Month: January 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

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31/1/15

Matthew Vaughan, creator of Kick Ass, has made no secret of the fact that he’s long held a desire to direct a Bond movie. With Kingsman: The Secret Service, he may just have gone one better, creating an irreverent spoof that’s surely strong enough to become a franchise of its very own. Actually, in tone, it’s probably closer to long running TV series, The Avengers, a surreal blend of action, espionage and dark humour, but whatever it’s inspiration this works brilliantly, setting off at a brisk canter and accelerating into a full gallop.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a teenager on a sink estate who’s life seems to be heading rapidly down the toilet. He’s surrounded by thugs (one of whom has got his grips on Eggy’s Mum (Samantha Janus) and his future looks decidedly bleak. But little does he suspect that he has an ally in Harry Hart (Colin Firth) a member of a secret organisation known as Kingsman. A pre credits sequence has revealed that Hart owes his life to the action of Eggsy’s late father, a member of the same organisation. Hart has vowed to take care of his son. So Eggsy finds himself invited to undergo the society’s ruthless initiation course, coached by Merlin (Mark Strong) a kind of Q figure, with access to all kinds of state-of-the-art weaponry. Along the way, the world faces destruction at the hands of Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) a communications billionaire with a fiendish plan to stamp out global warming and…

You know what? The ins and the outs of the plot hardly matter. Suffice it to say that Kingsman ventures into areas that the Bond franchise wouldn’t dare to tread. Based on a graphic novel by Dave Gibbons and scripted by Vaughan and Jane Goldman, the film is an inspired mix of action, comedy and cartoon violence that never falters and never loses it’s grasp on an audience’s attention. Firth convinces as an action hero with more than a passing nod to John Steed, a secret agent who is as concerned about the cut of his suit as he is about nailing the villains. Newcomer Egerton (looking eerily like a young Leonardo Di Caprio) clearly has a bright future ahead of him and should Vaughan decide to go this route a second time, I for one will be first in the queue to watch it. Superlative stuff.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Whiplash

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29/1/15

‘It’s all about this kid who plays drums in a jazz orchestra…’

Broken down to its basic plot elements, Whiplash sounds like something you’d actually pay money to avoid. But don’t be misled, because this is one of the year’s most gripping films, featuring a stellar central performance from JK Simmons that has made him hot favourite to lift this year’s Oscar for best supporting actor. As for the jazz element, well it probably helps if you like the music, but it’s by no means essential.

Andrew (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young drummer based at New York’s top music conservatory. Like all the other musicians there, he lives in the hope of being ‘spotted’ by their top tutor, Mr Fletcher (Simmons) and when he’s finally offered the chance to sit in with the big man’s own orchestra, Andrew senses an opportunity to make his mark on the world of music. His quest to be ‘the best’ is not so much an ambition as an all-encompassing obsession and he’s prepared to give it everything he’s got, even when it leaves him with bruised and bleeding hands and even when it means giving short shrift to his hapless girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). But he soon discovers that Fletcher is not the most nurturing of tutors – on the contrary, he’s a self aggrandising, bigoted, foul-mouthed sadist who will observe no boundaries when it comes to pushing his proteges to achieve their best. Andrew’s likeable father, Jim (Paul Reiser) can only watch helplessly as his son is put through the wringer.

There are two superb performances at the heart of this story. Teller plays the buttoned-up (and actually not allthat likeable) Andrew with great skill, and it’s to his credit that you care deeply about what happens to him; but make no mistake, Simmons owns this film from the moment he steps into shot. An actor formally known for playing a range of affable nice guys (think of his easy going Dad in Juno) he’s made a startling transformation. He is mesmerisingly repellent, a snarling, brutal martinet convinced of his own superiority. You’ll hate him, you’ll want to punch his image on the screen, but at the same time, you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.

In case you’re thinking this all sounds a bit gloomy, take heart: there’s a climactic set piece where Andrew gets to strut his stuff behind a drum kit that can only be described as thrilling. Whiplash is a little cracker of a movie and if Simmons does triumph at the Oscars, it will be thoroughly deserved.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Wolf Creek 2

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28/1/15

Released in 2005, Wolf Creek was a slightly above average slice-and-dice adventure, set in the Australian outback. In the decade that has elapsed since then, the public’s appetite for this kind of vehicle has declined somewhat, all of which makes the imaginatively titled Wolf Creek 2 one of the least anticipated sequels of all time. Once again, John Jarratt stars as Mick Taylor (no, not that Mick Taylor!) a sort of cross between Barry McKenzie and Ed Gein, a chap who remains resolutely likeable even as he’s slicing off your fingers. In the pre credit sequence, he pretty much sets out his stall by brutally murdering two cops who have had the temerity to serve him with a speeding ticket. Now that’s terse.

