to express an interest in moving out, Rebecca snaps, showcasing her rage in increasingly violent ways.

"The Roommate" isn’t an offensively dreadful movie, but it is tedious. Director Christian E. Christiansen has constructed a photogenic endeavour, his glossy visual aesthetic and nubile young stars at least making the film easy on the eyes. The screenplay on the other hand is severely lacking in creativity, whilst the performances and boo moments are below average. Christiansen shows little aptitude for sustaining suspense, and the project’s anaemic PG-13 sensibility disallows any proper bloodshed or titillation. In that way "The Roommate" is comparable to another Screen Gems product of not so long ago, 2008’s "Prom Night". "The Roommate" isn’t quite as ghastly overall, but both films suffer from an inherent lack of viscera, unhelpfully removing viable stakes and audience interest in one giant misjudged swipe.

Leighton Meester feels miscast as the production’s clingy antagonist; even on a superficial level the actress appears too cute to be scary. As "The Roommate" unravels Meester unapologetically ramps up the crazy, a foolish choice which renders her screeching turn during the finale almost comedic. Minka Kelly looks much too old to be a freshman (she’s 30 in reality), and delivers a flavourless leading performance. In fairness the actress genuinely gives it a wholehearted try (she never resorts to cheesy cleavage shots or faltering damsel mode), but the character just isn’t engaging, and Kelly doesn’t yet possess enough skill to convert such a weakly written figure into a well formed screen persona.

"The Roommate" attempts to provide a buffet of genre set-pieces, but none of these unfold as intended. The most egregious misstep is a bloodless shower scene, in which a boisterous party girl (Aly Michalka, "Easy A") is stalked through a dimly lit bathroom by Rebecca. Not only is the sequence derivative and tame, but it also goes out of its way to highlight the movie’s lack of credibility as a horror picture. There’s no gore evident, and more tellingly Christiansen’s camera is seemingly desperate to get a decent shot of Michalka in the nude, but due to the imposed teen friendly rating he continuously has to control himself. When you consider these factors it actually becomes a pretty amusing scene to watch, but when analysed against the director’s intentions it’s a total bust.

"The Roommate" of course concludes predictably, Christiansen closing the film with a muzzled burst of carnage, involving at least one character we barely know. I suppose 12-year old girls might be spooked on occasion by what Screen Gems is pushing here, but they’re genuinely the only demographic I can imagine this feature impressing.

"The Roommate" was decimated by critics and posted only a middling box-office return. It won’t be remembered beyond this year, so there’s no reason why you should bother checking it out.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

18 May 2011

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

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D

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
2011, 140mins, 12
Director: Rob Marshall
Writer (s): Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cast includes: Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally
UK Release Date: 18th May 2011

In 2003 audiences were surprised and delighted by “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, a brilliantly executed blockbuster that breathed much needed life into the limp seafaring subgenre. The film was a box-office behemoth, and even earned Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination, his rascally interpretation of Captain Jack Sparrow having subsequently entered into Hollywood legend. However the franchise took a tumble with its 2006 and 2007 follow-ups, a pair of sequels that over analyzed the original movie’s mythology, causing their runtimes to become unnecessarily bloated. With the trilogy seemingly complete, Disney has decided to reboot the formula with “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”, bringing in a host of new faces to interact with Captain Jack. Directorial responsibility has also shifted, out goes Gore Verbinski, and in comes Rob Marshall, a filmmaker more renowned for his contributions to musical cinema than any sort of proper swashbuckling credentials. Marshall never seems completely at ease with the material, and as a result “On Stranger Tides” is a wearisome sit, falling foul to the same misguided writing habits that plagued its immediate predecessors.

