The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

The HobbitHaving unleashed Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the unsuspecting denizens of Lake Town, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his company of dwarves can only watch in horror as the dragon decimates the town below. All, that is, except their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who is more concerned with reclaiming his birthright the Arkenstone — unaware that Bilbo has already picked it up and put it in his pocketsies. Lake Town is not completely defenseless, however, and as Smaug circles above Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) looses a special arrow that soon slays the beast. With the Lonely Mountain now empty, save for a hobbit and a handful of dwarves, convoys of both men and elves descend on Erebor keen to repatriate items stolen by Smaug. Thorin, though, is unwilling to part with even a single coin, leaving them little choice but to unite as the two camps prepare for war. Elsewhere, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is freed from the Necromancer by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee); Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) investigate a swarm of giant bats at Gundabad; and Bolg (Lawrence Makoare) leads an orc army to Erebor to avenge his father.

JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit was such a simple story, perfect (indeed specifically designed) for bedtime reading: a humble homebody is tricked into joining twelve dwarves on an adventure to reclaim some treasure from a dragon. There were one or two complications along the way, admittedly, but save for a fateful encounter with a cave-dwelling riddler and the subsequent acquisition of a magic ring nothing of particular import. It should come as something of a surprise, then, when during Peter Jackson’s adaptation — ostensibly split into three parts with the express purpose of elucidating on Tolkein’s words — you find yourself wondering what on Middle Earth is going on. Where is Legolas going, and why? When did Galadriel become strong enough to banish Sauron? And, most worryingly of all, given the subtitle — The Battle of the Five Armies — how many armies are there? Does the alliance of man and elf constitute one army, or are they counted as two? Is the second orc army a separate entity? Whose side are the eagles on? Surely — having dispensed with the dragon in the first thirty minutes — the least Jackson could have done was use the other two hours to draw distinctive battle-lines.

After all, it’s not as though he’s using his movie to tell the story of the eponymous hobbit — Bilbo’s barely had a look-in since he faced off against Smaug. He spends at least twenty minutes of the final battle unconscious, and most of the rest of it either invisible or simply unaccounted for. He pops up with Gandalf occasionally, but only to give the camera an excuse to be in any particular place at any particular moment — just in time for some CGI beastie to take a swing at another. By this point in Jackson’s own Lord of the Rings trilogy the hobbits were very much front and centre, yet you were so invested in the rest of the ensemble that you didn’t mind the occasional cuts to the returning king, the two towers or the remains of the fellowship. Here, however, you don’t particularly care about anyone — heck, half of the character’s you can’t even name, let alone relate to. Part of the problem is the sheer size of the ensemble, and the lack of attention given to anyone but Bilbo and Thorin, but mostly it can be attributed to the dismal casting of the two leads. Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage are terrible actors, the former gurning gurrulously while the latter fails to display any emotion whatsoever, and they are at their worst here.

It’s genuinely amazing just how divergent the two trilogies are in terms of quality. Whereas with each new instalment of Lord of the Rings the series gathered momentum, grew in complexity, and both encouraged and exploited technological advances, the prequels have become increasingly staid, silly and unsophisticated. It doesn’t help that Jackson — unperturbed by all evidence to the contrary — is steadfast in his support of 48fps as a viable filmmaking format. The unconvincing special effects shots are at least cinematic, in the sense that the best video games cut-scenes might be described as cinematic, and facilitate a suspension of disbelief. Every time Jackson cuts to a practical effect, however, you are immediately distracted by how uncannily theatrical it looks and the illusion is shattered. How is it that a series of films shot over ten years ago look more realistic than a similar series shot in the present day — by the same director and a largely identical creative team, no less? There are shots of Legolas fighting on a crumbling tower that look as though they belong in The Matrix Reloaded, while Billy Connolly is unrecogniseable in all but voice when he appears as a pixilated dwarf king. Pixar did a better job of animating him in Brave. The final battle is already narratively incomprehensible (it’s never obviously won; it’s just suddenly over), but WETA have succeeded in making the interminable action sequences visually confusing, too.

Unlike The Battle of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II or even The Battle of New York in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, The Battle of the Five Armies never feels like a separate or even distinguishable story in and of itself. A failure of pacing, staging and acting, The Hobbit 3 doesn’t just fail to justify its existence (Tolkein’s book barely supported two movies, let alone three) but to engage with its audience on even the most basic level. Somebody summon Peter Jackson a giant eagle, it’s time he was saved from himself.

2-stars

Penguins of Madagascar (2014)

Penguins of MadagascarSick of the sound of “I Like To Move It”, Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) load up the circus’ canon and launch themselves far out of earshot. At Fort Knox, where the penguins hope to celebrate Private’s birthday with a few packets of Cheesey Dibbles, a discontinued product banned everywhere else for its unhealthy ingredients, they are kidnapped by Dave (John Malkovich), an octopus from their days at Central Park Zoo who holds penguin-kind responsible for repeatedly stealing his thunder by drawing attention away from his own enclosure. They are rescued in Venice by North Wind, an elite inter-species task-force lead by [Classified] (Benedict Cumberbatch) who have learnt of Dave’s plans: to use a special “Medusa” serum to harvest the penguins’ cuteness. Unwilling to work together, however, the two teams soon find themselves competing for the upper hand, paw or flipper.

It is often said that Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private are the best thing about DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar franchise, and while that might do the rest of the ensemble something of a disservice it is certainly true that their surreal shenanigans are always a pleasure to watch — whether executing Operation Tourist Trap in Africa with little more than an egg or escaping Captain Chantel Dubois and the rest of Monaco’s pest control department aboard a monkey-powered plane. Anyone who’s seen their Nickelodeon television series knows that they are quite capable of going it alone (albeit with the occasional helping hand), and with DreamWorks Animation bringing the film’s release forward to bolster a disappointing 2014 and better compete with Paddington and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb they are undoubtedly banking on the brand’s enduring popularity.

The good news is that the penguins are as entertaining as ever — McGrath, Miller, Vernon and Knights (reinstated after having been recast for the television series) getting at least as many laughs as starry new additions Benedict Cumberbatch — who, bizarrely, can’t seem to pronounce the word penguins — and John Malkovich. McGrath in particular is a gifted voice artist, up there with the esteemed likes of John Ratzenberger and Patrick Warburton. From their anarchic Antarctic introduction through to their Stateside showdown with Dave the penguins maintain a gag-rate and consistency that is almost unknown in the comedy genre. The series is known for slapstick and surrealism but Penguins of Madagascar once again shows that DreamWorks can do satire as well as anyone, as Werner Herzog proves in his cameo as a documentary filmmaker. Malkovich, meanwhile, steals the show as Dave, who, like the studio’s own Megamind, is almost completely useless as a villain — failing at first impressions as he establishes a sound-free video link with North Wind. He also has the funniest running gag, giving his minions orders that make them sound like famous actors: “John, hurt them”, “Kevin, bake on, we’re still going to need that victory cake” — that sort of thing.

As much fun as the film is, however, it’s even flimsier than usual. The Madagascar franchise was fuelled — however superfluously — by the animals’ desire to get back home, and despite its geographical diversions and narrative detours it at least felt as though the characters were progressing from one farce to the next. There is almost no shape to Penguins of Madagascar, and even while you’re laughing it’s hard not to question if there was any real need for a spin-off beyond an attempt to balance the books. Set-pieces in Venice and Shanghai (initially mistaken for Dublin, Ireland) continue to escalate but without ever seeming to achieve anything, while ultimately North Wind serve no purpose whatsoever. The finale, meanwhile, is absurd even by the series’ standards, and keeps contradicting itself. The film justified its trip to Fort Knox by establishing that it was the only place left on Earth where the penguins could get Cheesey Dibbles, only for them to be readily available in a random New York mini-mart when they’re required to stop Dave. It’s not until an admittedly inspired mid-credits scene that the status-quo is finally re-established and the plot resolved in time for 2018’s Madagascar 4.

There is no denying that Penguins of Madagascar is one of the funniest films of the year — at least on a par with ‘proper’ comedies like 22 Jump Street and What We Do In The Shadows — only it manages to reduce you to tears of laughter while also being sweet-natured and suitable for the entire family.

3.5-Stars

Men, Women & Children (2014)

Men Women and ChildrenDepressed teenager Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort) is experiencing angst of an existential variety. Since his mother left his father (Dean Norris), and his footballer friends excommunicated him for leaving the team, he has begun to wonder whether anything in his life really matters — anything, that is, apart from MMORPG Guild Wars. Across town quarterback Chris Truby (Travis Tope) is so desensitised by fetish pornography that he can no longer sustain an erection without the aid of the Internet. His parents, Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), each similarly dissatisfied with their lives offline, have signed up to dating and escort agencies respectively to begin illicit affairs, leaving him home alone with aspiring actress Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). For Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever), meanwhile, the Internet offers no such escape; her mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) monitors her internet usage and tracks her mobile phone.