From there, the film pretty much divides itself into three sections.

Section one – two good looking German backpackers, Katerina and Rutger meet up with Mick in the middle of nowhere and suffer the brutal (and rather predictable) consequences. Katerina however manages to escape and is ‘rescued’ by English traveller Paul (Ryan Corr.)

Section two – Mick goes after Paul and Katerina and a lengthy car chase ensues amidst some (admittedly stunning) Australian landscapes. Unfortunately, director Gary McLean isn’t George Miller and this isn’t a patch on Mad Max, which pretty much set the bar for this kind of thing. Paul goes through hell and back but is finally captured.

Section three – the part that nearly redeems the entire movie. Paul and Mick play a particularly gruesome version of Trivial Pursuit. I say, ‘nearly’ redeems it, but unfortunately the sequence goes on far too long and just becomes flat out silly in the final twenty minutes. As a halfhearted gesture to the changing times, Mick chooses predominantly male victims this time around and it’s clear throughout that he isn’t a very nice fellow but that doesn’t make this any less nasty and salacious. An end credit suggestion, claiming that the storyline is based on actual events, should I think, be taken with a whole truckload of salt. Only one thing’s for certain. This isn’t going to do the Australian tourist board any favours whatsoever.

2.1 stars

Philip Caveney

Hercules

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25/1/15

This film came and went from the UK box office making barely a ripple. Worth catching up with on DVD? Absolutely. In fact, it’s a hoot, mainly because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and there’s some astute casting choices here. Dwayne Johnson plays the musclebound hero and we join him some time after he has undertaken his twelve epic tasks. We see them enacted in the opening scenes, employing decent CGI, but then, the camera pulls back and shows us something closer to the reality of the situation. Hercules is now a mercenary who works for the highest bidder and though possessed of exceptional strength, he doesn’t undertake his missions alone, but with a crack team of warriors. These include his best pal Autoclytus (Rufus Sewell) as adept with the sword as he is with a well-timed witty wisecrack and resident seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) who having foreseen his own imminent death, lends a certain gallows humour to the proceedings. We quickly learn that those Herculean ‘tasks’ have been somewhat exaggerated. The mythical beasts were just men in masks and this story concerns itself chiefly with the way myths are created, how fairly ordinary events are, over time, amped up into legend.

When the team is approached by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), the daughter of Lord Cotys (John Hurt), who is looking to hire some mercenaries, Hercules agrees to undertake the task in exchange for his own weight in gold. But as he and his friends set about training Lord Cotys’s army for battle it soon becomes clear that Cotys has been somewhat economical with the truth and maybe it’s time for Hercules and his crew to pick their sides more carefully.

Director Brett Ratner, hasn’t always delivered the best product in the past (Rush Hour, anybody? Red Dragon?) but this is good, undemanding fun, with some well paced battle sequences and a better script than this kind of story generally enjoys. Johnson is appealing in the title role, showing a certain vulnerability beneath the physique (even if his friendship with Ergenia’s squawking brat of a son is hard to fathom) and there’s a nice turn by the ever dependable Peter Mullan as the scowling Sitacles. Think The Magnificent Seven with breastplates and togas and you’ll know what to expect.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

Into The Woods

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12/1/15

As I have documented elsewhere on this site, musicals are not really my cup of char. But there are a few I love (Little Shop of Horrors, Matilda, Cabaret…) , and these make me retain the hope that occasionally, others may appeal. Unfortunately I will not be adding Into The Woods to the short list on the positive side of the slate. It’s not that this Stephen Sondheim mash-up of six of the world’s most popular fairytales was bad, exactly; bits of it were wonderful. But on the whole, it fails to ignite. And not just because of Johnny Depp’s godawful pedophile wolf.

But let’s start with the positive. Meryl Streep is fabulous. Of course she is; when is she not? She clearly relishes her role as The Witch and plays it with enough vim and gusto to make her scenes, at least, compelling. And James Corden’s good too. I know he’s not always popular with the critics, but I think he has real talent; in this, he manages to be both endearing and ridiculous, and his singing isn’t too bad either.

The overall look of the film is remarkable. The lush, forbidding beauty of the forest is a perfect representation of FairyTale land and Frances De La Tour’s vengeful giant is a visual delight. And yet… there’s too much here to lament, not least the sheer brutal length of the film, a punishing 125 minutes that felt at least forty minutes too long – there were audible sighs of dismay around us as the audience realised that the ‘happy ending’ was by no means the end of the film. Not by a long shot.

