The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review: The Two Faces of January (UK Cert: 12A)

With The Two Faces of January, screenwriter Hossein Amini (who skilfully adapted the James Sallis existential pulp novel, Drive) swaps to the director’s chair to bring one of his favourite books by Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley, Strangers on a Train) to the big screen. The film is a love letter to the chase thrillers of the fifties and sixties: murder, suspicion, adultery all set in eye-catching locations, starring ridiculously good looking actors; all of them dressed in stylish clothes and somehow managing to make chain smoking look cool. While there’s nothing wrong with paying homage to what went before, you can’t just come up with the same old tropes and not add anything new. This is The Two Faces of January’s only problem, stopping a good film from being a memorable one.

Set in sixties Greece, Rydal (Inside Llewyn Davis’ Oscar Isaac) is a tour guide, using his good looks and charm to trick college girls out of their money, who finds himself caught up in the lives of Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette McFarland (Kirsten Dunst). Discovering the McFarlands are not who they say they are, Rydal unwittingly ends up as an accessory, forced to join them as they travel to Crete and Istanbul in a bid to escape.

As you would expect, the three leads all give impressive performances. Mortensen has this gift of taking complicated, contradictory characters and making them totally believable (The Road, Eastern Promises), and he does the same here as Chester, who starts off as this flamboyant, charming man, until his mask slips. Becoming increasingly paranoid and desperate, his jealousy towards Rydal gets out of control. Chester is petty and spiteful; his answer to everything is to get drunk and lash out.

Oscar Isaac’s Rydal is the closest we get to a protagonist. When we first meet Rydal, all he is interested in is stealing as much money off Chester as he can, while also trying to talk Colette into bed. It’s not until events tragically spiral out of control that Rydal discovers he has a conscience. Isaac easily matches Mortensen in the acting stakes here, scenes between the two of them, Chester and Rydal struggling to control their hatred for each other, exuding slow-burning tension.

Usually in chase thrillers, especially those set around a love triangle, the female role asks the actress to look stunning, make sure her make-up is always perfect, and say her lines; she’s there to push the plot forward and that’s it. To Amini’s credit, he gives Dunst a lot more to do here, Colette discovering just what kind of man her husband is, but realising all too late. Like Rydal, Colette is weak in terms of morals, but you pity her because of how naïve she is, only now does she raise her head out of the sand.

The film is always stunning to look at. For most of The Two Faces of January, Marcel Zyskind fills each scene with bright Mediterranean light; it’s not until things begin to reach their inevitable conclusion that Zyskind lessens the colour onscreen, the majority of scenes in the third act set either in darkness or what colour you do see looks pale or natural. Every frame during a police chase through Istanbul resembles a work of art, Rydal and Chester dashing through dim alleyways, cafés, even a mill, giving us brief glimpses of intense colour before plunging both leads back into the dark.

Equally impressive is the film’s score, penned by Alberto Iglesias (The Kite Runner and The Constant Gardner being his most well-known work).  Just like Amini, Iglesias is inspired by the globe-trotting thrillers of the fifties and sixties, the music brilliantly over-the-top, piling on the tension in each scene with bursts of short, quivering strings.

What stops The Two Faces of January from being one of the greats is that anyone who has seen an Alfred Hitchcock film, or any of the glamorous thrillers from that era (the audience Amini is aiming for), will know what’s going to happen. They’ll know that not everyone is going to make it to the credits, or that a private investigator will suddenly show up. By sticking to the traditions of these films, there are no surprises, the tension that Amini tries so hard to build is lacking. You could argue that Amini is simply following Patricia Highsmith’s novel, and if it had been translated to the big screen back when these films were popular, it would be hailed as a classic. If you compare The Two Faces of January to Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder or Minghella’s more recent adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, it’s not quite up there. The Two Faces of January’s character-driven exploits, while entertaining enough, are run-of-the-mill compared to other thrillers.

The Two Faces of January is a successful, rose-tinted homage to the early Hollywood thrillers, but because it sticks so rigidly to the traits that audiences know so well, it’s nowhere near as exciting as it should be.

3 out of 5


Monday, 26 May 2014

Review: X-Men: Days Of Future Past (UK Cert 12A)

Comic-book movies sometimes get a raw deal. They're perceived as low-brow popcorn-fodder, a sit-back-and-watch-things-go-boom experience. Basically, they're lumped in with Michael Bay films. However, that is far from the truth. Comic-book movies deal with huge themes- love, trust, truth, faith, death- and are much more than just a vivid spectacle. Captain America: The Winter Soldier plays out like a paranoid 1970s thriller with added superhero, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 deals with loss and betrayal, and now X-Men: Days Of Future Past asks questions about the nature of history, fate and destiny.

In a future ravaged by war, mutants and their sympathisers are hunted down and ruthlessly exterminated by massive killer robots known as the Sentinels. A small group of mutants- led by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen)- have a plan to end the war. Using Kitty Pryde's (Ellen Page) powers, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back to 1973. He must reunite a separated Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) and, together, they must stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Sentinel creator Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the Paris Peace Accord which ends the Vietnam War. Trask's death and Mystique's subsequent capture are the tipping point which brings about the war. But can they change the past?

It's a truly epic piece of film-making. Singer's direction is slick, the big action set-pieces look amazing (the opening scene featuring a Sentinel attack on a mutant camp in Moscow is just absolutely breath-taking) but the smaller, quieter character moments also work- there's a fantastic scene between McAvoy and Stewart as the younger generation meets the older which is just sublime. The period detail of the 1970s is nicely realised- there's a great opening sight-gag involving lava lamps and waterbeds which raised a giggle- and the soundtrack is also worthy of mention (taking in Eartha Kitt, Roberta Flack and Jim Croce). 

