This week, I have mostly been watching…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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I wanted to give this one a good few weeks for the multiplexes to empty out a little and to let the hype machine die down before I took myself along. As someone with only a mild interest in the Star Wars universe (I was well into my 20’s when I first saw the original trilogy, I also think Revenge of the Sith is a totally decent film), my feelings weren’t going to be particularly hurt by a subpar outing.

That being said it was one of the most out and out enjoyable experiences I’ve had in the cinema in a long time. Yes, even with my limited knowledge of the series I spotted all the comparisons to the original film, but I’ll take a bit of deja vu over the trading sanctions and brooding teen romances which dragged down the prequels. Instead it followed a tried and tested formula- something to please the old fans as well as win over a whole new generation- while introducing a whole host of new characters and a new threat in the form of The First Order.

As you would expect from J.J. Abrams, the visuals are crisp, from desert planets littered with wreckages of past conflicts, to the breath-taking aerial dog fights. The trio of new heroes, Rey, Finn and Poe are well drawn out characters with genuine depth and something interesting to bring to proceedings, while Adam Driver as big baddie Kylo Ren sways between sinister psychopath and petulant child with a bloody big lightsaber, adding an intriguing layer to proceedings.

Like the original trilogy there are a fair share of flaws and plot holes, but The Force Awakens- as it was with New Hope, Empire, and Jedi- gets all the important parts so completely right, that the negatives don’t really seem to matter. The film completely works as pure entertainment cinema and has me eagerly awaiting the next instalments. Whether or not they can deliver now that its lumbered with the burden of expectation, is quite another matter.

 

Wild Tales

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A deliciously sinful portmanteau about the animalistic side of human nature. Featuring six individual narratives with no over-lapping characters, Damian Szifron weaves his stories together with the common thread being a study of violence, revenge, and general stupidity.

It is a rare breed; being able to be laugh out loud funny and deeply unsettling within the space of a single frame. Events escalate at a ludicrous rate, creating moments seeped in irony and rife with physical gags which harken back to the days of classic slapstick, while offering a terrifying look at the ever increasing barriers which separate us as a society.

Produced by Pedro Almodovar, it is unsurprising to see some of his favourites in here, and the cast as a whole walk this fine line between comedy and tragedy masterfully. Their delivery is so crisp, the deadpan translates over from the native Spanish remarkably well. Wild Tales works as both a satirical piece of social commentary, and wicked slice of escapism and wish fulfilment. Probably would have made my top 10 of the year, if only I’d seen it in time.

 

Mamma Mia

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Another date night choice from my other half, this one falls into the same category as Star Wars, an event film that plays to its strengths so thoroughly that conventional criticism goes out the window.

Basing a film around the hits of ABBA means that the musical side of things is already taken care of before the cameras even start to role. So perfectly catchy are the songs that they require just the most threadbare connection to the plot to make them work. All else that is required is a suitably sunkissed Mediterranean location, and a game cast of likable stars, and you’re home and dry.

Director Phyllida Lloyd fulfills her end of the bargain, as does her cast. Oscar favourite Meryl Streep proves she isn’t above a significantly large portion of cheese, and Amanda Seyfried hasn’t reached such charming levels since the film’s 2008 release. More importantly than any of that, the film contains what is fast becoming one of my favourite phenomenons of modern films; when musicals hire actors that don’t have a singing background and give them impossible songs for them to sing.

Step forward Pierce Brosnan, who launches himself full-pelt into a rendition of S.O.S with total and utter conviction, and next-to-no ability to pull it off. It’s wavery, it’s off-pitch and it is utterly glorious. He took a lot of stick for his singing when the film was first released, but I didn’t see Colin Firth or Stellan Skarsgard having the gumption to try something so ballsy.

The Intern

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Nancy Meyers remakes The Internship, the charmless comedy from 2013 featuring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as a couple of old fashion salesmen attempting to work at the youth oriented Google.

Well not really, but the pitch for The Intern is remarkably similar, with Robert De Niro filling the shoes of Vaughn and Wilson, as a 70 year old widower who comes out of retirement to work at an uber-trendy online clothes retailer. At first patronised as something of an office mascot, old Bobby soon starts winning over his co-workers with his old-school approach to business, simultaneously saving the floundering company (which looks to be doing pretty damn well in all honesty), as well as improve the lives of all he comes into contact with.

What begins as a plucky, fish-out-of-water comedy about an elderly company man trying to find his footing in an ever changing professional world, descends into near farce as De Niro’s magic touch expands ever further. By the time he has helped one co-worker with relationship problems, provided another with a place to live, broken into someone’s house to delete a nasty email and saved the rocky marriage of his boss (Anne Hathaway, a steady pair of hands, if never particularly tested by the material), you realise he is neither Wilson or Vaughn in The Internship, but rather a corporate Mary Poppins. There is seemingly no business dilemma or life problem he cannot fix with his unbreakable eye contact and firm handshake. It’s a wonder that he never breaks into song (although if he did I suspect it would be, much like Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia, utterly glorious).