As narrator, Emma Thompson begins the film by questioning the importance of a solitary planet in a universe that doesn’t just dwarf it, but transcends it. She points to a picture taken by the Voyager Space Probe in 1990 at a distance of six billion kilometres, after completing its primary mission to explore the outer planets of our solar system, which reduces all life on Earth to a pale blue dot all but lost to the vastness of space. As the probe leaves our galaxy on an extended voyage of discovery, carrying with it little more evidence of our world than whale-song and multilingual pleasantries, the people of Earth — or at least those featured in Jason Reitman’s latest film — are focused on another pale blue dot all together: the kind emitted from a router or similar Internet device. They are not looking up at the stars but down at their screens — to a new universe that they themselves have created.

Although Men, Women & Children might be named after its users, constituting two generations of small-town America, Reitman is just as interested in the contents of their messages as he is in the messengers themselves. If, as Thompson seems to suggest, humanity is null and void, then what does that mean for our digital lives? After all, cosmologically it doesn’t matter one bit that Tim Mooney quit the football team or Chris Truby could’t get an erection, and yet long after they are gone and forgotten Voyager will still be transmitting choice data into space — an analog avatar for the human race. The Internet is often dismissed as immaterial and inconsequential but in the end it is no more or less important than anything else; as long as it matters to someone it has value and meaning. More than just a gimmick, Reitman’s decision to depict texts and tweets onscreen enables him to explore a new dimension of human behaviour — new levels of duplicity and intimacy.

As such, equal weight is afforded to actions both online and off. For the younger characters especially it is often difficult to differentiate between the two — so ingrained have notions such as instant messaging, gratification and celebrity become in the Internet age that they influence everyone and everything. Whether it is a group of girls saying one thing and texting another, a loner forced to blog anonymously to circumvent her overprotective mother or a boy investing his time in solitary quests rather than competitive sports the Internet has become a dominant and indomitable force in our lives. For Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris) the effects are rather more insidious — a cheerleader peer-pressured into losing weight for the benefit of a boy she likes, Allison’s abnormal behaviours have been reinforced and facilitated by Internet forums dedicated to dieting and self-harm — but this is no cautionary tale, simply a credible one.

As impartial as his narrator’s dispassioned drawl, Reitman explores the effects of the Internet on his ensemble with an often disquieting detachment — and it’s not just the iGeneration that are in his sights. Adult characters include a father disappointed that his son has broken tradition and sourced pornography online rather than through his own secret stash; a mother who posts inappropriate pictures of her teenage daughter to a website for anonymous subscribers; and a school councillor who medicates a student for playing video games when he should ideally be spending more time in RL. Rather than patronise his audience by dismissing such behaviours as obsolete or reactionary, Reitman accepts them unquestioningly — just as he does Don and Helen’s embrace of the new technology. His conclusion? That human nature is a rare, beautiful, frustrating, loving, selfish, ludicrous, perverse and irrational thing — wherever it manifests. These connections are at once everything and nothing at all.

The performances are flawless, with the actors rising to the challenge of interfacing with screens as often as co-stars. Elgort — fresh from Divergent and The Fault In Our Stars — gives his most promising performance yet, his disenfranchised former footballer perhaps making the largest impression. Tim’s burgeoning relationship with Dever’s Brandy is a joy to behold, and even though most of it unfolds electronically it never ceases to inspire — just as his mother’s decision to block him on Facebook smarts like any other betrayal. The Truby household is just as compelling, with mother, father and eldest son drawing the drama in different directions. Sandler is the best he’s ever been, and one of the most memorable scenes sees him and his wife play Scrabble on their tablets in bed while their TV does the talking for them. Next to their despondent domesticity the affairs they embark on are almost effervescent — the non-judgemental treatment of their infidelity incredibly refreshing. Throughout the film, across the cast, there is such desperation, and yet such hope.

Men, Women & Children is an ambitious work, and it will likely take repeated viewings to fully analyse and appreciate its insights. Juno, Up In The Air and Young Adult are all accomplished efforts — Labor Day notwithstanding — but it is with Men, Women & Children that Reitman has finally produced a masterpiece. It may only be an abstract file saved to the hard-drive of a projector on an infinitesimal rock in an infinite universe but it matters — at least to me. It makes a connection, and it’s real.

5-Stars

November 2014 – Werewolves, not swear-wolves!

Paddington posterIt’s been quite a month.

Catching the tail end of Dundee Contemporary Arts’ Discovery Film Festival after having spent October in Aberdeen for theirs, I began November with Beyond Clueless — Charlie Lyne’s insightful study of select teen movies from the nineties and early noughties.

