Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Unforgiven - review

While it is refreshing to see a Japanese remake of an American film instead of the normal practice of it being the other way around, where Hollywood normally strips everything away that was great about the original, this remake has stayed true to the original in such a way that it offers nothing new.

It's never an ideal way of watching a movie when you keep remembering, anticipating and comparing it to the original.

Which is a shame, as Ken Watanabe delivers a great stoic performance as Jubee The Killer although the momentum that builds towards Jubee finally returning to a life of killing is dissipated due to questionable plot choices.

A cold-blooded "Eastern" that works if you haven't seen Eastwood's classic but if you have you won't remain Unforgiven if you give it a miss.

3 stars

The Other Woman - review

The most confusing thing about The Other Woman, besides who actually would enjoy this stinker of a film, is who exactly is "The Other Woman" that the title refers to?

The film starts with Cameron Diaz as the main character who is dating a guy who turns out to be married to Leslie Mann. It then focuses on her for a while before her and Diaz find out the guy is cheating on them both with someone else (swimsuit model Kate Upton).

Given the "sisters are doing it for themselves" ensembleness of the piece and the fact the man is a serial philanderer, it really should have been called "The Other Women".

After spending what seems like forever bonding over Cosmopolitans and Christian Louboutin's when they finally get round to executing their revenge it ranges from the crude (laxatives and hormones) to the crafty (stealing his money) but often these slapstick moments that feel like they belong in a different film.

You never get the feeling that these women would actually be friends. I've seen enough clips of The Real Housewives Of New Jersey and Geordie Shore to know that a situation like the one at the centre of this film would result in a lot of high-pitched screaming and cat fighting.

Talented comediennes Mann and Diaz deserve much better and should divorce themselves from material like this as soon as possible.

1 star

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Blue Ruin - review

30 years ago, this story where a single act of revenge spirals out of control would have probably starred Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal.

Blue Ruin stars a man who starts the film looking like a hobo Daniel Bryan ("YES! YES! YES!") and once he shaves looks like Joe Lo Truglio.

Safe to say, not your typical action hero.

But there is not much that is typical about this twist on a familiar storyline of trouble in the Deep South.

It starts off almost as a silent film as a wordless bearded down-n-out is given some news that causes him to go on a quest for revenge.

The how and why don't come straight away and even though the audience are not aware of his motives, they will empathise with the lead character of Dwight thanks to the excellent performance of Macon Blair.

Possessing these incredibly sad-sack puppy dog eyes that tell the story on their own, Blair becomes the most unexpected action hero since Liam Neeson, constantly wrestling with the actions that become increasingly necessary as he descends into a world he is unfamiliar with and unable to leave.

Blue Ruin, it saw Dwight standing alone, a gun and beard in the dark, seeds for revenge have been sown.

Blue Ruin, Kickstarter was how it was paid for, from Saulnier and Blair we'll see more, in terms of stars this movie gets four.

4 stars

Snowpiercer - French Blu Ray review

It feels odd to be reviewing a film from a French blu ray when it hasn't even been released in cinemas in the UK yet but the journey that Snowpiercer is taking to the big screen over here has been filled with more problems and delays that the trams in Edinburgh city centre. Ironically that is where the film has just had its UK premiere at the Film Festival.

Last year word started to surface that Harvey Scissorhands wanted to edit the film, cutting twenty minutes out of it and adding in a voiceover at the beginning to help audiences understand what was going on. Anyone reminded of Blade Runner here?

This would have been the cut for UK and US audiences but thankfully the original "director's cut" had already been released and proven very successful in France.

Earlier this year film critic Anne Bilson mentioned on Twitter that the film would be available on region free blu ray in April with the only minor niggle being that, although it was in English, it only had French subtitles therefore it made one scene where the dialogue is in Korean difficult to follow.

Undaunted by this and desperate to see the director's original version, I ordered it from Amazon.Fr in January and proceeded to forget about it until the beautiful box set arrived at work randomly one afternoon in April.

Finally it was time to board the Snowpiercer.

Set in a dystopian future where a failed attempt to reverse global warming has left the Earth in a state of perpetual winter, the only human life that remains circumnavigates the globe in a special train called the Snowpiercer.

The train is split up into classes with the rich and powerful living in comfort at the front with all the poor people crammed into the rear of the train.

Unhappy with existing in squalid conditions, surviving on nothing but gelatinous food bars that might be from the makers of Soylent Green, and spurned on by cryptic messages, Chris Evans's Curtis wants to find out if life really is greener on the other side.

