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Even now, eleven years after 'Monster' was first released, it's still difficult to comprehend that that's Charlize Theron you're watching. We all know that it's her of course, but it's still hard to reconcile the wild eyed, jittery and aggressively-defensive woman at the centre of this film with the glamorous Hollywood starlet we're used to. What's even more remarkable is that despite being a violent, foul-mouthed and unhinged lunatic who winds up killing several people, Theron still manages to make Aileen Wuornos a sympathetic character. She does some terrible things, but you'll still feel sorry for her come the closing credits. It's a masterful performance and that Oscar was well deserved.
A single terrific performance doesn't make a movie however and even if it were a different actress in the lead role, 'Monster' would still be an excellent movie. It tells the story of a woman who became a prostitute at the age of 13, never escaped it and eventually grew into a gun-totting serial killer who would pick up men at the roadside, then murder them to steal their cars and money. It's a film about life at the bottom rung of society and is mercilessly harrowing in its depiction of life in the gutter. There are scenes of rape and murder, some devastatingly un-erotic sexual encounters and there's more chance of Godzilla turning up than a Richard Gere shaped Knight In Shining Armour.
And yet, 'Monster' still has moments of warmth and humour. Aileen's rather misguided attempts at pursuing a new career lead to a few unexpected laughs, while her roller-disco kiss with her lesbian lover Selby is remarkably touching. There's also a brief but moving appearance by Bruce Dern as Aileen's only real friend and his speech about survival is one of the great understated moments of the film.
Plus, there's Christina Ricci as Selby who plays off against Theron admirably. Where Aileen is loud and confrontational, Selby is shy, quiet and for the most part rather sweet. She also gets rather petulant at times and Ricci manages to just about convince that she can remain innocent while begging Aileen to start prostituting herself for money again. What's more, they have a natural chemistry and do genuinely seem to love one another, even when screaming at each other in alcohol fuelled frustration.
In other words,this is an excellent film. Theron gives the performance of her career and the film does a remarkable job shining a light on the grubby underbelly of modern society. Prostitutes, alcoholics, junkies and vagrants all exist and while 'Monster' doesn't exactly make them seem noble, it does humanise them. Highly recommended.
The Lords of Salem (2012)
Rob Zombie's best film so far. And it's terrible
Being a fan of something doesn't always mean you're going to be an expert at creating it yourself. I for example, am a big fan of cheese. From the creamiest Brie to the smokiest Edam, the smelliest Stilton and the reliable everyday heroism of a good cheddar, cheese is just fantastic. However, my own efforts at making it have never been that successful and I've been left with a few incredibly smelly curds of flaky ghastliness that no matter how hard I try, I just can't shift from the bottom of the pan. The packet said 'non stick,' it lied.
Why is this relevant you may ask? Well because like my ham fisted and futile efforts at creating an award winning Gorgonzola, Rob Zombie just doesn't seem to know how to make a good horror movie. It's no secret that he loves the genre, but taking a sound-bite from a forgotten classic and sticking it at the beginning of 'Dragula' is one thing, making an actual movie is another. 'House Of 1000 Corpses' was infuriatingly awful, 'The Devil's Rejects' a marathon of over-acting and pointless violence and the less said about his stab at 'Halloween' the better.
And now there's 'The Lords Of Salem,' which doesn't seem to know if it's a creeping, slow burn stepdaughter of 'Rosemary's Baby,' or a headbanging B-movie. It's the best film he's made so far, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's worth watching.
The story concentrates on rock DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), a recovering addict who one day has an unusual vinyl record sent to her through the mail. She plays it at home and gets a bad headache and some dodgy visions. Then she plays it on air and things get even weirder.
From there, the film seems to revolve heavily around bad acting and lots of shots of slightly weird looking corridors. There's much less of the blood-letting this time around, but Zombie's attempts at cranking up the tension just do not work. The creepy neighbours are so obviously nuts that you can't help wondering why nobody notices earlier and the frequent shots of psychotic naked women are more funny than scary, no matter how many times they shout "Satan" at onlookers.
