30 December 2012

Movie Review: Jack Reacher



Jack Reacher 
2012, 130mins, 12
Director: Chris McQuarrie
Writer: Chris McQuarrie, Lee Child (novel)
Cast includes: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Jai Courtney, Werner Herzog, Richard Jenkins
UK Release Date: 26th December 2012

In 2008 Christopher McQuarrie (in the capacity of writer) teamed-up with Tom Cruise on “Valkyrie”, a simmering tale of intrigue and suspense that wrought tension out of the well documented failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Clearly the two shared a connection, not only is McQuarrie widely speculated to be a candidate for the director’s chair on the next “Mission Impossible” venture, but Cruise’s latest potential franchise starter “Jack Reacher” also has him at the helm. Based on a longstanding series of books by author Lee Child, “Jack Reacher” does the iconic literary heavyweight good service, even if Cruise represents an unlikely casting choice. Working around a simplistic but satisfying narrative, Cruise is able to imbue the title character with thunderous personality, McQuarrie keepings things ticking over with sleeked action beats and cute twists. It’s a pity the villains appear so rote, but even when considering this “Jack Reacher” is a worthwhile time-filler.

“Jack Reacher” begins with a sniper methodically picking off five targets, tracing a sunny riverside with his scope, leaving his civilian victims for dead. Ex-military shooter Raymond Barr (Joseph Sikora) is fingered for the murders, and upon being detained requests only one thing, that the police bring in Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise). Reacher, a drifter with a penchant for upholding justice arrives, but with Barr sitting in an impromptu coma, he is forced to get the bulk of his help from the accused’s attorney, Helen (Rosamund Pike). Together they begin an investigation into the crime, and as Reacher comes into contact with more evidence and a bevy of seedy characters, he begins to suspect that Barr might be innocent after all.

Tom Cruise’s sturdy and imposing performance is the weightiest positive in the film’s cannon, the actor overcoming his minute stature to convince as a meticulous and lethal ghost, a phantom of justice from beyond the grid. Cruise gets his tongue around McQuarrie’s dialogue comfortably and holds his own with steely professionalism during the violent set-pieces, it’s probably the most dangerous the actor has appeared since 2004’s “Collateral”. There’s an indisputable edge to Reacher that Ethan Hunt just doesn’t harbour, the character becoming all the more fearsome and compelling for it. The supporting cast are left to fill out generic roles, but nobody does a particularly bad job. Pike gives a turn that renders her appreciatively independent of Reacher’s affections, whilst Jai Courtney and Werner Herzog struggle admirably as the underwritten bad guys. At the end of the day it’s only Cruise’s turn that holds any substantial stock in the movie’s overall quality, the actor once again besting his critics and hitting a refined homerun.

The mystery trundles along snappily, helped by Cruise’s forceful work. Reacher is never static and as a result his probing is always felt to be in motion. Cribbed from the novel “One Shot”, the storytelling isn’t very sophisticated or innovative, but it is reliably smooth, abetted marvellously by well-adjusted edits and enough red herrings to present a genuine ambience of mystery. The opening sequence is quietly impactful, McQuarrie depicting the killings with a chilling coldness, before unleashing several authentically engaging action moments. There’s an impressively vibrant car chase midway through the festivities, and Cruise regularly gets to showcase his brawn during coherently staged bouts of fisticuffs. “Reacher” has enough action and spectacle to nourish viewers looking for a blockbusting release, and the screenplay is the right side of mindless fun.

The villains and their motives are shadily sketched, despite a physically impressive Jai Courtney (convincing as a dangerous underling) and knowingly amusing Werner Herzog. McQuarrie runs out of juice in unveiling his antagonists’ grand scheme, which in turn drains some of the appeal from the set-piece stacked conclusion. Robert Duvall clatters into proceedings enjoyably at this late stage, but it’s not enough to shake “Jack Reacher” up beyond potboiler mechanics.

McQuarrie’s direction is coated in an attractive photographical sheen and the musical score by Joe Kraemer boasts sufficiently atmospheric chords to complement the movie’s shadowy goings on. “Jack Reacher” is plenty of fun, perhaps a tad formulaic in certain spots, but more than capable of relieving those looking to scratch a thrilling itch this holiday season.

 A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012

28 December 2012

This Week in Movies - 28/12/12

My top 10 is on its way, but for now, enjoy my capsule thoughts on a few newer and older cinematic wonders.

Argo (2012) - A-

Further confirmation that Ben Affleck is a major directorial talent. This compelling vision of the real, declassified retrieval of Iranian hostages in the 70s is a remarkably strong thriller, inhabited by a delightful cast and incredibly suspenseful final act. Affleck sets the scene believably and respectfully, applying a solid leading performance in the process. He's the least flashy of the cast, but deserves kudos for taking a quiet part and working impressively striking character tics into the mix. Exciting, educational and beautifully made, "Argo" is a deserved candidate for the impinging awards season.

