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

 

Cinderella (2015)

Cinderella 2015Having lost her mother at a young age, Ella (Lily James) is later deprived of her father, too, leaving her in the care of inter-rim step-mother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). At first cohabiting with the Tremaines, including step-sisters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), Ella is soon demoted to mere servant as dwindling funds necessitate the dismissal of staff. Eager to marry either of her own children off to Prince Charming (Richard Madden), Lady Tremaine escorts them to a ball at the palace, leaving Ella — now dismissively referred to as cinder-Ella, on account of her sleeping by the fire — to make preparations for their return. Ella’s Fairy Godmother, however, has other plans: a few waves of her wands and Cinderella is transformed into a princess, complete with transportation and entourage, and the Prince is soon transfixed by her presence.

Not that this review even needs a synopsis, given how ingrained the Cinderella story is in modern-day popular culture. Whether you know it from the original European folktale, the 1950 Disney animation or the character’s cameos in the Shrek series and last year’s Into The Woods — not to mention the countless other adaptations, be it in film, theatre or ballet — the narrative never really changes: there’s always a girl, a prince and an evil step-mother involved somehow. Director Kenneth Branagh takes perhaps the fewest liberties yet in his Chris Weitz-scripted, Lily James-starring big screen translation, which strips the story of its musical moments and post-modern subversions to focus on emotional realism rather than romantic fantasy. Like Alice In Wonderland (or Underland, misheard by young Alice) and Snow White and the Huntsman (which took the dwarves to war), cinder-Ella wants to be about more than just magic.

The problem, however, is that without that enchantment Cinderella isn’t all that much fun. Successive storytellers have tried to make the character compelling but she is always outshone by The Fairy Godmother or The Fairy Godmother’s transfigurations. Whereas Branagh managed to ground Marvel’s Thor in the present without compromising on either humour or high fantasy he has turned Cinderella not into a modern-day princess movie for all but a rather staid period drama too tedious for children but not interesting enough for adults. In fact, the audience spends more time with Ella’s ill-fated mother than they do with the aforementioned fairy, meaning that the famous — and still pretty fabulous, it must be said — transformation sequences seem out of place when they should feel right at home. Bonham Carter is terrific fun as The Fairy Godmother, her performance relatively restrained but still characteristically deranged, but worse than being understated she is also underused. For the most part, the actress is relegated to voice-over duty and forced to narrate the less interesting aspects of Ella’s life.

Instead, Branagh spends his time explaining plot developments that nobody needs explained and establishing characters that most have known since childhood. It doesn’t matter how Cinderella came to live with her evil step-mother, and yet this latest movie spends almost its entire first act focusing on that precise string of contrivances. It seems strange that Branagh — and indeed Weitz — should spend so much time simply naming their protagonist (why oh why couldn’t they have just christened her Cinderella in the first place?) only to then glaze over the fact that a lizard has been magically transfigured into a footman. However, as with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Branagh’s last cinematic adaptation after Thor, the main problem is the uninspiring and ultimately anonymous cast (though the inclusion of Rob Brydon is almost as noteworthy as Michael Starke’s appearance in the former). Rather than casting spells, Cinderella seems intent on breaking them: even in her trademark glass slippers, newcomer James fails to sparkle, while television actor Madden isn’t nearly charming enough or Blanchett sufficiently evil to live up to their respective titles. By attempting to humanise their characters the actors have robbed them of their identities.

Although better than both Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman, Cinderella continues to do nothing to inspire confidence in Disney’s upcoming live-action adaptations of its classic animations — Joe Wright’s Pan is next, scheduled for release in July. Branagh’s latest is all pumpkin, no carriage.

2-stars (1)

 

 

Insurgent (2015)

InsurgentIn the ruins of future Chicago — its citizens walled in and divided into five factions according to mutually exclusive virtues — leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is trying to open a mysterious box. In Amity, meanwhile, having survived Erudite’s hostile takeover of Abnegation, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), boyfriend Four (Theo James), brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and fellow survivor Peter (Miles Teller) take short-lived refuge in the home of Johanna (Octavia Spencer). When Eric (Jai Courtney) and his team of soldiers track them down, however, they are forced to flee once more, this time escaping aboard a train back into the city — all except Peter, who surrenders. En route, and for want of a better plan, Four reveals that he was born Tobias Eaton, and that his mother (Naomi Watts) is raising an army of factionless individuals with which to overthrow Jeanine.

