Tag Archives: reviews

Don’t be Afraid of the Dark

31 Mar

Director: Troy Nixey

Writers: Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), Matthew Robbins (screenplay), and 1 more credit

Stars: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce and Bailee Madison

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 99 minutes



Katie Holmes, since being locked away in a scientology cupboard by husband Tom Cruise, has not made many films. Judged on this one and her other recent offering Jack and Jill (with serial offender Adam Sandler) we are being saved as movie goers by diminutive Tom’s spousal control. Katie is in this ‘scary’ outing with Guy Pearce so there are two fairly heavyweight actors attached. More headline grabbing is the writer-producer credit that goes to Guillermo del Toro who started his career with really scary films such as Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone.

The pre title opening of this film provides its gruesome backdrop and sets up the nasty secret that gets locked away in the bowels of the creepy mansion. That secret will be unearthed by Holmes, Pearce and their daughter as they renovate the house in the present day. Those first five minutes tell a lot about the film. The ghostly horse and carriage, the candlelit manor, the strange goings on in the dark basement etc are all very Scooby Doo. Once the ‘crime’ occurred I was half expecting the Mystery Machine to show up, but had to settle for half decent actors phoning in poor performances.

There is nothing here to recommend this film. It is poorly executed and borderline funny at times. On the Scooby Doo front we even get a grumpy and suspicious gardener as one of the important second string characters! Guillermo del Toro mines some of his previous films including Pan’s Labyrinth, but this is light years away from that masterpiece. The acting is wooden, the music is awful and there are very few scary moments indeed.

The Descendants

24 Mar

Director: Alexander Payne

Writers: Alexander Payne (screenplay), Nat Faxon (screenplay), and 2 more credits

Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 115 minutes



Dark comedies about awkward American middle-aged men assessing their lives are essentially what writer director Alexander Payne does. He started with Election (fantastic) in 1999, followed that with About Schmidt (good) in 2002, and then captured a bigger audience and the odd award with Sideways (excellent) in 2004. Payne cast Matthew Broderick, Jack Nicholson and Paul Giamatti as the leads in those films and this time around it is George Clooney that finds himself questioning his purpose and position in a messy modern life.

Clooney plays Matt King, a grey haired Hawaiian businessman with a lousy taste in shirts. He is having a particularly tough time of it as his wife is in hospital in a coma, he has to try to parent his two wayward daughters, and he is in the middle of a large family land deal with many complications. In addition he is estranged from his own family. Matt is bemused by his kids with whom he rarely talks and learns that his sick wife was having an affair before her accident. All is not paradise in Hawaii which is a theme that Clooney / Payne return to frequently.

This movie, adapted from a novel, is called The Descendants as it deals with family growing pains – via the father and daughter relationships and via the complex family land deal. It is a fairly interesting set-up, but it does not dig very deep. The relationships are rather one-dimensional and the slow pace and lack of spark, funny or otherwise, allowed my attention to drift. I actually found it boring. Clooney is OK in his role, but the character of Matt King has few redeeming qualities. Of those 4 ‘middle-aged male crises’ films from Alexander Payne, this is definitely the weakest.


22 Mar

Director: Bennett Miller

Writers: Steven Zaillian (screenplay), Aaron Sorkin (screenplay), and 2 more credits

Stars: Brad Pitt, Robin Wright and Jonah Hill

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 133 minutes



The book and film The Perfect Storm subsequently morphed into a well used phrase for when multiple events coincide to conspire against you. Although less catchy, I can see Moneyball doing something similar. It refers to the management approach taken by the Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane from 2001. More specifically, Moneyball means taking the emotion and subjective beliefs out of decision-making, falling back on hard facts and being coldly analytical. Like The Perfect Storm, this film is adapted from an earlier book – the 2003 account by Michael Lewis titled Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

The film opens in 2001 as the A’s are forced to sell 3 of their stars to much bigger and better financed baseball teams. At that point the owner describes the A’s as a small market team. Beane as the GM complains loudly that the deck is stacked against him. He has strong feelings that baseball has become unfair and that the accepted wisdom of building teams is flawed. He is stewing on those ‘injustices’ when he meets and then hires Peter Brand, a young Yale economics graduate from the back-room team at the Cleveland Indians. Together Beane and Brand apply the Moneyball approach to re-building the A’s with startling results.

Moneyball is a remarkable film. The story resonates well beyond baseball and the lead actors Brad Pitt (Beane) and Jonah Hill (Brand) perform to perfection. The pacing and the script (by big-hitters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) are also superb. It is not surprising that it was nominated for a number of awards earlier this year. What is surprising is that I was transfixed by a film with baseball at its heart – a sport that I have no time for at all, but that came to life as the A’s go on their amazing journey. Billy Beane reminds me of Brian Clough and that’s also quite an accolade!

Tower Heist

18 Mar

Director: Brett Ratner

Writers: Ted Griffin (screenplay), Jeff Nathanson (screenplay), and 3 more credits

Stars: Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller and Casey Affleck

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 104 minutes



There are some dodgy old names associated with this latest Ben Stiller comedy. The director is Brett, Rush Hour 1, 2 & 3, Ratner and the other star is Eddie Murphy, an actor with a long cinematic criminal record. Having them make up a large part of the ‘talent’ on this film made me sceptical from the outset – that and the fact that Ben Stiller is hardly a reliable source of comedy gold.

