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Different ... but Unfortunately Not Quite Different Enough!
Dachra is unique in that it is the first Tunisian horror movie I've seen and particularly in the first couple of acts, that in itself is almost enough recommendation to see the film. It is rather intriguing watching this slow-building, creepy piece, whilst at the same time hearing lines of idiosyncratic dialogue such as "May the blessings of Allah be upon you." Director/writer/and just about everything else except popcorn vendor Abdelhamid Bouchnak, should be congratulated over this, his debut feature. The next best thing I can say about Dachra is that Bouchnak excels at building an atmosphere of eeriness concerning the story of a trio of journalism students, attempting to build a video news story assignment around a gruesome criminal case over 20 years old. Unfortunately in presenting his finished product, one finds that he hasn't been able to restrain himself from overindulging his borrowing of too many tried and tested horror tropes.
Visually, the film initially proves interesting, with Director of Photography: Hatem Nechi demonstrating he is more than prepared to adopt a variety of unusual angles to lens proceedings, using a very much desaturated black-and-white look to underline the stark, bleak nature of the story. But one does eventually tire of massive numbers of shots approached with Dutch angles, with quite a few seemingly deliberately out of focus. Towards the end of the film we even get the good old, nausea-inducing, spinning head in the kaleidoscopic panel, just for good measure. It's almost as if director Bouchnak was apologetic over not presenting a found-footage film and decided to dazzle us with visual tricks as the next best thing.
Character wise it's very much run of the mill. A trio of loud, almost obnoxious and therefore largely unsympathetic personalities who consistently make (really) dumb decisions and thus, unsurprisingly end up in a life and death situation in a rural village with the title name. I should add there is a very late, very contrived twist to somewhat explain their constantly, chaotic, unrealistic behaviour, but I just didn't buy it and it really didn't make a lot of sense. The central protagonist Yasmine transitions from attempting to be portrayed as a plucky, feisty heroine, to an annoyingly, blubbering, screeching damsel in distress, all in the space of a few seconds. And I still haven't worked out how her grandad, who has a tenuous connection to the main thread, knew she was in Dachra. I don't recall her, or anyone telling him.
Narratively, Dachra feels about 15 minutes too long. Stuff occurring in the village just seems to be repeated (literally) ad nauseam. One feels the conclusion is just dragged out too far and this, combined with the illogical actions of our three main characters, brings a frustrating end to proceedings, rather than a frighteningly good climax.
Still, even though I found Dachra ultimately unsatisfying, I would like to see some follow-up work from Abdelhamid Bouchnak. The guy definitely shows some promise. 5.5/10.
The Program (2015)
Sticks Doggedly to a Path Already Cycled!
The Program plays like a semi-documentary in giving us a realistic, bird's eye look at some of the disgraceful doping practices, that came to blight the late 20th century/early 21st century Tour de France bicycle races, involving American cyclist Lance Armstrong and his back-up team. Unfortunately that is also the film's problem. Despite a grimly, compelling performance from Ben Foster as Armstrong, the screenplay and direction allow no serious examination of what really made Armstrong into the ruthlessly, robotic competitor into which he evolved. There is nothing of Armstrong's early family life pre-international competition and it is virtually a red herring later in the movie, when we see him get married, because oddly, we don't see any further scenes of him interrelating with his spouse, at all.
Chris O'Dowd gives a typically workman-like performance as David Walsh, an early fan of Armstrong, who was later one of the first well-known sports journalists to question Armstrong's incredibly quick recovery from testicular cancer and then upward movement through the international cycling standards. But the film is really about Armstrong and his role both as a lead cyclist for his team and the leading advocate for a systematic doping of himself and all his teammates to give them a winning edge in team events of the big races.
Foster, as mentioned is chillingly effective as the dangerously charismatic Armstrong. Jesse Piemons also adds interest as the Mennonite rider Floyd Landis, who became Armstrong's lieutenant, or chief domestique, pushing the pace in the mountains to break the pack before Armstrong took off on his own to win the stage. But his character suffers from a sketchy, underwritten conclusion, after being refused any assistance by Armstrong, after Landis is caught for doping after winning the 2006 Tour.
Cycling and general sports lovers will find plenty of interest in The Program. But those seeking any (even fictional) insights into the Armstrong well known narcissistic psyche may be sorely disappointed.
Stepped Into the Wrong Room!
I can appreciate all the critical love for Room, even if I can't agree with it.
What I can subscribe to, is that the film is anchored by two wonderful central performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.
And though I haven't read Emily Donoghue's adapted novel, I applaud director Lenny Abrahamson's reported decision to upgrade Ma's role for the screen version. For me, it's the complex character of Ma/Joy that holds major interest, rather than 5 year old Jack, through whose perspective we view much of the action. We are told very early on in the second of two clearly defined halves of Room, that young Jacob is resilient and very likely to shake off the effects of 5 years of confinement with his mother. We (at least me anyway) don't need huge amounts of onscreen time devoted to watching Jack atune to his new environment. It's here the film really falls down, with a now plodding pace, as Ma disappears from the screen for very large tracts of time.
Of far more importance and interest was exploring the more edgy personality of Ma and the vast challenges, which are really only paid lip service, on her repatriation from capture. A bit of a spat with her mum and a testy TV interview and all of a sudden Joy disappears for way too much of the second half, when things were just starting to get interesting.
Without turning Room into a police procedural, I think the movie could have spent a little more time following up the arrest (and likely conviction) of Old Nick. His character generates much of the suspense and he goes virtually unreferenced in the film's second half. In fact the only indirect link is when Ma and Jack return to the room with the police at the end of the film. It looks so ramshackle and flimsy, that even I found myself wondering how Joy had not really managed to create any other escape attempts. It just didn't have the appearance of a virtual escape-proof cell.
Room is an unconventional and very professionally produced vehicle about a none too uncommon issue which has affected many women and children over the years. But for me any thriller/suspense elements disappeared when characters such as Ma and Old Nick were off screen, so as to allow an unfettered, somewhat repetitive look at Jack, adjusting to his brave, new world.
Flawed, But Fascinating!
Kiyoshi Kurosawa'a Daguerreotype is one of the most beautifully shot tales of the supernatural you are ever likely to see. This is particularly apt, seeing the plot concerns a modern master of one of the earliest forms of still photography, whereby images are captured on large silver plates. Take a bow director of cinematography Alexis Kavyrchine.
The movie also contains an extraordinarily creepy, apparition scene shot in daylight in a green house, that is supremely effective despite being unencumbered by loud noises, musical crescendos and layers of CGI. This segment should have opened a door to the film's climax. But it doesn't and therein lies some of the problems with Daguerreotype.
This is a film which is at least 20 - 30 minutes too long and by rambling on haphazardly following the course of a couple of less than riveting and unconvincing sub-plots, it tends to dig its own grave so to speak. Part of the reason for this, I think is that Kurosawa wants to add more tail to the film's key twist which occurs some half way through. The trouble with this however, is that modern audiences post Sixth Sense etc. will realise very early the reality of the situation and so many of the later scenes become quite redundant and viewers will be entirely unsurprised at the late big reveal. On top of this a couple of the plot threads involving a real estate agent's supposed behaviour in facilitating a sale and a father's (almost) non-behaviour following a serious accident, will have many punters scratching their heads at the contrived outcomes.
So while this film has no lack of atmosphere and is a visual feast, far more judicious and deliberate editing would have likely resulted in a better, more streamlined final product.
Road to Nowhere!
As Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" thunders over the closing credits, I felt that finally, something appropriate and substantial was being highlighted about the anachronistic, time-shifting allegorical drama Transit.
I can understand the critical praise for this movie, detailing the largely suspense less machinations of potential asylum-seekers in a near contemporary France, seeking to escape the yoke of a nameless fascist junta that is consolidating authoritarian power. But that is not to say I agree with the plaudits for the sheer underwhelming melodramatic turns of this over contrived piece.
Few of the characters, least of all the (deliberately drawn as enigmatic) lead Georg, are backgrounded to any extent. It seems to be simply good enough for writer/director Christian Petzold that we understand that they exist in this WW2 scenario, but filled with everything else 21st century, apart from any references to modern media. The result is that as the glacial -paced story continues to unfold, we just lose interest in the characters, especially when stuff is constantly repeated as with the triad of group dynamics exhibited by Georg, Maria and Richard.
Earlier semi-hatched sub-plots, such as that involving the boy with the deaf mute mother are seemingly just cast aside and forgotten about. Make no mistake. This is no Casablanca like movie involving intriguing romance and at least a modicum of suspense. Transit has atmosphere, but little else. Characters continually and annoyingly look at the ground when speaking. An unwelcome narration is frequently provided, when it's plainly obvious it's not required. And finally we are mercifully delivered of the twist conclusion that many of us including Blind Freddie, could see coming from well before the half way mark.
The message can't be that important in my view, if the director is happy enough to let the story amble off in the direction, as the final song emphasises, on a road to nowhere.
Jack Reacher (2012)
Jack (Wayne) Reacher: Rides In and Rides Out!
Jack Reacher is a very entertaining adaption of Lee Child's novel One Shot and good introduction to Child's iconic character of the same name. I very much liked the way director/writer Christopher McQuarrie through judicious and economic editing, introduced and backgrounded Reacher in the first act, at all times faithfully adhering to the template of Reacher, as outlined in the long-running and internationally successful line of books ... except for one crucial aspect.
Yes, the elephant in the room is the contrast of the literary Reacher's physical size and appearance, as opposed to actor Tom Cruise's relatively diminutive dimensions. In this case size does matter, as Reacher's size and physical abilities and attributes are somewhat metaphorical in depicting the force of nature and barely disguised almost superman aspects of his persona. Without a doubt, accomplished actor that he is, Cruise grasps the psychological make-up and enigmatic social behaviour of Reacher extremely well. But with his movie star charisma and 5 foot 7 inch height, he was never really going to convince diehard Reacher fans of a physical connection to the character, though he gives it his best shot (pun intended) in both this movie and the sequel Never Go Back.
It's no surprise that for any future instalments, even Lee Child, who was initially quite buoyant and positive about Cruise's casting, has admitted, will be dependent on a new actor taking over the role. My personal choice for a very long time, has been Arnie Hammer. I think he ticks just about all the boxes.
At any rate having led the elephant back to his enclosure, I can reiterate that this is a good movie; well-directed with a fine cast and an intriguing storyline. Rosamund Pike and Robert Duvall are the stand-outs in a quality support line-up and both demonstrate notable chemistry in their interactions with Cruise's Reacher. The John Wayne western style references are obvious in Reacher's entry into the narrative and his exit along the motorway sunset towards future adventures, not to mention his propensity to take the law into his own hands, to achieve what in his eyes, is a fair and just outcome.
Though both Reacher films feature well-choreographed and realistic action scenes, only One Shot, really highlights that other really important part of the Reacher character; his great detective skills, which are a fundament of the books. So appreciate Cruise's game efforts in this, his first of two Reacher outings. But be prepared for some future casting changes which, as a big fan myself, will hopefully enable Jack Reacher to continue to forge ahead into the cinematic universe.
As an avid reader of all Michael Connelly's books, I think I can safely say that like-minded fans should be very pleased with the TV series adaptions of the Harry Bosch novels, because if anything they are an improvement on the books.