So Evans, like Gene Hackman's Reverend Scott in The Poseidon Adventure, sets out to lead a rag tag bunch (including Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer) on a Titanic struggle up through the vessel following the icy track road to see Wilford, the wonderful Wilford of Oz.

Everyone is seeking something different (redemption, power, drugs, their children) and the hope is that Wilford can provide that for them, even if they have to use force to get it.

If Wilford is the mysterious man behind the curtain, then Tilda Swinton's Mason is undoubtably The Wicked Witch of the West (Coast Line).

With her protruding teeth, hideous wardrobe and glasses as thick as her Yorkshire accent she is a comically grotesque character who, when berating the dirty, grim soaked masses to remember their place, feels like Thatcher and the miners during the 80s.

At one point she makes a speech about how life must be kept in a delicate balance and this ties into the situation on the train which is on an eternal loop of the earth, a continuous cycle, with the natural order of the classes and the circle of life.

Elysium tackled a similar subject last year but this has much more in common in terms of aesthetics and feel with the work of Terry Gilliam such as Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, and one of the characters is even called Gilliam.

Not only is this graphic novel adaptation at heart fantastical science fiction and social commentary but it plays out like a video game with each new compartment they make it to representing a higher level and a different challenge, sometimes physical, mental or emotional. Different characters are required to progress and once complete the next compartment is actually "unlocked" by the train's security designer who controls the doors.

The struggle to reach the front takes it toll on the group but it is Curtis who is constantly Under Siege to try and gain control of the train and with it comes one of Chris Evans's finest performances, in particular delivering a haunting monologue about what life of the train is really like.

Hopefully Snowpiercer won't face too many more delays before it gains a proper cinema release as this is first class entertainment that remains on track to be one of my favourite films of the year.

5 stars

Monday, 28 April 2014

Empire - The Magazine Of My Lifetime

Empire magazine recently hosted the 19th annual Empire Awards and to celebrate their 25th anniversary they bestowed such awards as Action Hero Of Our Lifetime to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Legend Of Our Lifetime to Tom Cruise.

With this in mind I just wanted to share a few memories of Empire which is without a doubt "The Magazine Of My Lifetime".

I had been a film fan ever since I spent every Saturday afternoon of my childhood re watching my copy of Star Wars that I had taped off the TV (complete with ad breaks for Panda Rosa Metals and St. Andrews Woollen Mill, St. Andrews) but it wasn't until around 1996 that I started to take it seriously and build up a collection of films and knowledge.

I was helped by my English teacher (one of those younger, cool, hip ones who had a poster of Trainspotting on the classroom wall) who encouraged my curiosity and lent me VHS copies of films such as Blade Runner and Shallow Grave which led me to becoming a big Ewan McGregor fan and purchasing my first issue of Empire in July '96 featuring Ewan on the cover.

A lot has changed in cinema since '96: we got excited for the rereleases of Star Wars in 1997, Aberdeen got its first real multiplex (9 screens) and an independent art house cinema, we got excited about the Star Wars prequels, there was the fall and spectacular rise of the comic book movie from Batman And Robin to The Avengers, the return of 3D, the rebooting and remaking of every franchise and horror film and even though we should know better, we're getting excited about new Star Wars films.

The one constant throughout all that (beyond my hairdresser) has been the ever-growing collection of Empire magazines on my shelf. I've built up the collection over the years to the point I only need the first 14 issues (if anyone has spare copies kicking about...).

The anticipation of hearing that "drop" through the letterbox meaning that my subscription had arrived (sometimes complete with special cover) followed by my traditional 2-fold comic book-style readthrough: "The quick skim" (find out the review ratings, main articles, letters, pint of milk) followed by the in-depth analysis of every page.

I remember reading The Lost World issue back in '97 and getting very excited about a film called Swingers. Over the years it has brought films like Fight Club, Cube, Audition and Memento to my attention.

Of course, they can't get it right all the time. We don't need to dwell on "Clone-gate" that much, cause haven't we all got caught up in the moment and made snap judgements of films when we shouldn't have? I remember making a public apology on my blog to Channing Tatum following 21 Jump Street after some claiming his chunky knitwear in The Vow showed greater emotional range.

What always came through in the writing in the mag, whether you agreed with the review or not, was that these were genuine film fans just like you.

Before the Internet really took off, Empire was my only real source of movie news and gossip. It was kind of nice not to be completely bombarded and spoiled by constant updates on the production of the latest blockbuster.

The printed word has suffered in recent years thanks to the Internet (remember Neon, Hotdog, Filmstar?) but Empire has adapted thanks to its website, Twitter, weekly podcast and the adventures of Videblogisode Man to complement the monthly magazine which has now reached its 300th edition.

