Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

FRD-08534.JPGCaptured by the War Boys of Citadel, a small oasis lost in the wastelands of what used to be Australia, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is condemned to have his blood harvested for injured warrior Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Before the transfusion can begin, however, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) flees the Citadel aboard a tank truck containing despot Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) “prize breeders” — wives Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), Cheedo (Courtney Eaton) and Toast (Zoë Kravitz) — drawing Joe and his War Boys out of the city in pursuit. Chained to the front of Nux’s vehicle, out in front of the fleet, the transfusion now in progress, Max’s only chance of survival is to escape his confines and join the women on the rig before either he runs out of blood or Nux runs out of luck. With a cargo of gasoline as well as women, it’s not long until hunting parties from rival territories Gas Town and Bullet Farm join the chase.

Ostensibly the fourth film in George Miller’s Mad Max franchise, albeit at something of a remove from the original trilogy by virtue of a recast lead actor (Hardy taking over from Mel Gibson) and a recycled villain (series veteran Keays-Byrne returning in a new role), Mad Max: Fury Road is more of a soft reboot. No longer an independent, under-the-radar antipodean oddity, the latest instalment has been financed by Hollywood with a high profile cast and exponentially bigger budget. Remarkably — and refreshingly — that seems to be the full extent of the compromises enacted by Warner Bros. While notable enough simply for having swerved the traditional backlash against belated trilogy-cappers that befell Indiana Jones and John McClane, and which dogs all remakes, however honourable their intentions, Fury Road is even more impressive for running circles not just around the usual skeptics and cynics but also the Cannes Croisette. There is more originality on display in this franchise film than there is in most standalone features.

Although it’s initially a little jarring to see Miller’s uncompromising vision writ large, the grinding of gears is so intrinsic to a film such as this that it soon becomes second nature when watching. Max may be mad but Miller’s film is maniacal; from the manic edits to the frantic pacing, the returning director builds a momentum that doesn’t let up for a single moment. This is a film in which fade-outs signal the passing of minutes rather than months, in which characterisation takes place at pace or not at all, and in which characters give blood/fight baddies/blast out guitar riffs while strapped to the front of supercharged muscle cars. That the chase not only continues but intensifies through swirling sandstorms, crumbling canyons and cloying quagmires only goes to show how insane it eventually becomes — in a no-holds-barred drag race to the finish. It’s hard to think of another live-action movie that can match it in terms of surrealist scale and spectacle — at least until that Fast & Furious/Doomsday crossover exactly nobody is asking for — and it’s telling that for years Fury Road was actually mooted as an animated movie, albeit one that doesn’t deal in love interests and daddy issues.

Seventeen years in the making, Mad Max has had plenty of time to balance impeccable style with unexpected substance. As is so often the case with supposedly studied dystopian fiction, the film deals with an underclass railing against dishonest dictators, but Fury Road is a little more nuanced than that. The characters aren’t simply trying to topple a tyrant; they’re attempting to overthrow a patriarchy. Both Max and Furiosa receive essentially the same billing, both in the opening credits and the title of the film itself, in which the two are separated only by a colon. Interpreted literally as a route travelled in anger the fury of the film’s title is clearly that of Furiosa’s and her four female compatriots; but read metaphorically it could just as easily relate to a road of furies — as in the creatures of Grecian myth, embodied here by those selfsame five. As if the women aren’t depicted as dominant enough (Max is never much more a passenger aboard the rig), he is at one point shown to rely upon “mother’s milk” — and he isn’t the only one. Unfortunately, while Furiosa flourishes onscreen, and both Huntington-Whiteley and Kravitz are given fleeting opportunities to prove themselves and flesh out their characters, the two other wives don’t make quite the same impression.

While commendable for his conviction, only time will tell whether Miller’s refusal to compromise has cost his film commercially. Like Drag Me To Hell, itself a solid but by no means sensational success at the box office, it’s at some points so crazed that it’s actually comical — more rumpus than riot. It is clear throughout, even at its most unlikely and over the top, however, that there is method to this madness.