The updating and younger make-over of Bosch works really well and Titus Welliver's interpretation is definitive. He gives Bosch a slightly more sociable personality, whilst retaining his "coyote" independent streak and the driving determination to right perceived wrongs, no matter how far in the past.
Similarly Jerry Edgar is a far more attractively professional character onscreen than in the books, where he was generally written up as a fairly slack-arse detective, more interested in his part-time real estate gigs and fashion sense. Amusingly onscreen, his ex-wife who he'd like to reconcile with, is the real estate agent.
Chief Irvin Irving is also a more nuanced, interesting character onscreen than depicted in the novels, where he was frequently a Bosch nemesis, rather than ally (with qualifications).
Bosch's cantilevered house on stilts at 7203 Woodrow Wilson Drive in the Hollywood Hills is just how I'd imagined it to be, with the deck overlooking the city and jazz music continually played in the background.
The combining of various ideas from more than one novel at time maintains the interest as does the introduction of new sub-plots and characters. (E.G. I don't remember the "Jimmy Robinson" character from any of the books, but he makes a strong impression in Seasons 4 & 5). It's rewarding seeing key LA locations (E.G. Angel's Flight) from the novels depicted onscreen.
Presumably these "improvements"have Michael Connelly's seal of approval, who I believe does have a consultancy and executive producer's role with the series.
Hopefully, Amazon will continue to request further seasons of Bosch and I look forward to seeing the continued evolution of one of the more appealing TV detectives of recent times and further adaptions of Connelly's books..
A Perfect Man (2013)
Amsterdam Or Bust!
First up, I have to say that I was never aware or could never tell, that this film was made over 13 years. The majority of the film was produced in 2000, then shelved, then finalised some 12/13 years later after reshoots and further editing. None of the cast seems to have aged over that time. I don't really know how the uniformity was achieved.
A Perfect Man is not a great story, but it is interesting. I really liked seeing Jeanne Tripplehorn in a lead role again and feel sorry for her, that the film, when finally released, flopped big time. She deserves better. Her Nina is a dignified woman, though I do find it hard to believe she would have stayed with her husband of 9 years, after 4 previously revealed affairs on his part.
Liev Schreiber does just about the impossible and makes a serial heel of a guy, actually somewhat sympathetic. The Dutch locations are very watchable and largely Dutch support characters of some interest. (Let's not even bring up the stereotypical, big talking. Aussie client.) I did find it a little strange the underlining of Nina's bestie being a supposed trans male, though I guess it did fit in with the running theme of role playing games, operating through the storyline.
The ambivalent conclusion with the possibility floated of a reconciliation in an old location is well-handled and realistic. And the casting of "Lawrence" the dog was a winner as far as I was concerned. Good to see him get fairly extensive screen time. With canine charm and appeal, he easily stole every scene he was in. The curious discerning viewer may well find A Perfect Man to be of some interest.
Heavens Above! (1963)
A Literal Heroic Failure!
Heaven's Above clearly has some clever satirical ideas in play, but the execution of the film just seems to leave the story content totally unbalanced. On top of that, it has an ending that appears to indicate the script writers didn't know how to conclude the story at all.
Peter Sellers is the best thing about the movie and yet in it, he plays one of his straightest roles ever, as the well-intentioned minister trying to get his parish to behave in a fashion indicative of the messages interpreted from the Christian gospels. One of the movie's failings is that, though the ostensible lead, Sellers's character, the Rev. Smallwood really isn't in the movie that much. He is more of a connecting character to the actions and reactions of the (too) big cast of supporting characters. I actually wonder whether it was the underuse of his Smallwood in this film, that gave rise to his propensity to play multiple characters in later films.
The cast is so large that the movie ends up playing out as though it was some sort of faux documentary, with the knock on effects of Smallwood's intended kindly and charitable actions being felt across the whole of British society. The funniest segments involve gentle fun being poked at the church establishment itself, but the breadth and depth of observation is just too large and the Rev. Smallwood goes missing for critically long periods of time, while we observe the ho-hum behaviour of countless minor characters.
The best that can be said about the ending is that it's just plain silly; the worst being that the writers and directors realised they'd created a gargantuan creature that had just escaped their collective control.
As an aside, Sellers is good as mentioned, but I wonder why he uses a faintly (English) South African accent throughout Heavens Above. As with the ending, there just never seems to be any explanation or reason for its use, other than he may have just wanted to do it.
Yi dai zong shi (2013)
One for the Cinema Aficionados!
The Grandmaster has beautiful production values and takes a long, languid observation at its subject, but arguably also stands as an example of the failings of some productions that are just too long in their making for their own good.
It's a film that is poeticly stylised in its visual appearance and dialogue (especially that of Ip man and Gong Er). 90% of the scenes are in close-up or extreme close-up, with dark borders and only the subjects' faces illuminated. It is undoubtedly an interesting look, that many will appreciate for its aesthetic beauty, but plenty of others (such as this writer) will find suffocatingly cloying after awhile, as the film progresses with little visual variety occurring.
The story is fascinating, but by now much of it is relatively well-known due to other films on Ip man's life being made, completed and exhibited, during the decade or so this film took to finish. There is nothing really new in the story, so perhaps in an effort to freshen things up, director Wong Kar-wai rather oddly changes tack in the second half. He suddenly switches from the Ip man perspective (and arguably excessive first person narration) we've had so far and then we are delivered two sub stories (one relatively short and one much longer) about supporting characters with their own narration, one of which doesn't even involve Ip man. To me, it felt like unnecessary, distractive padding of the main storyline. The converse of this was that despite the promotion of the film as about the man who trained Bruce Lee, the latter barely features and then only briefly right at the end, as a young high achieving student.
