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1486 reviews in total 
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Whitney (2015) (TV)
Inevitable cheapie biopic of singing legend, no more or less than the sum of it's parts, 8 October 2015

STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

A TV dramatisation of the late singer Whitney Houston (Yaya DaCosta) and her tumultuous marriage to r n' b star Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta.) The pair embarked on an excessive, drug fuelled party lifestyle, where accusations were tossed either way about who was responsible and this aims to shine an equal light on both sides.

A grimly unfortunate consequence of those famous passing is a chance to use their death to cash in, and exploit it by whipping up as much sensationalism as possible. Although arriving a few years after Houston's passing, this TV biopic still feels a little cheap and low grade in it's directions.

This basically has Hallmark written all over it, the type of thing certain people can lie back, and have a box of chocolates and a box of Kleenex to best enjoy. It is what it is, no more and no less, although it has to be said DaCosta's lead performance as Whitney has a certain ring of truth to it, but feels overboard and excessive even by what were her wild standards. **

War Pigs (2015)
Deadly dull, instantly forgettable wartime actioner, 6 October 2015

STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

The War Pigs are a group of gung ho, loose cannon young fighting men during World War 2, who have a new arrival in their midst on the commanding front, in the shape of French captain Hans Picault (Dolph Lundgren), while behind closed doors, shady Captain Wosick (Luke Goss) has been given an assignment by Major AJ Redding (Mickey Rourke) to go behind enemy lines and take out a new super missile that Hitler plans to use. Along the way, conflicts of personality and aversion to authority are brought to the fore, before their final, hell for glory battle.

A WW2 adventure is an ambitious undertaking for one of Dolph Lundgren's direct to DVD action features, but the big Swede has gone for it and delivered this dreary, uninvolving effort, a major step back from the superior human trafficking thriller Skin Trade from last year. A period piece can work for such a film, as Jean Claude Van Damme's underrated film The Quest showed, but here Dolph is part of a hugely boring film, where he's required to deliver a terribly unconvincing French accent.

How Lundgren, along with other action film notables Luke Goss and Mickey Rourke, could team together and produce something so flat and low on action is anyone's guess. As it is, it just grinds through the clichés of male bonding during times of war, as well as the survival instinct and camaraderie, running in at a blissfully short running time which just about ensures you don't nod off before the end. It's too mature and slow, like the guys were trying to act their age and make something more considered, when they really should have just thought what the fans were expecting and run along those lines more. **

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Probably wise to end it here, but still massively superior TV, 6 October 2015

STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

The group enter the next decade, with some of their heavy personal baggage from before settled, and some of it still lingering in the air. Lorraine (Vicky McClure) has a devastating revelation to offload to younger sibling Kelly (Chanel Cresswell), and the impending release of Combo (Stephen Graham) from prison, after serving time on her behalf, sets the wheels in motion for a terrifying confrontation with Milky (Andrew Shim), a ghost from his past, which will have devastating consequences.

Some things can linger in the air long enough to just be permanently consigned to the rumour bin, and some do eventually come round. Four years after the antics of the TIE gang were last seen in Christmas 2011, we catch up with them at the start of the new decade, and it is with a mixed feeling of eagerness, but also a sense of aloofness that maybe it's dragged on a little too long, and the characters and their motivations are maybe becoming a bit too laboured now, and that this really ought to be the last part. While this is sort of true, the high quality of the production, and the brilliant delivery of it all manage to overshadow this.

It all manages the rather odd task of being predictable and not predictable at the same time. While it doesn't require that much brain power to work out what is likely to happen, somehow how it's going to happen and in what manner keeps your attention and doesn't let go. The powerful, unflinching writing and superior performances make this a top quality treat. As the most high profile performer in the cast, and playing the character whose return ignites the fireworks in the script, Stephen Graham commands centre attention, playing a reformed character eager to put the terrible mistakes of his past behind him and make amends with those he's wronged, but whose past is on a collision course to snatch it all away from him in the most devastating way.