Mimic (1997) - D

A case of an incredibly gifted film-maker producing a largely terrible film. Guillermo Del Toro cribs shamelessly from "Jurassic Park" and "Aliens" in this story of scientists combating mutant bugs, but the obvious parallels only do this tiresome genre entry a greater disservice. The performances are unmemorable and characterization non-existent, leaving viewers with only the formulaic narrative and dodgy digitals for any slivers of entertainment. Del Toro, usually an accomplished master of suspense, fails to concoct any real fear here, the attack sequences are repetitive and bloodless with predictable jump scares also eating up frustrating amounts of the film's baggy 113 minutes. A dull flick, although thankfully its director has moved onto genuinely great things, leaving this as an unfortunate blip on his now golden CV.

Shame (2011) - A-

Steve McQueen's understated and harrowing follow-up to "Hunger" is a masterclass in refined performance and courageous shot selection. A quiet slice of life picture, "Shame" focuses on Brandon, a successful man who harbours a debilitating addiction to sex. Michael Fassbender taps into a wide range of emotions as Brandon and Carrie Mulligan is equally compelling as his troubled sibling. Long, continuous takes and a beautifully melancholic score complement the film nicely, with the ending morphing into an artfully choreographed ballet of self-destruction. Not an uplifting picture, but one boasting more truth than most. Its depiction of addiction is comparable to Danny Boyle's "Trainspotting".

Ten Years (2012) - B+

Given the quality of the film and a cast comprised of recognizable A and B-listers, it's surprising that "10 Years" didn't receive a wider release earlier this year. A thoughtful and engaging look at a ten-year High School reunion, the picture admittedly surveys stereotypes, but does so in a very heartfelt and genuine fashion. The actors (including Channing Tatum, Rosario Dawson and Chris Pratt) are well cast, doing their various characters and the individuals who carry such broad traits justice. Organic, sincere and sweet, "10 Years" is a tender effort worth seeking out. Makes a nice companion piece to the cruder and bawdier "American Reunion", the pictures capturing opposite ends of the teen genre spectrum with enjoyable honesty.

For a Good Time, Call... (2012) - B

A really pleasant surprise, marking yet another small film from 2012 that deserved more exposure. Running at a swift 83 minutes and offering tremendous comic performances from Ari Graynor and Lauren Miller, "For a Good Time, Call..." is smutty and sweet in just the right dosages. The leads play a pair of cash-strapped girls who start a phone sex line for monetary relief, finding friendship and potential love along the way. The movie is honest, energetic and most crucially of all pretty funny. A very likable comedy, in an era where pictures like "Project X" render such a commodity rare.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 (2011) - D+

Diabolically paced picture that feels more like an episode of a modestly budgeted TV show than a feature film. The cast are as gormless as ever (there is no spark between Pattinson and Stewart), and whilst the saga continues to notably improve its production values with each entry, much of the action and digital effects remain uninspired and unintentionally goofy. A predictably soppy indie soundtrack and a ridiculously contrived plot reveal at the end cement this effort as a clunker. Better than "New Moon", but after the minor ground made by 2010's "Eclipse" this feels like a retreat in quality.

Reviews by Daniel Kelly, 2012

19 December 2012

Movie Review: Seven Psychopaths



Seven Psychopaths 
2012, 109mins, 15
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh 
Cast includes: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits 
UK Release Date: 5th December 2012

When a person makes as strikingly impressive a feature debut as Martin McDonagh did with 2008’s “In Bruges”, the prospect of a follow-up is always daunting. “In Bruges” was an absolute gem, a macabre picture laced with terrific writing, memorable characters and big ideas. “Seven Psychopaths” is a very different film, more interested in lampooning Hollywood storytelling mechanisms than delving into the minds of sobered assassins for black laughs. The ensuing effort is always clever and ripe with amusing dialogue, although at times its own intelligence proves an undoing, slowing the picture’s pace with unfavourable results. It’s still a barnstorming and oft entertaining venture, just not the masterpiece that its predecessor was.

An alcoholic writer with limited imagination, Marty (Colin Farrell) spends more time slumming with hyper pal Billy (Sam Rockwell) than he does tending to his own professional woes. Stuck trying to pen a screenplay called “Seven Psychopaths”, Marty finds himself caught up in Billy’s mess, when the latter and his associate Hans (Christopher Walken) are fingered for kidnapping the dog of ruthless mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson).  Forced to flee with the pooch in tow, Marty finds a surprising amount of inspiration in being hunted, especially given that his company, Hans and Billy, may themselves also be psychopaths.