Behind on reviews, I spent the rest of the week bringing my blog up to date with films seen at Hallowe’en and at previous press screenings. These included The Babadook, Ouija and Say When. I also attended an Unlimited showing of What We Do In The Shadows, allowing me to have my review ready in time for its theatrical release.

Big films in November included Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s overblown lecture on love; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I, a solid adaptation of a rather more shaky book; and Horrible Bosses 2, a sequel that struggled to meet even the low standards set by the original. The Homesman and Get On Up flew rather more under the radar — but rest assured that if their releases passed you weren’t missing much.

The best film released in November didn’t arrive until the later — pitching up at Paddington Station where he was embraced by audiences the country over. Paddington was that rarest of things: a British children’s movie to be proud of. It’s genuinely amazing to think that this year there will be kids asking Father Christmas for a bear like Paddington — that relic of war-torn Britain given a new lease of life by the producer of Harry Potter.

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited release of the month, for me at least, was not that of a new film but of one from June. I had been planning to buy How To Train Your Dragon 2 on Blu-ray anyway, but when news reached me that my HeyUGuys review had been quoted on the back cover my anticipation levels rose exponentially. This was also the month that Cal King’s tele-mag sixteenbynine shipped out to customers along with my articles on Pokemon and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and in which I flew out to Rome for a brief but much-needed vacation.

It’s been quite a month indeed.

Film of the month: Paddington

 

Paddington (2014)

PaddingtonWhen an English explorer embarks on an expedition to Darkest Peru he happens upon a new, sentient species of bear. Many years later — after an earthquake destroys their home in the hills — the now elderly bears dispatch a young descendant in search of him, to London where he instead meets Mr and Mrs Brown (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, respectively) at Paddington Station. Named after the station, Paddington (Ben Whishaw) is adopted by the family until such time as either Mrs Brown can trace the explorer or Mr Brown can contact the relevant authority. At the Natural History Museum, meanwhile, taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman) catches wind of the bear’s arrival and — aided by the Browns’ intolerant neighbour (Peter Capaldi) — makes the necessary preparations for her new exhibit.

Here’s a question for you: can you name a good British children’s movie. Just one. You can’t, can you? At least, not a recent one. OK, try this: name even an average British children’s movie? There’s no point scrutinising the past year for examples, anyway, for so far 2014 has only subjected the nation’s youngsters (and parents) to the torturous likes of Postman Pat: The Movie, Pudsey: The Movie and Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey. Cast your mind back further and you may recall the equally unendurable likes of Horrid Henry and All Stars. There are exceptions, of course — Son of Rambow and Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists, to name just two — but it’s relatively rare you see a British children’s movie you can actually be proud of.

The man with the best track record is perhaps David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter films. While financed overseas it is one of the most thoroughly British series of movies imaginable, shot in the United Kingdom and starring a predominantly British cast; and not only did all eight of them play well here but they were embraced the world over, too. Therefore, when Heyman announced that he was to return to the genre post-Gravity with another adaptation — this time of Michael Bond’s ‘Paddington Bear’ books — one couldn’t help but feel a certain level of cautious optimism. If anyone could help to craft a good movie from a quaint, half-forgotten children’s TV character it would be him. Even if it was co-written by the man responsible for Mr Bean’s Holiday.

And he has, undoubtedly, helped to craft a good movie. Director Paul King — in only his second feature film, after Bunny and the Bull — has reimagined Paddington for the 21st Century, remaining faithful to Bond’s original stories while also making the character relevant to today’s audience — and not, like Postman Pat director Mike Disa, by having him participate in Britain’s Got Talent and battle an army of killer robot doppelgangers. Part of that is of course achieved by presenting the character in a manner acceptable to today’s children, those weaned on Pixar and superhero movies — and Framestore have done a terrific job of animating him, proving cries of Scary, Sleazy Paddington to be unfounded — but more than that it’s King’s recognition that London needs updating too which sets the film apart.

Originally conceived in the wake of World War II, when Bond found a lone (toy) bear for sale in a London train station, Paddington embodied a generation of children evacuated from their war-torn homes and adopted by foster families the country over — an idea that is still central to the movie, as it informs Paddington’s preconceptions of the nation while forming the basis of his aunt’s decision to send him there in the first place. It’s no longer British children who are in need of asylum, however, and realising this King has found a new but no less deserving part of the population for Paddington to represent: refugees. At a time when the British government is clamping down on immigration and nationalism is growing in popularity it takes a foreign member of a separate species to come over here, eat all of our preserves and remind us what it really means to be British.

