The Watchers

The Watchers

Friday, 24 July 2015

Review: Ted 2 (UK Cert 15)

2012's Ted was a real surprise. A raucous comedy about a foul-mouthed teddy bear with wit and an oddly sweet focus on friendship, it was one of my films of the year. Roll on three years and an inevitable sequel has been made.

Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) has married his trailer-trash girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) and they decide they want to have a baby. After a misstep with a sperm bank, they try to adopt. This raises an issue: in order to adopt, Ted must prove that he is human. So, Ted, John (Mark Wahlberg) and an idealistic young lawyer named Sam L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried) go to court to prove Ted is not property.

What follows is a Frank Capra film done through the filter of John Waters. In places, the film is jawdroppingly crude. In others, it's bizarrely touching. There's the usual mix of celebrity cameos, pop culture references and unashamed vulgarity, although there's much more 'story' this time round- Ted's fight to prove his humanity takes up most of the film. 

Performances are generally decent. Mark Wahlberg proves again that he doesn't mind being upstaged by a CGI teddy bear as Ted's best friend John, who is hurting from his divorce and looking to get back in the dating game. MacFarlane is on top form as Ted and is better here than he was in A Million Ways To Die In The West. Amanda Seyfried also proves she's incredibly game with several insults thrown at her and taken in good grace (especially the response to whether she has 'f***-me eyes'). She also provides a nice love interest for Wahlberg's character John.  

That's not to say it's flawless. The re-emergence of weirdo stalker Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), now working for Hasbro, slows the film down- although it does give the film one of the funnier sight gags during the finale at New York Comic-Con. Fans of Family Guy will recognise a few of the gags and sometimes it feels like they've gone for the low-hanging fruit with swearing or crassness in lieu of something more clever.

That said, it's still enjoyable and still funny. Ultimately, whether you'll enjoy it will come down to how you felt about the original film. If you enjoyed Ted, you'll enjoy this (maybe not as much, but still). If you didn't enjoy Ted, you won't. Simple.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Sunday, 19 July 2015

Review: Ant-Man (UK Cert 12A)

Ant-Man is the twelfth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and brings Phase Two to a close. 

If Captain America: The Winter Soldier could be loosely termed a political thriller and Guardians Of The Galaxy a space opera, the best description for Ant-Man would be a heist movie.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is released from prison and wants to set his life on the right path, to provide for his daughter Cassie, but finds his past history makes that difficult. On a tip from his friend Luis (Michael Pena), Scott burgles a house and finds a strange suit. The suit has the amazing ability to shrink the wearer to the size of an insect. Scott is then recruited by the suit's creator, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), to help with an audacious heist that might just help save the world.

It's a very good-natured romp, ably led by a winning performance by Paul Rudd. Scott Lang is a different type of hero. He isn't a scientist or a soldier or a tech millionaire or a god. He's a criminal, a cat burglar, albeit a principled one. He doesn't use violence and is quick to correct people on that point. He's fundamentally a good man who did the wrong thing for the right reason and paid the price for it. There are shades of Chris Pratt's Star-Lord here: Lang is goofy at times, serious at others and is a general winning presence.

Other performances are similarly strong, particularly Evangeline Lilly as Pym's estranged daughter Hope Van Dyne. Lilly gives a great performance as the tough, strong Hope and her scenes with Michael Douglas as father and daughter negotiate the heist and their own personal relationships are some of the best in the film. Douglas is on top form as Pym, playing the mentor role well. He foregoes the usual mentor cliches and there's a nice dry wit to some of his lines. 

That's not to say all performances are great. I had some issues with a few of them. Michael Pena is a good comic foil as the motormouth Luis but he's overused in places and the comic notes don't always work. Similarly, whilst Corey Stoll makes for an engaging villain as Darren Cross, he comes across as a bit one-dimensional in places and reverts quite quickly to swivel-eyed loon whereas other Marvel villains have been a bit more subtle. 

Peyton Reed's direction is pretty slick. There's some great scenes when Lang is shrunk and those worlds look great, particularly parts of the final showdown between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket. The fight scenes where Lang changes size in between blows are well choreographed and read well on film- there was always the danger that it might look a bit silly. 

There was always the risk that, after the release of Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Ant-Man would have just been a bit of a damb squib and a bit inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. That is not the case. Ant-Man is very much linked to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, not just in some throwaway lines but in one particular sequence where Lang has to retrieve an item from an old SHIELD facility which is now being used as an Avengers base. The mid-credits and end-credits scenes both hint towards bigger things within the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe as well.

Considering its troubled production history, there was a real chance that Ant-Man could have been a disaster of Catwoman-like proportions. Luckily, the film seems relatively unscathed from the behind-the-scenes drama and is engaging and charming. It might not be up there with Marvel's best; however, it is far from the worst they've ever done.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Saturday, 18 July 2015

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015 - Part Two

The Hallow (Ireland/English dialogue/97 min)

Adam (Joseph Mawle – BBC’s Ripper Street) and Clare (Bojana Novakovic – Channel 4’s Shameless) set up home in a mill house deep within Ireland’s remote woods. They move there for peace and quiet, for Adam to get on with his work, but soon realise they have neighbours: evil Irish faeries who want to steal their baby.

Your enjoyment of director Corin Hardy’s first feature film, The Hallow, depends on whether you’re a horror connoisseur. A couple of minutes in, you know exactly where it’s going; no surprises here. At no point in the narrative will you be stunned, thinking, “I never saw that coming!” If the last few sentences have put you off, best leave well alone. Saying that, Hardy’s film looks good, despite being on a fraction of the budget of US horror fare, plus there are some smartly constructed jolts and tense scenes.

Hardy and cinematographer Martijn van Broekhuizen take full advantage of the forest location. In the daylight, the landscape looks ominous, sinister, the last place you’d want to take your dog for a walk! At night, it’s something straight out of a twisted fairy-tale, trees dotted with moonlight, mist spreading across the ground, plenty of shadows for something to hide.