If you are planning to see Insurgent — the second instalment in Summit Entertainment’s Divergent series, adapted from Veronica Roth’s bestselling books — then it can be reasonably assumed that the first film’s many, many, many flaws were not enough to put you off; that, for instance, the derivative plot, paper-thin characters and non-existent internal logic were of little importance next to an attractive cast and — well, an attractive cast. The ensemble has indeed returned — in body at least, most of them having gone on to bigger and better things in the meantime — but so too have the same unanswerable questions. What is divergent? How are they any different from the factionless? Where on Earth did Roth get the impression that you could meaningfully differentiate between personality types? The script throws out one or two ideas, but nothing remotely satisfying.

The sequel poses equally baffling questions of its own, too. When did Tris find the time to highlight her hair while on the run? What use would a faction called Candor and comprised only of honest people possibly have for a truth serum? How does being divergent — belonging in more than one faction, apparently — grant you super-strength, blanket weapon skills and immunity to tranquilisers? In fact, Insurgent only contains one single revelation, though unfortunately everyone in the audience will have guessed the resultant twist within the opening moments of the movie, if not sooner. Luckily, however, there are more diversions this time around, and thanks to a substantially increased special effects budget (along with replacement director Robert Schwentke’s eye for a set piece) the film is occasionally visually exciting enough to distract you from the fact that none of it makes the slightest bit of sense.

The simulations are back, as divergents are put to the test by Jeanine in an attempt to unlock the box’s secrets, but rather than having the subjects perform relatively mundane tasks the obstacles have been scaled up in every possible way. The Dauntless simulation, for instance, sees the subject navigate a crumbling and re-configuring cityscape in an attempt to save a loved one, while Abnegation pits them against themselves in a fight to the death. When Tris is inevitably put through her paces, being 100% divergent or whatever, her success during the Erudite test leads to one of the most unexpectedly and unnecessarily beautiful sequences of the year so far. It is ultimately hollow praise, however, as being unable to engage with the characters — nobody apart from Watts (“Do you want to tuck him in or should I?”) makes the slightest impression — or begin to comprehend what’s at stake — not a single death, betrayal or reconciliation carries any dramatic weight whatsoever — you can only appreciate it on the most superficial of levels.

While not quite as infuriating or insulting as the original, The Divergent Series: Insurgent does nothing to suggest that the series has any intention of actually diverging from the worst cliches of the Young Adult genre. For insurgency in 2015, you’d more than likely be better off waiting for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II or The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials.

2-stars

Home (2015)

HomeHaving been mercilessly hunted across the galaxy by the Gorg, the Boov claim Earth as their latest hidey-hole. Transplanting the natives to Humanstown, Captain Smek (Steve Martin) leads Oh (Jim Parsons), Kyle (Matt L Jones) and the rest of the Boov in their Moving Day celebrations. However, when Oh accidentally invites the entire universe to his flatwarming party, he is banished from the community as the elders attempt to intercept the message before it reaches the Gorg. On the run, Oh is cornered by Tip (Rihanna), a resentful but resourceful human girl who — along with her pet cat, Pig — was overlooked by the Boov transports. Tip is searching for her mother (Jennifer Lopez), and will only let Oh go free if he promises to help her find her first.

Adapted from Adam Rex’s 2007 children’s book ‘The True Meaning of Smekday’ and directed by Antz‘s Tim Johnson, Home was originally scheduled for release late last year, but was later supplanted with a more surefire hit better suited to the competitive holiday season — namely Penguins of Madagascar. Both were announced in 2013 as part of an elaborate and exciting twelve picture release schedule, one that would see the 2oth Century Fox distribute three films a year through to How To Train Your Dragon 3 in 2016, and which would reset the status quo to ensure more stand-alone films were produced than sequels or spin-offs; but the under-performance of Rise of the Guardians, Turbo and Mr Peabody & Sherman forced a large-scale reshuffle within the studio that resulted in a significantly reduced slate and the loss of hundreds of jobs. With the likes of B.O.O and Me and My Shadow being withdrawn back into development, Home was lucky to get a release at all.