Add to this the ludicrous abusive Priest scene, the appalling monster effects and the bewildering scene where Heidi gives birth to a lobster and you've got another teeth gnashing disaster. On the plus side, Sheri Moon is far less irritating this time around but given that she spends a good half of the film stumbling around barely conscious, she doesn't get much chance to be. Zombie has described this film as "If Ken Russell directed The Shining," but it's more like Rob Zombie directing a Rob Zombie movie. Avoid avoid avoid.
So why exactly can't the Police help us?
A grizzled middle aged man who used to be a CIA operative running around European cities, gunning down foreigners while desperately trying to save his daughter, sound familiar? Yep, The Expatriate wants to be the next Taken. However it's so keen on aping a bigger, louder and better film, it just comes across as an overly keen but incapable movie with no merits of its own to recommend it.
The film stars Aaron Eckhart as Ben Logan, a former member of Black Ops who through some interesting career choices has wound up living in Brussels, working for a company that develops security devices. One day though he asks a few too many troubling questions about patents and the next morning, turns up to find the office stripped bare, no sign of the employees and all trace of his existence for the past few decades practically wiped clean. Soon, he's on the run with his sulky teenage daughter and fighting to clear his name, all while the CIA and a sinister group of murderous hit men snap at his heels.
Trouble is, this has all been done before and done better. Cars get smashed, bullets fly and Ben uses all his experience to dodge cops in interesting locations, but it's all been lifted from The Bourne Trilogy, Unknown, From Paris With Love and the James Bond movies before them. Eckhart does his best but the overly complicated plot reeks of Eurosceptism and come the explosive but unsatisfying finale, you'll be crying out for Liam Neeson to turn up and step things up a gear.
Arn: Tempelriddaren (2007)
On paper, Arn: The Knight Templar looks almost guaranteed to be an excellent movie. The story of the titular character is enough to get producers frothing at the mouth; he's a Swedish nobleman, raised in a monastery but trained to be a soldier who finds himself exiled to the Holy Land for twenty years. He fights in some of the most significant battles in the war for Jerusalem, meets the legendary Saladin, rises through the ranks and then loses it all and ultimately finds redemption through bloodshed and war. It's not surprising then that a film which promised to be the Swedish answer to Kingdom Of Heaven should attract such a large budget and several notable actors, so why then is it so rubbish?
Well, if you're watching this in England on DVD or Netflix, the short answer is because it's actually two films crammed into one. Originally running at over four hours, it's now just shy over two and the end result inevitably feels rushed. Key scenes have been cut, supporting characters drop in and out of the film for seemingly no reason at all and years literally flash past in a matter of minutes.
Why for example does Arn's father disappear without any explanation? Why is the incompetent Gerard De Ridefort suddenly made Lord Commander of the Knights Templar? Who is the Knight that can't take his eyes off Arn in the final climactic showdown? And perhaps most significantly of all, why in the name of heaven does Cecilia's sister claim Arn seduced her when her motivations are never established and it doesn't seem to benefit her in the slightest?
With so many gaps in the narrative, it's left to the musical score to tell the story rather than the film itself and sadly, it does so constantly. The film is accompanied by a big, booming orchestral soundtrack that tells the audience when to feel sad, triumphant, nostalgic and it never, ever ends. There's barely a moment when the thunderous clarion call isn't blaring out the speakers and it isn't helped by the rather lacklustre battle scenes either. The arrows and mud covered final battle isn't bad, but the rest are over ridiculously quickly, while the lack of wide panoramic shots demonstrates that the budget maybe wasn't as high as they'd want you to think. Even the Battle of Hattin, one of the most significant clashes of the crusader era consists of little more than a shot of galloping horses and Arn looking a bit concerned, before waking up covered in blood and grime.
