Cinema Lottery #3

cinema 3 spring breakers

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Rating: 2/5

Any film is instantly improved at least twofold with the inclusion of Dwayne Johnson. The most electrifying man in all entertainment, Johnson has become a massive box office draw in recent years, and has already revitalised the Fast and Furious franchise, so much so that the fifth instalment was easily one of the best films of 2011, and great things are expected of the sixth. His casting in the latest G.I Joe film was, therefore, a smart business decision, and the only reason why I was excited to see it.

Retaliation expects its viewers to be aware of the first movie, Rise of the Cobra, but it’s not difficult to catch up. The characters are no more complex than their plastic toy origins – simple, quickly established, handily divided between good guys and bad guys. The Duke (Channing Tatum), the first film’s star, and his best buddy, the aptly named Roadblock (a supremely beefed up Johnson), have some nice exchanges early on, hinting at the comedy potential of this pairing, but Tatum is quickly dispatched, letting Roadblock take the helm. Tasked with stopping a fiendish plot of truly global proportions, he and his remaining companions (a pretty girl and a handsome man, both devoid of personality) are forced to fight the good fight without the usual government support; cue lots of dialogue-as-exposition, explosions and, in one head-spinning, eye-ball straining (particularly in 3D) set piece, an acrobatic sword fight on a Himalayan cliff-face.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation does exactly what it says on the tin – it has no aspirations to greatness, just to mindless entertainment. Yet even Johnson cannot save it from mediocrity. Some decisions work well – the inclusion of Jonathan Pryce as both a villain and an ally adds some respectability – and some, less so. Bruce Willis, who features heavily in the trailers, cameos as an older version of a young Bruce Willis, and is utterly irrelevant. The big bad, masked villain Cobra, does destroy London in a all-too-brief scene that Roland Emmerich would be proud of, but the overall film is underwhelming, oddly convoluted, and – most disappointingly – not silly enough to be entertaining.

Dark Skies

Rating: 3/5

Opening with an Arthur C. Clarke quote, Dark Skies is a standard genre flick in which an average family – recently laid off husband, nice wife, two young sons – are terrorised by aliens. With the household dynamics quickly established, the extraterrestrial activity begins; first dismissed as a wild animal’s quest for food, then a prank, it soon becomes clear that something otherworldly is going on.

Primarily a visual effects man, writer/director Scott Stewart keeps the effects to a minimum, preferring to retain an air of mystery, to the film’s benefit. The aliens, typical greys, are glimpsed only in shadows, or out of focus creeping behind an unwitting character and, even then, are rarely on screen. As the family start experiencing stranger and stranger phenomena, including sleepwalking, losing time, and hallucinating, again the effects are minimal and, consequently, there are some well placed jumps and some unsettling, eerie moments.

As parents Lacy and Daniel, Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton are likeable though both slightly drippy; too much focus is paid to their sons, neither of whom are particularly convincing. JK Simmons (Juno, Burn After Reading) appears for a few brief scenes as UFOlogist/ conspiracy theorist Edwin, but he is woefully underused. As the film progresses, any character development becomes overwhelmed by the narrative – the family’s money problems are quickly forgotten, for example – and, despite a promising, if formulaic, start, it falters in the final scenes, with a silly, tacked on twist designed to offer a glimmer of hope in what would otherwise be a rather bleak conclusion. Effective but uninspiring, Dark Skies is a good example of a conventional genre film, but never becomes anything more.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Rating: 3/5

The latest live-action Disney movie, The Odd Life of Timothy Green is an example of a rare genre in today’s gritty world, where darker is automatically better – a wholesome, old-fashioned family movie. Its plot is a simple reinterpretation of the mandrake root baby (as seen in both Harry Potter and Pan’s Labyrinth): a young couple who can’t have children spend a night writing down all the qualities their imaginary son or daughter would have, put the notes in a box and bury it in the garden, only to discover a muddy child with leaves growing out of his ankles in their kitchen a few hours later.

The overall feeling throughout Timothy Green is one of general niceness, but there are some strange lapses in judgement that threaten its amiable nature. Timothy himself, who emerges as a ten year old boy, develops a friendship with a sour-faced older girl, but this friendship is tinged with inappropriate romantic notions. Worse than this, however, is the contrast between Cindy and Jim Green, and all the other parents, who are alternately revealed as power-hungry, inconsiderate, weak, unsupportive and, in the worst cases, unloving liars. While it is clear the Greens are born to be parents, it seems a shame that no one else in the town is.

