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Sightseers

7 Sep

Sightseers

 

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writers: Amy Jump (additional material), Alice Lowe (screenplay)

Stars: Alice Lowe, Eileen Davies, Steve Oram

Motion picture rating: R

Runtime: 88 minutes

 

What if Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers went on their crime spree in a cheap and cheerful caravan? That has to have been Alice Lowe’s launch point for dreaming up this dark comedy; two amorous psychopaths, the open road and a shabby mobile home. It is a unique set up and Lowe found talented collaborators in husband and wife team Ben (Kill List) Wheatley and Amy Jump. Together they have fashioned a twisted comedy that the sicker members of the English tourist board can have only dreamt about in feverish dreams.

The writer Lowe plays Tina to Steve Oram’s Chris. They are a quirky couple in their early 30’s and in the early stages of a romance. They head out in Chris’s car / caravan combo on a road trip of English tourist attractions leaving Tina’s invalid and disapproving mother behind. She is wary of geeky Chris and with good reason because it’s not long before he’s meeting out tough justice on litterers, opinionated ramblers and Daily Mail readers. Chris is sociopathic and possibly psychopathic. He is the Travis Bickle of the caravan society and carries a full rack of emotional baggage. He desperately wants to be respected, but is dismissed at every turn. Frustration and rage boil inside.

Simple minded Tina learns to understand her deadly companion and then wants to join him. We have seen a wicked side to her earlier in the film, but the relish with which she ups the murderous ante is shocking. Soon Chris is worried about Tina, but by then they are too far gone down the road of train museums, rough sex, caravan sites, and bloodshed.

Wheatley shoots this with panache and the script from Lowe and Jump has some very funny lines. The leads are convincing with Oram particularly effective as the edgy Chris. The film owes something to early Shane Meadows’ films (such as A Room for Romeo Brass) and as such mixes black humour with social comment. It is not easy to watch at times, but it is often surprising and certainly a lot more fun than the overblown Oliver Stone road trip rampage from 1994. I liked Sightseers a lot and, whilst sick and twisted, there is something undeniably English about it.

Safety Not Guaranteed

24 Aug

Safety not Guaranteed

 

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Writer: Derek Connolly

Stars: Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni

Motion picture rating: R

Runtime: 86 minutes

 

 

Mumblecore actor Mark Duplass is back with another smart little indie film backed by some of the makers of Little Miss Sunshine. Duplass comes from Your Sister’s Sister whilst the Sunshine folks arrive via Ruby Sparks. These films are primarily character studies that deal with dysfunctional families and that portray the vagaries of millennial love. They can be heavy on the quirkiness, and Ruby Sparks is definitely in that camp, but mostly they are warm, fun, literate and entertaining.

Duplass here plays lone amateur engineer and sci-fi nerd Kenneth. He lives a few hours from Seattle and is completing the finishing touches to his time travel machine. He needs a partner and searches via a small newspaper ad; “…bring your own weapons…safety not guaranteed…I have only done this once before.” The ad catches the eye of Jeff (Jake Johnson), a journalist with a Seattle-based magazine. He drives out to find and interview the clearly demented time traveller and takes with him two interns (Aubrey Plaza as Darius and Karan Soni as Arnau).

Jeff fails to ingratiate himself with Kenneth, but that’s OK because Jeff has an extra agenda in connecting with ex-High School sweetheart   Liz. Whilst he is off trying to relive his glory days it is Darius that engages loner Kenneth and she becomes his partner for the great journey ahead. Young Arnau watches with amusement, but he only took the internship to bolster his CV so he’s non-committal about the magazine and the story. The three magazine staffers make a fun miss-matched team just as Darius and Kenneth make an odd, but compelling couple.

This is an unapologetically sweet and sincere film about people wishing they could travel back to relive better times. Most of the characters have reasons to be intrigued by the concept of time travel. That they are in their late ‘20’s or early ‘30’s did not put me off the film, but might be hard for some viewers to swallow. Kenneth, Darius and Jeff are disenfranchised and drifting, but they don’t wallow in that. They are snarky, but not self-absorbed. And the dialogue is very funny at times.

The stand-out performance comes from Aubrey Plaza as Darius. She should become very hot property after this, but we shall see. Seemingly doing very little, she steals the film and is a magnetic screen presence. Johnson and Duplass are good and no doubt they had fun on set as the whole cast really commits to what is a rom-com and sci-fi hybrid. As such it is hard to pigeon hole, but it is all the better for it. I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it highly.

Movie 43

16 Jun

movie 43

 

 

Directors: Bob Odenkirk, Elizabeth Banks, 11 more credits

Writers: Rocky Russo, Jeremy Sosenko, 28 more credits

Stars: Liev Schreiber, Emma Stone, Richard Gere

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 90 minutes

 

Actors are a notoriously fickle group. Many seek approval if not adoration from their audience and once obtained can too readily lose their grasp of reality. Even if they start out with ego nicely in check the approval, adoration and applause goes to the head and causes them to forget who they are, what they do and where they started from. It is why some turn to alternative therapies and cults, others decide that they can save the planet and / or third world orphans and it is why Russell Crowe thought that he could sing in Les Miserables. It’s hubris. It’s being surrounded by an entourage. It’s the blinkered view of the world that delivers vanity projects such as Movie 43.

This so bad it hurts film is advertised as having ‘the biggest cast ever assembled’. Along with that highly debatable claim the film-makers describe the ensuing carnage as epic, jaw-dropping and side-splitting. Wild claims indeed. There are various stars assembled as per writers and directors, but the movie that they deliver is a huge failure and a classic vanity project. This one contains 8 or 9 unconnected episodes that run for about 10 minutes each. Within them the likes of Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Emma Stone, Richard Gere, Naomi Watts, Halle Berry and Gerard Butler embarrass themselves.

I don’t know the origins of this trash, but the various episodes seem like outtakes from other films, inside Hollywood anecdotes or bad bar jokes. There is very little here that is original and most of the episodes are childish, low brow and insulting. I laughed once or twice in the home schooling segment featuring Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber, but that was about it. Episodes with makeshift tampons, mangled dicks and violent leprechauns did make my jaw drop, but not in a good way. The only reason why such big name stars got involved has to be hubris and vanity – the type that convinces them that they too can get down with the kids and make a gross-out comedy.

The Sapphires

26 Mar

the sapphires

 

Director: Wayne Blair

Writers: Tony Briggs, Keith Thompson

Stars: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 103 minutes

 

 

The Sapphires are a singing group made up of four related Aboriginal girls (three sisters and a cousin). The year is 1968 and the girls are about to have the adventure of a lifetime entertaining the troops in Vietnam. Under the tutelage of a somewhat seedy, and certainly disorganized, Irish manager the four girls drop the harmonized country and western ballads and take up rump-shaking soul music. Almost overnight they find themselves playing gigs, under fire and in a country that’s a whole long way from their Aussie outback home. It is a crazy story and it happens to be true.

Chris O’Dowd plays the wayward manager and the Sapphires include a successful solo artist in Jessica Mauboy (as youngest sister Julie) and well-known theatre, TV and film actor Deborah Mailman (as eldest sister Gail). The cast is good. O’Dowd gets some great lines and, playing the fool with gusto, he almost steals the film from the singing quartet. Actually all those involved put in full-blooded performances and there is a feel-good vibe through the film. In some ways The Sapphires is a little old-fashioned. And it has a familiar feel even though it is based on a unique tale.

Overall, it is difficult not to like this film. The soundtrack dazzles, the action moves quickly, and the girls mostly have fun. There are, however, a few problems that come from the speed of storytelling. Racism is front and centre at times, but promoted and dropped in quick order. The film-makers show the racist mistreatment of the black Australian singers and the black American soldiers, but don’t focus on it. The issue of forced adoption of young Aboriginal children is also important to the story, but sandwiched between rehearsals, gigs and parties. It is a difficult blend to manage and the film-makers do OK with it, but it is clunky at times.

Grabbers

2 Mar

grabbers

 

Director: Jon Wright

Writer: Kevin Lehane

Stars: Richard Coyle, Ruth Bradley, Russell Tovey

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 94 minutes

 

 

So here we have a small coastal community terrorized by a monster from the deep. A fishing trawler has lost its crew and butchered whales have washed up on the beach. The local police mean well, but are out of their depth. Sound familiar? It should because Grabbers owes a great deal to Jaws, as well as Gremlins and Tremors too – monster movies with casts of characters that you care about and a story that builds nicely to an exciting man versus monster finale.

Grabbers is set on a small island off the coast of Ireland. It’s all a bit Father Ted with a decent nod to Local Hero. Strange maritime incidents have been occurring and the town drunk reckons that he has caught a nasty sea creature in a lobster pot. He’s not wrong and soon that creature has spawned others and the villagers are in peril. The two local police, drunken and dishevelled Richard Coyle and by the book Ruth Bradley, are trying to solve the mystery and are supported by resident marine ecologist Russell Tovey. As it happens, alcohol is the key to survival. The sea monsters seek human blood, but are poisoned by booze-filled bodies.

This is a cracking little film. The concept that locals must stage a lock-in and stay drunk to stay alive is a clever one. And for a first time script writer Kevin Lehane conjures up a realistic community with some great characters. The leads are particularly good, especially Coyle and Bradley as the miss-matched coppers with more than a little chemistry between them. Tovey is less convincing as ‘Dr Exposition’, and some of the early extras are shaky, but overall it is a winning cast and they imbue the film with a lot of heart.

I am surprised that Grabbers made such little impact at the box office, but that title probably did not help. The producers should have been more imaginative and could have benefitted from copying the marketing strategy of Shaun of the Dead. Still, this could do really well on DVD and I hope that it does. It is low budget, but the special effects are hugely impressive. The townsfolk are charming and the film is a lot of fun.

Ruby Sparks

24 Feb

ruby sparks

 

 

Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Writer: Zoe Kazan

Stars: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 104 minutes

 

This is a film made by couples about couples. The directors are Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the real-life couple behind the indie breakout Little Miss Sunshine. The stars are real-life couple Paul Dano, who featured in Sunshine, and Zoe Kazan (who also wrote this). As the product of 2 working couples, Ruby Sparks feels intimate and it is clear that it is a sincere effort with some highly astute observations about relationships as one would hope.

Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a solitary twenty something struggling on his second novel having had great success with his first. He lives in the hills above LA in a modern, but austere home with his small dog. Calvin has few friends and his main social interaction comes via his older brother. This is good casting; Dano is excellent as the awkward and somewhat drifting novelist. You can feel Calvin’s frustrations building and it comes as no surprise that he fantasizes about an amazing young woman coming into and shaking up his life. He needs a muse and he needs shaking up.

Calvin’s dream girl is Ruby Sparks. He creates her on the page, but almost immediately she becomes real. That transition is smart and funny. In fact the first half of the film is excellent and throws up some neat surprises and some great lines. Dano is completely thrown by the incursion of his dream girl and Zoe Kazan as Ruby Sparks is wonderful.

My feeling with Ruby Sparks is that the film-makers started production with a great concept, but not clarity on the tone. Accordingly the first half of the film is good, but thereafter it falters. Kazan wants to show how controlling one half of a couple can become. Also, that perfect partners are rarely that and how easy it is to start looking for something better. Those are serious themes and the film does get darker towards the end. That’s OK, but the darkness clashes with the early laughs and the conclusion flips back to the kooky indie side again.

Kazan is a decent writer and a very good actress on this showing. Clearly she and Dano have a lot of chemistry and there is nice supporting work by Elliott Gould, Steve Coogan and by Annette Bening. Many of the constituent parts work, but the end result does not. This is a good concept stretched too thin and Ruby Sparks is a much weaker personality than Little Miss Sunshine.

The Watch

27 Jan

the watch

Director: Akiva Schaffer

Writers: Writers: Jared Stern, Seth Rogen

Stars: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 102 minutes

There is something disconcertingly familiar about recent US comedies. Roughly the same review can be posted for too many of them. That’s not to say that I don’t sit down with an open mind, ready to concentrate, but so many of these films involving the likes of Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow and Jonah Hill play out the same way. A decent set-up, high profile actors and a great poster, a few good lines, but ultimately a very average comedy. It’s all too lazy.

In this one, part written by Rogen and featuring Hill, a small group of generally well-liked and decent comic actors are assembled as an accident prone neighbourhood watch. The likes of Hill, Stiller and Vaughn should spark off each other nicely, but this is tame stuff from the start. Whether it is their egos that are getting in the way or they are simply phoning in their lines I am not sure, but no magic is created. Jonah Hill does OK, but 1 out of 4 hitting their mark is a poor return.

In terms of the neighbourhood being guarded, this one has been infiltrated by aliens. As such the movie aspires to be a comedy with scares in the vein of Gremlins. That is a difficult genre to crack and The Watch fails badly, especially when compared to the UK indie film Attack the Block (from 2011) that has a similar plot. This one is not really very funny and it’s certainly not scary apart from Vaughn’s performance. Frankly, it’s a mess. On top of the alien invasion story 2 sub-plots develop later on around Vaughn’s parenting skills and Stiller’s infertility. They sit awkwardly alongside the diminishing laughs and the sterile action. Overall, a waste of time.

Friends with Kids

9 Jan

friends with kids

Director: Jennifer Westfeldt

Writer: Jennifer Westfeldt

Stars: Jennifer Westfeldt, Adam Scott and Maya Rudolph

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 107 minutes

 

Here is another film seemingly aimed at young parents and those trying for children. It follows hard on the heels of the incredibly poor “What to Expect…” and whilst not as bad as that, it is still a mediocre effort. The writer, star and director are one in Jennifer Westfeldt and she was able to rope in her off-screen partner Jon Hamm as well as good friends Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig (who featured together in “Bridesmaids” along with Chris O’Dowd who also turns up in this comedy / drama). It follows that there is a nice camaraderie among the cast and the first 25 minutes are funny. However, it is downhill thereafter.