Nancy Meyers’ name suggests a higher level of sophistication when compared to other mainstream American comedies. It means that her films are usually very watchable, if rarely classics. The Intern is very much familiar territory for her, as she looks at themes like the difficulties for women in the workplace, and the romantic relationships of elderly characters. These recognisable traits, along with reliable performances from the whole cast, make for a pleasant film, albeit one that lacks focus for the majority of the runtime and, at just over 2 hours, more than outstays its welcome. It does however, manage to create enough goodwill to just about get away with it.

Michael Clancy (@clancyhighhat)

Give us a follow on Twitter @highhatfilmpod

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This week I have mostly been watching…

Straight Outta Compton

F. Gary Gray manages to avoid many of the normal pitfalls that come with musical biopics with Straight Outta Compton, his look at the rise and fall of notorious gangster rap group, N.W.A. Admittedly it bares the all-too-familiar rags-to-riches tale we’ve become accustom to in the genre, but there is a lot more going on here. Gray uses his three main protagonists to highlight the different skills of the group; Ice Cube’s lyrical genius, Dr. Dre’s flair for finding the right beat, and former drug dealer Easy E’s business acumen. This approach allows for an insightful look into why the group were so popular in the first place, as well as highlighting the differences that would eventually tear them apart.

The real trump card for the film is it’s depiction of the social conditions facing these young, black men in south central Los Angeles in the late 1980’s/early 90’s. The injustices they face from the police, both before and during their stardom provide the most engaging moments in the film. Sadly the points the film makes about police treatment towards minorities is as relevant today as it was back then. It is these scenes that really elevate the film above other recent biopics.

It is a shame then, that when the film moves away from these issues that it falls into some of the common tropes in the genre. It’s frustrating that a film with such a powerful message, leans so heavily on the ‘eureka’ moments to highlight major real life events. It makes the film feel more like a direct to tv film and hugely detracts from the gritty social commentary. It leaves Straight Outta Compton feeling fairly off balance when it could have been a real contender for film of the year.

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Hitman: Agent 47

The latest in the ever increasing line of movies adapted from popular video games, and certainly not one that proves the two medias are in any way compatible. That being said, Agent 47- which is second cinematic outing for the popular IO Interactive character- is nowhere near the worst example of video games brought to the big screen.

The plot is certainly clunky, and largely inconsequential, but there are glimpses of a watchable film nestled amongst the dross. For one Rupert Friend is just about the best choice you could make for the title character. He embodies the role, and while there is nothing in the film approaching the quality of his performance, in the opening scenes there is a shadowy sleekness to the way he is filmed, as if the pixellated character was brought to life.

The film does at least try to use the best elements of the source material, using a variety of weapons and booby traps to create some enjoyable action set pieces. The fundamental flaw with this series stems from a character like Agent 47. As a killing machine raised to essentially be a human Terminator, the character exhibits little charisma, giving you very little reason to care about him. Sadly, this is also the case for the secondary characters, which are poorly written and badly performed (keep an ear out for Hannah Ware’s wandering accent, which begins somewhere in Eastern Europe, and finishes up in London’s East End). It leads to a dull and limp offering, that has flashes fun thanks to well choreographed action and a strong lead performance.  But it could have been a whole lot worse.

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Edge of Tomorrow

The great under performer of last year’s big budget summer releases, and criminally so, as Edge of Tomorrow (or Live, Die, Repeat to give it it’s alternative, awesome title) represents one of the more original, interesting and well executed blockbusters of recent years.

The action is suitably crisp,  with the film’s selling point being that Tom Cruise- who’s character is given Groundhog Day-like powers allowing him to repeat the same day over and over again- and Emily Blunt have to battle their way through impossible numbers of alien hoards on a beach in France. These sequences play out like a video game (but not in a Hitman: Agent 47 kind of way), using what are essentially extra-lives and save points, with our main characters trying to avoid dying so they can advance to the next stage of the battle. It puts a different spin on typical action set pieces, with the repetition creating a comedic effect rather than purely building tension; it makes for a nice change.

Cruise does his part too. After a couple of decades doing these big budget films you would be forgiven for thinking he might be phoning them in at this point. Not the case, here he shows suitable range as his Major Cage benefits from his hundreds of lives to transform from a boot-licking, Captain Darling-esque, front-line dodger, to the alien ass-kicker his name suggests he would be. Throw in a refreshingly strong role for Blunt’s female lead, and a relationship that doesn’t interrupt the plot for some sentimental hand holding, and we have a fun slice of popcorn cinema that shows that maybe the future doesn’t lie with sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots.