The trailers that appeared several months ago for the film promised an R-rated goofball adventure, but in reality “Seven Psychopaths” is something else entirely.  A self-reflexive investigation of Hollywood plotting and the writing process, “Seven Psychopaths” functions more as a knowing parody of its genre than a genuine entry, even though there are times in which McDonagh succeeds at playing it both ways. Equipped with an acidic wit and strong visual presentation, the picture is effortlessly enjoyable, albeit some of its loftier aims on occasion become entangled within the over-reaching runtime. I had a grand time with “Seven Psychopaths” although I would attest it might appeal more to specific palettes, in contrast to the mighty appeal wielded by “In Bruges” An interest in the mechanics of film-making and creation are helpful when embracing this stylish oddity.

The cast is rich in recognisable names, and that transfers smoothly into the quality of acting. This time Colin Farrell is the straight man for McDonagh (he was the opposite in “In Bruges”) and quietly leaves a strong stamp on proceedings. It’s just the performance the Irishman needed to deliver after the summer’s lethargic “Total Recall” rehash, bouncing off the wackier characters effectively and grounding things during the rare, subdued moments. Rockwell and Walken are tremendous value as the canine thieves, Walken bringing his turn down to a Zen whisper, whilst Rockwell dials it all the way up to 11. It’s an appropriate contrast, both men applying a strong sense of comedic timing to their work. Harrelson is a little more ordinary as the gangster, although to label his work as anything less than hammy fun would be doing it an unfair disservice. Women intentionally get short shrift in “Seven Psychopaths”, bringing attention to one of McDonagh’s issues with contemporary writing. Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko appear briefly to underline the gag, but for deliberate reasons neither are given much to do.

“Seven Psychopaths” is loaded with cinematic staples; two shootouts (one fantasy, the other reality) are particular highlights. The movie is absurd, but not without some harshness, there are a few creepy retreats into Marty’s professional imagination and sparing hits of very bloody violence. The film tussles with cruel reality and the comic potential of delusion quite nicely; tonally the picture adopts a psychopathic personality of its own. McDonagh is also very aware of the narratives limits, taking his plotting down a predictable avenue. It’s the distinctive dialogue and self-referential intelligence that grants “Seven Psychopaths” a hardened identity of its own, not the central storytelling. A tighter edit would almost certainly have been beneficial, there are sequences where it appears the film-maker is perhaps juggling one ball too many with his meta musings, grinding the middle portion of the movie to a slower pace than it needs.

The movie climaxes with a strong call-back to an earlier scene (Tom Waits is unnervingly hilarious here), rounding out the idiosyncratic experience fittingly. “Seven Psychopaths” is not standard mainstream fare, but it is an extraordinarily distinct hit of weirdo firepower. I had a good time with this classily assembled film, and for those looking to engage their pop cultural consciousness whilst simultaneously soaking in berserk farce, I’m sure the post-viewing results will be similarly complimentary. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012

17 December 2012

Films That Deserved Better: The Box-Office and Critical Misfits of 2012


I’ve come to the conclusion that 2012 really was quite a good year for mainstream Hollywood cinema, with flicks like “The Grey”, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Dark Knight Rises” all picking up genuine traction with the public. It says something when one of the year’s biggest disappointments, Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus”, still manages to be a curio worth watching at least once. When the bad films are interesting, then you know things could be a hell of a lot worse.

Karl Urban impressed in box-office dud "Dredd"
However like with any year, there were films that failed to find critical love or got smothered at the box-office, movies that deserved kinder fates. The purpose of this article is to explore some of those efforts, especially as a few just missed out on a place in my forthcoming top ten.

The first picture I want to nominate was a box-office bomb, although something of a critical darling. I’m referring to the Peter Travis directed “Dredd”, a 21st Century reincarnation of comic-book staple “Judge Dredd”. Starring Karl Urban in the lead role, the picture was a lean and ferociously uncompromising actioner, with a superbly rendered dystopian setting. Screened in advance at Comic-Con, the film went over smoothly, leading to high expectations come its post-summer release. Those who saw “Dredd” recognised it immediately as a quality genre piece, but unfortunately that demographic was slight in number. The picture tanked disastrously stateside, even with the benefit of 3D ticket inflation, rubbing any hope of future instalments off the table. With its incredibly bleak look at the future and heavy violence it’s possible to see why this resolutely R-rated flick struggled to find an audience, a shame given its calibre as an exciting slab of Hollywood confection. Like all the films listed here, I hope it finds a home on DVD.