Perhaps worryingly, then, Home is a somewhat middling affair, ranking higher than many of the studio’s original properties but well below the standard set by Madagascar 3 and How To Train Your Dragon 2. The first twenty minutes are almost laugh-free — an untenably turgid introduction to the Boov race that quickly establishes Oh as one of the most insufferable leading characters in an animated movie. Voiced with the utmost self-satisfaction by Parsons, and reduced to speaking in pervasive and poorly imitated broken English, Oh outstays his welcome almost immediately. “I too has to break pee” is a particularly irksome example of the character’s jarring diction, but there are many more to choose from. Given that Todd Wilderman directed an energetic and entertaining alternate introduction — distilling the Boov’s defining traits and Oh’s own quirks into an admirably efficient four minute sequence — to be attached to screenings of Mr Peabody & Sherman, it’s disappointing that the version that made it into the film itself is so unremarkable, uninspiring, and so likely unmemorable.

Thankfully, however, Home has other things going for it, not least the exceptionally high quality of the animation that has become the studio’s defining feature. DreamWorks, who last year upgraded their animation and lighting software, continue to push the envelope — the cute and superficially crude character designs belie a complexity and attention to detail that remains second to none. Oh may talk utter nonsense, but his face is so expressive that his gestures take on a life of their own; his mannerisms are not only coherent but completely captivating. The background detail is impressive too, one example being the Boov’s bubble technology that allows them to access any building and effectively dispose of any item deemed unnecessary — everything from umbrellas to toilet bowls. There is also a heartwarming theme of family and friendship, which doesn’t differentiate between terrestrial and extraterrestrial aliens. Ultimately, though, it’s Tip herself who stands out, even among the Annas and Eeps and Meridas of contemporary children’s cinema. The success of the character cannot be solely attributed to the animators either, regardless of how amazing their efforts might be; perhaps surprisingly — particularly if you’re familiar with her work on Battleship — Rihanna cuts a perfectly charismatic and compelling voice actor.

Home isn’t an easy film to like, let alone love, but for all of its flaws it at least has its own distinct personality. You could say that DreamWorks Animation have built what at first inspection appears to be an almost derelict house, but which over time becomes a gradually endearing home. You could. If only it weren’t a question of equity.

3-Stars

Run All Night (2015)

Run All NightWhen limousine driver Mike Conlon (Joel Kinnaman) is witness to an incident involving Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook), the rebel son of reformed crime lord Shawn (Ed Harris), he finds himself being targeted by everyone Danny has on his payroll. The situation is further complicated when Mike’s father Jimmy (Liam Neeson), an old friend of Shawn’s who left his own family to serve the crime boss’ as their go-to hitman, kills Danny while defending his son and incurs Shawn’s wrath in the process. As Mike fears for his young family, evacuating them to a lakeside retreat from his past, Jimmy fights his way through the ranks — starting with their new hitman, Mr Price (Common), in an attempt to stop Shawn before the latter can exact his revenge.

Although Liam Neeson’s bewildering action-man makeover started with the Luc Besson produced Taken series, director Jaume Collet-Serra was also complicit in making the actor so ubiquitous within the genre. Having collaborated on Unknown and Non-Stop, two preposterously high-concept Euro-thrillers that — respectively — saw Neeson forget his part in an assassination attempts and face off against apparently well-intentioned terrorists aboard a crashing plane, the two reteemed for Run All Night, a rather more realistic and grounded sins of the father saga set in New York. However, what truly distinguishes Run All Night from Unknown and Non-Stop, and any other Neeson actioner for that matter, is that it’s actually quite good.

