The Giver (2014)

The GiverFollowing a catastrophic conflict, The Community has tried to eradicate discord by eliminating difference. Citizens are genetically engineered, allocated to carers and designated careers determined by disposition and ability. To ensure there is no discontent, citizens have no knowledge of life before or beyond The Community — that is, except for one: the Receiver of Memory. During his graduation ceremony, as his classmates are alphebatised to be assigned their adult positions, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is unexpectedly skipped and left until last. Rather than be employed as a Groundskeeper or a Nurturer, he is to become the new Receiver of Memory. Mentored by The Giver (Jeff Bridges, who also produced), he is exposed to archive memories of the past in order to advise the council — as ignorant of past events as its people — should any unprecedented issues arise. As he learns about colour and beauty and love Jonas becomes increasingly disillusioned with the status quo, finally resolving to rebel against the current system.

The Giver was always going to be a difficult sell. Lois Lowry’s film, though widely regarded as the basis for the Young Adult phenomenon currently dominating fiction, is a book that lacks supporting characters, a dramatic conflict and — despite its emphasis on the importance of emotion — a satisfying conclusion. Like Andrew Stanton’s recent flop John Carter, director Phillip Noyce risked producing a film that felt derivative and cliched despite the source novel actually predating the genre in question. The Giver is ideas-driven, a children’s story that nevertheless deals with very adult themes of totalitarianism and dystopia, something which back in 1993 might have seemed novel but which in 2014 seems utterly unremarkable. A lot has changed in the last twenty years and next to other adaptations such as The Hunger Games and (to an admittedly lesser extent) Divergent, The Giver seems crude, simplistic and unrefined.

Inevitably, Noyce has attempted to update Lowry’s story, to better appeal to a contemporary audience. He has aged the main character from twelve to eighteen, given supporting characters more important roles and manufactured drama where there perhaps wasn’t any before. The problem is that The Giver has a very silly premise, one that might have worked for tired children being read bedtime stories but doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny leveled at it by teenage (let alone adult) moviegoers. Even if more mature audiences can refrain from smirking at the endless discussion of Givers and Receivers, they’ll still likely balk at the idea of memories being passed from one individual to another — by hand. It doesn’t help that the dialogue remains largely unchanged, leaving adult actors to work with childish words. As Jonas, Thwaites does his best, but struggles to create a character of sufficient complexity, particularly in the early stages of the narrative where the character is supposed to be innocent but simply comes across as witless. Meanwhile, everyone else — Meryl Streep and Taylor Swift in particular — struggles with characters that were never intended for significant roles.

Strangely, despite Noyce’s attempts to appeal to a savvier audience, the film is considerably less provocative than the book. By dint of the main character being younger, Lowry’s discussion of adolescent stirrings, genetic engineering, euthanasia and infanticide were substantially more shocking — originally banned in her native America. It takes most of the first half of the book for Lowry to establish her setting — fantastical as it is — and yet even then there are glaring holes in her ideology. With Noyce attempting to cram his set-up into a minutes-long montage the audience isn’t given enough time to suspend their disbelief, and are left to spend the rest of the movie picking apart the plot when they should be chewing over the issues it raises. Why, for instance, is the first act presented in black and white? The question of why memories of the past might inhibit colour perception is never answered in the book, but it is raised so late in the game that it is easily overlooked, whereas in the film it is such a prominent feature that you simply cannot ignore it.

And yet, though supremely silly and often unintelligible, The Giver has its moments, and even if they aren’t as clear in the film as they were in the book its themes are as interesting as ever. What should be considered a reasonable price for peace and prosperity? Is kinship more important than family? Are sex, religion and politics justifiable when they so often result in distraction, dissatisfaction and disagreement? The story’s central theme is whether ignorance is indeed bliss, and while it might be difficult to connect with the characters it’s worth considering the questions they ask. Life is complicated, difficult and unpredictable, but it is also beautiful, and occasionally Noyce’s film is too. It features footage of births, deaths, love, hate, peace and war, using the memories being transferred between Giver and Receiver to show humanity at its best and worst, and it’s easy to get caught up in the experiences. If only the film had done the same — the human race is capable of great and terrible things, yet The Giver exposes Jonas and his audience to little more than sledge rides and bee stings.