Seann William Scott took a beating with both "Goon" and "American Reunion"

Two comedies follow next, both immensely successful pictures in their own way. The first “Goon”, starring Seann William Scott and Live Schreiber was a fabulous surprise, a sprightly and quietly intelligent underdog tale grounded in the world of semi-pro Hockey. Stocked with big, dirty laughs and a turn of commendable vulnerability and charm from Scott, the picture was favoured by those exposed to it, sadly that number remained limited due to the lack of a wide release platform. The film earned less than $7 million worldwide and already appears to have been forgotten, despite the enthusiastic reaction it garnered from several reputable outlets. Scott also starred in the much more widely seen “American Reunion” which none the less disappointed Universal in the wake of the immensely popular previous entries. Taking just $56 million at the States, the film’s only saving grace was in its impressive $177 international gross. A sweet and appropriate (hopefully) climax to the series, “American Reunion” also suffered tepid reviews, most critics disregarding it as harmless but unnecessary. I was very fond of the feature, and now having seen it again, can attest to finding it a funny and occasionally ambitious last chapter in a saga that had grown stale. It wasn't sophisticated, but it had heart and enough giggles to fill its runtime, enough in the current landscape to warrant a recommendation. It’s hardly a flop due to its substantial foreign grosses, but I can’t help but feel it should have made more of an impression in the domestic market.

I'll bet they're not joking about "That's My Boy"s unfairly poor box-office performance. 

Another comedy figure who had a mixed 2012 was Adam Sandler (I seem to be writing about him a lot these days). His animated foray “Hotel Transylvania” was a box-office smash, but June’s “That’s My Boy” went out with whimper and was unfairly maligned by critics. I appreciate “That’s My Boy” may be too bizarre and tawdry for some, but it represented a real return to zany form for the Sandler brand, which had previously hit a coma-inducing rock-bottom with 2011’s “Jack & Jill”. “That’s My Boy” was a filthy, immature joy, stocked with top talent and a wealth of tastleless laughs. It also showcased Sandler visibly applying some effort to his clowning, the R-rating just the encouragement he needed. The movie’s financial rejection is sad, as it provides Sandler with just the excuse he needs to return to his safe and lazy PG-13 wheelhouse.  Many might regret skipping this one when we become faced with “Jack & Jill 2”. I do however respect the fact that some people just can’t be bothered with Sandler anymore, but take it from me, this one really works.

Despite the undesirable response, "Man on a Ledge" had its charms 

Turning my head back to the action genre, I’d like to spare a kind word for the overlooked “Man on a Ledge”. Granted the film loses its way a bit in the final act, but for at least two thirds of its runtime this thriller is reasonably effective. Sam Worthington gave a credible central performance (ignore the Worthington hate pouring in from critics) and the combination of bank robbery action beats and slow mounting psychological warfare made for a fun sit. The film did unremarkable business and was sneered at by the majority of reviewers. I can’t really fathom why. The superior romantic dramedy “The Five-Year Engagement” was another flick that deserved both a kinder reception from viewers and journalists, the Jason Segel penned venture was stocked with a likeable couple, emotional zeal and strong comedic writing. Its failure was possibly down to a weak trailer and substantial runtime, but that doesn't really explain the mixed critical response. If you get a chance, it’s a worthwhile watch, especially if you feel starved of believable romance in contemporary multiplexes.

Segel and Blunt were a sweet couple in 2012

So there you have it, a bunch of movies that to some degree misfired undeservedly. I fully endorse checking all these titles out, and would love to hear your opinions in the comments section. 

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2012

16 December 2012

Movie Review: The Impossible



The Impossible 
2012, 114mins, 12
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona 
Writer: Sergio G. Sanchez
Cast includes: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Marta Etura 
UK Release Date: 1st January 2013

Back in 2008 Juan Antonio Bayona made a fantastic feature debut with “The Orphanage”, a creepy Spanish language flick that combined chills and heartfelt emotion deftly. His sophomore effort “The Impossible” has been a long time coming, the director selecting a tough subject matter for his sophomore gig behind the camera. Retelling the true story of a family caught in the middle of the 2004 Thai tsunami, “The Impossible” risks multiple trappings that often snare worthy Oscar contenders, but its director’s skillset ensures the film largely bypasses the potential weaknesses. It’s a brilliantly acted and consistently intense affair, at least for the largely faultless first half. The film does become patchier as it trundles toward its denouement, but ultimately there’s enough richness in the characterization and devastation for the picture to hit a pleasingly honest mark.

Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) are taking their family to Thailand for the Christmas period, hoping to enjoy a festive season complete with unflinching sunshine and exotic beaches. Arriving on Christmas Eve, the family rejoice through the 25th, savouring their time together in the island paradise. However, on Boxing Day a massive Tsunami crashes into their resort, leaving them separated and facing one of the nastiest natural disasters of modern times. Teenager Lucas (Tom Holland) and a wounded Maria are able to band together, whilst Henry is left guarding the younger boys. It quickly becomes a battle against the elements, as the family are faced with insurmountable odds in their attempts to gain medical attention and more importantly to be safely reunited.