It really ought to wrap it up here, though as ever it finishes with unresolved issues, and the number one rule is never say never. Hopefully, Shane Meadows will make the right judgement and not allow this fine series to become tainted. ****

Passionate and impassive, if unbalanced, front line account of a time and place, 1 October 2015

STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

A short film from Ken Loach, showing mining communities in Durham, North Yorkshire and Wales banding together in the midst of pit closures, lay offs and redundancies during the early 1980s, regaling each other with songs, poems and stories of their experiences during what were tough and testing times. Loach used excerpts from this in his 2013 documentary The Spirit of '45, and it was included as an extra in the DVD release of that film.

As the 80s loomed, and the wave of globalisation consumed the world, certain casualties were claimed along the way, and it's hard to think of any more documented than the once thriving towns and communities in places like the North East of England, where trade coming in and out pretty much revolved around the pits. The eerie, agoraphobic photography of these areas at the beginning is perfectly captured by Loach, and shines a light on a forgotten little corner of the earth as everyone else started living big. But what is most perfectly captured is the sense of a community united together, who understand each other probably better than they'd understand anybody in the outside world.

This probably benefits more than anything from being right in the cut and thrust of the events as they were happening thirty years ago, where the urgency and relevance was at its peak and the expressions on everyone's faces was very much real. It was highlighting a very real plight, but as a result it's also very much one sided. It was, in fact, rejected by The South Bank Show for being 'politically impartial', which says a lot. In the space of less than an hour, it presents Thatcher, the police and the 'scabs' as the demons of the Earth, while the striking miners and their families are nothing but sweetness and light, singing their songs, making you wonder why they didn't all get other careers as singer-songwriters since they're so good at it?

That said, they provide the film with some of its most effective touches, most notably the haunting 'The Dead, That's the Price of Coal', which illuminates not just the then present struggle, but the history of miners, their lacklustre safety conditions and the public's unfair expectations of them. Despite it's obvious political leanings, it's still an impassioned and convictive piece of film making that captures the mood and desperation of the time. ***

Dark and voyeuristic, but well made enough, 1 October 2015

STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Darcy (Joan Allen) and Bob Anderson (Anthony LaPaglia) appear like the perfect married couple, with their several children all having done quite well for themselves and one even preparing to tie the knot. And Darcy has no reason to think this is anything but reality- until she learns of a spate of murders of young women around the local area and then, one night to her sheer terror, discovers Bob is the perpetrator. This explosive secret sets the pair on a devastating collision course while a frail detective (Stephen Lang) follows their trail.

I always feel awkward watching a Stephen King film before I've read the novel it's sourced from, because I'd rather it was that I'd read his story first (and got the best experience) than watch the film and know what happens in the book. Ah, but if the man himself wrote the screenplay as well, even though he already wrote the book it's adapted from, then that kind of makes it better then, doesn't it? As is the case with this adaptation of a short story from one of his novellas, although how he managed to make something so challenging so short, I don't know.

It's the sort of thing that could only have come from his far fetched, twisted mind, and the tone is as dark as the subject matter decrees it should be, which makes it an uneasy, unsettling journey into something that takes a dark imagination to enjoy. That said, it is also genuinely suspenseful, in that you are really unsure how it will play out or what the outcome will be. Stern, solid lead performances from Allen and LaPaglia also help, as almost the sole focus of the developing material. Some suspension of disbelief is inevitably required at times, and it doesn't ever come off as being quite as seat edge as it could have been, but it's well done enough in other aspects to gloss over this.

With something so small scale, it might be harder for many to see King as his darkest, but for those that can seek this out, it's a pretty good catch. ***

A disappointing, under-whelming second collaboration between Van Damme/Barbarash, 26 September 2015

STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Deacon (Jean Claude Van Damme) has travelled to Eastern Europe to donate a kidney to his dying niece. Only the night before, after a night of passion with a mysterious woman, he awakens to find what he was planning to donate already removed with no explanation. His brother, and niece's father George (John Ralston) is unaccepting of this, and along with Kung (Aki Aleong), Deacon's right hand man, they set about trying to track down the guilty party who have taken Deacon's organ without his consent.

The dark, moody tone that has been permeating Van Damme's work for about the middle of the last decade continues with Pound of Flesh, his second collaboration with director Ernie Barbarash after 2011's excellent Assassination Games. Maintaining that film's dark, raw veneer, the plot is impressively different and inventive, honing in on a theme not usually explored in action, but sadly, this is where the praise pretty much runs dry.