Most low budget horrors fall flat when the monster is revealed: a man in a suit or ropey CGI. The Hallows faeries are not only convincing, they’re creepy as hell. They look human, but their skin is melted, stretched across their bones; thorns and spikes pushing through their flesh.

You can tell Hardy has watched plenty of horror films; he knows how to pace the scares, sometimes making you jump with no build up or warning. Several scenes take place with the sun going down, Adam and his family alone in the house. You know the faeries are going to get in, but what happens is still nerve-wracking.

There are no twists or surprises in The Hallow; it goes from A-to-B and never veers off-course. Thanks to some sharp direction from Hardy, it is fun to watch and perfect if you’re at home and fancy a late-night scare. Hardy is currently filming The Crow remake, which, when I hear about it, makes me want to press my hands over my ears, shut my eyes, and pretend it’s not happening. After seeing The Hallow, I’m intrigued to see what he’ll come up with.

3 out of 5

Iona (UK/English dialogue/110 min)

The closing film of EIFF 2015, Iona stars Ruth Negga (TV series Love/Hate and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the title character, seeking refuge in her hometown on the Inner Hebrides with her teenage son Bull (Ben Gallagher, his feature film debut), having survived a violent attack from a police officer.

Iona is a slow-burning drama, with plenty of lengthy shots of the cast all staring intently. With writer/director Scott Graham’s second feature film, it’s not about what characters are saying, it’s what the people of this tiny community are hiding from each other; buried feelings and secrets.

Everyone gives their all acting-wise. Negga gives a subtle, complex performance as Iona; she’s only home because she’s desperate, the island holding plenty of bad memories for her. Gallagher is equally impressive as Iona’s teenage son, struggling to cope, having murdered his mother’s attacker; trying and failing to find his place in the strict Christian community of the island. Douglas Henshall (ITV’s Primeval) gives a smart, reigned in performance as the clouded, brooding Daniel, grieving for his late wife, yet carrying on his affair with Iona, which began over a decade ago.

Cinematographer Yoliswa von Dallwitz takes full advantage of the island location, giving us shots that are both bleak and stunning. Religion is an ever prevalent theme in Iona, the people on the island having a close bond, a relationship with God, but for Iona, that relationship has broken down, something von Dallwitz explores in the visuals. The landscape at times can be bleak, unforgiving, but also wonderfully beautiful as we are shown the sun rising on the coast, or hilltop views across the island.

Iona’s hard-to-ignore problem is its running time; sometimes it’s not so much a slow burner as a drawn-out flicker. It doesn’t need to be two hours; the odd scene dragging on for longer than it should. I get that much of Graham’s film is about the secrets of a small community, how the lies and bottled-up emotions are a drain on everyone, the cast much rather giving grim stares than doing the hard thing of talking about what’s going on, but Iona is dotted with needlessly overlong scenes. You could cut the film down to around ninety minutes and none of the characters would suffer.

There’s a lot going on with Iona; a character study that really gets inside the heads of everyone onscreen. The trouble is it goes on for longer than needed. It’s a strong film, with some first-rate performances, but some will be put off by how Graham takes his time getting to the intense and draining finale.

3 out of 5

Last Days in the Desert (USA/English dialogue/100 min)

Ewan McGregor has played Obi-Wan Kenobi, it makes sense that he would one day play Jesus. Though if you’re expecting something straight out of Sunday school, think again; this is a subdued, symbolic version of Jesus’s forty days in the desert.

Writer/director Rodrigo Garcia’s film starts off well into Jesus’s journey. He can no longer speak to God and begins to doubt his faith. In the desert he meets a family. The mother (Ayelet Zurer) is dying, the father (Ciarán Hinds) tries not to think of his wife’s illness, wanting his teenage son (Tye Sheridan) to stay with him in the desert, the son however wanting to leave and make a life for himself in Jerusalem. The devil (also McGregor) makes a bet with Jesus; if he can satisfy everyone in this family, fulfil their wishes, then the devil will leave Jesus alone.

Last Days in the Desert is one of those films where you only get out of it what you put in. The story itself is a simple one (if it were a novel it would barely make it past ten pages), but Garcia has crammed the film with minute-after-minute of religious and philosophical discussion, plus heaps of symbolism. The parallels between God and Jesus/the father and son are obvious; Hinds’ father expecting Sheridan not to question him, to trust him, even when Hinds gets things wrong. One of my favourite scenes – which doesn’t spoil anything by mentioning it; I’m assuming everyone knows how Jesus finally ends up – is towards the end, Jesus walking through what is meant to be the dried up Dead Sea, the lowest land mass on earth, turning to the devil and saying, “This is where I leave you.”

McGregor gives one of his best performances for a while as Jesus and the devil. McGregor’s Son of God is defeated, softly spoken, but angry at his Father, bottling up his rage. This Jesus is not the kind, wise man you read about in Primary school: he doubts himself, no longer having a purpose. The easiest thing as the devil would be to overact, make him this sneering, clichéd villain. McGregor wisely avoids this, portraying the devil as a petulant child, who is always right, never listens to anyone, raging if he doesn’t get his way. Garcia has Jesus and the devil played by the same actor, but they are two totally different people.

Hinds (an appallingly underrated actor) is outstanding as the father. You can see why Sheridan is frustrated with him; to anyone on the outside it’s as if Hinds has plans for his son, his son having no say on his future. The truth is that Hinds is terrified. If his son remains in the desert, he can protect him; if his son goes to Jerusalem he has no idea what will happen to him. Hinds has no faith in people, hence why he and his family live out in the desert. It is only when this father meets Jesus that his faith is mended.