Performance-wise, there's absolutely no complaints. Given that the lion's share of the action goes to Jackman, Fassbender, McAvoy and Lawrence, it's no surprise that they're all at their A-game here. This is the seventh time Jackman's played Wolverine and he completely inhabits the character every time. McAvoy's performance is stunning, as he goes from a wreck of a man to the man we know he can be. Fassbender is smooth and suave and there are echoes of McKellen in his tone. Lawrence is just superb as Mystique- she is the tipping point, the fulcrum. There's a lot of weight on her shoulders but she handles it with aplomb. 

Other performances worthy of note are Peter Dinklage as Trask- what could have easily been a cardboard cut-out stereotypical villain is given nuance and heart by Dinklage, making Trask almost likeable- and Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy, acting as nurse and companion to Charles. There's also a sterling performance by Evan Peters as Quicksilver, a superfast mutant who helps reunite Charles and Erik in what is one of the most inventive and funniest scenes in the film. There are also a few lovely and unexpected cameos towards the end that I won't spoil and a post-credits scene that gives a tantalising glimpse at the next film (due in 2016). 

Be warned, though: this is not a film for people new to the X-Men franchise. You need to have seen the previous films (and, sadly, I do include X-Men: The Last Stand in that) to really have a handle on the what and why. For example, a lot of the pathos that comes from Professor X and Magneto's relationship- despite being immaculately played by Stewart and McKellen- is based on knowing what they've previously been through (as it's only given the most cursory of mentions). Similarly, some of Wolverine's angst might seem a bit confusing if you don't know what's happened to him. Also, given the large cast, despite an extensive run-time of 131 minutes, some characters feel a little underused- Halle Berry's Storm, for instance- whilst the vast majority of Anna Paquin's scenes as Rogue hit the cutting-room floor. 

So, with the caveat in place that you need to have seen previous X-Men films before seeing this one, I would heartily recommend X-Men: Days Of Future Past. Engaging, epic and excellent.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Saturday, 24 May 2014

Review: Blue Ruin (UK Cert: 15)

Revenge thrillers are all a bit morally suspect, ranging from switch off your moral compass and enjoy the ride (Desperado, Mad Max, Taken) to being genuinely uncomfortable to watch (Death Wish, Last House on the Left). Considering how many revenge thrillers are out there, very few of them take the time to scrutinise their hero’s actions. Jeremy Saulnier’s latest, Blue Ruin, breaks the mould; its short running time teeming with subtext.

Dwight (Macon Blair) is homeless, spending his days inside his rusting Pontiac (the Blue Ruin of the title), only venturing outside to scavenge dumpsters for food. When a police officer tells Dwight that the man convicted of murdering his parents is being released from prison, Dwight sets out for revenge.

There is so much that makes Blue Ruin stand out amongst the thrillers you’ll see in 2014. First off, there is no background, no explanation given as to how Dwight ended up this way, or why he feels he has to kill a man who served his time in prison. There are no flashbacks, no monologues; instead we are shown clues throughout the film, piecing together what is happening. Dwight is shown reading a book by torchlight in the back of his car, suggesting he has not always been homeless. When Dwight tells his sister that he killed the man who murdered their parents, she cries, the only words she is able to say being, “I hope he suffered.”

Macon Blair’s performance is one of the best you will see all year. Dwight isn’t Charles Bronson or Jean Reno, he’s an ordinary man who makes mistakes. Only managing to find a small amount of money, Dwight tries buying a gun, but can’t afford one (everyone in America has the right to defend their home, so long as they’ve got the money). Instead, he breaks into cars, taking the first gun he finds, but the gun has a lock on it. In a heart-breaking scene, Dwight desperately tries to break the lock, instead forced to throw the gun away. With most revenge thrillers, you are made to root for the protagonist, like it or not. In Blue Ruin, Blair makes Dwight a sympathetic lead, telling us so much about the character through his expressions, like his doleful-looking eyes. At no point does Dwight make a convincing killer; he looks frightened, questioning whether he can even go through with this. There are times where Dwight looks like he is barely holding it together. He expected to kill the man who murdered his parents and that would be it; he didn’t expect this man’s family and friends to come after him.

Saulnier does an impressive job with the visuals and sound design, bringing to mind John Carpenter’s early films such as Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13. Almost every frame surrounds Dwight with space where anyone could attack him. There is scarcely any music, Saulnier instead relying on natural sound and, most of all, silence to mount the tension.

Many critics have mentioned the violence in Blue Ruin. There isn’t all that much gore in the film, but when it does happen it’s wince inducing stuff; not because it’s over-the-top, but because of how realistic it is. This isn’t a Quentin Tarantino stylised bloodbath, Saulnier wants audiences to be repelled by Dwight’s actions. The scene in Blue Ruin that will get everyone squirming is Dwight removing an arrow from his thigh. Dwight made his choice, Saulnier not flinching in showing us the consequences of making that choice.

You get out what you put into Blue Ruin. Some people will see it as ninety-minutes about a bodged-up revenge killing, and go back to watching Kill Bill. If you like an intelligent, rule-breaking film where the more you watch it, the more you read into it, then you can’t afford to miss this. Blue Ruin is smart, subtle, suspenseful stuff, with a Cormac McCarthy-style ending you will be left thinking about long after you’ve seen it.