Not only is Paddington an important movie, then, but it’s also an entertaining one, too. The film has a terrifically British sense of humour, combining the kind of cross-dressing silliness you’d expect from something like Monty Python with the sort of visual gags more commonly associated with Aardman. It’s also witty, with the likes of Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman and Peter Capaldi proving excellent sparring partners, and surreal, recalling its director’s own work on The Mighty Boosh. Ultimately, however, the film belongs to Ben Whishaw — who took over from Colin Firth when the latter left the project earlier this year. Prim, polite and very proper, Whishaw also has fun with the grunts and glottal stops that belie Paddington’s jungle origins. For an actor who has so far thrived on relatively adult roles — impressing in Cloud Atlas and Brideshead Revisited — it’s great to see him prove equally adept at something accessible to all.

As welcome as the film’s liberal, egalitatian ethos is, however, you can’t help but wonder if King might have done more to embrace it himself. As nice as it is to see Jim Broadbent or Julie Walters in the supporting cast, the decision to use English actors in international (and regional) roles is a strange one given the message, and sort of undermines the idea that anyone might come to London and call themselves a Londoner — or to Paddington Station and appear in a Paddington bear movie. That said, ridiculous accents have long been a tradition in sketch comedy, and it’s undoubtedly a small quibble with an otherwise unimpeachable success story. Paddington should be toasted — and coated generously with marmalade should he ask for it.

4-Stars

 

 

Horrible Bosses 2 (2014)

Horrible Bosses 2Having sent his last boss to prison for a murder he himself planned,  Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) has decided to become his own boss. Along with best friends Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) Dale Arbus (Charlie Day), Nick seeks the investment necessary in order to finance his premiere product: the Shower Buddy. When Burt Hanson (Christoph Waltz) bankrupts their business, before buying up their idea for next to nothing, however, they once again find themselves looking outside of the law for retribution. With the help of their criminal-on-call, Dean “Motherfucker” Jones (Jamie Foxx), Nick, Kurt and Dale plot to kidnap Burt’s son Rex (Chris Pine) and ransom him for the money necessary to buy back the Shower Buddy.

Green-lit on the back of the original film’s strong performance stateside, Horrible Bosses 2 reunites the surviving cast of Seth Gordon’s original for another go at the box office. The first film was — as Hollywood brom-coms go — something of a pleasant surprise, but by any other standard it was still a contrived, convoluted mess that had little going for it save for the odd gross-out gag or well-cast cameo. Certainly, it failed to deliver on its promise of dark comedy, settling instead for the sort of dim-wittedness that is unlikely to unsettle the masses. Although new to the franchise himself, replacement director Sean Anders keeps things on a remarkably even keel — bringing back screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein for more of the same.

As a result, Horrible Bosses 2 is every bit as passable as its predecessor. Ex-bosses Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston are back, at least — the former behind bars after killing Colin Farrell in the first film and the latter busy bedding the various members of her sex addiction clinic — and though in considerably diminished roles they just about manage to carry the film between them. Foxx, meanwhile, gets slightly more to do than before, and in addition to instigating a genuinely entertaining car chase during the third act he is seemingly the only character willing to consider the ethical implications of Nick, Kurt and Dale’s actions. Unlike last time, the supposed heroes of the piece are actually culpable of murder, but the filmmakers once again fail to address the issues of responsibility or justice, instead settling for a re-establishment of the status quo that feels neither earned or wanted.

It wouldn’t be such an issue if the protagonists were engaging enough to warrant a free pass — after all, beloved characters have got away with worse. While Bateman, Sudeikis and Day may have some semblance of chemistry it is not enough to compensate for their wholly unpleasant, utterly uninteresting characters. The uncomfortably unsavoury undercurrents remain, and many of the ‘jokes’ seem to be at the expense of some subgroup or other — never overt enough to cause actual controversy, but dubious nonetheless. It’s difficult to root for characters who are lauded for their ignorance, and unable to simply laugh off flippant displays of homophobia or misogyny you quickly lose any and all interest in their plight. By film’s end you’re ready to flag Jonathan Banks’ Detective Hatcher over and give evidence against all three of them. Having now exhausted murder and kidnapping you daren’t begin to imagine what hilarious hi-jinx might await them in part three.

But the chances are you will laugh, on occasion (I’m ashamed to admit that I did, anyway); but hopefully it will be completely against your better judgement. The actors are competent enough comedians to get their timing and delivery right, regardless of the quality of the gags themselves. That said, the qualifier in the title might just as easily stand alone. This one is Horrible, too.

