July 2015 – Baskin Robbins always find out

Slow West posterI’m not going to lie, with each passing month these round-ups are starting to feel more and more redundant. I saw ten movies this month, but only got around to reviewing four of them. For the likes of Magic Mike XXL, True Story or The Gallows I either couldn’t find enough to say or enough time to say it in to justify a 600 word review, while inconvenient scheduling meant that I had to leave ten minutes before the end of Song of the Sea, which up until that point seemed like a shoe-in for my film of the month.

The films I did manage to review were Slow West, one of the better Westerns released…well, ever; Terminator Genisys, one of the stupidest and least necessary sequels…well, ever; Minions, a Despicable Me spin-off that somehow managed to be even worse than Despicable Me; and Ant-Man, the twelfth instalment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and probably the best twelfth instalment of anything…well, ever. In all fairness, however, it’s only real competition is For Your Eyes Only. Between the uninspiring films and the underwhelming weather, summer 2015 has so far been both depressed and depressing.

Luckily, a few films seen early at the Edinburgh International Film Festival hit screens nationwide this month, meaning that I could still be part of the cinematic conversation. Pixar’s Inside Out opened in cinemas while video game adaptation Dead Rising: Watchtower went (unfairly, if you ask me, and if you compare it with other big screen video game adaptations) straight to DVD. I bought a few DVDs this month too, including two of my favourite films of the year so far: The Interview and It Follows. The next time I’m in HMV I’ll be able to pick up CHAPPiE and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night as well. Should you wish, you can find my entire top ten listed on my Letterboxd page.

Thankfully, I have been a bit more productive elsewhere. My first article for The Blazing Nomad went live as part of their June edition, while I published two more pieces on Finding A Neish following a trip to the Isle of May with Paul Greenwood and a solo expedition from Arbroath to Montrose along the Angus Coastal Path. The site has been going from strength to strength, while the corrosponding twitter profile has been accumulating followers at a frankly astonishing rate. Having been shortlisted for World Nomads and Lonely Planets 2015 travel writing scholarship in June, I this month received certification for my achievement.

Film of the month: Slow West

Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-ManDespite having resigned first from SHIELD and then been ousted from his own company for trying to protect his Ant-Man tech, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) hasn’t quite been able to keep others from replicating his Pym Particle. Former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has come the closest, with his Yellowjacket suit showing a lot of promise, but Pym is unable to use the original suit to stop him, and unwilling to endanger his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who is already acting as his eyes and ears on Cross’ staff. Instead he reaches out to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a recently released ex-con who is struggling to go straight and still meet the custody payments required to see his own daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson).

Considering that this should be Marvel’s most accessible picture since Iron Man, predating the Marvel Cinematic Universe and having originally been developed by Edgar Wright as a standalone feature, Peyton Reed’s finished film is surprisingly difficult to follow, at least at first. It opens completely out of context, with a flash back to Pym’s last encounter with SHIELD, and expends almost no time or energy establishing characters or story: we are simply supposed to know that that’s Howard Stark (John Slattery) from Iron Man 2 and that’s Agent Carter (Haley Atwell) from Captain America: The First Avenger, and they’re sitting next to Mitchell Clarkson (Martin Donovan) who…nope, I’m still pulling a blank. It’s a strange and stilted scene, and it makes you fear the worst for a film that already had expectations set to low.

Thankfully, however, this confusion is relatively short-lived. Ant-Man is a decidedly simple story, and like the first Iron Man it deals with men in suits battling it out over stolen technology. There are numerous other attempts to tie the narrative into the wider franchise — Lang at one point suggests calling the Avengers, only to later end up doing battle with one of their members — but these cross-overs and convergences feel a lot less incongruous. For the most part its a story of two fathers trying to reconnect with their estranged offspring, and the parallels between these two relationships is what ultimately gives the film its heart. One is told to be the hero his daughter already thinks he is, while the other must decide whether he is ready for his daughter to be the heroine she is both ready and willing to be. Father issues are nothing new to cinema, and particularly not the superhero genre, but Evangeline Lilly and little Abby Ryder Fortson aren’t defined by them.