5 out of 5


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Review: Godzilla (UK Cert: 12A)

You can picture the meeting at Warner Brothers; several execs sat round a table. “Bleak and introspective, it worked for Batman and Superman, what else can we do?” Somehow someone at Warner Brothers manages to put bleak and introspective in the same sentence as Godzilla, a Japanese monster movie from 1954 about a giant, fire-breathing lizard that toppled buildings. Next item on the agenda: Who do we get on board as director? “How about the guy who directed Monsters?” someone pipes up. Monsters was the debut from director Gareth Edwards who, on a fraction of Hollywood’s big-budget blockbusters, gave us, in my humble opinion, one of the best films of this century. Yes, it involves giant jellyfish aliens who, when wound up, chuck cars, rubble, even people, into the air, but Monsters wasn’t about the impressive special effects, it was a subtle, emotional, at times stunningly shot, character-driven thriller. Getting the man who made Monsters to direct Godzilla is massively missing the point.

Godzilla’s opening is impressive enough. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is a physicist working at a Japanese nuclear power plant when an earthquake brings the whole thing crashing down, Brody barely making it out alive. Suspecting that there’s more going on than just a natural disaster, he becomes obsessed with finding out the truth. There’s a nice little twist later on when it’s revealed that gigantic dung beetle-like creatures, M.U.T.O.s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects) are causing the earthquakes, not Godzilla. The M.U.T.O.s are responsible for wiping out Godzilla’s species, threatening to do the same to ours. Now Godzilla has woken up and he wants revenge.

Godzilla’s script, written by Max Borenstein, Dave Callaham and Frank Darabont, takes itself incredibly seriously. There are no one-liners, not even some nudge-nudge, wink-wink references to the Godzilla franchise. You wouldn’t complain if this was any other film, but Godzilla is all about giant monsters smacking each other over the head. What laughs you do get are unintentional; Ken Watanabe, somehow managing to stay stony faced when he yells, “Let them fight!”

Audiences don’t go to see a monster movie for multi-layered characters, they go for the action. Even for a monster movie, Godzilla’s humans are either clichéd, stereotypes, or are so stick-thin they may as well not be in the film. Bryan Cranston gets plenty to do in the opening ten minutes, but after that he spends the rest of his screen time either brooding or occasionally shouting at someone. Aaron Taylor-Johnston will probably get plenty of stick for Godzilla, with critics saying he can’t act. It’s not that he can’t act, all his character, Ford Brody, has to do is look serious, shoot things, or run for his life. There are several mentions that Ford works in bomb disposal, so that everyone keeps up, but without spoiling things, Ford’s efforts don’t make one jot of difference. Ken Watanabe plays the stereotype wise Japanese man, often sounding like master Yoda, but that’s all that’s asked of him. Elizabeth Olsen, as Ford Brody’s wife, gets a rough deal; she’s only in the film so she can run around and look scared.

Godzilla does have some impressive visuals, best of all being the soldiers sky diving into San Francisco, all happening in real time. We cut to POV shots inside the soldiers’ helmets, glimpsing a Michael Bay sunset before they fall in to a dust cloud, what’s left of the city’s streets all moody greys and blacks. Every once in a while, Gareth Edwards gives us creative, eye-catching set pieces; Monsters, but on a far bigger budget.

Saying that, considering giant monsters scrapping is what audiences are paying to see, chances are they’re going to be disappointed. It’s like the Transformers films never happened. The San Francisco Bridge was meant to be a stand-out moment, but it’s all too obvious that Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s are not part of the scene; everyone is screaming and running away from something that isn’t there. You wonder whether having the film’s climactic fight shrouded in clouds of dust was actually in the script, or if Edwards came up with this as a way to disguise the below par CGI.

Godzilla could have been a fun, no-brainer blockbuster, but the deadpan script drags it down, exposing the many flaws in its threadbare narrative. Why do the soldiers sky dive into San Francisco when they could have just walked in? If you’ve got a gigantic egg that you know is about to hatch, why do you only guard it with what looks like some flimsy-looking wire? More bizarrely, why does the film try and suggest that Godzilla and Ford Brody aren’t all that different from each other? Godzilla is set in the real world, it wants to be taken seriously, yet has massive skyscraper-size flaws in its logic. If Godzilla had been Jerry Bruckheimer, or Roland Emmerich’s baby, it would have had its tongue firmly in its cheek; you could have forgiven so many of its mistakes. Instead, for the most part, Godzilla fails on all counts, occasionally being tiresome to sit through.

A sequel has already been given the go-ahead. Hopefully someone at Warner Brothers will realise that you can’t remake a franchise that includes King Kong vs. Godzilla and expect people not to laugh.

2 out of 5


Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Review: Frank (UK Cert: 15)

Whatever you’re expecting from Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, chances are you’re completely wrong. The poster suggests it’s a quirky comedy along the lines of Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s not. Frank is about a band of misfit, eccentric musicians slowly imploding, the results being funny, uncomfortable and tragic to watch.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a keyboard player who is taken under the wing of Frank (Michael Fassbender), lead singer of experimental band, the Soronprfbs. Frank wears a Frank Sidebottom papier-mâché head, which he refuses to take off, while the rest of the band are all kinds of dysfunctional. What is supposed to be a weekend touring across Ireland ends up with Jon and the rest of the Soronprfbs shacked up in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, not leaving until Frank’s masterpiece album has been recorded.

Abrahamson’s film is a smart depiction of bands and artists suffering from illusions of grandeur, the fine line between inventiveness and pretentiousness. The problem is that Jon Ronson (who toured with the late Chris Sievey’s comic creation, Frank Sidebottom) and Peter Straughan’s script is a mess, with jarring shifts in tone. There are plenty of bright ideas here, but when they’re mashed together into one ninety-minute film, these ideas don’t come across as well as they should.