4-Stars

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

Pitch Perfect 2When Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) experiences a wardrobe malfunction at the Lincoln Centre, embarrassing the President and bringing the good name of collegiate a cappella into disrepute, the Barden Bellas are suspended from competing at Nationals. After meeting with commentators John Smith (John Michael Higgins) and Gail Abernathy-McKadden (Elizabeth Banks), team leader Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) alights upon an opportunity for reinstatement. If they can win the international competition — in what would be a first for an American outfit — then their suspension would be lifted. While the rest of the Bellas celebrate, and welcome a new recruit — a legacy — named Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) onto the team, Beca starts an internship at a recording studio. Pushed to find her own voice and produce original music, she begins to question her dedication to a cappella.

One of 2012’s most pleasant surprises, Jason Moore’s Pitch Perfect overcame its Gleeky conceit to generally charming effect. It wasn’t perfect — at times it was aca-annoying — but a quirky script and colourful cast won audiences over regardless; an instant cult classic, over time it also became a sleeper hit at the box office. The sequel, this time directed by actress Elizabeth Banks, replicates both the successes and the issues of the original movie. The highlights once again include the Bella’s triumphant performances, Anna Kendrick’s winning protagonist, and Smith and Abernathy-McKadden’s spiky commentaries, while the weaknesses again result from an uninspired plot and underdeveloped support. Das Sound Machine — the Bella’s main competition — are an even more ineffectual antagonist than the Treblemakers were first time around.

Pitch Perfect 2 has other issues too, largely as a result of new developments in this oh-so unlikely saga. The introduction of Emily and the conflict faced by Beca conspire to undermine the simple joy of seeing gifted actors perform expertly remixed arrangements of famous pop songs. The inclusion of songs-with-instrumental on the soundtrack is disappointing enough, but the film’s preoccupation with original music seems like a betrayal of its a cappella premise. Neither subplot is particularly compelling — Futurama‘s Katey Sagal is desperately underused as Emily’s mother while a cameo by Snoop Dogg falls excruciatingly flat — but their confluence in the writing and performing of an original song is just aca-awkward. Song and dance movies are all about the showstopper, the barnstormer, the finale, and for it to be an unfamiliar and frankly unremarkable B-side ballad is incredibly anticlimactic.

As with the original, however, Pitch Perfect 2 is so much fun that its easy to forgive even relatively serious flaws. Banks is a competent director, and ably takes over from Moore. There’s nothing quite as intimate or understated as Becy’s first performance of Cups, but she has a sure handle on the set pieces, of which there are plenty. (The World A Cappella Competition almost out-Eurovisions Eurovision.) Onscreen, meanwhile, alongside co-star Higgins, she is also party to many of the films funniest exchanges, most of them at the expense of either herself or her gender. Even Higgins can’t match the gag-rate of the female cast, however, and unsurprisingly it’s Wilson who will be the biggest draw as Fat Amy. That said, the lesser known likes of Chrissie Fit as a long-suffering Mexican student and Hana Mae Lee as a batshit crazy beatboxer accrue a considerable number of belly laughs between them. Many more than Skylar Astin, that’s for sure.

Pitch Perfect, like the Step Up movies or any musical really, is one of those cinematic events that will always be welcome. To some they will be easily dismissed as disposable light entertainment but to others they are reminders that cinema doesn’t always have to be serious or sophisticated. Sometimes it just has to be in pitch.

3-Stars

Unfriended (2015)

UnfriendedOne year after the death of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), a victim of cyber-bullying who took her own life after a humiliating video was posted online, Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) is watching footage of the incident itself on YouTube when she is contacted by her boyfriend (Moses Jacob Storm) on Skype. Blaire and Mitch are soon joined by friends Jess Felton (Renee Olstead), Ken Smith (Jacob Wysocki) and Adam Sewell (Will Peltz), along with an unknown user with the avatar billie227. At first dismissing the sixth party as a glitch, before incorrectly intimating another acquaintance as the culprit, the group are forced to confront the intruder when it begins communicating with them. Instigating a game of Never Have I Ever, billie227 — using a Skype account that once belonged to the deceased — forces the friends to reveal increasingly incriminating secrets about one another. But is it really Laura Barns, and why is she out for revenge?