It helps that the tone is kept relatively light throughout, with Rudd rising to the challenge set by Chris Pratt in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, if not quite surpassing him. He’s an incredibly likeable lead, and is able to sell even the most preposterous situation with a wry, disarming smile. Reed ensures that this levity isn’t lost as soon as Rudd puts the Ant-Man helmet on, and most of the set-pieces are as witty and amusing as the exchanges conducted out of costume. It’s nice to see Douglas having such a nice time opposite him, too, in a role even lighter than Liberace in Behind the Candelabra. The real comedy gold, however, is served by Michael Peña, who plays Lang’s former cellmate and current roommate Luis. Ant-Man‘s equivalent of Thor‘s Darcy Lewis, he is as far removed from the usual superheroics as it is possible to get, instead getting sidetracked with superfluous details or spending time saving people he has just incapacitated. His tips, in which he recounts the stories behind each piece of information, have as much energy as many of the fight sequences.

Ant-Man’s biggest success, however, comes in the way that it revitalises the MCU, introducing a new cast of characters and leaving the audience to imagine how they might interact with the established ensemble. It’s a small film, just as Ant-Man is a small hero, but it just might be enough to save Phase Two.

3.5-Stars

Minions (2015)

MinionsHaving inadvertently caused the death of just about every villain in history, the minions find themselves exiled in Antarctica where they slowly unravel without an evil master to serve. It is up to Kevin (Pierre Coffin), Stuart (Coffin again) and Bob (you guessed it) to search the planet for a new purpose for their people, and after accidentally accessing a secret villain-centric television channel set their sights on Villain-Con in what is destined to become Orlando, Florida. They’re soon hired by Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), a villainess who wants nothing more than to be crowned Her Majesty the Queen of England. Things go awry when Bob is crowned in her place, prompting Scarlet to first disown and then declare war on minion-kind.

The continued success of Universal Picture’s Despicable Me franchise is as inexplicable as it is undeniable: the minions are everywhere, even Broughty Ferry. Quite why the characters have taken off in the way they have despite being neither cool or particularly cute is impossible to say. The first film barely warranted a sequel, being little more that a pale imitation of DreamWorks Animation’s far superior and still commendably singular Megamind, let alone a spin-off origin story devoted to its most irritating characters. The minions are no less intolerable here, left to headline a film despite being unable to speak English or get through a single scene without making you want to groan or sigh out loud. They’re not funny, and they’re certainly not clever.

This is children’s entertainment at its laziest and most cynical, simply transporting a single gag — or catchphrase, in the case of the minions’ collective obsession with bananas — to England and hoping that the change of scenery is enough to compensate for a distinct lack of new material. What follows is a convoluted, contrived and often incoherent string of incidents that lack the intelligence or imagination of something like A Town Called Panic or even the most recent Spongebob SquarePants movie, and instead falls back on the sort of asinine idiocy that gives slapstick a bad name. Through in a couple of pernicious stereotypes — both gender and cultural in nature — and you get a real sense of just how insipid Minions is, not just as a comedy but as children’s entertainment.

In fact, if it weren’t for Geoffrey Rush’s narration Minions would be very nearly indefensible. Charming, companionable and genuinely amusing, his voice over carries the viewer through an extended montage of the minions’ various misadventures with the likes of Dracula and the dinosaurs. His introduction “they go by many names: Dave, Carl, Paul, Mike…” is about as funny as the film gets, and with the exception of a family hold-up on the way to Orlando with the Nelsons is likely the last time you’ll smile for the rest of the feature. The only other consolation is how well-rendered it all looks; the design of the minions is as crude as ever, but some of the animation — particularly the cityscapes and set pieces — are really quite impressive. Presumably the animators lost interest in the characters and focused instead on the less offensive inanimate objects.

