Archive | July, 2013

Welcome to the Punch

26 Jul

welcome to the punch

 

 

Director: Eran Creevy

Writer: Eran Creevy

Stars: James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Andrea Riseborough

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 99 minutes

 

Is it feasible to take a big, shiny and slick police thriller and drop it into London as opposed to New York, LA or Hong Kong? That’s the key question with this Eran Creevy effort. The film borrows heavily from Michael Mann urban crime thrillers such as Heat and to various Asian cop flicks such as Hard Boiled and Infernal Affairs. As such it has limited dialogue, lots of chases, conflicted police officers, smooth criminals and plenty of guns. That’s all good, and I am a fan of cop versus criminal cat and mouse dramas, but can it really work in London?

The opening features a well-crafted after-hours robbery in Canary Wharf, the bankers’ steel and glass island in east London. It is a great start. It could have been a scene in Heat. The thieves get away on motorbikes and just about evade the lone cop in pursuit. The cop and criminals intersect long enough for the protagonists to go head-to-head with arch criminal Jacob (Mark Strong) beating dedicated cop Max (James McAvoy) to the punch. Max is left with physical and psychological injuries whilst Jacob heads for early retirement.

Jacob is forced out of retirement by the plight of his grown-up son Ruan in London. He has got in over his head and with criminal elements happy to brandish guns and to settle disputes with a bullet to the head. Whilst not necessarily Jacob’s preferred approach, he heads back, picks up with his old sidekick Roy (Peter Mullan), and inadvertently re-triggers the cat and mouse games with now disgruntled cop Max. As Jacob and Max investigate the criminals associated with Ruan, their agendas start to merge as the film heads towards a climactic gun battle back in the east end.

Eran Creevy should be applauded for attempting to make this and he gets committed performances from a solid cast (with Mark Strong typically excellent and well supported by Mullan and by Johnny Harris as baddie Dean). Ultimately, however, it doesn’t work. The first 30 minutes grab attention, but are then undermined by the final 60 minutes as the plot unravels. London looks surprisingly cool and modern, but it simply can’t support the cop with demons, the industrial conspiracy, the car chases and the over-the-top gun play. Creevy tries hard to drop Heat into London, but it is an unconvincing effort.

Oz the Great and Powerful

20 Jul

Oz the Geat and Powerful

 

Director: Sam Raimi

Writers: Mitchell Kapner (screenplay), David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay)

Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz

Motion Picture Rating: PG

Runtime: 130 minutes

 

Are witches the new vampires? Certainly something wicked this way comes. There is Glinda the good witch, Evanora the bad one and Theodora the confused one. There are also munchkins, tinkers, an Emerald City and a yellow brick road. Yes, we are back in the Land of Oz. Almost 75 years after Judy Garland donned those ruby slippers, we are back. This time Sam (The Evil Dead) Raimi is in charge and he has assembled a quartet of good-looking young actors to dust off the old magic.

The opening credits could be 75 years old and the early black & white scenes of a Kansas travelling circus are shot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. That’s a nod to the original film and Raimi has stated that Victor Fleming’s great work is his favourite film of all time. Raimi fought hard to get the director’s role on this and then spent more than 3 years working on it. It is a true labour of love and you can see that as Oz is conjured up beautifully. Once the hot air balloon leaves Kansas and lands in Oz, via a huge tornado, the audience is transported in every sense to a magical place.

Inside the errant balloon is small-time circus magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco). He is a hustler that gets by with quick words and quicker hands. On crashing in Oz he is met by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a pretty and naïve young witch whom Oscar labels an easy mark. He lets her believe that he is the foretold great wizard returning to becalm a divided Oz and to sit on the throne. He follows her to the Emerald City, via the yellow brick road of course, and therein meets Evanora (Rachel Weisz) – sister #2, another witch and far more worldly wise than Theodora.

The third sibling and witch is Glinda (Michelle Williams). Oscar is sent out to break her wand and power, but that plan goes off the rails when her goodness starts to rub off on him. Glinda sees something special in the pretend wizard. She introduces him to her community of misfits and outcasts and soon Oscar is whipping them into a band of heroes. Together they head back to the Emerald City to banish Evanora and the newly green & mean Theodora.

Raimi gives this everything and makes a decent fist of it. I wondered if Tim Burton might do a better job, but there is far more life and soul in this than Burton’s Wonka movie. The colours of Oz and the huge canvas are dazzling. Raimi cleverly combines an old-fashioned sense with modern CGI effects. What lets him down is the unexciting storyline and some muted performances. Franco is fine as the wannabe wizard and Williams shines as the good witch, but Kunis and Weisz lack oomph. Kunis when fully wicked, IE green, is simply not a patch on Margaret Hamilton from 1939.

This Oz revival is not a complete success, but it is a good family film. The backdrops are stunning and Franco and Williams are a good double act. As such this is worth a slow Sunday afternoon’s viewing, but unfortunately Raimi’s obvious passion has not fully translated to the screen.

Beautiful Creatures

17 Jul

beautiful creatures

 

 

Director: Richard LaGravenese

Writers: Richard LaGravenese (screenplay), Kami Garcia (based on the novel)

Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Viola Davis

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 124 minutes

 

Plenty of vampires and werewolves have crowded cinemas and TV over the last few years so maybe it’s time for witches to get back involved. Actually they prefer the term ‘casters’ in this film of a popular piece of teen fiction (written by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl in 2009 as book one of a series called the Caster Chronicles). The books are described as a mix of Twilight and The Hunger Games, but although the three franchises might share a similar audience, the tones are different and only The Hunger Games really offers enough for adults.