Arriving hot on the heels of It Follows, another well-received horror movie that built up buzz on the festival circuit, Unfriended — or Cybernatural, as it was previously known — has been a huge hit for Universal Pictures, the logo for which has been gamefully digitised (or glitchified) for the movie’s opening titles. Conceived by Night Watch‘s Timur Bekmembetov, written by Kiel Kimsey and directed by Levan Gabriadze, Unfriended takes place on Lily’s computer monitor, as she clicks between iTunes, Facebook and Skype on what might otherwise have been a perfectly ordinary evening online. It’s an ingenious gimmick — like found footage it immerses you in the drama completely — and thanks to editor Parker Laramie it really does look and feel as though you are watching authentic, real-time, undoctored footage of a teen’s activities online. What’s more, the jumpy footage lends itself to a number of equally jumpy moments.

It is by playing with this sense of familiarity and apparent transparency that Unfriended builds its suspense — in addition, that is, to a low, Paranormal Activity inspired rumble that is never referenced or explained. We see everything Blaire sees, from her group chats and her private messages to her covert browsing online. It’s amazing just how much can be accomplished through the format, and as Blaire chooses her own soundtrack, reveals elements of her backstory through her search history and furthers the plot by doing research online (a certain link apparently pinned to the top of every Google page) it becomes ever more remarkable that nobody thought to do something similar sooner. Well, Hideo Nikata arguably did just that with Chatroom — but with nowhere near the same commitment, credibility or indeed success. The cast are exceptional, their performances never feeling in any way impeded by the format, while billie227’s blank profile is endlessly unsettling and the ghostly glitches that haunt the various Skype connections keep you on edge. It’s amazing just how much a character’s online presence — what they type, and sometimes what they don’t — can tell you about them; Lily is one of the most well-rounded protagonists in recent genre history.

Although thematically Unfriended is very strong — its treatment of cyber-bullying, suicide and possible sexual abuse is particularly troubling — it is substantially less successful when actively trying to scare. The decidedly J-horror conceit is a good one, the ultimate internet troll making for a novel antagonist, but his, her or its actions and motivations are never as interesting as they should be. Suicide has never been a particularly scary weapon for any boogeyman (as films like Pulse or last year’s Ouija further serve to prove) but the issue is compounded here by a failure to establish a consistent tone or an obvious internal logic. One character, having angered billie227, mangles first his fist and then his face in a broken food processor, in the sort of elaborate death stunt that might be perfectly welcome in a Final Destination or Friday the 13th sequel but feels completely out of place here. It’s never entirely clear what influence billie227 has, exactly; the user is seen to hack computers, tamper with lights and knock on doors…and occasionally compel characters to headbutt furnishings. Greater clarification, or even greater ambiguity, would have solved the problem.

While it might not reach the same heights of It Follows, particularly in terms of mythology and mounting dread, Unfriended is still a horror movie to be reckoned with. Intelligent, intuitive and insightful, it tries — admirably, if somewhat self-defeatingly — to put the curse in cursor.

4-Stars

Top Five (2015)

Top FiveOstensibly doing press for his latest movie, Uprize! — a little-seen and even lesser-loved account of the Haitian Revolution — Andre Allen (Chris Rock) instead finds himself fielding questions on everything from his stand-up origins and his big-screen success as Hammy The Bear to his pending marriage to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). Meanwhile, an interview with The New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) veers even further off topic, as the journalist proceeds to probe him on his well-publicised fall from grace — one which, according to the paper’s chief critic, he has yet to recover from. As Allen becomes increasingly disillusioned with the media, Brown struggles to balance her professional responsibilities with her own personal opinions.