2-stars

Get On Up (2014)

Get On UpShortly after his mother (Viola Davis) leaves his father (Lenny James), James Joseph Brown Jnr (Jamarion and Jordan Scott; Chadwick Boseman) is left in the care of Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). Later imprisoned for stealing another man’s suit, James impresses visiting musicians The Famous Flames who pay his debts and sponsor his release from prison. Living now with band-member Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), James helps to raise the band’s profile until they are eventually signed by King Records. When James’ manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) anoints him the true voice of the group, and the label demands that their name be changed to James Brown and The Famous Flames, however, everyone but Byrd quits on the spot. It’s an issue that will recur throughout his career.

And there you have it: you now know more about the life of James Brown than I did going into Tate Taylor’s biographical drama, Get On Up. Of course, ignorance shouldn’t really be a problem on the big screen — films should be able to stand on their own — but in Taylor’s you immediately feel at a disadvantage. As the script, or perhaps simply the editor, ricochets around Brown’s time-stream, seemingly unconcerned by chronology or narrative coherence, you are left to piece together your protagonist from fragments as apparently random as a blindfolded wrestling match in the 1940s and an armed raid of his own business in 1993. It’s all a little disorientating — a fact compounded by Boseman’s occasional and unexplained addresses to camera.

At well over two hours in length there is admittedly ample room for such detours, but Get On Up lacks an identifiable throughline to deviate from. It’s woefully unfocused, ticking off iconic events in James Brown’s career without ever attempting to get to know the singer himself. Considering just how much time you spend in his company it’s telling that by film’s end you are no closer to understanding the man behind the songs. This might not be such a problem if Brown was a manufacured pop act unworthy of exploration, but Get On Up goes out of its way to show that this simply wasn’t the case. An incident at the Boston Garden in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination and Brown’s handling of it deserves more analysis than it actually receives — Aykroyd’s manager instead telling his charge to do what he does best.

Thankfully, Boseman’s performance is charismatic enough to compensate — perhaps the main reason that Get On Up ultimately comes out on top of John Ridley’s dour ode to Jimi Hendrix, All Is By My Side. The film is about as structurally and narrative cliched as they come (featuring the rise and fall of some miserable musician, bookended by scenes from an historic performance — honestly, it might as well be Walk The Line or even Inside Llewyn Davis) but Boseman manages to buoy it whenever he’s onscreen. It’s an incredibly physical performance, and some dubious lip-syncing aside he convinces completely. He has strong support, too, none more so than in the case of Ellis, who must justify to himself as well has his bandmates why he puts up with his position as a supporting artist. Taylor — and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth — could perhaps have done more to develop his character, but in the end it is Byrd (and wife Velma) who delivers the biggest emotional punch regardless.

You’ve seen this story before, and even fans of James Brown (or the musical drama genre as a whole) are unlikely to take much away from Get On Up. That said, the performances are impressive enough, and the music suitably rousing, to keep you reasonably engaged throughout — while also leaving you guessing just how Boseman might approach the character of Black Panther in a few years time. If only it were half an hour shorter it might actually have been enjoyable, too. After two hours you won’t need to be told twice to get on up.

3-Stars

The Homesman (2014)

H_20130419_8652.tifIn Nebraska, some time in the 1850s, New Yorker Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to transport a trio of troubled women across country to Iowa. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto) and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) are taken from their families, loaded into a horse-drawn wagon and lead out of town on a perilous journey through the American Midwest — where they face myriad dangers including but not limited to bandits and natives. Mary Bee is understandably reluctant to undertake the venture alone, and when she spies a con-man trussed up to a tree she negotiates guidance in exchange for mercy. Together with George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), she sets off into the wilderness.

It’s easy to see why The Homesman is being identified as a Western, albeit one with feminist and/or other subversive qualities; the film is about ten percent dirt, thirty percent sky and sixty percent misery. It’s bleak and hard and unforgiving, and you’d likely have an easier time mining for water than entertainment value. This is another story featuring a mysterious wanderer (there is a twinkle in Jones’ eye that suggests he is not giving his real name), at first in it for the money, who ultimately discovers that there may be more to life than opportunistic crime and senseless violence — that there might in fact be good people out there; people worth helping, if not necessarily saving.

Where The Homesman differs to most, however, is in its focus. Tommy Lee Jones may write, direct and indeed star, but he is not the protagonist of his own story. That would be Hilary Swank, making her long-overdue return to the big screen following a three-year hiatus that left something of an awkward silence after Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve. She gives an outstanding performance as Mary Bee Cuddy — her best in ages — and though haggard and harrowing there is an honesty to it that hooks you and won’t let go. She’s lonely, homesick and desperate to be close to someone — even if only contractually. She mundanely propositions men with marriage, treating the act more as a business transaction than an emotional union, then wonders why they label her plain and bossy.