And it’s this, I think, that sums up my main problem with it. Sondheim’s aim is to subvert the traditional fairy tale, to show that ‘happily ever after’ doesn’t really exist, that charming princes cheat and stray, that people can be selfish and unkind. It aims to expose the the fairy tales’ dark heart – but in truth, it’s just not dark enough; this is a Disney adaptation, after all, so even in the midst of its subversion, the fridge magnet epithets abound`: you’re never truly alone, even good people make mistakes, blah blah blah. It doesn’t have the guts to really look at what the stories say; there’s not the faintest traces of Angela Carter here.

Oh yeah. And I didn’t like the songs.

2.6 stars

Susan Singfield

The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies

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15/1/15

I very nearly didn’t bother with this – which is sad, because I’m a major Peter Jackson fan. I’ve followed him from the early splatter films like Brain Dead and Bad Taste, through the triumph that was Beautiful Creatures and the LOTR films, which were my birthday treat for three consecutive years. I’m also one of the few people who loved his version of King Kong. Like many though, I couldn’t understand why a slim volume like The Hobbit has been amped up into a trilogy and I didn’t much care for part one, though I had to concede that part two was considerably better. And finally, here we are at the end of the whole cycle and the completist in me just had to have his day and catch this on the big screen.

And you know what? This is a beautifully and lovingly crafted thing, every frame a potential work of art. We pick up right where we left off with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) decimating Lake Town and the various factions with a claim to the gold of Lonely Mountain, preparing themselves for the mother of all battles and… and yet, you can’t quite escape  the feeling that you’ve been here five times before and no matter how wonderfully it’s rendered, no matter what amount of intricate detail goes into every aspect of the story, it’s feeling tired and it’s time for Jackson to move in a new direction.

LOTR and the Hobbit films have been a major undertaking into which the new Zealander has poured so much of himself, founding special effects company Weta along the way and bringing motion capture to the forefront of contemporary cinema. It seemed churlish to complain that he’s stuck in a groove.  What will he do next? I wish he’d give himself a small budget and go back to his roots, film a short and snappy horror flick, though I seriously doubt he will. When you’ve commanded major budgets and casts of thousands, it’s no doubt hard to go back to basics… and yet, there’s part of me that thinks it would reinvigorate him… think Sam Raimi and Drag Me To Hell. As for the Hobbit trilogy, well Jackson has tied everything up nicely and put it all to bed. He deserves a  major pat on the back for his fortitude.

Just keep him well away from the Silmarillion!

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Welcome To New York

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15/1/15

Abel Ferrara’s sleazy slice of life tale, based on the recent misadventures of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (but with the name changed to “Mr Devereaux” after Strauss-Kahn sued,) casts old firebrand Gerard Depardieu in the lead role and encourages him to let his hair (and his trousers) down, which he does in gung ho fashion (in short, we see a lot more of Mr Depardieu’s body in this than we might have wished to.)

From the opening scene onwards, we’re treated (if that’s the right word) to scenes of rampant sexual depravity, as Depardieu cavorts with a series of half naked ladies, enacting just about every sexual position in the Kama Sutra and a few more besides. One could argue that Ferrara is simply displaying how corrupt the main character is, but after about half an hour of uninterrupted romping, I was beginning to suspect that he was simply using it as an excuse to show us something that bordered on pornography. In contrast to all the carrying on, the subsequent sexual assault of a hotel chambermaid is over very quickly and the remainder of the film is taken up with ‘Deveraux’s’ arrest and his awkward reunion with his wife (Jacquline Bisset, looking somewhat embarrassed to be reduced to this) after she has posted a million dollars in bail money. Here, there appears to be an attempt at some (bad) improvised dialogue as the married couple rave and bluster endlessly at each other but it doesn’t really go anywhere. Ferrara’s ‘show everything’ technique tends to drag every scene out long past it’s ‘edit by’ date. He has occasionally managed to impress as a director in the past (most memorably with The Addiction) but this is tiresome stuff that simply fails to hold the attention. In the end, what is this film actually saying? That Strauss-Kahn was a dirty old man? Hardly a revelation. It needed more than that and Depardieu, despite giving this performance everything he’s got, doubtless deserved to be furnished with a proper script.

This may be mildly titillating to those who don’t get out much, but dramatically speaking, it’s decidedly malnourished and only the most stubborn viewers will stick it to the bitter end.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney