30 June 2014

Review: Chef (Jon Favreau, LionsGate, 2014)



2014, 114mins, 15
Director: Jon Favreau 
Writer: Jon Favreau 
Cast includes: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Emjay Anthony, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr. 
UK Release Date: 25th June 2014

It’s understandable that summer 2011 wouldn’t rank amongst the happiest periods of Jon Favreau’s life. Gifted a sizeable budget and a fertile premise, Favreau proceeded to undercut much of his previous blockbusting credit with the lacklustre “Cowboys & Aliens”, one of the most prosaic event releases of recent years. The film was rightly dismissed by critics, but audiences also made a point of ignoring it, leading to a substantial financial loss on Universal’s part.   In 2011 Ron Meyer, the studio’s President, name-checked “Cowboys & Aliens” alongside some other notable flops as being responsible for their then waning fortunes. He described the movie as “mediocre” despite the input of “smart people”. Clearly the circus surrounding the film left Favreau with things to say about artistry, conformity and critical etiquette; all of which bubble at the surface of his less bombastically scaled “Chef”. The indie film is clearly a response of sorts to the blog-driven heckles and problematic production associated with his last outing, masked under the fa├žade of a breezy “follow your heart” dramedy. There’s no denying that “Chef” is an occasionally interesting work, and one that boasts a welcomingly chilled tone, but it fails to sustain the promise of its central quandary for the entirety of its bulky runtime.

After receiving a scathing online review and suffering a subsequent online shit-storm, Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) decides to forsake his respectable restaurant gig and pursue more rustic culinary ambitions. Intent on rediscovering his own creative zeal, Carl takes his estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and preferred colleagues (including an energetic John Luguizamo) across the country to provide passionate service to the peoples of America; whilst trying to resuscitate the familial connections negatively impacted by his past professional obsessing.

Without knowledge of Favreau’s history, “Chef” looks a lot like a benign “follow your heart” tale, replete with a redemptive arc and montages of joyous father/son bonding. To audiences aware of the “Cowboys & Aliens” dilemma, it’s impossible to see it along such blunt lines, at least during the opening half. “Chef” descends into thinly worked melodrama well before the denouement, but there’s some genuinely fiery stuff to digest early on. Favreau slathers on the ghoulish anonymity associated with internet criticism too judiciously (Oliver Platt’s food critic has a website masthead with his own face pixelated) and the constant use of social networking jargon becomes a little tiresome, but there are moments where the conversation between creator and critic explodes with real fire. The highlight (both in relation to the film and Favreau’s thespian contribution) sees Casper respond with rage, anxiety and vulnerability in the face of his attacker, providing both the character and movie with gratifying openness. In this one sequence, “Chef” refuses to mask the question at its heart, hollering at critics and audiences alike with heart-breaking honesty. If this moment of intimacy provides any insight into Favreau’s post-“Cowboys” state, then I genuinely sympathise with the film-maker. The desperation and confusion is incredibly palpable, communicated by the actor’s deliberately unfocused and highly charged line delivery. I respect that “Chef” manages to make both its protagonist and director profoundly human, if only for one blistering scene.

It’s a pity then that the movie’s narrative trajectory elects to travel a worn and sugar-coated path. After the initial fallout, “Chef becomes devoid of dramatic tension, with Favreau’s character appealing almost uniformly elated with his new-found artistic freedom. There’s some artificial depth applied via the unconvincingly scripted rekindling of father/son adoration which anchors the movie’s latter beats, but it’s filler amidst Favreau’s indulgent parade of self-celebration. After intelligently essaying the effects snide internet bashing can have on an artist, the film decides to shove two fingers up to the debate, snatching a smug “I’m right and you’re wrong” tone hidden under a treacly exterior. Who cares what critics have to say? I can get Robert Downey Jr to cameo in my movies! Scarlett Johnansson (wasting her time in a nothing part after an impressive slew of recent work) and Sofia Vergara can play my lovers past and present! Even Platt’s hammy work as Favreau’s cyber-nemesis encourages an immature reading of a culturally relevant topic. It doesn't help that the dramatic structure and pacing of the film also fades gracelessly, acquiring the unattractive double-threat of bloat and hollowness. After the first act characters stop evolving realistically, all becoming secondary to Favreau’s parade of congratulatory confection.

“Chef” has a nice ambiance at least. The food looks delicious onscreen (Favreau trained extensively as a cook before production) and the musical accompaniment often has a vibrant zip to accentuate the movie’s proposed lightness of touch. However the film’s grandest achievement – its musings on creation and destruction in the internet age – peak early, leaving audiences with a maudlin family drama that never validates its gut-busting 114 minutes. I wouldn't necessarily send “Chef” back to the kitchen, but after an enticing starter the main course never sings like you want.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

18 June 2014

Capsule Review: Oculus (Mike Flanagan, Relativity Media, 2014)

Grade - B+

Based on his short film from 2006, Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” is an eerie time at the movies. There’s the potential for camp in the premise - which sees a brother and sister do battle with a potentially haunted mirror from their past – but proceedings are played with the straightness of an arrow. Flanagan cuts between timelines and conjures the aura of a particularly macabre fairy-tale, using tricky visuals and an unsettlingly repetitive soundscape to ignite an appropriately ethereal demeanour.

