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Killing Season (2013)
A promising start descends in to a load of trite inanity
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Morning *** Friday Night ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning
Benjamin Ford (Robert De Niro) was a US foot solider who served on the ground in the Bosnian war in the '90's, but who now lives a quiet, isolated existence in the mountains. However, one man, Emil Kovac (John Travolta), a Serbian man Ford was meant to have killed, cannot forgive and forget and has hunted him down to his mountain retreat. Initially friendly, Kovac soon has Ford locked in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
"De Niro and Travolta, on screen for the first time ever", the publicity on the cover for this film proudly booms. That would be a small screen, however, in this neck of the woods anyway, as Killing Season arrived straight to DVD over here, which sort of sets the bells of doom ringing well beforehand. It's still an interesting pair up, though, but it's quite clear this isn't going to have the sort of quality it would have had if it had came out maybe twenty years ago. It actually opens quite well, after the opening shaky camera battle sequence, establishing an atmospheric tension before the lead paths have even crossed, but somehow when they do, all the components of the machine fall apart, and it just descends on a downward spiral.
De Niro tries to inject his role with some dynamism and gravitas, but you can never shake the feeling that it's another one of his 'pay cheque' roles. Travolta, never the most naturalistic actor, here has a dodgy Croatian accent to carry, along with a silly mountie beard. It's a curious pairing, that doesn't work due to the writing they have to contend with, including an unconvincing meeting, an initial bonding that does nothing to establish any menace or sense of unease, and an unexpectedly reflective and gentle ending that shakes it all up. After all this, you might think the ending would be the best bit, and it is, but in a good way, with some beautiful cinematography of the mountains and a nice, gentle song to go with it.
It's another real time thriller, meaning it's at least a short affair, but that just shows what a shame it is. **
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
Impressive effort that scores far more hits than misses
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning
Updating the Jack Ryan character to modern times somewhat, here we have Ryan (Chris Pine) as a young man when the 9/11 terror attacks strike whilst studying at the London School of Economics. Compelled to make the world a safer place, Ryan enlists in military service, only to suffer near mortal injuries during a helicopter attack. Whilst struggling to recuperate, and beginning a budding romance with Cathy (Keira Knightley), the nurse helping him back to his feet, Ryan is approached by CIA hotshot Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits him as a financial analyst. When he notices some unexplainable financial records in the file of Russian industrialist Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), it sets him on the trail of a plot to launch a terrorist attack on American soil before crippling the United States economy.
The late Tom Clancy's most well known and formidable creation, Jack Ryan, obviously enjoys enough of a cult following for this modern day update of his back story and adventures to justify it's existence. Which is just as well, as it ranks among the more cerebral and fulfilling of the more recent big screen adaptations. With Pine, the current go to man for filling the shoes of actors in the same role decades before, forming an effective leading man, and a vibrant mix of more modern and old school performers in the main roles, Jack Ryan:Shadow Recruit is a slick, polished affair that scores far more hits than misses and serves as a sleek, impressive production all round.
It might be a fair guess to estimate that Kenneth Branagh must be a fan of the books, crawling back out the woodwork after some time away to not only play the villain, but also serve on directing duties. Ken can always be relied on to pull off a professional effort when starring and directing, and if anyone had forgotten that, this assures a new generation of his competency. He's got every detail just right, right down to his fine Russian accent, as well as handling an intelligent, well thought out script that shines a light on the thin threads that hold our stability and democracy together in these turbulent, uncertain times, and all the work the government agencies must do to insure this.
As much as the thinking man's action thriller as it is, somehow all the components to raise it that one benchmark higher to excellent aren't quite there, and there is not quite enough dynamism behind the hero and the villain and the end outcome to really get the emotions running. But in a time when any meaningless pap seems to do, this has to be admired for being a more solid , demanding adventure. ***
Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
A competent, interesting and relevant film that hits all the right notes
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning
Reclusive novelist P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) staunchly refuses to share her literary masterpiece Mary Poppins with anyone, despite being pestered for the film rights numerous times by different people. But she has fallen on hard times and there look set to be even tougher times ahead. So, on the persuasion of her agent, she flies off to America and has a meeting with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), the most well known man on earth in the early 60's. Initially reluctant and extremely difficult, Travers is also horrified at the thought of Disney making it in to one of his ghastly animations, which she detests. But gradually, the fairy tale mogul wears down her tough exterior and as the film progresses, we learn of the tragic back story of Travers's childhood that nevertheless formed the basis of the fantasy world she escaped to to create her wonder yarn.