It’s never clear what the studio is hoping to accomplish with Minions — more an exercise in maintaining brand awareness and marketing merchandise than making people laugh, setting it firmly behind last year’s Penguins of Madagascar in terms of entertainment value — but if there were any creative ambitions going into production there’s certainly no evidence of it on release. Do yourself a favour and watch Song of the Sea instead.

1.5-Stars

Terminator Genisys (2015)

TerminatorJohn Connor’s (Jason Clarke) Resistance has finally won the war, but not before Skynet (Matt Smith) has sent a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to the eighties to exterminate his mother and erase him from existence. In response, John sends right-hand man Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and inadvertently father John in the process. An unprecedented interference by Skynet, however, contaminates the timeline, such that Kyle arrives in a past different to that known by his future officer/offspring. Another, reprogrammed T-800 is already in place to neutralise Skynet’s, leaving Kyle to battle a T-1000 also sent back to terminate Sarah. Memories gleaned from the Kyle Reece from this new timeline lead Sarah, Kyle and the T-800 Genisys, a new operating system that is set to go live in 2017. Helpfully, rather than wait for the new millennium, the T-800 has been working on a time machine of their own.

There can’t be many film franchises as unsettled or unintelligible as the Terminator series. Whereas most sagas are mapped out, their sequels shot back-to-back and their casts contracted until the cows come home, Terminator doesn’t seem to know where it’s going from one minute to the next, or whether it has any future at all. James Cameron directed the first two instalments, but by shifting his focus from mother to child and recasting his villain as a hero he did away with much of the usual connecting tissue. Twelve years later Jonathan Mastow recast John Connor and killed off Sarah Connor, and whereas the earlier films played as horror and action movie respectively his veered more towards comedy, but T3 still incorporated itself into the established canon through call-backs and cameos — sadly, however, Earl Boen’s Dr. Peter Silberman hasn’t been seen since. By the time McG’s Terminator: Salvation rolled around in 2009, the franchise was almost unrecognisable.

Now, a further six years, yet another rights kerfuffle and now a failed TV spin-off later, the brand has been liquidated almost as many times as its titular Terminators. Not that that has stopped director Alan Taylor and production company Skydance Productions from promising another new trilogy of films — because being presumptuous has obviously paid off so well in the past. Effectively ignoring the last two films in the series — a la Jurassic World, and for that matter the itself ignored Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles — the film once again seeks to stop Skynet, Cyberdyne, Genisys, or whatnot, necessitating not only a backwards step for the franchise pre-Salvation (the world ended, get over it) but a backwards leap to the 1980s. Closest in tone to the unfairly maligned Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines — a film the production has done everything in its power to distance itself from — Terminator Genisys was presumably just trying to avoid unflattering comparisons. Off-screen at least Judgement Day is finally here, and the fifth instalment has been found wanting. Taylor’s film is the most witless, unintelligible and inept film of the summer so far — and, given the unrelenting transparency of its promotional campaign, one of the most predictable, too. And it has a silly title to boot.

Essentially a soft-reboot, much like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, the film rewrites the past in a way that aims to be both respectful and revisionist, and ultimately fails on both counts, reading instead as an irreverent rehash. Unlike Abrams’ film, however, the mechanics of this retcon are never really explained, or subsequently justified, meaning that it’s a frustrating experience from start to finish. Who sent the good T-100 back to save Sarah aged 9? Why is the T-1000 suddenly Korean? What exactly is a T-3000 Terminator? Whereas once a killer robot sent back from the future took an entire movie to content with, here they’re killed efficiently and effectively, just not particularly dramatically. Even the sequel’s Big Bad doesn’t seem particularly difficult to defeat, or at least delay, as our heroes seem to have little trouble escaping him every time he conveniently tracks them down, seemingly out of the blue, for the two-hourly explosion to break up the otherwise inexorable exposition. It just all seems so inconsequential, not just because you know that the main characters are more than likely going to survive, but because you know that the actors are probably going to be recast, or their efforts negated somewhere down the line. After all, almost as many actors have now played John Connor as have played James Bond (with five films to 23).

A convoluted mess of coincidences and contrivances, Terminator Genisys is not just confusing, but itself confused. Next time it might simply be easier for John Connor to travel back in time and buy the rights for himself — it won’t stop Skynet, of course, but it might very well save cinema.

1-Star

Slow West (2015)

Slow WestWhen an incident back home forces the girl of his adolescent dreams to flee to America, naive 16-year-old Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sets off in hot pursuit. Little does he realise that Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father (Rory McCann) have a large price on their heads, and that in his youthful innocence-cum-ignorance he is inadvertently leading a parade of bounty hunters right to them. Interested parties include Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), an Irish immigrant who sells his services to Jay in the supposed spirit of camaraderie; Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), a gang-leader and alpha-hunter who has a history with Silas; and Angus the Clergyman (Tony Croft), a lone mercenary who assumes the identity of a holy man to wrong-foot his prey. As they draw closer to their respective prizes, however, Silas begins to admire Jay’s courage and determination.

Of all cinema’s assorted genres and subgenres, it’s perhaps the Western that is the most divisive among cinephiles, at least behind horror. Either you can relate to the perennial nameless wanderer — a personification of tumbleweed both bow-legged and squinty-eyed — or you can’t; and if not then the Old West is invariably a barren and inhospitable place populated by characters that you find it next to impossible to engage with. Thankfully, as is often the case in the multiplex medium of film, there are exceptions, and John Maclean’s Slow West is undoubtedly one of the most exceptional of all. After all, this is a Western with a Scottish protagonist, a comedic undercurrent and strong female character — it’s about as far removed from the blanched American desert and staunch individualism that usually characterises this kind of movie as it is possible to get. There isn’t a single sheriff, deputy or Mexican in the entire movie.

Some have described the absurdist tonal elements as decidedly and distinctly Coen-esque, but while the brothers might well have been an influence Slow West goes well beyond the likes of No Country For Old Men and True Grit in reconciling its tragicomic sensibilities. These are complex, compelling and (most unusually) coherent characters who just happen to be companionable, too. Rather than get caught up in race-relations and other issues of American culture Maclean takes a refreshingly European view of the whole set-up, having Jay and Rose themselves take a more sympathetic stance towards the natives and other immigrants. This new perspective and fresh approach lends the film a novelty that precious few Westerns can lay claim to, particularly in its treatment of women and ethnic minorities. We have in recent years seen the genre transplanted to the American outback in films such as The Proposition and The Rover, but this really is our first exposure to a British or specifically Scottish Western (Maclean hails from Tayside).

To praise the film for possessing such wit, however, is not to suggest that it’s not without acuity or gravitas too, as a gut-wrenchingly unforgiving visit to a trading post during the film’s second act unmistakably proves. Whereas most Westerns glorify violence through prolongued shoot-outs and protracted death throes, the often ruthlessly unsentimental Slow West focuses instead on the immediacy and inglory of death. Lives are ended, potential is squandered and children are orphaned, while the killers themselves are rarely spared their just deserts. The film ends with a strikingly silent and senseless montage, revisiting the trail of dead bodies left by Jay and Silas as they lie motionless across 19th Century Colorado. Earlier in the film, Jay asks an apparently friendly anthropoligist if he minds sharing his fire with a murderer, to which the ethnographer replies that he wouldn’t have many visitors if he did. The film subtly but succinctly outlines the harsh and sometimes inhuman realities of colonialism, and arguably serves to criticise both contemporary American foreign policy and its questionable gun laws at the same time.

Throw in one of cinema’s more convincing Scottish accents (pronounced to perfection by the impeccable Smit-McPhee) and the spectacle of seeing two men in long-johns drying their laundry on a line strung between two horses (complete with comedy call-back) and you have one of the most accessible and pleasantly surprising Westerns to date. And to think, I was all too ready to derisively dub it Slowest.

4-Stars

June 2015 – The kids? This will give the parents nightmares

TSPEAnd just like that it’s June: festival season.