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This week I have mostly been watching…

Mistress America

Cementing the fact that Noah Baumbach has found his muse with Greta Gerwig, the pair team up for a third time to produce a modern piece of screwball to rival anything from the classical Hollywood period. Gerwig’s delusionally optimistic go-getter Brooke thrusts herself into the life of her soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke)-a lonely student/wannabe writer- with hilarious consequences.

It sounds exhausting, and in the best possible way, most of the movie is, as audience and characters try to keep up with Brooke’s life, watching her change career paths seemingly mid-sentence. Kirke provides the perfect foil as the low-key Tracy, who manages to be inspired by her while pitying her at the same time. When Brooke unwittingly inspires Tracy’s latest short story, the film raises some interesting questions on what right Tracy had to turn her life into a tragic comedy of errors. In this way it mirrors Baumbach’s previous film While We’re Young, which looked at the importance of honesty and ethics in documentary filmmaking. Despite these similarities, the film is closer in tone to the director’s 2012 offering, Frances Ha. Linking all three films so effortlessly is quite some achievement.

The two leads bounce off each other perfectly in the opening acts before the film switches to something more akin to a bedroom farce at the home of Brooke’s former best friend/nemesis, Mimi Claire (Heather Lind). It’s very easy to get farce wrong, the writing and comedic timing has to be spot on to really deliver. Thankfully Baumbach has proved himself over the years to be a sharp writing talent and a solid director. The outcome was never in doubt. Mistress America is a real treat.

Mistress America is in cinemas now.

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Pixels

I’ve wasted enough words on this film. Needless to say it’s a tiresome vanity project in which Adam Sandler plays the greatest man who ever lived and his best friend is the President of the United States. Embarrassingly unfunny, horrendously self-indulgent and with an appalling attitude towards women. So pretty much the same as every other Sandler film from the last 10-15 years.

Click here for my full review.

Pixels is on major release now (but don’t waste your time).

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The Room

I finally got round to watching what is affectionately regarded as the worst film ever made. It works a lot better as a five minute Youtube highlight video than a feature length movie, it’s important to remember that in between every bizarre trip to the flower shop and declarations of being torn apart, there is a painfully dull, soap-opera style plot to sit through.

While it does drag by the end it is still great fun to marvel at all the bizarre filmmaking choices made throughout. It’s a shame no-one had the foresight to document the shoot, as a documentary on the making of The Room would be infinitely more interesting than the end product. That being said I did have a lot of fun, and will most definitely be attending a public screening the first chance I get.

It begs the question what happened to Tommy Wiseau that was so terrible that he felt the need to create such a remorselessly evil villain such as Lisa?

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Can’t Buy Me Love

It was fiancee’s choice for movie night, and she plumped for this high school comedy from the 1980’s. I tend to avoid Patrick Dempsey films as a general rule, viewing him as the cinematic equivalent of John Mayer, overly smug and insincere.

This is probably the best performance I’ve seen him deliver. He plays high school doofus Ronald, who pays the most popular girl at school to go out with him for a month. What sounds like the main premise of the film is actually over and done with after the first half an hour, with the remainder of the run time looking at how Ronald’s new found popularity changes him.

Dempsey is surprisingly convincing playing the nerd, but with his character acting like an obnoxious arse for two-thirds of the film, it’s hard to root for him. Amanda Peterson is definitely the star of the show. Rather than a two dimensional girl-next-door, it is a layered part that laments the shallowness existence that comes as the price of popularity. She almost single-handedly makes the film a perfectly watchable date movie.

Can’t Buy Me Love is available to stream on Netflix US.

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Marshland (La isla minima)

Alfonso Rodriguez’s dark crime opus has been referred to as a Spanish True Detective, a somewhat lazy and superficial comparison. The plot does sound familiar, two ideologically different cops are sent to a remote and backwater community to investigate a series of grizzly murders. But while Woody Harrelson mainly got annoyed with Matthew McConaughey for is rambling, nihilistic monologues, here, when the beliefs of the idealistic young Pedro (Raul Arevalo) clash with that of his partner, old-timer Juan (Javier Gutierrez)- who may or may not have fascist leanings- their differences reflect the divide facing their homeland in the 1980’s.

The film opens with a series of spectacular aerial shots of the Guadalquivir Marshes where the film is set. Each shot is stunningly rendered in such fine detail to make the interlocking deltas and streams resemble the human brain, arteries and heart. It sets the scene for one of the finest shot neo-noirs ever, with the twists and turns of the narrative and the ferocious love-hate relationship between partners making this an electric watch.

