24 September 2013

Movie Review: Runner Runner



Runner Runner
2013, 91mins, 15
Director: Brad Furman
Writer (s): David Levien, Brian Koppelman
Cast includes: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie, Oliver Cooper, 
UK Release Date: 27th September 2013

On the surface it’s perfectly reasonable to harbour modest expectations concerning “Runner Runner”. Twentieth Century Fox have been doing a solid job promoting it for some months; it stars several Hollywood A-listers and comes from the director of 2011’s capable “The Lincoln Lawyer”. However anybody with more than a few years of Multiplex habit under their belts will know one should always be wary of a “big” film getting an early autumnal release. The popcorn season has all but faded with the passing of August, yet the higher calibre awards fare and Holiday blockbusters still haven’t come into passing, frequently leaving the September/October window as a less flattering portion of the cinematic calendar. “Runner Runner” is pretty typical then, a vapid thriller with severe scripting issues and a crippling lack of humanity. It begins with purpose and efficiency, but Brad Furman’s movie encounters all sorts of issues on route to its conclusion. Namely that it doesn’t really have a conclusion.

Unable to pay his tuition, Princeton student Richie (Justin Timberlake) risks his entire savings on gambling website Midnight Black, only to have both his funds and hope zapped. On closer inspection Richie begins to suspect he’s been swindled, hopping on a plane to Costa Rica to confront the company’s wealthy owner Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). Block responds to Richie’s tenacity, refunding the kid his money and offering him a major job opportunity in paradise. Richie enjoys his newfound responsibilities and monetary comfort, forming a relationship with Block’s personal assistant Rebecca (Gemma Arterton) along the way. However as time passes, Richie’s role within the company becomes increasingly dangerous and suspect, with added pressure provided by a manic FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) desperate to have Richie help nail Block for international fraud and theft. When Richie confronts Block the internet mogul becomes increasingly hostile, leaving the student’s well-being tottering on a precarious line.

Furman shoots “Runner Runner” with a slick MTV coat, never looking more directorially at home than during the various party scenes spaced throughout the feature. The picture has an almost fetishistic obsession with gloss; ogling its attractive cast and letting ear-shredding techno music dominate the soundscape. This expensive yet hollow aesthetic might have been excusable had it come complete with an innovative point or compelling story, but alas “Runner Runner” provides none these things, instead revelling in lusty, hedonistic nothingness. It’s professionally assembled in the fashion of a music video; gregarious energy and the celebration of appearance are treated like artistic necessities, whilst storytelling and film-making proficiency take a firm and neglectful backseat.

The screenplay is hopeless; maybe one of 2013’s least convincing. It begins clinically and gets the ball rolling with terrific purpose (we’re in Cost Rica very promptly) but it fumbles brutally from there onwards. Characters aren’t fleshed out, dicey gambling metaphors are erratically tossed around and the story itself is a hodgepodge of about twenty better mentor vs. protégé tales, with all the expected turns of personality and revelations you’d expect. Of course Affleck’s character isn’t a nice guy and you can bet Timberlake goes from enamoured to disillusioned in the space of about ten minutes; with Arterton’s love interest left conflicted by the two men at her side. “Runner Runner” is incredibly familiar and generic, but what’s more it’s sloppily assembled. There are an abundance of faceless characters and worthless subplots (several of which don’t properly pay-off) and the final twenty minutes are devastatingly muddled. Lots of things appear to happen, but very little of it is executed with coherency or tension; leaving me to suspect some hefty, potentially studio enforced cutting went underway in Post. The third act doesn’t feel like a legitimate ending, it’s just a flabby extension of the middle portion with an unearned finish that wraps everything up courtesy of slack writing. There’s a lack of structural imprint here, one that leaves “Runner Runner” imbalanced and its audience confused and unfulfilled.

Despite its immature sheen, I did welcome the movie’s edgier sensibility; it certainly earns its R-rating thanks to several bursts of searing nastiness. One sequence involving the threat of hungry reptiles is arrestingly executed, thanks in large part to Affleck’s intimidating turn. The future Batman is on good form here and controls his predictable character arc well, exploding with believable force when the screenplay demands it, but generally underplaying things with a cool demeanour and treacherous eyes. There are moments of friction in “Runner Runner” that provide some trashy mirth and a lot of it has to do with what Affleck brings to the table. Anthony Mackie is equally vibrant and bombastic, but the rest of the thespian troops are comatose. Timberlake coasts unexceptionally in the lead, forming no chemistry with a sexy yet sedate Arterton as the pair struggle against Block’s immoral business plan. Ultimately “Runner Runner” requires us to sympathise with lifeless characters and their own personal woes (Richie’s father is clumsily ingratiated into proceedings), which is probably why the final bursts of competent but unimaginative action fail to raise the pulse.