Hardly a year goes by without Hollywood attempting to adapt at least one supposedly unfilmable book, and with results which include The Lord of the Rings, Life of Pie and Cloud Atlas hardly a year goes by without Hollywood proving the maxim to be baseless. With Lois Lowry’s The Giver, however, the film industry has finally met its match. As a thought exercise it is a noble failure, but as a film it is an terrible mess.

2-stars

The Guest (2014)

The GuestAs the Peterson family grieves for the loss of their oldest son, Caleb, a stranger approaches on foot. He claims to have run from the nearest bus stop, miles away; to have come as soon as he was discharged in order to pass on the late soldier’s — a friend’s — message of love to the family he left behind. Mother Laura (Sheila Kelly) welcomes him into their home, insisting that he stays for a while, in Caleb’s old room, at least until he finds his feet and plans his next move. He obliges, soon winning the trust of father Spencer (Leland Orser) and youngest son Luke (Brendan Meyer), by sharing a beer with the former and teaching self-defence to the latter. Daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) isn’t so easily won over, however, and unconvinced by his flirtations and offers of friendship she soon grows suspicious of David Collins’ (Dan Stevens) increasingly insidious attempts to integrate himself into the family.

The question you will find yourself asking throughout The Guest has nothing to do with identity of the eponymous stranger, but rather the nature of the film itself. Is The Guest an action movie? Is it a comedy? Or is it supposed to be a horror? The trailer suggested it would be an awkward mix of action and comic beats, with many gun-fights and much gurning. Furthermore, Dan Stevens seemed to have little more to say than “David”,  drawing uneasy comparisons with Matt Damon in Team America and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. The film itself, meanwhile, positions itself as a horror, an old-fashioned slasher movie complete with Hammer title cards and Halloween setting, even if the underlying goofiness remains.

Unfortunately, The Guest is neither thrilling, hilarious or scary. Having given away its big twist in the marketing campaign — that Collins is not what he seems — there is no tension, no suspense, no surprises. Even one Lance Reddick enters the fray, much later on than the trailer suggested, the film fails to build the necessary momentum. The two main set-pieces — a short-lived shoot-out at the Peterson family home and a prolonged chase sequence at a Halloween party — barely belong in the same movie, but it’s the inconsistencies in tone and pace that jar most. That’s not to say that the film isn’t entertaining, however, and despite these fluctuations it is generally enjoyable enough.

Whatever the film’s problems, its central performances are not among them. Stevens copes incredibly well, often hitting his marks regardless of how wildly inappropriate they might be. While low on menace his guest is high on mystique, and though you know roughly what is to come there is a volatility and unpredictability to the character that remains as perhaps the film’s only true constant. The kids are great too, with both Monroe and Meyer convincing in their roles. Their scenes with Stevens are among the film’s best, particularly early on as they both begin the surrender to his charms. It’s just a shame that writer Simon Barrett doesn’t give them more to work with.

Not quite as discordant as the trailer might have you believe, there is nevertheless an incongruity at the heart of The Guest that makes it a slightly ungainly watch. If nothing else, however, it should highlight the talents of Stevens and Meyer, who are undoubtedly destined for greater things. As for director Adam Wingard, who also directed You’re Next, it’s still difficult to say.

3-Stars

Pride (2014)

PrideIt’s 1984, and Mark (Ben Schnetzer), Mike (Joseph Gilgun), Steph (Faye Marsay), Jeff (Freddie Fox) and Joe (George Mckay) have descended on London for Gay Pride. From their base of operations at Gethin (Andrew Scott) and Jonathan’s (Dominic West) LGBT book shop, they decide to this year campaign not for themselves but for the striking miners in Wales. Naming themselves Lesbians and Gays Support Miners, they set out in search of a community willing to accept their support. Having made arrangements with Dai (Paddy Considine), they head west to Onllwyn to meet some of the people worst hit by Thatcher’s Tory government. While the town council — including Hefina (Imelda Staunton), Cliff (Bill Nighy) and Sian (Jessica Gunning) — are happy to see them, however, they have a harder time convincing the miners to accept their offer of not just assistance but friendship.