I freely admit, that I may have felt more positive about this film if it had been released at least 5 to 6 years earlier than it was and then focused more on the central character, rather than going walkabout for long periods with other "less important" characters. For that accountability must lie, with the talented but eccentric director Wong Kar-wai.
Not the Train-wreck Many Critics Would Have You Believe!
Watching Mortdecai, I was reminded of Hudson Hawk, that Bruce Willis disaster of the early 90's. The films definitely have similarities, particularly in tone and plot, but Mortdecai, does have some genuinely amusing moments unlike its earlier running mate.
This is not the complete failure Rotten Tomatoes and Meta-Critic would have you believe, though we all have to accept that it was very much a commercial failure. Can I just say at this point that the British do this sort of adventure /farce far better and more naturally than their Atlantic cousins. Take the Kingsman films for instance, which serve as fine examples of blending hyper-kinetic action scenes, with heavy comedic doses of both the physical and spoken variety. So I'm not really sure why more of the lead actors and production team members aren't British, though Scot, Ewan McGregor does his English counterpart pretty well. And as far as I'm concerned Gwynnth Paltrow's Johanna, is a movie highlight and one of the best reasons to see the film. I cannot understand how she would bag a Golden Raspberry nomination for her sexy, together, aristocratic wife, who refuses to stay at home and polish the silver.
The action scenes are in the main dull, though come more alive when the comedy is emphasised. Depp pretty much gives us a modern reworking of Jack Sparrow, dry-docked. He needs to seek inspiration elsewhere for his own career well-being. The film is arguably around 15 minutes too long, though somewhat ironically, it best achieves its goals in the third act.
It's just seems a pity that such a talent-laden team in a generously budgeted film, didn't get a better story, combined with a more experienced director of this particular sub genre. Mortdecai, as it stands, is a film probably best enjoyed by the curious, rather than the rusted - on Pirates of the Caribean Depp fan group.
The Wind (2018)
Noble Intentions Aren't Enough!
It's an intriguing proposition mixing traditionally incompatible genres; in The Wind's case western and horror. It features some good acting especially from lead actress Caitlin Gerard (who features in just about every scene), fine cinematography and (predictably) very competent sound effects. But in what is clearly a low budget vehicle, its main drawcard, an original and stimulating story, the game is given up pretty early on in the piece.
And the indicating clue to that is the essentially 5 person cast, which soon narratively clues us in to the situation that only so many variables can occur, that no amount of of non-linear storytelling technique can disguise. Make no mistake; like the budget and the cast, this is one hell of a lean storyline, with extremely predictable outcomes. Over-used too is the regular mainstay trope of the isolated woman to manufacture a damsel in distress scenario. Early on, there is a brief throwaway line explanation for one of those set-ups. But that hardly gives carte blanche to exclude the husband from 90% of all future nocturnal scenes. It begs the question, What exactly is Isaac doing out there on these isolated prairies at night to explain his absences? He can't be working on a farm in which for example, we never see any stock apart from a solitary goat!
There are a couple of genuine shocks to be had, but mostly director Emma Tammi relies on the tried and tested "loud musical intervention" to try to get the audience off their collective couches. It doesn't work. Like the attempted twists, they become annoyingly foreseeable.
So sadly The Wind, like other misguided attempts at western horror (Billy the Kid versus Dracula) just doesn't work. A more detailed, better written screenplay may have seen a more positive result.
A cut price Australian made combo of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Knowing, Terminus aims to tell a big ambitious (derivative) story, but cuts way too many production corners getting there to make it all that interesting.
It's one of these annoyingly darkly -lit, washed-out colour films, shot with hand-held cameras and over-indulging itself with close-up camera angles and quick edits to the extent, that in the few scenes of action we are delivered, you are totally unsure of exactly what is going on.
The acting won't live in my memory either. Jai Koutrae in the ostensible central role of David was particularly wooden, though I thought his screen daughter Annabelle, played by Kendra Appleton, acquitted herself quite well.
It's always kind of fun watching Aussie films and actors pretend they are all things American. The accents are pretty good and the above mentioned close-ups I think are designed to avoid giving away too many visual clues as to actual filming locations. But in the very few external panoramas shown, it's quite easy to tell the sound and look of the Australian bush if you are half-way familiar with it.
By my reckoning at least 90% of the film is shot at night or in dim, murky surroundings. I felt like celebrating every (occasional) time we were gifted a scene filmed during the day. I guess this is director/co-writer Marc Furmie's idea of creating an atmosphere of foreboding bordering on paranoia. I personally found it a complete road block to enjoying an imitative, but aspiring, apocalyptic tale.
Le mari de la coiffeuse (1990)
No Split Ends!
The Hairdresser's husband is one of those sort of films the French seem to make their own. It's a whimsical, languorous, first person examination of a man's life-long sexual obsession which transcends into love to an extremely monogamous degree. Director Patrice Leconte happily demonstrates a comfortable willingness to confront limits and go further than narrative convention usually allows. In this case he creates a highly distinctive fable world, where a boy infatuated with a buxom woman who cut his hair, is given the opportunity as a middle-aged adult to fulfil a continuing desire to marry a tonsorial artist, dealing only with male heads of hair.
Have no misconceptions. This is not meant to be reality. The story occurs in a small French coastal town that almost always appears to be bathed in the golden hues of summer. Characters seem wholly unconcerned about everyday regards such as work, incomes and customer numbers. Life in general, apart from arguably that connected with old age, is to be celebrated. This is a cinematic perspective of an ideal, lasting love ... and it's aftermath upon reaching an end point. Instead of meandering through the various trivialities of his characters' existences, Leconte focuses very narrowly on Antoine Jean Rochefort) and Mathilde's (Anna Galiena) romance. The viewer is presented to the constricted reality inhabited by Mathilde and Antoine, where virtually everything they both share and are attracted to, occurs in their salon, including their wedding and love-making. The moviegoer thus sees how Mathilde's world is completed merely by the presence of Antoine and how his world is completed merely by her.
It's a simple story, but unique in its manner of telling. The acting by the whole cast is excellent, with the leads being flawless. Rochefort with his long, hang dog face and droopy eyelids can't help but remind viewers of a devoted canine, unswerving in his love for his mistress. Galiena is both angelic and casually sensual in her portrayal of the hairdresser, comfortable wth both her coinciding business and domestic relationships, whilst philosophically convinced the path of even the greatest love, can only lead in one direction.
The Hairdresser's Husband is a joyous and melancholy delight. Patrice Leconte has managed to arouse a real sense of the bliss, the sadness, and the eccentricities of love and has crafted a wonderfully engaging film.
Le guetteur (2012)
Like a Runaway Train ... Careers Out of Control!
The Lookout is one of the best examples of a generally well-produced movie, that for unknown reasons, just tries to do too much with the storyline and by the conclusion ends up looking pretty ridiculous. By the end of the first act, astute viewers will begin to get that nagging, creeping feeling that the whole storyline is just built on a set of coincidences and happenstances .... and they'd be right.
Consider: The escaping bandits just happen to go to the home of a serial killing doctor, by chance, because Nico happens to be wounded. Yet later on, we are told Franck planned the whole thing? Exactly how?
Still unclear how Franck knew how to get to Catherine. And BTW, you'd think that she'd take a bit more care entering the flat at night, when the previous night Kaminsky had surprised her by breaking in.
Kaminsky magically escapes from prison, when he's involved in a fight in the prison yard ... but we're never shown how it occurs We just have to accept this happens. Duh!
Nico and the escapee from Franck's country hideaway, just run wildly away from the pursuing Franck. The armed Nico has plenty of opportunities to shoot Franck when he's out in the open, but waits (while he continues to lose blood) till they're in the woods, wastes his bullets and predictably dies.
Mattei, the pursuing cop, had a son, who just happened to be in the army and was killed by Kaminsky (apparently for good reason).
There is another sniper attack at the end, but we see it's not Kaminsky, it's someone else. Who the hell is this guy and who set him up, as by this time "mastermind" Franck is well and truly in custody?
Mattei just wanders off into nowhere supposedly chasing who he thinks is Kaminsky and leaves his injured colleague in the car with a serial killer??? Hello!!! Just absurd! Then of course at the end he lets Kaminsky go, even though he's supposed to be a cop-killer. (I actually don't think he killed any cops, just wounded them, but other characters mention dead cops.)
It's like director Michele Placido wanted to try and fit 2 or 3 different stories into a 90 minute running time. I wouldn't have liked being an editor on this film being asked to continually try to make sense of impossible scenarios . The old story rings true here. If too many cooks spoil the broth, too many ingredients spoil the dish! Have given The Lookout a generous 5, but on reflection it probably should have been lower. It's a big disappointment.
Die Welle (2008)
One Hell of a Gnarly Wave!
At first sight German socio-political thriller film The Wave initially just seems too cute, convenient and contrived. An extremely liberal German high school teacher (Jürgen Vogel) (of social sciences I gather) tries to give his students a first hand understanding of what "autocracy" means with a week-long role-play classroom simulation experiment: they get uniforms, quasi-military discipline, even a salute, whilst he, Wenger plays the autocratic leader. Well before the week is up, the "classroom experiment" takes on a life of its own, and virus-like spreads throughout the school and surrounding community, seemingly beyond Wenger's control.
Frankly to me, it just seems unbelievable. But then after digging a little deeper one finds out that the movie is quite heavily based on Ron Jones' social experiment The Third Wave. He was a Californian high school teacher of history who in 1967, constructed the original activity to help explain to his class how the German population could accept the actions of the Nazi regime during the Second World War. And this does give cause to not give this generally well made film, short shrift. It does have some historical basis, which clearly resonates with director Dennis Gansel and his domestic audiences, all too familiar with their country's dominant role in two World Wars.
The film is smart in that it observes the actions and reactions of a large cross-section of students to their collective role-play, rather than just a few. In doing this, it reinforces it's message of groups gaining strength through their numbers and shared behaviours. The standard of acting by the large cast is uniformly (pun intended) good and it should be added that they look like senior high school students of 17 - 18 and not 25 - 30 year olds faking it.
However I think Gansel arguably tries to tell too big a story in too little time, resulting in lack of characterisation and undeveloped and unexplored story lines. Wenger has a wife Anke, (pregnant ... again I think ... there's a pattern here), also a teacher at the school, who we hardly get to know. They seem close, yet she leaves him on the Thursday of the experiment, after ONE argument ?? Parents, as in many films dealing with high school students, just seem to be divorced from proceedings, apart from one soul telling Wenger, his son likes his class. Similarly the school staff appear to have virtually nothing to do or say about the bleedingly obvious metaphoric occurrences on campus, until it's all over and too late.
Speaking of being all over brings us to the climax and it's not spoiling to mention that the film's conclusion is far more melodramatic than that of the actual Third Wave, though fair to add, by no means beyond the bounds of credibility. It's just that once again, the final scenes of Wenger disappearing in the back of a police car raise unanswered questions of responsibility, liability, legality and ownership that the film doesn't seem all that interested in exploring, to its detriment.
Death Defying Acts (2007)
Death Defying Acts ... a Cinematic Paradox!
