Films #120-122: Fast and Furious 4-6

film 120 121 122 fast and furious

Ratings: Fast and Furious, 3/5; Fast and Furious 5, 5/5; Fast and Furious 6, 4/5

Who’d have thought, fourteen years ago, that the fairly low-budget, kind-of exploitation movie Fast and Furious would have spawned six sequels, with another three to come? Now one of the hottest franchises around, part 7 promises to be ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining – albeit tainted by the sudden death of Paul Walker in a real car accident. How they’ll deal with this remains to be seen, and how the series copes with the loss of one of its lead actors will largely depend on what direction the writers choose to take it. In advance of part 7’s release, however, I watched parts 4-6 – the revamped, rebooted portion of the franchise, following the less memorable Tokyo Drift. Back to back, it was a great afternoon/evening and, by the end of it, Vin Diesel had become one of my favourite bad actors. Bless his cotton socks, he tries. He really does – you can see the effort in every heartfelt scene, every moment of conflict. He so clearly takes his craft so seriously, but no matter what inner turmoil the character’s going through, none of it translates. He is the man with one face – blank, stoic, an empty void. Yet I can’t help but enjoy his performances, particularly when they’re watched one after the other. Somehow this franchise has survived despite the fact that I’m fairly certain neither of the leads (and most of the ensemble cast around them) can act.

And it’s not just about the cars. The F&F movies have succeeded for a few key reasons. One, the characters are simple and unremarkable, but they’re all likeable and, to the writers’ credit, each one has their own distinctive personality – however unimaginative and lacking nuance – and they all spark off each other well. I can’t even complain about the women, who hold their own while looking smokin’ hot. Two, the action sequences – of which there are many – are dynamic, explosive, absurd, and thoroughly engaging. These are such macho movies, but they’re not alienating, and that’s quite impressive really. Three, the cars themselves are a thing of beauty, if you’re that way inclined, and there’s something for every afficionado, from American muscle cars, to hot hatches, and even some proper supercars. Needless to say, everything’s really shiny. Four, Dwayne Johnson is now most definitely part of the F&F “family”. More on him in a bit. And finally – perhaps even more importantly than the inclusion of The Rock – these films are just plain fun. They do exactly what they say they’re going to: fast cars, fast driving, furious action, full-on entertainment. Having moved beyond the original street-car themes, these movies are now straight-up action, and all the better for it.

Although each film in the series does fit into the F&F universe, it’s the last three that have really moved directly on from each other – part 4 even finishes on a cliffhanger that opens part 5. Part 4 is good, but it’s nothing compared to 5, when all hell breaks loose in Rio and Dwayne Johnson turns up to out-Vin-Diesel Vin Diesel. Sporting a tough-guy goatee and some serious muscle, Johnson is the actor Vin Diesel can never hope to be – bigger, stronger, and infinitely more charismatic. Whereas Vin Diesel appears to think he’s starring in the next hard-hitting think-piece, Johnson knows full well where he is: slap-bang in the middle of a world where the laws of gravity no longer apply, where criminals are good guys but bad guys are super bad, where jail never really seems to be a possibility and money is rarely an issue. This is a world like the one that James Bond inhabits, where the bad guys’ cars instantly implode on impact, but the good guys can be taken out by trucks and walk away unscathed. It’s a world where, somehow, everyone seems to have a licence to kill, and no qualms about using it, where law enforcement is fully aware of this fact but does nothing, and there are absolutely no repercussions whatsoever following the majority of Rio being taken out by a giant runaway safe. Simply put, it’s my kind of world.

There is a risk, of course, that the films will become stupid in their efforts to outdo themselves, and it’s already happening. Part 6 is a step down after the glorious stupidity and hugely entertaining heist scheme of part 5 – there’s more action, less story, more ass-kicking, less attention to physics, less The Rock, more London. By the time the plane started taking off on the runway, signalling the beginning of one of the most ludicrous final scenes in recent cinema memory (experts claim the runway must be almost 30km in length, exceeding the world’s longest by almost 25km), I had completely lost track of why they were there in the first place. Something about an international terrorist and a bunch of top secret “components”? Not that it really matters much – who cares about plot when you’ve got a tank taking out innocent drivers on a Spanish motorway, a street race through Piccadilly Circus, and a bad-guy plane (you know what that means!)? Well, in truth, me – a little bit. Part 6 is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t quite get the balance right. So it goes like this: Part 4 is them finding their feet (wheels?); Part 5 is them in their prime; Part 6 is trying just a bit too hard. As for Part 7? Well, the trailer looks pretty epic – and I expect nothing less.


Film #89: The Raid (2011)

film 89 the raid

Rating: 4.5/5

“Pulling a trigger is like ordering a takeout.”