“The Lincoln Lawyer” was by no means a sophisticated or important work, but it had a sweaty atmosphere, a strong leading man and a narrative that evolved with suspense and delicacy. “Runner Runner” lacks all of these things, dooming itself as a result. Furman’s sophomore picture has roughly about the same ambition as his theatrical debut, but this time the film-maker acquits himself inadequately, struggling to make either his hollow shell or the ramshackle story he’s been paid to develop pop with any real integrity or interest. It’s an unfortunate failure, one unlikely to capture the attention of even gambling addicts. But hey, that’s late September releasing for you. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

19 September 2013

The Call (2013)



The Call
2013, 94mins, 15
Director: Brad Anderson
Writer: Richard D'Ovidio 
Cast includes: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Michael Eklund, Morris Chestnut, David Otunga 
UK Release Date: 20th September 2013

There are 20 minutes of prime suspense in Brad Anderson’s “The Call”, a thriller that acts as a love letter to the Emergency Services; rather bizarrely backed by WWE Studios. The aforementioned segment occurs just after Abigail Breslin’s young kidnap victim is forcibly hauled into the truck of a psychopath’s car, unbeknownst to him in possession of a spare cell phone. She proceeds to dial 911, finding Halle Berry’s traumatised operator eager to help, the two frantically attempting to locate the hostage using a series of intrepid tricks. This segment is primed with believable panic and solid acting from the ladies in question, edited together energetically by Anderson and his crew, to form a tight and engaging example of lo-fi excitable film-making. Unfortunately this is all “The Call” has going for it, the rest of the picture taking a more offensively slack-jawed approach, culminating in a finish equal parts dumb, laughable and clichéd.  

Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) is a 911 operator recovering from a recent ordeal, one in which her lack of focus contributed to the demise of a young woman.  Struggling to recuperate, Jordan is thrown back in the deep-end when she receives a frenzied call from Casey (Abigail Breslin), a distressed teen claiming to have just been abducted. Locked in the boot of an unknown vehicle, Casey pleads for help, despite the fact her phone is untraceable and her location impossible to pinpoint. Utilizing every method in the book and forming a bond with the frightened victim, Jordan steels herself for the ultimate challenge; trying to tilt the insurmountable odds in Casey’s favour.

“The Call” is stupid, silly and generally unpleasant, but it manages to boast a few attractive assets. The 911 “Hive” where Jordan works is detailed with believable levels of caffeinated urgency, depicting a workplace with stresses like few others. It’s all ringing handsets, exhausted supervisors and heroic courage; allowing the movie to capture the sound and important work performed by this vital outlet. Basically, “The Call” makes a pretty compelling argument for why you should pay taxes. Similarly I don’t have much negative to say concerning Berry or Breslin, who support the feature as a double-act. They’re left high and dry by a screenplay that provides each with only surface level motivations and no tangible depth, but both actresses have sufficient screen command to lend their respective roles some weight.  There’s also the tense segment noted earlier in the review, which indicates just how taught and gripping this little thriller might’ve been had it been willing to play things straighter and tighten its runtime by 20 minutes. Sadly Anderson loses control of the picture’s scarier faculties, allowing things to become dominated by offensively cringey twists and moronic bursts of action. Some of the actions conducted by certain figures are extremely foolish (particularly the antagonist, portrayed with coked-up crazy eyes by Michael Eklund), leaving the film’s credibility stained on multiple counts of storytelling shoddiness.  

The final act is more comedy than anything else, allowing screenwriter Richard D’Ovidio a chance to unleash a clumsy hybrid of “The Lovely Bones”, “Silence of the Lambs” and “Saw”, complete with dull procedural work performed via charmless cops and a transformation in Berry that decimates any semblance of realism or consistent tone. Of course we find out the villain has a dirty and insanely cheapening fascination with Casey, leading to unnecessary scenes of the young actress in her underwear and subjected to unimaginative and tiresome moments of torture. It’s hard to stress just how flimsily conceived and lazy “The Call” is during its dying stretch- repeating predictable jump cuts and embarrassing instances of freaky man-child over-acting – with the egregiously unearned and ridiculous choices that Berry’s damaged heroine makes providing ugly icing on the cake. It transforms itself into schlock of the worst kind – tawdry, tasteless and dull – indeed the only thing that separates it from a straight to VHS thriller circa 2000 is the fact Berry doesn't strip down once. That’s no bad thing, but it’s a fierce indicator of how outdated this feature is, there’s just no demand for its lurid anti-thrills in today’s pop-cultural climate.