Summoned before King George II (Richard Griffiths), Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is tasked with leading a British fleet to the Fountain of Youth. Evading this chore, Jack quickly finds himself caught up with old flame Angelica (a radiant but wasted Penélope Cruz), a woman with little affection for Jack’s debauched mannerisms. Angelica tricks Jack into joining her father’s crew, the paternal figure in question being Blackbeard (Ina McShane), one of the nastiest pirates to have ever sailed the high seas. It transpires that Blackbeard is also seeking the Fountain of Youth, pitched in a race to reach it before the Spanish or the British, the latter now being led by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). However before arriving at the famed destination, the various crews have to attain a selection of objects, for without them the fountain’s powers are void.

“On Stranger Tides” is unquestionably a bad sequel, but it does boast a few positives. Depp is once again good value as Sparrow, looking much more alert in the part than he did during 2007’s “At World’s End”. The script is a flaccid mess, but when it affords Depp an opportunity for comedy he grabs it, using his natural charisma and the character’s cheeky sensibility to solid effect. I laughed a few times during “On Stranger Tides”, and most of those giggles can be attributed to Depp’s spirited turn. There are also two decent action sequences of note, the first involving Sparrow’s escape from London is generic but well constructed, Marshall using the musical score, Depp and his lively camerawork to permeate an aura of genuine fun. Also enjoyable is a segment involving a group of hostile mermaids, the film mining a healthy amount of tension from the set piece.

The screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio is ghastly, the writers illogically and unsatisfactorily combining random plot points to cultivate a dire excuse for a narrative. “On Stranger Tides” is just as bunged as the initial sequels, and at 140 minutes outstays its welcome by at least half an hour. The filmmakers apparently approached this fourth installment with the intention of streamlining the storytelling, but it becomes clear very quickly that they’ve failed miserably. The movie adds in a race element that’s never properly exploited (the Spanish participants aren’t even given personalities), whilst every fresh character feels pathetically underdeveloped. Cruz is saddled with a formulaic, sassy love interest stereotype to work with, the actress looking just as bored as viewers are bound to feel. Ian McShane’s Blackbeard is embarrassingly forgettable, the usually dependable actor giving an intensely unimaginative turn as the supposedly nefarious villain. Geoffrey Rush is fine, although Barbossa has no real need to feature, the character’s presence further highlighting the overstuffed nature of the writing.

The exotic locations are lusciously depicted, but for the most part the action is excruciatingly tedious. Leaving aside the aforementioned moments featuring London and mermaids, “On Stranger Tides” is comprised mostly of turgid swordfights, and heartbreaking CGI overload. The large portions of dry exposition are challenging enough, but Marshall also makes the mistake of rendering his central instances of bombast tiring, providing no oasis of relief amongst the toxic combination of too much talking and too little dynamism. It’s abundantly clear the director wasn’t suited for this task, everything from the clunky editorial choices to the unimpressive swings at slick spectacle suggesting the filmmaker is too far removed from his comfort zone.

Depp and Cruz share no chemistry, robbing “On Stranger Tides” of the fizzy sex appeal its marketing hinted at. The scribes attempt to force in a romantic subplot between a misunderstood mermaid and hunky cleric, but it’s a shoddily designed and silly addition to the tale, the arc dying on screen almost immediately. It’s hugely disappointing to watch the “Pirates of the Caribbean “series self-destruct so viciously here, almost everything the production attempts feels like an artistic miscalculation. This is a franchise well past its sell by date, and punters would be wise to avoid it, forcing Captain Jack to walk the metaphorical plank for good.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

17 May 2011

Movie Review: Win Win

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B

Win Win
2011, 106mins, 15
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Writer (s): Thomas McCarthy, Joe Tiboni
Cast includes: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Burt Young, Bobby Cannavale
UK Release Date: 20th May 2011

A softly spoken but thoroughly engaging picture, “Win Win” works hard to deliver three dimensional characters, honest drama and witty dialogue. Director/writer Thomas McCarthy guides a stellar cast through some pretty formulaic narrative beats, but thanks to the filmmaker’s impeccable ability to create authentic human interaction, it’s easy to overlook the uninspired premise, audiences instead becoming immersed within the movie’s rich tapestry of emotion.