With The Raid 2 now out in cinemas, it seemed a good time to watch The Raid, an exhilarating and exhausting Indonesian martial arts thriller written and directed by Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans. After a tiny, brief moment of calm as Rama (Iko Uwais) quietly completes his morning prayer rituals, the film explodes with a flurry of insanely fast punches as he moves onto his exercise regime, and there’s barely a pause from that point on. On release it was met with critical acclaim, and has already found a place among some of the most highly regarded action movies – it featured in a recent Channel 5 list, Empire counted it as one of its top films of the year, and The Skinny writers voted it as their number one. Not bad for a little subtitled movie with a cast and crew of unknowns.

The plot is simple and, at least on the surface, fairly generic: rookie cop Rama is on his first assignment, set the daunting task of infiltrating an ominous high-rise apartment block inhabited by some of the city’s most dangerous criminals. At the top is kingpin Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy), a man who doesn’t even blink an eye as he executes those who have disappointed him, who will calmly swap a gun for a claw hammer when he runs out of bullets. He’s flanked by two men, one a seemingly peaceable, rational type, and the other appropriately named Mad Dog, a slight figure with seemingly boundless energy and an obliviousness to pain. As well as these two formidable characters, the small consignment of police have to face every other inhabitant, all of whom appear to be experts in martial arts, of course.

And it’s here that the film really triumphs, bringing a new form of fighting, pencak silat, to UK audiences. Developed by Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, it’s insanely fast and eye-bogglingly intricate, not to mention utterly brutal – there’s even a corridor sequence to rival the classic scene in Oldboy. While Oldboy‘s fight really portrays the physical toll on the body in a distinctly realistic, unglamourised way, The Raid‘s fight scenes are unrelenting; it seems impossible that these people would be able to carry on, but they do, and the exertion is felt in every punch and kick.

It may seem like a repetitive concept – the young cops, their sergeant and the morally-dubious lieutenant gradually making their way higher up the building, meeting gang after gang of drug-addled maniacs with an impressive arsenal of machetes and guns. Yet it’s never boring: each set piece (of which there are many) is carefully choreographed to offer something new and innovative that obliterates any sense of complacency. There are strobe-filled gun fights, overwhelmingly outnumbered hand-to-hand combat sequences, chases, knives, hell, there’s even an exploding fridge. It’s ludicrous, gratuitous, and entirely riveting. There’s a real flair in Evans’ directing, and the rapid editing drags the viewer into the centre of the action, keeping everything turned firmly up to eleven yet never appearing frantic or out of control, all the while acknowledging that the real star of the film is the fighting itself. The score emphasises this – the soundtrack, by Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park) and Joseph Trapanese, works perfectly, punctuating the action and ramping up the tension even more.

Uwais’ physicality is undeniable, and his performance is captivating as a result, while the rest of the cast (not including the general fodder) bring personality and glimpses of depth to even the less developed characters. Mad Dog in particular is a truly formidable foe; in some ways he’s no more than a crazed Bond villain’s henchman, but despite his stature, he’s easily the most intimidating opponent. The sergeant and lieutenant are also prominent, with the latter in particular proving to have some ulterior motives for his decisions. This brings some intrigue to the narrative, and it twists and turns in some unexpected ways – or, rather, perhaps not quite unexpected, but definitely not unsatisfying.

One of the (few) criticisms of The Raid was its lack of female characters – Rama’s pregnant wife is only seen in bed in the opening scenes, and the other two females that I can think of are entirely irrelevant. Yet this is an unashamedly masculine film; the brute force of the male body on show, while themes of family, revenge, loyalty and respect run along as (admittedly unsubtle) undercurrents. And, it must be said – male or female, martial arts fan or not, it’s difficult to not get caught up in The Raid: it grabs a hold of you and barely lets you breathe until it’s over. As a last thought, I leave you with this question: who would win in a fight, Bruce Lee, Tony Jaa (Ong-bak), or Iko Uwais?

Film #86: 2012 (2009)

film 86 2012

Rating: 2.5/5

“You’re telling me that the North Pole is now somewhere in Wisconsin?”

Having already destroyed most of the northern hemisphere in The Day After Tomorrow, writer-director Roland Emmerich set his sights on a disaster movie on an even bigger scale: the result is 2012, a film that, unfortunately, attempts to tell a story simply too ambitious and vast to work. Cashing in on the interest in Mayan prophecies, which foretold the end of the world (a prediction that a surprising number of people really believed), and twisting genuine science to provide a “plausible” explanation – an abundance of neutrinos that cause the Earth’s core to heat up as a result of extreme solar flares, or something – Emmerich delivers a film that contains all the classic elements of a good disaster movie, but ultimately fails to truly excite.