First, though, I had a few films to catch up with on general release, including A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Spy and Jurassic World, the last of which came the closest of any blockbuster this summer to making me feel like a kid again. I later ended the month with Slow West, one of the few Westerns I have actually enjoyed.

At home I became obsessed with Sense8, binge-watching the entire series over the course of a couple of days. I of course loved the similarities it shared with Cloud Atlas, my film of 2013, but was also impressed by the new territory it explored, too. I wrote a list of eight reasons why everybody should be watching the Wachowskis latest for HeyUGuys.

Come June 16th, however, it was off to Edinburgh to review, interview and have a few — as I made my way through as much of the 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival programme as I could in the five days I had available. These included Amy, 13 Minutes, Therapy for a Vampire600 Miles, The Road Within, MaggieCop Car, Manson Family VacationThe Circle, The Hallow, The Messenger, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Iona, Inside Out, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)Last Days In The Desert and Dead Rising: Watchtower.

Of the films I saw this year The Stanford Prison Experiment was the one that really stood out, not just as a great festival film but one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year. In fact, it was an incredibly strong line-up, resulting in no less than five four star reviews for HeyUGuys and this blog. I also had the opportunity to speak to director Corin Hardy and actor Robert Sheehan about their respective films.

This month was also notable for other reasons. Having applied for a travel writing scholarship with World Nomads and Lonely Planet that would have seen me set off on an expenses-paid trip to San Francisco I was delighted to discover that I had been shortlisted for the competition. While I ultimately didn’t win, it was still nice to have my work recognised by such respected talents in the travel writing industry. In the submission I recounted a teenage trip to Scarisoara Cave in Transylvania.

I also had my first article published by The Blazing Nomad, a list of the best gelaterias in the French Riviera following my April visit to the area. This was in addition to a visit to the Isle of May, my first experience of AirBnB and semi-regular glimpses of the Dundee dolphins swimming in the Tay.

Film of the month: The Stanford Prison Experiment

Cop Car (EIFF, 2015)

Cop CarRunaways Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) are walking cross-country echoing cuss-words when they happen across an abandoned patrol car in a small forest clearing. At first daring one another just to touch it, it’s not long before their misadventures escalate and the boys are inside the vehicle starting the ignition. Little do they know that the car actually belongs to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), a corrupt police officer who was in the middle of discreetly disposing of two criminals when his car was unceremoniously stolen with one con still inside. As the boys joyride around the area, Kretzer sets off in pursuit in the hope of intercepting them before either one of them gets bored and opens the boot.

With his first film, Clown, having screened at Glasgow Film Festival back in February, Jon Watts’ follow-up Cop Car was among the higher profile films to be announced for the 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival, particularly after it enjoyed a generally warm reception at Sundance. Although ostensibly of a different genre, Cop Car has quite a lot in common with Clown, not least its darkly comic undertones and blatant disregard for child safety. To begin with, the film plays like a relatively straight-forward coming-of-age drama, but when the narrative rewinds to introduce Kretzer Watts’ surreal and absurdist sensibilities return to the fore. Bacon’s character isn’t turning into an ancient clown demon, but as he sets off in pursuit of the young carjackers (with that moustache taped to his face) there’s a spectacle to the scene that makes it almost farcical.

One of Watts’ greatest accomplishments across both films is his ability to control apparently great leaps in tone. For, having started as an innocent adventure movie and segued briefly into broad comedy the co-writer/director then transitions seamlessly into a legitimate action thriller. Unbound by any one genre and free from their accepted conventions, Watts is able to raise the stakes to really quite remarkable degrees (especially if you’re aware how far he went in Clown). In these sorts of movies you can usually count on the kids being all right come the end, but because it ceases to be a children’s movie about twenty minutes in all bets are suddenly off. As Travis and Harrison get their hands on assorted police equipment, including guns and defibrillators, you genuinely fear for their safety. This level of suspense isn’t just maintained but amplified, particularly once they wind up locked in the back seat during a long and lethal shoot-out.