Frank has some truly funny moments: Jon’s reaction as he watches Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara and Frank take one of his catchy melodies and turn it into something genuinely offensive to the ears; Jon fighting with Frank as he tries removing the man’s oversized head; best of the bunch, Frank trying to write what he calls a “likeable song”. The script also throws in brutally honest observations about suicide. Music has been a way for many artists to confront their demons, yet what happens when being in a band becomes stifling? The Soronprfbs have no audience; their fourteen hour days writing music is going nowhere and the band are struggling to cope. The only band member who seems fine with the way things are is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s theremin player, Clara. Despite her hostile, violent personality, she acts as a mother to Frank, feeling responsible for him. Clara knows Frank can’t cope with commercial success, hence why she goes out of her way to ensure no one hears the band’s music. As well as all this you have Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon, who has his own ideas as to which direction the band should be heading; one where he gets fame, fortune, and thousands of Twitter followers.

These are all strong ideas, the problem is you can have one scene where you’re snorting with laughter, followed by the next scene, which throws themes of suicide and mental illness full pelt at the viewer. Very often, Frank is awkward to sit through as you occasionally find yourself wondering just what the hell you’re watching.

What definitely works here is the acting. Fassbender is nothing short of incredible, spending the majority of the film with his face hidden. Wearing a papier-mâché head and coming up with all sorts of zany ideas to create music, it would be all too tempting to portray Frank as larger-than-life, but Fassbender gives a gentle, subtle performance, making you care about a man who struggles to convey what is going on inside his real, flesh and blood head. Domhall Gleeson is, once again, brilliant. He’s a great character actor, whether it’s child-like and sinister (the Black Mirror episode, Be Right Back) or clumsy and socially awkward (About Time). Here Gleeson has a naïve charm about him as Jon, while also being far from whiter-than-white. He manipulates Frank into helping him on the road to success, getting the band a gig at the South by Southwest festival. It’s only when the inevitable damage has been done that Jon ends up feeling guilty, trying his best to fix things. Maggie Gyllenhaal gets the balance between being venom-spittingly anti-social, but hiding a tender, vulnerable side absolutely spot on. She’s not over-the-top, as several reviews have suggested, she is wholly believable whenever she is onscreen (the funny as hell sex scene in a hot tub where, during her ferocious, animal-like rutting Gyllenhaal very nearly drowns Gleeson, is another priceless moment).

The best film I’ve seen centred around the music industry is Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, a bonkers mix of irreverent comedy and Icarus fall from grace drama. Whether it’s down to the genius of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script, Michael Winterbottom’s direction, or sheer blind luck, the pace and tone goes all over the place, yet the film absolutely, one-hundred-percent works. Sadly the same can’t be said for Frank. Lenny Abrahamson deserves praise for being so straight-talking about mental illness – it’s touching, heart-breaking stuff at times – but the whole thing doesn’t sit well. Abrahamson expects us to laugh at the Soronprfbs’ barmy behaviour, then punch us in the gut with powerful insights into mental illness, and then follows this up with even more offbeat humour. There’s no reason why a film with this structure can’t work, but it feels like Abrahamson and screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan decided to throw everything at the wall and if it doesn’t stick, it doesn’t matter.

Frank has some well thought-out, eye-openingly original laughs, whilst also making you well up because of how honest it is. You get the sense that Abrahamson wants people to be comfortable talking about mental illness, that it’s not something we should be shy or coy about; occasionally we should even laugh about it. The problem is that the way Abrahamson has translated this onscreen, most of the time, doesn’t work. Frank deserves points for being one-of-a-kind, but it’s not the eccentric masterpiece that the film’s poster suggests.

3 out of 5


Sunday, 11 May 2014

Review: The Wind Rises (UK Cert PG)

The Wind Rises is the eighteenth film from famed Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli and is the final film to be directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki, one of the studio's founders and the visionary mind behind such Ghibli classics as My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001). It was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar this year, but lost to Frozen.

Taking its name from a line in a poem by French poet Paul Valery ('The wind is rising!... We must try to live!'), The Wind Rises is a fictionalised biography of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, who built the first airplane bombers used by Japan in the Second World War. From an early age, Jiro had an interest in flight but was unable to become a pilot due to his poor eyesight. He instead decided to build planes and went on to study engineering at university. He then starts to work for an unnamed aeroplane manufacturer (in real life, Mitsubishi) and travels to Germany in the 1930s to see how German technology was advancing. In 1932, Jiro meets and falls in love with a young woman named Naoko Satomi (whom he aided years before when they were caught in the Great Kanto Earthquake). Their relationship blossoms but there's a problem: Naoko is unwell... It is a fitting salute and a elegant swansong for one of the world's best animators.

There is a choice on how you can see this film: you can watch it in the original Japanese with subtitles, or you can watch an English-language dub of it. I opted for the dubbed version. 

The English-language voice cast is absolutely sterling. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great as the adult Jiro, whilst there's great support by John Krasinski as Jiro's friend Honjo and Martin Short as their boss Mr. Kurokawa. Emily Blunt gives a wonderfully moving turn as the adult Naoko, and there's a great performance by Stanley Tucci who plays the Italian aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni (a real person) who appears to Jiro in his dreams and acts as a kind of mentor to Jiro. These dream sequences are vivid and beautifully done, and it is through these that Jiro often reconciles his desire to create something beautiful, with the fact that his planes will be used as instruments of war. 

Jiro Horikoshi once said "All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful". It is this quote that inspired Miyazaki to make the film. And in the poignant, funny and moving story he's created, Miyazaki has indeed made something beautiful.  Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Saturday, 10 May 2014

Review: Bad Neighbours (UK Cert: 15)

I blame Jason Biggs getting frisky with an apple-based dessert. Until 1999, gross-out comedies were few and far between; Kevin Smith would release another entry in his View Askewniverse every few years and, in those days, Adam Sandler was still funny, but that was about it. Since American Pie made enough money to wipe out the world’s financial problems, gross-out comedies have appeared at the cinema year-on-year. There has been the odd classic, pride-of-place amongst DVD collections (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Bridesmaids) but most have been a fun while they last, instantly forgettable ninety minutes.  There has also been the odd humourless car crash (School for Scoundrels: all the gags were in the trailer, the rest of its running time was a laugh-free zone).