According to Top Five, the third film to be written and directed by Chris Rock, “interesting” is the sort of thing polite people say about a movie that isn’t particularly good, or in his character’s case performing particularly well. In fact, judging by the billboards advertising Uprize! it’s the most positive thing the country’s critics have to say on the subject — something that earns an audible sigh as Allen passes by. However, while it might not be what every insider wants to hear, being interesting isn’t always just a consolation prize; in Top Five‘s case it’s simply a statement of fact. As a film it’s funny, moving and insightful — giving its own PR department a much easier task — but it’s Top Five‘s intelligence that really sets it apart from the rest.

A meta-satire that casts Rock as an ex-alcoholic stand-up looking to atone for a string of embarrassing action-comedies with an awards-bait historical drama, Top Five could easily have pitched itself as self-deprecation or been dismissed as Birdman-lite — a comparison that might have been easier had Rock cast someone like Eddie Murphy in the leading role. (Hammy the bear is more Donkey the donkey than Marty the Zebra.) Rock’s film, however, boasts a much wider focus, eschewing the expected character study in favour of social commentary. Top Five is as much about cinema, celebrity culture and changing social mores as it is about Andre Allen or Chris Rock. Also under scrutiny are Barrack Obama, Tyler Perry films and the top five greatest hip-hop artists of all time.

Perhaps so that he doesn’t come across as self-indulgent, Rock has generously given the best part to someone else. Allen may get many of the biggest laughs, but it’s Dawson’s Chelsea Brown who arguably makes the biggest impression. For all the film’s talk of race and discrimination — whether it’s the supposedly racist subtext of The Planet of the Apes or the nebulous acceptibility of the infamous ‘N’ word — it actually feels strangely feminist. Chelsea is undoubtedly the stronger of the two leads, and remains in control throughout, whether she’s escorting Allen home to collect her Dictaphone and meet her family, or fighting her own distinct battle with latent alcoholism. The actors have terrific chemistry, and the film is at its most compelling when the two of them are together, even if they’re only walking and talking.

Unfortunately, it does falter when they are apart — Rock’s occasional detours into their respective backstories stalling the narrative by separating the characters for far too long. The worst offender is an extended flashback to Allen’s self-confessed rock-bottom, brought on by one of Chelsea’s typically probing questions (Robert Downey Jnr would have presumably walked out by this point). Years ago, before his self-imposed sobriety, Allen was partying in Houston with Jazzy Dee when a poorly-judged sexual encounter landed him — briefly — in prison. Chelsea, too, is afforded a single flashback, neither of which sit particularly well within the wider story. Presumably, Rock was simply trying to find room for his friends, as Top Five includes an almost overwhelming array of cameos, involving everyone from Whoopie Goldberg to Cedric the Entertainer, and Adam Sandler to DMX.

Top five may be a little optimistic, but at this point at least Rock’s latest easily ranks among the top ten of 2015 so far. Witty and well-observed, the script is matched only by the performances. One thing’s for certain, however: it’s the best Cinderella movie you’ll see this year.

4-Stars

April 2015 – Well, I was born yesterday

AvengersIt hardly seems worth posting an overview this month.

While I’ve seen most of the big films released in April — Fast & Furious 7, The DUFF, John Wick, Lost River and Child 44 — I only got around to reviewing two.

The Signal, which I actually saw in March, played on only a handful of screens before landing on DVD in April, while I caught The Avengers: Age Of Ultron at the regional premiere in Edinburgh on the 21st.

The reason for this shortfall? Hard to say, really, though the arrival of Daredevil on Netflix perhaps explains where my priorities lay towards the beginning of the month. Life compounded things further, with a friend’s wedding, a holiday to the South of France and a busy spell at work keeping me away from both the cinema and my computer. The quality of the films on offer, it must be said, didn’t help either. Fingers crossed May is a more productive — or at least inspiring — month at the movies.

