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Devil's Knot (2013)
Flawed but decent account of a comparatively recent case
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning
In 1993, three young boys were found murdered in the river of a southern town in America. The finger of suspicion fell on several heavy metal obsessed teenagers, who were suspected of being involved in devil worship. On learning that the death penalty was being considered, attorney Ron Lax (Colin Firth) springs in to action, assembling a legal team to represent the boys in court and overcome the hysteria of the town. While desperate for closure and keeping a narrow grip on her sanity, Pam (Reese Witherspoon), one of the bereaved mothers, is also unable to clear herself of doubt over the boys guilt.
While not what could be called a fact is stranger than fiction piece of work, Devil's Knot also has a more engaging quality somehow on the grounds that it's based on a true story, serving as it does as an examination of the legal system, and of people's small mindedness and tendency towards knee jerk reactions in the face of acts of over- whelming evil. In as unflinching a style as one can expect from modern films, it dramatizes the true horror and subsequent raw emotions of a small town on the edge. It's helped no end by reliably stellar performances from the lead stars and supporting cast, and it's all pretty on the level, but it's also sadly not the sum of it's parts.
As well as staging it all pretty well, director Atom Egoyan also strives to keep the authenticity to a high standard, with Firth delivering a fine American accent, at the top of every other little minor detail. Somehow, though, he manages to muddle the pace up, delivering a film that while telling a compelling story, is detailed in a slightly meandering, plodding fashion that stops it being the sum of it's parts. The parts this effects most is the conclusion, delivering a pay off that could have been electrifying, but as a result is merely perfunctory.
Still, it's a riveting, interesting real life thriller, boosted no ends from great turns by two reliable lead performers. ***
The Family (2013)
Another soggy De Niro comedy
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning
Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) was once one of the most feared mobsters in New York city, until he was made to testify against some of his counter-parts in the crime fraternity. After a string of failed relocation attempts, his frustrated relocation officer Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) has secured him and his family, including wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D' Leo) a place in the French town of Normandy, under the guise of the Blakes. But soon enough, the mob mentality they've followed all their lives bubbles to the surface, and those they are trying to hide from are never more than one step away.
The legendary Robert De Niro has obviously never been content, merely with his standing as one of the greatest, most dynamic and intense actors ever. He once famously quipped how he "was jealous of Dustin Hoffman, because he can be so natural, respected and funny as well", an ability that, despite his best efforts, he has just never managed. In the space of this big sea of ineptitude, however, his most successful comedic ventures have almost without doubt been his Analyze...films, sending up the brutal, no nonsense mafia guys he's known to play so well, with expert timing and observation. It's a formula this misfiring mob themed comedy attempts to re-create, only with less successful results.
Luc Besson applies an odd touch to the comedic genre, making the film give off an unappealing vapour that puts it at odds with all the various themes and subplots it seems to be exploring. He doesn't feel a natural choice for the project, and as such the film is cut down before it's even reached it's prime. If De Niro fails to shine any bright comedic bulbs, co star Jones is an even bigger obstacle, another fine dramatic actor unsuited to comedy. It's another case, like with Mike Douglas in Last Vegas (another soggy De Niro comedy), of two actors in a film together that would have been great twenty years or so ago, and not in a comedy, here unable to be Cheech to each other's Chong. It's never as if they're not trying their best, and Pfeiffer is well cast as the mob wife, along with newcomers Agron and D'Leo as the children, but it all just feels out of everyone's depth.
Even if the cast aren't firing on all fours, the writing could have saved it. But it's just a big, tasteless mess, with the laughs all coming from the characters inflicting vicious, gratuitous violence on various path-crossers who don't bow to their every whim, leaving your sense of decency prohibiting your insides from cracking up. The film even tries a spot of self depreciation, with De Niro inviting Jones to a screening of Good Fellas with him at a local get together. It's a clever idea, but it's just trapped in a big, curious mess that fails to get the same inspired, observant giggles of the De Niro's superior Analyze...films. **
Disappointing comedy from the guy who was all too keen to let you know he was behind Ted
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning
Albert (Seth MacFarlane) is a meek sheep-herder, who has just split up from his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) who has taken up with the obnoxious Foy (Neil Patrick Harris.) His life doesn't seem to hold much hope, until he crosses paths with the stunning Anna (Charlize Theron), who has ridden in to town on the run from her evil husband, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson.) She teaches him to believe in himself and be more assertive...but it's only a matter of time before Leatherwood comes looking for her.
Though it has a far more limited cultural relevance in the modern cinematic climate, the western will forever hold an iconic position in the hearts of cinema lovers, simply for the stage they set in the golden era of cinema, and the timeless legacy they've endured. So even in this age, it was still an inspired idea to attempt a send up of the genre, and see how the format would work. Director/star Seth MacFarlane obviously has a soft spot for them, and with expert observation, gets the set up just right, from the opening credits, to the opening voice over narrative and the character set up. Unfortunately, the guy who worked wonders with a talking teddy bear has only managed rather lukewarm results with this disappointing comedy.