Last Days in the Desert is possibly the most stunning film you will see in 2015. It helps when you have Birdman and Gravity’s Oscar-winning cinematographer on-board; Emmanuel Lubezki. Shot in southern California, Lubezki used only natural lighting, surrounding the characters with rocky hills, bare trees and oppressing skies, the landscape giving the film this epic grandeur, whilst also showing how insignificant these people are compared to the world around them.

Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ didn’t just miss the point, it wasn’t even firing in the right direction (show us scene-after-scene of Saw-style torture porn Gibson, but why is Jesus doing all this? WHY?!). Garcia’s take on the Son of God (Yeshua, as he is called here, the Hebrew name for Jesus) is never pretentious or self-absorbed; it’s moving and wears its heart on its sleeve, getting you to ponder the same questions the characters ask themselves.

Not everyone will like Garcia’s film; there are some out there who will hate every single minute of it. If you like your dramas thoughtful, powerful, and hugely ambitious, then you need to make sure you see this. The more I stop and think about Last Days in the Desert, the more I’m in awe of it.

4 out of 5

The Legend of Barney Thomson (UK/English dialogue/93 min)

The Legend of Barney Thomson is Robert Carlyle’s (Trainspotting, The Full Monty, The World Is Not Enough) directorial debut, a wickedly dark comedy with Carlyle as Thomson, a clueless barber who accidently murders his colleague. Thomson tries to cover up his actions, but is forced to kill more people when the truth threatens to rear its ugly head.

For Carlyle, the stars were all in alignment with his film. Richard Cowan and Colin McLaren’s screenplay is minute-after-minute barmy and hysterical, the British all-star cast gleefully milking it for all it’s worth. Despite Thomson being a serial killer, you’re cheering him on, wanting him to get away with it because he’s so bumbling and useless. For Thomson, this is an accident that spirals completely out of control.

As good as Carlyle is, it’s Emma Thompson who steals the show here as Barney’s no messing, rough-around-the-edges, Glaswegian mother. Thompson is scarcely recognisable under the heaps of make-up to make her look older. She’s fiery, does whatever the hell she wants, and has the accent absolutely spot on (“I dunnae think ya heard me… IT’S MA BINGO NIIIIGHT!!”). A Scottish friend of mine said she brought back memories of his grandmother, she was that convincing and comical.

Ray Winstone shows he can do more than play the gravel-voiced hard man. As a London copper who simply doesn’t get Scotland or its people, he proves he’s more than capable at comedy. Winstone wants to go in, guns blazing, smash a few heads, but gets shot down time-and-again by his colleagues (Extras’ Ashley Jenson, on marvellous shouty form) and his superior (Tom Courtenay – exasperated by anyone and everyone around him; having body parts mailed to the police station just about tipping him over the edge).

The Legend of Barney Thomson opened this year’s EIFF, and you can see why. It’s riotous and ridiculous without ever losing its audience, everyone on screen is having a grand old time, which shows in the performances, it’s fast paced, and has plenty of fond nods and gags aimed at Glasgow and Glaswegians. Carlyle’s first film in the director’s chair is one EIFF’s best films; make sure you watch it.

4 out of 5

Love & Mercy (USA/English dialogue/121 min)

Bill Pohlad’s second film as director (having been producer on Brokeback Mountain, The Tree of Life and 12 Years a Slave) is no straightforward biopic of a million selling recording artist. Based on the life of Beach Boys singer/songwriter/music genius Brian Wilson, we cut back-and-forth between two key moments in Wilson’s career: his twenties (played by There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano), when Wilson wrote Pet Sounds, and his mental health was becoming more-and-more noticeable, and his forties (played by Grosse Point Blank’s John Cusack), Wilson a recluse, held prisoner by his mental illness as well as his legal guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

You’re lucky if you get one awards-worthy performance in a film; Love & Mercy has several. Best of the bunch (no disservice to anyone) is Paul Dano as the young Wilson. Not only does Dano look and sound like him (Dano performed the spookily similar vocals himself), he gets Wilson’s mannerisms absolutely right. In brilliantly shot, fast paced studio scenes, the camera zig-zagging and swerving in every direction, we see Wilson’s unbridled joy while he is recording, child-like in his excitement and coming up with never before tried ideas straight out of nowhere. Dano also gives us the other side of Wilson, his know-no-bounds kindness, his vulnerability, how afraid he is when his mental health worsens, and his growing paranoia. It’s a staggering, complicated, give it all you’ve got performance.

While John Cusack might not look or sound much like Wilson, he gets the behaviour, the ticks, the social awkwardness completely spot on. It’s tragic to watch, Dano’s cheerful young man, full of energy, has gone, replaced by someone who is shy, frightened, speaking in whispers, prepared to do whatever he is told, terrified of confrontation. The kind, child-like Wilson is still there, but buried under heaps of medication which he has no say over. With most biopics, you already know how things will end because the main character is a worldwide superstar, every bit of their life up there on the internet or in the media for all to see. While most people are aware of what happened to Wilson, that doesn’t stop the film from being a gripping watch; you want Cusack to escape from his living hell.

Paul Giamatti, when not taking Hollywood’s money and running for the hills (I’m looking at you, San Andreas) is staggeringly talented. Here, as Dr. Landy, he is an odious man with a shit-eating grin, saying his actions are for Wilson’s benefit, when really he is controlling, a bully, bleeding Wilson’s fortune dry and calling it therapy. Giamatti can be frightening to watch, speaking in a soft, gentle voice until he hears something he doesn’t like, firing off into this child-like rage. The main reason you cheer for Wilson is down to Giamatti and his intimidating, perfect performance.

Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, the love interest, but it’s not your typical, seen it all before role. She falls for Cusack’s Wilson, then discovers how he is being mistreated by Dr. Landy. Melinda may be a car seller, using her looks to get the punters to part with their cash, but she is a smart, feisty woman who doesn’t get scared or intimidated, Landy foolishly underestimating her. It’s clear from the moment she meets Wilson, Melinda doesn’t want him for his money, she loves this man, doing whatever she can to rescue him.