Mike (Paul Giamatti) is a devoted family man, a part-time wrestling coach and a struggling attorney; his worrying financial situation caused by a lack of clientele. In order to try and rectify his monetary concerns, Mike becomes the legal guardian of a mentally dwindling older man named Leo (Burt Young); the extra cash the task affords helping to cure his incapacitating stress. However when Leo’s reclusive grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) rolls into town, Mike is left swamped in the middle of a complex family dynamic, Kyle refusing to return home and reunite with his druggie mother (Melanie Lynskey). As a result Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) take Kyle under their roof, the extent of the teen’s past trauma soon becoming clear, as to does his surprising aptitude for wrestling.

“Win Win” is an unlikely story of companionship between two very different people; the pair bonding as each helps to resolve the other’s problems. Not exactly a fresh formula in Hollywood these days, especially given that sporting glory is also a vital facet of the film’s arc. What marks the production out is its lack of melodrama, “Win Win” instead opting to uphold a more organic tone, featuring characters that feel detached from the usual genre stereotypes. McCarthy also instills “Win Win” with a slight but mostly successful strain of comedy, allowing audiences to more easily digest the inner turmoil its protagonists seem to be suffering through.

Paul Giamatti is very likeable as Mike, and strikes up a delightfully underplayed chemistry with the exceptional Alex Shaffer. “Win Win” applies most of its focus onto this unusual duo, McCarthy subtly connecting the characters through a selection of minor similarities. Kyle provides Mike with a chance to redeem himself for his dubious extortion of Leo, and of course represents a talented addition to Mike’s generally useless High School wrestling squad. On the other hand Kyle regains his confidence thanks to his newfound athletic convictions and the stable and loving environment Jackie and Mike openly supply. McCarthy stitches this all together (very assuredly) to create a dramedy that resonates until well after the closing credits, even ifs its overarching story is nothing to get particularly excited about.

The supporting cast bring extra vibrancy to the movie, particularly Amy Ryan (always stunning) and Bobby Cannavale (he played one of Will Ferrell’s obnoxious co-workers in “The Other Guys”), both delivering warm and phenomenally adept turns. McCarthy is clearly a director with a knack for guiding actors (his last film “The Visitor” earned Richard Jenkins high profile attention), “Win Win” helping to confirm his abilities and cement him as a name to watch out for at future award ceremonies. Due to this specific effort’s breezier aura I can see the Academy happily ignoring it, but when McCarthy eventually gets behind weightier material, he’ll be much tougher to overlook.

Melanie Lynskey is miscast as Kyle’s belligerent mother (she’s simply too cute by nature), representing the only major thespian induced misstep the film makes. The final act is rife with conflict, as secrets come to the fore and legal battles are fought, but “Win Win” wraps up on an appropriately low-key note, embossing itself with a refined dignity that only adds to the project’s overall appeal. It’s a charismatic motion picture, with enough heart and sincerity to compensate for its less grandiose components.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

15 May 2011

Summer Preview at EatSleepLiveFilm.com

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Over the past week I have assembled a rather extensive two-part summer preview for the fabulous eatsleeplivefilm.com (bookmark it if you haven’t already), and seeing as I rarely update the blog with anything other than reviews, I thought I owed it to you guys to offer up a few links. The preview examines 33 of the most notable and intriguing upcoming flicks of the summer (and “The Smurfs”), and is well worth a read. I’d also like to announce that as of last week I am now writing for efilmcritic.com, so be sure to go over and check out my content there.
ESLF Summer Preview Part 1

ESLF Summer Preview Part 2 

Cheers!

13 May 2011

Movie Review: Attack the Block

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C-

Attack the Block
2011, 88mins, 15
Director: Joe Cornish
Writer: Joe Cornish
Cast includes: Nick Frost, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway, John Boyega, Alex Esmail
UK Release Date: 11th May 2011

Considering its director is a modern stalwart of British comedy, it’s somewhat perplexing to find “Attack the Block” so short on laughs. An alien invasion picture set in a South London estate, “Attack the Block” claws desperately to be taken seriously as both a thrilling creepshow and satisfying comedic caper, but it can’t hit these marks due to a phenomenally soggy screenplay. The film also asks audiences to root for a selection of poorly fleshed out hoodlums for the full duration, a misstep that robs the movie of engaging central characters.