Bad Neighbours is the first of a number of gross-out comedies to be released in 2014 (Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West, and sequels 22 Jump Street and The Inbetweeners 2 are all on their way). New parents Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne find their peaceful, non-eventful lives trampled on when Zac Efron’s sex, drugs and alcohol-fuelled fraternity move in next door; Rogen and Byrne thinking up all sorts of creative (borderline nuts) ways to get their new neighbours to move along. While Bad Neighbours doesn’t re-invent the wheel, what makes it stands out amongst this over-crowded sub-genre is that each and every one-liner and visual gag is side-splittingly funny.  It’s only May and Bad Neighbours already has some of the funniest set pieces you will see this year. A recurring gag involving stolen car airbags will never fail to make cinema audiences roar with laughter, while a scene involving Rogen being forced to milk his wife will burn itself into your memory for all the wrong reasons.

What helps to make Bad Neighbours one of the better comedies is the chemistry between its cast.  Rogen and Byrne are a true-to-life couple: they’re still the party animals from when they both met as students, but they’re new parents with responsibilities. They’re too tired to go on nights out and, on those rare moments when they do have sex, it lasts for a couple of minutes instead of a couple of hours. Usually in comedies, wife roles don’t get to do all that much except smile lots and make sure they’re always in full make up. To screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’ Brien’s credit, Byrne gets more than her fair share of laughs, being right in the middle of the Radner family’s scheming and delivering plenty of well-observed, foul mouthed one-liners.

Zac Efron, playing up to his bad boy image in the tabloids, also manages to make the laughs look easy. Some of Efron’s ideas to get revenge on Rogen and Byrne are cruel, but they are memorable, and they are definitely funny. The reason you like, even root for, Efron is because, like Rogen, he has a family he cares about, Dave Franco’s vice president being like a brother to him; only his family is a bunch of students whose only worry is where their next beer comes from.

What stops Bad Neighbours from reaching the heights of The Inbetweeners Movie or Ted is that no one in this film changes in any way. While all three leads will keep you watching, the film is an hour-and-a-half of sketch-after-sketch. Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids was cringe-inducingly honest about female friendships and the strain they come under in the run-up to a wedding; for all its dick and fart jokes, Superbad was about three friends saying goodbye to their high school years.  Cohen and Brien’s script is good, but it isn’t that good; Bad Neighbours is all about the dick and fart jokes, there’s nothing underneath the surface. That’s not a bad thing – you would have to be a cold shell of a human being not to be laughing virtually the whole way through the film – but if a comedy can make you think as well as laugh, then it gets extra points from me.

If you want a comedy with crude, but very, very smart laughs, then Bad Neighbours is well worth your time and, while it’s not quite up there with the likes of The Hangover, you’ll be glad you gave it a go.

4 out of 5


Sunday, 4 May 2014

Cinematic Memories (Part Two)

The ABC and Odeon Queen Street cinemas (c. 1998) - with thanks to Cinema Treasures

I first moved to Cardiff in 1997. Going from a small town in West Wales, where the nearest cinema was a half-hour drive away and a single screen venue which wasn't particularly hot at getting the new releases, to a thriving city of multiplexes where I could nip to the cinema any time I fancied (within reason, of course), I was in my element. 

I was absolutely spoiled for choice. Queen Street had 3 cinemas alone, as well as the massive UCI complex in the Red Dragon Centre in Cardiff Bay, Chapter Arts Centre in Canton and the Globe Cinema in Roath. 

Truly, my cinematic cup runneth over.

I spent my first night in Cardiff at the ABC cinema on Queen Street. I was the only person in my flat in my halls of residence, having moved in on the Friday, so was at a loose end. I saw Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery and laughed myself stupid. The ABC Cinema became my cinema of choice- not least because of the frankly amazing student discount (£2.20 per film, all day, everyday- can you imagine a cinema offering a screening for that price nowadays?). It was a 3-screen cinema, a bit ratty, a bit past its prime, not quite a fleapit but not far off, but that didn't matter. It was where I saw my first James Bond film on the big screen (Tomorrow Never Dies).

The other two cinemas on Queen Street were both Odeons - a small 2-screen place and the 5-screen one appended to the Capitol shopping centre. It was in the Capitol Odeon that I saw The Exorcist when it was re-classified by the BBFC in 1998. For a film I'd only known through parody and rip-off, it still retains a genuinely unnerving atmosphere and I remember being thrilled by it. In the 2-screen Odeon, I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut twice (the second time to see what I missed when I was laughing so much the first time) and was dumbstruck by American Beauty. 

One of my most abiding cinematic memories was seeing Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho on the big screen when it was screened at Chapter Arts Centre. Just amazing. I only visited the Globe Cinema a few times, once to see Catherine Breillat's Romance (which made me feel very uncomfortable) and once to see The Blair Witch Project (which freaked me out royally).

Capitol Odeon cinema (c. 1998) - with thanks to Cinema Treasures
The three Queen Street cinemas sadly no longer exist. The ABC cinema closed in 1999 and the building was converted into shops, whilst the 2-screen Odeon closed in 2000 and is now the site of HMV. The Capitol Odeon closed in 2001 and the building still remains, locked up and left to rot (which is a very sad sight). 