Film of the month: The Avengers: Age Of Ultron (just)

Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)

AvengersWhile attempting to retrieve Loki’s sceptre from a Hydra stronghold, The Avengers encounter a pair of superpowered siblings (Elizabeth Olsen; Aaron Taylor-Johnson) seeking revenge on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) for the role his company inadvertently played in the death of their parents. Wanda — a woman with unusual influence over the minds of others — undermines Stark’s already fragile mental state, and compromised he returns to New York concerned that he has not yet done enough to secure the safety of all mankind. Together with Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) he uses the sceptre and the mystical gem it contains to unlock the secrets of consciousness with the aim of improving the effectiveness of his drone army, inadvertently leading one of his suits to become self-aware. Named Ultron (James Spader), the nascent AI declares war on its creators, along with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the rest of humanity.

A lot has changed since the release of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble in 2012; and although much of that change has been orchestrated on purpose some of the repercussions have proven to be beyond even Marvel’s (now Disney’s, of course) considerable control. Now eleven films into its unprecedented, pioneering and as yet unparalleled mega-franchise — the no longer burgeoning but rather burdened MCU — and five films on from the Battle of New York, the studio has issued returning director and overseer Joss Whedon with a very different task indeed. Already assembled, the titular super-team must now be developed, redeployed and ultimately divided ahead of the next cinematic season — a tertiary series of instalments known as Phase Three, and already set to kick off next year with Captain America: Civil War. Whereas once the idea of merging four individual franchises was audacious enough, the MCU has now grown to such a size — Marvel’s television division included — that with hindsight it suddenly seems like the simplest thing in the world.

Remarkably, Whedon once again pulls it off — using his experience on the previous film in addition to his time as showrunner on programmes such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly to duly focus on the monster-of-the-year while simultaneously furthering the overarching arcs of his various heroes — albeit without quite the same sense of enthusiasm or effortlessness. While offscreen the director has been lamenting the shoot, talking at length about how the process has not just exhausted but damn near ended him too, onscreen the spectacle has lost some of its box-fresh sparkle. The intention was always to go deeper rather than larger, but while Iron Man and co. are indeed subjected to increased scrutiny the stakes have arguably never been higher. Since Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki’s failed bid for world domination, Miami, London, Washington and the planet of Xandar have all gone the way of New York, leaving audiences fatigued and Age Of Ultron with fewer places in the known (or even unknown) universe left to blow up. The relationships have never been more compelling, the characters never more engaging and the witticisms never more entertaining, but the set pieces aren’t what they once were. A battle between Hulk and Hulkbuster is as interminable as it is unnecessary, while the finale is simply a variation on an overly familiar theme.

That Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron is underwhelming, however, is inevitable — in many ways it’s a victim of its own success. Phase Two has never quite lived up to Phase One, with each film struggling to find its place in Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic and televisual universe. Some like Iron Man 3 have pushed for auteurial autonomy over studio synergy at the expense of a comprehensive experience, while Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Solider have taken a more utilitarian and cohesive approach to storytelling, leaving Agents of SHIELD to fill in the gaps. Already on uneven footing, Whedon was never going to replicate his previous success with its firmer foundations and novel ambitions, but it’s to the director’s credit that he at least succeeds in expanding on it. New additions Vision, Wanda and Pietro steal the show, as does Ultron, the saga’s best villain by far, while expanded roles for supporting characters such as Black Widow, Hawkeye and War Machine are very welcome indeed — Don Cheadle in particular is a delight. It’s an unexpected inversion; the key question coming out of Avengers Assemble was whether anyone would be interested in the composite series after the first crossover, so it’s a little surprising that secondary or even tertiary characters should be missed in the latest team-up. Nevertheless, you still find yourself asking what Pepper Potts, Darcy Lewis or Daredevil‘s Wilson Fisk might be making of Ultron’s actions.