There have been many unlikely political pairings in British history — the current coalition government for one, and the Green Party’s recent alliance with the Scottish Yes campaign for another — but easily the most unexpected has to be the real-life alliance of gay activists with the Welsh mining unions. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the story of Mark Ashton and his 80s cause — Lesbians and Gays Support Minors — is not that it happened but that we’re only hearing about it now. Now largely forgotten, the relationship nevertheless had wide-reaching consequences for both sides, changing the lives of not only the individuals involved but contributing to a larger change as well. This is a film about solidarity, about collaboration and putting others before yourself. And it couldn’t be more timely.

Of course, being a British film with home-grown “issues” at its heart, there was every chance that Matthew Warchus’ film could have been unbearable. It might easily have been patronising, preachy, or sentimental, and ran the very real risk of alienating people on both sides — not just homosexuals and blue-collar workers, but the Welsh and the English too. As it happens, however, Pride does no such thing. It’s fun and funny, but not at the expense of the drama, while the film manages to address HIV and media-lead hate campaigns without letting them unbalance the narrative or compromise the tone. After a surprisingly successful evening at the local working men’s club, a man is asked by his wife if he was really expecting there to be a scene: “sometimes”, he admits, “people surprise you”. As does British cinema.

The cast are flawless throughout — thesps and newcomers alike are clearly determined to do the incredible story justice. Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy (the latter reviving his accent from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) bring incredible warmth and dignity to the town council, while Jessica Gunning almost runs away with the movie as their newest no-nonsense member, Sian. Each has their own comic moments, but you are never invited to laugh at them because they are Welsh, though their language’s lack of vowels isn’t above comment. Even then, however, the Welsh language is behind one of the film’s most emotional scenes, as exiled Welsh expat Gethin is wished Merry Christmas in his native tongue for the first time in years. Andrew Scott, like everyone else, is excellent.

The characters with the most pronounced arcs, however, hail from London — or, in the case of leader Mark, from Ireland. Dominic West’s Jonathan has become disillusioned with activism, Faye Marsay’s Steph is caught between causes and George McKay’s Joe is in the closet and lying to his parents. It’s another impressive performance from McKay, who has already made something of a name for himself as a daring actor with diverse turns in last year’s hat-trick of How I Live Now, For Those In Peril and Sunshine on Leith. There are some great supporting performances too, from Harry Potter‘s Jessie Cave and The Three Musketeers‘ Freddie Fox. The film ultimately belongs to Ben Schnetzer, however, last seen as Max Vandenburg in The Book Thief, though you’ll never recognise him as the same actor. He’s effervescent, and when he disappears somewhat abruptly in the third act the film is poorer for it.

Pride isn’t perfect; it’s a little long, there are maybe too many characters and does lack a consistent pace but the story is so compelling that you forgive it the occasional lull. Released within days of the Scottish referendum, the film should give everyone an opportunity to celebrate the United Kingdom and its remarkable shared history while they still can.

4-Stars

 

Before I Go To Sleep (2014)

Before I Go To SleepChristine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) has anterograde amnesia, meaning that she is unable to form new memories. She can remember everything that happened up until her early twenties, but beyond that nothing more than fragments. Every morning she wakes up in a strange bed, next to a strange man (Colin Firth), only to be told that she is now a married woman of 47, and that he is in actual fact her husband. Once he leaves for work, she is contacted by Nash (Mark Strong), a neuroscientist claiming to be her doctor, who directs her towards a shoe box containing a camera on which she has recorded messages for herself. Using this as a makeshift memory bank, she tries to put together the mystery of her condition, brought on, she is told, by an attempt on her life that has never been solved. The moment she goes to sleep, however, these memories are lost, and she must start over again the next morning.

Storytelling and memory go way back. After all, what is memory if not the most important story of all? The story of you, of your life and achievements, a record of everything you have ever thought, felt or sensed. And what use are stories if you cannot remember them? Amnesia has long troubled philosophers and psychologists alike, but its prominence in popular culture speaks to a much wider fascination than among intellectuals alone. The latest film to explore the subject is Before I Go To Sleep, Rowan Joffé’s adaptation of S. J. Watson’s 2011 novel of the same name. Like many, it does so through the prism of a murder mystery, albeit one where only half of the victim’s life has been lost.

