The Amazing Spider-man 2 (2014)

The Amazing Spider-man 2Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is loving life as Spider-man — or, at least, he’s trying to. When he’s not showing up the Russian mob he’s either investigating his parents’ disappearance, helping to support his aunt (Sally Field) by selling photos of his alter-ego to the Daily Bugle, or trying to come to terms with the death of Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary), and the promise he made to leave his daughter Gwen (Emma Stone) alone. Across town, OsCorp is in crisis; much of its research into cross-species genetics has been destroyed to appease uneasy shareholders in the wake of Dr Curt Connors’ transformation into The Lizard, leaving Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper) without any means of treating his illness. To complicate matters, estranged heir apparent Harry (Dane DeHaan) has returned to the boardroom and an employee has seemingly died on the premises. When electrical engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is reborn as Electro, and after he is apparently defeated by Spider-man, he is taken to the Ravencroft Institute for study, a secret research facility that may have ties to Peter’s father.

When Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-man was released back in 2012, the general consensus was that it did not distinguish itself enough from Sam Raimi’s original trilogy to justify Sony’s decision to reboot the franchise. This is of course ridiculous; Raimi’s films concerned a mature, earnest, somewhat hapless Peter Parker who was haunted by the part he unwittingly played in the death of his uncle, while Webb’s dealt with a cocky character preoccupied by the mystery of his parents’ abandonment. There were of course other differences — The Amazing Spider-man boasted a more believable love interest and followed the Marvel model of paving the way for future instalments — but the key distinguishing factor was that Parker was essentially a different person. Inevitably, the feeling now seems to be that it’s too different. Given that there are so many iterations of the character in the comics, this too is nonsense.

The Amazing Spider-man 2 feels almost as different from its predecessor as it does from the original trilogy (in fact, the film it most closely resembles is probably Kick-Ass). Just as The Dark Knight dropped Katie Holmes and the mystic ninjas after Batman Begins, Webb’s sequel does away with the darker suit and skateboarding scenes in pursuit of an aesthetic better suiting his intentions. Unlike The Dark Knight, Webb’s sequel goes brighter and more bombastic. This is the most primary-coloured superhero film since Fantastic Four, and not at all in a bad way (this is a children’s movie after all). Opening with a plane crash that may or may not involve Richard and Mary Parker, the film cuts to Spider-man swinging through the streets of New York, combining slow-motion and 3D to astonishing effect. It’s kinetic and fun and confident, beautifully capturing the appeal of the character and proving once and for all that Webb knows his way around an action set-piece. The following sequence is one of the most exhilarating of the year so far, as Spider-man tries to prevent Aleksei Sytsevich (a scenery-chewing Paul Giamatti) from escaping the scene with stolen OsCorp technology (and the vials from escaping his speeding van) while on the phone to Gwen, who is waiting for him at graduation. Webb certainly isn’t holding back.

What’s remarkable about The Amazing Spider-man 2 is just how much personality it has — the film is wonderfully goofy and at times incredibly childish. Garfield is once again on fire, dishing out one-liners and serving up charm with an ease and effortlessness that is incredibly endearing. He’s one of the best physical comedians working today, and his manic mannerisms lend the scenes in the suit as much character and energy as those outside of it. Webb is only too happy to showcase his star’s talents at the expense of pace, and three scenes in particular — one set in a pharmacy and involving a sick Spider-man, another between Peter and Gwen as they list adorable affectations the other must stop if they are to be ‘just friends’, and a montage showing Parker returning home after various crime-fighting escapades — come as a welcome break from the plot, and give a real sense of the character’s everyday life. Peter Parker has more dimensions than ever before: he’s a high school graduate, an orphan, a devoted boyfriend to Gwen Stacy, an estranged friend to Harry Osborne and the pride and joy of his Aunt May. Not to mention New York’s friendly neighbourhood Spider-man.

Parker isn’t the only interesting character, however, and each person in his life has interests and issues of their own. Gwen, tired of Peter’s reluctance to commit (and thereby betray the promise he made to her father), decides that she wants to be the one to end their relationship, and decides to start afresh at the University of Oxford in England. It is revealed that Harry, meanwhile, is headed for an early grave due to an apparently incurable hereditary disease he has inherited from his father. Harry’s arc is particularly juicy, as he becomes convinced that Spider-man’s blood is the only answer to his problems, leading him to ask for Peter’s help in tracking the web-slinger down. There is a desperation to the new Green Goblin that makes him incredibly compelling, and Dane DeHaan’s volatile performance lends him a real menace and threat. Sally Field is also on top form, as her Aunt May takes on a second job to help pay for Peter’s higher education and is finally forced to come clean about what she knows about Richard and Mary’s research. There are a number of heart-rendering moments in The Amazing Spider-man 2, and that’s one of them.