Although it may seem that every successful film is spawning a shared universe these days, the truth is that the MCU remains unique — and as such the usual rules don’t really apply. As with much of Phase Two Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a flawed film, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is part of a failed experiment. Regardless of what becomes of Ultron or any of the other characters, the story is not over yet, and it may well be that with repeated viewings or subsequent instalments audiences’ perceptions of Age Of Ultron may change. For now, though, the disappointment is undeniable, if perfectly understandable.

3-Stars

The Signal (2015)

The SignalAfter narrowly avoiding expulsion from MIT for a cyber-crime they didn’t commit, Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) decide to confront the real culprit while driving Nic’s girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) across-country to college. Known only as NOMAD, the hacker in question is tracked to a seemingly abandoned shack in the middle of the Nevada desert, where the trio are swiftly abducted after performing a perfunctory search of the property. Waking in an anonymous underground facility, his recently diagnosed muscular dystrophy having apparently run its course and left him unable to walk, Nic is quizzed by Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishbourne) on the mysterious signal that lead them to the State and landed them in quarantine. Nic, however, is more concerned with his paralysis, his friends’ conditions and the fact that none of the facility’s clocks seem to work.

Having made waves with Love in 2011 — a high-concept, low-budget science-fiction drama funded and scored by the band Angels & Airwaves — William Eubank returns to the genre with sophomore effort The Signal, which premiered at Sundance in 2014 before opening the Glasgow Youth Film Festival in February of this year. Costing eight-times as much to make, but still coming in at less than $5 million, it was no longer necessary for Eubank to construct makeshift sets in his own back garden, instead leaving the director free to focus on other aspects of filmmaking — this time facilitated by cinematographer David Lanzenberg, returning editor Brian Berdan and composer Nima Fakhrara. Remarkably assured, quietly ambitious and effortlessly arty, the production values at least impress enormously; The Signal is a triumph of both aesthetics and atmosphere.

The cast are great, too, with then-newcomer Brenton Thwaites showing a promise that has yet to be truly capitalised on by interim releases Maleficent and The Giver. Nic — part sci-fi cipher; part YA insurgent — is a complicated character, not least for his ongoing struggles with MD, or MS — it’s never made entirely clear. Like the film itself, he is at his most engaging during the opening half, haunted by dreams of healthier, happier days with Haley. His fears of dependency and alienation are realised in the research facility, where he is interred and isolated — wheeled from one locked room to the next as he recovers from a forgotten physical and psychological trauma. He is ably supported by Knapp, and even outshone by Cooke, who demands more screen time than she is ultimately given. Only Fishbourne, however, provides true star wattage, although he too is underserved by a role that only seems interested in his name and status.  The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, of Insidious mainstay Lin Shaye, who cameos pointlessly as Mirabelle, or Cardigan Lady.

Unfortunately, as interesting as the original premise might be, the film falls apart once Nic and Haley leave the facility, all claustrophobia-born tension and institution-set intrigue escaping with the characters into the desert where they diffuse almost completely. The subsequent plot twists and revelations still have some power, but though the action might open out it’s hard not to get caught up in specifics of the facility. Why are none of the clocks working? What really happened to Jonah? What was going on with that cow, and the chair it apparently kicked at those observing it? While the references to The Blair Witch Project (Jonah sits facing the wall in order to scare Nic) and Catfish (the story revolves around deception online) at the film’s outset seem intuitive and intelligent, courting fans of the genre and encouraging them to engage, many of the later riffs either contradict or confound. Rather than establish a paradigm and work within established parameters to resolve it the narrative just continues to escalate until it becomes so untenable that it can only really hope to satisfy on the most nebulous of emotional levels.

What starts out promisingly as a surprisingly sensitive, intimate and dynamic portrait of a young man tested by unforeseen circumstances — be it his diagnosis with a degenerative disorder or his abduction by Dr. Damon — ultimately loses all sight of character and motivation. Rather than come full circle, The Signal spirals out of control.

3-Stars

 

March 2015 – Will you stop playing that tiny piano?

It FollowsTo be honest, the best films showing in cinemas in March were probably released in February — yup, it’s been that kind of month.

