Tuesday, 26 January 2016


Starring: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie
Writers: Peter Straughan
Director: David Gordon Green

After a number of years out of the political game consultant/strategist "Calamity" Jane Bodine is lured back into the murky world of election campaigns, heading to Bolivia to take on the seemingly impossible task of turning the arrogant, unpopular Pedro Castillo (Joaquim De Almeida) into a man worthy of re-election. Oh yes, Castillo was President before and few people liked him the previous time so Jane has her work cut out. To make matters even worse, front runner Victor Rivera is way ahead in the polls and has Jane's longtime rival Pat Candy (Thornton) as his consultant. As the tagline has it, may the best campaign win...

A political comedy/drama with Bullock and Thornton front and centre, produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov - got to be a winner, right? Wrong, I'm afraid to say. If you're expecting a satire with teeth then allow me to tell me that this has been to the dentist and it'll be on nothing but soup for a while. I have no problem that the film's targets are easy ones, what I do have a problem with is that it manages to somehow miss those targets by a mile at almost every turn.

So what kind of messages are we given? Politicians might not be very nice guys. Not exactly a revelation. Come to that, the people who are trying to get them elected might just be even worse. Tell me something I don't know. Treated with the sort of merciless humour that a film such as The Big Short - also out this week, and a whole lot better than this - employed, this could still have worked extremely well but too often the story is bogged down in sentiment and inexplicable slapstick. Bullock's character falls down stairs, has a chair collapse under her as she attempts to stand upon it and even throws up into a bin mid-meeting. Yes, Sandra Bullock is fantastic at being a klutz but what point does it have here?

Then there's the rivalry between Bodine and Candy. A lot is made of how much Jane really wants to get one over on Pat so I was expecting nothing less than fireworks whenever they found themselves in the same space. Well, it's less a case of fireworks and much more like a sparkler that some idiot throws water on before it's really got going. Every time Bullock and Thornton squared up to each other I was thinking "this time is it's really going to escalate" and just about every time it was the same result - couple of minor barbs then one of them wanders off. I was desperately waiting for some Sorkin-style hilarious/brutal verbal kickings that just never came.

That's not to say there isn't the odd laugh but it is only the odd laugh. And towards the end, when the movie comes up with its best - if obvious joke - involving a singing telegram, I was left thinking "That's odd, I laughed". The political machinations don't feel particularly inspired either, instead degenerating into a series of tit-for-tat moves that are passed off as genius by the script but just seemed like common sense to me. Maybe I'm just good at playing dirty.

It's testament to the talents of Bullock that, beyond the pratfalls and some tiresome frat-level antics involving firing projectiles at Thornton's hotel room and then mooning his campaign bus later on (look, don't go to this just because you now think you get to see Sandra Bullock's arse, it may not even be hers), I still found her character interesting. The quirks and flaws of Jane Bodine are writ large here. And explained by either Jane or other characters in case you didn't pick up on why she is like she is.

As for Billy Bob Thornton, he's more than up to the task of playing the smooth, seasoned shark that is Pat Candy but there's not enough of him in the film. He doesn't loom over Bodine's campaign as he should and ends up being an irritant rather than a genuine threat. Not Billy Bob's fault and I direct you to his amazing turn in Fargo Season 1, you will not be disappointed. Anthony Mackie, as fellow Castillo campaigner Ben, barely registers because he's given so little to do and a short scene in which his character is given a bit of history feels clumsily grafted on.

For a political comedy drama, there's much less in the way of politics than you'll be looking for, any comedy is thin on the ground and any truly dramatic moments are fleeting. Their brand may be crisis but it's not a brand I'll be buying in future.

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Sunday, 24 January 2016


Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard
Writer: Lucinda Coxon
Director: Tom Hooper

In 1920s Copenhagen, well-regarded artist Einar Wegener (Redmayne) agrees to stand in for an absent model in order for wife Gerda (Vikander), also an artist, to make progress on a painting. What begins as something of a joke, as Einar gamely dons stockings for Gerda's art and is christened "Lily" by friend Ulla (Heard with the exuberance turned up to 11), suddenly takes on a life of its own as Einar steps out in Danish society as Lily and comes to believe that he is in the wrong body...

The Danish Girl is a fascinating story and in Tom Hooper's hands it's handled with taste and sensitivity. Arguably, it's handled with too much taste and sensitivity, the chocolate box scenery, beautiful costumes and mannered dialogue threatening to mute the film's important message. I can understand that a movie centred around a transgender character is not going to be everyone's cup of tea but this movie goes out so far out of its way to avoid offence that it's chaste when it ought to be challenging.

Okay, there is occasional nudity but this is dealt with an almost apologetic way. I half expected someone to lean into the shot and say "Look, we know you might be watching this because you liked The King's Speech. We can get through this. Another twenty seconds and there's a lovely shot of the marketplace near the waterfront".