It's well and truly overtime in my opinion for a big screen treatment of Harry Houdini, the world famous (in his own lifetime) Hungarian-born American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. There have been TV movies and Houdini featuring as a guest character in more than a few TV series. But I find it unusual that such a renowned, charismatic figure has really not been the subject of a stand alone movie feature, since 1953's Houdini where he was played by Tony Curtis. I was therefore keen to see Gillian Armstrong's Death Defying Acts, with "The Handcuff King", being played this time by Guy Pearce. Sad to report however, that "death defying" this movie is not. Furthermore I'd suggest the master would roll over in his grave, if made aware how his personage is treated in this film.
Death Defying Acts is an entirely fictional depiction of Houdini's supposed encounter with an impoverished and uneducated, but street smart, mother and daughter psychic con-artist team in Edinburgh during a world tour in 1926. They are aiming to pocket a $10000 reward offered by Houdini to anyone who can quote his mother's dying words to him. They initially aim to play a big celebrity version of their main scam whereby through nefarious means, they surreptitiously gather information on their mark, information, which Mary (Catherine Zeta-Jones) the mother uses to con victims into believing they can reach out to their deceased loved ones. But in Houdini's case, love creeps in to complicate the lives of all involved.
Those who were hoping to even get a semi-historical perspective of the great stage magician will be disappointed even before the end of the first act. Throughout the film we end up seeing relatively little of Houdini's stagecraft, as the story is told from the perspective of Mary's daughter and sidekick Benji (Saoirse Ronan). In this version, Houdini is unmarried (to his wife of many years and stage assistant Bess) and instead of being the scourge of fake spiritualists as he was in real life, he is presented as one who is so affected and obsessed with visions of his deceased mother, it is impacting on his stage performances.
Timothy Spall is on hand as Houdini's cantankerous manager Sugarman, who smells a rat pretty quickly in regards to Mary and Benji, but is unable to sway his boss from the path he chooses to take. Much as I admire both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce, their slow-burning romance, is rather turgid at the best of times. Their characters have little chemistry. In fact it just strikes as preposterous, that these two, relatively low-life charlatans, could even worm their way into Houdini's celebrity circle. But to give credit where it's due, a young Saorise Ronan is quite capable of (non-magically) charming your socks off, with her affirmatively optimistic performance as Benji, who may harbour deeper skills than she, or her mother, can imagine.
The film looks good and the Edinburgh of almost a century ago is made convincingly realistic. It's just a terrible shame that one of the world's foremost showman is presented as being saddled into this predictably dull, unexciting and quite unbelievable love story. It's unlikely too, that many spirits will be raised after a viewing of Death Defying Acts.
30 Minutes or Less (2011)
Turns It On For the Third Act
30 Minutes or Less is a pretty average film for the majority of its running time. In fact it didn't really get me much at all, early on. It was just such standard fare. But then amazingly, where so many other films fall down, 30 Minutes reveals that it has saved its best for last and really turns it on for (ironically) the last 30 minutes. The best acting, laughs, thrills and plot twists, all happen from the bank robbery onwards, right up to the hilarious post credits scene.
It ultimately does catch the right tone and everything plays out as it should. It's a pity that everything had to be so regulation and run of the mill for the first couple of acts. E.G. Jesse Eisenberg playing the fast-talking, too smug for his boots, slacker in which he frequently seems to specialise. Good thing that this hybrid-generic feature is only 83 minutes long, so potential viewers don't have to wait for an over-excessive amount of time, before things take a turn for the unexpected best. Look out for Michael Pena's Chango coming onto the scene. He plays a particularly funny and appealing hitman, who ends up being a spanner in everyone's respective works.
Jiang hu er nü (2018)
Ash Is Off Colour!
"A story of violent love within a time frame spanning from 2001 to 2017" according to its tagline. Well technically speaking it was 2018 in the movie but who's really keeping score. Violent love? Not that I necessarily wanted to see any graphic depictions, but when did anything remotely related to love occur in this 136 minute snoozefest. More accurately speaking,Ash Is Purest White is a long, drawn out tale of (greatly) unrewarded loyalty on the part of an industrious gangster's girlfriend; on her rise, fall and moderate rise again over the course of 17 years or so, noting the changes across Chinese society in the background.
Yes, I do admit there was something compellingly attractive about Tao Zhao's performance as Qiao, the much taken for granted moll. But anyone hoping for some sort of sweeping, oriental, love story set against a Godfather-like background of underworld intrigue will be sorely disappointed. Many of the elements which might add stimulus to this snail trail of a story happen off screen. Instead viewers have to sit through interminably long periods of various characters casting shady looks at one another, whilst undertaking bus, train or boat trips or alternatively karaoke or exhibitions of dance performed by minor characters completely unrelated to the main storyline. The one solitary action set piece in the movie, admittedly crucial to the narrative, is underwhelmingly choreographed, whilst being laughingly over-hyped by many a critic for its exhilarating originality. LOL! Surely they jest?
Ash is Purest White is like a delicate soup. Some may appreciate its light body and discerning palate. Me, I like the stock to have been derived by a source with a little more meat on its bones. This is one seriously overrated movie.
Have I shown you the Shabandar Lion Yet?
Kind of interesting film to get remade. I wouldn't have thought there was a huge demand to update the Michael Caine/ Shirley MacLaine/ Herbert Lom original. It was in development hell for around 15 years, ended up getting made with a Coen Brothers screenplay, but then the finished product doesn't feel at all like the Coen Brothers brand.