The story of Tower Heist is a modern and topical take on the little guy standing up to the wealthy and bullying mogul. Stiller is the manager of an impressive residential tower block that is owned by the penthouse dwelling Alan Alda. Alda comes across as a bit Donald Trump and a bit Bernie Madoff and it is the latter resemblance that is crucial. The story turns on the unravelling of a ponzi scheme that Alda’s character has trapped Stiller and other tower employees in.

Once Stiller and his colleagues realize the chicanery of Alda they join forces and decide to rob him. That’s the cue for Murphy to enter the fray as the consultant thief and for Stiller’s misfit gang to embark on some good fun heist training. Here the movie works very well with a strong supporting cast that includes Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick and Tea Leoni. Once the robbery is underway, however, the comedy is stretched a little thin.

If the great Frank Capra was alive today it is likely that he would be offered this type of ‘blue collar hero’ film to direct. He would certainly do more with it than Ratner, but Tower Heist is decent enough and not the dog that I had anticipated going in.

The Ides of March

16 Mar

Director: George Clooney

Writers: George Clooney (screenplay), Grant Heslov (screenplay), and 2 more credits

Stars: Paul Giamatti, George Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 101 minutes


The timing for this film could hardly be better. As the story of a primary election to decide a US presidential nominee, it is here just as Mitt Romney is fighting ugly with Paul, Gingrich and Santorum. Of course this is a George Clooney film so it’s a Democratic primary under the microscope and not a Republican one. That said, one theme of this movie is how the Democrats could learn a thing or two about the dark arts of electioneering from their Republican rivals.

As well as its timely focus on intra party political shenanigans, The Ides of March features Hollywood’s hottest lead actor in Ryan Gosling. He is fresh from strong performances in the overrated Drive and the underrated Crazy, Stupid, Love and he delivers again here as an assistant campaign manager. It is his job to support the campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as together they plot the way through the Ohio primary for their candidate (George Clooney).

As well as Hoffman we get Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright and Marisa Tomei in the other supporting roles. These are all excellent actors and the writer-director Clooney has assembled another strong cast. They all do well, the film moves along nicely and it is entertaining. The plot twists are not particularly surprising and the central theme of forced political compromise has been addressed before, but the script and acting lift this well above the average drama.

The Whistleblower

26 Feb

Director:Larysa Kondracki

Writers:Larysa Kondracki, Eilis Kirwan

Stars:Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci and Vanessa Redgrave

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 112 minutes



Predicting the popularity of a film is a difficult task. The screenwriter William Goldman always stood by his often quoted phrase ‘nobody knows anything’ when discussing the genesis of films good and bad. I returned to this theme on watching The Whistleblower as it is an excellent film, but one that I had not heard of before and missed at the cinema (if indeed it ever got a UK theatrical release). The acting, especially from Rachel Weisz, is powerful and the story moving. It should have gained attention if not box office profit, but somehow appears to have achieved neither.

Weisz plays Kathryn Bolkovac, a US police officer that joins the UN peacekeeping mission in post-war Bosnia in 1999. She is there for the money as one of many security contractors. The country is in a poor state and ethnic divides are still tangible. It is clear that the UN and the various sets of private contractors on the ground have their work cut out to help ‘transition’ Bosnia to a peaceful and democratic endgame. Within the chaos criminality is rampant and Bolkovac starts to piece together a sex-trafficking conspiracy.

This film is based on actual events and that makes the harrowing storyline more impactful. The scale of the trafficking business and the inhumanity on display are hard to stomach. There are some particularly tough scenes, but none of them tip over the edge and sadly the miserable plight of the trafficked women does not seem unrealistic. We know from Iraq and Afghanistan that private contractors in a chaotic country, and with immunity to prosecution, can lose their moral compass and abuse those that they are supposed to protect. This is a low budget film with a big message that it delivers strongly. It is not easy to watch at times, but it deserves a bigger audience that it has obtained thus far.

Project Nim

23 Feb

Director:James Marsh

Stars:Bob Angelini, Nim Chimpsky and Bern Cohen

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 93 minutes




James Marsh, and his team, has delivered another excellent documentary. After the thrilling 2008 Man on Wire comes this fascinating account of the life of chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky. In a story that no doubt inspired last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this documentary charts the life of Nim from birth (1973) to death (2000) and his role in a nature versus nurture experiment to teach a chimpanzee sign language.

Nim’s story and this documentary starts with the experiment as run by Herbert Terrace at Columbia University. Nim is taken at birth from a compound in Oklahoma, transported to New York, and handed over to a family picked by Terrace. The aim is to try to teach Nim sign language and to try to assimilate the chimpanzee into a human family. It is the early 1970’s and such an authority defying experiment seems fitting. However, once Nim gets big and strong at 5 years old the experiment is curtailed. At that point Nim has shown the odd flash of animalistic and dangerous behaviour. What follows is the even more extraordinary and sad story of Nim as he is passed between wildlife parks, research labs and animal sanctuaries.