While the delivery is as brutal as AG, this time Barbarash hasn't managed to craft quite as engaging a story, punctuated with long, dull stretches between any exciting action. He's somewhat older now, and VD's physical prowess obviously isn't as impressive as it once was, with his side kicks now looking a little less than thrillingly authentic. He appears to be trying to explore a more dramatic angle now, and as such the film doesn't develop in the normal style of such films, but this is hardly what you're watching it for.

It's got some good things going for it, but on the whole, it's a bit of a let down when you think what went before. **

Distracting enough, even if it's hardly anything new or exciting, 26 September 2015

STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

After twelve years inside for armed robbery, former criminal Jimmy Rose (Ray Winstone) is released from prison, and returns home determined to start a new life with his family. But they've hardly stood still in his absence, and re-adjusting his absent presence to their life is going to be hard, especially with ex wife Jackie (Amanda Redman) who's hardly been faithful. He spots a chance to get in their good books when he learns his grand-daughter India (Daisy Cooper-Kelly) has fallen in to drugs and the undesirables associated with them. In order to rescue her, he is forced to revert back to his old ways one last time.

Winstone is an everyman actor, in that he'll throw his weight behind a massive big screen production, made on either side of the Atlantic with weightier production values, or something more small scale like this made for TV three part drama. He's become one of our prized national exports, and one I'm fond of out of the British set, with a certain dramatic intensity that sets him apart from many others, although his belting rendition of 'That's Life' at the opening suggests he's aiming towards a singing career, which I'm not so sure about. But as always, he's a highly emotional and unrestrained actor, throwing that passionate South London persona into this much the same as he has many other roles.

Taking a well worn story, that follows all the genre clichés to a tee, and doesn't meander much into anything that could be described as new territory, this really is little more than distracting, going through the motions towards a pretty standard finale. A summary such as this hardly elevates expectations, but that's not to say it isn't executed in an above average way by a pretty accomplished cast and crew, or that there aren't neat, quaint little touches that make it stand out in it's own little way, such as Jimmy struggling to adjust to modern technology such as modern mobile phones, or having to use an oyster card to travel on the bus.

On the surface, it's really nothing you haven't seen before, but for a smaller scale TV production, it's a cut above the usual thing and still worth watching. ***

The Judge (2014)
Tries to cram a lot of eggs in to one basket, but still a highly worthy effort, 24 September 2015

STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Big shot lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a morally Defence Attorney, whose methods are winding up everyone around him. Then, out of the blue, he gets a call, telling him the devastating news his mother has died. Returning to his home town for the funeral, he is reunited with his elderly judge father Joseph (Robert Duvall), with whom he last parted on very bad terms, and the feelings haven't simmered. But things take a dramatic turn when Joseph is arrested for being behind a hit and run incident, in which a young man has died. But this young man was no stranger to Joseph, and a devastating personal history elevates the accusation to murder. Hank must invest all his notorious ability and cocky wit to save his father from ending his days in jail.

In a day and age when the average cinema-goer, roughly in the 18 to 25 age bracket, has the attention span of a hyperactive fly, David Dobkin's The Judge is the kind of film that wouldn't enjoy the kind of acclaim it may have thirty or forty years ago. An original screenplay, rather than being adapted from any novel, it's lengthy duration encompasses a peculiar combination of genres, at times uncertain of it's position as a fractured family drama, a tense courtroom thriller, and even with a noticeable spark of light hearted comedy running through it as well. Regardless of it's uncertain tone, it's still a highly commendable effort, a slow, considered, mature thriller that has a long story to tell and takes it's time to let it develop and unfold, unlike other films these days.

When a film has Downey Jr. in the lead role, you can be guaranteed of a pretty none conventional lead performance whatever it entails, but it helps if the role requires it, and somehow in this role, his magnetic, zany persona adds it a weight and clarity, elevating it to something it probably wouldn't have been in another actor's hands. Duvall, also, is an inspired piece of casting, and lends his dramatic chops in his co starring role, and creates perfect chemistry with Downey Jr. That's not to mention a supporting cast including Vera Farmiga and Billy Bob Thornton.