Whilst out making trouble in the local neighborhood, a teenage street gang led by Moses (John Boyega) encounters an alien life form, bludgeoning it to death after initially being wary. Thrilled by this conquest, the boys parade the deceased creature’s corpse around the local estate, bringing it to the attention of several less than wholesome personalities. Within hours more aliens plummet from the sky, the newcomers being a larger and more notably hostile strain of the same beast. Taking an active interest in the gang and the local area, the monsters launch an assault on the teenagers’ homes, forcing the normally asocial reprobates to team up with a recently victimized nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker). Together the unlikely group attempts to combat the extraterrestrials, all the while trying to deduce why the aliens would want to invade London in the first place.

“Attack the Block” feels very cinematic, even if it unfolds within only a few select locations. The cinematography courtesy of Thomas Townend is outstanding, helping to cultivate a real sense of menace amidst the nighttime setting; Cornish and Townend collaborating to fill the film with stark imagery and vibrant stylistic additions. It’s a frantic motion picture, disappointingly devoid of inventive action, but undoubtedly kinetic thanks to Cornish’s whiplash direction. “Attack the Block” deserves to be recognized as charmless and forgettable, but the picture’s cracking pace and high quality technical attributes aren’t up for debate.

The performances vary from competent to amateurish, hardly surprising given that Cornish plucked most of his young cast out of total obscurity. John Boyega just isn’t likable enough as Moses, the first timer handing in a po-faced and incredibly cold turn, which coupled with his character’s dubious criminal pastimes makes for a rather hateful screen presence. Certainly the film’s attempt to turn Moses into a hero come the finale feels misjudged. Jodie Whittaker is acceptable as a nurse with good reason to despise the teens, but the only youngster who genuinely impresses his Alex Esmail, showcasing decent comic timing and a respectable amount of charisma as a cheeky delinquent with a dopey hat. Nick Frost (playing a goofy drug dealer) and Luke Treadaway (one of Frost’s posh customers) form a nice rapport as the production progresses, but Cornish ultimately chooses to neglect them, instead applying keener focus on the one dimensional youths and their bluntly unfunny antics.

“Attack The Block” is almost never frightening, Cornish displaying little aptitude for concocting tension. The film isn’t afraid to get gory in places, and even disposes of several younger characters in very visceral ways, but that alone isn’t enough to render the flick terrifying. The filmmakers opt for boo moments too regularly, and the picture’s speedy style means there’s no room for organic dread to develop. For a feature that boasts bloodthirsty antagonists, samurai swords, a van getting hi-jacked and copious amounts of drug use, it’s remarkable that “Attack the Block” should be such a disposable and relatively unmemorable sci-fi offering.

The central concept is worthy, but the narrative really isn’t, “Attack the Block” unfurling in a depressingly generic fashion. The film’s sense of humour also fails it at crucial junctures, for a man with such an acclaimed pedigree as a jester, it’s weird to see Cornish plump for the obvious gag most of the time. “Attack the Block” has its merits, but they’re generally surface level bonuses, undermined thanks to weak characterization, uneven scares and a severe lack of giggle worthy material. I can’t imagine future genre aficionados will look back at this profoundly irritating production with much affection.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

7 May 2011

Movie Review: Hanna

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B

Hanna
2011, 111mins, 12
Director: Joe Wright
Writer (s): Seth Lochhead, David Farr
Cast includes: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams
UK Release Date: 6th May 2011

"Hanna" is a unique motion picture; that much is abundantly clear. A tale of vengeance that riffs heavily on fairytale tropes, “Hanna” is a flawed but admirable departure for the career of Joe Wright. Wright usually seen helming worthy Oscar contenders, shows a surprising degree of directorial flair when placed so firmly outside of his comfort zone, concocting a film that revels in surrealist sensory overload. However the screenplay at hand is decidedly less inspired, slack characterization and a clunky final act denying “Hanna” the chance to be truly great. It’s filled with little moments of genius and a cast of terrific performers, but ultimately “Hanna” just doesn’t click as slickly as one might hope.