During that smart opening section the film is funny, but also a little dark. The material is adult and arch with a number of nicely non-politically correct gags. The concept is also promising – the long-time single best friends decide to make a baby together believing that two committed, but single parents is better than most modern couples. The friends, Westfeldt and Adam Scott, are charming together and appear more than capable of doing the unorthodox kid thing right. They are best friends that are assumed to be a couple by strangers and that are hoped to be a couple by mutual friends (so guessing the ending isn’t hard). Their wider circle of friends (Hamm, Wiig, Rudolph, O’Dowd) are also a colourful, albeit stereotyped, bunch.

The problems with the story start about half-way through and are compounded by a serious lack of laughs in the second half. A key scene that’s set in a Vermont ski chalet, with a group bust-up and alcohol induced truth telling among friends, is whiny, self-absorbed and melodramatic. There is also a sudden switch of focus to the struggling couple Hamm and Wiig, but we have little empathy or interest in them. And even though the ending is telegraphed from the start, it could have been handled without going over-the-top and harvesting clichés. That is a real disappointment and sums up a film that started off with a bang, but finished with a whimper.

Lay the Favourite

3 Dec

lay the favourite

 

Director: Stephen Frears

Writers: Beth Raymer (memoir), D.V. DeVincentis (screenplay)

Stars: Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis and Vince Vaughn

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 94 minutes

 

British director Stephen Frears has had an interesting career. He has jumped around genres and locations and there have been excellent films such as Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity and Dirty Pretty Things, but also bombs such as Mary Reilly, Tamara Drewe and this latest film. In fact, this one might be the absolute low and in following on from Tamara Drewe it’s a truly awful sequence. In the former Gemma Arterton was strangely miscast and misused and in the latter it is Rebecca Hall, another very capable young British actress, that suffers.

The story of Lay the Favourite, possibly the worst film title of 2012, is that of Beth Raymer. It is her memoir of legal and illegal betting shenanigans on which the film is based. Rebecca Hall plays Beth and we first see her dancing privately for various unsavoury types in Florida. Almost, but not quite a call girl she leaves the state and heads to Las Vegas to find better work. There she hooks up with bookmaker Dink (Bruce Willis), his wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and with a collection of other bookies, gamblers, wannabe gangsters etc. Joshua Jackson becomes the new boyfriend and Vince Vaughn is a New York based bookie for who the naïve Beth also finds work.

There is so much wrong with this film it is difficult to know where to start. Rebecca Hall, a fantastic actress who was so good in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and in The Town, is hugely miscast and her girly Marilyn Monroe voice and kooky mannerisms are annoying. The other cast members are equally poor and mostly stand around looking uncomfortable. The script is dire, the direction is uninspired and one cringe-worthy scene follows another. The film has no redeeming qualities at all and director Frears is now on very thin ice indeed.

The Five-Year Engagement

30 Nov

five year engagement

 

 

Director: Nicholas Stoller

Writers: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller

Stars: Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Chris Pratt

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 124 minutes

 

In film-making they say that luckily there is always room for horror films and rom-com’s. That’s lucky because both genres are low cost to make and easy to market. It’s no coincidence that we are bombarded by both whilst deprived of more intellectually challenging fare. It’s not to say that horror films and rom-com’s can’t be good – see my reviews of Kill List and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen for nice examples – it’s just that in the main they are poor. And any rom-com featuring Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson and / or Matthew McConaughey are actually far worse.

With The Five-Year Engagement we have a high concept rom-com. Talk about easy to market – it’s all there in the title…Anyhow, this one features Jason Segel (also a co-writer and producer) as Tom and Emily Blunt as Violet. They meet cute, date for a year, get engaged and then struggle to get down the aisle. Her PHD studies in psychology force them to move from San Francisco to Michigan where she thrives, but he struggles having given up a top chef’s job back on the bay for work in a sandwich bar in the mid-west. Violet blooms via her studies whilst Tom regresses and becomes a bit of a hick (long side burns, drinking in the morning, deer hunting etc.)

This film starts with a track by Dexys Midnight Runners so it’s off to a flyer in my book. The couple’s meet cute is nicely done and also matched by the funny engagement scene. Thereafter you root for what is a believable and amusing couple – Segel is very good in a lot of comedies and Blunt is great in everything (again see Salmon Fishing). Around the pair are some excellent cameos, especially Mad Men’s Alison Brie as Violet’s sister, and there are a number of good recurring jokes. It is genuinely funny and perceptive stuff. It runs slightly too long and it pushes the core “pick a cookie and take a bite” message a bit too hard at times, but overall it’s rather charming.

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