It’s hard to be too critical, however. This is a film with some dislikeable people, but no real enemies; a film in which family values are the most important thing, and one in which everyone learns and grows as a result of kindness and a simple miracle. Celebrating family life and small town culture, it is harmless and superficial but pleasant despite its missteps.

All Things to All Men

Rating: 2/5

The latest gritty Brit gangster movie, All Things to All Men sees a corrupt cop, his slightly less corrupt partner, and an idealistic newbie on the hunt for a London crime boss, whose son is a cocaine-dealing junkie. There’s also a diamond thief who plays some kind of role, but by the end, you just won’t care.

Even the addition of Gabriel Byrne as aforementioned crime boss/ godfather Joseph Corso isn’t enough to save this tedious film; he is personable but underwhelming. The acting is all perfunctory – the British cast do what they can to make their two-dimensional characters memorable, but the script is sloppy and poorly judged, and despite their physical differences, the almost exclusively male cast blur into one blank-faced non-entity. No one is particularly likeable – Leo Gregory’s rookie cop Dixon is supposed to be the most affable, one assumes, because of his noble sob story motivations, but it is too clichéd to be effective.

Despite the mystery and intrigue, and even despite the clunky inclusion of a car chase, this is a dull, unoriginal affair. London is used well – a wealth of famous landmarks, from the Eye to Battersea, are the backdrops to conversations and illicit drops, all shot in gritty, muted shades of grey. The film’s score is incessant and irritating, forcing tension and emotion out of an unemotional, lacklustre script. Some pizzazz has been added in the form of a string of expensive cars, but even the two-second inclusion of an Aston Martin is not enough to get the heart racing. All Things to All Men is boring, conventional, entirely lacking humour or personality, overly convoluted and, right until the very end, dull.

Spring Breakers

Rating: 3/5

Hailed as writer/director Harmony Korine’s most mainstream film, Spring Breakers is part Girls Gone Wild, part MTV music video, part neon trash, part coming-of-age heist movie, but never really manages to be entertaining. It is a divisive movie, but more than that, it is an utterly hollow movie.

The big coup, the film’s greatest success, is its casting of former clean-cut Disney stars (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson) as interchangeable blondes whose only aspirations are to have an unforgettable spring break. After failing to save enough money, even with the help of their nice Christian friend Faith (yes, really), they opt to rob a diner; thus begins their summer of crime. In Florida, surrounded by other spring breakers, they enjoy drugs and the promise of sexual liberation, before joining with pathetic white gangsta Alien (James Franco) who seduces them with guns and claims of the American dream.

Despite the onslaught of bare breasts, thongs, drug-taking and profuse swearing, Korine’s film never feels truly debauched. It is forced and superficial, like an awkward kid pretending to be wild to fit in. The characters are even flimsier than their tiny neon bikinis; Gomez’ Faith comes closest to actually developing, but as soon as she considers it, she heads back home, leaving the three identikit teens to continue the mayhem. They do so in scenes that repeat themselves over and over, displaying the party lifestyle while voice-overs discuss pseudo-profound inanities like destiny and finding oneself on a loop. Yet if this is supposed to be ironic, it never quite manages to make itself clear. Instead it feels disjointed and monotonous; the girls go from drawing giant cocks on their school books to robbing students at gunpoint in what seems like a few days, with no sense of transition or reason.

Perhaps Korine’s film is supposed to be vacuous; a reproduction of the superficiality of teens who really do believe that partying for a week is a life-changing experience. And perhaps it’s okay that no one really learns any kind of lesson. Yet for a film so clearly rooted in trash, it never really becomes trash. It never really achieves the porno style it is emulating; the parties never seem vibrant, the music – by Cliff Martinez, whose techno score was so effective in the superb Drive – never quite reaches the deliriousness that should be felt. By the end, all the chaos and partying becomes nothing; Spring Breakers is completely empty.


Film #15: Scanners (1981)

film 15 scanners

Rating: 4/5

“You’re a scanner, which you don’t realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power.”

Written and directed by David Cronenberg, Scanners is filled with smart ideas and visceral body horror – an intelligent science-fiction film inspired by literary sources, notably a chapter in William S Borough’s Naked Lunch. In fact, the whole film has a distinct 1950s feel to it, despite the gore; this is a story it is easy to imagine John Wyndham (Day of the Triffids) writing, for example.