All of which means that the English version of Arn: The Knight Templar is a frustrating and deeply disappointing film. It's been edited into the grave and switches scenes so rapidly that it comes across as a nervous, jittery film. If you can track down the original version and its sequel Arn: The Kingdom At Road's End watch those instead, but this abbreviated halfway point is just awful.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Very well done if slightly run of the mill
Given that this is the fifth Spiderman movie in twelve years, it's very easy to feel cynical when the clichés start flying out of the screen before the first action set piece finishes. After all, it's not enough any more that Peter Parker is going to pull an innocent bystander out of the way of a car spinning through the air and be late to an important event which his girlfriend has put a lot of emotional investment in to. Oh no, now he's got to have a dark secret at the heart of his family and be the very centre piece of an evil conspiracy as well. Because having him played by an actor who looks uncomfortably similar to Stan Laurel isn't a big enough difference any more.
However, one inevitable side effect of the sheer volume of superhero movies being made in recent years is that Hollywood has got very, very good at making them. And The Amazing Spider Man 2 is a very, very good movie. It doesn't get close to the high water mark set by The Dark Knight of course but it's definitely a step up from the first entry in the rebooted franchise and could put in a good case for being superior to any of the Sam Raimi movies as well.
Sure, there are faults to be had but the film speeds along on such sheer, good natured fun that it's hard to be bothered by them. As Peter Parker, the annoyingly youthful Andrew Garfield (he's 30 years old people, 30 years old!) is a charming and effortlessly charismatic screen presence. As he zips through New York at high speed, wise cracking at bad guys and high-fiving firemen, you get the distinct impression that he really enjoys being a superhero. There's still time for him to be bothered by guilt and struggle with his responsibilities, but it doesn't weigh him or the film down and he's tremendous fun to spend time with.
He's ably supported by Emma Stone as Parker's on again/off again girlfriend Gwen Stacey. The pair's real life relationship translates incredibly well on screen and there's so much chemistry between them, it's hard not to shake the feeling that both actors want to get the scene over and done with so they can go back to shaking trailers together. Dane Dehaan meanwhile makes a bid for this year's Best Sympathetic Villain In A Spiderman Movie award as Harry Osborn. Dehaan is making a career out of playing traumatised young men with incredible power, but it's a credit to both the actor and the script that he becomes genuinely likable, even when he's committing appalling acts against the people he loves.
On the other hand, it is difficult to believe that Jamie Foxx could ever be a nerd, especially as the guy who bullies him at work looks like someone Foxx could break in two by breathing hard enough, but he makes a formidable villain when he inevitably becomes Electro. His Times Square smack down with Spidey is one incredible set piece and their later ruck in a power plant only ups the ante. If the appearance of Paul Giamatti's Rhino on the posters meanwhile has you worried about villain fatigue fear not, he's barely more than a cameo.
So, great cast, awesome set pieces, what's the catch? Well just like the first Amazing Spider Man, this film still can't help but be a bit unnecessary. You'll have seen all of Parker's dilemmas in this before and the needless conspiracy subplot involving his folks never comes across as anything more than a way for the studio to say "See, completely different film?"
The strengths outweigh the weaknesses however and aside from a few uncomfortable points (what's with the Mengele style German Doctor?), The Amazing Spider Man 2 is a fine superhero movie. It's great fun to watch, has an immensely likable duo at it's heart and just when it's getting a bit too familiar, it pulls the rug out from under your feet with a wicked third act. If this is Hollywood at it's money grabbing worst, long may it continue.
The snakes are coming too?
Okay, let's get this out of the way right now; there are no six limbed, fallen Angel rock monsters in the Bible. And by including these proto- Transformers in the film, Director Darren Aronofsky has probably had to make a concession to get it made. But as far as pandering to the Blockbuster crowd goes, that's about it. Because bar a few spectacular set pieces, 'Noah' is not the kind of film that audiences would flock to if they're up for a wild night out at the multiplex. It's a sombre and frequently bleak examination of not only the wrath of God, but also the utter anguish that would accompany an event on the scale of a global flood. After all, you wouldn't see any of the characters in a Michael Bay movie struggling with survivor's guilt and madness.
Set during the days of...ah hell, you know what the story is. God has grown tired of the world and decided to flood it so as to punish all the residents of Earth (except for the floaty ones and the swimmy ones who get out due to a loophole). It rains, there's a boat, the aftermath is a bit incestuous and creepy, so how do you make it an engaging film?