And yet, despite the fact that I felt the subject matter wasn't given the treatment it should have been, the excellent performances hold the interest and keep the movie very watchable. Eddie Redmayne may be a little too precise in his female mannerisms and to me he always looks like he's about to burst into tears but he certainly convinces as Einar/Lily and elicits our sympathy. We're fearful of him being ridiculed as his female alter ego and we feel disgust for those who bully him for not conforming. This goes quite a way to erasing the memories of Redmayne's very odd turn in Jupiter Ascending. I just reminded you of that, right? Sorry.

And if Redmayne is good, then Alicia Vikander is even better. As Gerda, she is called upon to be the emotional anchor for Einar and the emotional journey her character takes is just as complex as that of her husband. Vikander has an ineffable screen presence and she plays Gerda with a great deal of care, giving a fine performance that, for me, is the reason to see the movie. Matthias Schoenarts and Sebastian Koch are effective as, respectively, Einar's childhood friend Hans and the kindly, forward thinking Dr. Warnerkros but it's Vikander that walks off with the honours here.

There's no doubt that this is a production of no little quality with fabulous period detail, beautiful locations and an exceptional cast. I believe the main thing that holds The Danish Girl back from being a truly excellent film it that it fails to show the same bravery in its portrayal of transgender issues as Lily Elbe demonstrated when confronting the attitudes of a society that didn't, couldn't and wouldn't understand her situation.

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Starring: Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, Tika Sumpter
Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Director: Tim Story

After the box-office success of the first Ride Along movie, Ice Cube and Kevin Hart return for a second helping of mismatched buddy action. Ben (Hart) is now a rookie cop but he's still being a pain in the arse to hotshot detective James (Cube), not least because he's about to marry James' sister Angela (Sumpter) and he's pestering to assist on a drug case which will take them to Miami.

Did I say rookie cop? Just checked, yes I did. That makes him the perfect candidate to help crack a major drug ring in Miami. Still, this is Ride Along 2 and James thinks that if Ben fails to prove himself on a real investigation it will end his daydreams of being a supercop. James' boss doesn't seem to mind that a clearly unqualified officer is pursuing a lead on a drugs baron and Angela would like Ben out of the way for a few days to stop him clashing with the wedding planner, so hey, why not? Hey, I was free for a few days, how come I didn't get the call to join them in Florida?

Okay, this is hardly Heat in terms of the police procedural details so I'd generally be willing to cut this kind of action comedy some slack but the plot is just a series of convenient discoveries and Macguffins upon which to hang chases, shootouts and Cube-Hart comedy banter. This would be fine if the chases, shootouts and comedy banter were up to scratch but unfortunately they aren't.

This is not to say that Ride Along 2 is awful. It isn't. It's competently made, it's reasonably well acted and it has a couple of amusing sequences. The problem I had is that it's just so formulaic and goes through the motions in such a depressingly programmed way that I was checking my watch to the point where I thought it had stopped. The script is really at fault here, falling way short in terms of either laughs or thrills, falling back on some of the laziest stereotypes it's possible to cram into a comedy cop movie.

Take Olivia Munn as tough, feisty Florida 'tec Maya. We know she can handle herself because she incapacitates Ben on their first meeting. We know she's feisty because she can give as good as she gets in the snappy dialogue department. However, her character's main area of expertise seems to be that she has boobs. Which means she turns up to one location wearing a sports bra - Hey, look guys! Boobs! - and then uses said boobs, squeezed into a slinky dress, to distract drug lord Antonio Pope (a luckless Benjamin Bratt) whilst Ben is trying to steal files from Pope's computer. Maya is apparently an ace cop, crack shot and skilled driver but BOOBS. Got that? BOOBS.

Back to poor old Benjamin Bratt, saddled with a bad guy role so ineffectual that I was left thinking that there must be another, bigger, badder bad guy behind him. No, Antonio Pope is not only a stupefyingly dull businessman but he's also a stupefyingly dull villain to boot, possessing all the threat of a minor ailment and becoming the unwelcome recipient of the screenplay's very worst lines. Pope is the sort of guy Hans Gruber would send to pick up his laundry.

I say all of this with a certain amount of frustration because if these performers had actually been handed something with even a smidge of potential I'm sure the results would have been much more satisfying. It's obvious that Cube and Hart play really well off each other and it's testament to both of them that this remains just about watchable. If the material had matched their talents then I could have well been talking about something special. As it is, Ride Along 2 is a disappointing, join-the-dots enterprise which squanders the considerable skills of its participants.

Ride Along 2? Nah, it's okay, I'll walk.

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Thursday, 21 January 2016


Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson
Writers: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro González Iñárritu
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu


Frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is attempting to lead a hunting party back to safety when he's mauled by a bear and severely injured. Captain Andrew Henry (Gleeson) asks for volunteers to stay back and tend to Glass while he goes to get help. One of these volunteers is John Fitzgerald (Hardy) who hardly waits for Henry to disappear over the horizon before he's murdered Glass's half-Pawnee son and left the frontiersman for dead. But Glass is made of much sterner stuff, fighting for survival in a forbidding landscape and driven by revenge...