At a lean 104 minutes and oscillating between sparse interiors, “Oculus” boasts a savage b-movie sensibility, Flanagan focusing his energy on simple but solid character beats to drive the horror, punishing his leads on both physical and psychological terms. There’s an unspoken but crucially believable bond anchoring the drama, and “Oculus” has a keen weapon in the form of Karen Gillan’s trenchant contribution. The delicate Scotswoman is all fire and stoicism, her vigorous obsession with the mirror bouncing nicely off Brenton Thwaites beta ambivalence. Flanagan dips his toes into the murky pastures of mental illness and unreliable narration, but ultimately commits to the gothic trappings of spectral maleficence, handling the business of scaring his audience confidently. Even more admirable is that he should be so miserly with cheap jump scares in doing so. Atmosphere and nightmarish iconography trump loud noises in “Oculus”.

“Oculus” is something of a precise mess, using its disjointed narrative arrangement to disconcerting effect. It becomes impossible to detach reality from lethal illusion, culminating in a cleverly edited finale that often combines past and present in the same frame. The digital photography and production design are thin, robbing “Oculus” of true grand guignol aesthetic, but the director showcases a dab hand for visceral imagery and foreboding. Some of the later stalk and slash elements taste stale, but everything leading up to the finish registers menacing intelligence, and the final twist provides a black, punchy farewell. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

17 June 2014

Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois, DreamWorks, 2014)



How to Train Your Dragon 2
2014, 102mins, PG
Director: Dean BeBlois
Writer: Dean DeBlois 
Cast includes: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Djimon Hounsou, Cate Blanchett, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill
UK Release Date: 11th July 2014

It’s no secret that the once thought insurmountable gap between Pixar and DreamWorks has been closing for a number of years. As Pixar have become more comfortable peddling wavering fare like “Cars 2” and “Monsters University”, DreamWorks have instilled a heightened maturity in their own work, a trend that arguably began proper with 2010’s “How to Train Your Dragon”. A visually aweing and emotionally involving family feature, “Dragon” saw the studio bring increased artistic integrity and nuance to their product, combining audacious visuals and other film-making wonderment (John Powell’s score remains a treat) with sensitively drawn characters and rich fantasy realms. It was reassuring to know that as Pixar stumbled, other outlets could successfully fill the void.  It is a source of some disappointment then, to report that “How to Train Your Dragon 2” represents a substantial dip in this burgeoning franchise’s form. The sequel matches the original for spectacle, once again utilising the potential benefits of 3D to pleasing effect, but characters and wider universe fail to evolve satisfactorily. Audiences are exposed to a few novel concepts and fresh faces; yet those present impress minimal razzmatazz on proceedings. There’s a pongy whiff of “been there done that” storytelling, diminishing many of the film’s not insignificant aesthetic merits.

Set five years on from the events of the first film, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” finds both Viking and Dragon sharing an integrated Burk. Content with the beneficial alteration, leader Stoick (Gerard Butler) is keen to pass his role onto Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), but the youngster has little interest in assuming a position of authority. Instead he and reptilian accomplice Toothless patrol the skies, looking for new lands and creatures, hoping to extend their understanding of life beyond Burk. On their expeditions they encounter a menagerie of both friend and foe, including a mysterious figure from Hiccup’s past and the villainous Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a man intent on using dragons for his own nefarious gains.

It’s baffling that despite Hiccup’s newfound preoccupation with Cartography, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” struggles to open up its world beyond perfunctory augmentation. Director Dean DeBlois initiates an adventurous tone with welcome immediacy, orchestrating some marvellously designed moments of aerial action, the film once again using 3D to intensify the phantom ride element and depth of space dragons inhabit. Hiccup now sky-dives and Toothless remains a gorgeously animated instigator of lithe screen spectacle, DeBlois succeeding in matching the original movie’s intrepid visuals. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a consistently beautiful movie to absorb on an optical level, but in terms of narrative imagination and propulsive screenwriting it frustrates. The incredible surface detail can’t fully compensate for idle characterisation, and despite the introduction of new pieces, the game rarely changes. It’s not that the feature is hollow or emotionally inert; it’s that the standards of growth articulated in 2010 aren’t equalled.

Most of the problems can be viewed in direct correlation with the picture’s grasp of character. “How to Train Your Dragon” ripened the protagonists along simple but satisfactorily articulated lines, using a vibrant voice cast and moments of grounded sincerity to handily communicate its coming of age theme. Unfortunately DeBlois seems intent on repeating a lot of those same beats with the sequel, meaning Stoick, Hiccup and even Toothless glide through the too familiar adversarial motions. That might be forgivable if the new additions felt meaty or organically oriented to spice up formula, but this never proves to be the case. Hounsou’s Drago is introduced in a creepily arranged flashback, but his increased presence in the third act only serves to prove him a deficient nemesis with both an unmemorable look and motive. There’s a new female character too, voiced by an inconsistently accented Cate Blanchett, whom the script never bothers to find adequate placement for. She’s prevalent, but only to the extent that she adds a slight irregularity to the otherwise samey dynamic between Stoick and Hiccup. The sequel seems afraid to offer her a solo arc, instead labouring her with expository junk prior to harsh relegation as just another quirky sidekick. The attempt to involve a strong woman is admirable (and her opening sequence is sublimely fearsome) but it’s only worthwhile if she plays a fluid part in the text. Blanchett’s dragon-lady feels increasingly tacked on as the feature progresses.