Marshland is in cinemas now.

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This week I have mostly been watching…

Ant-Man

It’s been really interesting to see how opinions on the Marvel Cinematic Universe have changed in between Avengers films. After the overwhelming success of the first film the studio launched ‘Phase 2’ of production, which saw sequels for Captain America, Thor and Iron Man, as well as the debut of The Guardians of the Galaxy. Rather than taking the studio in an exciting new direction, each film (with the exception of Guardians) pretty much followed the same blueprint established in the pre-Avenger days. While still being big money draws at the box office, it seems now that new releases from Marvel are viewed out of a force of habit rather than with any sort of eager anticipation.

Jump forward to Ant-Man, the final chapter in ‘Phase 2’, and you can see them trying to shake off the shackles of their familiar formula. There is a comedic touch throughout which shows they are embracing the silliness of the character. In that respect, Paul Rudd makes for a good choice for the lead role. Confident and likeable, but enough self-deprecating humour to make him accessible. The shrinking superpower leads to a mission that is essentially a micro-heist, but also allows for some good physical comedy, particularly the final battle which takes place on a young girl’s train set (departed director Edgar Wright’s fingerprint’s are all over that sequence).

These nice flourishes aside it is still very much a Marvel movie; a charismatic lead get his powers, a couple of montages showing him mastering them, a fight with a baddie who has militarised version of said powers, and we’re home and dry. There’s enough of interest in Ant-Man for it to get away with this, but we’re going to need something new heading into Phase 3.

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Max

The story of a boy and his PTSD suffering dog. The reasons for this film being made are pretty obvious; American audiences love films about war heroes (see the $350 million domestic gross for American Sniper), and they love films about dogs (see all those bloody Air Bud movies).  If you can bring the two together then surely you have a license to print money. Remember the Titans director Boaz Yankin is sadly not the man for the job. He oversees a lopsided affair, partly looking at the horrors of war and the toll it takes on both humans and their four-legged friends, partly a feel good story about a family who reluctantly take in a troublesome dog, with unlikely bonds being formed.

It is American Sniper meets Beethoven, with a bizarre subplot involving gun smuggling to Mexico thrown in at the last minute to create an action heavy finale. There is probably a really interesting and moving film to be made about dogs that are trained for combat, and what happens to them when the strains of the job mean they can’t do it anymore. This is not it.

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Manglehorn

Earlier this year, Al Pacino starred in a film called Danny Collins, in which he played an ageing singer who, after reflecting on his career singing the same catchy, Sweet Caroline-esqe tune, decides to jack it all in, move into a hotel, and attempt to connect with the son he never knew. The film was maddening, Pacino was insufferable in the role of this mega rich egomaniac, spending his time making insufferable banter with Annette Bening’s hotel manager, and giving us zero reasons to care about him.

With Manglehorn, Pacino plays another old man struggling with loneliness, only this time he is intentionally unlikable. This is where the similarities between the films end. David Gordon Green directs a reflexive, meandering think piece, the lead character becomes a vision of missed opportunity and regret, depicted in the letters Pacino dictates in voice-over to a long lost love. By creating a realistic character with relatable problems, Manglehorn succeeds where Danny Collins failed so spectacularly, in creating a sympathetic lead we actually give a damn about. Even if we don’t like the guy, we can at least feel some compassion for him. It is not a particularly accessible film- dual scenes often overlap creating a jarring effect- it is also a little obvious at times when delivering its messages. But it is also interesting and well shot, and gosh darn it, it’s just nice to see Pacino look as if he still gives a damn.

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Fantastic Four

A film that wishes it received the apathy Ant-Man was met with, as opposed to the venomous slaughtering it got, even before most people had seen it. Admittedly, it doesn’t help when your director sends out a tweet on the day of  release saying a year ago he had made a great version of the film, but no-one will get a chance to see it. This and other examples of negative word of mouth have proved to be the kiss of death on this $120 million reboot, which has taken a paltry $26 million Stateside over a disastrous opening weekend.

It is bearing the brunt of the always inevitable superhero backlash, which is a shame because even though the film isn’t all that good, it also isn’t really that bad either. The script is weak, but the vastly talented lead cast do their best with it. It is lacking in action and it ends just when it feels like it is gaining momentum, but with the superhero movie market becoming so bloated (and it’s only going to get worse), it’s nice to get a film that tries to do things a little differently. Then there’s Reg E. Cathey, who plays Franklin Storm (father of Sue and Johnny) and man with a voice so rich he makes Morgan Freeman sound like a smurf. Who better to preach the importance of the team working together for the betterment of humanity? I could listen to his pep-talks all day. That’s got to count for something. There’s little else there other than the potential for something special, should the film ever be granted a sequel.

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