Well, casting Russell Crowe as the title character was definitely a wise move. When the film starts he's a hardy and devoted family man reminiscent of Maximus Decimus Meridius with less armour. As the story progresses however, his determination leads to desperation and a religious mania that'd make Fred Phelps look like an open minded and easy going fellow. It's Crowe's best role in years and his impeccable performance is the key to the film's success.
Aronofsky leaves his own mark etched indelibly on the film as well. Early in the proceedings, a spring breaks forth from a cracked and dried out wasteland and the camera follows the ensuing trickle in a rapid fire series of shots, spreading across the landscape as night turns to day and back again. The Watchers meanwhile are not your typical Big Movie concession and as they shamble groaning across the screen, you get the distinct impression that their rocky bodies make their very existence a perpetual torture. And one shot of the damned clinging to the last vestiges of land as the waters continue to rise is remarkably unforgiving.
Elsewhere, Ray Winstone gives it his barbarian best as Noah's rat munching foe and both Emma Watson and Jennifer Connelly hold their own as Noah's adopted daughter and wife respectively. Despite the relatively sparse main cast however, his three sons don't get much of a chance to develop beyond being stock characters. Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and Leo McHugh Carroll all have flashes of promise, but the parts are underwritten and they don't really develop beyond their roles of "Looks A Bit Like John Snow," "Destined To Have An Argument Before The End" and "The Other One."
As a piece of spring time spectacle however, Noah is well worth a trip to the cinema and it's well worth handing over the extra cash for an IMAX screening. It's a big, bold movie but it has a depth and resonance to it as well. The scene where Crowe sits immobile, listening to the screams of people dying and stubbornly refuses to help even as you can tell he desperately wants to is excellent. It's a bit overlong and hardcore atheists will not care for it at all, but it's proof that Aronofsky can hang with the blockbuster crowd as well as the art house.
That reptile deer thing at the beginning is a bit weird though.
How to drown in shallow water
For a film that goes so deep underground, Sanctum is a remarkably shallow experience. Playing out like The Descent with more water and no monsters, it's a beautifully shot survival flick but it's populated with characters so bland that you won't care one bit if they survive or not. And you'll probably be able to figure out what order they'll run out of oxygen in as well.
In fact, it's not that surprising that as his sticky fingers are all over the post-production and cinematography, this feels like a James Cameron flick where the script never got past the first draft. So when Grrr, Aaargh (Frank MacGuire), Whinging Son (Rhys Wakefield), Millionaire Jerk (Ioan Gruffudd), Comic Relief (Dan Wylie), Woman (Alice Parkinson) and Expendable Foreigner (Cramer Cain) find themselves trapped underground, you'll be more interested in how they're going to die than in the clunky dialogue.
That said, there's some eerily beautiful moments of utter horror to be found. From the ethereal splendour of a vast underwater cave to the pockets of air bubbling like mercury on the rocky ceiling, it's a feast for the eyes even when it leaves the brain starving.
Yes, it's clunky. Yes, the cave is surprisingly well-lit and yes, saying "what could possibly go wrong" before abseiling into the bowels of the earth is utterly stupid. But it's pretty, has a couple of cool death scenes (the "hair" moment is horrible) and it's much, much shorter than The Abyss.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)
Mind the gap motherf***er!
Not all remakes are terrible, some like the late Tony Scott's 'The Taking of Pelham 123' are perfectly serviceable action thrillers. Granted, it doesn't have the weight of expectation that accompanies big budget remakes like Robocop or Dawn Of The Dead, but it never strives to be more than a straightforward, ninety minute beer and pizza movie. And it succeeds, helped in no small part by a truly unhinged performance from John Travolta.
Set in the surprisingly macho world of the New York City subway system, the titular Pelham 123 is a train that Travolta's foul-mouthed criminal hijacks. Soon, he's on the radio to Denzel Washington's headquarters controller and the two become involved in a battle of wits to keep the hostages alive and resolve a tense situation before the body count increases too far.