Repetition slinks into the film’s environments promptly, which move away from the community of Burk and into a larger but disconcertingly vanilla natural world. The forests and lagoons of “How to Train Your Dragon 2” are diligently formed, but they lack the spark and edgy lunacy of the Viking lifestyle explored in the initial foray. The follow-up opts for a more subdued tone, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but as a result cartoonish energy takes a backseat. Some might see this meditative detour as vital to the continuation of the series, but it personally left me pining for the uproarious eccentricities of the original, especially as the drama assumes a less engrossing composition this time around.

The continued tactile accomplishments of the “How to Train Your Dragon” brand ensure this sequel boasts modest worth, but when Pixar crash back into theatres next summer they might feel the competition has slackened. DreamWorks were surely hoping for a “Toy Story 2” scenario, but “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is more likely to conjure associations with the mild, underachieving “Monsters University” crowd. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

13 June 2014

Capsule Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (Seth MacFarlane, Universal, 2014)


Grade - C+

Do you find any of the following funny?

  • -          A man soiling a hat
  • -          Hallucinogenic cutaway scenes
  • -          Appropriately placed pop cultural references  
  • -          A man with a flower in his bottom
  • -          Bodily fluid yuks stripped from a Farrelly farce
  • -          Family Guy

If you answered yes to more than one of these, you might get something out of Seth MacFarlane’s sophomore feature “A Million Ways to Die in the West”.

Cut in the mould of “Blazing Saddles” but never finding the same level of finesse or invention, MacFarlane’s lampoon is fitfully amusing despite its vast length and scattershot screenplay. Taking aim at the utter hellishness of the Old West, MacFarlane assumes advantage of the gorgeous scenery and outrageous violence of the period, but his character work and editorial instincts often fail him. There are laughs, many of which stem from the sort of lowbrow depravity associated with the MacFarlane ethos, but there’s also too much flat-footed filler, and none of the narrative facets amount to much. MacFarlane is reasonably likable, but his relationship with Charlize Theron’s mystery outlaw largely incurs yawns, the film unable to develop their dynamic beyond a softly realised fratboy fantasy. The supporting cast range from inspired (Sarah Silverman) to ineffectual (Liam Neeson makes an uncharacteristically forgettable antagonist), and whilst there are a selection of superb sight-gags (juicy cameos and coital preoccupation with a moustache take top billing), poorly formed caricatures and a pervading aura of self-indulgence prevent it from ever striking greatness. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is a serviceable and often giddy diversion, but one unlikely to capture the public’s imagination a la “Ted”. Uneven seems like an appropriate descriptor.  

Also, I think it’s time we retired the “dweeb tripping” motif from contemporary comedy. Forgive the pun, but it’s burnt out.  

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

Review: 22 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Chris Miller, Columbia Pictures, 2014)



22 Jump Street 
2014, 115mins, 15
Director (s): Phil Lord, Chris Miller 
Writer (s): Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, Jonah Hill, Rodney Rothman 
Cast includes: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell, Wyatt Russell, Nick Offerman, Amber Stevens 
UK Release Date: 6th June 2014

Much like its predecessor- 2012’s “21 Jump Street” – “22 Jump Street” isn’t afraid to gently bite the hand that feeds. The original feature, adapted from the 80s procedural of the same name, took aim at Hollywood’s current obsession with revamping old brands in pursuit of lucrative opening weekends. Expectations weren’t high; yet the film was an impressive commercial and critical hit, audiences responding to the feature’s appropriate kineticism and sly luminosity. “22 Jump Street” unsurprisingly shifts focus to the demonic trend known as the studio sequel, ribbing the patterns and motivations that drive franchise cinema. “22 Jump Street” is an astounding practical joke, but one that audiences should respond to heartily. It’s effectively a remake of its older sibling, with only the stingiest of cosmetic changes applied, yet it uses this dearth of innovation to breed a cunning satirical undertone. It’s a smart feature, although one in which intelligence is squirrelled behind a deliberately brash wall of creative bankruptcy.

Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are still partners and steadfast friends, but since leaving the Jump Street program their professional triumphs have decreased. Recalled to repeat their successes in a college environment, the duo goes undercover, overseen once more by by the dependably impatient Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). Their mission is exactly the same; locate a drug-dealer on campus and use them to find the supplier. Easy? Not quite. College presents new challenges and relationships, all of which threaten the solidity of Jenko and Schmidt’s rapport along with the status of their assignment.