The audience whom I watched it with emitted a loud and intriguingly mixed reaction to the piece. During the short segment where the movie so ably endows viewers with the POV of a hopeless hostage they shrieked and gasped in all the right places, and sat silently for the rest. However it didn't take long for people to start fidgeting and as things developed, unintentional giggles became more and more frequent. “The Call” is incredibly unsophisticated, designed for Friday night punters and casual cinema-goers. However even they audibly fell out of love with the movie during its theoretically neat 94 minutes (it feels longer). If you can’t satisfy the customer who likes everything, then you sure as hell won’t impress those who seek a little more from their entertainment. In that regard “The Call” is a sour, dopey flop; unable to deliver anything worthwhile aside from the odd, sparse moment of competence. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

16 September 2013

Movie Review: Rush (2013)



2013, 123mins, 15
Director: Ron Howard 
Writer: Peter Morgan 
Cast includes: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Natalie Dormer, Christian McKay
UK Release Date: 13th September 2013

It’s probably a matter of personal opinion, but I must confess the notion of a biopic chronicling a Formula 1 rivalry during the seventies, directed by Ron Howard, isn’t really the sort of cinematic proposition that gets my mouth salivating.  Tossing in an aspiring A-list hunk looking to prove his chops (Chris Hemsworth) and a bulky 123 minute runtime doesn’t really add much spice to the concept – all of this fuelling the suspicion that “Rush” might simply amount to calculated Oscar bait. Consider me shocked to find the picture such an invigorating joy, a blisteringly acted and dramatically gripping endeavour, that doesn’t struggle to engage with even Formula 1 newbies like myself. Howard remains a director committed to the basics of Hollywood film-making; but here his execution of said fundamentals is largely flawless, delivering a visually dynamic depiction of competitive hatred and uber masculinity.

“Rush” concerns itself with the animosity between British party-boy James Hunt (Hemsworth) and clinical Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), two men with very different lifestyles but one shared goal; to become the premier global name in F1 racing. From the earliest stages of their relationship heat sparked, as the two drivers jostled to get a foothold in the sport, each exhibiting the potential to become a champion. “Rush” dramatizes their hostile yet inextricably linked pasts, leading up the famed 1976 season where their conflict hit new heights of global fascination and meaning.

Like most biopics the performances are crucial, and in this department “Rush” needs no improvement. Hemsworth is a charming, rakish dare-devil of the most watchable sort, showboating for the camera with maddening charisma, yet also finding moments of devastating pathos in Hunt’s journey. “The Avengers” star perhaps doesn’t move as far out of his comfort zone as hoped (both Hunt and Thor are charged by ego), but there’s definitely more fat here than the actor is used to chewing, especially in introspective moments of loneliness, alcohol dependency and fractured romance. Each area is covered delicately by Morgan’s screenplay, but Hemsworth does a stellar job of bringing the writing to life convincingly. In many ways though, “Rush” is Daniel Bruhl’s picture, the “Inglourious Basterds” star inflicting Lauda with very different vulnerabilities. Lauda was essentially the antithesis of Hunt’s magnetic booze-swilling sex-bomb; a quiet, cold and methodical racer, more interested in tinkering with statistics and mechanics than committing to Hunt’s obsession with heart-stopping speed. Lauda is definitely a less cinematic character than his opposition, but Bruhl gets inside the Austrian’s headspace marvellously, communicating a struggle to connect with people or come to terms with notions of failure. Hemsworth and Bruhl do a magnificent job of fuelling their onscreen chemistry with palpable disdain, leading to entertaining outbursts but also moments of personal clarity and openness. As someone unsure of what the real Hunt and Lauda were like, I’m unable to comment on the realism of either turn, but both thespians prove capable and stimulating ciphers for Morgan’s impeccably structured drama.

“Rush” is definitely more visually ambitious than the usual Ron Howard film, something likely attributable to the presence of gifted cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Mantle gets the camera into the tightest of spots, exploring the intricacies of the cars with kinetic force whilst simultaneously showcasing the fragility of the drivers’ safety gear and automobiles. The race sequences are captivating, coherent editing playing its part in the success, but Mantle’s unique photographic eye and Morgan’s sublimely mounted script are the core reasons they work so well. The speed, elegance and threat of doom are essayed with magnificent poise and thrust, the races shot with legitimate bombast, but Morgan does such a fabulous job of making audiences care. Each race represents a significant development in the Lauda/Hunt dynamic, vast consequence riding on the outcome of every lap. It’s a faultless achievement in storytelling, Morgan tirelessly making every set-piece count in the development of characters with which tangible fascination sprouts naturally. It’s this creative connection that instils “Rush” with undeniable blockbusting firepower.