The plot is standard fare, focused predominantly on one man’s attempt to keep his family safe. Nice-but-bland Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) features to provide the audience with an everyman to relate to; recently divorced, his attempts to reconnect with his children (incomplete family unit, check! Chance for father to redeem himself in the eyes of his son, check!) conveniently lead him to Yellowstone National Park, where the first of many coincidences allow him to realise what the government has neglected to publicise (nasty officials, check!). Soon he and his family are mere seconds away from death, as they repeatedly find themselves situated precisely where the newest major catastrophe is occurring (wrong place, wrong time, check!) and have to quickly flee (ridiculous displays of heroism, check!). Oh, and yes, there is a dog involved and yes, it survives (cute animal, check!).

Emmerich presents a rather cynical view of the government – not only have they chosen to keep the imminent end of times a secret, they’re selling off spaces in the specially designed Arks to anyone with a spare billion dollars. Just compare this to the far more intelligent Deep Impact, one of the more underrated disaster movies of the last fifteen years. While there are brief scenes of various people from around the world (although not a single mention of Australia, for some reason), as usual the American government takes the lead, with the rest of the G8 trusting Uncle Sam to save the day. As is to be expected, the US president (Danny Glover) is an inspiration (heroic US president, check!) – like in The Day After Tomorrow, it’s the second in command (here played by Oliver Platt) who’s the “villain” of the film. It’s all rather generic and unsurprising, with an unpleasantly bitter edge – Jackson might get the chance to reunite his family, but not everyone’s as lucky. The death count is ridiculously high; arguably the largest in any film that doesn’t feature entire planets being completely obliterated, so inevitably at least some of the people we follow throughout the film aren’t going to make it, but some of the ways in which it happens are just plain mean.

Of course, in any disaster movie the plot serves more as a vehicle for the set pieces. Emmerich packs these into the film’s lengthy running time, and it plays like a disaster movie best of: earthquakes, volcanoes, airplane crashes, sinking cruise ships and tidal waves all feature, the most impressive of which occur fairly early. The first major catastrophe – a massive earthquake that leads to half of California being tipped into the ocean – is by far the largest on screen event, although the eruption of Yellowstone is the most exciting, largely because of Woody Harrelson’s conspiracy-theorist-wacko’s commentary. These set pieces are at the centre of the film’s appeal, and they are impressively bonkers, but somehow underwhelming: perhaps they are simply too catastrophic to really believe. This vast scale is not helped by CGI that looks disappointingly unconvincing – it’s not terrible, but there is an obvious flatness to the whole thing.

More problematically, around the hour-forty mark most of the world has been destroyed, yet Emmerich continues for almost another hour, dumping the Curtis family in Tibet where they almost bring about the deaths of some hundred thousand people because they dropped a hose pipe into some hydraulics. In an attempt to bring some last minute action to the film, the survival of all these people relies on, you guessed it, Jackson (everyman saves the world, check!) – it’s as stupid and illogical as Jeff Goldblum’s plan in Independence Day, and monumentally underwhelming after the carnage that’s preceded it. Disappointingly 2012 significantly starts to droop in the final hour; perhaps yet another indication that Emmerich has seriously bitten off more than he could chew. 2012 is evidence that bigger is not always better – it’s doubtful that any disaster movie will ever top it in terms of destruction and ambition, but even now there are plenty others that are more entertaining and impressive.

Cinema Lottery #11


Muppets Most Wanted
Release date: 28 March 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Muppets Most Wanted follows directly from 2011’s charming, funny kind-of reboot, The Muppets (2011) and, ironically, is all too aware of the potential pitfalls of sequels – its opening musical number, a hilarious and astute showtune, directly warns us that they’re never as good as the first. This film, sadly, embodies this notion. Replacing the genuine enthusiasm of Jason Segel and real-life cartoon Amy Adams with Ricky Gervais is the first problem; he’s a divisive personality and, for his critics (myself included), his sleazeball-loser routine is expected and unappealing. He gets far too much screen time as the Muppets’ tour manager-cum-jewel thief, taking them on a disappointing “world tour” that comprises of four European countries while his boss Constantine, the most dangerous frog in the world, masquarades as Kermit. Cue a host of famous cameos, from Lady Gaga to Danny Trejo, who are undoubtedly fun to spot but frequently seem rather pointless.

The musical numbers are the film’s highlight; none really match the opening sequence, but are nevertheless catchy and entertainingly silly. There is, however, a general lack of fun and charm: it’s pleasant enough, but rarely laugh-out-loud funny – Constantine’s attempts to emulate Kermit are the high points, and admittedly there is a rather perverse enjoyment in seeing Gervais sing an entire song about being Number Two – while the story is bland and the supposedly exotic locations underwhelming. Ty Burrell, as the Interpol agent tasked with catching the jewel thieves, is a welcome addition, but Muppets Most Wanted generally feels rushed; relying too heavily, perhaps, on its predecessor’s success rather than taking the time to make more of an effort. Plus, the addition of some Cabbage Patch-esque baby puppet criminals is just plain creepy.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Release date: 26 March 2014
Rating: 3/5