It’s been a remarkable couple of years for film-makers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, culminating with the gargantuan approval heaped on their other 2014 release “The Lego Movie”. They’ve built a reputation for upgrading duff projects with extreme acts of subversion, and “22 Jump Street” allows them to repeat the trick, this time by mocking the air-headed approach that precedes the Hollywood sequel. It’s admittedly an easier task than making a movie based on a toy line which rejects western ideals of collective consciousness, but that doesn’t diminish the laughs “22 Jump Street” stimulates. There are easy gags to be had (Captain Dickson must reinforce the sameness of the situation half a dozen times) but the directors bring substantial quirk in other places, honouring the fast-paced weirdness of their back-catalogue. They have a sharp eye for cinematic history (much like Edgar Wright) and that allows them to play ball with a number of other genres, not just the bombastic action sequel. There are strong nods to egregious product placement, the sexual perversions of college life (including great creepy roommate and walk of shame gags) and constant reference to the fantastical frat-house spectaculars of yore. We get a Peter Stormare turn stripped straight out of “Fargo” and a party atmosphere that ostensibly blends a clean-cut 1950s beach picture with last year’s debauched anomaly “Spring Breakers”. The original film was applauded for painting a very different high-school experience, replete with interesting social, sexual and recreational evolutions. On the other hand “22 Jump Street” exhibits the sort of College adventures we’ve seen on cinema screens thousands of times before; but that’s all part of the project’s riotous charm. The ambition it seems is to be as unambitious as possible.

Tatum and Hill are still a compatible comic combination. A quintessential odd-couple in nearly every sense, they rekindle their bromantic chemistry believably, even if “22 Jump Street” is less sincerely dramatic than the original. Some of the earnestness and feeling of the earlier picture is missed, “21” actually made a concentrated attempt to construct a unique and heartfelt connection between the leads. “22 Jump Street” reheats their prior spats with steroidal levels of homoeroticism; which is fine within the context of this specific feature, but a little disappointing given how amicable and sophisticated these goofs previously appeared. Their dynamic is underpinned by Hill’s generosity (he once again lets Tatum nab the stateliest jokes) and their combined energy, both happy to share the duties of straight man. Their ebb and flow is demonstrated early on in an improv/Octopus laden action sequence, clearing away any fear that rust or banality might have seeped into their rapport. The support is equally colourful. Ice Cube gives good fury, Nick Offerman revives his Ron Swanson routine satisfactorily and newcomers like the Yang Brothers and Jillian Bell embrace the movie’s atypical manifesto winningly. Everybody looks comfortable within the world Lord and Miller construct, leading to the appearance of an adaptable and focused ensemble.

The enhanced budget is a source of humour throughout, but it’s also notable in the film’s larger set-pieces. The scope of the opening scene in “22 Jump Street” matches the finale of the first flick, and the film-makers are happy to build from there. Lord and Miller seem comfortable with the demands of varied film-making schools, and they can now add big budget (relatively speaking) to their CVs. Still, it’s the unexpected moments of absurdity that define their tempo (punch-outs with smooching and the pleasures of bonding with lobsters), never better exemplified than by the hysterically metatextual overtures located during the end credits. Given the success of “The Lego Movie” they don’t even need “22 Jump Street” to land blockbusting receipts, but despite its strict (albeit reflexive) adherence to formula, the movie is funny enough to warrant celebration. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

9 June 2014

Capsule Review: Transcendence (Wally Pfister, Warner Bros., 2014)

Grade - D

As films go, few 2014 releases have left me more despondent than “Transcendence”.

The directorial debut of cinematographer supreme Wally Pfister, the picture has a premise that simmers with gentle potential, but a melee of screenwriting missteps rob the final product of potency or grounded characterisation. As the terminally wounded genius morphed into an AI, Johnny Depp gives perhaps his best performance since 2009’s “Public Enemies”, although I genuinely feel the competition on that front couldn't get any softer (His turn in the otherwise unfairly scorned "The Lone Ranger" a nadir). He’s at least emoting with some degree of subtly here, slipping organically into an increasingly remote and chilling cyber entity. Props to Pfister for banning the actor from garish make-up choices and Rebecca Hall for giving him a mature screen companion to work alongside. As Depp’s increasingly beleaguered and conflicted wife, Hall is one of the movie’s few functional dramatic weapons. She’s very sad and very real, a beating heart for this otherwise mismanaged flop.

Visually it's dull (confusing, right?), with Pfister translating few of his own celebrated skills over to incoming DP Jess Hall. There's no dynamism in Hall's compositions or aesthetic choices, "Transcendence" a blend of familiar dystopian hues and washed out tones. It's not amateurish or incompetent, but it is staggeringly unmemorable. The feature cribs imagery from a vast quantity of other science-fiction enterprises, and the way it registers a human/computer hybrid is far less nuanced or sophisticated than the recent Oscar-troubling "Her". You can't put a price on innovation it seems. 

The screenplay takes some suspect detours, many of which feel at odds with the development of a satisfactory narrative. “Transcendence” opts to skip perhaps the most interesting period in its characters’ lives, the interim where Depp transforms completely from man to program, thusly denying us first-hand exposure to the trauma etched over Hall’s love-sick face. Much of the film is founded on the tragedy of their relationship, so by excising the juiciest portion of said facet you reduce the movie’s dramatic value considerably. Supporting characters weave in and out of the film inconsistently, including a band of anti-AI terrorists (headed by a faceless Kate Mara) and the gormless double-act of Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman. Both men are usually great, but they don’t have much energy together and their characters are depressingly formless.