Working in a children's hospital, occasionally you'll pass a television set with a DVD playing to keep the kids amused while they wait for an appointment or something, so it's only comparatively recently that the magic of Mary Poppins has entered my life. Kids, or family, films aren't generally the type of thing I go for, as my comments listings will attest to, but something about this film still grabbed my heart enough to become a film I now own. So, in the 50th anniversary of the film's first release, this inspired and enlightening film is highly relevant and was certainly well worth my time, shining some light on the production difficulties the film encountered, not least Travers's awkward, hostile personality. Though well written, the script sometimes makes Travers come off as cartoonishly eccentric and over the top at times, and you're left wondering how it would have been possible for anyone, even Disney, to possibly make her come round.
And yet, throughout the film's tough depiction of her, this is juxtaposed with flashbacks to her childhood spent in rural Australia, where her even more outlandish father fueled her mind with his free spirit and boundless imagination. But his was a tragic existence, blighted by drink and self destruction. And yet, he imparted the words of wisdom that let her mind flourish, "never to let the world grind you down with how it is, and to keep your imagination alive." From this, her more human side comes to life, and our dislike gradually simmers to empathy.
Needless to say, if the idea behind the film wasn't exciting enough, it's even more exhilarating with the performers involved, and they all turn in reliably stellar performances. Hanks once again captures the manner and style of his charge with aplomb, bringing a real life character to the screen unlike anyone before him, while national treasure Thompson is perfectly suited to the role of Travers, and there's great support from Colin Farrell, unrecognizable at first as the dad, and Paul Giamatti as Travers's put upon chauffeur.
It's a magical examination of the magic, that will please the long time and even the more recent devotees of Poppins. ****
The Hooligan Factory (2014)
Misfiring lampooning of soccer hooligan films
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning
Danny (Jason Meza) is the off-spring of his father, a once legendary football hooligan who has disappeared from his life. After being expelled from school and wanting more out of life, he crosses paths with Dex (Nick Nevern, also directing) another big name footie hooligan who's just been released from prison. Together, they go about re-uniting the old firm and trying to restore their former glory, but those days may be well behind them.
Even after they really ceased to hold their cult appeal, these British gangster/firm films still get put out a lot in the direct to DVD market, with a load of no name or little known actors in the lead role. So frequently do they appear, it seemed a fitting idea to make a film lampooning them all, and Nick Nevern's film is certainly thorough, sending up everything from Green Street, to more big time stuff like Goodfellas, only rarely to very funny result. It plays too much like a standard hooligan film, from the dialogue to the set up, and at times feels even more depressing than the usual such stuff.
Hyped up a fair bit by social media, with many of the cast and crew and their families allegedly behind it, it's all too evident why this enjoyed what could only have been the briefest of cinema visits. *
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
Doesn't quite hit the mark of the first one, but still a distinctive, impressive experience
Nearly ten years after the last film, this long awaited sequel takes us back to Frank Miller's dark, grey and white hellhole city, and reintroduces us to Marv (Mickey Rourke), the bruised and battered anti- hero who spends his nights lusting after stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) in a saloon bar, who finds redemption after saving a homeless guy from some drunken college boys. Nancy herself is a tormented soul, still having visions of her departed hero Hartigan (Bruce Willis.) But this is the guy who saved her from the beastly son of Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), who's targeted her for revenge in place of him, and has also run chancer Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) out of town. Meanwhile, there's the tale of the temptress the titular suffix is referring to, Ava (Eva Green), who's got embittered tough guy Dwight (Josh Brolin) wrapped around her little finger.
In an industry where the cash cow sequel is quickly churned out to a hugely successful film, writer/director duo Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez have shown admirable restraint, if nothing else, by making fans wait nearly a decade for this follow up to 2005's adaptation of Miller's graphic novel starring Bruce Willis, who has only intermittent moments this time round as a mere spook. Retaining the distinctively grey, bleary background look and not skimping any more on the brutal, blood splattered violence of the first film, the makers have delivered a film that has all the fundamentals right, but doesn't quite come together the way the original did.
By making the fans wait so long, you would hope that the golden pair were trying to prepare something genuinely masterful, with every little cylinder firing just right, and the film doesn't shatter this illusion. The problem here may be over ambition, with a desire to recreate the flashy, comic book style of the novels coming at the expense of a truly coherent, at times even logical story. While the atmosphere, the low pitched, gravelly delivery of the dialogue and the moodily grey and black settings still carry it along nicely, without a solid structure at the heart of it, after a while it all gets a bit too much.