The latest addition to the Marvel film canon, Captain America‘s sequel, much like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, follows the individual Avengers as they deal with the world post-New York. It is, therefore, becoming increasingly important that viewers watch not one but all films, and it is also becoming increasingly obvious that each sequel is basically laying the groundwork for the eagerly anticipated Avengers sequel (due next year). This multi-layered world of intertwining stories is no doubt clever, but each is now suffering from a distinct case of deja vu – presuming that most people will go see this having seen most, if not all, of the films that have gone before, they are becoming fairly predictable. That’s not to say they’re not still entertaining films, but the element of surprise is definitely fading.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is by far the blandest of the Avengers; like Superman he’s a bit too clean cut, a bit too nice to be particularly interesting. Adding the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) into the mix is smart; Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) also gets a more prominent role, while Robert Redford adds some gravitas as Alexander Pierce, a SHIELD bigwig. The enemy in this instalment is not just the Winter Soldier, a mysterious assassin with a metal arm, but a threat to freedom itself, in the form of some new “precautionary” weapons (think Minority Report on a mass scale). Part war film, part spy drama, it’s an entertaining though dry film, directly referencing the events in Captain America in particular. There are some good fight scenes, but the final set piece is far too reminiscent of parts of Avengers, and the CGI-heavy sequences of mass destruction no longer excite as they once did. As its own film, The Winter Soldier is decent, but even it seems to acknowledge that really its main appeal is to follow the characters on route to the events that will occur in the next Avengers; in this case, it is the destination that is more important than the journey.

About Last Night

Release date: 21 March 2014
Rating: 2/5

A remake of a 1980s film, which was itself an adaptation of a 1974 play (with the more lurid title Sexual Perversity in Chicago), About Last Night stars Kevin Hart (30 Rock), Regina Hall (Scary Movie), Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant as four twenty-somethings going through a series of relationship and friend dramas. The two women are friends, the two men are friends, and they pair off into two uninspiring couples: Hart and Hall are irritating; Ealy and Bryant are nice but boring. Over the course of a year they break up and get back together, enjoy relationship-free sex and cohabiting, get a puppy, and bicker a lot. Yet the film is distinctly lacking in sexual perversion – were it not for the swearing, the movie would barely scrape a 12A rating.

Writing this two days after viewing, it’s already a struggle to remember anything particularly interesting (or at all) about the film. Hart and Hall both embody a kind of comedy that will either appeal or irritate, while the other two are inoffensive but forgettable. With a far stronger emphasis on drama than comedy, it’s a strangely understated film that nonetheless cannot hide the fact that the relationships are all generally stupid; meaningless fights over minute disagreements, the characters failure to communicate is trite and dull, and plot points that fail to add any sympathies to the leads (Ealy quitting/getting fired from his job is the result of something that is completely his doing, despite the film presenting it as a “down with the corporate man” kind of triumph). Of course, the whole thing is neatly tied up with a nice Happily Ever After ribbon, in which love conquers all, leaving the characters to get on with their lives and us to get on with ours, happy that neither has had even the slightest affect on each other whatsoever.

Labor Day
Release date: 21 March 2014
Rating: 3/5

Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, written for the screen and directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking), the majority of Labor Day takes place over a long weekend, when escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) imposes himself on reclusive Adele (Kate Winslet) and her taciturn, solemn son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) only to become an important presence in their incomplete family unit. It’s an altogether more grown-up film for Reitman, with an emphasis on family values and melodrama – there’s none of the black comedy or quirky-hip language prevalent in Juno or Young Adult, for example. Yet despite the strong cast and appealingly nostalgic small-town America aesthetic, it is let down by its narrative, which requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief; never mind how easily Adele allows this criminal stranger into her home, it’s just far too easy for him to become the love interest/father figure. Within a day he’s fixed the car and the boiler and waxed their floors, the following day he’s teaching disabled children to play baseball – and despite living among other houses and there being countless posters asking for his whereabouts, no one seems to notice the strange new man cleaning gutters in a depressed hermit’s home.

It’s such a shame that the film is so let down by its source material (or by Reitman’s adaptation – having not read the book perhaps I shouldn’t so quickly pass the blame to Maynard). Winslet is, as usual, utterly believable, and there’s a gentle, affective chemistry between her and Brolin. While the focus is predominantly on the unconventional family unit, the supporting characters, including Clark Gregg’s ex-husband and James Van Der Beek’s concerned cop, are a welcome addition. The film is shot in welcoming, warm tones, with hints as to past traumas carefully combined in delicate montages. The emphasis on Americana is evident; an important scene involves the detailed creation of a peach pie – hardly subtle, but undoubtedly evocative. Yet it all strains disbelief somewhat; as much as it’s easy to believe the emotions on show, the narrative is too distracting in its overwrought melodrama. After a slow, meandering film that gradually reveals difficult home truths, Labor Day is further problematised by a rushed conclusion, which spans some fifteen years in a few minutes while adult Henry narrates, providing the family with a bittersweet ending but, with the melodrama conflicting with the understated performances and style, it ends up being, sadly, a bit unconvincing.