Disappointingly Pfister opts to rush toward a flat action climax, replete with military firepower and zero pathos. “Transcendence” crams as many superficial ideas as it can into this barrage of empty-headed destruction, including nods to “Frankenstein” and environmentalism. It’s all pay-off and no foreplay, a rare complaint, but one which explains the finale’s hollow self-righteousness and unimaginative carnage. The film-makers likely believe it communicates essential global awareness, but I suspect “Transcendence” will be heralded only as a reminder that cinematographers should stick to their day-jobs. “Speed 2” anyone?

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

5 June 2014

Review: The Two Faces of January (Hossein Amini, StudioCanal, 2014)


The Two Faces of January 
2014, 96mins, 12
Director: Hossein Amini
Writer (s): Hossein Amini, Patricia Highsmith (Novel) 
Cast includes: Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kirsten Dunst, Yigit Ozsener 
UK Release Date: 16th May 2014 

Hossein Amini’s “The Two Faces of January” is being served to audiences as an obvious counter-programming option; a maturely envisaged thriller in thrall to classical Hollywood etiquette. With most cinemas undergoing a period of intense blockbuster saturation, “The Two Faces of January” delivers an understated and refreshingly character driven alternative, marking a supremely confident directorial bow for Amini. It’s impeccably solid fare, peppered with flourishes of incredible tension and intrigue, yet assembled with a traditional framework in mind. Amini makes it easy to become invested in the fraught three-hander, brought to life with nuance by Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and a career best Kirsten Dunst.  It’s a joy to encounter a film this polished, without ever feeling the weight of overwrought showmanship or excessive style seep into the experience.

Expatriate Rydal (Oscar Isaac) makes a workable living from manipulating tourists in Athens, using his knowledge of the area and linguistic fluency to profitable yet deceitful effect. Unenthused by the prospect of returning home, Rydal encounters wealthy married couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette McFarland (Kirsten Dunst), seeing in them the opportunity to turn some quick coin. Despite successfully seducing them with his specific brand of tourism, Rydal is thrown into the midst of their lives when he becomes complicit in the murder of a PI, sent to hunt Chester by unhappy stateside clients. Fleeing Athens, Rydal agrees to help Chester and Colette return home for a price, but not before a sinister rapport begins to fester.

Originally penned as a novel by Patricia Highsmith in 1964, “The Two Faces of January” unsurprisingly comes across as old-fashioned. However despite grounding in familiar genre territory, Amini ensures the feature is never stale, keeping the plot’s contortions alive through strong casting decisions and a precisely trained edit. At a trim 96 minutes “The Two Faces of January” doesn't have an ounce of fat on its bones; each sequence economically designed to further character and a festering foreign heat. The sparse, often brutally beautifully Greek landscapes encourage an aura of nervous alienation, Amini stranding his wealthy American couple in a land they can’t comprehend, with only Isaac’s suspicious tour guide to navigate the territory. It’s a set-up that automatically imbues the product with a jittery, paranoid undercurrent, rarely relieved over the tight runtime. There’s a simplistic genius to the subdued way “The Two Faces of January” conjures tension. It’s a plot dictated almost totally by unsettling glances, unspoken truths and oppressively empty (yet serenely photographed) environments. At no point is any character meant to feel comfortable, and thanks to his eerie use of space and well selected close-ups, Amini translates such unease into our viewing experience.

The cast articulate growing mistrust commendably, especially Dunst who becomes increasingly fragile and sympathetic as the story unwinds. Mortensen and Isaac have shades of mystery to manipulate, neither willing to open up completely, but Dunst’s Colette is a consummate victim of circumstance. Dressed radiantly, the “Spider-Man” star collapses authentically, emoting desperation with uncharacteristic humanity. It seems with the input of a mature film-maker, the actress has unseen depths. Mortensen and Isaac are less revelatory, but that’s primarily because we expect more from them. Without overselling the scepticism surrounding their respective characters, they share the duties of hero and villain equally. Amini ties everything up quite resonantly come the finish, but watching the actors silently psychoanalyse each other is an unlikely joy. Both men are able to exhibit bursts of predatory intelligence and vulnerability, keeping questions of their ultimate moral positioning unanswered.