Essentially “The Impossible” plays as a triumph of human spirit, the fact it is obviously based on a “true story” helping to highlight large chunks of the film’s outcome. The screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez invests most of its time illustrating character development and inspecting inter-family dynamics, a wise move given that vast sympathy for the protagonists is integral to the movie’s success. The three major figures (Maria, Lucas and Henry) are all well formed on the page, and consequently brought fantastically to life by the respective acting talent. McGregor and Watts (who should at least score some nominations for her frazzled work) are dependably strong, but the real showstopper is young Tom Holland as their surly son Lucas. Holland manages to imbue the superficially brave teen with genuine angst and personality, turning potentially rusty mother/son moments of intimacy into legitimately affecting sequences. His fear is palpable and it translates nicely over to the viewership.

Bayona proves more than capable at whipping up frenzy and panic on the big screen. The scene in which the tsunami impacts is far removed from the quiet dread of “The Orphanage”, but the film-maker doesn’t stammer, using ferocious sound design and kinetic shot construction to purposefully showcase the trauma wrought by the catastrophe. The film’s first half plays like a rough and ready survivalist picture, pitting the characters against harshly depicted conditions and an impending sense of tragedy, cooking up gripping tension in the process. Bayona excels here, which may explain why the broad emotional beats of later on feel less successful. Thanks to the performances there’s an authenticity to the familial undercurrents and worries that populate the feature, but some facets (a small supporting character reappearing, a grief-stricken father teaming up with McGregor) ring hollow.

Visually the picture is lush but the musical soundtrack supplied by Fernando Velazquez disappoints. It’s a blandly pieced together score that includes too many predictable swooning and sappy melodies; motifs that become overwhelming during the picture’s subtler scenes of strife and concern. It’s the only part of this movie that feels deliberately Oscar-baiting, cheapening the product notably as a consequence. The editing whilst seamless from an aesthetic standpoint could’ve been sharpened from a storytelling perspective, the final 30 minutes lagging frustratingly. “The Impossible” does climax with a satisfying and uplifting conclusion, but the journey to get there might’ve been shorter had more precision been applied to the flabby final act.

“The Impossible” is a less distinctive effort than “The Orphanage”, albeit not a bad first stab at Hollywood from the foreign language darling. There are problems, but on the whole Bayona has acquitted himself acceptably here, paying honourable homage to the tragedy and confirming his identity as a talented visual wordsmith. On a final note, the picture has accrued a 12a rating in the UK (PG-13 stateside), something of a mystery given the aggressive acts of violence seen throughout. Be careful about bringing very young children to this one, because the film-makers have certifiably concocted a disturbing incarnation of the events. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012

14 December 2012

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey



The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
2012, 169mins, 12
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer (s): Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, Guillermo Del Toro 
Cast includes: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Christopher Lee
UK Release Date: 13th December 2012

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” lands in theatres after an extensive promotional campaign, combating insatiable fanboy thirst and carrying the weight of the beloved “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy on its shoulders. No pressure then. The movie reunites filmmaker Peter Jackson (last seen helming unfairly neglected passion projects “King Kong” and “The Lovely Bones”) with Middle-Earth, a fantastical world he turned into Box-Office pay dirt and Oscar glory less than 10-years ago. I have an extreme fondness for his initial Tolkien inspired efforts, few films have left  me as visibly awed exiting a screening as 2001’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”, and the subsequent efforts whilst marginally less enchanting, were still grand and glorious works of cinematic craft. This time the source is Tolkien’s prelude to his “Rings” trilogy, a much smaller novel published with the aim of entertaining children. It’s a fun read, but concern must be raised that such a slight work has prompted Jackson to undergo another trilogy, financial gain seemingly the only genuine reason to undergo such a bizarre artistic choice. Not only that, but this first installment “An Unexpected Journey” clocks in at a hefty 169 minutes, only slightly shorter than the theatrical cuts of the much fuller “Rings” narratives. The first half of “An Unexpected Journey” is pretty crushing to behold, a poorly paced and repetitively assembled example of franchise film-making, that recycles ideas and aggressively trips over its own technologically ambitious feet. However the second portion of the feature is actually rather wonderful, delivering exquisite action set-pieces, finding a nice storytelling rhythm and embracing the fizzy performances supplied by numerous talented thespians. As a result I’m torn about whether to outright recommend the movie, the quality of the following entries surely a key facet in assessing this one. If they manage to replicate the bombast and efficiency of this picture’s latter stages, the shoddy opening will be a low price to pay. However, if they succumb to the editorial and character identification issues that are evident here, Jackson and willing viewers may be about to embark on a rough road.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is an unassuming and contented Hobbit of the Shire, until Gandalf (Ina McKellen) the wizard encourages him to partake in an adventure. Banding the hobbit up with a bunch of unruly dwarves led by the brooding Thorin (Richard Armitage), Bilbo is informed the company are aiming to recapture the lost Dwarf kingdom of Erebor, from a ruthless and feral dragon known as Smaug. Initially reluctant, Bilbo eventually accepts the nature of the quest and decides to lend his hand. The journey opens his eyes to the wider world, but there are also dangers, such as a vengeful Orc warlord (Manu Bennett) and a shadowy necromancer who has arisen in an obscure corner of Middle-Earth.