Cinema Lottery #10

cinema 10 gravity

Release date: 8 November 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

After a string of films in which a (male) actor carries an entire film (Buried, 127 Hours, Brake, Moon), this time it’s Sandra Bullock’s turn. Gravity, written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is a claustrophobic, disorienting, and dizzying film – a disaster movie in space, with poor Ryan (Bullock) desperately trying to get back to Earth. Its plot is actually rather generic: Ryan is on her first mission, her charismatic associate Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, playing himself) is on his last. Inevitably, things go wrong, and continue to do so for a tense ninety minutes – Ryan’s misfortunes almost push her into Michael Bay territory (just consider the calamities that occur in Armageddon as a result of everyone’s sheer incompetence), but Gravity is executed with such a confidence and professionalism that it pulls it off. So Ryan is bounced off satellites and forced out of supposedly safe refuge, sent spinning wildly out of control into the vast nothingness of space and bombarded with high flying debris, and the audience is dragged along with her.

While Bullock should be commended for her performance, the other elements all work to support her role. The sound design is perfect – the “no sound in space” issue is bypassed by including muffled noises, as though one were hearing from within a spacesuit, and some uncomfortable, increasingly loud tones at moments of particular tension. Visually, Gravity is stunning, and its one of the few non-horror movies that really benefits from 3D, which enhances the feeling of weightlessness while also reinforcing the disorienting situations Ryan gets into. Cuaron captures the vast expanse of space, with the Earth calmly sitting below, and it is both beautiful and isolating – serene, yet terrifying. If ever there was a film made to be watched at an IMAX, by the way, this is it. Unrelenting and uncompromising, Gravity is one hell of a bumpy, breathless, ride. Suddenly, going into space doesn’t seem quite so romantic a notion.

Release date: 1 November 2013
Rating: 4/5

In 2009, journalist and former Labour party spin doctor Martin Sixsmith published an article in The Guardian, with the attention-grabbing headline, “The Catholic church sold my child”. It was a story that had originated as a throwaway human interest piece, but as the truth emerged, it became increasingly shocking. Fifty years prior, Philomena Lee had given birth to a son in secrecy in a convent in Tipperary. Like many other young, unmarried women in Ireland at the time, she was forced to hand over control of the child to the nuns, who in turn had them adopted, often to families in America, in exchange for “donations” to the church. Having never forgotten this child, Philomena’s attempts to find him proved futile, so she enlisted the help of Sixsmith, whose investigative journalism background helped her to eventually discover what had happened to her son.

Stephen Frears’ film is an unassuming piece of work – understated and subtle, with a focus on the performances of both Judi Dench (as Philomena) and Steve Coogan (as Sixsmith). Coogan has also written the screenplay, and here he proves not only his capabilities as a serious actor, but a deftness of touch in his writing; there are just enough moments of light-heartedness, predominantly as a result of the relationship between the cynical Sixsmith and Philomena, that stops the film from becoming saturated in melodrama. Dench is, as always, utterly convincing. Despite the actions of the Church, she remains steadfast in her faith, both in God and humanity, yet her naivety is matched with wisdom, good humour, and a quiet determination. In this tale of conspiracy and cover-ups, charting one of the most shameful moments in Irish history, it’s a testament to the actors that they are not overwhelmed by the plot. Yet Philomena remains rooted in truth, and doesn’t need to exaggerate the events it portrays. At its core, this is less a ruthless expose of the Catholic chuch’s sins, than a film about a mother trying to discover what happened to her child – it just happens to have far-reaching implications. It’s a subtle, yet confident, piece of filmmaking, with an excellent screenplay and superb central performances – if this makes it to awards season, surely Dench should be at least considered for another accolade.

Bad Grandpa
Release date: 23 October 2013
Rating: 2/5

If you’re not already a fan of Jackass, I wonder, would you even consider going to see their latest gross-out movie? This is now the fourth cinematic outing for the team, who now appears to consist entirely of Johnny Knoxville – none of the others are present, and Knoxville himself is buried under a mountain of old-man make-up. Replacing his friends is Jackson Nicoll, who plays 8-year-old Billy, the grandson of the titular grandpa and easily the most engaging character – it mustn’t be that easy for a child to keep a straight face in these absurd situations, but Nicoll succeeds, and even manages to invite some degree of pathos while doing so. Yet Bad Grandpa is a flawed and self-indulgent film that makes some serious errors in judgement regarding its style.