The stringent editing exhibited benefits “The Two Faces of January” enormously. Every beat feels calculated and necessary. As a result there are virtually no lulls, and whilst conceptually unspectacular, Amini solicits anticipation out of some fabulously mundane scenarios. The highlight involves separate queues of travellers being inspected by policemen. Nothing much happens, but Amini’s skilful use of close-ups (every bead of sweat and quivering lip is registered) and graceful cutting render the threat frighteningly real. In less adept hands “The Two Faces of January” could be discredited as derivative or slow, but Amini has a knack for timing his pay-offs, cultivating a milieu possessed by maleficence . Consideration and film-making literacy punctuate the picture entire, meaning that whilst it never threatens to attempt anything radical; “The Two Faces of January” is a feast of aesthetic and storytelling quality. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

2 June 2014

Review: Blended (Frank Coraci, Warner Bros, 2014)


2014, 118mins, 12
Director: Frank Coraci 
Writer (S): Clare Sera, Ivan Menchell
Cast includes; Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Terry Crews, Bella Thorne, Joel McHale, Kevin Nealon
UK Release Date: 23rd May 2014

We don’t see enough of Drew Barrymore anymore. A giggly and effervescent presence, Barrymore brings out a softer side in Adam Sandler for the third time in her career with “Blended”, encouraging a show of genuine vulnerability from the guarded comedian. Their past collaborations -1998’s “The Wedding Singer” and 2004’s “50 First Dates”- aren’t masterpieces, but they possess an underlying sweetness, an element often absent from Sandler’s Happy Madison brand. The actors share an unforced chemistry that encourages romance and gentle comedy, and for that reason “Blended” occasionally threatens to offer more than the dreck Sandler’s been pumping out recently. Of course we’re talking about post-“Grown-Ups” Sandler here, so there’s still haphazard film-making and an unpolished script to contend with; and unfortunately for all her chutzpah Barrymore can’t unanimously override such colossal oversights in quality control. “Blended” is seductively earnest in spots, but it’s at least two drafts and half a dozen better jokes away from being anything you could hope to fully endorse.

After a disastrous blind-date, widower Jim (Adam Sandler) and divorcee Lauren (Drew Barrymore) hope to never see each other again. Jim is struggling with the prospect of satisfactorily fathering three young women, whilst Lauren doesn’t know to cope with the sticky pubescent issues surrounding her spirited boys. When some mutual friends decide to pass on a trip to Africa, Jim and Lauren both pounce at the chance to inherit the vacation, neither aware that there are enough openings to accommodate both families. On arrival in the exotic continent they are appalled to find the holiday includes shared living arrangements and that the resort is devoted to blending disparate families. Initially hesitant to share the experience, the two units eventually begin to bond, spearheaded by maturing affection between Jim and Lauren.

Some credit must be extended to director Frank Coraci and cinematographer Julio Macat, because “Blended” looks a damn sight nicer than anything in Sandler’s recent oeuvre. It’s a low bar to clear, but “Blended” does so quite capably, using the lush African scenery and a warming colour palette to achieve an attractive sheen. There’s actual colour texturing to enjoy here, a massive upgrade from the artificiality of the usual Happy Madison aesthetic. The glowing, sunny filters even seep into the drama beneficially, allowing for heightened tolerance toward the perils of Western suburbia internalized by the feature’s characters. Similar compliments can’t be passed onto Rupert Gregson-Williams’ bland, trite musical score, which generally fades into the background, unless it’s being deployed with manipulative maleficence, often twinkling during the picture’s schmaltzier emotional beats. I guess some things don’t change.

The first twenty minutes of “Blended” are the strongest, and that’s before the whole Africa shebang even ignites. Sandler and Barrymore are incredibly relaxed and chummy together, their dynamic personified in an amusing drugstore interlude. Aside from a few small quirky Sandler moments (including cameos from regulars Mary Pat Gleason and Allen Covert),there’s also real pleasure in seeing Sandler riff on teenage masturbation habits, while Barrymore keeps the human undertones at a tender pitch. The duo work well together, and when “Blended” roars into romantic overdrive during its abysmally paced final third, you at least want to see them unite. It’s amazing how compatible performers can make a bad rom-com tolerable, and that’s exactly what happens here. “Blended” isn’t nearly nuanced, funny or sophisticated enough to qualify as good, but the leads inject it with enough sloppy affability to cement some mild degree of audience engagement.

Cameos from Terry Crews and Joel McHale induce smiles, especially the former who with a chorus line of locals has a habit of finding inappropriate times to ply his melodic trade. It’s indicative of an older, weirder Sandler, and Crews is game enough to make most anything work. Otherwise it gets barren fast. The key comic set-pieces are insanely broad, including moments involving erotic massage, horny animals and a hotel employee incapable of correctly pronouncing Jim’s name. The gags are less offensive than the misogynistic lows of “Grown-Ups 2”, but they hardly represent prime-cut comedy either. By Sandler’s recent standards the material is fair, but rewind further in his filmography and it appears flat. Dramatically the film is slightly more consistent, yet fundamentally uneven. Whilst the relationship between Sandler and Barrymore is mercifully warm-hearted, the subplots involving their children are less enticing. Often it’s because the child actors are kind of obnoxious (I could do without seeing young Braxton Beckham in a movie again), but also because the screenplay simplifies their arcs into dull, superficial detours. Some effort is made in regard to the effects the mother’s passing is having on Jim’s clan, but otherwise this is stuff you’ve seen before, just executed less perceptively.

“Blended” isn't hateful; in fact I was regularly surprised by its sincerity and photogenic qualities. Sandler and Barrymore are cute together, but they've already made two superior romantic vehicles, rendering this third outing moot. Anything else “Blended” attempts incurs a stumble, and at 118 minutes it doesn’t offer adequate pay-off to justify such indulgence. Perhaps though, Sandler might shelve one of his own future projects and reinvest his time and money into giving Barrymore a marquee opportunity. If the upside of “Blended” is that we get a little more Drew in the years to come, then it’s hard to vehemently rage against the film. Doesn't mean you have to watch it though.  