Love & Mercy isn’t a biopic with great performances, marred by an average script or cinematography. Pohlad uses some smart tricks to show us Wilson’s mental health go into free fall, a stand-out scene involving Paul Dano having dinner with friends. We realise the sound of cutlery, the clangs, the jarring noise, is merging, ending up on a loud, continuous loop. Wilson tries ignoring it, but becomes more and more distressed. There are a number of scenes with young Wilson in a quiet studio. He puts on his headphones and all he hears is harsh, discordant sound, tearing the headphones from his ears. It’s clever, creative stuff!

Like the best music biopics, the soundtrack has plenty of perfect, sing along songs where you can’t help but do a little dance in your seat. It’s impossible not to sing along to Wouldn’t It Be Nice or move around to Good Vibrations. There’s a lovely moment where we watch Wilson in the studio recording God Only Knows, going from shot-to-shot as we see him discussing his vision with the band, tinkering with the instruments and trying things that had never been done before (placing hair pins inside a grand piano to give it a rattling, clinking sound).

Pohlad’s biopic is flawless, up there with Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There or Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Nowhere Boy. Thrilling and mesmerising, Love & Mercy isn’t just one of EIFF’s best, it’s one of the best films of 2015.

5 out of 5

The Messenger (UK/English dialogue/96 min)

When I read the write-up in this year’s EIFF programme, The Messenger was one I didn’t want to miss. It sounded like the British, dirt-under-your-nails version of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. Jack is known down his local as a fruit cake; he sits in a corner with his pint, talking to himself. The truth is he’s not mad, he can see the dead.

Sadly, BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning director David Blair’s latest is nowhere near as good as it should be. Andrew Kirk’s screenplay ticks off virtually every ghost story cliché; there is nothing remotely new here, not even a genre tradition with a slight twist. The Messenger’s entire ninety-odd minutes have been done before.

The cast (including Misfits’ Robert Sheehan; Lily Cole) all do their best, but they’re given worn out, sometimes unintentionally funny dialogue. Rants about how the dead choose you because you have “the gift”, how this is more like a curse than a blessing, how you wish you could live like everyone else – they’re all here. All of the characters here are underwritten. We see Jack’s childhood during several flashbacks – explaining why he’s a loner, why he’s not just damaged because he’s seen dead people all his life, other things went on – though they feel like they were added in later, having nothing significant to do with the narrative. The only reason we’re given as to why Emma (Lily Cole) offers to help Jack is because she’s his sister; we learn nothing about her character, no digging beneath the surface, only that she’s a bit bored staying at home in her boyfriend’s swanky flat, drinking wine all day.

Ian Moss’ cinematography does the job, but it’s nothing special; a dim, depressing-looking palette that’s been used in numerous British films.

The Messenger becomes tiresome after a while. If you’re going to dredge up the same, seen-it-dozens-of-times-before formula, then why bother? It fails as a ghost story, as a psychological study; it fails at near enough everything. Search round for ITV’s afterlife starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln, which had ideas, scares, compassion, plus a crafty sense of humour, all AWOL from Blair’s newest entry on his CV.

2 out of 5

Turbo Kid (Canada, New Zealand/English dialogue/89 min)

Turbo Kid is a ridiculous amount of fun for anyone who loves ‘80s action or sci-fi films (Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, George Miller’s Mad Max 2, or John Carpenter’s They Live!): it’s smart, gory, and has its tongue firmly in its cheek.

In a post-apocalypse world, Turbo Kid (Munro Chambers), obsessed with anything-and-everything ‘80s, even dressing up like a superhero, keeps himself-to-himself, not trusting anyone, until he meets the beautiful and cheery Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), the two of them suddenly finding themselves the targets of a violent, take-no-prisoners biker gang.

Turbo Kid is made on a shoe-string budget, but everyone involved makes the most of every penny. Half the fun of Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell’s film is that it looks like a cheap ‘80s sci-fi. The visuals are clearly Verhoeven-inspired, with geysers of blood being launched at the screen. It’s not barbaric, it’s not realistic, it’s so over-the-top, you can’t help but burst out laughing. A scene guaranteed to make you roar involves a henchman having several torsos land and pile up on his head, looking like some gore-covered kebab spit.

All of the actors onscreen are clearly having a great time, everybody hamming it up. Best of the bunch is Michael Ironside (Scanners, Top Gun, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone) as the film’s villain Zeus, playing the role much like Brian Blessed’s performance in Flash Gordon: like he’s onstage at The Globe, but is having plenty of fun. Aaron Jeffrey enjoys himself as a gunslinger out of every Clint Eastwood film ever made; gravel-voiced and giving everyone he meets a cold, don’t-wanna-mess-with-me stare. Leboeuf should be Jar Jar Binks irritating with how bright and happy she always is, but is actually funny as hell whenever she is onscreen; a great contrast to Chambers’ mistrusting, forced to grow up Turbo Kid.

Worthy of a mention is Le Matos, who produced the film’s score, who obviously live and breathe anything ‘80s. Whatever synthesiser the band used to come up with the music, it has to be well-and-truly exhausted; drum machines and sequencers turning up every five minutes in Turbo Kid.

While it harks back to the ‘80s, Turbo Kid has plenty of its own ideas to make you rush out and buy it on DVD. A deliriously violent and nostalgic ninety minutes.

4 out of 5

Friday, 10 July 2015

Review: Minions (UK Cert U)

You'll have to go a long way to find someone who doesn't like the Minions. The cute yellow creatures were the true breakout characters from the Despicable Me films, so it was only a matter of time before they got their own movie.

The Minions have been around since the dawn of civilisation, seeking to serve the most evil master they can. However, they've not always been so lucky with that as their masters tend to perish- in part due to the Minions' well-meaning but utterly useless assistance. Stuck in a rut, three plucky Minions- Kevin, Stuart and Bob- decide to venture out into the world and find the biggest, baddest boss to serve. They find their way to VillainCon and into the employ of Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock) who has a nefarious plan to steal the Queen of England's crown.

The voice cast is strong, Bullock clearly relishing playing the villain with able support by Jon Hamm as Scarlet's husband Herb. There's wonderful voice performances by Allison Janney and Michael Keaton as a seemingly normal couple who help the Minions get to VillainCon (and who are responsible for one of the funniest sight gags in the film) and there's frankly inspired casting by having Jennifer Saunders as the Queen (channelling the Fairy Godmother from Shrek 2 in places and all the funnier for it). Finally, there's a deliciously arch narration from Geoffrey Rush. Even though the Minions speak a bizarre language (a mix of English, Spanish, Italian and other languages), you're never left in any doubt of what their intentions are. This is partly down to superb animation and also down to the vocal talents of Pierre Coffin who voices the Minions. All 899 of them.

There are some inspired sight gags (the montage of the Minions through history, although mostly used in the trailers, is particularly funny) and the setting of 1960s London is good, lending itself to some sly jabs at the Brits and also a particularly strong soundtrack (including songs by the Rolling Stones, the Doors and the Who). There's also a song-and-dance routine to a Minionese version of the Cole Porter song 'Make Them Laugh' which has to be one of the more surreal things I've seen on film.

Much like The Penguins Of Madagascar, the film is frothy, light and- above all- fun. It doesn't have the depth or emotional complexity of some of Pixar's finest but it made me laugh frequently and loudly. Sometimes that's all you need. 

Rating: 4 out of 5


Sunday, 5 July 2015

Review: Mr. Holmes (UK Cert PG)

Sir Ian McKellen reunites with his Gods And Monsters director Bill Condon for Mr. Holmes, an adaptation of Mitch Cullin's novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind which features an elderly version of the great detective.

It's 1947 and the 93 year old Sherlock Holmes (McKellen) lives in retirement in Sussex with his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes is happy with his bees, preferring to stay out of the limelight after John Watson's stories of Holmes' cases have become famous. However, after more than thirty years, he is haunted by his final case; the case which ended his career. There was always something troubling about it, something that never rang true in Watson's version of events. Holmes resolves to figure out what. Not easy when the world's greatest detective is suffering from dementia and his once sharp intellect is waning. 

McKellen plays Holmes as both the younger detective and the older, more decrepit retiree and is superb at both. The older Holmes' dementia provides some poignant moments as he tries to put the pieces back together and there is a marked physical change between the two versions of Holmes. McKellen is the kind of actor that could read the phone book and make it sound like Shakespeare and he acquits himself brilliantly in the role. 

It's a shame the same can't be said of some of the supporting cast (but that's more to do with the material than the actors). Laura Linney is a much better actress than the material she's given here and she's practically wasted in the role which has her little more than a disapproving harridan. Some facile attempts to give the character character fall flat and feel shoe-horned. Milo Parker is better in the role of Roger, luckily eschewing any precocious brat instincts and acting as a good foil for Holmes. However, both Linney and Parker suffer from wandering accent syndrome, sounding at times West Country then Irish then occasionally Scottish which is a little off-putting, to say the least.

Hattie Morahan plays Ann Kelmot, the subject of Holmes' last case, with a beautiful fragility and it's actually quite a wrenching moment when all the pieces come together and you realise the truth of the last case. There's a supporting cast of top-notch British acting talent- including Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Phil Davis, John Sessions and Frances Barber- which rounds out things nicely.

It's a well shot and well designed films, the costumes and make-up are superb and it evokes the spirit of the times in which it is set. However (and it's a big however) the script is what lets the film down. It's poorly structured and one of the main storylines- Holmes' sojourn to Japan to find a plant that is reputed to help with senile dementia- is rather weak. If it had focused on the final case alone, the film would have been stronger. 

Ultimately, this is a pleasant, slow drama which would be perfect for a Sunday evening. Whilst the plot is inconsistent, it's worth seeing for the bravura performance by McKellen. 

Rating: 3 out of 5


Thursday, 2 July 2015

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015 - Part One

Averaging four-to-five hours’ sleep a night and surviving off caffeine for a week doesn’t sound like much of a holiday, but when it’s the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I proudly sport my panda eyes and end up on first name terms with the staff at Starbucks (other coffee shops are available in Scotland's capital, but not all of them are right outside the cinema).

The world’s longest running film festival is in its 69th year. It could have been blind luck when I picked what I fancied watching, but 2014 felt like EIFF’s strongest programme for a while. With EIFF, there’s usually a handful of films you'll want to add to your DVD shelf. Last year, almost everything I sat through, bleary-eyed, was well above your average cinema fare. James Ward Byrkit’s directorial debut, Coherence, Uberto Passolini’s Still Life, 2014’s best prison drama, We Are Monster, and my favourite of the festival, Jeff Baena’s Life after Beth were just a small number of highlights.

Disclaimers, Terms and Conditions, etc. etc. Like last year, I was up in Edinburgh for a week, as my wallet, and my body clock, can’t hack any longer. This means I couldn't see every big film of the festival (missing out on Back to the Future, accompanied by a live score, is what I’m most gutted about!), but I tried squeezing every last penny out of my delegate pass. This time I stayed in Edinburgh from the 15th to the 22nd June.

Amy (UK/English dialogue/123 min)

Amy Winehouse passed away in 2011. With her second album, Back to Black, selling millions across the globe, Amy was an easy target, belittled by the media, who portrayed her as a crazed, booze-addled drug addict. Asif Kapadia, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Senna, has compiled hours of home videos, concert footage, and interviews with friends, family, and those within the music industry, to give a thorough and respectful portrait of Winehouse.

Whatever your thoughts of Amy Winehouse, Kapadia immediately puts a line straight through them, showing you films of Amy before she was famous, growing up, messing around with friends, and performing at small venues and auditions, trying to get noticed. You’re introduced to a young woman who says it how it is, hates being the centre of attention, and can go from shy to fiery at the click of a finger.

I saw Winehouse perform, middle of the afternoon, at the Isle of Wight Festival in 2005. Seeing her onstage, nervous, apologising because this was the biggest crowd she had performed to, then singing as loud and passionate as her lungs could manage, made me an instant fan. Playing virtually all of Winehouse’s music, showing the lyrics written out on scraps of paper, who fading in-and-out on the screen, Kapadia makes you appreciate how talented she was, not just as a singer, but as a songwriter, a storyteller. Several times during the film, Amy admits to having depression, using music as her way of coping. Kapadia shows how honest Amy’s writing was, no holding back, wondering if this record will sell, she wrote her heartbreak, her jealousy, her regrets all down, accompanying them with a traditional, stuck-in-your head catchy jazz melody.

Critics, fans, people who knew Amy, will be arguing whether Kapadia’s documentary is unbiased. Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, has already given interviews, unhappy with how the family are shown, that they are accused of not giving her the support she needed. When you watch Amy, it’s hard to disagree with Kapadia. During one of many tragic moments, Amy goes to a reclusive island to get clean, inviting only close friends and family. Her father is there, but so is a film crew he has brought along to follow Amy wherever she goes. Amy’s ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, appears, and while you wonder how much of his interview wound up in the documentary, the finger of blame points at him in terms of getting Winehouse hooked on class A drugs, as well as using her as a meal ticket.

As you would expect, Amy is an uncomfortable watch at times. Archive footage early on shows how Winehouse had the sound of great jazz vocalists such as Betty Carter or Dinah Washington; no singers of her generation came close. Later we see the Amy paraded on the news and in newspapers the world over: swaying, mumbling, slurring her words. The scene which brought tears to my eyes was Kapadia’s use of my favourite Winehouse song (in my humble opinion, one of the greatest songs of this century – there’s a reason why Prince sang it at his O2 residency in London), Love is a Losing Game, playing it alongside a montage of photos of Amy, starting off as a beautiful, healthy-looking young woman, then seeing her slim down to next-to-nothing as her drug and alcohol addiction worsens.

Kapadia does not use cheap tricks or cut corners, this is an engrossing, poignant film that gives you a real sense of who Winehouse was, away from the paparazzi and media attention, occasionally making you laugh when you see how casual and straight talking she was (during a TV interview, the journalist compares Winehouse to Dido, suggesting both artists write honest, timeless lyrics. Winehouse is polite enough, but her face says it all). Amy Winehouse was a breath-taking talent, Kapadia doing her every bit of justice.

4 out of 5

Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post-Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream (UK/English dialogue/94 min)

From a tiny flat in Edinburgh, Bob Last and Hilary Morrison set up Fast Product, a record label that would sign critically acclaimed bands Gang of Four, Joy Division, Dead Kennedys, and The Mekons, before breaking into the mainstream with The Human League and their 1981 Christmas number one, Don’t You Want Me

Writer/director Grant McPhee’s documentary uses interviews from some of the big names in Scotland’s music history to explain how Fast Product, a company set up to give a voice to new, cutting edge talent, ended up reaching across the world.

You can’t help but get caught up in the passion that has gone into this film, McPhee having a genuine love for his subject matter. Everyone he interviews is fired up, explaining everything that went on during Fast Product’s years. It’s an impressive roster including Alan McGee, Bobby Bluebell, Norman Blake and Edwyn Collins to name just a small few.

Fast Product feels like something from a completely different time, distant history; record companies whose priority was putting the music out there, money, making a profit, being miles down the To Do List.

There are some interesting facts and anecdotes in Big Gold Dream. If you thought the best Scottish music from the late-seventies to late eighties came mostly from Glasgow, McPhee makes you think again. Fast Product were a predecessor to Rough Trade – still a record shop when Fast Product was getting all the attention – while Factory Records didn’t even exist.

The trouble with Big Gold Dream is it feels like loads of pats on the back, but not enough content to match. It’s well researched, and you would struggle to find another documentary that gets all the greats from Scotland’s post-punk/indie scene together, but it could easily have been an hour long BBC 4 documentary instead of a ninety-minute long feature.

3 out of 5

Hector (UK/English dialogue/87 min)

Peter Mullan is one of those “what’s his name?” actors; you’ve seen him before, you just can’t remember what in. Mullan is a tragically underrated actor, having played a number of astonishing roles (Tyrannosaur, Channel 4’s Red Riding). Currently taking the lead in BBC 2’s adaptation of Iain Banks’ Stonemouth, hopefully he finally gets the recognition he deserves.

In Hector, Mullan plays the title role, a homeless man making his annual pilgrimage to a London homeless shelter in time for Christmas. On his journey, he tries getting back in touch with his family, with varying degrees of success.

Mullan is both likeable and believable as Hector, the irony being that if he wasn’t this unkempt man sleeping on the streets, you would happily go down the pub with him and chat over a pint. Jake Gavin (who also directs) has come up with a script that does the rare thing of being natural, giving us snapshots of how people interact, whilst holding your attention throughout and occasionally making you laugh. There’s a smart, touching moment when Hector and his brother meet for the first time in fifteen years. Instead of arguing, the brothers carry on as normal, joking with each other; best friends again.

The one scene that felt redundant was Hector explaining how he became homeless. It’s a good minute-long monologue that not only feels out of place, Gavin could easily have got away without it. Otherwise, Hector is a film that gets the mix of warmth and tragedy absolutely right. It’s a sad story, but there’s enough humour and compassion to make you smile and feel less cynical about people.