Raised in the icy European wilderness by her father Erik (Eric Bana), Hanna( Saoirse Ronan) has been rigorously educated in the ways of survival. When Erik acknowledges that Hanna has completed her combative and intellectual training, he sends her out on a mission, to dispose of Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the government spook responsible for the death of Hanna’s mother. Things don’t exactly go to plan, with Hanna unwittingly tossed into a world she’s never known; Marissa and her numerous violent employees hunting her across the globe. Hanna quickly bonds with a British family, finding comfort in their equally weird mannerisms, but even they can’t protect her from the steely and unrelenting Marissa.

One of the key problems that troubles “Hanna” is the screenplays seeming uneasiness with Wright’s filmmaking vision, the director having morphed what appears to be a Bourne Jr. story into something much less traditional. Primed with nods to fairytale literature, “Hanna” plays out like a piece of Grimm Brother’s fiction in its own right, boasting an abnormal but naïve protagonist pitted against eerie evils and serpentine villains. Wright makes very direct references to mythical lore (the grandma vs. the wolf moment is particularly notable), using his own trippy editorial style and a sublime score from The Chemical Brothers to further boost the picture’s idiosyncrasy. The production design and cinematography are undeniably gorgeous, but “Hanna” appears to be a movie of two different creative mindsets, and they combine somewhat roughly. I deeply appreciate the added imagination that Wright’s bizarre choices advertise, but it’s possible they hurt “Hanna” as much as they help.

The cast are phenomenal, battling unremarkable writing and emerging victorious. Saoirse Ronan brings both an irresistible innocence and frightening ferocity to the title role, the delicate actress injecting the part with a radically impressive helping of physicality. Whilst the storytelling may somewhat meander, Ronan ensures the audience always remain on her side, enchanting us as she flees her aggressors and desperately attempts to comprehend a life in civilization. The young actress has shown tremendous ability in the past (“Atonement” and “The Lovely Bones”) and she acquits herself breathtakingly here, providing the picture with a consistently engaging hero.

Cate Blanchett is fully invested in Wright’s interpretation of the material, portraying Marissa as a twisted evil stepmother. The actress is obviously having great fun with the part, malevolently stomping around with a demented glimmer in her eyes. The same can also be said of Tom Hollander, playing an assassin tasked with bringing Hanna down. The role must have been totally vacant on paper, but Hollander brings some mightily menacing tics and traits to the part, ensuring his contribution remains memorable. Eric Bana is less fortunate, the Australian thespian largely failing to overcome the screenplay’s frustrating limitations. As a cog in the narrative machine he’s perfectly fine, but he doesn’t strike as loud a chord as his peers. Certainly it’s the suspicious bond between the formidable Hanna and equally determined Marissa that fascinates most, rather than the father/daughter relationship of the picture’s opening act.

The action sequences don’t roll around often, but when they do Wright shows fantastic precision and placement with his camera. Often opting for long continuous shots, Wright adds a refreshing intimacy to his set-pieces, wringing out excitement and adrenaline soaked tension with every frame. The over arching plotting would have undoubtedly benefited from a tauter grasp, but the moments of violence and combat are perfectly pitched, anchored by viable stakes, which incidentally add massively to the suspense.