However for myself (and many others), Empire is more than just a film magazine.

It got me started on my film review blog when I worked my way through my (500) Films of Empire challenge which involved watching and reviewing every film on Empire's Top 500 list that was published in 2009.

(Expect a similar challenge to occur when the 301 List is published next month)

That resulted in writing a guest blog on the website about the experience and led to me spending a week interning at the Empire offices.

But my fondest memories would have to be those wonderful weekends in August spent at the BFI Southbank (and O2 Arena) attending Movie-Con (and latterly Big Screen).

Not only did they involve two days spent in one seat in BFI 1 watching all the best previews from Comic-Con as well as screenings, spot prizes, Q&As, special guests (2009 saw TWO visits from Robert Downey Jr and in 2010 Thor director Kenneth Branagh brought along an unknown actor called Tom Hiddleston) and the Kim Newman Basterd Hard Movie Quiz (which I have the honour of being a two-time winner) but they saw the formation of a fantastic film-based friendship between a group of people affectionately known as "The Forumites".

Bonding over Empire's Internet forums in the lead up to the Con, those events were the chance for film fans to meet others with similar interests (including the Empire staff who are also genuine film fans above all else and lovely people) and has resulted in a terrific group of people staying in touch and organising several meet-ups and screening visits over the last five/six years.

So thank you Mark, Ian, Ian, Dan, Chris, Helen, Nick, Phil, Ali and everyone at Empire past and present for producing something that has helped entertain and inform me over the years, all the while fuelling and growing my greatest passion...

Oh and thanks for the iPad and copy of Empire signed by Steven Spielberg that I won at the quiz!

I live in hope that one day we will see Movie-Con V: Empire Strikes Back.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - review

While the plot of The Amazing Spider-Man felt like an unnecessary retread of the Spider-Man saga with extra subplot about Peter's parents which was introduced then inexplicably forgotten, where it did improve on the original Raimi trilogy was in the casting of its two leads.

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are more natural and likeable fits for Peter Parker and canon first love Gwen Stacy and with their on-screen chemistry it's easy to see why it transferred off-screen.

Garfield grows into the role and really becomes the wise-cracking webslinging crime fighter from the comics and Stone makes Gwen one of the most independent and non-damsel-in-distress female characters in comic book movies (the complete opposite of Dunst's insipid Mary Jane).

The rule of superhero movies is that the sequel is better and the third instalment is not as good but this film lies somewhere between Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3.

It builds on the complex relationship between Peter and Gwen as he struggles with his responsibilities as New York's newest hero and his promise to Gwen's deceased father Captain Stacy but rushes the move to build up its extended universe as too many undercooked villains spoil the broth.

Dane DeHaan is excellent as Harry Osborn but his issues with his father and descent into madness feel rushed in the third act and would have worked if explored over two films.

Jamie Foxx's Electro follows in the long line of Spider-Man villains who are misunderstood scientists who become evil following a tragic accident and become a poor man's Dr. Manhattan.

Also can anyone explain why Martin Csokas was allowed to play his doctor character like he was appearing in Batman & Robin? It was completely out of place.

After a strong start with some fantastic webslinging sequences (that make good use of the 3D), the final action set pieces feel too CGI heavy and have a video game feel to them.

But the main draw of the film remains the central relationship of Peter and Gwen (even if some of the time Peter can come across as a stalker) and it helps build towards the climax of the film which plays out very similarly to one of the most famous story arcs and it is admirable that they follow it through to its moving conclusion and poses interesting questions for the next instalment.

It is not perfect but it spins enough of a web to keep me hooked for the The Amazing Spider-Man 3 because with the characters and storylines potentially on the way, lets face it Tiger, they might just hit the jackpot.

3 stars

The Past - review

The Past just won't stay buried in this excellent drama looking at the past, present and future state of the relationships of Marie (played by Berenice Bejo).

Ahmad returns to Paris after four years to complete his divorce from Marie and is invited to stay with her and her two daughters from a previous marriage while he does. There he meets her new beau Samir and his son Fouad.

Old feelings begin to stir which causes friction between the complicated love triangle, aggravated by the uncovering of dark secret concerning the truth behind Marie and Samir's relationship.

This tense character study is anchored by excellent performances. From a fantastic Bejo, who quite rightly won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, to the trio of child actors, there is not a weak link in the cast.

Don't wait until the future to watch The Past, see it as soon as possible.

4 stars

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Quiet Ones - review

Hammer's latest foray into the world of horror could be seen as the UK's version of The Conjuring with this paranormal frightening based on a true story.