While it is easy enough to sit through a lecture on the self concept or read a scientific paper on Alzheimer’s disease, watching a film on the subject of memory loss is rather more problematic. Like memory, cinema is ultimately an illusion, and if you break that illusion you risk alienating your audience. Viewers expect certain things from their protagonist, important things like progression, development and growth; things that someone with amnesia is simply unable to offer. Over the years cinema has found ways to compensate — Joffé doesn’t show full daily cycles, but hints at them with repetitions of certain incidence and encounters, while Christine employs a video diary to help steer her in the right direction — but few have to keep it up, as unlike real amnesiacs most of those featured in movies have made a near-full recovery within ninety minutes of losing their memory.

Christine isn’t a particularly interesting character, which is a shame because on paper at least she’s fascinating. A 47-year-old woman who wakes up daily in the body of a twenty-something? Just imagine it: the confusion as you awake in the arms of a stranger, in alien environs and a body you only half recognise. You’d want to speak to your mum, your dad, your best friends. You’d want to see a doctor, or call the police. You’d want to weep. The premise does not just lend itself to horror, or tragedy, but to comedy too; the juxtaposition of a young mind in an old body, unable to find clothes you recognise as you pick through items more appropriate for someone twice your age. Rather than begin each day in such a way, however, Christine simply stands in the kitchen — emotionless — allowing a stranger to pull her into a hug and convince her that everything’s going to be alright. It’s unbelievable, and the first act is almost impossible to engage with.

While Joffé may inherit Watson’s irritatingly passive protagonist, however, he also gets the author’s ending — and what an ending it is. After playing something of a long game, with only the occasional double-bluff, the writer-director finally plays his full hand. Your heart sinks, your stomach lurches and your fingers sink into the padding on the armrest. Some may predict the plot twist, others will already know it from the book, but for those who haven’t guessed correctly — and, it must be said, those who have long stopped trying — it will turn your blood cold. Before I Go To Sleep is a better thriller than it is a mystery, and after an hour of relative inactivity the film finally starts to build momentum. There’s never any question of whether Christine will get her memories back before the end of the film, but there is uncertainty with regards to whether she will live long enough to remember them. Given how muted, detached and expressionless the first act was, it’s genuinely amazing that the finale is as emotional and satisfying as it is.

It’s difficult to create a watertight mystery about something as permeable as human memory, and there are very few examples of movies that manage to pull it off successfully. Before I Go To Sleep gets a lot wrong, but Joffé — with the help of Colin Firth, it must be said — manages to turn it around just in time for a truly stunning climax.

3-Stars

The Boxtrolls (2014)

The Boxtrolls 3DIn the years since the mysterious disappearance of the Trubshaw child, the subterranean boxtrolls of Cheesebridge have been held responsible for his death and Archibald Snatcher tasked with their immediate extermination. Little do the townspeople know that the boy is alive and well, now renamed Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and living happily beneath their feet in what he believes to be his rightful place. Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), along with henchmen Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickels (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), is making progress, however, and before long Eggs is watching his makeshift family dwindle into single digits. Determined to help them defend themselves, he dresses as a human and sets out for the surface where he encounters Winnie (Elle Fanning), daughter of the town’s mayor, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the leader of the White Hats tasting rooms of which Snatcher aspires to become a member.

Timeless isn’t a word you get to use very often in the world of animation. Even the so-called classics — Disney’s Golden Age or Pixar’s early years — are rooted in the moment, doomed to antiquity as audiences move on from one technique to the next, be it hand-drawn, computer-generated or motion-capture animation. Yet the term applies to Coraline, to ParaNorman, and now to The Boxtrolls. LAIKA is different to other animation studios; as Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar pursue pixel perfection, designing and then redesigning their technologies to produce ever-more realistic snowflakes, raindrops and blades of grass, LAIKA has side-stepped obsolescence completely by taking itself out of the race. Even Aardman and Ghibli look harried and try-hard next to LAIKA.