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

1 June 2014

Capsule Reviews: Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past & Pompeii

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, Warner Bros, 2014)

After a vigorous marketing campaign and the promise of a fresh, talented director at the helm, “Godzilla” ends up disappointing. After a moody opening act, the film simply becomes a protracted globe-trotter, sending Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s supremely boring Ford Brody (not the only Spielberg reference, but perhaps the most egregious) after the title character and a pair of giant MUTOs. Director Gareth Edwards’ continues to show a knack for seamless digital wizardry, but his continuation of the “Godzilla” brand is sluggish and devoid of personality, especially when it comes to a roster of impossibly vacant human vessels. Great actors like Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche and Elizabeth Olsen are left stranded in parts that require practically nothing from them. When the monsters finally do clash and Godzilla emerges from the shadows, he’s an impressive CGI creation, incurring the opportunity for some spectacular shots. However by that point the film’s dead in the water, with only a handful of inspired sequences (the HALO jump from the trailer is still thrillingly edited and scored) to recommend it. This attempt to drag the world’s foremost celebrity Kaiju into a post 9/11 world deserves plaudits for maturity, but ultimately the vehicle grows more ponderous and disinteresting with each mechanised plot twist and zombified Taylor-Johnson expression. Underwhelming.

Ken Watanabe also pulls a Jeong and sets the depiction of Asians in Hollywood back about 50-years.

Grade - C

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 20th Century Fox,

 More successful is Bryan Singer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, which takes the original cast and “First Class” (2011) crew, smushing them together into a time travelling narrative. The film’s apocalyptic aesthetics are beautifully rendered thanks to strong production design and an impinging but not overbearing (see “Godzilla”) aura of darkness. The most audacious moments are those set in the future, where the likes of McKellan, Stewart and a chirpy Ellen Page are forced to confront the lethal Sentinel threat from an eerily designed hideaway.

The screenplay prioritises barrelling Jackman’s (always watchable) Wolverine back to the 70s, where he meets up with a disillusioned and doped Professor X (James McAvoy), the unpredictable Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and a host of other new faces. Some of the action here is incredible, including a Pentagon bust and a destruction-addled finale, although the narrative occasionally stutters. Singer seems overly engrossed in the drama surround Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who figures clumsily into proceedings, too often the sequel letting her hog the limelight as if she were starring in her own solo adventure. Maybe it’s the comic-book source or Lawrence’s infinitely increased star power, but either way it leads to a slightly uneasy edit. It’s a rollicking blockbuster, less equipped to deal with the interior vulnerabilities of the mutant race than say, franchise ne plus ultra “X2” (2003), but still with enough tenderness to imprint stakes on the action. Much like “Godzilla”, the money spent is all up there onscreen, which according to reputable sources exceeds $200 million. 

Grade - B

Pompeii (Paul W.S Anderson, Summit Entertainment, 2014)

Paul W.S Anderson’s “Pompeii” also cost a bucket, but has thus far struggled badly at the worldwide box-office. It doesn’t help that the film - an old-timey swashbuckler set around the volcanically induced fall of the eponymous city - is so brazenly cheesy. Despite top tier 3D effects and a pleasingly physical reconstruction of the period, the drama of Anderson’s film feels like a cheapo cocktail of “Titanic” (1997) and “Gladiator” (2000), without the thespian mettle. “Game of Thrones” regular Kit Harrington may have a great name, but his performance never progresses beyond surly facial expressions and oiled abdominals. Emily Browning isn’t much better as his upper-class love interest, she has big, baleful eyes and full, kissable lips, but the “Sucker Punch” (2011) starlet only communicates her feelings through expository dialogue, neglecting the actual “acting” requirement of her job recklessly. Together they make a wooden couple, more animate when encased in molten rock than cavorting on horseback.

The gladiatorial sequences and explosive money-shots are well executed by Anderson, but the film-maker known mostly for schlock like “Resident Evil” can’t construct a believable conversation to save his life, leading to some phenomenally hammy overacting from Kiefer Sutherland and buffed up buddy to the hero Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. It finishes more predictably than you could ever imagine (which says something given that it’s rooted in well documented historical fact), but for all these sins it’s not terrible. You get the impression that Anderson wanted to make nothing more than a bombastic and utterly dopey melodrama to begin with. I giggled just enough to render the viewing process bearable. 