For some unknown reason, a small section of the population has become “scanners” or, in the words of pharmaceutical company Consec’s CEO, “telepathic curiosities” – people who can read the minds of others, and who can inflict terrible pain and control at will. Rather than gain power, these scanners are generally outcasts; the mental confusion caused by the constant onslaught of human thought doesn’t allow them to integrate properly in society. This is how we are first introduced to Cameron (Stephen Lack); stealing cigarettes and stray chips in a shopping mall, unable to stop himself from scanning a disapproving old lady, causing her to have a seizure. Captured by Consec, and trained by Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), Cameron learns of a small faction of scanners run by the powerful, power-hungry Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside).

Scanners features several memorable moments – most famous is the early “exploding head” scene. Cronenberg’s gore is tangible and disturbing, expertly realised through make-up and clever camera work. Yet it is never gratuitous, nor does it ever replace or overwhelm the intelligent concept at the film’s core. Much of the film’s narrative takes place in conference rooms and office buildings; it is surprisingly restrained, with a formality permeating every scene. Everyone wears suits, dialogue is restricted entirely to narrative necessity – the audience hears nothing more than what is required to understand events – and the overarching theme is less about the individuals in the film, and more a commentary on scientific advances and their effect on society as a whole.

Cronenberg’s direction is stylish and deliberate; many aspects of the filmmaking are achieved with great success. Most of the sets are minimalist and functional; blank walls and clinical spaces that contrast perfectly with the more overt symbolic representations filling an artist’s isolated workshop, which becomes the location of an important, violent sequence midway through the film. Here, there is a great moment of self-awareness as Cameron and the artist, Benjamin, discuss their abilities while sitting in a gigantic severed head – for all intents and purposes, in this moment they become the voices they have struggled so much to repress.

The film’s score is highly effective also – and necessarily so. Thoughts are heard by the scanners as though they were spoken underwater; barely intelligible, they are unsettling and frustrating. High pitched tones and synthetic noises permeate many scenes also, cleverly mimicking the clear discomfort that results from being scanned.

Ironside is excellent as Darryl, a man who accepts his own mental superiority and the freedom that comes with it. In a performance reminiscent of those of Jack Nicholson, he is sinister, with a cold smile that never reaches his eyes, and a muted insanity lurking just beneath the surface. Problematically, the film’s hero, Cameron, is a less interesting character, blandly portrayed by Lack. While his blank stare and confused gaze is at times effective, his performance feels hollow; particularly in comparison to Darryl, he lacks the charisma to really carry the narrative.

Much has been written about Scanners, and it is easy to see why. It’s a film that invites analysis, that feels like a metaphor for a deeper, real social problem. It is also gripping, despite its slow, detached pace, with enough twists, turns, and unexpected reveals to surprise viewers up until the last moments. Although the eyeball-popping, head-exploding, and shotgun-blasting action are by far the film’s most visually memorable scenes, these are not the most interesting aspects of it; the concepts within Cronenberg’s functional, intelligent script are far more disturbing than their violent representations.

Films #10-14: The Twilight Saga

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Ratings: Twilight – 4/5; New Moon – 2/5; Eclipse – 4/5; Breaking Dawn Part 1 – 3/5; Breaking Dawn Part 2 – 3/5

Along with dance movies, these are my true guilty pleasure. I am judged more for having these films in my collection than for any others – it’s okay to love Robot Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space, but Twilight? That’s a different story.

The saga has suffered much ridicule over the last five years, culminating in guests of website Rifftrax (the same guys behind Mystery Science Theater 3000, which specifically deals with ripping bad movies to shreds) voting the entire franchise the Worst Movie of All Time – beating the likes of The Room, Batman and Robin, Transformers, and Troll 2. This year also saw the final film of the series, Breaking Dawn Part 2, sweeping the board at the Razzies. But is it really deserved?

My decision to have my own Twiathalon was due in part because, as I have said, they are my guilty pleasure – and let me just preface, I am not incapable of recognising its flaws – and because my boyfriend had made me watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended edition) in one sitting, and this was my revenge. I would like to point out that the five films in the Twilight series are still an hour and ten minutes shorter than Peter Jackson’s three movies.