The studio’s films have always been more thoughtful, patient and subversive that its competitors’. There are no musical numbers, pop-culture references or flights of surrealist fantasy designed to pander to or placate the more impatient members of the audience, but rather a shared understanding that the filmmakers will share something special with those willing or able to wait. The Boxtrolls is perhaps LAIKA’s funniest film to date, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less scary, thought-provoking or emotionally intelligent. In fact, you are often invited to question the comedy; after all, should you really be laughing at a little girl’s blood-lust, a father’s negligence, or a henchman’s crisis of identity? Talking dogs and racing snails this ain’t.

Just as ParaNorman wasn’t really a film about zombies, The Boxtrolls has precious little to do with its titular tricksters. This is a film about ignorance, impotence and demonising the lower classes; the boxtrolls might not be human, but it is the townsfolk who are truly inhuman. Lord Portley-Rind can’t see passed his tasting room, to the detriment of his family and the town itself; Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles spend so much time contemplating their culpability that they overlook their own redemption; and Archibald Snatcher is so obsessed with breaking into high society that he refuses to accept his own allergy to cheese. Below ground things are no different; Eggs is trapped by his own identity while his adopted family have mistaken cowardice for survival instinct. Evil isn’t the issue; weakness is.

There is as ever much to admire on the surface too. The animation is as exquisite as ever, with LAIKA’s trademark characterisation again proving that characters don’t always have to be cute to be beautiful. There is perhaps too much prologue, spent in the company of speechless boxtrolls and a babbling baby, but there is never a shortage of things to marvel at. Eggs is a delight, just as Coraline and Norman were before him, but in many ways Winnie is the more interesting character. She is the perfect juxtaposition of outer prettiness and inner perversion, and many of the biggest laughs come from her inappropriate obsession with the macabre. This time, however, the most memorable characters rank among the villains: Ben Kingsley channels Robert Helpmann to make Snatcher the 21st Century’s Child Catcher (now prone to cross-dressing and lactose intolerance), while Frost and Ayoade are an utter joy as Trout and Pickles (“I’m agreeing so as not to upset you”; “I’m still seventy percent sure that we’re the good guys”). And don’t even get me started on Tracy Morgan (“Leeches!”).

Up there with the year’s best 3D animated movies (on a par with How To Train Your Dragon 2, if not quite as crowd-pleasing as The LEGO Movie), The Boxtrolls is another towering achievement for LAIKA. It may not dominate the box office, or change the way that animated movies are made forever (or at least the next few months), but as long as it finds an audience and facilitates a fourth movie then directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi have done their job beautifully. After all, everyone knows that slow and steady wins the race.

4-Stars

 

The Rover (2014)

The RoverTen years have passed since The Collapse, an apparent global economic catastrophe that has rendered the Australian dollar worthless and the country’s citizens dependent on US currency, and Eric (Guy Pearce) is having a drink when his car is stolen by foreigners looking to meet a payday half-way across the desert. He gives chase, tailing them in a damaged 4×4 that the thieves had prematurely written off, until a roadside confrontation leaves him on the ground and unconscious. His borrowed vehicle is recognised at a nearby opium den by the brother of one of the thieves, who had been left for dead in their haste to move on. He’s badly injured, however, and if Eric is to use Rey (Robert Pattinson) to find his stolen car then he is first going to have to patch him up.

On the surface, The Rover doesn’t sound like the most appealing prospect. Another Australian western, dystopian nightmare? The Road-trip with Robert Pattinson? There’s more than enough Man With No Name nonsense coming out of the States, thank you very much, without the land down under getting in on the act. (Eric is named on IMDb, but as far as I can remember not in the film.) The trailer certainly didn’t promise much in the way of narrative, teasing a stoic drive through featureless desert with a silent type and a stuttering simpleton, and by and large it sums the film’s story up rather well. This is ultimately a mood piece, an existential yarn that is more to do with atmosphere than action. Unexpectedly, it’s also excellent — dark, but without being quite as depressing as director David Michôd’s last film, Animal Kingdom.