And then there’s Jamie Foxx’s primary antagonist, Electro. While bumbling electrician Max Dillon may fail to live up to Spider-man 2‘s Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus is widely considered to be one of the great comic book movie villains) he is generally more successful than Lizard from the previous film. Dillon is clearly disturbed, displaying compulsive tendencies and delusions of grandeur. He just wants to be noticed, and when Spider-man saves him during the earlier skirmish with Sytsevich he misinterprets it as an act of friendship. Electro is created when Dillon falls into a vat of genetically engineered electric eels, and though preposterous it is a very cinematic rebirth. As OsCorp races to cover-up the incident lest Wall Street catch wind of it, Dillon sparks back to life in what appears to be an in-house morgue. Spider-man reaches out to him in Time Square, but as his image is replaced on the surrounding screens by that of the wall-crawler Dillon accuses his one-time idol of stealing the limelight. It’s not water-tight motivation, but it’s substantially different to anything we’ve seen in the series to date. Thanks to the texture of Webb’s world Dillon is not an isolated threat, and his working at OsCorp naturally leads to encounters with both Harry and Gwen.

Raimi’s movies were getting nowhere fast. At the rate of one villain apiece (at least until Spider-man 3) we were still a long way from seeing a world as vibrant and textured as that of the comic book realised onscreen. Since Webb took over the series, he has seeded his movies with subplots and supporting characters galore, each offering a new and exciting direction in which to take the narrative in future instalments. The Amazing Spider-man 2 isn’t all set-up, however, and thanks to a set of outstanding performances (Garfield and Stone once again have chemistry to spare), distinct arcs for both Peter Parker and Max Dillon (not to mention Gwen Stacy), and a truly unique score from Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams (which at one point beautifully emulates Electro’s inner monologue) it is also a thrilling, engaging and emotionally satisfying story in its own right.

4-Stars

 

 

 

 

Divergent (2014)

Divergent16-year-old Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are preparing to take an aptitude test that will tell them where in society they belong. Future Chicago is divided into five factions, each roughly corresponding to a core character trait: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Erudite and Dauntless. Beatrice must choose if she wants to stay in Abnegation with her parents or try her luck elsewhere, a choice she is free to make regardless of her test results. A good thing, really, as her results are inconclusive, indicating that she is in fact Divergent and therefore impossible to categorise. Divergents are not only feared but actively hunted by Erudite’s leader, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), for the danger they supposedly pose to society; so Beatrice decides to hide out in Dauntless, where she meets Four (Theo James), Peter (Miles Teller) and Eric (Jai Courtney), and inadvertently uncovers a plot to overthrow the current government.

Just as Harry Potter set a trend for magic-infused Bildungsroman, and Twilight ushered in a wave of supernatural romances, The Hunger Games has now started to inspire its own imitators and would-be successors. While those previous films were simple fantasies and wish-fulfilment, Lionsgate’s adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ novels are rather more difficult to ape. While still far from original, as anyone who has seen Battle Royale will no doubt attest, the character of Katniss Everdeen and her world of Panem are much more complex than your average Young Adult fare. The Hunger Games (and to a lesser extent its sequel, Catching Fire) is startlingly relevant and bitingly satirical, commenting on everything from reality television to consumer culture.

Cue Divergent, the first challenger to Katniss’ crown ahead of the summer releases of both The Maze Runner and The Giver. Based on the first book in Veronica Roth’s ‘Divergent Universe’, Neil Burger’s adaptation does little to mask its influences. Here there are five factions where The Hunger Games had twelve districts, a selection process where Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had a sorting ceremony, and a zip-wire scene where Twilight had vampire baseball. The problem, aside from sheer familiarity, is that none of it makes the slightest bit of sense. Divergents (people who don’t belong in a single faction) are feared by all, yet the factionless (people who don’t belong in a single faction) are simply pitied. It’s a society where all of the smart people live in Erudite (pick up a Thesaurus, Roth did), except for the smart people who live elsewhere (Four is shown to be pretty handy with futuristic medical equipment). The film should really be retitled Arbitrary.

With such faulty foundations it should come as no surprise that the film barely hangs together. Beatrice — or Tris, as she renames herself — is impossible to sympathise with; she’s from a good family and an admirable faction (Abnegation, in case you still have that Thesaurus handy, is a place of stoic austerity and selflessness), and yet turns her back on everything to hang with the cool kids at Dauntless. This literally seems to be the sum of her thought process; she sees a gang of leather-bound hoodlums jumping off of trains and cutting the queue for the Choosing Ceremony and decides there and then that those are the kinds of people she wants to spend her life with. We’re then told that these rebels are the factions’ security division, though worryingly they seem completely taken aback when Tris brings up tactics during a game of Capture The Flag. For the most part they just seem to get tattoos and leap off of buildings.