The Red Dragon Centre cinema is now an Odeon, including an IMAX screen. Whilst the Globe Cinema closed and is now used as a live music venue, Chapter Arts Centre is thankfully still going and is still a fantastic venue for world and independent cinema, showings of classic films, and live broadcasts, as well as the latest releases.

There are 2 multiplex cinemas in the city centre: Vue and Cineworld (formerly UGC). Cineworld is now my cinema of choice, thanks in no small part to the Unlimited card which allows me to indulge my passion for a very reasonable monthly fee which, given the frankly exorbitant cost of going to the cinema these days, is a great way of doing it. The first film I ever saw in the UGC was Tim Burton's Planet Of The Apes in July 2001. Luckily I've seen a lot more and lot better films since then.


P.S. A huge thanks to Cinema Treasures for helping with some of the details for this article (and for some of the pictures).

Friday, 2 May 2014

Review: The Walking Dead - Season Four, Episodes 9-16

The Walking Dead season four mid-season finale, how do you top that? The honest answer is you can’t, so instead the writers wisely decided to take things down a gear, split the characters up, and flesh them out. First off, you had the second-half opener, After, featuring Rick, Carl and Michonne.

The relationship between Rick and Carl is one of the many underlying themes of The Walking Dead, even more so in Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels. Carl is Rick’s reason to survive, Rick making the tough, seemingly impossible decisions so his son stays safe. Child actors are usually a gamble in film and TV. There’s no middle ground, either they give stunning, mouth wide open in amazement performances, or they struggle to convey any kind of emotion. As Carl, Chandler Riggs has had plenty of criticism fired his way, mostly from blogs and fan sites, all saying the same thing, that Riggs is arrogant and unlikeable. What people seem to forget is that Riggs is playing a boy who has only recently become a teenager. Teenagers can be arrogant, impulsive, their mood changing without warning; probably even more so in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Fans of The Walking Dead graphic novels forget that Riggs has done a fine job in transferring the character from page-to-screen, flaws-and-all.

With After, Riggs gives a perfectly judged performance. In an episode with several powerful set pieces, Riggs gives one of the best when he yells at an unconscious Rick (poignantly it’s the most honest he has been with his father), blaming him for the deaths of his friends. He no longer needs Rick, believing that he has grown up and can survive on his own. This is contrasted with a gentle, tender scene when, searching for supplies in a nearby house, Carl finds a child’s bedroom, filled with posters, books and video games. For a moment he reminisces about what it’s like to be a child, only to rip out the cable from a TV and use it to secure the front door.

On the one hand we are reminded that Carl has been cruelly forced to skip childhood and become a man. At the same time, there are still moments to enjoy in this post-apocalypse world; Carl sitting on a roof eating dessert, child-like as he takes in the view around him.

An actress you can always rely on in The Walking Dead is Danai Gurira. The pre-credits sequence featuring Michonne wandering the overrun prison, putting a sword through Hershel’s severed undead head, is powerful, punch to the gut stuff. After is written by Kirkman himself, this opening serving as a welcome back to viewers, suggesting that there are even bigger things to come during the second half of season four.

We are given a glimpse of Michonne’s life before the end of the world, in what is an immaculately constructed dream sequence. At first, we believe we are watching a flashback. Our first clue that something is wrong is when we cut to Michonne holding her sword instead of a kitchen knife, Bear McCreary accompanying the rest of this scene with a small number of eerie, slowed down piano keys. We fast forward to the early days of the outbreak, Michonne’s husband and brother arguing over what they should do. Glancing back at the men in her life, who stare back blankly, their arms replaced by bloody stumps, Michonne screams, the child she was holding has vanished.

Kirkman took a risk when he wrote After; by showing us Michonne’s backstory, viewers may have stopped caring about one of the series’ most popular characters. Kirkman manages to make an already complex character even more intriguing. What Michonne wants is a family, a circle of friends, so that she can finally let her guard down. The Governor took this away from her when he destroyed the prison, and now Michonne is back to wandering the wilderness, trademark zombies on a leash following behind her. This is why, in After’s final scene, Michonne silently cries when she finds Rick and Carl, waiting before she knocks. She has a chance once again of getting something close to her old life back.

After is about how, even in the cruel world of The Walking Dead, there can be moments of joy, perfectly summed up when Rick realises who is at the door and, with a smile, tells Carl, “It’s for you”.

Over the course of season four’s second half, we catch up with the remaining survivors, all split up in their own factions, and the episodes that follow After have varying degrees of success. Darryl has Beth to take care of; Maggie and Glenn are separated from each other, Maggie wandering the zombie-infested woodlands with Sasha and Bob, while Glenn stumbles across the only survivor from the Governor’s group. Most interestingly, Tyreese, Lizzie and Mika find Andrea, Tyreese unaware that it was Andrea who killed Karen and David during the outbreak at the prison.

While it’s good that The Walking Dead’s writers decided to get under the skin of arguably the series’ most popular character, it’s a shame that Darryl had to be paired up with Beth. While I have nothing against Emily Kinney who plays her, Beth has never had that much to do. She is the opposite of her sister Maggie, innocent and naïve, occasionally singing Tom Waits, or winding up being attacked by a zombie, but that’s about it.

Episode twelve, Still, is essentially the Darryl Dixon show. Norman Reedus has always been outstanding as this closed off, brooding man, who never thinks twice about killing people, either the breathing or undead kind. With Still, written by Angela Kang, we get to see Darryl open up. What seems like a weak excuse for an episode (Beth, believing everyone she knows is dead, decides to go off in search of her first beer. Darryl, not wanting her to go alone, keeps her company), gives Reedus the chance to deliver a wide-ranging performance. Darryl gradually loses patience with Beth, and when the alcohol breaks down those walls he puts up, the man is both frightening and heart-breaking to watch. Darryl has always lived in the shadow of his brother, Merle. Before the living were replaced by the dead, Darryl was a criminal, unwanted by anyone, hence his stony silence as a way of never having to think about or come to terms with his past.