There are two major problems at play. One is the decision to combine a fictional narrative with hidden camera scenes capturing the reactions of real people when confronted with this irresponsible, foul-mouthed, disgusting, perverted grandpa and his grandson; not only is the narrative flimsy at best, but it creates some suspicion as to the “realness” of the rest of it. The second big problem is the reactions, which are almost entirely apathetic; perhaps it’s a shocking indictment of American society that people are so accepting of the absurd and ridiculous, but more likely is that many people suspected some kind of foul play – we’ve become so saturated in hidden camera shows that it’s no longer a novelty. These might be the biggest problems, but they’re not the only ones. Knoxville churns out the now expected series of skits, and they’re all as immature as the next, lacking any real subtlety, intelligence, or originality, while, presumably, all those in on the joke pat themselves on the back. Unfortunately, no one else is laughing. There are a few moments, admittedly, when I sniggered a little, but every single one of those moments was in the trailer. My advice? You’ll know yourself whether this movie is for you or not and, if you think it is, my review is irrelevant. If you think it’s not for you, stay well away. You will gain nothing from seeing it.

Closed Circuit
Release date: 25 October 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

I’ve seen a whole bunch of British, gritty, political thrillers over the course of these press days, and each has been as generic and forgettable as the next. So Closed Circuit came as a pleasant surprise – not amazing, but by far the most polished and interesting film of its kind that I’ve seen this year. It’s also, intriguingly, almost entirely a red herring – despite the twists and turns, the actual outcome of the court case becomes irrelevant; instead, the focus remains fixed firmly on the ways in which politics (and politicians) invade and corrupt the supposedly impartial legal system, engineering situations to save face and get the result they desire. In doing so, the film manages to sidestep potential problems in a satisfactory solution, for example, because the solution is unnecessary.

Eric Bana is Martin Rose, the replacement attorney for a suspected terrorist, who supposedly masterminded a horrific attack on Borough Market. Along with another attorney (Rebecca Hall), he is tasked with defending a suspect with a mass of evidence so secret that not even Rose is privy to it; thus begins the conspiracy that the two lawyers must decide to either fight or accept. Bana and Hall are supported by a solid cast, including Jim Broadbent, Ciaran Hinds, and Julia Stiles, the latter of whom features for no reason whatsoever – as an American journalist, she appears in two scenes and is then quickly dispatched (off screen) and forgotten about. Her inclusion is one of the most obvious flaws in the film, which is, despite some weaknesses (Rose’s family life is hinted at but unexpanded and adds little; the title and opening scenes’ emphasis on CCTV footage is also ultimately irrelevant) reasonably engaging and intriguing. It may not be remembered in years to come, but seeing as I can remember it a day later, it has already exceeded my expectations.

Cinema Lottery #9

cinema 9 only god forgives

Only God Forgives
Release date: 2 August 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

It’s interesting that, since Drive, there have been two Ryan Gosling films that were initially dismissed as Drive Part 2, yet both, despite their marketing, emerged as entirely different films. The Place Beyond the Pines, released earlier this year, was the first and more tenuously connected; Only God Forgives is the second. Of the two, it is the latter that is truly divisive. Audiences walked out en masse in Cannes, its level of violence and lack of characterisation has been met with claims of vapid pretentiousness – a case of style over substance, perhaps. And it’s true that director Nicholas Winding Refn, along with cinematographer Larry Smith, have chosen to concentrate on style but, really, is there anything wrong with that?

Curiously, despite the apparent superficiality, other reviews have adopted an entirely different approach to Only God Forgives’ simple plot (so simple and sparse, in fact, that to go into any more detail than to say it’s a classic revenge story would be to spoil it). Empire claims the entire narrative is like a fevered dream, with Vithaya Pansringarm as an Angel of Vengeance, a supernatural being “summoned from Julian’s subconscious.” Perhaps he is; passages of the film are undeniably dreamlike – even hallucinatory. Julian (Gosling) emerges as a passive observer, only capable of action in his imagination, whether it’s finally touching his prostitute girlfriend or committing acts of violence. He’s barely a person at all, and Gosling barely acts, although there remains something captivating about his blank visage. He is tortured, tormented, and plenty could be (and no doubt will be) written about his Oedipus complex; he’s also a less-than-subtle, though undoubtedly effective, example of a man desperately trying to prove (validate?) his masculinity – just consider that awkward lunch date with his girlfriend and his icy, profane bitch of a mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Yet how much of it is a dream remains up for debate: Pansringarm’s Chang is, for me, less a supernatural being than a man with strict beliefs about revenge, retaliation, and retribution – he’s the embodiment of the concept of an eye for an eye (and, in one particularly harrowing scene, that eye is literal).

As is to be expected, visually Only God Forgives is a thing of morbid beauty. Bangkok is displayed like a neo-noir, the seediness and sleaziness of the city reflected in neon lighting, sumptuously ornate patterns, and deep reds contrasting with the blackest of shadows. It’s haunting and mesmerising – every scene, and every moment within every scene feels deliberate and controlled. The imagery works perfectly with Cliff Martinez’ pulsating score, which often dominates the soundtrack, adding to the dreaminess of scenes by silencing the film’s limited dialogue. It is alternately eerie, soothing, exciting, or unpleasantly loud; in an entirely stylised world, the relationship between the visuals and the score is more important than words uttered by the characters.