Neeson carries on pretty much as usual, but Collet-Serra has this time chosen to surround him with a higher caliber of supporting actor — Julianne Moore notwithstanding — of which Ed Harris is undoubtedly the most familiar face. Always watchable, Harris brings real conflict and complexity to Shawn, a character driven to avenge in death a son he wasn’t necessarily too fond of in life. However, lesser known talents include Genesis Rodriguez (Big Hero 6), Vincent Philip D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket) and Common (Selma), while Joel Kinnaman (of the much-maligned RoboCop remake) quickly redeems himself as Mike. It wouldn’t be hard to imaging Run All Night going straight to DVD, its poorly photoshopped cover replete with embarrassed-looking A-listers phoning in performances for an easy paycheck, but the actor’s here really earn their cinema release.

While undoubtedly Collet-Serra and Neeson’s most inspiring collaboration to date, Run All Night is sometimes a little too audacious for its own good. Stylistically, the computer-enhanced tracking shots that whisk the action from one location to the next jar horribly with the gritty, down-to-earth aesthetic established elsewhere, while a Christmas setting serves almost no purpose at all — save perhaps for a third act skirmish set to A Fairytale in New York that is barely eventful enough to register. It’s also needlessly violent, especially for a film about families each endeavoring to reinvent themselves as peaceful and legitimate. Jimmy spends the whole film insisting that his son doesn’t pull the trigger, all the while killing just about anyone who appears in his sights. It’s also a little confusing that such an apparent pacifist as Mike should coach boxing and work for Shawn (as a chauffeur, admittedly) in the first place.

Neeson’s best film since The Grey (not, of course, including his inspired, self-effacing voice work on The LEGO Movie), Run All Night is an unexpectedly taught, tense and intelligent thriller. With the actor teasing another two years of action hero-ing before he finally returns to more genteel roles, however (he will forever be the dad from Love, Actually, in my eyes at least), the question is whether he can keep it up.

3-Stars

 

CHAPPiE (2015)

CHAPPiEHaving designed law-enforcement drones for Tetravaal, a weapons manufacturer based in Johannesburg, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has subsequently turned his attention to artificial intelligence, despite CEO Michelle Bradley’s (Sigourney Weaver) insistence that her company isn’t interested. Before he can install his prototype programme into a damaged robot, however, Deon is kidnapped by gangsters Ninja (as himself), Yolandi (as herself) and America (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who want to use the drone for one last heist in order to pay off crime lord Hippo (Brandon Auret) — leaving him with no option but to activate the A.I. and leave it in their hands. While Ninja and Yolandi raise CHAPPiE (Sharlto Copley) as their own, Deon returns to Tetravaal to find rival engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) — whose own creation, MOOSE, has been deemed too heavy-duty for the police force — has declared war on CHAPPiE.

Whichever way you look at it, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was something of an empty promise. For some, it set a standard that the director’s later films have yet to live up to; for others, District 9 itself felt like little more than a show-reel designed to impress rather than entertain. Whatever criticism you throw at his sophomore project — Matt Damon vehicle Elysium — however, it feels much more like a movie in its own right. CHAPPiE again feels like the natural progression for a filmmaker still developing his style, and while it too is not without its flaws there is a comprehensiveness to it that District 9 arguably lacks. CHAPPiE is impressive for all of the reasons Blomkamp’s previous efforts are impressive, but for really the first time the story and characters match up with the aesthetics and themes.

CHAPPiE itself/himself is a marvel, both beautifully realised and vividly performed. Having previously played anti-heroes and straight-up villains, it’s refreshing to see Copley given something ever so slightly lighter to play. Like the best movie robots CHAPPiE is relatively crude and uncomplicated on the outside (a tool, rather than a Transformer), but incredibly complex on the inside. Given basic moral parameters by Deon under pressure — do not kill; do not steal — CHAPPiE is then raised by dayglow gangsters who try to manipulate him into doing just that, first by lying to him and then by making him question his creator’s authority. If Deon indeed loves him, why did he give CHAPPiE a damaged body with limited battery life? It is thanks to CHAPPiE that the film dodges unflattering comparisons to RoboCop or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with which it shares a great deal in terms of themes and plot; Copley’s motion-capture performance has its own distinctive personality — from the actor’s telltale accent to the character’s muddled expletives.