We’re supposed to root for Tris because she’s Divergent, and therefore enlightened and ‘special’. The message should be clear from the start — you can’t put people into categories, particularly categories based on personality — and yet rather than just come out and say it the film finds increasingly confused and convoluted ways of expressing its themes. With however many books left in the series Divergent is in no hurry to reach a conclusion; indeed, Tris spends most of the film pretending to be Dauntless so as not to be discovered, like a real hero. Suddenly we’re back to Bella Swan-level passivity, as Tris trains to react to a series of dreams in a way befitting her faction — like that bit in Order of the Phoenix where Snape taught Harry Occlumency. One such dream involves drowning in a glass coffin; to simply smash the glass wouldn’t be very Dauntless (though they seem quite happy to hit everything else) and might reveal her to be Divergent, so instead she must learn to use her problem-solving faculties to plug the hole through which water is entering the chamber (surely a feat of reasoning expected of someone from Erudite?). It’s nonsense.

It’s impossible to overstate just how stupid this movie is. If you’re not scratching your head at the logistics of a world split into five mutually exclusive factions (randomly represented at the Choosing Ceremony by five bowls containing — among other things — rocks, water and fire), then you’re struggling to imagine what motives beyond sheer common sense the characters might have for wanting to tear the old system down. Oh, that’s right, Erudite are staging a coup by injecting Dauntless with a brainwashing substance so that they can then be controlled by computer. Because of course they are.

1-Star

Calvary (2014)

CalvaryWhile holding confession, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is sentenced to death by an unseen man seeking revenge for past injustices at the hands of the church. Lavelle has been given a week to live, but rather than give the man’s name — which, importantly, he knows — to the police or flee the country — though the thought does occur to him — he simply goes about his religious duties as usual. His parishioners/the chief suspects include a shady butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a shady doctor (Aidan Gillen), a shady squire (Dylan Moran) and a kind-hearted cannibal (Domhnall Gleeson).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Calvary — the not-so-surprise movie at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival — is an Irish black-comedy, with elements of both tragedy and drama. It’s from John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh, and is cut from the same cloth as both In Bruges and The Guard. Whereas those films centred on hitmen and police officers respectively, Calvary concerns itself with the priesthood: specifically Brendan Gleeson’s Father James Lavelle.

Though perhaps similar in disposition (it’s still Gleeson, after all), Lavelle is almost the polar opposite of his character in The Guard. He’s essentially a good man, though undoubtedly conflicted and naturally wracked with Catholic guilt. Gleeson is once again terrific, and here treads the fine line between cynicism and scepticism with surprising ease; he’s a man of faith, but is quite happy to be flippant about it. This ties into another key difference between McDonagh’s films: whereas The Guard was a drama undercut by humour, Calvary is essentially a dark comedy run through with real human hurt (the opening line, for example, shocks you into laughing, but really isn’t very funny at all).

Calvary is sensitive and occasionally even stirring, but it is just sardonic enough to steer it clear of mawkishness. Lavelle’s relationship with his estranged daughter — even his friendship with his dog —  makes a real impression, and his inevitable confrontation with his would-be killer is genuinely emotional. The satire is just as effective, with the film commenting on everything from the country’s economic downturn to cover-ups and corruption within the Catholic church. It’s a story of sin, sacrifice and redemption, but one that is strikingly short on miracles. If only McDonagh had been more careful with his casting, it might have been a decent mystery too.

Calvary isn’t as entertaining as The Guard or In Bruges, but then it isn’t trying to be. This is a much more meditative movie, and is ultimately sharper and more scathing than either of its predecessors for its lack of a disarming punchline  – its message will stay with you long after the jokes have faded from memory.

4-Stars

 

Veronica Mars (2014)

Veronica MarsNearly ten years after leaving Neptune and amateur sleuthing behind to become a hotshot lawyer in New York City, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is summoned back by an ex-boyfriend under investigation for a murder he claims not to have committed. This doesn’t sit too well with current squeeze Piz (Chris Lowell), but he lets her go on the proviso that she return in time to meet his parents in a few weeks’ time. Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) – a Lieutenant in the US Navy, randomly – is accused of murdering Carrie Bishop (Andrea Estella, replacing Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester ), a famous singer who they both went to school with. At first Veronica pursues Ruby Jetson (Gaby Hoffmann), an obsessive fan who also has eyes for Logan. She later begins to suspect ties to another death, that of Madison Sinclair, who went missing at sea while partying with fellow classmates Dick (Ryan Hansen), Gaia (Krysten Ritter) and Cobb (Martin Starr). Meanwhile, her private investigator father (Enrico Colantoni) is looking into police corruption.