The 70s period detail doesn't feel contrived or forced and the sound design is incredible. Each thundering challenge shakes the auditorium- as engines whir and vehicles collide – “Rush” pleasuring every sensory capacity in the book. The feature does dissect different strains of the male condition (and indeed what it means to prize victory over all else) remarkably, although such attention may isolate female viewers somewhat. This isn’t strictly a criticism, rather an observation, everything from the sexual politics, forced isolation and “dick-measuring” that often characterises Hunt and Lauda commands so many of their chief interactions. There’s not really any other way you could effectively retell this tale, but it’s worth noting that men are likely to see the picture as a mirror, and thusly connect more thoroughly with the central figures. That’s not a compliment to the gender, but it’s an indication of how complete the Hunt and Lauda of “Rush” are.

At 123 minutes “Rush” never feels frustrated or overwrought, Howard having crafted a product that balances aesthetic delight with dramatic poise seamlessly. No knowledge of the sport is required to appreciate this tremendous piece of film-making, although a strong stomach for the testosterone governed weaknesses of souls possessing both an X and Y chromosome is advised. It’s a stirring motion picture event.  

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

10 September 2013

Catherine Hardwicke's "Plush" looks like a hybrid of "Thirteen", "The Runaways" and "The Roommate". Baptise your children now


So this is the trailer for Catherine Hardwicke’s latest magnum opus “Plush”. Just watch it. Go on. I dare you. And you thought “Twilight” and “Thirteen” were poorly shot, melodramatic pieces of drivel. On the plus side it stars Cam Gigandet. Oh wait, fuck, that’s anything but a positive. The film opens Stateside in September. No UK release date yet. I can only hope it stays that way.

I don’t usually write thought-pieces on trailers, but after watching this I had to pen something. Then I watched it again and realised life’s too short. So consider this a piece. Just sans thought.

On a side-note Emily Browning’s choice of project is alarming. A Zack Snyder movie. This Hardwicke governed exercise in banality. The upcoming Paul W.S Anderson spectacular. If she next stars in a Brett Ratner movie it is certifiable proof that she’s a sorceress attempting to complete some sort of unholy covenant with Lucifer.

Or that she needs to fire her agent. 

2 September 2013

Movie Review: Pain & Gain



Pain & Gain
2013, 129mins, 15
Director: Michael Bay
Writer (s): Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely 
Cast includes: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Ed Harris, Anthony Mackie, Bar Paly, Rebel Wilson, Tony Shalhoub 
UK Release Date: 30th August 2013

 Michael Bay is something of an enigma. It’s very hard to find anybody who will openly confess to enjoying the man’s movies, yet they rake in cash by the bucket load; his last film “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” comfortably cleared $1 billion worldwide, despite being universally regarded as pretty poor. It’s frightening how profitable Bay has been, generally delivering spectacular but dumb pyrotechnic shows; a niche that has failed the film-maker only rarely. Since arriving on the Hollywood scene Bay has almost completely adopted mega budgets (his “Transformers” trilogy cost just shy of $600 million to make), so it definitely piques ones curiosity to see his latest “Pain & Gain” burn Paramount for a measly $25 million. Based on criminal activity that took place during the 90s, “Pain & Gain” sees Bay use misguided bodybuilders to deliver a more complete and intelligent motion picture, allowing the master of disaster a chance to do more than detonate landmarks. The results are unexpected. Not only is “Pain & Gain” the director’s most satisfactory film by a wide margin, it’s also one of the cleverest mainstream Hollywood products of the year. Granted, the success is more down to a trio of brilliant performances and a wonderful screenplay than anything Bay supplies directorially, but there’s no denying that his usual trademarks (frantic edits, sensory excess and rampant sexualisation) are put to appropriate use.

Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a bodybuilding guru who believes in fitness and America. Tired of scraping a living as a personal trainer at the Sun Gym, Daniel decides he deserves a bigger piece of the pie, targeting mouthy client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) as the answer to his prayers. Teaming up with steroidal buddy Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and reformed ex-con Paul (Dwayne Johnson), Lugo decides to kidnap, torture and extort Kershaw, in turn grasping the businessman’s dubious wealth. Initially things go to plan - despite fudging Kershaw’s murder- but the bitter victim eventually convinces detective Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) to investigate matters, after the Miami PD shoot down his story as unbelievable. DuBois finds the muscled villains living life at a large and expensive clip, hungry to strike again and continue feeding their newfound material addiction.