As entertaining as this fluid versatility can be, however, it’s structurally a little confusing, and makes deciding who to root for a little more complicated than usual. Considering the children are introduced as protagonists, it’s a little disappointing and ultimately rather undramatic to see them take such a passive role — a literal back seat — in the last act. As thrilling as the gun battle undoubtedly is, it feels more like a diversion than a satisfying finale, almost as though Watts and Christopher Ford had run out of things for the kids to do. Perhaps by rejigging the structure so that Kretzer’s introduction precedes that of the children the screenwriters might have justified the character’s prominence later on; because as it stands Cop Car feels like a reimagined version of The Goonies where Mikey and co. watch Sloth take on the Fratellis from the arms of their cephalopod captor. There is also the small issue of the child actors themselves, who convince in the earlier scenes but lose something of their early conviction and credibility as the demands on them increase. If Travis and Harrison really are supposed to be anti-heroes, the film could have used young actors with a little more edge.

Though creative enough to distinguish itself on the festival circuit, Cop Car lacks the consistency and iconography necessary to achieve the cult classic status it might have done had it been a little more refined and defined. The late introduction of a fourth character undermines the cat-and-mouse structure that audiences had been waiting to see satisfyingly paid off, so that instead — pardon the pun — the conclusion is caught somewhere between a cop-out and an out-right con.

3.5-Stars

Inside Out (EIFF, 2015)

Inside OutWith Joy (Amy Poehler) at the controls, and Sadness (Bill Hader), Fear (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) in check, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is loving life in Minnesota. That is, until a move to San Francisco jeopradises everything, from her happy family life to her cherished friendships and beloved hobbies. To make matters worse, Joy and Sadness become stranded in Riley’s labyrinthine long-term memory, separated from Headquarters by The Void, a bona fide memory dump, leaving Fear, Disgust and Anger at the helm for her first day at a scary new school. Despite their best intentions, none of the three are able to restore the status quo and re-establish a healthy balance of emotion — and as Riley isolates herself from those around her she risks no longer being able to feel anything at all.

After a string of sub-par sequels, punctuated by the beleaguered Brave, Pixar are finally back on form with their most original premise in years. Inside Out, like Toy Story or Monsters Inc, is one of those concepts that is so ingenious and intuitive that it’s incredible that nobody ever thought of it before. Aptly, there is such joy to be had with the visual gags and observational humour — Riley’s unconscious contains a literal Train Of Thought, a long-forgotten imaginary friend named Bing Bong (Richard Kind), and a studio lot where dreams are produced, scored with harp music and shot through a reality filter — that you forget you were ever concerned. Characteristically, these jokes work on a number of levels, from pratfalls and slapstick to subtler riffs on psychology. One scene sees Joy and Sadness infiltrate Riley’s subconscious, a prison containing all of Riley’s worst fears — to save Bing Bong, who must escape from a squeaky balloon cage without waking Jangles the Clown (Josh Cooley).

Furthermore, Inside Out is easily the studios most emotionally intelligent film since Toy Story 3. Joy and company may be by their very nature caricatures, oversimplified and one-note personifications of base emotions, but the human characters they comprise are unusually complex, even by Pixar’s typically high standards. Riley’s relationships are deep and dynamic, her emotions authentic and convoluted, and as a result of HQ battling it out behind the scenes you get a real and unrivalled insight into her thought processes and emotional responses. The stand-out sequence (apart from a credits montage that ends the film on an unparalleled high) has been heavily trailed, showing a family quarrel over dinner from the perspectives of Riley and her parents’ emotional centres. The writing is very perceptive, and it fleshes out the supporting cast beautifully, opening the film out in a way that only Pixar would really be capable of. The filmmakers could arguably have done more with this narrative device; as interesting a case study as Riley is she inevitably limits the scope of the film and prevents a novel narrative device from ever reaching its full potential.