The screenplay doesn't really stand-out much at all, with most of the laughs coming from physically comic and farcical situations, such as the extended capers occurring in and around the Savoy Hotel. The cast seem to be having fun, but as frequently occurs Alan Rickman playing odious businessman Lord Lionel Shabandar, walks away with just about every scene he's in. Colin Firth is good too, especially when forced to grin, bear it and go trouser less.Tom Courtney as the Major is a welcome sight, but terribly under-used.
It does have a neat little ending with prescient, pre-presidential Trump connections, but this is one film, whilst being pleasant enough, still leaves you wondering why some producer spent such a long time bothering to get it made.
L'Empereur de Paris (2018)
Plenty of Action; Pity About the Story!
Most people won't get bored watching L'Empereur de Paris. The performances are good, the Parisian settings are fantastic ... the film looks a million dollars. The action sequences are exciting.The prologue was really intriguing, especially considering the movie's claims about it being a "true story". I was keen to find out more about Francois Vidocq (Vincent Cassel), of whom I'd never previously heard anything about whatsoever. This former criminal apparently became the founder and first director of the crime-detection Sûreté Nationale as well as the head of the first known private detective agency. Vidocq is considered to be the father of modern criminology and of the French police department. He is also regarded as the first private detective. Sounds like the basis for a hell of a story. Unfortunately The Emperor ... doesn't really come close to telling it.
Instead, after the above-mentioned introduction it decides to tell a tale of Vidocq, officially a wanted man, but unofficially obstinately attempting to seek an amnesty from authorities. To this end, he becomes like a free-lance vigilante contractor for police, using his past experience with underworld figures, to bring villains to justice, or execute them in the process. Regrettably we see virtually none of the skills that were going to set him apart as a criminalist. We do see some finely-choreographed action set-pieces and we do see Vidocq being aided and abetted on occasions, by both police and some of his former associates.But the story-line continually obfuscates, when it should be clarifying events. Allies become enemies and enemies become allies with little exposition. Vidocq gains an ill-fated companion in Annette and has a confusingly, enigmatic relationship, that I still can't figure out, with a baroness played by Olga Kurylenko. The conclusion infers that he is going to lead the Surete.
Indeed this film almost seems like a Gallic attempt at a franchise - starter, which I doubt will occur. I think director Jean-François Richet would have been better advised to concentrate on telling a broader, more factual story about Vidocq, whose historical exploits give much credence to the oft-repeated statement, regarding truth, being stranger than fiction.
Charlie's Country (2013)
At the heart of Charlie's Country, the third collaboration between Dutch-Australian director Rolf de Heer and his co-writer and famed aboriginal star David Gulpipil is an engaging and compelling performance from the latter filmed on location in the Australia's Northern Territory. Gulpipil, with his weathered features and charismatic presence is forever watchable, especially in the first half of the film, which is mainly located around "his country" on the peripheries of a remote community. It is here where we find him at the film's outset experiencing a kind of indigenous "mature life crisis".
Charlie is becoming increasingly unhappy with his position in the community. Fed up by the demands and expectations created by the continual "humbugging"of himself by extended family and community members, he finds he gets short shrift from government employees, when seeking assistance (in the form of a house mind you). He also feels his personal liberties are being infringed upon by laws and regulations he doesn't fully understand and certainly hasn't consented to, imposed by the mainstream white culture, which also fails to give him due credit for the services he provides in the form of requested tracking tasks and hunting advice. He decides to leave the community and go and live traditionally in his country by himself, but naturally things don't necessarily turn out as planned.
Gulpipil has said the story he wrote with de Heer is semi-biographical, being based on his experiences living in and around the filming locations, which by the way, are wonderfully captured through the lens of cinematographer Ian Jones. That may be so, but as one who has actually lived and worked in these same communities for a good part of my life, I found the continual depiction of stereotypical racist and near-racist behaviour by the white supporting characters both tiresome, factually incorrect and very much an indictment of lazy writing on the part of de Heer and Gulpipil, especially considering the story is well and truly set in contemporary Australia.
de Heer has a long tradition of featuring racist bullying policeman in his indigenous-focused films and he carries on the tradition in Charlie's Country, where we see the local police in Charlie's community, as well as in Darwin, the capital city, barely hiding their contempt for those of indigenous background. However completely disregarded is that the police force these days has a significant aboriginal component itself, especially notable in remote communities. Ludicrously, we even have one of the cops from Charlie's remote community, played by Luke Ford, magically pop up in Darwin hundreds of kilometres away, so he can violently arrest Charlie and reinforce again these aggressive racial undertones.
Similarly the derogatory language and behaviours displayed unilaterally by the doctors, judges and public servants (apart from a solitary female social worker) put the lie to any cultural awareness programs continually adopted and implemented by members of those professions and by and large valued by Australian society.
This is a movie which whilst imparting an important tale worthy of attention, utilises absolutely no finesse in many characterisations. There are no greys, no degrees of ambivalence. Every thing is unfortunately just black and white, where the white is seen as overbearingly oppressive and both uncaring and damaging of the black culture. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Home Fires Are Burning!
This is quite an interesting Jason Statham auctioneer for a couple of reasons. One is that the screenplay is/was written by Sylvester Stallone and which then sat on a shelf for many a year, not being acted upon. The second, is that like Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham shows that he isn't the slightest bit adverse against working with children. 2012's Safe was followed up with this offering, where Statham plays retired DEA Agent Phil Broker who has moved with his daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic) to the small Louisiana town in which his deceased wife grew up. Both movies feature young girls in prominent roles whose characters are closely intertwined with that of Statham's.
Homefront is also similar to Hummingbird (made around the same time) in that the storylines are just that little touch deeper and more complex than your typical Statham action vehicle, which in my opinion makes both movies, that much more interesting. A couple of small twists in this movie for instance, see what are first violently implacable opponents of Broker, later become allies (of sorts). It's a pity there wasn't a little more made of Broker's seemingly developing relationship with Maddy's school teacher, which does spark our initial interest, but then the thread just seems to be discarded during the second half of the film.