There was CHAPPiE, of course, Neill Blomkamp’s latest unfairly maligned follow-up to the ludicrously overrated District 9, and The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water, which was at once the best hand-drawn, computer-generated and stop-motion animation of the year so far, but neither reached quite the same heights as It Follows.

Still Alice, Run All Night and Home each had their moments, but none are likely to endure as classics, or even favourites of 2015 — not even the one that won an Oscar. And then there was Cinderella, a fairy-tale that sidelined its fairy in favour of rather more everyday acts of courage and kindness — Disney’s Death & Decorum. After all, why wish upon a star when you can make do with a stick instead?

In fact, the outright disasters are more likely to hang in the memory, with March boasting two of the most insipid and insulting blockbusters of recent memory — Insurgent and Get Hard. The former insulted its audience’s intelligence while the latter simply insulted its audience.

Can The Avengers avenge March and save April? Thankfully, there’s not too much longer until we find out.

Film of the month: It Follows.

Get Hard (2015)

GET HARDWrongly convicted of tax evasion, scapegoated partner James King (Will Ferrell) loses his job, his fiance and his liberty. Scared of what might await him in prison, James seeks guidance from Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart), the manager of his old building’s car valet business who is assumed to have served jail time of his own, on account of his skin colour. Desperate for money in order to send his daughter to a better school, Darnell overlooks James’ racial prejudices and agrees to help — despite being a decidedly law abiding citizen with a criminal record as clean as the cars that leave his car-wash. Worried that Darnell might actually be working to clear his ex-employee’s name, Martin Barrow (Craig T Nelson) assigns Gayle (Paul Ben-Victor) to keep an eye on them.

Make no mistake, Will Ferrell is a very funny man. Be it live-action or animation, the actor has made a name for himself as a gifted comedian with films such as Elf, Anchorman, Megamind and The LEGO Movie. He is also wildly inconsistent, and though they are not without their fans films such as Semi-Pro, The Campaign and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues have stretched the jokes that little bit too far. Get Hard undoubtedly falls into that latter camp, and — with the exception of Step Brothers — may even be his least entertaining movie to date. After all, it pairs him with Kevin Hart, who with the likes of Ride Along and About Last Night has proven himself to be not very funny at all.

The problems are manifold, but surely the most pertinent is the fact that there isn’t a single laugh to be had in Get Hard‘s interminable 100-minute running-time. Having already used his only real joke in the film’s title, (co)writer-director Etan Cohen then proceeds to labour the point: that getting ready for prison is somehow synonymous with giving another man — in this case your cellmate — an erection. A large part of Darnell’s syllabus, practically an entire semester of it, focuses on how to excel as another man’s bitch, assuming and later accepting that James will most likely fail to turn the tables on his first day inside. So, basically, the film’s central gag is that one of its two main characters is going to get raped, and its focus is on him getting ready for it.

Faced with accusations that their film is not only homophobic but racist and a little bit misogynist too — celebrated comedienne Alison Brie appears just long enough to strip for the camera — the cast and crew have claimed that Get Hard is actually a satire, spotlighting prejudices rather than sanctioning them. To give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt, this may well be the case, and it’s hard to imagine such high profile actors in this day and age signing onto something quite as questionable as this. Even assuming it is all one big misunderstanding, however, they undoubtedly have a responsibility to make their intentions clear to their audience — which, in Get Hard‘s case, will be largely comprised of immature and impressionable teens less inclined to ask questions of the source material or consider the off-screen clarification of those involved. After all, they’re the only demographic likely to find it even remotely funny.

Get Hard is so dreadful, in fact, that Hart is probably the best thing in it. There is a scene in James’ tennis court — made out to resemble a prison courtyard — in which Darnell impersonates three different gang leaders, transitioning seamlessly between personas as he attempts to intimidate his student. Hart may still be incapable of landing a laugh, but at least we now know he can actually act.