For as strong as it is, particularly in comparison to the studio’s last few films, Inside Out isn’t quite top-tier Pixar. The characters are vividly drawn, the jokes are perfectly polished, and the animation is beautifully done, but the film is hamstrung by a rather less inspiring plot. The various aspects of Riley’s personality are represented by five floating islands in her mindscape: Family Land, Friendship Land, Hockey Island, Honesty Island, and Goofball Island, each of which is linked to Headquarters by a narrow platform. In their quest to return to the control room, Joy and Sadness visit each of these islands in turn, only for Riley’s real-world adventures to compromise each section’s structural integrity and delay their journey back — inevitably allowing them to put aside their differences and learn to work together. Given how imaginative the set-up is, and how well it works when opened out beyond Riley’s worldview, it’s a shame that Pixar default to the overused buddy-comedy formula and devote so much screen-time to such a predictable subplot.

Emotionally, and thematically, Inside Out is almost there — the ending is strong, if a little obvious, and there is plenty to keep your own driving emotions busy throughout. It’s just a shame that when the relationships between characters are so compelling Pixar chooses instead to dwell on the oversimplified conversations taking place within one little girl’s head. If only directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen had spent less time on Exposition Island, and preferably just stayed in Imagination Land.

4-Stars

The Stanford Prison Experiment (EIFF, 2015)

The Stanford Prison ExperimentIn 1971, an advert is placed in a local newspaper inviting would-be participants to screen for The Stanford Prison Experiment. Overseen by psychology professor Dr Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), the simulation sees successful candidates randomly assigned to one of two groups. The likes of Daniel (Ezra Miller), Jeff (Johnny Simmons) and Peter (Ty Sheridan) are arrested, interred and detained in a university corridor dressed to resemble a prison, while participants including Christopher (Michael Angarano) and Townshend (James Frecheville) are given sunglasses, truncheons and uniforms, and left in charge of the prisoners. However, as the prisoners, guards and Zimbardo himself (who assumes the role of warden) begin to lose objectivity, the validity of the experiment is brought into question.

One of the most infamous episodes in mainstream psychology (alongside the 1961 Milgram experiment), The Stanford Prison Experiment has had not only a huge impact on the discipline itself, necessitating large-scale ethical reformation, but also made a larger than usual impression on popular culture. There have been a number of attempts to either document or dramatise Philip Zimbardo’s procedures, but it has taken years for screenwriter Tim Talbot’s attempt to finally reconcile fact with fiction to reach the big screen. Ultimately directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, The Stanford Prison Experiment draws from Zimbardo’s book The Lazerus Effect and actual archive footage of the experiment itself, allowing for a reasonably accurate and apparently authentic depiction while also incorporating the sort of personal insights that make the experiment more accessible to layman audiences.

Opening with the production of the fateful newspaper article, The Stanford Prison Experiments introduces its characters through the extensive interview process. It’s makes for a surprisingly funny sequence, particularly for those familiar with what is to follow, and is a large part of what makes Alvarez’s film such a success. There is an edge and intensity to proceedings from the beginning, which builds throughout the experiment and bleeds out into the surrounding office space, but the director never loses sight of the absurdity of the situation. After all, what was once at the cutting edge of psychology is now mundane enough to feature on an episode of Big Brother, and while the film never compromises its historical context with such hindsight it’s inevitably a point of reference for the audience. In particular, scenes depicting a riot and an attempted prison break are unexpectedly playful, though this only makes the aggressive retaliation that follows all the more shocking.