Equally surprising is the fact that a large part of the film’s success is down to Pattinson himself, who, through his jittery movements and broken sentences, gives the illusion of activity even when nothing is happening, or even threatening to happen. Even from the moment of his introduction, lying bloodied next to a doomed soldier gulping for oxygen like a fish out of water, he brings a precarious unpredictability to proceedings that prior to his arrival had stretched out into distance with no sign of diversion between here and the horizon. It’s an electric performance, and one that’s a million miles away from the polished calm of his Edward Cullen. He doesn’t just make you fear Rey, or even pity him, but genuinely warm to the character.

That’s not to take anything at all away from Pearce. Eric may be less eye-catchingly erratic but he’s still a complex and compelling character, particularly as the film progresses and his backstory is revealed. It’s just that he’s vying for attention in a film full of substantially more memorable characters. There’s Gillian Jones as Grandma, purveyor of opium and pimp to her grandchildren; Susan Prior as Dot, the outback’s chief dog-sitter and gun-totting surgeon; and Scoot McNairy as Rey’s disloyal older brother. Even unnamed characters make an impression disproportionate to their screentime, with Nash Edgerton bringing some much needed morality to proceedings as Town Soldier, Scott Perry breaking your heart in his thirty second role as the aforementioned Dying Soldier, and Richard Green winning you over in his equally shortlived turn as Shopkeeper.

It’s a slight film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful in its own way. Necessarily visceral, brutal and uncompromising, The Rover also manages to be intelligent, thought-provoking and even occasionally profound. You may not always sympathise with its characters, but that doesn’t mean you can’t understand them. They’re human, often terrifyingly so.

4-Stars

 

Into The Storm (2014)

Into The StormIn North Oklahoma, a group of teenagers are killed when a freak tornado engulfs their vehicle. The incident has drawn an assortment of thrill-seekers and meteorologists to the area, including a team of celebrity storm chasers lead by Pete Moore (Matt Walsh). They aren’t having the best of luck, with resident scientist Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies) leading them on a fruitless goose chase around the state. On her final warning, she directs the team to Silverton, and is promptly fired when the storm passes without making contact with the ground. Their actions are premature, however, and moments later hail stones the size of golf balls start raining down around them. At the local high school Donnie Fuller (Max Deacon) is preparing to help his father (Richard Armitage) record the year’s graduation ceremony, but after a falling out decides instead to help a girl he likes (Alycia Debnam-Carey) shoot a short film on the other side of town. When the tornado finally strikes, Donnie’s father, and his brother Trey (Nathan Kress), set out to find him.

It seems like an awfully long time since Mother Nature had any real effect on the box office. Sure there has been the occasional atmospheric anomaly (Hereafter; The Impossible; The Day After Tomorrow) but for the most part audiences have been more likely to experience an alien invasion or maniacal supervillain than a natural disaster. Things were different in the 90s; catastrophes came in twos, whether volcanic or astrological. The film that started it — and in many ways the exception to the trend — was Twister, a movie that not only set the template for the disaster movie but became synonymous with tornadoes themselves. Tornadoes were no longer the gateway to Oz, but a destructive force capable of leveling buildings, killing livestock and upsetting Helen Hunt.

Into The Storm may have a lot in common with Twister, but a lot has changed in the intervening years. A single tornado is no longer worth the price of admission — heck, just last year a film called Sharknado went straight to DVD — so the filmmakers have had to dial things up considerably. Cue firenados, supernados and superdupernados capable of lifting jumbo-jets as though they were cows. Believability — always the first victim in these films — here doesn’t even make it to the title card. This is the sort of film where the experts get most of their information from the weather channel; where a tornado can lift an armoured truck but not its detached forward bumper; where it is possible to be whisked into orbit by the largest funnel in recorded history and live to tell the tale.

Inaccuracy and inconsistency are the least of Into The Storm‘s problems, however. Audiences are accustomed to making giant leaps of logic, of suspending their disbelief, but only when the film in question is worth the effort. It’s not just that the science doesn’t add up; the film itself doesn’t make any sense. Like many films released recently, Into The Storm uses a found footage format, or at least it does on occasion. The filmmakers have even cast a cameraman — nominally named Reevis — to be responsible for second unit, yet even once he is accounted for (about half-way through the film when you realise there are more people in the truck than there should be) there are still images and whole sequences that cannot be explained.