So. First up, Twilight. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), this is a small, muted film – the humble independent beginnings of what would become one of the biggest franchises ever. Hardwicke has, sensibly, altered Stephanie Meyer’s story for the screen, adding extra moments of action and introducing the bad guys early on. For the most part, this film focuses on Bella (Kirsten Stewart) meeting Edward (Robert Pattinson) and learning what he truly is. It’s a film about vampires, that doesn’t even mention the word for the first fifty minutes. Slow, filled with blue tones and haunting music, it is cheesy but self-aware, angsty but unashamedly romantic. It is also by far the best film of the franchise; perhaps because there was no pressure on them, and because of their indie director, Twilight is delicate, meandering, and evocative.

Sadly, Hardwicke declined to continue directing the now insanely popular (and already reviled) series so Chris Weitz – yes, the man behind the deplorable abomination that was The Golden Compass – takes over. New Moon is probably the most faithful representation of any of Meyer’s books, and it is tedious and embarrassingly trite as a result. Instead of focusing on the emotional damage caused by Edward leaving, Weitz creates a page-by-page recreation of what is already a dull book. The soulful tunes of Hardwicke’s film are replaced by a manipulative, clichéd orchestral score that forces emotion out of the viewer through cringe-worthy swells and beats; the atmospheric blue palette is gone, and the focus on actors is abandoned for an over-dependence on CGI. In a moment of horribly ill-conceived “artistry”, Weitz also reveals Bella as the vampire she will one day become – clad in white linen, glittering and frolicking in the woods with her beau. It’s supposed to be beautiful; it’s actually ridiculous. Weitz’ only saving grace is the addition of Michael Sheen as Aro, the power-hungry ancient vampire who ensures the community’s strict laws are kept.

Luckily, Weitz lasts only one film and is one again replaced – anyone doubting the auteur theory need just look at The Twilight Saga to see the influence of the director on the final quality and style of their production. David Slade (30 Days of Night) is at the helm here, and his film is slick, stylish, and dynamic. Fortunately for him, Eclipse is by far the most action-packed and interesting book, and his screenplay includes Meyer’s additional text, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, which allows the action to transcend the sleepy town of Forks and move beyond Edward and Bella’s relationship. This is also the only novel that culminates in an actual battle, and the CGI that caused so many laughs in Weitz’ film has been refined here. Eclipse is by far the most accomplished of the franchise; unlike Hardwicke’s small production, this is big budget, action-packed, and utterly professional.

But, naturally, Slade did not stay. The final book, the worst in the saga, is lengthy and in desperate need of editing. It also contains some of the strangest, most uncomfortable plot points, all of which appear to be included to ensure a happy ending for absolutely everyone. As a series, The Twilight Saga seems to get most of its criticism for its narrative, which is entirely due to Meyer’s bizarre decisions. It is telling that the best films of the franchise were the ones that deviated from their source material. Anyway, onto Breaking Dawn. Featuring sex, grotesque pregnancy, and the most violent, disturbing delivery ever, as well as some rather dodgy romance between Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and Bella’s offspring, the question became, how will anyone do this justice when restricted by a 12A rating?

Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) may not have seemed the most obvious choice – it would have been great to see how Slade handled the pregnancy – but generally he succeeds in bringing the difficult final novel to the big screen. Like Weitz, his films remain largely faithful to the books, but unlike Weitz, his adaptations are more accomplished. By this point, the actors are all entirely familiar with their roles – both Lautner and Pattinson seem to be having fun, with performances that have a distinct tongue-in-cheek-ness to them. The most criticised in reviews, Stewart is, as always, completely serious and it is this intensity that doesn’t always translate. The large ensemble gathered in Part 2 is mostly just window dressing, though Lee Pace is charismatic and engaging as ally Garret.

While Bella’s pregnancy is truly revolting, and well realised considering the classification, Condon also makes some dire choices – predominantly the decision to give Bella and Edward’s baby a CGI face. It is stupid and unnecessary, and entirely distracting. Such as shame that a series already mocked and reviled by so many (though it often appears that the people ripping the films to shreds haven’t actually watched any of them) makes such irrational and daft missteps. Breaking from the source material entirely, Condon also gives the viewers the battle that is missing from Meyer’s happily-ever-after tale; this is a necessary, though exasperating, addition.

So there you go. Five Twilight movies, ten hours, one day. Are they really (collectively) the worst film of all time? Absolutely not. What is apparent is the wavering quality throughout – none match Hardwicke’s first film, though Slade comes close. Weitz’ movie is easily the franchise’s lowest point, while Condon does the best he can with the too-long, too-neat, too-confused final novel. Yes, they are cheesy, yes, they are overly romantic, yes, they are Marmite movies. If you like them, the quality doesn’t matter; if you hate them, you probably won’t watch them, no matter what people tell you. As guilty pleasures go, they’re pretty much perfect.

