Week Four 2015 – 22-28 January

Stiff upper British spying tomfoolery, robots that are prettier AND sneakier than you are, Steve Carell’s least applauded performance of 2014, Anne Hathaway goes all indie, Jeremy Renner squares up to the CIA, notebook in hand and Shailene Woodley wonders just how on earth she ended up with Eva Green as a mother. Yes folks, week four has been and gone and it was the most bonkers week of the year so far. Read on…

Kill The Messenger (Dir, Michael Cuesta, 2014) 3.5/5*

Maybe not one for the more casual movie-goer, Kill The Messenger has maybe not garnered the awards support that it might reasonably have expected. Not marketed to any extent, the ‘based on a true’ story of Gary Webb, a journalist that uncovered CIA involvement in aiding Nicaraguan contras to sell cocaine in the United States to fund the war in their own country is divisive, depending upon who you talk to, but it can’t be denied that the story is worth telling, and telling well. Conspiracy theorists have, of course, leapt to their keyboards to debate the issues raised by the book from Nick Schou and the ‘Dark Alliance’ article, written by Webb himself. The reason for this renewed interest can partly be thanks to Michael Cuesta’s deft handling of the source material here, placing Jeremy Renner in Gary Webb’s shoes. Having never been much of a fan of Renner himself, I did find his performance to be excellent and probably his most engaging and accomplished work so far. As a character study, it is worth a viewing on its own, suggesting, as Webb himself said – ‘The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress’, which smacks of a man trying to make a name for himself. That in itself is possibly a defence for those he was trying to expose. Directed with crisp flair and sporting enough tension to keep you occupied, the project is continually engaging if a little incredible (the best stories always are though, right?). Nonetheless, the story itself is believable enough, even to the most cynical, to give it proper attention, which the film-makers have done, even if by the conclusion, you may get the feeling that this is perhaps a little one-sided. Quality film-making, regardless. Serious, uncompromising stuff.
Ex Machina (Dir, Alex Garland, 2015) 3.5/5*
Written and directed by Alex Garland (The Beach, Sunshine, Dredd), Ex Machina dispenses with the now more colloquial definition of the phrase and returns us back to its origins, being that it concerns itself with the intelligence of machines created by man. To the machine, of course, you might rightly describe man as a god, of sorts. Just depends on your perspective. Invited by his employer, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), as corporate lottery/raffle winner to spend the week at his super-secret lab in the middle of nowhere, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), the latest example of his employers’ efforts to truly create independent artificial intelligence. Quickly asking questions, both moral and otherwise of his audience, Garland paints a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere in this seemingly out of the way paradise that Nathan has created along with Ava herself. Over the period of seven days, Caleb must interview Ava, a la the Turing Test but with knobs on, to see if he believes that she really displays all of the qualities required to pass for human. Unapolgetically insular, this reeks of cabin fever throughout and it’s not long before Caleb himself becomes more embroiled in this experiment than he initially expected, but is this due to the machinations of his employer, or the mysteriously engaging Ava? Maybe it’s both? Quiet, subtle and littered with half-baked philosophies that never really get a chance to be delved into properly, this is always intriguing, yet I expect some to come away more frustrated by the finale, as Garland maybe leaves us with too many questions than we might like. Not overly sci-fi heavy, but laden with exposition that prompts questions not only from the characters about the meaning of life and reality to an extent that it will make the more curious really think and pay attention. The special effects that we are presented with are stunning and you can expect to feel slightly cold and uncomfortable on several occasions as the limits and inadequacies of humanity bare themselves for all to see.  

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Dir, Miguel Arteta, 2014) 1.5/5*
Whilst many are shouting about Foxcatcher, there will be marketing executives all over Hollywood trying not to remind people about this. If Eddie Redmayne’s publicist is avoiding all mention of Jupiter Ascending so as not to queer his pitch for the Oscars, then if we’re honest, that might be what Carell’s team should be doing too. It’s not dreadful. It’s Disney. And it isn’t worth an Oscar. When Alexander wishes (much like Jim Carrey’s son in Liar Liar) on a candle that his family have a horrible day because they don’t seem to understand how awful his life is every day, he realises early the next day (his birthday) that his wish just may have come true. On the plus side, this does give Arteta the opportunity for manic foolishness, which if we’re honest, he doesn’t really ever take. Most of what classifies as a bad day here involves trying to stop Dick Van Dyke from saying the word ‘Dump’ over and over, various spillages and the accidental ruination of a small child’s‘ bee-themed dummy. Overall, this had great possibilities that simply never materialised, which is odd, given both Carell’s and Garner’s propensity for humour. At eighty-one short minutes, you are unlikely to be bored at any stage and the film does entertain. Will it make you laugh? Well, maybe not. With this being billed as a comedy, you might just take issue with it, for that reason alone.