Although named after the aforementioned robot, CHAPPiE is effectively an ensemble film — though admittedly an ensemble film that is greater than the sum of its parts. Patel, Jackman and Cantillo are by no means the best actors in the world, while Ninja and Yolandi aren’t even actors, but they are undeniably characters. Blomkamp makes full use of his multinational cast, including an inevitable cameo from genre staple and resident American Weaver, who has marginally more to do here than in The Cabin in the Woods or Paul, and while their individual performances might not always convince their relationships still manage to be compelling. As interesting as the film’s discussions of artificial intelligence are, evoking immediate comparisons to the likes of Ex_Machina, it’s the scenes exploring the quasi-familial bonds the machine eventually develops that are the most fascinating — from Deon fretting about bad influences to Ninja and Yolandi slowly adjusting to their roles as surrogate parents, CHAPPiE both moulds and is moulded by those he comes into contact with.

Funnier and more emotional than either District 9 or Elysium, CHAPPiE is Blomkamp’s most engaging film to date. It is also the director’s most ambitious, and though the ideas and plot mechanics don’t always sit together cohesively what matters is that the solutions Blomkamp finds are always creative. Having now tackled extra-terrestrials, future politics and artificial intelligence, Blomkamp couldn’t be more ready to embark on Alien 5.

4-Stars

 

Still Alice (GFF 2015)

Still AliceAt the age of fifty, it is perhaps unsurprising that Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is struggling to remember the occasional word — as an esteemed linguistics professor at Columbia University she is presumably aware of tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, which becomes more prevalent with age — but when she forgets where she is while running a well-trodden route she begins to worry that something else might be behind her forgetfulness. Alice is diagnosed with familial Alzheimer’s, a rare form of early-onset dementia with devastating implications for her offspring. Having confided in her husband prior to diagnosis, Dr. John Howland (Alec Baldwin) helps her break the news to their three grown children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart).

Few diagnoses can carry quite the same weight as Alzheimer’s Disease, surely a fate worse than death that leaves your body intact while ravaging your mind one memory at a time. It impacts different people in different ways but always to the same end — ultimately robbing the sufferer of their achievements, relationships and their very sense of self as they forget more and more of their lives. And yet, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name seems to suggest that for Dr. Alice Howland the diagnosis is especially tragic. As an independent, intelligent, successful linguist her inability to remember the word “lexicon” is Alzheimer’s Disease at its cruelest.

It’s hard, however, to take issue with Moore’s performance. Having researched the subject and interviewed a number of sufferers she is certainly convincing in her portrayal of a demented and tormented soul. At first simply absent-minded, misconstruing a conversation or misplacing trinkets, she soon begins to feel the full effects of the disease. Although she attempts to conceal and even counteract the progressive symptoms with memory games and messages to herself, episodes of unintentional rudeness, moments of crippling confusion and a movement towards compulsive behaviours begin to take an impact on her family too. In many ways Bosworth’s Anna takes the brunt of it onscreen, but for audiences its Baldwin and Stewart whose pain will be most keenly felt. A third-act scene between the two of them, in which Stewart returns home to help look after her mother, it truly heartbreaking.

And yet, as moving as the movie is it’s difficult to escape the feeling that it’s also a being a little patronising, too. The Howland’s affluent lifestyle is such that they never need to worry about the financial repercussions of losing half of their income, even though they have recently put two children through university and are now in the process of subsidising their third’s acting career — all while employing a cleaner-cum-carer. Alice may worry for her children’s futures but her concern seems unwarranted. Given how many people Moore is reported to have spoken to in preparation for the role it’s disappointing to see the Alzheimer’s community all but ignored within the film — Westmoreland and Glatzer largely limit their discussion of the disease to doctors and lecturers, conceding only so that Alice can speechify to a crowd. As a scene its supposed to be rousing — Alice loses her place on the page, but finds it again without help — but it just comes across as condescending.

An incongruously noble portrait of a fundamentally ignoble affliction, Still Alice only ever brings Alzheimer’s Disease into soft focus, when ideally it should be spotlighting an underrepresented form of dementia. It seems preoccupied with articulating the indescribable when the real horror should surely be purely experiential. That the film is unsatisfying it inevitable — Alzheimer’s and narrative don’t exactly go hand in hand — but it’s unfortunate that it should also be unmemorable.

3-Stars

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