Films #8 and 9: Madmen of Mandoras (1963) and They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968)

film 8 madmen of mandoras
Ratings: 2/5, 1.5/5

“Hitler, alive? That’s incredible!”

Despite different names and a five-year gap, these films are inextricably linked, mainly because they are almost the exact same movie. With current ratings of 2.6/10 and 2.3/10 on IMDB respectively, the latter in particular is widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time, which has led to the former also being tarred with the same brush.

Madmen of Mandoras, directed by David Bradley, is a convoluted tale about a group of Nazis living on the South American island of Mandoras. Taking their orders from the severed head of Adolf Hitler – or, as he is affectionately called, Mr H – they plan on releasing a deadly gas into the atmosphere so that they can achieve global domination. The only problem is that Professor Coleman has the antidote. Coleman and his beatnik floozy daughter Suzanne are kidnapped and taken to Mandoras, where the professor is subjected to torture (in a moment of worrying foresight, this comes in the form of sensory abuse) and Suzanne is told to go and party, but not to phone home. Learning of her father’s disappearance, other daughter KC and her husband Phil travel to the tropical island to foil Mr H’s evil plans.

The film boasts some impressive cinematography, shot by two-time Oscar nominee Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons), but it’s not enough to save it. The narrative is overly complicated and filled with plot holes, made even more confusing by the poor introductions of the cast. There are moments of total ineptitude – in one lengthy passage of stock footage montage, island native Camino (Carlos Rivas) tells KC and Phil about the war and the involvement of his brother (Rivas, with a moustache) in Hitler’s dastardly plot to cheat death. With Camino’s face superimposed over World War II footage and newly filmed scenes of Mr H ranting manically in a bunker, he falls silent on several occasions, apparently allowing KC and Phil to visualise the story unaided.

Oddly, the severed head of Mr H communicates mostly through emphatic eyebrow movements, although he does shout “Mach Schnell” on occasion. Somehow, however, his lackeys understand his intentions just fine. It is slightly unclear why Adolf had to be decapitated in order to live an extra eighteen years after the war but, ultimately, his plans for eternal life did not take into account the effect of a well-positioned hand grenade.

Although it sounds action-packed, Madmen of Mandoras is so incoherent and muddled that it never feels exciting or dynamic. It’s worth watching, however, just for the melting head of Mr H in the film’s climactic battle; surrounded by flames, the once-powerful Fuhrer silently disintegrates right before our very eyes. At a brief seventy-eight minutes, this scene alone is worth the drudgery that precedes it.

And now, They Saved Hitler’s Brain. In 1968 some enterprising folks decided to sell Madmen of Mandoras to the television networks but, problematically, it was too short. Enter some UCLA students, who add a whopping twenty minutes of footage, and hey presto! Problem solved. Except, eliminating one of the film’s flaws – its length – introduced a wealth of brand new ones.

Instead of integrating new footage throughout Bradley’s film, the additions all take place at the beginning. Madmen of Mandoras’ opening sequence, involving a lecture-style scene providing information about the deadly gas, is replaced with a man getting blown up in a car. This event results in two CID agents investigating: a floppy-haired man called Vic and Toni, who is hilariously mistaken for a bloke because of her name. Adding new layers of convolution to the already bemusing plot, they proceed to interview people who have nothing to do with anything, discuss gender issues, decide to not interview Professor Coleman (see what they did there?!), witness the abduction of “Coleman” by two men who are almost always described by critics as “the Blues Brothers,” learn their boss is actually a Nazi double agent, and die, ensuring that, after twenty five minutes, everything shown is rendered irrelevant. After Toni has died of a gunshot wound, the boss has been shot, and Vic has crashed his car into an electricity generator (footage taken from Thunder Road), Bradley’s film is shown, entirely unaltered.