I imagine it probably didn't do amazingly well at the box office, but this is the kind of work that works best on a quiet Sunday night, the kind of thing to keep you glued to a screen rather than being dragged out to the pics. It might be trying to do a little too much, but it's still a superior piece of film-making you don't see so much of these days. ****

Ex Machina (2015)
Too weighed down in scientific exposition, without providing a truly thrilling story, 19 September 2015

STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young professor, who's been called out at the behest of the eccentric, reclusive Nathan (Oscar Isaac.) Nathan wants Caleb to perform the Turing Test on Ava (Alicia Vikander) to determine whether she has advanced AI. But Ava is not your average person- she's a synthetic cyborg, with human features, and before long, she's engaging in a determined battle of wits with the two men she's holed up in her secluded sanctuary with, the conscientious Caleb desperate to understand her, and the slightly warped Nathan with plans of his own.

In recent years, the world has been swept with a new found appreciation for all things scientific, with high tech gadgets becoming must have accessories and the science fiction genre enjoying a popular, more mainstream following among cinema goers in a way you wouldn't have dreamed a few years ago. It's in this new found science fiction realm that Ex Machina, the directorial debut of acclaimed writer Alex Garland, has emerged. A film with a subtle nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, in it's themes of machines taking over and controlling humans, and with flourishes of that film's style and tone, it's sadly all lost in translation, and bogged down in too much scientific exposition and psychobabble to really engage.

There's enormous potential in the film's isolated setting, with only a few central characters to keep our eye on as events progress, and the dynamics between these characters as they reveal their motivations behind what each of them are doing, could have been sparkling, but the film is really just aggressively cerebral, wriggling for the most part in a pretty humourless script, that gets pleasantly broken during an impromptou, incomprehensible disco dancing sequence, where Oliver Cheatham's Get Down Saturday Night suddenly comes blaring out and surprises everyone.

Science Fiction is getting readily accepted by a far larger portion of the population these days, no longer just the sole preserve of what people might call 'geeks', but it still has to be presented in a digestible format that those without a PhD might get, and Ex Machina, despite it's few neat touches, just isn't like this. **

Cartel Land (2015/II)
1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
A daring and unflinching expose of a brutal world, even if it covers a lot of old ground, 16 September 2015

STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

On the United States/Mexico Border, the Knights Templar drugs cartel plies its trade with ruthless determination, and terrorizes the residents of the villages and towns where it operates. In this lawless little corner of the world, where the police, army and government are as corrupt as, and in league with, the villains, it has fallen on some local people to stand up and make a difference. Lead by a charismatic, mature local physician, the Autodefensas are an army with no legal sanction, but the support of the people who know the cause they are fighting, but gradually they are infiltrated by undesirables who set them on a path of corruption. Meanwhile, a separate group of American fighters, with uncomfortable views towards their Mexican neighbours, operate their own little army.

The 'cartel' phenomenon has been used many-a-times as a backdrop for your average action adventure, or crime thriller, but this is as close as you'll have come, probably ever, to getting up close and personal, and seeing what could be described as like a real life action film, with men in military fatigues spouting automatic weapons and prowling the outskirts of the desert in search of their prey, not to mention seeing men in car chases zooming in on those they are hunting. In this sense, Cartel Land takes the docu-drama concept and turns it on its head, delivering something quite unique. That said, on the expose front, it covers a lot of old ground that you would have already seen in any Ross Kemp/Channel 4 programme on telly, with some of the drug traffickers themselves appearing on camera only briefly, but just delivering the usual platitudes of how they live in poverty, and the real villains are those at the top.

What's never been seen before, is the frustration of those living in the midst of the violence and corruption, and their resignation to having to come together and form their own group to tackle the criminals, and eventually the disillusionment and regret when even they appear to turn into something bad. You really get the impression of a group of people who depend on each other, and have only each other to lean on in this world. But their situation is already quite well known, and they get a lot more screen time than the surprising emergence of some American protagonists, although their xenophobia and racism makes them a little tough to warm to.

By the end, it's lost it's narrative and sense of pace a little, but despite some faults, it's still an eye opening and daring work that deserves to be observed. ***

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