No doubt there will be some that hate Only God Forgives, that wanted (and simultaneously didn’t want) Drive Part 2. This is not that film. Winding Refn has created a piece of abstract art; uncompromising, brutal, limited in characterisation and lush in visual style. It’s slow – so slow, in fact, that scenes look more like tableaux than moving images – and narratively sparse, but for those willing to give it a chance, it’s a rare spectacle, both beautiful and horrific in equal measures.

Red 2
Release date: 2 August 2013
Rating: 2.5/5

Much like its predecessor, Red 2 is entertaining but strangely forgettable; with the exception of Helen Mirren’s ex-MI6 agent Victoria, there is almost nothing memorable about it. Following directly from Red, this film sees Bruce Willis’ now-retired CIA agent embracing domesticity, much to the disappointment of his younger girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) but, inevitably, he’s forced to resume his former life in an attempt to clear his name and stop a deadly bomb. Brian Cox (in a small cameo), Catherine Zeta Jones, and Anthony Hopkins join the core cast and they, along with John Malkovich and Mirren (who even lampoons herself, infiltrating a mental institute by claiming she’s the queen), do appear to be having lots of fun, but it’s all rather messy and convoluted. Most problematically, Willis and Parker are the least interesting or engaging characters – Willis appears to barely even be trying any more, relying instead on his now trademark wry smile and deadpan expressions to carry his performance.

Filled with bloodless action and fairly standard intrigue, Red 2 acknowledges its graphic novel origins – there are car chases, daft set pieces, the occasional comic book insert and, despite the potential genocide, a constant lack of real tension or danger. As the action flits from Paris, to London, to Moscow, its quick pace and sometimes frantic editing are a distraction from the cluttered narrative, but it never becomes anything more than mediocre.

The Smurfs 2
Release date: 31 July 2013
Rating: 1/5

There’s little to enjoy or appreciate about The Smurfs 2, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone older than five even wanting to see this dire, juvenile piece of tripe. Its generic narrative, in which evil wizard Gargamel (buck-toothed, hunchbacked, big-nosed Hank Azaria) is still trying to destroy the peaceful Smurfs, is terrible and, despite its simplicity, is given a whopping 105 minutes to reach its inevitable conclusion; after twenty minutes I remembered this is supposed to be a comedy (albeit on the level of bad spoofs and fart jokes); after an hour I started to nod off out of sheer boredom.

The Smurfs themselves are a limited selection of stereotypes – Grumpy, Clumsy, Vanity, Brainy, Passive Aggressive (!), etc – who are all infatuated with equally stereotypical Smurfette (Katy Perry). After a surprise birthday goes awry, the only female in Smurfsville (or whatever it’s called) ends up in the clutches of Gargamel, who has become a world famous magician due to his wondrous talents and slapstick inteptitude. Enter Neil Patrick Harris and his cutsie wife Grace who, along with step-dad Brendan Gleeson (who at least has the wherewithal to be transformed into a duck for some of the running time, thus limiting his screen-time and, by default, the indignity of appearing in the film), must save the day for all Smurfkind, and learn a valuable lesson in the process. There are some bizarre interludes that, presumably, are intended to entertain the parents dragged to this dreck, but they are so desperately jammed in that they just irritate. It’s also just plain weird when, for example, the Smurfs accidentally interrupt a photoshoot involving, inexplicably, pregnant brides. Meanwhile, the CGI is frequently ropey – Gargamel’s cat, possibly the most annoying character, switches constantly, and obviously, between actual cat and computerised cat. Rendered in entirely pointless 3D (of course), the filmmakers haven’t even bothered to exploit this as a gimmick; I can’t think of a single scene in which I even noticed it.

While this is obviously specifically aimed at children, and therefore does not necessarily need to appeal to adults in a similar fashion, The Smurfs 2 is an insult to all audiences; generic, stupid, hammy, boring, and stereotyped. Quite frankly, it’s a smurfing great example of a big, steaming pile of smurf.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
Release date: 7 August 2013
Rating: 3/5

Squarely aimed at fans of I’m Alan Partridge, this long-awaited big screen outing sees the action somewhat ramped up, but retains the series’ small-scale atmosphere – it feels small-budget and familiar, with some nice nods to its origins. It also, in part due to the involvement of Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It) and Steve Coogan (who takes on both writing and acting roles as before), matches ludicrous slapstick (Alan’s attempts to climb in through a window, for example) with deadpan humour; there are plenty of opportunities to snicker, smile, and cringe at Alan’s ineptitude and awkwardness, but not as many chances to really laugh out loud. Yet I was only ever a casual viewer, who watched the show on repeat due to a friend’s obsession more than my own, so perhaps I am not really the right person to judge the effectiveness of its comedy.