4 out of 5

It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (Hong Kong/USA/English and Cantonese dialogue/79 min)

Thirty-somethings Ruby (Jamie Chung) and Josh (Bryan Greenberg) meet one night in Hong Kong. There’s chemistry, an attraction, but the timing is all wrong (Josh lets on he’s in a relationship and the night goes into free-fall). A year later, they bump into each other again. Circumstances have changed, but things are still complicated. Are Ruby and Josh willing to shake up their lives, hurt the people they love, so they can be together?

Romantic dramas, that put love and relationships under the microscope, sink or swim depending on the performances of their leads. Thankfully Chung and Greenberg (engaged in real life) are both convincing; you like them after nearly minute on-screen. Writer/director Emily Ting asked her leads to improvise the dialogue, telling them where each scene starts and ends, then letting the cameras roll. Chung and Greenberg both rise to the challenge, the dialogue intelligent and occasionally making you laugh out loud. While questions about love and fidelity have been asked before (Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and its sequels), Ting and her cast put a unique spin on these issues by also discussing Ruby and Josh’s dreams as artists (Ruby wants to be a fashion designer, Josh a novelist), and how life, paying the bills, gets in the way. Watching It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, you want the two of them to get together, but they meet at the wrong points in their lives. If it had been a year-or-two earlier; different story.

Josh Silfen’s handheld visuals capture the flurry, the clash of cultures (Stella and Carlsberg signs opposite traditional stalls and restaurants), as well as the eccentricity of Hong Kong. You’re shown the well-known tourist spots – Victoria Peak getting plenty of screen time – but you also get a clear sense of what living in Hong Kong would be like, how unique and thriving it is.

My one gigantic issue with Ting’s film is the ending, or lack of it. We stop, at a crucial moment, and are left to make up our own minds. Some call it profound, I call it lazy, Ting taking the easy way out.

While It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong might not have as much to say about relationships as the Before films or Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer, it is clever, enjoyable, and bittersweet rather than saccharine.

4 out of 5

Maggie (USA/English dialogue/95 min)

Whenever me and my mates up in Edinburgh mentioned this film, we called it “Arnie versus zombies.” Get any images of Arnold Schwarzenegger cutting down an army of undead with a minigun straight out of your head, Maggie is much more The Walking Dead than Raw Deal.

John Scott 3’s script sees Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) caring for his teenage daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin – the kid from Zombieland grew up!), who has been bitten by a zombie. As Maggie’s health worsens, Wade has to decide what to do when the inevitable happens.

Maggie could easily have been an episode from AMC’s record breaking TV series, it’s that smart and emotional. While much of the film’s praise has gone to Schwarzenegger, the star of the show here is Breslin. When we first meet Maggie, she is terrified, she does not want to die, yet ends up accepting her fate, making the most of the time she has with friends and her father. Tragically, while father and daughter have always been close, their bond gets stronger as Maggie is dying.

While Schwarzenegger is unlikely to get an Oscar nomination out of Maggie, he proves to critics that he can do more than play a dead-behind-the-eyes machine. While Dutch off of Predator wouldn’t be your first choice to play a kind-hearted, non-violent father, Arnie does a respectable job. Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin gives us plenty of close-ups of Schwarzenegger, his expressions, his reactions, whether it’s father and daughter reminiscing, losing themselves, stopping when they crash back down to earth, or hesitating when having to kill his undead neighbours. Wade is a complicated man, struggling with what to do as his child becomes more walking corpse, less flesh and blood, barley keeping it together; with Arnie there is plenty going on behind the eyes.

Considering Maggie had nowhere near the budget of The Walking Dead, the visuals are just as impressive, each frame filled with muted colours, the landscape – fields and crops – dying as well as the humans, but with tiny glimpses of sunlight breaking through the clouds or gaps in the curtains. While the zombies don’t appear all that often (Maggie has nowhere near the body count of Commando), the make-up and the ways they’re dispatched (Arnie pushes a broom handle all the way through a corpse’s neck) are just as gory as you’d expect, plus Maggie’s transformation as she starts to decay – fingers shrivelling, flesh drying up, veins appearing beneath the skin – is horrible to watch.

While you already know how the film will end, Scott 3 doesn’t make things too predictable. Maggie’s final scene is shuffle round in your seat tense then, cleverly, when you realise what is happening, grabs hold of the heartstrings. It’s cleverly written stuff!

Just when you thought the zombie subgenre had been done to death, John Scott 3 and director Henry Hobson come up with something that respects the traditions first set in stone by George A. Romero, but plays with expectations just enough to give us something pleasingly different. It’s an odd thing to say about a zombie film, but Maggie is gentle and heart-breaking, as well as being skilfully made.

4 out of 5

The Marriage of Reason and Squalor (UK/English dialogue/88 min)

Artist Jake Chapman adapts his novel for the small screen, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, into a TV series for Sky Arts, starring Sophie Kennedy Clark as Lydia, a young woman who is given a holiday to a remote island as a wedding gift by her fiancé (Rhys Ifans). Once Lydia sets foot on the island, things get strange. Very strange.

I like a film that turns weird all the way up to eleven, making you try and work out what’s happening (Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko), but the trick is to tease the audience with clues, portions of narrative, to keep them watching, put up with all the craziness that’s going on. Chapman ignores this completely, following one insane scene with another, creating an incoherent mess that pushes your patience.

You can’t fault the visuals, this is a film where every frame looks fantastic in a David Lynch directs a tropical paperback romance kind of way. You have stop motion animation, grotesque make-up, good use of green screen, stock footage, and clear blue beaches that stretch for miles – just some of the numerous ideas.

As far as the performances go, you can’t help but wonder if everyone involved signed a deal where, the more they overact, the more they get paid. I’ve got a lot of time for Ifans, he’s underrated, but as Helmut Mandragorass he’s so off-the-wall it becomes irritating. It’s like watching the A-level drama diva take centre stage and wishing they would stop. I appreciate Kennedy Clark is playing the clichéd flaky English aristocrat, but it’s a thankless role that she can’t do anything with.