The film’s climax trundles on for longer than it should, although Wright’s choice to make the final showdown a very personal affair further showcases his artistic maturity. “Hanna” refuses to answer all the questions it raises, preferring to end with at least mild traces of ambiguity. This decision does admittedly compliment the project’s dreamlike tone, bolstering its underlying sense of hallucinatory unease even further. Say what you will about “Hanna”, but at least it stands by its own supremely odd convictions.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

5 May 2011

Movie Review: Water for Elephants

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B

Water for Elephants
2011, 120mins, 12
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer (s): Richard LaGravenese, Sara Gruen (novel)
Cast includes: Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Reese Witherspoon, Hal Holbrook, Scott MacDonald
UK Release Date: 4th May 2011

Based on a novel of the same name by Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants” is a majestically mounted period picture. Set in a superlatively depicted depression era Circus, the film aspires to operate as a swooning romance, but genuinely finds grander successes in other areas. Lavishly directed by Francis Lawrence the production offers an immersive tapestry of visual splendour, which goes a long way to compensating for some of its more typically Pattinson-esque flaws.

Following the untimely death of his parents, aspiring veterinarian Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) decides to abandon his day to day life, opting to jump on the next train out of town. He ends up on a carriage owned by the Benzini Brothers Circus, a group of performers led by the tyrannical August (Christoph Waltz). When August becomes aware of Jacob’s college education, he appoints the young man as the Circus’s official vet, insisting that he apply special attention toward training and caring for the show’s latest acquisition, a gorgeous elephant named Rosie. Jacob quickly bonds with his feral patients and other members of the Benzini troupe, especially August’s beautiful wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). As Marlena and Jacob begin connecting romantically, the psychotic August starts to notice, placing everyone in his reach, including a tranquil Rosie, at risk.

With “Water for Elephants” Francis Lawrence continues to display a great directorial eye, even if some of his storytelling sensibilities could benefit from finer tuning. Lawrence does a terrific job of concocting a sense of time and place, creating a truly regal big top atmosphere for the tale to unfold in. The cinematography glows, instilling the film with a surface level beauty and elegance that can’t be disputed. Similarly the production design is richly rewarding, “Water for Elephants” boasting some meticulously sculpted sets and tastefully designed backdrops. These are the same skills that Lawrence confirmed during his previous two stabs at cinematic glory (“I Am Legend” and “Constantine”), building up a believable and well formed world for his actors to inhabit.

Pattinson is predictably stiff, but he at least brings a little warmth to his performance, something the “Twilight” star has failed to do in the past. His onscreen dynamic with Witherspoon feels considerably more forced than it should, but when sharing the screen with Waltz and some of the more impressive animal specimens he just about manages to convey a sense of humanity. Witherspoon is just as much to blame for the floundering chemistry; the actress doesn’t look overly absorbed in the part, moving through the script adequately but passionlessly. On the other hand Waltz is a total delight, bringing yet another inherently evil charmer out with his domineering interpretation of August. Waltz is the movie’s most potent driving force, finding a dark energy in places that most thespians wouldn’t think to look. It’s a spellbinding turn, comprised largely of brutal and tormented components.

At 120 minutes “Water for Elephants” is perhaps somewhat bloated, Lawrence letting the feature linger on for longer than it should. For the filmmaker the plot marks a distinct change of pace, his previous efforts having been outright sci-fi chillers. Lawrence shows decent command of the picture’s narrative, combing the core romance succinctly with the other often more compelling subplots. The love triangle is inconsistent because of the unconvincing link between Pattinson and Witherspoon, but Lawrence actually builds this fundamental part of the picture up rather solidly, disappointed ultimately only by his casting. “Water for Elephants” is also an interesting study of power, the screenplay concentrating with particular verve on August’s abuse of his employees, animals and even wife. I’m not sure if this element shines simply due to Waltz’s sublime contribution, but it’s undeniably the most complex and disturbing arc “Water for Elephants” has at its disposal.

Of course Rosie the elephant is lovely, a practical beast having obviously been preferred on set instead of a soulless CGI counterpart. “Water for Elephants” is a flawed picture, but its aesthetical magic and other dollops of greatness (honestly, it’s all about Waltz) just about carry it to the finish line. A cute finale rounds out the adaptation sturdily, leaving me with no other option than to moderately recommend this sporadically enchanting creation. It’s the first R-Patz bonanza I can get thoroughly behind, although in a classic case of irony, my fondness for this picture has nothing to do with its handsome but relentlessly wooden leading man.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011