Homefront is directed by the experienced Gary Fleder and has a thoroughly deep cast including James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth (scaringly good!), Clancy Brown and the under-used (as mentioned above) Rachelle Lefevre. The Louisiana settings are different, the action sequences are pretty much par for the course and I'm glad the soft toy and the cat were found. However the less mentioned about Jason's prologue amazingly inappropriate wig, the better we'll all be for the experience.
Into the Forest (2015)
Into the Sisterhood!
Into the Forest is another of the fairly plentiful supply of films that feature intriguing set-ups to what you hope will be suspenseful dramatic scenarios, only to wander off into into bland melodramatic outcomes, that are as emotionally unsatisfying, as they are unrealistic.
Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood both give terrific performances in writer/director Patricia Rozema's apocalyptic, come survival feature, though I do qualify these comments in respectfully suggesting neither looks like the fresh faced, pretty much virginal young teenager they are supposed to be. Yes, Ellen Page in 2007, really looked the part as Juno. But 8 years later, playing a similarly aged character, I don't think so. Same with Wood even though she's playing a slightly older 18 - 19 year old.
They play two yin and yang opposite sisters who are forced to bond and fight for survival after an unknown occurrence causes a total loss of widespread power across North America.The differences are made tellingly explicit in the first act. Wood's Eva, is tall, blond and willowy, with single-minded ambitions to be a professional ballerina. Page's Nell is short, dark and just wants to get good results in her final high school year exams, whilst still enjoying her peers' social scene. They live what looks like a self-sustaining existence with their widowed father, in an isolated, but finely constructed and well stocked house with all mod cons, in a northern Californian forest area.
The film looks great, set primarily as it is, against a splendid forest backdrop with the natural majesty of British Columbia subbing more than capably for the redwoods of California. But dramatically things begin to take a turn for the worse, when the storyline appears to take great pains to avoid discussing any specific causes for the blackout. The family travels to town to resupply, a couple of weeks after the disaster. But then we are asked to accept that they essentially don't appear the slightest bit interested in seeking out news of the cataclysmic event that has caused shops to be emptied of their stock, future deliveries of fuel made unsure and widespread complete media blackouts. Dad continues to be phlegmatic about things in general, despite a complete lack of any type of emergency personnel. Nell wants to party with her friends and Eva wants to do well with her ballet auditions. Driving home into a mysterious road block involving enigmatically silent gunmen at the side of the road, piques our interest, but then is never directly narratively followed up.
The challenges become predictably more difficult for the siblings after their father dies in a fluke accident and they have to argue and negotiate over how to ration food, protect themselves from invaders, and hold onto their sanity. Unfortunately this all occurs in an increasingly, undramatic fashion with the decisions being made and the resulting aftermaths appearing less and less realistic, let alone sensible.
With the benefit of hindsight it is sometimes too easy to be critical. But I believe it is indicative of the narrative deficiencies of this feature that the title "Into the Forest" only really references the final few scenes of the movie and is disappointingly, most definitely not evocative of the whole story.
The Circle (2017)
A Square Peg Shoved Into ... !
A thriller without thrills and a cautionary tale with garbled messages. That pretty much sums up director James Ponsoldt's The Circle with a screenplay by Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, based on Eggers' 2013 novel of the same name and which stars Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. I read somewhere recently that despite his fine reputation as a novelist, Eggers is incapable of writing a good screenplay to save himself and so it seems here. This is one of those films that although having a strong production team behind it and a stellar cast, is completely let down by a seemingly haphazard storyline that is all over the shop.
Consider the following frustrating inconsistencies/plot holes in The Circle.
There is no backgrounding to Mercer & Mae's relationship, so his appeals to consider their past together, just appear rather silly.
The same can be said about "besties" Annie and May. They don't really appear to have any chemistry together. Annie disappears for a long period of the second act, reappearing to suddenly hate working at The Circle and then leaving to return to Scotland with little explanation.
Does John Boyega's character, Ty Lafitte, actually have anything to do with the main storyline? We are never privy to really why he chose "the guppy" with whom to start sharing his "secrets". Whatever, anyway he keeps disappearing back to the shadowy corners of the story and Mae seemingly does the opposite of that which he may have been warning. It seems to me he was entirely a redundant character, which is a waste of a fine actor.
In a similar vein and I say this respectfully, not wanting to speak ill of the dead, but what's with the continual cutaways to Mae's parents? Mae goes back and has lunch/dinner with them every now and then, but so what? Was she supporting them? Was The Circle? There was something said about it providing some medical assistance, but that was it. Did it, didn't it work? Mae has lunch with them, then goes kayaking on the bay and cries. Why? Again, the thread was never really followed up.And God forbid, I hope the iconic Bill Paxton is not remembered for his comical performance as a dad stricken with MS. And was Glenne Headly really supposed to resemble an escapee from The Beverly Hillbillies and if so, why?
Speaking of kayaking, how poorly lit was that nocturnal scene on the bay? Apart from knowing Mae was near water, I didn't know what had occurred until the events were being discussed in the next scene.
A support character has a fatal motor vehicle accident after being harassed by some deviates using a revolutionary new Circle app and there are seemingly no legal ramifications for The Circle. Just carry on to ...
... the big reveal at the end ... which revealed exactly what? Cue Mae going for another kayak surrounded by helpful drones ... The End! I'm still shaking my head.
One thing we do know. I'd suggest the combined star wattage of Watson and Hanks managed to drag this train wreck of a film into break even budget territory, a compliment it may well not have deserved.