And yet, despite its best efforts, Into The Storm is still perfectly passable. The cast is terrible (one can only assume that in the Hobbit films Richard Armitage’s beard does all of the acting), the effects are unconvincing (I’m pretty sure “watching Twister” constituted 99% of director Steven Quale’s research) and some characters are forgotten for entire acts (the continuity person was clearly off that day) but it’s still an entertaining watch. What’s more, it’s almost emotional. There’s a scene set in a ruined paper mill, between Deacon and Debnam-Carey, that’s surprisingly moving. It doesn’t last, obviously, but it’s remarkable nevertheless. Perhaps relatedly, it is also the shortest round in an 89-minute game of “identify the cameraman”.

Notable for slightly more than being the big screen return of Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter’s IMDb page lists other movie projects since 2003, but none that I’ve ever heard of), Into The Storm is probably the best worst movie that you will see this year. Well, expect for maybe A New York Winter’s Tale, anyway. It’s terrible; tremendously so.

2-stars

 

Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For (2014)

Sin City 2Despite attempting to distance himself from his violent past by becoming a private investigator, Dwight (Josh Brolin) is quickly corrupted by Ava (Eva Green), an old flame ostensibly seeking protection, and lured back into darkness. Years later, disorientated by a deadly car crash, Marv (Mickey Rourke) retraces the steps that have lead him into the hills surrounding Sin City, where two frat boys now lie dead. Down below, Johnny (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is on a winning streak at Kadie’s, but when he dares to beat Senator Roarke (Powers Booth) at poker his luck shows signs of running out. In the next room, through a hole in the wall, Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) is taking aim at the father of the man who once tried to kill her, but who instead took the life of the man she loved (Bruce Willis).

Not so much a sequel as a second anthology featuring interlocking stories set before, during and after the events of the previous film, Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For is often so incoherent that it is able to resurrect characters, recast actors and reprise stories almost at will, usually without anyone noticing. Clive Owen and Michael Clark Duncan are gone — though their characters return (nominally, at least, though it hardly matters if you don’t recognise them) — but Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis return, despite both of their characters being killed of last time around (the former by virtue of chronology and the latter as an overprotective ghost). Thanks to the nearly ten years between movies, however, you’ve probably forgotten.

Of the myriad new characters, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s gambler is perhaps the most memorable. Starting out as a winner in a city of losers (the closest the film ever comes to breaking the mould), the film delights in his unprecedented run of bad luck at the hands of returning villain Roarke. Also impressive, if only in passing, are Eva Green — an uncannily natural fit for Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s world — and a near-unrecognisable Christopher Lloyd — who makes the most of a brief appearance as a low-budget surgeon-for-hire with a predilection for ice lollies. While Rourke’s Marv — by now officially the face of the franchise — keeps cropping up throughout, to rapidly diminishing effect, the supporting actors are reduced to mere cameos. Blink and you risk missing Juno Temple, Jeremy Piven and, er, Lady Gaga.
If Marv is the figurehead then Dwight is surely the dramatic lead. Unfortunately, Brolin — who replaces Owen — is nowhere near as compelling in the role.  A self-styled private investigator with unresolved and unrequited feelings for Ava, Brolin’s Dwight is the most Sin City character imaginable. He isn’t so much on a downward spiral of self-destruction as caught in a perpetual loop of it. Never the most charismatic screen presence, Brolin is here a crushing bore, and the main reason that the second act — where the majority of his story unfolds — is such a drag; he’s just another tortured schmuck in a city that’s full of them. Rosario Dawson returns as a friendly face, but the chemistry that once existed between the characters is in staggeringly short supply here. Their relationship is even less convincing than Alba and Willis’.
All in all, however, Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For is pretty much on a par with its predecessor. Even after nine years Miller’s visual style still looks remarkably fresh and inventive, and while the use of colour in this one might not be quite as striking it benefits from an impressive 3D conversion. Dramatically, though, the new film is just as inert: with its over-reliance on voice over, homogeneous characters and repetitive storylines, Sin City remains all style and no substance.
3-Stars

August 2014 — I’m the knife before Christmas!