Apart from the mention of Coleman, and a scene apparently showing the professor being kidnapped, and a sequence from Bradley’s original film inserted without context or introduction, there are no attempts to integrate the new footage with old. Costume and hairstyles reveal the time gap – in the new opening scenes, the men wear flares and sport distinctive porn-star hairstyles, in stark contrast to the restrained formality of Madmen of Mandoras’ cast. While the majority of Bradley’s scenes take place indoors, the uncredited opening sequence in They Saved Hitler’s Brain consists predominantly of blurry exterior shots. The films’ scores are entirely different also; orchestral accompaniment is replaced with jazzy tones. Everything about this new addition reveals the shoddy, half-hearted, careless lack of artistry, which has in turn caused Bradley’s convoluted, but inoffensive, movie to be dragged down.

Today, the two films are seldom distinguished. Watching Bradley’s movie is a confusing viewing experience; this is nothing in contrast to They Saved Hitler’s Brain, which eschews any sense of narrative continuity. Of course, after the initial twenty-five minutes, the characters we were led to believe were the film’s heroes are never mentioned again, nor are the events that occurred in the opening moments. In truth, after adjusting to the difference in character, plot, score, and visual elements, this added footage is easy to forget entirely. It just means the viewer has to wait even longer to see Mr H go up in flames.

Cinema Lottery #2

cinema 2 burt wonderstone

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Rating: 3/5

Steve Carell is Burt Wonderstone, a world-famous magician headlining at a Vegas Hotel with his magical partner, Anton (Steve Buschemi), whose life is thrown into turmoil with the arrival of a new magician, Steve Gray. In contrast to the campy pizazz of Wonderstone’s David Copperfield-esque show, Gray is a gross-out street performer whose “tricks” include sleeping on hot coals and not going to the toilet.

Burt Wonderstone is an entertaining, harmless, if forgettable movie whose specific focus on the title character results in an uneven narrative, ranging from slapstick comedy (mainly from Jim Carrey, whose Criss Angel-inspired Gray is by far the most dynamic, if despicable, character) to heart-warming indie flick and back again. Carell is engaging as Wonderstone, although all that separates this performance from any of his others is a bouffant hairpiece and some fake tan, while Buschemi is sympathetic but underused.

At the core, the film is about loving magic, and the wonder of a really great trick but, sadly, the magic in it is basic and uninspiring. With the focus on the magicians, their tricks – how the magic really works – are revealed too often, so the viewer is afforded no sense of awe, even in the final scene. Likeable and fun, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is good, but (sorry folks), not incredible.

Identity Thief

Rating: 1/5

Easily the worst film of the day – in a day of mediocre movies – Identity Thief is head-smashingly, excruciatingly dull; a comedy without any comedy. Jason Bateman is Sandy Patterson, an average joe straight guy, whose identity is stolen by Diana (Melissa McCarthy), a truly hideous human being. Much is made of the hilarious fact that Sandy is a girl’s name; this brilliant gag is just one of many involving obesity, fat people having sex, foreigners, and other lame, crude-but-juvenile sources of entertainment.

When the police refuse to help, citing bureaucratic excuses, and Sandy risks losing his job, he elects to track down the thief himself, wherein the film becomes an irritating, boring odd-couple-road-trip saga. Bateman plays the same role he has always played, as does McCarthy. The audience is expected to like these insufferable characters because Sandy has a pregnant wife (the utterly irrelevant Amanda Peet) and Diana was abandoned as a baby. This, of course, excuses her horrific behaviour – her pathological lying, selfishness, unkindness, and total disregard for anyone other than herself. And, just to truly infuriate, Diana’s inevitable moral epiphany comes when a group of vacuous shop assistants cruelly judge her outwardly appearance – more than hypocritical in a film where the majority of its lengthy running time is dedicated to making a joke out of precisely that.

Unpleasant, overly long, drab and immature, Identity Thief is a truly horrible movie, with horrible characters, a horrible plot, and a saccharine-sweet (and, consequently, horrible) ending.

Jack the Giant Slayer

Rating: 2/5

The latest in a long line of revisionary fairy tale movies, Jack the Giant Slayer is an altogether half-hearted affair that places too much emphasis on computer graphics, and not enough on plot or characterisation. Starring a wealth of British actors, including Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies), Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, and Ewen Bremner alongside a surprisingly lacklustre Stanley Tucci, although it twists the classic story slightly, it is a mundane, generic outing.

Brian Singer, whose X-Men films helped to elevate graphic novel adaptations to their immensely popular status today, shows little flair or imagination here. The screenplay does not give him much to work with, however – too-obvious cliches are exploited, such as simultaneously introducing peasant Jack and princess Isabelle to show that, despite their different social status, they are kindred spirits. A largely humourless film, its CGI giants nevertheless fart, belch, and pick their nose; they also appear to change size frequently and don’t have enough strength to break down a wooden drawbridge (but enough to smash through a reinforced metal gate in seconds).