With a tattooed neck, an itchy trigger finger and a rabid temper, Travolta is undoubtedly the star of the show while the increasingly frustrated Washington makes for a reliable foil. With these two stars butting heads, the rest of the cast - including John Turturro's Police Chief and James Gandolfini's Mayor - are inevitably relegated to the sidelines. There's also a distinct lack of female characters and one of those is reduced to little more than an exposed cleavage on a webcam.
Combine that with the near constant bad language, bullet riddled corpses and taxi smashing car chases and there can be no doubt that this is a man's film. For manly men who tell it like it is, wear bandannas and like steak, UFC and Hatebreed, but while that may instantly alienate a significant number of movie-goers, if that's what you want then it succeeds nicely. It's an hour and a half of angry men shouting about prisons, money and taking ass models to Iceland, with a healthy dose of violence to round it all off. And Travolta is so deliriously over the top you can't take your eyes off him.
A reasonably enjoyable monster movie with ideas above its station
Attempting to tread a fine line between two different types of film, Primeval is a misguided, but nonetheless kind of fun movie. On the one hand, it wants to be an 'issues' movie, dealing with warlords, child soldiers and western apathy towards violence in central Africa. On the other, it also wants to have a massive great big crocodile running around trying to eat the guy from Prison Break. It's not bad, but while these two separate strands never really gel there's still some entertainment to be had. Provided of course you can look past the incredibly tasteless joke about the slave trade.
The film concentrates on Dominic Purcell's news journalist who gets sent off to Burundi to document the search for 'Gustave,' a legendary croc who has chalked up over 300 human victims during his years prowling the river banks. He's accompanied by a British Steve Irwin a-like, Orlando Jones as the "please don't get him" cameraman, a slumming it Jurgen Prochnow, a token female and several dozen expendable locals and together, they trek into the bush to hunt Gustave down. They're also given a few warnings about 'Little Gustave,' a vicious renegade soldier whose private army are responsible for all manner of atrocities in the region. But hey it'll be okay right? They've got a machine gun strapped to the roof...
Needless to say, things go badly. There's all manner of carnage to be had as Gustave begins ripping people to shreds and trigger happy teenagers with AK-47s go on the warpath. By the time the credits roll, just as many people have been machine-gunned as eaten by Gustave and Purcell looks like he can't wait to get back to a nice, comfy cell in San Quentin where he only has to deal with corrupt guards and shankings every day.
Taken simply as an old-fashioned adventure movie it's not bad and there's certainly fun to be had when the limbs start to get torn loose. The attempts at dealing with the bigger picture though fall flat. It's apparently "inspired by true events," but aside from the fact there genuinely is a crocodile named Gustave in Burundi, that's about as far as the realism goes. Hotel Rwanda this ain't. However if you want a movie where a great big scaly beast eats people every ten minutes you can't go wrong. You'll have a hard time remembering any of the characters names when the time comes to type up the review though.
There's a great idea for a film lurking in Nativity. A semi-improvised comedy built around the premise of two rival drama teachers going head- to-head during Christmas play season, there's an absolute wealth of potential to be had here. Plus it has Martin Freeman doing that perpetually exasperated thing with lots of familiar faces from the British comedy scene, some genuinely likable young kids and a charming, Richard Curtis-vibe underpinning it. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, somehow the pieces just don't come together. It's lacking in laughs or memorable dialogue and is filled with scenes that don't just stretch credibility, but rip it to pieces like the family cat getting into the Christmas presents. Teachers encourage mass brawls between two primary school classes, sneak kids into the delivery room at a maternity hospital and even abduct two ten year olds and fly them to California with no repercussions from the parents at all. Well they did bring them back, so I guess it's all okay.
There's a chance for a rousing finale with the final production as well but it outstays its welcome for too long. And that's without mentioning Mark Wootton's infuriating teaching assistant Mr. Poppy, a passive- aggressive man-child more juvenile than the ankle biters he's supposed to be looking after. By the time he's dangling a child from a Cathedral spire it all becomes clear, this is more "Surviving Christmas" than "It's A Wonderful Life." Just play trivial pursuit with your nan again.