For all this, though, the characters, the driving force of the film, are no less engaging. Brolin is a suitably picked lead tough guy, who does the whole mumbling, brooding thing just brilliantly, who has perfect support with Rourke as his cohort. Probably most impressive is once again Boothe as the sinister, evil villain, who does cold and icy just great. The only thing that lets everything on the surface down is the misfiring Pulp Fiction style narrative structure, the one spanner in the works in what is otherwise still an exhilarating, distinctive experience unlike any other. ***
Another low grade remake that makes you appreciate just how great the original was
Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a socially alienated teenage girl who lives with her religiously obsessive mother Margeret (Julianne Moore) and is the butt of all her cruel classmates jokes. But Carrie has the gift of telekinesis, the ability to move things simply by applying her mind. On prom night, after being pushed too far for the last time, she will use it to exact her revenge.
If it's a rule of thumb that sequels, remakes and adaptations are the key films to avoid if you want to make a good film, then this remake of an adaptation was surely doomed from the start. Like many classic, cult films that have stood the test of time over the decades, Kimberley Pierce has decided to update the 1976 version of Stephen King's debut horror novel to modern times, and so we have Carrie's tampon ordeal at the beginning of the film captured on phone, and uploaded to YouTube. Other than this novel touch, the film is a painfully scene for scene carbon copy of the original, only squeamishly amateur where it should have just been, squeamish. Glancing at Grace Moretz's natural beauty and poise, she just fits in too well with all the other beautiful, mean girls, making you wonder why she stands out so much, unlike Sissy Spacek who captured Carrie's unglamourous fragility to a tee.
The original has the uncanny ability to still make me jump at the end after all these years with the hand out the grave bit, so the flippant grave cracking at the end of this is just the final slap in the face of what has already been up to this point been an embarrassingly sanitised, bland, soulless attempt to make a classic original appeal to the Facebook generation. It may show it's age a bit now, but the original would still undoubtedly still provide a far more scary, psychological experience. *
The Counselor (2013)
A dire mess that completely misfires on every level
A lawyer known as The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is in need of some money to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz.) So he talks with his close friend Reiner (Javier Bardem) and is put in touch with Westray (Brad Pitt), a middleman who is instrumental in organising a cocaine deal. Meanwhile, The Counselor visits a woman in jail whose son has been arrested after speeding on a highway and being found with a lot of money in his crash helmet, along with a device used to steal some cocaine from a truck which belonged to a Mexican drug cartel. This will be instrumental in sending the lead protagonist down a dark and deadly path to self destruction.
I have tried to describe the basic premise of Ridley Scott's latest, lavish film in as accurate a detail as I can, and I think I got it right, but not without a lot of mental wrangling and incomprehension. Scott, despite his ups and downs in terms of delivering solid work, has never been a director who has tried to include any subliminal meaning or subtext in his films, but that's the best guess for what's going on here, in this staggering misfire of a film, a colourful, all star offering that just leaves you overwhelmed and not in a good way.
Somehow, even in the most abstract situations, Scott usually nails the dialogue perfectly and captures it in the most real and natural way possible. But no one speaks like a real person in this film, and all the prose seems completely laborious and overly heavy, drowning the viewer in a sea of incomprehension. But if the dialogue doesn't wear you down, the incomprehensible plot almost certainly well, where you're never really sure how one thing connects to the other or why the main characters are behaving the way they do given their position and situations. You get the feeling it's aiming for something deep and meaningful, but it never rubs off on anything, least of all the viewer.
Scott has managed a real 'what the hell happened?' piece here, that revels in human tragedy and shocking violence, but gives you nothing to justify it in terms of the pay off. *
The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)
Funny enough to work, but the flaws are severe enough for everyone to see
With little going on for them in the UK, the boys opt to visit Jay in Australia, who's fed them a line of typical bullsh!t about how he's made it as a top DJ, only to find the truth a bit more the other way. With Simon being hounded by his possessive girlfriend back home, Will striking up a relationship with a girl he knew before and Neil not doing very much as usual, they find themselves helping Jay track down his girlfriend from the first film, which takes them on their usual wild trials.
They swore a second film would never happen, but with a three year gap since the last film and a four year gap since the show finished, the Inbetweeners boys find themselves back on the big screen for this second instalment of the film franchise. Though they've gone their separate ways and pursued other ventures since the show ended, there's something endearing about still seeing them all together, and you kind of welcome them as old friends yourselves, with the big gap since their last outing naturally, as a fan, making you yearn for some more of their outrageous, boundary pushing fun and games. And while their raucous magic is still there, and still funny in parts, somehow the weaker writing and less solid structure can't help but get noticed.