This depth of character is only possible due to the thematic complexity which similarly sets it apart from others entries in the Western genre. The Homesman is a treatise on mental illness, and uses its female protagonist as a prism through which to explore a subject that is rarely considered the domain of the period drama. Mary Bee is struggling herself, and though far from catatonic it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to diagnose some sort of mood disorder — she’s compulsive, despondent, and, in playing a felt keyboard while mimicking the keys, quite possibly delusional. But the same could be said for George Briggs, who shuns society, ignores its norms and drinks too much. Jones may largely ignore the three women locked inside the wagon but his script’s treatment of those outside it illustrates the differing pressures on men and women.

Of course, that’s all well and good in hindsight, but if a film fails to hold its viewers’ attention in the moment then it doesn’t count for much in the end — however handsome it might look or how well it might be acted. There may be slightly more to The Homesman than the average Western, but the odd point of interest aside its two-hour running time is still largely a featureless landscape — one that even Meryl Streep can’t hope to disrupt. This is a story of deprivation, in more ways than one.

2.5-Stars

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I (2014)

Mockingjay Part IHaving been rescued from the 75th Hunger Games by insurgents from District 13, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is now exiled underground with her family (Willow Shields; Paula Malcolmson), friends (Liam Hemsworth; Woody Harrelson) and assorted refugees from the other districts (Sam Claflin; Jeffrey Wright). As President Snow (Donald Sutherland) tries to quash the nascent rebellion, President Coin (Julianne Moore) seeks to fan the flames. Capitol interlopers Plurarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymore Hoffman) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) agree to help by turning Katniss into the Mockingjay, a figurehead for the resistance, and with the help of director Cressida (Natalie Dormer) they leave the safety of the bunker to put together a series of propaganda films on the surface. Before she can help them, however, Katniss must come to terms with the loss of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) — something made all the harder by the revelation that he is now working for Snow.

Although largely seen as the refrain of the fanboy, “it’s not as good as the book” is a criticism that might accurately be leveled at Lionsgate’s extant Hunger Games franchise. The first film was held in relatively high regard upon its release in 2012, and following the subsequent deluge of imitators it has become the yardstick against which all other Young Adult adaptations are measured, but next to Suzanne Collins’ source novel it isn’t quite as impressive. In a drive to recreate the book’s urgency and momentum original director Gary Ross left an awful lot out, as did successor Francis Lawrence when he took on Catching Fire the following year. District 12 lost most of its screentime to the titular Games, and unconvincing special effects, bizarre casting choices and incomprehensible action sequences have dogged the series ever since. Ultimately, however, the story of Katniss Everdeen — Girl on Fire — has been just about compelling enough to compensate.

Mockingjay, however, was always the weakest episode in the trilogy, and it followed that the film (or films, as it was inevitably split in two, Deathly Hallows style) would likely follow suit. Buried underground and removed from the action, Katniss spent most of the novel on hold as control was ceded instead to Coin. This is the part of the narrative that occupies Mockingjay – Part I, and it was hard to imagine returning director Lawrence being able to make it work, especially seeing as key characters from the book — often present throughout Collins’ trilogy — had yet to be introduced and relationships satisfactorily established onscreen. In the event, this is particularly evident in the opening act, as Katniss — distrustful of Coin — is sent back to District 12 to see the damage wrought by Snow for herself. Whereas the destruction of Hogwarts — after eight films spent within its walls — verged on iconoclastic, seeing the Victor’s Village in ruin just doesn’t have the same impact; the mythology doesn’t mean quite as much. The previous films haven’t done enough to make audiences care about anyone or anything other than Katniss.

Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong (best known for playing Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) do their best to bring you up to speed — but it’s too little, too late. It’s a silly example, but both Katniss and sister Prim go out of their way to save the family pet despite the fact that it has never been mentioned before, robbing their efforts of the emotional resonance that they perhaps deserve. That they each call the cat by different names only confuses matters more. Similarly, it is mentioned that — like Peeta and fellow victor Johanna Mason — Annie Cresta is a prisoner of the Capitol, yet you’d have to really rack your brains to recall her fleeting cameo in Catching Fire. It’s only now that the supporting cast is finally getting some attention that you realise how small and superficial the ensemble actually is, with extras once again being called upon to provide the stakes and scale whenever the film rejoins the battle taking place beyond Coin’s bunker. The Hunger Games must have some of the hardest working extras in the industry.