The best way to describe The Marriage of Reason and Squalor is it’s like an undergraduate film student was given a giant bucketful of money to go and make a film. The imagination’s there in the visuals, just not in the script. The strangest thing about Reason and Squalor is Chapman clearly thinks it’s more complex than it really is. Not the worst film of this year’s festival, but close.

2 out of 5

Narcopolis (UK/English dialogue/96 min)

A thriller set in the near future where drugs are legal. It’s dark most of the time and there are blazing neon signs in almost every frame. Blade Runner on a budget: sounds good, right?

Narcopolis could have been one of the best films at this year’s festival, and one of the best British thrillers of 2015. Tragically, director and screenwriter Justin Trefgarne’s script throws everything against the wall and, if it doesn’t stick, it gets put back up anyway. Trefgarne could have picked a handful ideas (the consequences of legalising recreational drugs, drugs that make you time travel, how parents unknowingly scar their children, the public image of global companies compared to what happens behind closed doors – just some of the subtle and not-so-subtle subtext in Narcopolis) and developed them, really made the audience think. Instead, so much is going on, so thinly spread, that you quickly stop caring about what’s happening.

Elliot Cowan (Da Vinci’s Demons) makes a decent enough lead, even if Frank Grieves is your seen-it-all-before burnt out cop with an estranged family. The minute James Callis (Battlestar Gallactica) appears onscreen, posh accent, sharp suit and cunning smile, it’s no great surprise when he turns out to be the villain, while Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Tomorrow Never Dies) gets little to do as a by-the-numbers scientist; anyone could have played the role.

Narcopolis’ one saving grace is its visuals, Trefgarne pushing his budget as far as it will go. London streets at nightfall, threatening skies and shimmering skyscrapers. While every scene looks typically murky and brooding, Trefgarne gives a strange beauty to his backgrounds; the usual views of London, but with a near-future, off-world twist.

I got bored with Narcopolis. It traipses along, slick visuals and editing trying to distract you from the glaring problem that scarcely any time or attention was spent on the script, that none of the ideas have been thought through or make any sense. Impressive and talented production marred by a below average – dredging up more than a few science fiction clichés – screenplay.

2 out of 5

The Pyramid Texts (UK/English dialogue/Black and White/98 min)

A man giving a monologue to the camera for well over ninety minutes doesn’t sound like something you would happily hand your money over to go and see, but the debut film from The Shammasian Brothers (Ludwig and Paul) is something special.

James Cosmo (another actor who has never received the attention he deserves) plays retired boxer Ray. Setting up a video camera in his gym, he discusses his life, his thoughts, his regrets; the footage meant for his estranged son.

There are a small number of films where you can’t imagine anyone else in the role, anyone doing a performance equally as good. Cosmo does just that in The Pyramid Texts. He deserves awards recognition for his portrayal of Ray, flitting between passion, anger, and tear-jerking regret and being totally believable. This is a father opening up to his son, apologising; you’re engaged from the second Cosmo appears onscreen, right up to the end.

The cinematography is mostly close-ups, Cosmo staring into the camera. Early on Ray explains why he’s recording himself instead of writing a letter: you can see his face, hear the delivery of his words – there is no confusion over what he is saying, what he means. Cosmo’s expressions, his stare, all just as impressive as his dialogue. Shot entirely in black-and-white, this brings extra gravitas to Cosmo’s words. Thanks to some well set up lighting, we see all the lines on his face; Ray has been through the wars, bottled up his thoughts and feelings for years, and finally they all come spilling out.

Originally a stage play, BAFTA Award-winning writer Geoff Thompson’s adaptation is naturalistic, draws you in and, most impressive of all, it’s subtle. The dialogue is emotional, but doesn’t lay it on thick. While Ray is recounting his life, confessing his sins, there’s still a lot that he holds back, Cosmo’s expressions, his gaze, filling in the blanks.

My one and only issue with The Pyramid Texts is the last couple of minutes. Considering how reigned in the rest of the film is, the twist, the real reason why Ray is making this video, is handled with all the consideration of a sledgehammer. You could have had Ray switch off the camera and walk out of the gym; audiences would still have got the message. The film doesn’t come off the rails, but it’s a tiny bit jarring compared to how understated and exceptional the other ninety-odd minutes are: Shakespeare with everyday dialogue.

For the most part, The Shammasian Brothers’ first feature film is a powerful and moving powerhouse; definitely one of the best of this year’s festival.

4 out of 5

Therapy for a Vampire (Austria/Switzerland/German dialogue with English subtitles/87 min)

Vampires used to live in far-off, hard-to-pronounce European countries, wealthy aristocrats living in isolation. Now, thanks to Twilight, they’re slicked with hair gel and glow like disco balls when they step in the sun.

David Reuhm’s Therapy for a Vampire is both a homage to, as well as taking the piss out of, the lavish bloodsucker films starring Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. The cinematography is gorgeous; it’s as if Tim Burton had directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula rather than Francis Ford Coppola; a Victorian costume drama with the German impressionism of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

You can tell all the actors had fun during filming; there’s no scale on earth that can measure how camp the performances are here. Plenty of laughs come from how over-the-top Tobias Moretti and Jeanette Hain (as Count and Countess von Kösznöm) are whenever they’re onscreen.

Therapy for a Vampire is a lot of fun, at no point will you be fidgeting, or glancing at your watch. While there is minute-after-minute of visual gags that will make you smile and laugh-out-loud, you walk away feeling that Reuhm could have done more, really gone for the jugular (excuse the pun). Interview with the Vampire, for instance, takes itself so seriously, it’s begging to have the mickey mercilessly taken out of it. There are a couple of inventive jokes – fountains of blood spray across the screen as Countess von Kösznöm chomps into a victim, then realises she’s hardly drank anything – you just wish the laughs were always that smart.

3 out of 5