Begin AgainWhile by no means at the level I’d like them to be, my viewing figures for August are nevertheless up on July. I’ve been going to the cinema whenever I can, and have seen ten new cinematic releases in the last thirty-one days — as well as finally getting around to posting my review of Boyhood.

Of those, I have reviewed Step Up: All In, The Purge: Anarchy, Begin Again, Hercules, The Inbetweeners 2, Lucy and The Expendables 3. While none are likely to trouble my top ten or even twenty come the end of the year each managed to entertain on some basic level. The worst was arguably Hercules, though even Brett Ratner’s latest wasn’t completely devoid of redeeming features.

If anything, August has been a month of pleasant surprises. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Lucy or Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For, yet both exceeded my admittedly low expectations. The same could be said for Begin Again and The Rover, though in their cases the surprise was even greater. Begin Again overcame my aversion to films about the music industry, while The Rover somehow sidestepped my blanket dislike for unnamed leading characters.

Reviews of Sin City 2, The Rover and Joe will be online as soon as get around to writing them, though the latter will likely also have to wait until I actually have something to say.

Outside of the cinema I finally took a vested interest in Scottish politics and waded into the referendum debate. I wrote a long-overdue blog for Finding A Neish about my reasons for voting against Scottish independence. But I’m getting ahead of myself, September is still hours away.

Film of the month: Begin Again

 

The Expendables 3 (2014)

The Expendables 3In need of a medic and a fifth member, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) mount a daring mission to extract Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes) from military prison. They soon cross paths with Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), the team’s co-founder turned arms dealer, who once betrayed Ross and left the rest of his team for dead. Reluctant to lose any more friends to the man, Barney recruits a new team of rookies (Kellan Lutz; Ronda Rousey; Glen Powell; Victor Ortiz) only for his plan to fail and the youngsters to be captured by Stonebanks. He has no option but to put the old team back together and go after them.

Throw in Arnold Schwarzenegger, Antonio Banderas, Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer, Jet Li and Terry Crews and you have the series’ most diverse cast yet. Faced with rounding off his trilogy and outdoing the two previous instalments, Stallone — who once again holds a story credit — has amassed not only some of the most kick-ass action stars in cinema history, but some of the best actors too. Given that it’s his third time around the block (this particular block, anyway) it’s impossible to see how The Expendables 3 could be anything but the best one yet.

Sadly, the film is anything but. Patrick Hughes, Stallone’s “new blood”, who has taken over directing duties from Simon West (who in turn took over from Stallone himself), doesn’t seem to have any visible grasp on the story, characters or tone of his film. It’s not entirely his fault — the decisions to rely on CGI, pander to a younger audience and overcrowd the cast were all likely out of his hands — but he’s got to be at least partly responsible for the failure of the action, jokes and emotional beats to have any sort of identifiable impact. With the exception of one gag (“I’m the knife before Christmas”) the film is essentially a laugh-free zone.

As for the story, the less said the better. The Expendables 3 is a trilogy in itself, basically repeating the same narrative with three separate but indistinct generations of the team. You’ve got the two founders, a member of the first team, the cast of first and second movie, the new recruits and a new-new line-up that consists solely of Antonio Banderas — or rather archive footage of Antonio Banderas’ outtakes on Shrek The Third. The film is little more than a single looped sequence involving a seemingly endless cycle of captures and rescues.

Not even the cast can save it, with every newcomer bar perhaps Mel Gibson failing to make a mark. Wesley Snipes is clearly out of practice, Kelsey Grammer is still in Transformers mode, and Harrison Ford looks like he might genuinely kill someone. Oritz doesn’t even get a role, Rousey barely gets a character, Lutz is so forgettable that you’re never entirely sure he’s been introduced yet, and Banderas is just plain embarrassing. Of the returnees, Crews is by far the most entertaining and he spends almost the entire film in a coma.

By skewing young, updating the effects and playing it straight the filmmakers have left the Expendables feeling a bit, well, expendable. The Expendables 3 is confused, lethargic and just a little bit sad. It seems strangely apt that the film was leaked online, undermining its box office performance: Stallone and co are outmoded, both on screen and off.

2-stars

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