In what could be a period episode of Derren Brown, a group of students and University professor (an excellent Jared Harris) attempt to prove that paranormal possession is simply nothing more than mental illness by treating a suicidal young girl, all documented by skeptic Sam Claflin.

The film might feature more false jump scares than a blindfolded high jump competition but it is has an effectively creepy tone that builds throughout before the proverbial shit hits the fan in the final act with a standout moment being an ill-advised trip to the attic to find a missing person.

It might be called The Quiet Ones but there are enough moments that will cause loud screams in the auditorium and keep scary movie fans happy.

3 stars

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Calvary - review

"I was seven years old the first time I tasted semen" is actually the "startling opening line" that begins this story slightly mis-marketed as a whosgonnadoit which instead is about one good man trying to put his life in order in a cruel world.

Despite an excellent central performance from Brendan Gleeson who is a priest threatened with death by a mysterious parishioner in his small, sleepy Irish community, unfortunately I was as detached from the central story as Gleeson must remain from the stories and sins he hears in the confessional.

Calvary rode in on a wave of glowing 5 star reviews but the impact was as non-existent as the horsemen or roast dinner that I confused the title with.

3 stars

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Twenty Feet From Stardom - review

Yes, Twenty Feet From Stardom showcases the fact that women singing backing vocals are talented, that much is clear. Yet the film seems to be rather mixed in its messages. Some singers claim that they prefer staying out of the spotlight, yet appear in a film which will naturally bring them more attention and opportunities. Others claim they are trying to focus on pursuing a solo career yet appear as backing singers in other segments.

However there is some fascinating trivia to be found here.

Hall of Famer Darlene Love sang "Christmas(Baby Please Come Home)", one of the best Xmas songs of all-time and featured in Gremlins but also played Danny Glover's wife in Lethal Weapon.

There is also an interview with Merry Clayton who provided the iconic vocals on The Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter".

There was disappointment when Tom Jones was featured in archive footage singing with some of the women appearing in the documentary but wasn't interviewed. It's a shame as Tom has sung with just about everybody and will gladly talk about it given the opportunity if The Voice is anything to go by.

"Now Darlene, she had a voice similar to Aretha. Now I know that, because I sang with Aretha you know..."

Still none the wiser as to why this won Best Documentary at the Oscars over The Act Of Killing but its an interesting talking heads piece that will get you tapping your toes in the aisle and digging out your old records when you get home... (or pressing shuffle on your iPod. Depends if anyone still has a vinyl collection anymore).

3 stars

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Noah - review

"It is as it was". Words the Pope used to describe The Passion Of The Christ and words that are unlikely to be used when talking about Darren Aronofsky's $125 million epic which plays less like the Sunday School story and more like a dystopian end-of-the-world big-budget episode of Doctor Who featuring rock monsters and a cockney villain.

Yes, you read that correctly. In this version of the story, Noah can be compared to The Doctor.

The character of The Doctor is often described as "a mad man in a box" and that is precisely what Noah can be described as in the second part of the story.

With the help of aliens from another world who are covered in rock, he constructs his massive box filled with at least two of every type of creature on the planet thus being seemingly bigger on the inside than on the outside, and proceeds to become increasingly unhinged as he is forced to make decisions that will affect the course of history.

He is told that the flood cannot be averted, hence it is one of those "fixed points in time" that Steven Moffat is so fond of in his tenure as show runner. This results in some tough choices which include leaving companions to die and contemplating infanticide when he believes that the race of men must be allowed to die.

There can be arguments made that the film is set in biblical times but also that it is a story set in a dystopian future where man has ravaged the earth with violence, war and destroyed its environment and the impending demise by water is not the wrath of God but the result of global warming.

God doesn't actually get mentioned at all in the film, rather it is "The Creator" but Aronofsky basically sticks two fingers up to Creationists with Noah's recital of the story of creation being set to a time lapse video montage of evolution!

Also because the end of the world at the hands of the creator is simply not enough, you need a human enemy to add that extra level of fear and hatred and so Ray Winstone and some extras from Game Of Thrones turn up to become the Raiders Of The First Ark.

And speaking of arks, Russell Crowe does an excellent job with his character's arc from protective family man to saviour to madman and anchors the film with a great performance.

It might be one of the most bonkers mainstream movies ever made but it features some stunning cinematography, an excellent score by Clint Mansell and is a thrilling, epic adventure that should have audiences going into the cinemas two by two if this kind of thing floats their boat.

3 stars

Rio 2 - review

Having never seen the original Rio, there was some quick Wikipedia-ing during the adverts to find out what I'd missed and was relieved to see that it was not much other than your standard fish out of water (or bird out of cage) scenario so it would be easy enough to follow.