MacFarlane retains his juvenile love of all things toilet, with all the various flatulence, excrement and sex gags at various points, another effort that those with a sophisticated sense of humour should have dodged like a bullet, whatever the results. However, for all their consistency, they never really produce more than a titter or so, relentless and predictable as they are, the less funny it all is the more it lays it on. And a more coherent, less disjointed story would also have been a benefit, with Theron working on giving our lead guy all the pep talks and encouragement he needs to face his girl's new love in a gun fight taking up too much time, and leaving Neeson criminally under-used and making a belated appearance as the villain. It's also all bogged down with too much tedious melodrama between MacFarlane and Theron, talking about their feelings and trying to give the film warmth and heart, when MacFarlane's cynical, wise-cracking comedy style just doesn't suit it.
It can't be said that it's unfunny, and if you get yourself in as facile a mood as you can, once or twice you might even have a few belly-aches. But probably only once, because any more and it might just be a total waste of time. **
White House Down (2013)
A gloriously nonsensical throwback to action films of old
Agent Cale (Channing Tatum) is looking for a little promotion from the position he presently holds, but even if he doesn't quite meet the standards, at least he can get his surly daughter Emily (Joey King) some tickets for a tour round the White House. However, this would just happen to be the day disgruntled Agent Walker (James Woods), on the verge of retirement, launches a sudden and dramatic takeover of the president's home, and threatens to launch nuclear weapons at various targets if his demands aren't met. Cale must thrust himself in to action, and prove to all the disbelievers that he can save the day.
Reliable action stelwart Roland Emmerich gives his addition to the 'what if...' scenario of the white house being taken over, with this throwback to the reliable Die Hard spin off that's worked so well over the years. Reveling in the clichés of the genre, while throwing in some unexpected plot developments, it has a solid lead in Tatum, who just feels a little young with his role as the single dad with the sulky teenage daughter (see what I mean about the clichés?) However, co star Foxx feels perfectly cast as the American president, a worthy nod to Obama and his cultural position in this present climate. Woods also pops up out of nowhere, and is equally well suited to the villainous role.
Any stab at food for thought or any sort of social commentary about the threat of extremists infiltrating the White House in these riskier times, and the effectiveness of security to prevent this is quickly ditched in favour of the maximum amount of mindless, explosive action, that only Emmerich can manage. Tatum races around, bare chested, ripped and battered, demanding increasing amounts of suspended disbelief as he goes along, a sub par Bruce Willis, but suitable eye candy for the female members of the audience that might have been enticed along. Hollow and nonsensical as it is, though, somehow it does manage to keep you just about on the edge of your seat, with the main components to make the DH clone work (the hero, the villain, the dialogue) just about dodging any blanks.
This is disposable, heavily flawed film-making, that was never going to win any awards, but personally, I think it just about beats last year's similarly themed Olympus Has Fallen. Only by a jot, but just about. ***
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Strong, compelling film-making, with it's fair share of shocks and surprises
The true life tale of Solomon Northrup (Chweitel Ejiofor), a respectable black member of high society, who nonetheless finds himself thrust in to the world of slavery in 1841, America. The film follows his transfer from the more subdued slave-owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the more ferocious, unscrupulous Epps (Michael Fassbender), through to his eventual salvation when he is rescued by those who knew him.
Possibly one of the strongest contenders at the Oscars this year, Brit director Steve McQueen once again brings the historical shame that is slavery to the forefront with this adaptation of the titular character's account of his degeneration from a high position in the world, to his degradation as a servant to the whims of his various twisted masters. Such strong, emotionally driven material is a natural shue-in for the highest honours, and does indeed provide an enthralling production all the way. Rather than having a central protagonist from a poor, impoverished background, this is a shattering highlight of how even an esteemed, respectable black man from those times was prone to being rounded up and forced against his will to serve at his master's feet. If the premise of the story isn't harrowing enough, the film is visually, graphically unflinching also when it comes to depicting the vicious, scarring whippings and beatings the captives were given to keep them in order.
A strong, commanding central performance is a must here, and Ejiofor more than fails to disappoint, in what will probably be one of, if not the most, high profile leading role of his career, with current Brit super talents Cumberbatch and Fassbender in respective roles as Solomon's owners, along with a colourful supporting cast that includes Paul Dano, Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti in roles that don't get the most screen time, but make no less impact. It's a testament to the human spirit that it's a true life story that has that rarest of real life things, a happy ending, unneeded for a manufactured one to be dreamed up by Hollywood that would probably have produced less of an emotional pay off.