Although vastly different mediums, television and cinema have never been mutually exclusive when it comes to storytelling. Movies have spawned television shows (Agents of SHEILD being a prime example), while televised serials have also infiltrated cinema, often to different ends. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut allowed Trey Parker and Matt Stone to hit back at the censors, The X-Files: Fight The Future gave Chris Carter the budget he needed to invade the planet and Serenity offered Joss Whedon the chance to end Firefly on his own terms. Veronica Mars — which was also cancelled by its studio — fits a similar mould to Serenity (more so than, say, Sex and the City, which felt like more of an indulgence on the part of its cast), and show-runner Rob Thomas seems to be trying to tie up loose ends from his short-changed series.

Where Veronica Mars is unique, however, and inherently different from every other little- to big-screen adaptation, is in the means by which it secured its funding. Whereas most fanbases will sign petitions or write to studios begging for further adventures for their beloved characters, Mars‘ fans actually paid for the privilege. You see, Veronica Mars was — at least in part – Kickstarted by its fans, meaning that Thomas was in something of an unprecedented position; no longer under pressure to appease a profit-driven studio (in this case Warner Bros., who only covered a small percentage of the overall costs), but to give fans the ending that they had waited nearly a decade to see, and had actively financed. But what artistic merit could such fan-service ever hope to have? And why should anyone unfamiliar with the show feel compelled to watch it?

These are questions that the film never really answers. While not completely closed to newcomers, Thomson’s movie clearly has other priorities. He employs a lengthy and recurring voice over which may well be an affectation of the franchise itself but comes across as a clumsy attempt to contextualise the characters and their convictions for anyone new to the world of Neptune, California. Mars makes for a likeable enough protagonist — she’s feisty and formidable — but she’s difficult to get to grips with. There are references to past traumas — an alcoholic mother, a murdered best friend and an unsolicited sex tape — but these never seem to weigh all that heavily on her mind. While a number of plot points may fail to land, however, most of the jokes just about find their target.

What’s most striking about the film is how dated it feels; years- rather than weeks-old. The show has been off the air since 2007, and yet, in an uncanny imitation of fandom itself, Neptune doesn’t seem to have moved on at all. Even the town’s name feels strangely old-fashioned; a bygone relic of the late-90s/early-00s where every show was set in some self-consciously titled fictional town, be it Eureka or Stars Hollow. Flashbacks to a young Amanda Seyfried and (an admittedly well-place) references to Murder, She Wrote and Buffy The Vampire Slayer are similarly disorientating, while much of the cast (Bell and Ritter aside) seem to have been brought out of cold storage specifically for filming. It’s an odd thing seeing what were once young, up-and-coming actors reunited in obscure middle-age.

It’s also a little endearing, truth be told, and may even persuade you to seek out the series itself, if only to see how exactly the premise worked on a weekly basis, across three whole seasons, or why we are supposed to be so invested in Veronica and Logan’s relationship. In that sense it plays more like a pilot than a finale, introducing all of these elements that you imagine might one day, with any luck, cohere into something quite compelling. There is at times real promise, which is a shame because Thomson and Bell should by now have had years to figure out how to deliver on it. In terms of the movie, highlights include Gaby Hoffman’s red herring, a string of increasingly surreal celebrity cameos (starting with Jamie Lee Curtis as a would-be employer) and the reunion itself, in which Veronica faces off with the sort of high school clichés you need only have a passing familiarity with American culture to fully appreciate. The best scene, however, comes towards the end, when Veronica finds herself hiding from the true killer, and texts her dad to say she loves him. It’s a nice touch.

For die-hard fans Veronica Mars may well be compulsive viewing, and is a solid is slightly superficial murder mystery that seemed in my screen at least to play well with the initiated. For everyone else, however, it’s unlikely to transcend quaint curiosity. There just doesn’t seem to be anything at stake; Mars is faced with a situation that jeopardises everything she has worked for since leaving Neptune, but when the sacrifices start they don’t really feel like sacrifices at all. Just someone pressing the reset button, encouraged by a crowd of desperate fans.