Until this episode, we had never seen Darryl have an outburst like this. Reedus’ monologue could have been a heavy-handed several minutes, viewers wishing he would get on with killing the undead in various creative ways. It’s to Kang and Reedus’ credit that Still is another fine episode for season four and definitely one of its best, even if all Beth gets to do is let her optimism slip ever so slightly.

Glenn manages to look a lot like Darryl when he becomes an action hero in episode ten, Inmates, director Tricia Brock giving us various close ups of Steven Yeun as a he wakes up in the aftermath of the prison battle, starting off terrified, then becoming stone-faced, sometimes enraged, as he fights his way past an army of walking corpses. This whole sequence is smartly done, resembling The Walking Dead’s very first episode when Rick woke up, piecing together what happened as he searched the empty hospital corridors. Here Glenn wanders the darkness of the prison, seeing the old life he had with Maggie now gone. Glenn’s answer to Tara, when she asks why he didn’t just leave her to die, is that he didn’t want to do it, he needed to rescue her so he could get out alive. In one of season four’s many stand-out moments we are given a POV shot of Glenn inside his riot gear as he hurries through the prison, coming face-to-face with several walkers. It is an idea that has never been done before in the series and is unbelievably tense.

Bob Stookey opening episode thirteen, Alone, is another fine montage for this season. Always telling other characters that he is the last survivor of the groups he joins, we see that first-hand in this sequence, Bob shuffling down dirt paths alone, eating berries to stay alive. It’s all too obvious that Bob resembles one of the living dead. In the first half of season four, Bob didn’t add all that much as one of a number of new characters; he’s an alcoholic who gets people killed by wandering off, searching for a drink. At least now we understand why Bob is the way he is; he’s a bad omen, terrified that the same thing will happen again, that everyone will die around him until he is the only one left.

Having first appeared in season three, Tyreese’s sister, Sasha, much like Beth, hasn’t been given all that much to do. It is only now, in the second half of season four that Sonequa Martin-Green gets to do more than look under the weather, or bash a zombie’s skull in. Sasha has always been the tougher of the brother and sister pairing, but now, having survived the attack on the prison, she has become cold. While she hasn’t given up, she has lost whatever hope she had, convinced that her, Maggie and Bob are the only ones left alive. When The Walking Dead decides to tell us more about a character, it rarely puts a foot wrong, but with Sasha’s scenes in Alone, they felt heavy-handed, as if the head honchos at the series finally realised they haven’t done anything with her. Considering Sasha is portrayed as a smart survivor, she makes some crazy mistakes in this episode. She decides to go it alone because she doesn’t want to know for certain that her brother is dead. When Sasha ends up on her own, holed up in an abandoned building, she quickly changes her mind, realising she is living the life that Bob is trying to escape from.

Devoting an episode solely to Bob or Sasha would have been a bad idea, as they are relatively new characters who have only been given small amounts of screen-time; but it’s Bob who is the far more convincing character, while Sasha’s motives don’t make any sense. Sasha isn’t irritating to watch, Sonequa Martin-Green does her best with the scenes she is given, but The Walking Dead’s writers could easily kill her off, and it’s a safe bet that no one would miss her.

While Sasha has given up on everyone at the prison, Maggie is convinced that Glenn is still alive. Lauren Cohen has always been brilliant as Maggie, but season four has seen her give some of her best performances. Another cleverly constructed set piece happens during Inmates, when Maggie finds the school bus that escaped the prison. There is a mass of zombies inside, Bob and Sasha letting them out one at a time. We cut between the bloodshed and close-ups of Cohen, who starts off anxious, getting more and more frightened, ending up shaking and distraught. It’s scary and emotional to watch; you feel as relieved as Maggie when she realises Glenn is not there.

When Glenn and Maggie find each other in episode fifteen, Us, there is no rousing music, husband and wife holding each other in their arms and weeping, it is a restrained, tender scene as, with their arms around each other, they laugh. It’s an authentic moment, the way couples who have been together for years would behave.

Us also gets to develop three of its newcomers: Abraham, Eugene and Rosita – three big names from the graphic novels. Eugene is a scientist who knows what caused the undead outbreak, Abraham and Rosita escorting him to Washington on a mission to save the world. There’s a brilliant chemistry between the three of them, making the trio even more believable than how they are portrayed in the graphic novels. If it wasn’t for Abraham, who is adamant that Eugene is “going to save the whole damn world”, you would think the man is the village idiot: he has no social skills and at times, in a zombie infested world, is a total liability. Josh McDermitt delivers Eugene’s often comic dialogue completely deadpan, giving the impression that there is so much going on up in Eugene’s head that he struggles with the basic tasks that most people take for granted. It’s early days, but Eugene could end up becoming a fan favourite. Abraham, an army veteran, never even once questions why he risks his life for Eugene. During Us, Tara asks Abraham what he will do once his mission is over; Abraham has no answer. Rosita is the mother of the group, losing patience with Eugene and Abraham and having to remind them why they are journeying across America. You get the sense that the three of them have shared some harrowing experiences together since the world was destroyed. They have come to rely on each other, hence why there is this natural comedy between them: the scene in the van, Eugene tricking Abraham and Rosita into rescuing Glenn and Tara, the three of them bickering, is priceless.