Grade - C

Reviews by Daniel Kelly, 2014

Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow



Edge of Tomorrow 
2014, 113mins, 12
Director: Doug Liman 
Writer (S): Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth 
Cast includes: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Paxton, Noah Taylor 
UK Release Date: 30th May 2014

Any hack could draw easy comparisons between Doug Liman’s “Edge of Tomorrow” and a plethora of classics, most notably perhaps “Groundhog Day” and “Starship Troopers”. The film has a title character reliving the same day over and over, futuristic combat and some genuinely nasty extra-terrestrials, yet the aim is so clearly entertainment over innovation, leading me to believe such references aren't merely lazy, they’re pointless. Much like Cruise’s sombre “Oblivion”, “Edge of Tomorrow” cherry-picks genre inspiration to winning effect, using an acute mixture of action and comedy to manoeuvre its stars around a fluidly edited narrative. No film in 2014 will repeat itself more than “Edge of Tomorrow”, yet the self-cannibalising screenplay rarely slackens; gifted necessary lightness of touch from Liman’s sprightly direction. Just a few weeks ago “Godzilla” suffered from an abundance of po-faced brooding, the lizard crammed unflatteringly into a “tryin’ too hard” post 9/11 arrangement. “Edge of Tomorrow” corrects this unfortunate blockbusting trend, finding intensity and mirth amidst its dystopian warfare. The movie’s a f**kin’ hoot.

High-ranking military man Bill Cage ( a perfect Tom Cruise character name if ever there was one) is manipulated into battle against a wave of lethal alien opposition, landed on a beach (a claustrophobically built ode to Dunkirk) with other grunts despite his inability to operate the mandatory full-body armour or utilise basic combat techniques. The skirmish turns out to be decisive in the context of a wider global conflict, leading to Cage and the human race’s demise. He dies a disgraced coward, his species on the verge of extinction. Then he wakes up. Bemused, he finds himself being prepped for the exact same event, encountering identical faces and eventual Armageddon, culminating once again in death. The he wakes up. Realising that he can repeat the battle again and again, Cage tracks down legendary warrior Rita (Emily Blunt), who agrees (after several subsequent rebirths) to help him use his newfound talent to target the enemy hive-mind, and end the conflict once and for all.

Doug Liman’s last major studio venture was the critically maligned “Jumper”, so naturally most anything would mark an improvement. “Edge of Tomorrow” actually goes further, reminding us why some of his other features are still popular to this day. The snappiness of “Swingers”, the propulsive cuts of “The Bourne Identity” and the accomplished star handling evidenced in “Mr & Mrs Smith” are all present, Liman maintaining supreme control over the film’s structure and tone. The film-maker manages to splice a variety of moods into “Edge of Tomorrow” without upsetting the feature’s central fascination with character. It’s reminiscent of a young James Cameron, especially during the beach landings, in which Cruise’s bedraggled protagonist has to endure detonations, tricky monsters and even the perils of macabre slapstick. Of course after every incident he reawakens within a perpetual time-loop, but “Edge of Tomorrow” has a way of gifting each re-entry a specific and enjoyable ambiance.

Now, nearly ten years after his cyber-crucifixion for cavorting on a couch, Tom Cruise is finally done caring what we all think. His character in “Edge of Tomorrow” isn’t the clean-cut boy-scout type; instead he’s a wimpy political raconteur, displaying zero compassion for infantry on the frontline. Cruise makes early use of his trademark grin and underrated comic chops to underline Cage’s myriad flaws, making the first ill-fated burst of action particularly satisfying. Yet, each time the actor reawakens he brings a little something extra to the role, convincingly stacking up a supply of humanity across the hundreds of resets he endures. “Edge of Tomorrow” never allows much time in one single phase of the loop, making it difficult to illustrate a sweeping arc. Instead Cruise opts to vary his communicative rhythms, monster-bashing movements and semi-snarls to indicate gradual growth. It works, especially alongside Blunt’s steely “Full Metal Bitch”. Science fiction isn’t Blunt’s usual port of professional call, but she’s magnificently unrepentant and dangerous here, a more fearsome screen presence than any of the movie’s comparable men. It’s a strong female character in a genre famously short on them.

The climax isn’t as devious or memorable as the preceding 90 minutes, more enamoured with cultural tourism and CGI than the playful editing of the time loop business. “Edge of Tomorrow” resolves nimbly and never jeopardises its stature as awing spectacle, but some of the movie’s more daring moments feel distant come the finish. The spirit of James Cameron again looms here, the difference being that Liman doesn’t quite have the aforementioned maverick’s eye for definitive genre imagery. Cameron often elects to culminate his work on a note of mano y mano sucker punching, but peppers the formula with visual eccentricity and wonder. Think of his “Terminator” pictures and you’ll get the idea. Liman, despite having a sleek and accessible style, doesn’t possess such a talent for unforgettable framing, leaving “Edge of Tomorrow” as decently sculpted formula sans flavour on the home stretch.

“Edge of Tomorrow” doesn't completely neglect to address some of its softly applied political implications; after all as Cruise’s negligent spin-doctor is forced to suffer the savagery of violence, who won’t want to imagine smirking faces from our bureaucratic histories, forced to undergo similar gory comeuppances. The feature never becomes overtly preoccupied with said motif, but by keeping much of his focus on Cage’s interior transformation, Liman renders it impossible to fully dispel the notion from your viewing experience. It’s the final piece of the puzzle, a subdued intelligence and awareness to match the movie’s boisterous action and enterprising fantasy. It’s still early to be making rash claims, but it’ll only be the very best studio product that equals “Edge of Tomorrow” during the summer months sprawled out ahead. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014