“An Unexpected Journey” isn’t as adult as “The Lord of the Rings” features, everything from the diluted violence to the more cartoonish supporting figures suggesting that Jackson has honoured the tonal differences in Tolkien’s works. There are moments during the sword brandishing action in which this choice feels questionable (although an Orc is once again visibly decapitated on screen), but on the whole the decision to opt for a less apocalyptic tone suits the lighter and considerably breezier nature of the tale. Not that such a thing would be evident from the film’s inexcusably bloated runtime. “An Unexpected Journey” could stand to lose a vast chunk of screen-time, especially around the blubbery beginning. Jackson pads the feature’s opening with too much exposition and a lot of failed characterization, his attempts at distinguishing the fringe players in Thorin’s pack of Dwarves ineffective and wasteful. We don’t really get to know or care for any of the characters beyond Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin, despite Jackson’s bloated attempts to achieve otherwise. This issue takes sting out of a few perilous moments (I’m not 100% sure which dwarf Fili even is, much less do I register if he’s in trouble) and could be an infection that ports itself over to future sequels nastily. Jackson would do well to identify some of his supporting cast a little more definitively, much like he did with the sprightly band of warriors that headlined his initial fantasy forays.

Martin Freeman makes for a likable Bilbo, an encouraging sign given his star-billing here. The actor assumes a frumpy but warm exterior, playing the fish out of water angle for both laughs and the odd tear. His rapport with McKellen (stepping comfortably back into the sagely role) is incidentally excellent, cultivating a resonant albeit unlikely friendship that paves quieter moments with subtle touches of emotional depth. Richard Armitage is appropriately commanding and stubborn as Thorin, holding the screen handily against a bunch of clown-like dwarf stereotypes. Certainly little fault can be found with the focal performances, and indeed at the end, where issues of loyalty and home enter the fracas, the calibre of acting is key in helping the film-makers to sell the thematic authenticity of such notions.

The action in the second half is phenomenally engaging, Jackson reassuring audiences he’s lost none of his magic touch when it comes to chase sequences, epic CGI battles and threatening minions. The finale is particular cause for cheer, a delightful mix of tense face-offs and friendship forging bravery. Still despite this, some of the film’s more blockbuster-esque pretensions are scuppered by the distracting and occasionally visually detrimental choice to present the movie in HFR 3D. Speeding up the frame rate wanes some of the majesty offered by sets and digital effects and only jars when compared to the richer, more traditional aesthetic style of the original movies. I’m sure in 2D (which I’d squarely recommend you check out over this HFR version) “An Unexpected Journey” looks stunning and beautifully photographed, but Jackson’s supposedly preferred method of us consuming his work suffers thanks to his new toys. The whole situation recalls an almost George Lucas style of behaviour, and I mean that in no way as a compliment.

I departed “An Unexpected Journey” on a high, but time has mellowed the joyous effect of the movie’s concluding sections. There’s no denying that the first 70 minutes or so are ponderous and dubiously executed, by contrast allowing the crisper and more involving later acts to look sharp by comparison. Fans of Tolkien will enjoy plotting call-backs (Gollum reappears and is every bit the scene-stealer he was in 2002) and musical motifs are repeated, although at time these cute nods can feel a little like coasting. The picture climaxes by exclaiming “the worst is behind us”. I hope this was an intentional reference to this erratic picture’s numbing beginning, and a promise Peter Jackson intends on keeping.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012

11 December 2012

The Worst Films of 2012

Note: As many of you will be aware I didn't see nearly as many films in 2012 as I have in past years. As a result my best and worst of 2012 lists will be based on a smaller selection of titles, and are somewhat less definitive than previous examples. However I have decided to persevere for your benefit, and conduct the countdowns anyway. Here I present my five least favourite films of 2012, and in a week or so my best should follow. Again I should stress this list is based on a much tighter selection of titles than is desirable, but that doesn't make the following batch of turkeys any better.

Dishonourable Mention: The Watch – “The Watch” doesn't quite make the list because the final 20 minutes of the film are rather a lot of fun. However the preceding 80 are just as bad as anything I’ve seen this year, rolling around in a fit of witless and strenuously unfunny tedium. The cast are all on autopilot and director Akiva Schaffer looks uncomfortable calling the shots on such a high profile studio picture. The closing portion of the picture combines action with raunchy hi-jinks really effectively, which makes the rest of the movie all the more confusing. Why is it so slow and why are the jokes so broad and mistimed? Apparently an older PG version of the screenplay was rewritten for added R-rated appeal by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Maybe this explains the tonal inconsistencies and blurred execution, but it certainly doesn't excuse it. 