The main name of the game is laughs, and as such it doesn't disappoint in this regard, with some moments of genuine, laugh out loud hilarity. It opens well, in a dark, foreboding way, that even though you can see where it is going, doesn't play out quite the way you imagined it would and still works as a result. Sadly, a lot more so than in the first film, the ability for a feature film to work the premise as well as a half hour episode really shows, and the lack of a solid, coherent plot really hampers things. That's not to mention some inconsistent characters and lack of continuity in this regard to characters from the first film.
It's stretching the premise of the show to the absolute limit, and by the end it's all gone a bit over your head as a result. It's far too funny and affectionate to not work exactly, but by the sudden end, it's really started to wear out it's welcome. ***
The Expendables 3 (2014)
Plodding, sanitized third instalment
Barney and his team are back, and this time they have been assigned to take care of the villainous Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), despicable arms dealer and former co founder of Barney's elite unit. The gang track him down to Somalia, where one of Barney's team suffers some serious injuries. Discontented with this turn of events, he assesses that he and his team are ready for the knackers yard and sets out trying to recruit some young blood to form a new team. Meanwhile, Stonebanks is plotting his most diabolical scheme yet.
Possessing more intelligence than his grizilled, one note delivery might suggest, Sly Stallone must know when he's on to a good thing and has spotted a winning formula in these Expendables films, where he re-unites all his action cohorts from their 80's heyday and thrown in some more contemporary names for good measure, and put them all together to deliver a massive bout of the no brainer, shoot em up action feasts that the fans know and love. Sly's self assured approach must have spread to his regulars and those who've heard from word of mouth by now, as everyone could see from the poster side of the publicity campaign, with the big, grinning faces on everyone involved, giving off the impression of everyone being a bit too pleased with themselves.
This time, the boat has really been pushed up, with inevitability Wesley Snipes making his first appearance amongst the regulars, as well as really big name guys like Harrison Ford and Gibson, of course, as the villain. There's no reason Chuck Norris couldn't have made a re- appearance, though his poorly written role in the last instalment didn't maybe set the right pedestal. However, with a cast list that barely fits on the poster, you're left with the feeling Sly set his sights that bit too high, and as such the cast is equally topped up with a selection of up-coming, little heard of stars. Herein lies the problem, that he spends too much time rounding these up and travelling about to find them and not enough time on the explosive action, two really big things that will put the main target audience off.
Other than that, it's business as usual, with mindless stunts, explosions and action galore, only for the film to fall victim to it's own success again, with a more sanitized, family friendly 12A rating, hoping to draw in the younger crowd now that the series has attained a cult following and has a big established fan base. The big problem here, from the cast to the writing, is that the success of the franchise has made it lazy and too pleased with itself, relying too much on a big fancy cast list and what went before, without really giving us a film that has much meat and bones on itself. If the first one only got two stars, this certainly isn't getting any more than that. **
Top Dog (2014)
Amateurish, formulaic latest addition to the Brit crime flick genre
Billy Evans (Leo Gregory) used to be the head of the toughest football firm in the East End, but has now settled down to a quiet family life, with a successful car dealership business under his belt. But he is forced to gather his old crew back together when new face on the crime scene Mickey (Ricci Harnett) starts running protection on some old friends of his. This results in a calamitous battle of wills that sets in motion a devastating chain of events that sets him on a collision course with the sinister Watson (Vincent Regan), the shadowy figure controlling Mickey and his mob.
These East End gangster/hooligan films are all pretty interchangeable, yet they obviously have a pretty big following, given the volume and momentum with which the new ones appear on the scene. Leo Gregory would be one such genre favourite, who appears with some regularity in these offerings, and here he is in this latest addition directed by Spandau Ballet's Martin Kemp, which seems to have appeared out of nowhere with less than a flurry of publicity. This may not be hard to comprehend, since while it's the latest addition to the genre, it offers nothing new and nothing to inject the field with any substance or quality.
Kemp only ever really attained mild success as an actor, and if this is his style as a director, he may get stopped even sooner in his tracks. Somehow, this projects a really cheap, amateurish look about it, like a film student effort, not even up to the standards of a TV movie. In amongst the barrage of mockney slang and clichés, there are some moments of suitably hair raising, shocking violence and the performances are stellar enough. Gregory has a passion and flair in his manner that suggests he's really trying, while as the highest calibre actor on offer, Regan steals the show as the softly spoken, methodical psychopath. But this is still too much of a low grade, dirt cheap effort to be anything more than just the very sum of it's parts. **