Along with the impressive (particularly in 3D) felling of the beanstalk, the film’s saving grace is Ewan McGregor who, as the deliberately bland, unflappable knight Elmond, is ironically the most charismatic presence. Jack himself is entirely forgettable. Lacking any sense of enthusiasm or, crucially, fun, Jack the Giant Slayer is too gory for kids, too juvenile for adults, and too serious to be entertaining.

The Croods

Rating: 2.5/5

This brightly coloured movie, filled with fantastical creatures and likeable characters, is a straight-up kids movie – less sophisticated as Pixar’s animated films, but a reasonably entertaining, inoffensive adventure with family at its core. The prehistoric world in which the Croods – mum, dad, rebellious teenage daughter, ignoramus son, mother-in-law, and feral baby – live is reminiscent more of Journey to the Centre of the Earth or The Mysterious Island than anything rooted in reality, giving the animators an opportunity to let their imaginations run wild.

Having survived various plagues and beasts because of the patriarch’s inherent fear of everything, the Croods’ difficult, yet familiar life is disrupted by the appearance of a handsome young man called Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and his claims about the end of the world. And, sure enough, he’s right – lurking behind them at all times is yet another apocalyptic natural disaster, providing a rather epic and ominous backdrop to all the psychedelic surrealism ahead. Thrust into a world where everything is new the Croods have to learn to adapt – while the film may initially appear to be focusing on the budding relationship between daughter Eep and Guy, really it’s much more about her father, who has to evolve, allow Eep to grow up, and learn to be less scared.

The Croods does have some nice moments – the interaction between the family members may be unoriginal, but it is pleasantly engaging. It is also refreshing to realise that this is a film without a bad guy – yes, some of the creatures they encounter try to eat them, but no one is evil or nasty. And, while their path has been destroyed by earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, the focus is always on the possibility of tomorrow.

Film #7: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

film 7 a beautiful mind

Rating: 4.5/5

“Man is capable of as much atrocity as he has imagination.”

A Beautiful Mind is the perfect example of a film that you buy because it’s really rather excellent, but it then sits on your shelves unwatched. Viewing it for a second time is also a completely different experience from the first; it is not spoiled, merely altered. It is difficult, on repeated viewings, to not be dragged out of the narrative – particularly in the first hour, filmmaking techniques become the focus of attention, more than the characters’ actions. However, through this, the subtlety of Ron Howard’s direction becomes more obvious and, thankfully, the film does not rely entirely on some clever parlour tricks.

Russell Crowe is excellent as John Nash, a brilliant but socially awkward mathematician whose work at Princeton brings him to the attention of the government, who covertly hire him to crack codes sent by the Russians. It is the 1950s, and the Cold War was in full swing; it was not unheard of for civilians to be employed for their individual talents. Yet for Nash, events take a turn for the worse as he becomes further embroiled in his double life, trying to juggle his teaching, spying, and his family, all the while becoming more paranoid and isolated.

Based on a true story – John Nash is still alive today – the “twist” may not be such a revelation to people familiar with the mathematician. His situation is handled with serious earnest throughout: A Beautiful Mind is clear Oscar bait, so much so that to praise it now almost seems a cliché. As films go, it is not particularly spectacular either visually or technically, though a polished professionalism permeates every scene. Each moment feels deliberate and considered, carefully orchestrated and prepared. It may not be ground-breaking filmmaking, but it is undoubtedly very well executed.

Although nominated for an Academy Award, Crowe lost out to Denzel Washington (Training Day, 2001). Crowe’s performance is very much an actor’s performance: although understated and dedicated, it is difficult to not see Crowe as John Nash. The character is perfectly represented, but it never becomes more than a representation. In contrast, Jennifer Connelly, who won Best Supporting Actress, is utterly believable as Nash’s wife, struggling with a baby and an unexpectedly life-changing situation. The acting throughout is excellent; Paul Bettany adds much needed energy to his role as Charles, Nash’s Princeton roommate and best friend, while Ed Harris and Christopher Plummer bring further respectability to the film, playing smaller, but no less important roles.