White Bird In A Blizzard (Dir, Gregg Araki, 2014) 2.5/5*
This will have been out for six months in the US by the time it reaches cinemas here in the UK (first week of March). Given Shailene Woodley’s marketable appeal, at present, it does kind of beg the question as to why the long wait? As many audience members will be drawn to this for that reason as by the appearance of Eva Green (we would hope) as without her, this may have fallen a little flat. Dealing with the fallout of her mothers disappearance in the autumn of 1988, this starts out as promising to be somewhat intriguing (what happened? where did she go?) despite the over-riding sense of teenage angst and cliched design (Depeche Mode was so 1985, dahling). Rummaging around in the head, via therapy, of this abandoned girl affords us a rather lop-sided view of her parents relationship and whilst she may be on the money at times, it all smacks of being a little too, well, infantile. If you’re not sure whether Green is over-acting, then ask yourself if everyone else is doing the opposite and she is merely compensating or just appears outlandish by comparison. Either way, this makes the whole thing slightly disconcerting. She’s unhappy, bored and she’s getting older. We get it. We don’t need it spoon-feeding to us. Or do we? Just who is the target audience here? The performances are fine, but kudos or query to Green, you decide. The rather slow pace might infuriate but the short-ish running time makes this almost non-event bearable. The final act, when it finally comes, does a good job of providing closure, even if at least part of it feels contrived to the point of foolishness. Overall, a drama that will mostly entertain those that are likely to flock to it. The rest of us may expect a little more for our time spent, but can nod our heads sagely in the knowledge that we shouldn’t really have expected anything else. 

Song One (Dir, Kate Barker-Froyland, 2014) 2/5*
Poking it’s head up just a few days ago at Sundance, Song One stars Anne Hathaway on the down-low. Understated and with a trifling six million dollars that laughingly calls itself a budget, Barker-Froyland regales us here with her own tale of Franny (Hathaway) as the sister of busker brother Henry, who when hit by a car, ends up comatosed in hospital. Franny is off travelling the world in something that immediately appears to be Eat, Pray Love territory, before she is hauled back to the hospital by her mother, played here by Mary Steenbergen. Finding a ticket to her brother’s favourite musicians show, she decides to go and watch the source of her brother’s inspiration. Of course, they meet and start to spend time with one another, whilst Henry languishes, unconscious, in his hospital bed. You can’t help feel that Hathaway really admired the project as this can’t really have ever been about the money, nor the glory, as there is precious little promise of either here. The film requires due diligence and more than a handful of patience as it is sometimes frustratingly slow and so minimal as to be barely there at times. Subtlety is all well and good, but there is only so many times we can be expected to watch Hathaway, lost and forlorn, walking the streets of the city, yearning for meaning or answers as to why the accident happened and just how guilty she should be feeling having found what might be love at such an inappropriate time. Add the folk soundtrack, and it all starts to wear on the senses to the extent that you’re almost left wishing for a car chase or Liam Neeson to come hurtling around the corner being hunted by a group of angry eastern European gangsters. The script isn’t strong enough and the performances too wilting on the whole to keep the projects’ head above water, so inevitably it feels doom to drown under the weight of its own laboured contemplation. Even when, after way too long, the story even thinks about tackling some familial issues with any gusto, it still feels like a rehearsal read-through, rather than ‘balls-out, let’s have it out, once and for all‘, which is what it sorely needs alot more of. Pedestrian, unadventurous and tepid overall. This will struggle to find an audience that will really appreciate it, I feel.

Intermission – Cinema Sins!! – The Blair Witch Project 

The Little Death (Dir, Josh Lawson, 2014) 5/5*

Sometimes I can be grateful that in the course of my duties to you, gentle reader, I occasionally come across something that is not only a complete surprise, but also fantastic fun. Such is the case with Josh Lawson’s The Little Death, a multi-handed story about what may be deemed by some as sexual predilection. Understanding that there is comedy gold in this topic, Lawson has gone full tilt at the idea and provided his altogether adult audience with some classic comedy moments. A collection of at first seemingly unrelated relationships with their own particular sexual quirk are investigated here, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek, which are a happy source of sometimes guilty smirks for the audience and at other times, actual belly-laughs at the helpless human inadequacy of unrelenting perversion. Remember, sex is funny, and you will have a great time. This won’t be for everyone, but for those of more liberal, open-minded persuasion, this is a real treat with the darkly comic sketches of people in the throes of helpless sexual addiction seeming to show them at both their most open and honest, and their most vulnerable. This could have been very uncomfortable, but in Lawson’s grasp, and the fantastic cast he has assembled, it is nothing short of an undeniable success. All of the stories are valid and deserve a place here, but watch out for the telephone sex chat conversation and tell me you are anything less than impressed by the script, performances and direction. Truly unmissable and a very grateful find.