5. Wrath of the Titans - I was kinder to 2010’s “Clash of the Titans” than most (in the sense I tolerated the picture and wasn’t offended by it), but this unnecessary sequel proved a test of patience too far. Sam Worthington returns as Perseus, and thanks to an unimaginative and softly plotted story, basically has to start battling monsters again. The CGI is decent, but the set-pieces are crushingly dull, director Jonathan Liebesman once again exercising his infuriating right to shoot everything like a videogame cut scene. Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are hammy relief as Zeus and Hades respectively, but even they are reduced to miniatures during Liebesman’s tired and special effects obsessed denouement. Vacuous, soulless and concurrently joyless, “Wrath of the Titans” beats out even the shonky “Total Recall” remake as 2012’s premier blockbusting stinker. 

4. War Horse - Now here’s a heartbreaker. Upon its release in January I was really looking forward to “War Horse”. Awards bodies seemed to be acknowledging it as a contender, audiences were embracing it warmly and of course being a Spielberg devotee, I’m always keen to see what he has to offer. On this occasion that amounts to an overlong, saccharine and cripplingly humdrum adaptation of a hopefully superior book. A cast of legendary actors are wasted through one dimensional characterization, and let’s face it,, horses aren’t exactly the most expressive animals upon which to hang a drama. Some trench warfare footage impresses, but even it falls prey to the picture’s pacing issues and lack of editorial control. Extraordinarily long, “War Horse” is an uninvolving test of concentration and will power.

3. Wanderlust -  Another almighty disappointment. Marking David Wain’s first gig behind the camera since 2008’s “Role Models”, “Wanderlust” reunited him with Paul Rudd and brought Jennifer Aniston (fresh off her amusing turn in “Horrible Bosses”) into the mix, for some fish out of water shenanigans. The trailer was quite funny, prompting modest hope, but unfortunately such optimism was poorly founded. Repetitive, overly devoted to unfunny improv habits and with a nasty penchant for dragging jokes our far beyond their natural life, “Wanderlust” proved mirthless and messy. The film’s narrative arc also jostles unfavourably with cruddy subplots, lengthening the amount of time this farce struggles to generate laughs. Flat as a pancake, but in fairness it proved something of a box-office bomb. That probably explains why you can’t remember it being released. 

2. Rock of Ages - Following his vibrant work on 2007’s “Hairspray” I had no reason to suspect Adam Shankman’s cinematic version of “Rock of Ages” would be so unpleasant to digest. An all-star cast come together to annoy and underwhelm you in equal measure, replete with a nauseating tale of young love and a garish Glam Rock soundtrack. The musical numbers are executed with minimal imagination and the story unfolds in bizarre and unfathomably lame directions. There’s a gay love surprise! Jaded rock icon redemption! Boyband lampooning goofiness! Sleazy agents! An Eli Roth Cameo! The last statement should in itself be proof enough of how limp this musical is. It’s ghastly, and at nearly two hours a huge waste of time. 

1. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance - Over-directed baloney with Nicolas Cage in ridiculous form on his second attempt at this character. Neveldine and Taylor provide numerous incomprehensible action scenes that make no sense, forge a clich├ęd story that lacks any semblance of focus and assemble a supporting cast so amateurish it feels like watching a group of elderly people surrounding a hammy goon on smack in a piece of local community theatre. Disorganised, incredibly moronic and filled to the tip with bland portions of exposition, this laughable attempt at a comic-book movie only looks weaker in the wake of “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises”. Quite possibly the worst Nic Cage film of recent years. Certifiably the worst film of 2012.

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2012

7 December 2012

This Week in Movies - 07/12/12

Another week another batch of movies to comment on, including a few belated words on the latest Bond entry "Skyfall".

Skyfall (2012) - B+

After the disappointment of "Quantum of Solace" Bond gets the reinvigorating jab he needed with "Skyfall", a lean and gorgeously photographed continuation of the franchise. Daniel Craig once again impresses in his third outing as the legendary spy, but around him auteur Sam Mendes stages an excellent action flick. The set-pieces are coherent and thrilling whilst Javier Bardem injects radical amounts of uneasy menace into his distinctive turn as the villain. The story isn't breathtaking, but it works competently enough, allowing the filmmakers to focus on fascinating character arcs, kinetic action beats and spicy little touches to help freshen up smaller supporting elements of the formula. Likely to leave you shaken and stirred.

Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999) - D+

Given that this forgotten teen thriller gestated within the mind of "Scream" scribe Kevin Williamson, it's weird to observe that the biggest flaw is sloppy writing. Helen Mirren is fantastic as the title character, a ruthless teacher intent on sabotaging a promising student's future, but the young cast (including Katie Holmes) are disappointingly wet. The picture opens with an enjoyably snarky classroom exchange and home invasion set-up, but things ultimately devolve into bloodless nonsense with lashings of weak comedy. The finale is ridiculous in a contrived rather than fun sense, with the poorly formed characters robbing Williamson's film of any logical motivation.