It’s true that none of the leading men in “Pain & Gain” are likable, but the script never makes empathy an option during the viewing experience. Daniel, Adrian and Paul are all afflicted with severe faults of character, and their perception of the world is so blatantly deluded that no alert audience member could contort their actions in a positive light. Daniel (easily the smartest and vilest of the band) believes that America is a land in which taking equates to rightful possession, where money solves anything and means everything. The opening monologue paints him as someone who believes he operates on a moral high ground of patriotism and sweat, but in no way does the film condone his viewpoint, setting up its satirical intentions from the outset. This is a movie about the capitalist sickness which infects the Western world, detailing its findings with energy and humour.  It may seem like a goofy albeit brutal picture on the surface, but beneath Bay’s flashy canvas is a socially aware work. In the world of “Pain & Gain” greed isn't just good; it’s a prerequisite of national identity.

Between himself, Mackie and Johnson; Wahlberg has both the most grounded and important role to play, the actor making an unbelievably confused individual into a scarily plausible screen presence. Every element of the movie’s thesis is dependent on the figure of Daniel Lugo (who led the criminals in reality) and Wahlberg succeeds in turning him into a repugnant, moronic yet fascinatingly watchable creation, allowing the star some solid comedic bursts amongst the darker material. Mackie gets the broadest lines but sells them with energy and shamelessness; his character is easily the dimmest and as a result gets the lion’s share of “dumb” comedy. However even these cruder farcical moments derive laughter, Bay having sharpened his timing noticeably since the insufferably mirthless “Transformers” sequels, clearly finding the R-rated business more in tune with his own funny bone. If you had told me before I sat down to watch “Pain & Gain” that the jokes sample erectile dysfunction, breast milk and vertically challenged men I would've groaned, but in actuality thanks to the game actors, Bay’s newfound understanding of humour and the depraved, surreal world-building apparent, all of the bizarre, often vulgar punch lines seem both strangely satisfying and necessary.  But more importantly all of these silly asides compliment the deranged undercurrent of repulsive behaviour wonderfully, accentuating the film’s intent in an entertaining yet ominous fashion.

Johnson has fun playing around with malleable human spirit, displaying impressively dainty chops as a hulking Christian with the best of intentions. The script has a lot of fun watching Lugo control the noble simpleton, Wahlberg and Johnson’s rapport helping to sell the powerfully entertaining feats of manipulation. Bay should be given credit too for some nicely deployed stylistic touches, which include narration that organically nurtures character development and some playful captions throughout. The Miami of “Pain & Gain” doesn’t look much different than any other Bay feature, but this time the shallow, sleazy glossiness feels justified. “Pain & Gain” is artificially beautiful to look at, dappled in striking light, observed by a camera that rarely sits still. The aesthetic supports the greater whole, and fundamentally gives the picture an expensive look beyond the traditional boundaries of its modest budget. It’s an acute personification of its antiheroes’ ideals – picturesque for sure – but insubstantial and morally hollowed out.

In the past Bay has been correctly accused of sexism, his treatment of particular actresses having bordered on unforgivable. “Pain & Gain” likes to leer at human flesh too, particularly that of comatose Israeli model Bar Paly (playing Daniel’s vapid squeeze), but the misogyny feels so intentional and in tune with the corrupt, black America at the movie’s heart that it can’t help but play to the product’s benefit. It’s very possible this is just Bay exercising his traditional pornographic eye, but in that case writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are due serious credit. Their blueprint fully allows for Bay’s perverted stream of consciousness to supplement the critique at the film’s core. If “Pain & Gain” is an assault on the way the American dream has been twisted and misunderstood by a generation, then surely an obsession with surface level gratification is vital - and seeing as the leads are macho imbeciles - equating a gullible stripper or two into the mix probably isn’t much stretching the truth.

It’s not an action saturated picture, but the explosions, heists and chases that do arise are executed with panache. The supporting detective subplot (bolstered by a strong Ed Harris) chugs away pleasantly in the background, filtering quite comfortably into the berserk final act, which includes darkly amusing violence of Coen calibre. “Pain & Gain” is an outstanding and insanely capable bit of film-making, a cocktail of strong ingredients shaken up into a final recipe whose taste lingers long after the final credits have rolled. First and foremost it’s a striking comedy and an intriguing procedural, but for viewers looking to extract the full potency there’s a lot of engaging ideas to be digested here. It’s probably too much to hope that this is Michael Bay moving in a permanently fresh direction, but after subjecting myself to years of his over-produced noise, I consider this ballsy gem adequate compensation. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013