2.5-Stars

 

The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)

The Raid BerandalMere hours after having survived an unsolicited police raid on Tama Riyadi’s Jakartan tower block, Rama (Iko Uwais) is given a new mission: to go undercover to root our corruption within the capital’s police force. His first objective is to infiltrate Bangun’s (Tio Pakusadewo) mob ranks through his son, Uco (Arifin Putra), who is currently serving a prison sentence and in need of a better bodyguard. Unfortunately for Rama, Uco — sick of playing the menial role of debt collector within his father’s empire — is planning a coup with rival gang leader Bejo (Alex Abbad). If he is ever to see his wife and child again, he is going to have to work quickly to fulfill his mission before his true identity is discovered or Jakarta’s criminal underbelly erupts into gang warfare.

Gareth Evans’ hit 2012 film The Raid appealed to the critical community and general audiences alike. It premiered at Toronto International Film Festival, before going on to earn $15 million at the global box office from a menial $1.1 million budget. Subtitled Redemption in the U.S. when Sony Pictures Classics couldn’t secure the rights to the international title, The Raid almost seemed destined from the outset to become a fully fledged franchise. And so it has transpired, with The Raid: Berandal soon set to arrive in cinemas and Evans indicating in interviews that there are plans to grow it further into a trilogy.

Berandal isn’t your average sequel, however; originally planned as a stand-alone crime epic long before The Raid was first conceived, the original story has been adapted to act as a continuation of Rama’s arc. The integration of these two different story threads is incredibly jarring, as new characters are introduced and old characters are dropped in an awkward transition that also acts as a shift from survival horror to crime epic. On one hand you’ve got Rama trying to get back to his wife and child, while on the other there’s Bejo trying to upset the fragile equilibrium that exists between crime kingpins Bangun and Goto. By the time Kick-Ass rejects Hammer Girl, Baseball Bat Man and The Assassin show up it’s difficult to tell what you’re watching: martial arts, political thriller or superhero movie.

The plot, as it is set out in the opening minutes of the movie (and in the above synopsis), is that Rama must go undercover to identify corruption within the police force. However, when this is mentioned once more just before the final set piece, it becomes apparent that despite being two hours into its 150 minute running time The Raid 2: Berandal has completely forgot to feature any bent cops. It’s only if you ignore the plot and focus solely on the action that the film actually impresses; Uwais is as effective as he was before, both at carrying the film and at kicking ass. Unfortunately, he’s not always on screen, and the scenes without him suffer a distinct lack of focus as well as a character the audience can actually cares for. He’s gone from rookie cop to Übermensch, and the biggest problem with The Raid 2: Berandal is that it’s strangely weightless, inconsequential, boring.

Some reviews are comparing it to The Dark Knight, but a more fitting comparison would be The Matrix Reloaded. In essence, The Raid was a muscular and imaginative martial arts movie that brought Indonesian cinema to western audiences. The Raid: Berandal, conversely, doesn’t know what it, and it shows. It’s a confused mess, self-serious and over-long, and as nail-biting as the action beats might be it just isn’t enough to sustain a movie that’s clearly trying (but ultimately failing) to do so much more.

2-stars

 

Noah (2014)

NoahEver since he saw his father killed by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), Noah (Russell Crowe) has been haunted by dreams of Adam and Eve’s Original Sin. When, years later, he witnesses a miracle — a flower which blooms immediately on the spot where a raindrop hits the Earth — he decides to visit his grandfather to seek help in divining its meaning. Together with his family — wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) – he embarks on a long and treacherous journey, during which he saves a young girl (Emma Watson) from Tubal-Cain’s men and is himself saved by The Watchers, Fallen Angels forced to live the rest of their lives on Earth for disobeying The Creator. Methuselah helps Noah to deduce his destiny: to build a wooden arc and save a male and female of every species from a biblical flood.

An interpretation of the Noah story rather than a literal – if literal is even the right word — adaptation of the Bible passage itself, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah faced a storm of its own. Rumours of negative test screenings and alternative versions made it seem that the director’s cut might never make it to cinemas, while unrest in certain religious quarters only added to the tidal wave of ill-will that seemed fated to sink the film before it had even set sail. The movie itself, finally in theatres, is no travesty, however; it’s big and bold and brilliant, and likely to appeal to both secular and religious audiences alike. Noah is a film that simultaneously contemplates creation, finds human drama in divine intervention, and features stone monsters battling an army of sinners. Heck, it has two of just about everything – not just bird and beast. Every frame is so loaded with meaning, in fact, that it struggles to contain itself within two dimensions.