1.5-Stars

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water (2015)

Sponge Out Of WaterHaving found the novelisation on a desert island, Captain Burger-Beard (Antonio Banderas) rewrites the story so that he might acquire the Krabby Patty recipe from the Krusty Krab. In Bakini Bottom, meanwhile, SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) and Plankton (Mr Lawrence) are blamed for its disappearance from the vault, and as the underwater town — starved of its favourite food — descends into leather-clad chaos they set off in search of the missing recipe. First, they travel forward in time to meet Bubbles (Matt Berry), a magical dolphin tasked with watching over the cosmos, before venturing out of the sea along with Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence) and Mr Krabs (Clancy Brown), where Burger-Beard awaits, now serving Krabby Patties of his own from his pirate-ship-turned-food-truck.

Despite its deceptively singular title, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water isn’t the Nikelodeon icon’s first foray into feature film, having previously appeared in 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie — most notable for starring David Hasselhoff as a human jet-ski. It could easily stand on its own, however, serving as an introduction to the surreal, nonsense world of Bakini Bottom while also telling a relatively self-contained story that is likely to appeal to franchise novices and fans of the longstanding television show — now on its ninth season — alike. It’s a special film for a number of reasons, not least for combining hand-drawn, computer-generated and stop-motion animation with live-action sequences, and for being one of very few to target individual territories with customised recordings. As with Studio Ghibli there is a UK-only voice cast, with the likes of Alan Carr and Stacey Soloman providing the voices for Burger-Beard’s seagull entourage.

Mostly, however, it’s performed by the same actors who have played the characters since the series premiered back in 1999, and while the seagulls may begin to grate the main cast remain an inexhaustible delight. Kenny in particular delivers his apparently endless parade of one-liners with a practiced hand, such that every one of them feels like an extension of a long-running gag even when most were likely written or improvised for the movie itself. Fagerbakke and Bumpass are just as consistent, and though somewhat sidelined for the second act (if such standard structural language can even be applied to writer-director Paul Tibbitt’s non-conformist creation) they more than make up for their respective absences whenever they are onscreen — the only thing Patrick and Squidward have in common is that they are both the best character. The biggest surprise, however, is franchise newcomer Matt Berry, who makes such a large impression as Bubbles the dolphin that it’s hard to imagine the extant series without him. Although his distinctive tones are familiar to British audiences thanks to his work on sit-coms The IT Crowd and Toast of London, it would be interesting to see what international audiences make of his work. Either way, he fits right in.

It’s doubtful that there has been a funnier animated film since Penguins of Madagascar last year, and the half and hour or so in particular is a veritable riot of food puns and visual humour (the BBFC certificate promises toilet humour, and the film delivers). Prior to the disappearance of the secret formula, Plankton mounts the latest in a long line of assaults on the Krusty Krab in a desperate bid to steal the recipe for his own flagging fast food establishment, The Chum Bucket. As he attacks first in a plane, then a tank, and finally a Planton-shaped robot the jokes become ever more inspired. The more seemingly obvious the gag, the funnier it seems played out, including one very fine example that sees SpongeBob reach for the phone to ask for Mr Krabs’ orders, only for a Krusty Krab customer — Sandy the sub-aquatic Squirrel — to request a Krabby Patty from the drive-through outside. The promotional material has focused on a plot development that sees SpongeBob and company transformed into superheroes, and though it actually only constitutes a small part of the film it is undoubtedly a comedic high-point. For their final confrontation with Burger-Beard they are given power over bubbles, ice cream and sour notes for one of the most hysterical and hilarious set pieces in years.

Like A Town Called Panic or The LEGO Movie, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water‘s genius lies in its certifiable insanity. In fact, given that the film starts with a sentient sponge living in a pineapple under the sea, even before the status-quo has been disrupted and normality compromised, it may even be too much, too fast, too weird. Whereas most animated films pitch a percentage of jokes over the heads of their young audiences for the benefit of adults, Tibbitt sends several out of reach of even their parents. Presumably for any space dolphins watching.

4-Stars

 

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