The neurotic, domesticated bird who has moved to Rio and learnt to fly and had children with the last female Blue Macau now has to deal with moving to the Amazon (not but that might have been funnier) when they discover a secret tribe of Macaus.

All of the voice return for the sequel so that must have been in their contracts unlike a certain Orange Wednesdays advert from a couple of years ago!

Not only did they pack in an inflated voice cast but they unwisely attempted to squeeze in too many subplots.

There is Blu attempting to win Jewel's father's respect; the handsome ex-boyfriend which promoted jealousy; the Ferngully/Avatar "outsider joins tribe to defeat threat to environment"; a Cockatoo revenge plot; Amazon's Got Talent auditions; the list is endless and no subplot is given the opportunity to be fully fleshed out resulting in an uneven mess.

At first I was surprised that Rio 2 wasn't released in June/July to coincide with the World Cup but I realised that a) Fox needed something to capitalise on the Easter holiday market and b) this film is possibly anti-football.

I say that because the home of the blue Macaus which is under threat from loggers is situated in Manuas. Now Manuas is where they have built a brand new football stadium which has been beset by problems ahead of the World Cup and the England game that will play there.

Are the loggers in the film there to bulldoze the land to make way for the football stadium? Or am I reading too much into the film?

Either way, with a plot stuffed fuller than a taxidermist's menagerie and prioritising random musical interludes that feel shoehorned in now Anne Hathaway has won an Oscar for Les Mis over jokes, the desire for any more Rio films is as endangered as the titular blue macau.

1 star

Monday, 7 April 2014

Divergent - review

Another year, another adaptation of a "Young Adult" literary sensation aiming to take the crown previously held by Twilight and currently sitting atop the head of Jennifer Lawrence and Hunger Games.

So far the likes of Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and The Host have failed to capture the imaginations of the critics, audiences or box office charts.

Is Divergent be able to go in a different direction? Sadly not.

In a future ravaged by a war, society is split into five different factions based on your personality. Abnegation the selfless, Dauntless the brave, Erudite the intelligent, Candor the honest and Amity the peaceful... although apparently some don't fit into a category because they are dressed like homeless people or can flit between categories and are called Divergent.

In a Harry Potter-esque Sorting Hat ceremony, all teenagers chose a faction on their 16th birthday. Tris (Shailene Woodley) discovers she is divergent and chooses to leave her Abnegnation parents behind and become part of the Dauntless group who spend a lot of their time practising parkour and wearing the latest All Saints collection.

There is a potentially interesting story here. The factions were created to prevent further conflict but what caused the original war? The society lives in a post-apocalyptic Chicago which is surrounded by a giant fence but what is its purpose? What is it keeping out? Or is it designed to keep them inside?

Unfortunately none of this really explored as the majority of the 138 minute running time is spent having the new Dauntless recruits go through extensive Hunger Games-style training.

With the book being the first in a trilogy, the film feels like nothing more than an extended first act with a undeveloped, tacked-on climax featuring a plot to eliminate one of the factions by a villainous clipboard-carrying Kate Winslet.

The one positive aspect however is the lead actress Shailene Woodley. She starts off fragile and unsure but slowly grows into a tough character, drawing on various Linda Hamilton/Sigourney Weaver action heroine qualities, and nails the emotional beats perfectly.

Divergent might not be able to differentiate itself from the YA crowd but it does have a stand-out lead. The main fault lies with spending so much time laying the groundwork that it rushes the climax... but let's face it, it's a problem that many young adults encounter early on.

2 stars

Locke - review

On paper, a film which just features a man on the phone in his car should not work at all. Thankfully Locke doesn't require any roadside assistance thanks to an excellent screenplay and mesmerising performance from Tom Hardy.

Ivan Locke is a building site manager who is responsible for creating structures which stand the test of time but sees his entire life collapse down around him over the course of one 85 minute car journey to London.

Tom Hardy is the only person on screen during the film and creates a fully realised character with the minimal of dialogue, backstory and a spot-on

Driving towards his final destination, Ivan tries to sort out a disintegrating relationship and career whilst safeguarding the creation of new life and a new build.

Who would have thought that having Bane trying to talk Moriarty through prepping a concrete pour would be one of the most interesting and exciting subplots of the year?

Tom Hardy never once lets his performance slip into cruise control as he subtly shifts through his emotional gears to cement his position as one of the UK's best actors.

From the off the film hits Top Gear and never lets up. This is one car journey you won't be asking "Are we there yet?".

4 stars