Let me begin by saying that The Revenant is a film that many of you will not like. It's over two and a half hours long. There are long stretches of this where there is absolutely no dialogue at all and when you do get dialogue it's often delivered in a molasses-thick accent by Hardy or a croaked couple of words from DiCaprio. The violence is grimy and bloody. The plot consists of suffering piled upon suffering piled upon suffering. Like the sound of it?

And yet, even though all of this would seem to be a formula for one of the least watchable movies ever it's a breathtaking, riveting journey which immerses the viewer in the action right from the off with a jaw-dropping opening in which Henry's group struggles desperately to escape from a sustained attack by a group of Arikara Indians. It's a nightmarish set-piece, gorgeously and clearly filmed by ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, perfectly capturing the confusion and terror of being besieged by a quick, intelligent, ferocious enemy. From a technical viewpoint, it's one of several "how the hell did they do that?" scenes this film can boast.

There's very little let up either. It's not long until Glass unfortunately happens upon the aforementioned bear, which is another remarkably-crafted sequence, a prolonged, terrifying and merciless fight between man and beast which is so up close and personal that the bear's breath fogs the camera at one point. And even when all of that's done and you're trying to catch your breath (again), The Revenant has only hit the 45-minute mark.

Yes, it may be something of an endurance test but what a superb and powerful piece of cinema Iñárritu has created here. Equalling his commitment to the material is the astonishingly accomplished cast, headed up by DiCaprio who has been rightly tipped for Oscar glory here. He is Glass and the frontier is his home, whether he's plotting the safest course through unforgiving terrain or chowing down on raw fish or bloody chunks of bison. 

Hardy is, of course, outstanding too, giving Fitzgerald huge depth and making him a fascinating villain. His actions may be nigh on impossible to forgive but it's understandable why he makes the decisions he does. Gleeson is first-rate as the somewhat out-of-his-depth Henry, as is Will Poulter as the young, conflicted Bridger, a boy attempting to grow up quickly in a world of grizzled, disillusioned men.

Very much like its locations, The Revenant is beautiful and bleak, sublime and savage. It may not be a movie you will want to watch over and over again but it will only take one viewing to make its mark.

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Thursday, 14 January 2016


Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Director: Quentin Tarantino

Bounty hunter John Ruth (Russell) is transporting his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Leigh) to the town of Red Rock, where Ruth will collect ten thousand dollars and Daisy will hang. A blizzard forces them to take shelter in a cabin where others have taken refuge from the severe weather. It soon becomes abundantly clear that something ain't right...

In the interests of full disclosure I'll admit that I'm something of a fan of Quentin Tarantino's. Reservoir Dogs is, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made. I've lost count of how many times I've seen it and I can quote entire scenes worth of dialogue. Ask me what I think Madonna's song Like A Virgin is about.

And yet whilst I think The Hateful Eight is good, it's not great. There are things in its nearly three-hour running time (I was part of the non-70mm screening crowd) that don't work for me. The fact that it's nearly three hours is one of those things. The first half - dare I actually say this? - drags a lot more than it ought to. The second half, where the plot really picks up and you're plunged into primo Tarantino territory, is thoroughly entertaining but that first hour is really going to test the patience of some.

And yet, even though the second half is chock-full of QT's signature funny/nasty shenanigans it's sort of a retread of Reservoir Dogs in that it's a bunch of guys in one location trying to work out who isn't who they say they are. Yes, Ruth and fellow traveller Marquis (Jackson) are taken in slightly different directions to Mr White, Mr Pink et al but the echoes of Tarantino's peerless debut are hard to shake.

Maybe it's because I am such a fan of Quentin Tarantino and that I look forward to a new film of his so much that my expectations are always stratospherically high, which is probably going to mean that I can only be disappointed. However, I really did try to reign in my excitement for this one, viewing it with rationality as opposed to being a drooling fanboy.

The thing is, you should still go to see this because a somewhat underpowered film from Mr Tarantino is a whole lot better than the best output of many other directors. The cinematography is stunning and wrings the maximum possible out of the wide-wide-widescreen format. Ennio Morricone's score has all the classic Western ticks and beats. As you'd expect, there are chucklesome one-liners and lengthy speeches delivered by actors having a ball with the material they've been given. And yes, there's startling, OTT violence.

As for the performances, there's not a duff one in sight. Samuel L. Jackson has rarely been better, Kurt Russell is suitably terrific, Walton Goggins and Tim Roth are hilarious....the list goes on. It's clear to see they're enjoying themselves and that enthusiasm for their roles leaps from the screen. It's just a shame that it takes so long for everyone to come together and bounce salty dialogue off each other.

Is it a masterpiece? Well, considering the previous paragraphs, it's obvious that I don't believe it is. However, it's certainly well-crafted and has many inspired moments. A bit of judicious editing wouldn't have gone amiss, that's all.