Those uninitiated in the world of Alan Partridge will, however, still gain some pleasure from Alpha Papa if they actually bother going. The narrative follows a standard hostage scenario formula, but remains pleasantly low-key; Colm Meaney’s aggrieved ex-employee at the newly rebranded Shape radio station in Norwich is less a criminal mastermind than a slightly unhinged, fairly normal guy and, instead of succumbing to an unrealistic world of explosions and Hollywoodised action, the situation escalates because of Alan’s sheer obliviousness and socially inappropriate behaviour. He remains dogmatic and utterly deluded in his self-belief, and events unfold in a suitably ridiculous manner.

Despite the small scale, Alpha Papa is well executed. It moves briskly through its relatively short running time (90 minutes) and this economy and lack of ego works well – more often than not, attempts to bring a much-loved sitcom character from the constraints of a twenty-five minute show to feature length simply reveal that characters limitations, but this is not the case here. Yet, at the same time, the big screen really adds little to this intimate little film; indeed, it may benefit from repeat viewings at home, where lines can be repeated and paused over. It may not necessarily open Alan Partridge up to a new audience, but the fans will be delighted.

Film #25: Welcome to the Jungle (2003)

film 25 welcome to the jungle

Rating: 3/5

“You have two choices. Option A, you give me the ring. Option B, I make you.”

Dwayne Johnson is now a bona fide film star, accredited with saving flagging franchises – put this man in your movie, it instantly becomes better. Back in 2003, however, The Rock was still a fledgling actor. The former wrestler, one of the most popular performers in WWE and self-proclaimed “most electrifying man in sports entertainment,” had appeared in only two films – a brief, CGI-heavy cameo in The Mummy Returns, and a lead role in the spin off that proceeded it, The Scorpion King, for which he received a record-breaking salary. It’s not until Welcome to the Jungle, however, that Johnson gets a chance to let loose, unrestricted by silly clothes and a weak plot. Here, the cool charisma and perfect comic timing are evident. This is a man whose impressive presence is not limited to his considerable bulk.

As soon as Beck (Johnson) is introduced, it’s clear he’s more than just a hired heavy. Awaiting a signal, he sits carefully writing “porcini mushroom” in a small notebook, a potential ingredient in one of his future restaurant dishes. When he finally gets the nod to go and remind his mark of his sizeable debt, he’s reluctant to use force, not because he’s worried about the gaggle of linebackers surrounding the man, but because he feels guilty that he may jeopardise their team’s success due to the injuries he will inevitably inflict. It’s a neat and effective way of establishing this likeable giant, simultaneously confirming his ethics and his abilities.

Beck’s next job – and, he hopes, his last – involves going deep into the Mexican jungle to retrieve his boss’s wayward son. Hoping for a quick grab, it’s not long before things take a turn for the worse, as Beck quickly locates said son, Travis (Sean William Scott), and has a run in with the remote village’s creator, the sinister, literal slave-driver Hatcher (Christopher Walken). Soon, Beck and Travis are fleeing through the jungle, trying to avoid Hatcher’s men, the rebels, and some particularly rampant monkeys.

Welcome to the Jungle is Johnson and Scott’s first onscreen pairing (the next being the controversial Southland Tales, a film that is, in my mind, an underrated classic) and they share a comfortable dynamic. Travis is a typical role for Scott – a slightly older, slightly less crude Stifler – but his irritating, exaggerated persona sparks well off Johnson’s exasperated Beck. The addition of Rosario Dawson to the mix adds little, but it’s a minor quibble. Walken is, as always, sinister and enthralling, managing to be menacing even while wearing a straw hat. It’s a shame that he and Johnson don’t share more screen time, because they both display excellent comic timing and a natural charm.

While the film’s funniest moments are those derived from the careful timing and knowing looks captured effortlessly by its actors, it takes full advantage of Johnson’s athleticism. In a clear nod to his wrestling career – which had just (temporarily) ended before filming – he executes a perfect Rock Bottom in a pub brawl, and punches and flips with aplomb whenever possible. He is a dominant force, and his tough, no nonsense moves are an indication of the action lead he has since become. The fight scenes are dynamic and fast paced; one capoeira-inspired sequence in particular is both ridiculous and undeniably impressive. It’s all filmed with the glossy sheen and brash style of a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s fun and light-hearted as a result.

Of course, it’s all rather silly, and some of the gags are juvenile. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the plot either. Yet it’s constantly enjoyable, and is elevated above the unremarkable due to Johnson, who embraces the daftness with both (gigantic) arms. Since Welcome to the Jungle, the man formerly known as The Rock has tried more serious roles, but it’s the films combining comedy and action that have proved his most successful. In ten short years, and with two films due out in the coming months and another seven in the pipeline, Johnson has proven that, with enough talent and determination, it actually is possible to make the transition from athelete to film star.