By far the best episode of season four’s second half, and arguably the best episode of the season, is The Grove. Carol was earlier reunited with Tyreese and the two children, Lizzie and Mika. The Walking Dead has been throwing hints our way that little Lizzie is a psychopath in the making, practically having a sign above her head that says, “It was me who fed the rats to the zombies!” The Grove brings Lizzie’s transformation storyline to a close, executive producer Scott Gimple writing this episode and knocking viewers for six. One of The Walking Dead’s many themes is what kind of a person you become with all of this death and craziness around you: you will either be a better person, or it will damage you, possibly beyond repair. Lizzie is damaged with no chance of being fixed. As Carol tells Tyreese, “She can’t be around people”.

While Mika can’t bring herself to kill a living person, no matter what kind of threat they pose, Lizzie’s view of the world is all kinds of messed up. Lizzie has a zombie as a playmate, bringing it mice to eat as it grabs at her; she even considers becoming a zombie, just to prove that they are no threat.

The Grove is disturbing stuff, teeming with hazy morality. We’ve seen Rick kill Shane or the Governor murdering Hershel, but to see a child butcher her sister, oblivious to what she has done, is The Walking Dead’s most brutal scene so far.

To complement Scott Gimple’s flawless script are exceptional performances from everyone involved. Brighton Sharbino is truly upsetting as Lizzie, having perfected a cold, psychotic stare that few actors over twice her age have mastered. Sharbino takes viewers through a mix of emotions; when she cries after a walker is killed, you almost sympathise with her point of view. Hershel has explained how we know nothing about this plague; how do we know these people are truly dead? To hear these words from a child gives these questions a new, unsettling perspective.

Chad L. Coleman gives a so-good-he-makes-it-look-easy bit of underplaying in this episode as Tyreese. Carol and Tyreese are sat talking to each other, a handgun in the middle of the table. This is when Carol decides to tell Tyreese that she killed Karen and David. You expect Tyreese to fly off the handle (he’s done it before in season four), not so much shoot Carol as use the gun to bash her skull in. “Do what you have to do,” Carol tells him. The easiest thing to do here would have been to overact: grit your teeth, tremble and weep. Instead, Coleman fights to control his anger, squeezing hold of the gun. You can see it in Coleman’s eyes, he’s going through all the choices he has, milking this uncomfortable silence. Eventually he moves his hand away from the gun. He says to Carol, “I forgive you, but I’m never gonna forget.” Tyreese realises that Carol has to live with what she’s done, she’ll be constantly reminded of it; a far worse punishment than killing her.

The star of The Grove, beyond a doubt, is Melissa McBride; much of the clout of this episode is down to her. McBride is chillingly convincing as this conflicted woman. The moment Carol and Tyreese find a blood stained Lizzie, Carol is wide-eyed, but we glimpse this only for a few seconds, the cold, pragmatic Carol now taking charge. You can tell she’s struggling, trying to act like nothing is wrong. It’s only when Tyreese and Lizzie leave Carol on her own that she cries and even this doesn’t last long. Carol has things to do so that she and Tyreese survive; Carol hasn’t time to grieve, not just yet.

If fans thought that season three’s finale was tame and didn’t wrap things up all that neatly, then season four’s last episode was a massive leap forward. Hershel may be gone, but he’s not forgotten, featuring in a series of brilliantly edited together flashbacks: you have scenes where Rick gives in to his baser instincts as he tries to protect Carl, followed by a pep talk back at the prison from Hershel as he tells Rick, “The war is over”. It’s doubtful that anyone watching this episode of The Walking Dead missed the theme that ran throughout: treading the fine line between being a good person and giving into that deep-buried violent, animal nature.

In a season that upped the already impressive gore and make-up effects, a desperate Rick is forced (as per Kirkman’s graphic novels) to tear out a man’s throat with his teeth. There have been moments throughout The Walking Dead’s four seasons where Rick has gone all gung-ho, resembling a mercenary rather than a cop who rarely fired a gun. It was a smart idea by scriptwriters Scott Gimple and Angela Kang to show Rick doing what anyone would try and do to rescue Carl, Michonne and Darryl, only to fail and make things worse; he’s a normal man trying to survive. And survive he does, forced to commit acts of savagery, carving up Joe’s biker gang. Rick is a leader, a family man who values human life, but in sickening moments of desperation, he will do whatever he has to.

This is what the finale leaves you with: while there might be more people at Terminus, armed and ready, it’s Rick they need to be scared of. He’s got no weapons, no plan, but when Rick is cornered, fighting for the only friends and family he has left, he is one scary guy! There were vague hints during the scenes at Terminus that those living there were cannibals (Mary’s barbeque!). It’s not been mentioned, but many fans of the graphic novels are secretly hoping that the occupants of Terminus go by another name: The Hunters. If so, then there are plenty more shocks and violence on their way in season five.

Season four wasn’t perfect; my main criticism was the series producers giving in to fans who thought the previous season was too slow, throwing in the flu-virus as a cynical way of keeping them happy. Otherwise this latest season was much stronger than season three, a more-or-less perfect mix of soul-searching drama and blood-spattered action, with most of the praise going to new showrunner Scott Gimple. The countdown to season five has already begun, with plenty of online theories about whether it was Beth being served up on that barbeque. There may have been plenty of controversy surrounding Gimple’s takeover of The Walking Dead, but whatever you think about Frank Darabont being shown the door, Gimple certainly knows what he’s doing.

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There are plenty of discussions out there on which seasons of a TV series are the best; people will always argue over which was the best season of Breaking Bad or The Wire. While most people will probably disagree – The Walking Dead has an army of passionate fans behind it – here is how I would rate AMC’s series so far:

Season One – 5 out of 5

Season Two – 5 out of 5

Season Three – 3 out of 5

Season Four – 4 out of 5