While he directs with an unrestrained passion and flair, sometimes McQueen's direction doesn't always flow with the right cohesion, leaving things to meander slightly, which is just a bit of a shame. But this is still powerful, dynamic film making, charged along with strong performances and a stirring emotional theme. ****
Novel approach to the 'stranded in space' genre, unlike anything you've seen before
Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney) are two astronauts, working on a space station, whilst trying to juggle their respective emotional baggage. All is going smoothly, only for a big disaster to strike and the pair finding themselves desperately trying to get to safety. When Ryan finds herself stranded on her own, as the less experienced explorer, she must use all her wits in a desperate struggle for survival.
Alfonso Cuaron's short, critically acclaimed space drama plunges us straight in to the action from the start, slowing closing in on our two main characters, who we are forced to make a connection with on the basis of some piecemeal small talk as they go about their business, with the famous performers playing them relying on their assured, seasoned on screen personas that they've each developed over many years, with Clooney's smooth talking, wise cracking man's man approach, coupled with Bullock's hard ass, cynical girl in a man's world thing. Shortly after we feel all settled in, the realization slowly dawns on the characters and the audience that something's wrong, and the tension sets in, and we feel as though we are in with these people as they are forced to rely on their instinctive human ingenuity to survive.
Interjected between the various seat edge moments, our heroes are left merely to wonder aimlessly, but as they do, they (and we) are witness to some truly breath taking cinematography, of the vast spacial glacier and the outstanding, grand space station, leaving the wow factor on more than one level. At some point, Bullock becomes stranded from her companion, and forced to survive on her own, as the tension and the stakes start to rise that little bit higher. Somehow, in the space of under an hour and a half, you are left feeling as though your senses have been taken on a visceral, mind bending ride, where by the end it's become genuinely nerve wracking as to whether she'll survive, even though inside we're pretty sure.
Alfonso Cuaron has crafted an original, novel picture, that takes a well trodden format but delivers it in a way that you really haven't seen before. Clooney and Bullock are an effective double act, even when they're not actually on screen together, and it deserved to win the awards and get the acclaim it did. ****
The Railway Man (2013)
Creates an effect, but not really as spell-binding as I'm sure it could have been
Eric (Colin Firth) was one of many British POW's, who found themselves forced to construct the Burma railway during World War 2. However, he managed to generate transmission from a battered radio, that restored hope and faith among him and his friends that the Allied forces were winning and the Japanese were being forced back, which made him the subject of some horrendous torture and abuse by his vicious captors. Many years later, he meets the love of his life, Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train and they go on to be married. However, Patti sees the psychological destruction on his soul that still wages many years after the war finished, and becomes determined to find out what's behind it and what she can do about it. She learns that one of his tormentors, Takeshi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) still lives, and gives him the opportunity to track him down and lay his demons to rest.
One of the real 'word of mouth' pictures of the year, The Railway Man has come to some acclaim by quite a few, a high profile Brit flick with the reliable Colin Firth in the lead role and Nicole Kidman in support. Both have a real following among those that uphold such films to their position, and so naturally it's made the impression it has. It's adapted from the novel of the same name, which has obviously gained enough of a following to have warranted an adaptation, and fans of the book will have their own opinions on how well Jonathan Teplitzky has transferred it to the big screen. This is an ambitious, grand exploration of human emotion and the power of forgiveness that has big, broad shoulders to rest on. And while it generally creates a searing, engrossing impression, somehow, I (anyway) just didn't find it really got under the skin of it's subject matter quite as magnificently as it could have.
We really see how Eric has been driven mad and has suffered in a mental prison for years after his arduous torment, with visceral imagery and hallucinogenic interludes where his mental state is transmitted for the viewer to see, and Firth's central performance is reliably staunch and solid. It's probably more the writing that lets it down, where it should have been enthralling and engrossing, it is simply dull, and doesn't really stir your emotions quite like it should, instead at parts getting in to a mental jousting match to get you to stay awake. And yet, strangely, the actual story is no less dynamic and loses none of it's simmering potential, the performances and the pay off still powerful enough to make the ride worth it. You just wish the material could have matched the premise a bit more.
Still, it's a high calibre, grandly positioned piece that for all it's failures, still deserves most of it's acclaim. ***
The Fifth Estate (2013)
Ironically dull biopic of the infamous Julian Assange
A biopic of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the infamous founder of Wiki Leaks, and his controversial exposes of various scandals and institutions around the world, whose personal and professional relationship with old friend Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) faltered after he pushed the line further and further and the stakes grew steadily higher.