Alvarez’s control over his film’s tone is astonishing, particularly in the way he builds tension through the most innocuous of situations. However, the achievement is not his alone, and the sheer subtlety of the changes in character dynamics are only possible because of the ensemble he has assembled — The Stanford Prison Experiment is a veritable who’s who of (male) American rising stars. Perhaps the most impressive of which are Angarano, who settles into his role as a prison guard with shocking speed and zeal, and Miller and Sheridan, whose prisoners take the majority of the abuse, at least to begin with. The young cast are essentially delivering duel performances, portraying personalities within personalities, and their commitment to their roles is remarkable. Naturally, given the subject matter and source material, the film is light on female actors, and Alvarez doesn’t feel the need to invent characters in the name of equality. That said, Olivia Thirlby does a terrific job as Zimbardo’s girlfriend and fellow psychologist Christina, ultimately playing a key role not just in the narrative but in history itself.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is an outstanding piece of work, doing full and fair justice to an equally amazing true story. Zimbardo’s simulation may have ultimately suffered from experimenter bias but there is no evidence that Alvarez’s film does so too — the psychologist may have been involved in the project, but if he has had any input into his portrayal it doesn’t show. After all, this isn’t a story of heroes and villains, prisoners and prison guards, it’s a showcase of the power of conformity and obedience. I really must insist that you join the queue.

5-Stars

Spy (2015)

SpyCIA analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is the eyes and ears of Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), and so it is only natural that she feels somewhat responsible when he is compromised on her watch, while infiltrating the home of target Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). The daughter of a terrorist known to possess a compact nuclear bomb, Boyanov is believe to know its location. Unfortunately, she also has information that jeopradises the secret identities of every active agent the CIA has on its staff, including British brick-house Rick Ford (Jason Statham). Determined to avenge her partner, Susan offers to go into the field herself, and with the help of best friend Nancy (Miranda Hart) and informant Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) tracks Boyanov first to Rome, and then to Budapest, where she is expected to sell the warhead to an unknown third party.

Sabrina The Teenage Witch actor turned Bridesmaids director Paul Feig is back with another Melissa McCarthy vehicle, this time envisaging the actress as the titular spy. Of their three current collaborations, the other being 2013’s The Heat, Spy is probably the most successful; whereas the others were notable only for various stand-out set-pieces, their latest film together strikes a consistency that makes it an all-around more enjoyable experience. It has also reached beyond the Judd Apatow fold to include a more interesting collective of actors, including Jude Law, Jason Statham and, of all people, BBC sitcom star Miranda Hart. It’s a peculiar ensemble, admittedly, but one with plenty of potential and bags of personality. Peter Serafinowicz is in there too.

As impressive as the cast might be, however, it doesn’t make the film feel particularly American. Bobby Cannavale (who plays CIA contact Sergio De Luca) and Alison Janney (who plays spymaster Elaine Crocker) represent the United States alongside McCarthy, but just about every other key actor is British (with only Law bothering to affect an American accent). This is more than a little incongruous given that Spy is supposedly set within the world of Homeland Security, and never more so than in the third act where Cooper appears to dress up as Dawn French for her final showdown with Boyanov. Not only is this distracting within the context of the film, but it’s difficult to watch Spy without comparing it to any of the myriad British spy spoofs that already exist. With its emphasis on improvisation and weight-related humour, Spy is nowhere near as cogent or comprehensive as Kingsman: The Secret ServiceJohnny English or the UK-set Austin Powers trilogy.

Feig doesn’t quite convince as someone who understands the genre, and as a result his film is somewhat lacking in conviction. He’s incorporated a few of the key cliches (sending up secret identities, street chases and rogue agents in the process), but very few of his observations feel particularly piercing or well founded. Instead, the film prefers to poke fun at hot towels, enclosed scooters and 50 Cent. That said, at the end of the day all that matters is that Spy is funny — Get Smart may have been more on target but it didn’t contain half as many laughs — and with McCarthy on board there was never any danger of there being a dearth of good gags, many of them likely ad libbed on the spot. Surprisingly, Statham scores just as many belly laughs as his co-star, displaying a hitherto unseen penchant for comedy. Rick Ford is like Jay from The Inbetweeners reimagined as a super spy, forever exaggerating his achievements only to showcase his incompetence whenever his talents are put to the test. In fact, he literally has the last laugh.

Spy is undoubtedly a lot of fun, and refreshingly not all of the best bits are in the trailer. That said, it doesn’t quite live up to its potential — squandering much of its supporting cast, principally Janney, Serafinowicz and Hart — or even the promise of its title.

3-Stars

 

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