There are some flaws – the most interesting moments in the film are those showing the strain placed on Nash’s marriage, and his relationship with his wife in contrast to, for example, Charles. Yet in the latter portion events become more rushed, and Connelly disappears from screen, popping up again in the final moments with so much ageing make-up that it renders her unrecognisable. Similarly, his son features for mere minutes on screen, growing from an infant to a young adult without any sense of upbringing. Yet these problems serve to remind us that, predominantly, this is a film about Nash, whose life is, really, filled with too much for a two hour biopic.

It is little wonder that A Beautiful Mind won Best Film in 2002: mere months after the events of September 11, the 2002 Oscars were a muted affair. Here, Howard gave the Academy – and cinema audiences – a film about redemption, about a man dealing with his demons, who emerges triumphant; uplifting and inspirational, which was exactly what was needed at the time. And, much like 2011’s Best Film, The King’s Speech, this film is an actor’s film, one that eschews trickery or experimentation to focus specifically on the story and the performances. In this respect, it achieves its goals perfectly.

Film #6: Scared to Death (1947)

film 6 scared to death

Rating: 2/5, but a thoroughly entertaining 2/5

“What’s she doing wandering around, she’s supposed to be a corpse!”

Scared to Death is the first of many Bela Lugosi films to be selected, and is the only one in colour, albeit slightly blurry, unrealistic colour. Made in 1947, it is a bonkers, bizarre film in which a corpse narrates the events leading up to her death. The plot holes are so plentiful that they become the norm – a murder mystery in which everyone is a suspect, it appears misdirection is preferable to continuity. In fact, trying to decipher exactly what has happened is futile: almost none of it makes any sense.

Molly Lamont is Laura Van Ee, the estranged, neurotic wife of Ward, the son of psychiatrist (?) Dr Joseph. She is also the deceased narrating the story. Apparently being held prisoner in Dr Joseph’s home, she is convinced that her husband is trying to kill her, though he swears emphatically that he isn’t. Meanwhile, a strange blue mask keeps appearing at a window that is never shown in relation to the rest of the house, and everyone insists on describing it as green. Dr Joseph has employed Bill Raymond as a security guard of some sort; acting as comic relief, he is a dim-witted former cop whose incompetence (we presume) has led to him being kicked off the force. All he wants is to marry the maid, Lilybeth, and for someone to be murdered so that he can solve the crime. Needless to say, when someone is murdered, he doesn’t seem the slightest bit interested.

So far, so straightforward. The film takes a lively turn for the better with the appearance of Lugosi as Professor Leonide, a hypnotist and former friend – or possibly rival – of Dr Joseph, and his companion, the deaf-mute dwarf Indigo (Angelo Rossitto). Add in a curious reporter and his ditsy girlfriend, and the stage is set for a confused madcap mystery.

Lugosi, who by this time was shunned by the big Hollywood studios and had been completely typecast as a villain, is clearly having a great time; there is a constant twinkle in his eyes, and he is as distinguished and professional as ever. He plays off against this stereotype also – without revealing too much, working out who is good and who is bad is much harder in Scared to Death than in other genre pictures of the time. As Indigo, Rossitto serves no purpose whatsoever; he scurries around and hides behind sofas, but is entirely irrelevant to the narrative. The dwarf actor was one of the most prolific of his time, having appeared in the excellent Freaks (1932) and continuing to work in movies until 1987 – he also worked with Lugosi in The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Spooks Run Wild (1941).

While the majority of the film is a fairly standard, if delirious, narrative, it takes on a surreal twist with the corpse’s voice-over. Scenes are abruptly interrupted by a cut to the deceased, lying on a mortician’s slab; accompanied by an irritatingly repetitive fade-in-fade-out ghostly wail, she offers such valuable insights as “then came a sinister pair” and “yes, I was scared, scared for my life.” In fact, death does not appear to have granted Laura any sense of personal reflection or awareness whatsoever; the entire film could easily be related without this addition, but it is undeniably entertaining to anticipate what inane comment she will say next.

Completely suspending one’s disbelief is the best way to approach Scared to Death. Devoid of logic or sense, it is simpler to not question how the fake head got out of the locked anatomy cupboard, or why Bill has cobwebs on his shoes, or why Dr Joseph mistakes a hypnotised woman for a dead body, or, indeed, what the purpose of Professor Leonide’s back story (in relation to the house) is. At just over an hour long, it features an awful lot of discussion and explanation, a score that means there is never a moment’s silence, not much action at all, and a wealth of completely enjoyable ridiculousness.