The Prince (Dir, Brian A Miller, 2014) 1/5*
From the sublime to the ridiculous. The second half-baked performance from Bruce Willis in as many weeks and the second from director Brian A Miller, who was the man responsible for last weeks’ Vice, also starring Willis. You can’t help but feel that something must be amiss here. You would expect that with the pedigrees of the likes of Willis and Cusack at least, something should have red-flagged their involvement after Willis’ experiences on their last venture together. Paycheck film-making? You betcha baby! This has been sitting looking at me on my desk for the past six months, and if I’m honest, I had been avoiding the opportunity that was being presented, knowing that it might annoy as much (or more than, even) as entertain. Sadly, I was right and might have been better off avoiding it altogether. To be brutally honest, this really is a shocking waste of time, money and talent. The direction is sloppy, with continuity that sometimes beggars belief. The script is at best shoddy and delivered by players that just do not seem to care about what they are doing. Of the recognisable talent, only Jason Patric really retains any credibility and even then, we are being unbelievably generous. The story of an ex-assassin trying to find his missing daughter is lazy and unimaginative and audience engagement with the characters is non-existent. Please don’t waste your time. Binbag please!

Kingsman: The Secret Service (Dir, Matthew Vaughn, 2014) 4.5/5*

At point of trailer, there have been only a few films that screamed ‘be there on opening night!’ at me in the past year or more. Kingsman was one of them. Just looking at the teaser trailer from row G seat 7 at my local Cineworld last summer meant I simply had to be in the audience as soon as it arrived. As such, I took myself to the local cineplex mentioned for a pre-release screening tonight. Told that ‘if I liked Kick-Ass, then I would love this’ didn’t fill me with much confidence as Kick-Ass was something of a disappointment for me personally, but with Vaughan calling the shots and Goldman writing the words, just how dreadful could it be? In your face and super-violent was certainly to be expected, but I wanted it to be classy, funny and cool too. And for the most part, I got pretty much everything I had hoped for. It may have been a little too long, Samuel Jackson’s lisp may have become a little grating after a while and the fight scenes reminded me a touch too much of John Wick (all snappy cuts, jarring angles, the occasional slow-mo, ultra cool and inventive gunplay) but nonetheless, this was undeniably, inarguably Fun (with a capital ‘F‘). Riffing off some great inspiration from before Broccoli had even heard of Brosnan, this has the kitchen sink thrown at it in the form of style, action, exuberance, bravado and, maybe to a lesser extent at times, sheer outright giggles. Firth, as a posh toff with a special set of skills all his own is perfect casting as a Kingsman, the ultra super-secret intelligence that nobody has even heard of, much less know of their exploits. Membership is classless but defined by gentlemanly conduct, honour and trust in your peers. You need a sharp suit (provided upon successful application) and all of the trappings you would expect to find when thwarting the megalomaniacal attempts of a man with three nipples, or a lisp (you know, poison shoes, exploding cigarette lighters, bulletproof umbrellas etc). In fact, the nods to the ‘good old days’ of spying makes quite the statement by both Goldman and Vaughn as they glory in both the violence and misogyny, albeit with the best of intentions and in all good fun. With a great central performance from Taron Egerton, plus brilliant support from the likes of Michael Caine, Mark Strong and even Mark Hamill, there is no weak link to speak of aside from the aforementioned length. However, I would highly recommended for the Kick-Ass fans, though this admittedly classier and the performances more measured and impressive. At times, especially towards the end (Land of Hope and Glory, just watch and you will know what I mean) I couldn’t have stopped beaming if I’d tried. Immense fun and highly worth a viewing by those old enough, wincing optional.

The Wedding Ringer (Dir, Jeremy Garelick, 2015) 2.5/5*
I think Kevin Hart is getting naturally funnier with age. He still makes some god-awful movies, but nonetheless, you often can’t help yourself from grinning inanely as he does his thing. Clearly the best thing about this effort, Hart plays Jimmy, a best man for hire. Remarking that the number of ‘real’ friends the average groom has these days is decreasing rapidly, he saw a gap in the market and went for it, masquerading as a best man for dozens for grooms without a best friend. Here, he is hired by Doug (Josh Gad), a man about to become betrothed to Gretchen (Cuoco-Sweeting) who he is the first to admit himself, is way out of his league. So, for fifty thousand dollars, the deal is struck, and Jimmy (or Bic, if you prefer) sets about the task of convincing everyone that Doug actually does have enough friends to invite to a wedding of his own. This passes the five-laugh point early on and is probably funny for alot of the wrong reasons. It‘s chauvinistic, misogynistic and could be accused of being racist by those with the peculiar need to be offended by the smallest thing. Thankfully, as I said, it is funny. Whether you think this makes up for the neanderthal script is up to you as an individual. The performances are not subtle and even caricatures of what they represent. Still, you do have to laugh, even when you maybe know you shouldn’t. It approaches more mature and sensible themes of friendship and loneliness on occasion, but this pause for thought doesn’t normally last too long and is usually quickly backed up by something suitably hedonistic. Entertaning throughout, but unless you‘re a die-hard Kevin Hart fan, this is something you’ll most likely forget the name of even before your next cinema visit. Golden Tux assemble!

Thanks for reading! See you all next week! I expect it will include Mortdecai and who knows what else?…

Ooops, nearly forgot! Song of the Week – From Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day – It’s The Vamps with Hurricane

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