It’s all the more amazing, then, that the film kind of works regardless. Jennifer Lawrence continues to carry the series, and from the moment the camera opens on Katniss Everdeen you can’t help but invest in her struggle. She no longer has to do so single-handedly, however, and both Moore and the late Hoffman help to shoulder the weight. Hemsworth gets more to do as well, and if anything he makes Gale more sympathetic than he was even in the books — he’s lost Katniss to Peeta, and he knows it, yet he stands by her side regardless. Mainly, however, it’s thanks to the subtext — now essentially text — that Mockingjay – Part I manages to hold your interest. There has always been a sense of satire to the series, and ever since The Hunger Games first hit our screens it’s been impossible to look at reality television in quite the same way; but here the socio-political commentary takes the fore. Mockingjay has a lot to say about propaganda and the media, about democracy and dictatorships, and about rebellion and terrorism. Given that the series is allegedly set in a future dystopian America its message could be very pertinent indeed.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I, being half an adaptation of a disappointing book, is about as good as it could ever possibly be. Excellent performances, a strong satirical edge and a killer ending (Katniss’ torments are worth one hundred anonymous tragedies) help to compensate for an uneventful story, slight supporting cast and lack of emotional weight. Unfortunately, it’s all down hill from here.

3.5-Stars

What We Do In The Shadows (2014)

What We Do In The ShadowsIn the months leading up to The Unholy Masquerade, Wellington’s premier ball for the undead, a documentary crew follows vampire flatmates Viago (Taika Waititi), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) as they prepare for the big night. In addition to the usual tensions that flare within flatshare situations — Deacon hasn’t done the dishes in years — the foursome also have less familiar issues to contend with: Viago has unrequited feelings for a woman a fifth of his age; Vladislav is locked in an war of words with his nemesis, The Beast (Elena Stejko); Deacon is struggling with a rebellious retainer, Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), his frustrated human familiar; and Petyr has sired a university student (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) who won’t leave them alone. To top it all off, they can’t seem to leave the flat without running into a pack of local werewolves.

Written and directed by stars Waititi and Clement, both alumni of multi-media comedy troupe Flight of the Concords, What We Do In The Shadows is a feature-length adaptation of the pair’s 2006 short film of the same name. A mocumentary in the vein of André Øvredal’s TrollHunter, the film seeks to expose the truth behind the myth — that vampires are just as concerned with common courtesies as they are with slaughtering virgins — and in so doing embrace the underlying absurdities of the horror genre. By treating their subject with the utmost seriousness and sincerity, Waititi and Clement ask what it would really by like to be a centuries-old vampire living in modern-day New Zealand. How, for instance, do vampires get ready for a party without the assistance of a mirror? How do familiars choose their master’s victims? And how does one protect one’s furniture from arterial spray?

Vampires are certainly ripe for the picking. Bloodsuckers have never been more popular, but while this renewal of interest hasn’t gone unnoticed by satirists they have tended to lampoon individual films — namely, Twilight — rather than the folklore underpinning them. The best gags are the most intuitive, and in many ways the most obvious, with special attention being drawn to the characters’ hypnotic abilities, their great age and their need to be invited in. There’s some great character humour too, and when you’re not smirking at Vladislav’s inability to transform into a convincing animal you’re smiling at myriad other affectations that have nothing to do with his vampiric abilities. And then there’s Petyr, by far the oldest of the four and the one who most closely resembles a creature of the night (Nosferatu, specifically); even in a room full of demons he looks conspicuous, and any scene is improved simply by his silent inclusion.

Unfortunately, while always amusing What We Do In The Shadows is rarely outright hilarious. In some scenes it seems that the cast assume that they have to do little more that turn up to have the audience in stitches; but while Flight of the Concords fans might disagree these scenes instead come across as either complacent and indulgent. It feels ramshackle and rushed, and the provisional air isn’t helped by the inconsistent accents and low-fi production values. Waititi and Clement don’t seem to care whether their audience believes in their conceit, and while the roughshod nature of their film has its charms it can also be incredibly frustrating. There’s no doubt that any amateurishness is completely intentional, but that doesn’t mean it’s any more welcome. Discipline is as important to comedy as anarchy, and yet in this area at least What We Do In The Shadows is distinctly lacking.

Witty and well-observed, What We Do In The Shadows certainly has its moments, but sadly it lacks the commitment and conviction needed to pursue larger laughs. In the end, it’s just a little bit B-.

3-Stars

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