Dredd (2012) - A-

Lean, gnarly and exhilarating, "Dredd" is the adaptation this comic-book antihero has been waiting for. Director Pete Travis winds a tight action narrative around a well realized and blood drenched dystopia. The narrative sees Judge Dredd (played with grumpy stamina by Karl Urban) and a rookie recruit take on a gang leader, forced to do battle with her scurvy minions in a locked down apartment complex. The picture earns its 18 rating effortlessly, although it's not just all shock tactics, there are legitimately rewarding moments of nasty carnage on show too. Tight and efficient with a surprisingly distinct visual palette, "Dredd" is a skilfully assembled joy.

The Campaign (2012) - C

A great cast and a premise flush with possibilities are somewhat wasted in this inoffensive but wholly unmemorable farce. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis play electoral competitors here, vying to represent a small community in Washington. There are a few amusing sequences and a selection of committed comic performances, but the belly laugh quota is soft and the satirical edge decidedly blunt. Not awful, but unlikely to be remembered beyond this year.

Pet Sematary - (1989) - B-

Creepily assembled but diabolically acted, this Stephen King adaptation still manages to rank comfortably above average. Director Mary Lambert has an eye for unsettling imagery whilst King's script juggles threat, grief and even a little black comedy interestingly. The acting is dire (with the exception of Fred Gwynne) and the musical motifs dated, but there are still some rewarding thrills to be derived from this menacing frightener.

Daniel Kelly, 2012

28 November 2012

Movie Review: End of Watch



End of Watch
2012, 109mins, 15
Director: David Ayer
Writer: David Ayer
Cast includes: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, Frank Grillo, David Harbour, America Ferrera 
UK Release Date: 23rd November 2012

Found footage, shaking cameras and first person gun barrel perspective have all become tired gimmicks, technical quirks and stylistic tropes usually deployed to mask incompetent filmmaking or lack of creativity. It’s a surprise then to find that whilst “End of Watch” features all of these dubious touches, the film is a massively accomplished and appreciatively character driven effort. Director David Ayer (last seen helming 2008’s swiftly forgotten “Street Kings”) actually makes strong use of the rugged POV aesthetics, casting them to ratchet up the product’s intensity rather than hide a lack of engaging human presence. This believable and charged account of life as a law-enforcer is a far cry from another tired “Paranormal Activity” sequel.

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are two gusty and respected members of the LAPD; partners and brothers in arms. They have been at each other’s sides for a considerable swathe of time, the bond having formed into a cocksure but intimate dynamic, both professionally and personally. As Brian collects footage for a school project, he and his partner inadvertently anger leaders of a local cartel, drawing their wrath due to a major cash and firearms bust. With both men enjoying rewarding family lives, the trouble arises at an objectionable time, but in order to survive they will have to come together and prepare for street warfare.

The plot takes time to work itself into a lather, but that transpires to be of little concern. The episodic first act in “End of Watch” actually fuels prime character development and allows for a flavour of L.A’s streets to surface, Ayer capturing the dry, sun-baked underbelly of the city rather marvellously. The clammy setting is fantastically realized, pumping the already intense product with a further dose of connective tissue. Audiences should have no trouble placing themselves within Ayer’s vision, the organic scenery and clever handheld camera work encouraging a real feeling of voluntary participation.

“End of Watch” is violent and often grim, the picture making no apologies for its frank and unfiltered examination of criminal behaviour in L.A. Women are beaten. Children are placed in jeopardy. Officers are stabbed in the eye-socket. Ayer has an unflinching touch and uses it to increase his film’s grasp on reality, never exploiting the horror, but rather implementing it to further flesh out his protagonists. Sharp screenwriting also helps things plenty, “End of Watch” not completely forfeiting a sense of humour. Yes the investigative moments are often nasty and the dialogue expletive ridden, but Ayer’s picture does manage to provide a healthy stock of banter and boyish clowning. These softer moments coupled with a few instances of sentimental familial bliss help raise the stakes come the bullet filled finale, certainly by the climax there’s enough of a human spirit on show to incur sympathy from attentive viewers.

Gyllenhaal and Pena are both great, the former particularly impressive as the mellower and slightly adrift Brian. Both men look to have beefed up in order to fully partake in the physical side of things, handling the action beats with aplomb, but it’s the ticklish chemistry and steel-faced bravery that mars their turns as more than stock genre acting. They’re an enjoyable duo to be in the company of, which given the film’s near two hour runtime is a lucky break.

“End of Watch” is an exciting, vibrant and affecting crime thriller, more sophisticated and grounded than the usual thin blue line fodder. The acting is capable across the board (Anna Kendrick and David Harbour leave their respective marks in small supporting roles), which coupled with the picture’s commitment to “keeping it real” adds wonderfully to the authenticity Ayer is gunning for. As hardboiled mainstream confection goes, “End of Watch” feels like a keeper. Call it Procedural Activity. Actually don’t. That’s an atrocious pun.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012