Nim’s story is fascinating and I was spellbound by it. What it tells us about animal capabilities and how it answers the nature versus nurture argument is not clear. What is clear is the impact that Nim has on the humans that he interacts with. The teachers, handlers and support staff are as much in the spotlight as Nim and each one reveal a range of human traits as Nim and they get older through the documentary. At times the human and animal line is perfectly blurred. This is a splendid piece of documentary film-making.

The Devil’s Double

19 Feb

Director: Lee Tamahori

Writers: Michael Thomas, Latif Yahia (books)

Stars: Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier and Raad Rawi

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 109 minutes



Of all the many lurid and fantastic tales of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the erratic behaviour of his eldest son Uday capped most for sheer madness. Uday was the son that murdered his father’s personal valet at a party, Uday tortured national athletes that failed to win whilst head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, and Uday kept a personal zoo including lions and cheetahs. The President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak called Uday Hussein a psychopath and this film, based on the true story of Uday’s body double Latif Yahia, confirms the accuracy of that description.

In this film, set between the start of the Iraq – Iran war in the early ‘80’s and the US retaliation for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the early ‘90’s, Dominic Cooper plays Uday and Latif. It is a far cry from Cooper’s traditional part in small British dramas (An Education, Tamara Drewe, My Week with Marilyn), but he acquits himself well. He channels Tony Scarface Montana in a lot of his scenes as the debauched Uday and for Latif, the ex Iraqi soldier, he goes a bit Jason Bourne. He certainly tries hard and the many scenes of them together are cleverly assembled.

Apart from Cooper’s valiant effort at the centre of this movie, much of it is poor. There are uneven accents and strange dialogue and the performance of Ludivine Sagnier, as the woman between Uday and Latif, is awful. There are torture scenes, stabbings, rape and other Caligula like horrors, but Uday is never truly menacing and the narrative behind the many shocks is weak. As for Lee Tamahori the director, 1994 and Once Were Warriors seems a very long time ago. Sub-standard all round.

The Debt

13 Feb

Director: John Madden

Writers: Matthew Vaughn (screenplay), Jane Goldman (screenplay), and 3 more credits

Stars: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Tom Wilkinson

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 113 minutes



This is based on a 2007 Israeli film called Ha-Hov. I have not seen Ha-Hov, but it seems as though this English language update is very loyal to the source material. Watching The Debt made me wonder if there was a real story and / or a novel behind Ha-Hov, but both films are pure works of fiction (with various nods to modern history).

The story moves between the mid sixties and the late nineties and centres on a secret Mossad mission in East Berlin to capture a WWII Nazi criminal. Three young Mossad agents, Sam Worthington as David, Jessica Chastain as Rachel and Marton Csokas as Stephen, plot to kidnap the ‘surgeon of Birkenau’ and transport him back to Israel to stand trial. The bulk of the film is set in communist Berlin with the undercover agents struggling in their mission. The fallout of the work is revealed in the modern sections with Helen Mirren in the lead role as an aged Rachel (and then Ciaran Hinds as David and Tom Wilkinson as Stephen).

The device of having six different actors to play the three agents works well. I prefer it to using young actors and prosthetic make-up and here it gets six decent actors on to the screen. Of them Chastain and Mirren are very good as Rachel, but Worthington is less than convincing. The story is also good with sixties Berlin captured nicely. A solid amount of thrills, action and drama are delivered, but the ending is weak. Also, the film glosses over two potentially richer narrative threads; firstly how different people learn to live with traumatic pasts and secondly how the semi secret Nazi hunting expeditions of Mossad became so critical to the national psyche of Israel.

Fright Night

7 Feb

Director: Craig Gillespie

Writers: Marti Noxon (screenplay), Tom Holland (story), and 1 more credit

Stars: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell and David Tennant

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 106 minutes



I did not see the original, but apparently this is a straight remake of that 1985 film. Back then it was a contemporary of Gremlins and Ghostbusters in the niche that is ‘comedy horror’. Later examples included House and The Lost Boys with all such films mashing up traditional scary stories with smart modern dialogue. Comedy horror remains a niche with unfortunately more misses than hits and Fright Night retains that slightly awkward feel to it.

In this remake it is Colin Farrell that plays creepy Jerry who moves into a desert bound suburb of Las Vegas and almost immediately puts his teenage neighbour Charley (Anton Yelchin) on edge. Encouraged by his geeky friend Ed (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Charley starts to believe that Jerry is indeed a vampire. And when other neighbours start disappearing, Charley seeks help from acclaimed TV vampire hunter Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall upgraded to David Tennant).

Fright Night 2011 works well in Farrell’s seriously sociopathic performance and in the isolated and other worldly nature of the Vegas suburb setting. There are some decent lines including a nice anti Twilight joke and it is scary at times. However, the jumps back and forth between farce and fright combined with all of the high school angst (think Buffy meets Clueless) make a less than perfect cocktail. Watching David Tennant channel Russell Brand early on is amusing, but even that joke runs a little dry by the end. Not bad, but not great.

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