The opening act is as crowd-pleasing as The Old Testament is ever likely to get; it is tense and exciting, packed with incident and brimming with action. Scenes shot in silhouette evoke real ethereal beauty, while the battle scenes are gritty and unafraid to focus on injury detail. Aronofsky is not simply looking to dazzle, however, and what really impresses during these early scenes are the characters with which he populates his doomed world. Noah is obsessed with obeying The Creator, and having tried so hard to protect his family winds up neglecting them in his duty to God. Watson’s Ila, meanwhile, questions her place on the arc, all too aware that as a barren woman she is ill-equipped to repopulating the planet. And then there’s Ham, a boy desperate to become a man; who, faced with the death of every woman but his mother and step-sister, is all but ready to defy his father.

Surprisingly, then, it is only once the flood strikes that the film begins in earnest. Aronofsky handles the special effects and set pieces well (even if the animals are a few pixels short of pragmatic), but it’s clear that’s not what drew him to the project. Aboard the arc, Noah is forced to choose between Father and family; if The Creator wanted to eradicate all of mankind, then Noah’s work can only truly end with his own bloodline. At first he seems happy to let nature run its course, but when Ila defies biology by falling pregnant he sees little option but to act himself, by killing the child should it be a girl. The third act in particular is incredibly compelling, as Noah steels himself for the task at hand, Naameh and Shem conspire to protect Ila and her baby, and Ham is groomed by a stowaway –  Tubal-Cain himself – to turn his back on The Creator. The repercussions of their actions are explored in a prologue, and you almost find yourself wishing Aronofsky would stick around to direct the next book in the series.

Whether or not you believe in God or The Great Flood, it’s difficult to deny that the idea of Noah and his arc is a nice one. Unlike the nursery rhyme, however, this adaptation quickly dispenses with the childish notion of animals marching two by two and instead focuses on the hurt and horror implied between the lines. This Noah is a murderer, a workaholic and a drunk, and thanks to Russell Crowe’s performance you won’t be able to take your eyes off of him for a second. It’s hard to believe that this is the same man who starred as Pearly Soames in A New York Winter’s Tale. It seems Noah is about redemption off-screen as well as on.

4-Stars

March 2014 – If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad!

Under The SkinThis month, like most others, was spent catching up with reviews.

I only saw six movies at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, but it wasn’t until March that I finally finished reviewing them (actually, I still haven’t finished writing up Calvary, so you’d better make that April.) Of the remainder, backing singers doc Twenty Feet From Stardom was easily the stand-out, though there was plenty to admire in part-Hollywood satire/part-surrealist animation The Congress.

Soon it was business as usual, however, and between press screenings in Glasgow and trips to Dundee Contemporary Arts I this month managed to see 300: Rise of an Empire, Need For Speed, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Zero Theorem, Labor Day, About Last Night, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Muppets Most Wanted. Today, March 31st, I will add to that list with upcoming releases Noah, Divergent, The Double and The Raid 2.

Two films this month were particularly impressive: Starred Up and Under The Skin. The former, starring Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn, was an unexpectedly touching father-son drama set within a prison context, while the latter saw an extra-terrestrial Scarlett Johansson patrol the streets of Glasgow abducting loners. Both provoked a strong physical reaction: sympathy and repulsion respectively. Under The Skin is only the second film I’ve awarded five stars so far this year, alongside The LEGO Movie.

This month was also remarkable for two other reasons. I submitted my first few articles to Cal King for his exciting upcoming project, sixteenbynine, and contributed my last ever review to BestforFilm.com. I started writing for BFF in 2010, shortly after graduation, when it was still run by prodigious creator and bona fide genius Natasha Hodgson. It all started with a six-week internship in London, and though the site has since changed hands to the equally talented John Underwood it has always been a place for aspiring writers to get a step in the door, learn from the best and embrace their weirder side, whether by writing a review of fictional owls (by Magda Knight) or listing the most colourful films (Florence Vincent). This month it closed its doors, but not without a fitting farewell, in which John rounded off the BFF’s Favourite Flicks series with five of his own.

Elsewhere I continued my preparations for the West Highland Way, which I will finally walk with Paul Greenwood (whose name, this time at least, I totally got right) and Nathanael Smith on April Fool’s Day– though I can assure you that at 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William it will be no joke. This month we walked Glasgow to Lanark(ish), and raised over £250 for Cancer Research in the process. Should you wish to sponsor us there’s still time, just visit http://www.justgiving.com/highlanders3 and donate what you can.

Anyway, I’d better get going. I have things to pack and films to watch.