Julian Assange is one of the most influential figures of our time, in a day and age where the internet has become so much of a more powerful tool for information than the printed media, especially with the British press being hit by the Leveson report, being the man behind a renegade website not constrained by any sort of injunction or code of conduct. Knowledge is as powerful as it has ever been, and the click of a button is the modern weapon of choice. Being such a trendy modern actor, Cumberbatch is probably pretty ideal to be taking on the role of this socially awkward, ill mannered loner, who took on the establishment he felt so compressed by.
The Fifth Estate is an enigma of a film, in the sense that it's a dramatization of one of the most interesting figures of modern times, that somehow by it's very nature is so boring. For all the impact on modern culture Assange has had, at the end of the day he was just a bloke sitting behind a computer, and there's only so much you can see of a guy and his friend tapping away on a keyboard you can see before it becomes even more dull than it already is. With intermittent feature director Bill Condon at the helm, his style is a steady and safe one, but one which fails to inject the tale with any more of a sense of energy or excitement. How relevant or accurate it is, I'm unsure, but either way it's no more or less thrilling.
A character as relevant and interesting as Assange was inevitably going to be the subject of a feature film at some point, but by irony, it was inevitably going to be pretty dull and as such, you'd probably get the same effect by just doing some research of your own or keeping up with events. **
Disappointing biopic that fails to get to the nitty gritty
In the early 70's, Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried) caused a sensation by appearing in Deep Throat, a ground breaking entry in the pornographic film market that propelled her to stardom. But how much of it was her choice, and how much was she coerced in to the film and everything that followed it by her abusive partner, Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard). The film charts Linda's involvement in the film and how it went on to have an affect on every aspect of her life afterward, especially the relationship with her strict, conservative parents (Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick), and the downside of instant fame and notoriety.
Looking at what a massive, multi-million dollar industry it now is, it's hard to consider the pornographic industry's place in modern culture, especially in America, once such an ultra conservative, puritanical society, and now where it has it's biggest market and production base. So it's interesting for a filmmaker (or two filmmakers, as is the case here) to delve in to a time and place when this seismic change originally took place and the public were first shocked to their senses, forcing a change in long steeped attitudes and beliefs, and this almost undoubtedly first happened with the release of Deep Throat, which Lovelace seeks to explore. Sadly, the combined efforts of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, whose only other real mainstream project was 2010's Howl besides a load of documentaries and short films, still can't really get under the skin of it's subject matter and really explore it in any great detail.
Despite all the missed opportunity in the writing and dramatization, somehow Amanda Seyfried's lead performance still strikes a chord, bringing to life a fish out of water young lady who tries to put on a brave front and deal with everyone's sudden interest in her, but can't disguise her vulnerability or the feeling that she's not really comfortable with what she's done and hasn't been horribly taken advantage of in some way. Likewise, Sarsgaard is conversely as disgusting as the manipulative, abusive sleazebag who manages to forge a hold on a damaged young girl. In support, an unrecognizable Stone makes an impression with screen partner Patrick as the repressive but loving parents. No one can fault the performances, it's the material that lets the side down, and it's such a shame.
This is simply not the sum of it's parts, a missed chance that lacks the courage or integrity to really make it's subject come to life and leaves the audience with just a wanton longing for something more sufficient. **
Lone Survivor (2013)
Doesn't match the cool style it opens with, but still a worthy show
In June 2005, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and his team of men are sent on a mission in Afghanistan to take out a notorious Taliban commander whose lack of mercy is becoming intolerable. But after arriving at their destination, they find their mission compromised when unexpected problems come up, and they do end up finding themselves in heavy gunfire with insurgents. The following is a true depiction of his battle for survival and the unexpected kindness and humanity he was shown by some local Afghan villagers.
The backdrop of the controversial Afghan war would no doubt provide many a setting for some really meaty tales that could be converted in to a Hollywood film, and here we have one by Peter Berg, adapted from the true life story of Marcus Luttrell and his harrowing five day long battle for survival in the Afghan wilderness, where he saw his comrades brutally killed off one by one and was forced to endure his own terrible ordeal, before re-discovering the humanity of others after being rescued by some local villagers. Berg has crafted a film that manages to open in a really involving, absorbing style that is more than you expect, but which loses it somehow after the battle starts, descending in to a stylish but less moving effort. Somehow, the early scenes give it a depth and development it loses when the action starts.
Somehow, more than in any film I've seen him in before, here Wahlberg's limitations as an actor really shine through, even though I can't say he gave an especially bad performance, or any worse than usual. It could be because he takes up much of the screen time on his own, and can't rely on a supporting cast including the likes of Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Eric Bana to carry him. It's surprising what a lead star can reveal when their safety net goes. The film seems split in to three parts, before, during and after the battle, and even after during his humanistic scenes with the villagers, it doesn't switch on.
From the director who gave us the likes of Battleship, this could have been a lot worse, but a more charismatic lead and not letting up on the stirring human dynamics at any point would have still made the experience an even more dramatic depiction of a real life thriller. ***