As with so many gothic fantasy romances this story is set in the deep south of the US – this time in a South Carolina town called Gatlin. The lead is a frustrated and bored teenager called Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) with a deceased mother and a desperate desire to head out of town for college. At school he meets new girl Lena (Alice Englert) and is immediately bewitched. Regardless of her mysterious and possibly sinister background, Ethan follows her home and soon they are romantically involved in that Dawson’s Creek kind of way.

Lena reveals that she is a caster and that on her 16th birthday she will be claimed for either the light or dark side of magic. That gives the couple a few months to date like normal school kids whilst the forces of good and evil witchcraft are lining up behind Lena. On the good side is her uncle Macon (Oscar winner Jeremy Irons) and on the bad side is her estranged mother Sarafine (Oscar winner Emma Thompson). For advice Lena turns to local librarian Amma (Oscar nominated Viola Davis). It is a high class set of actors who surround Lena and Ethan and it is fun at times to see them work with this corny material. Irons and Davis do well enough, but Thompson suffers.

The climax ties together the clash of good and evil with Lena’s not so sweet sixteen and a local civil war re-enactment. Will Lena fall for the fakery of Thompson’s Sarafine or follow the decent approach of Irons’ Macon? Will the re-enactment of the Battle of Gatlin survive the impending thunderstorm? There are opportunities to ramp up the thrill level as Lena’s destiny is secured, but strangely the movie ends with a whimper and not a bang. That is symptomatic of some very ordinary direction by Richard LaGravenese – a good writer, but a poor director. The source material deserves better. Only an audience of 12 – 16 year old girls will sit through this with a smile.

Broken City

12 Jul

broken city

 

Director: Allen Hughes

Writer: Brian Tucker

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 109 minutes

 

‘Proof can be a powerful weapon’ or so goes one of the straplines for this cops and conspiracy movie. It’s a fairly anodyne line, but reflects the lack of depth in what is a relatively high profile film. Whilst the script was recently on the black list – the best un-filmed scripts in Hollywood – it has not made the transition to the cinema in any shape to suggest why it was once lauded and why it attracted a decent cast. Russell Crowe appears alongside Mark Wahlberg and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but only one of them comes out with any credit.

Crowe is the long-serving mayor of New York, Zeta-Jones is his wife and Wahlberg plays an ex-cop turned PI with some unhelpful history with city and mayoral politics. That history is covered in the first 5 – 10 minutes when we get to see Wahlberg stripped of his badge for seemingly delivering some street justice that Charles Bronson would have appreciated. Crowe is sympathetic, but Wahlberg has to go and the film quickly wheels forward by ca. 7 years. The characters reconnect as the mayor faces a tough challenger for his position and is juggling the required campaigning with a faltering marriage. He hires the ex-cop to follow his wife and to confirm his worst suspicions.

The back story is too thin and handled too quickly to properly set this film up, but even so the eventual conspiracy elements are handled almost as badly. The plot mixes political intrigue with affairs of the heart and throws in a real estate scam too. There are dodgy politicians, corrupt bankers and other such standard character types not much seen since the 1970’s.

This is a poor film. Crowe has a faltering New York accent, is strangely fake tanned, sports an odd hairpiece and has just one good scene (where he debates his mayoral challenger).Wahlberg is his usual underwhelming self and the plotline with his girlfriend, whom he saved back in his cop days, is cringe inducing. Only Zeta-Jones provides anything like a commendable performance, but it is not enough to save a bad film. The dialogue is full of clichés and the plot twists are not sharp enough. Quite simply the film doesn’t deliver a punch – it’s more of a weak-wristed wet slap.

The Sessions

8 Jul

the sessions

 

 

Director: Ben Lewin

Writers: Ben Lewin (written for the screen by), Mark O’Brien (article)

Stars: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 95 minutes

 

This film from writer-director Ben Lewin is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien and specifically on an article that O’Brien wrote in 1990 for the Sun magazine called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”. Mark O’Brien was stricken with polio aged six and the film finds him living with the aid of an iron lung, aged 38, a poet and intellectual, and a part of the Berkeley set in San Francisco in the late 1980’s. Mark is paralyzed and he is a virgin. His article for the Sun magazine retold his experience with a sex surrogate and his journey to losing his virginity.

The subjects of sex surrogacy and disabled sex are rarely addressed in cinema and Ben Lewin handles them with enormous tact and skill. In O’Brien he has a fascinating lead character who exclaims “who are these people?” when he starts to learn about disabled peoples’ sexual adventures. In John Hawkes he also has a fantastic actor putting in a fine performance. I like Hawkes and feel that he’s been overlooked in excellent indies such as Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Maylene. He is a talented actor and he commits completely to this difficult role.

O’Brien comes across as one part Woody Allen and one part Stephen Hawking. Despite being extremely disabled he retains a dry sense of humour and is both quick-witted and quick-minded. He is good company and the scenes of him seeking guidance from his local priest, played to perfection by William H Macy, are warm and intriguing. Both men are virginal and their discussions of sex, love, faith and sin are real and charming in equal measure. That reality and charm run deep through this film and are most strongly manifested in the central relationship between O’Brien and his sex surrogate Cheryl (played with heart by Helen Hunt).

The sessions between Mark and Cheryl are the emotional heart of this story and Hawkes and Hunt imbue them with enormous honesty and truth. Whilst the intended sexual activity is serious, the intimate scenes are not seedy, sad or gratuitous. They are real and that means that they are at times awkward, funny, warm and wonderful. By the end their story is an uplifting one. Unlike many other films, there is nothing in this film that is judgemental or condescending and certainly nothing that trivializes sex. The Sessions is about love in different forms and it is about human kindness. As such it is a refreshing, challenging and moving piece of work. Well done to all involved.

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