Film of the month: Under The Skin

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Muppets Most WantedAs production winds down on their comeback tour, The Muppets realise that the cameras are still rolling and conclude that they must be doing a sequel. While spit-balling ideas, Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and the gang take manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) up on his offer of a European tour, and embark on their first show in Berlin, Germany. Cue a break-out at a remote Siberian GULAG, where the world’s most dangerous frog (and Kermit lookalike), Constantine (Matt Vogel), has just escaped into the tundra. With Badguy taking over on set by indulging every whim of Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear and Gonzo, Kermit goes for a walk to clear his head, only to be mistaken for the criminal mastermind and whisked off to prison. Constantine and Badguy are using the shows as covers for a series of robberies, while Kermit is asked by GULAG officer Nadya (Tina Fey) to put on a special performance for the staff.

2012′s The Muppets was something of an unexpected sensation. It proved that, even in a cinematic landscape dominated by photorealistic CGI, 3D computer animation and superhero mega-franchises, there was still an appetite for Kermit the Frog and his old-fashioned brand of entertainment — and, importantly, one that went beyond simple nostalgia. The first film (actually the seventh overall) combined irreverent humour with catchy songs and clever cameos to hilarious effect, while simultaneously grounding itself emotionally with a meta-plot that mirrored the brand’s real-life revival and performances from Jason Segel (who also boasted a writing credit) and Amy Adams that brought real warmth to the material.

Despite picking up where the first film left off, Segel and Adams are nowhere to be seen (though you ostensibly glimpse the back of their heads during the reprieve of ‘Life Is A Happy Song’ which ended the last movie), and the film almost immediately embarks on a narrative tangent that isn’t nearly as shrewd or satisfying. From the very outset it is clear that something important is missing, and though it’s impossible to say for sure that it is Segel’s input, his and Adams’ characters are certainly missed. The songs, the gags and the dialogue are — in and of themselves — just as clever, but as a whole it all seems strangely hollow and half-baked. Despite the continued involvement of Bret McKenzie, the soundtrack just isn’t as memorable as The Muppets‘, and no single song makes the same impact as ‘Man or Muppet’. The cameos, meanwhile, seem forced and largely superfluous, with Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais wearing incredibly thin in the key human roles.

There are occasional sparks of genius, however, and in many ways that’s what makes Muppets Most Wanted so incredibly frustrated. When it begins to look like The Muppets might once again be at their end, characters lament that they’ve just spent a whole movie putting the team back together again. The opening number, meanwhile, though largely forgettable, warns that sequels are rarely as good as the original. The supporting characters are often the funniest, and here it’s not Kermit or Miss Piggy that get the biggest laughs but Sam the Eagle. In a well-handled homage to The Pink Panther, Sam appears as a CIA agent forced to work with Ty Burrell’s Interpol officer, though they spend most of their time comparing increasingly unwieldy badges and trying to squeeze into microscopic European cars. Though the idea that Europeans are lazy and largely useless is a little unfair, the subplot is too ridiculous to cause any real offense. This is a Muppets movie, after all.

Though not without its moments, Muppets Most Wanted is for the most part a crushing disappointment. It’s not simply that the jokes aren’t as funny, it’s that the film seems to miss the point. The joy of The Muppets has always been the artifice, the knowledge that you are watching puppets adding to the sense of fun and anarchy, yet here by showing the Muppets jumping about the screen, forming Muppet ladders and engaging in fight scenes returning director James Bobin inadvertently shatters the illusion, and you are no longer under the Muppets’ unique spell.

2-stars

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America 2Following the battle for New York, in which the Avengers assembled in order to fight off an alien threat lead by Thor’s adopted brother Loki, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is working with S.H.I.E.L.D to identify other, rather more terrestrial threats. When Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) is targeted by a mysterious enemy, however, and Rogers is framed for the attack, he instead finds himself on the run from the agency his forebears helped to create. Aided by superspy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and veteran paratrooper Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Rogers — as Captain America – embarks on a journey to clear his name and divine both the identity and true intentions of the mercenary known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

Things haven’t been the same since New York. It’s a sentiment that’s been repeated by Iron Man, Thor and now Captain America, though one that they most likely share with their legions of fans. When Phase One culminated in The Avengers, and Marvel merged its four sub-franchises into something new and never before seen on the big screen, it seemed as though the studio was ready to revolutionise the superhero genre. In some respects they did: Sony have rebooted Spider-man and announced their own expanded universe, while 20th Century Fox have found a way reconcile their two X-Men timelines into one cohesive franchise. Even rival comics company DC have reacted in a similar vein, finally announcing plans to pit Batman and Superman against one another in, you guessed it, Batman vs. Superman.

Watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier, however, it seems that everyone’s embracing change but Marvel themselves. The studio’s latest, along with other Phase Two titles Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, may pay lip-service to the wider universe (there is mention of Stephen Strange, providing further suggestion that a Doctor Strange movie may well be on the way) but there is very little sense that this is simply one episode in a larger series. Billed as a “political thriller”, Anthony and Joe Russo’s sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger starts out as a welcome reaction to events elsewhere in the franchise, but rather than slowing things down long enough to let wounds heal and traumas manifest it quickly escalates into just another action movie. If you think of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe as a serial, this is our third end-of-season finale in a row.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t good; to the contrary, Marvel’s commitment to making solid movies has resulted in another success in superhero storytelling. Though perhaps not a political thriller in the typical sense (Black Widow is back, but she has yet to do any actual spying) the film does have an atmosphere of secrecy and conspiracy that plays nicely into the Russo brothers’ themes of freedom and transparency. It’s also very well acted, with Evans in particular getting plenty to work with. Anyone who felt the character was poorly served by either of his previous appearances will be relieved to see him both growing as a character and convincing as a superhero in his own right. Returning players Jackson, Johansson and Cobie Smulders also get their chances to shine, while newcomer Anthony Mackie is a constant delight as Falcon. As for set pieces, The Winter Soldier boasts some of the most breath-taking seen so far in the MCU, though all but the final skirmish tend to go on a little too long.

It all comes down to Marvel’s priorities, and whether they favour the individual movie or the franchise as a whole. The Amazing Spider-man wasn’t a great movie, but as the first instalment in a larger story it was very successful indeed. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, on the other hand, is very much a stand-alone movie, and squanders the chance to be something different; something more. Rather than continue to streamline and integrate the mega-franchise, the film complicates things further (an AI is at one point introduced, though confusingly it seems to be a different AI to Ultron). It once again falls to Whedon to remind everyone of the bigger picture, and his post-credits sequence is possibly the highlight of Phase Two so far. As he’s said in interviews: “Don’t go bigger, go deeper”.

3.5-Stars

About Last Night (2014)

About Last NightBernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall) have just had sex, and we know this because they have each described the previous night’s encounter to their respective friends in excruciating detail. Having arranged to meet again, the pair bring those friends along for support. While Bernie and Regina excuse themselves for a quicky in the toilets, Danny (Michael Ealy) and Debbie (Joy Bryant) hit it off unexpectedly and decide to leave early. As Bernie and Regina tire of one another, eventually developing a mutual hatred of the other, Danny and Debbie fall in love, with the former eventually asking the latter to live with him. It’s no happily ever after, however, and they too soon start to grow apart.

Romantic comedies are sooo last century. You might have noticed that since the noughties cinema has entered a new phase that could accurately be described as the filthies, with a spate of 21st Century sex comedies designed to cast an ultraviolet light on human relationships. No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits were mere foreplay, with That Awkward Moment finally taking things to fourth base, behind the bike shed or wherever the kids are doing it these days. That Awkward Moment, you may remember, was irredeemably awful.

Enter About Last Night, a spiritual successor to That Awkward Moment from the director of Hot Tub Time Machine and starring Brenda from the Scary Movie franchise. Yes, it really is as bad as it sounds. Steve Pink’s About Last Night – a remake of the 1986 film of the same name – is the story of two couples, neither one of which it is possible to care for. It all starts with Hart (the pain in the stomach and the ass from Ride Along) and Hall (of Brenda fame), both of whom provoke the sort of reaction usually reserved for crying babies on aeroplanes. As characters, Bernie and Joan are completely insufferable, each ostensibly intended as comic relief but really just there to outdo the other with acts of the utmost misogyny and loutishness.

The scenes between Ealy and Bryant aren’t nearly as painful to watch, and credit where credit’s due, they do attempt to portray a semi-realistic romance, where trivial disagreements fester and ferment until they seem too entrenched and pervasive to be ever truly resolved. Such films are by no means unfamiliar with falling-outs, but they are usually saved until the end of the second act for the greatest dramatic impact. And there’s a reason for that: nobody wants to watch two people fall out of love for an hour and a half. When you’re not being repulsed by Bernie and Joan, you’re being bored senseless by Danny and Debbie. The film, also based on David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, aims for insight and candour, but instead comes across as simply crass and immature.

Romantic and sexual comedies really aren’t so different. Love will always triumph, it’s just that you might not always care that it does. About Last Night — split handily into sections so that you’re all too aware of how many months of prolonged misery you have left to endure — is a horrible movie. One decent gag aside (in which a Korean beautician rightfully reprimands Brenda from Scary Movie for being a racist wretch) it is a joyless, witless and unlikeable ordeal that is every bit as detestable as That Awkward Moment.

1.5-Stars

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