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

 

Jurassic World (2015)

Jurassic WorldIt may have taken 65 million years to bring extinct dinosaurs back to life, but it only took a couple of decades for the novelty to wear off. To stop attendance from dying its own death, CEO Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) — John Hammond’s spiritual successor — has authorised the creation of a new hybrid dinosaur, placing operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) in charge of the Indominus Rex project. While her estranged nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) are on site for a visit, and during a consultation with Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the creature escapes its confines and disappears into the dense jungles of Isla Nublar. As the park’s security forces scramble in an attempt to recapture their new attraction, InGen’s Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) sets his sights on Grady’s quartet of apparently pliant raptors.

There is always a certain trepidation when an untested independent filmmaker is handed the keys to one of Hollywood’s most iconic and best loved franchises. You can’t help but wonder whether they will be satisfied playing within someone else’s sandbox, or if their impatient attempts to mess with a well-balanced formula might spell disaster, or at least disappointment, for loyal fans. Of course, such concerns are usually unfounded; despite their apparent pretensions, it is generally these tentpole movies that they ultimately hold responsible for their chosen career path, meaning the directors in question often respect and revere the original movies just as much as anyone else. This is undoubtedly the case with Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World; having initially sounded alarm bells with his reluctance to include original cast-members, not to mention his plans to tame the once indomitable raptors, the Safety Not Guaranteed director is quick to reassure viewers that the series is in good hands.

Trevorrow’s first stroke of genius is in focusing the narrative not on Dr Grant or Dr Malcolm but Dr Wu, an unsung supporting character from the first film who was unjustly overlooked by the previous sequels. In hindsight, it seems a little strange that the franchise so quickly forgot what it was originally about: the ethics and efficacy of genetic engineering. Instead, The Lost World and Jurassic Park III dealt once again with the products of that experimentation rather than the process that created them, to the point that it’s almost surprising to see Trevorrow follow this particular story thread in his sequel. In the space of a single scene — in which Wu reminds Masrani that all dinosaurs in “Jurassic World” are spliced with at least frog DNA — he both addresses the longstanding scientific complaint that nothing in the series is paleontologically correct and dismisses fans’ objections to hybridisation as a plot point (remember, if you will, the hostile reception that those aborted Jurassic Park IV designs met back in 2012). Ingeniously, he also uses this subplot as a means of commenting on humankind’s insatiable desire for bigger and better. Thanks to Trevorrow and writing partner Derek Connolly, what Jurassic World lacks in innovation it more than makes up for in intuition and intelligence.

After all, it’s inevitable that after three films and twenty years the novelty of seeing dinosaurs onscreen isn’t what it once was, and despite his team’s best efforts Trevorrow can’t quite recreate the spectacle or recapture the same sense of awe experienced by moviegoers in 1993. This is partly due to the production’s decision to go with computer-generated imagery rather than practical effects, but there’s also no denying the fact that the original is itself to blame. Trevorrow is far from the only director to have been inspired by Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and long before he took over the franchise others were building off of it in other ways. (As Wu rightly says, “If we don’t push the envelope someone else will.” And directors like Peter Jackson and Gareth Edwards have done just that.) Wisely, Trevorrow chooses to acknowledge this debt rather than deny it, and makes it clear just how close his film is to the first. In fact, the remnants of “Jurassic Park” still remain, untouched by all but time, only a few miles from the new facility. There’s a real thrill to seeing these old locations revisited, a feeling that is unique to long-running franchises such as this and which makes you glad the series was reprieved rather than rebooted. It’s not just the dinosaurs that make a Jurassic Park film, as the character dynamics, theme music, sound effects, set design and locations are all intrinsic and integral to the iconography.

This really does feel like a new dawn for the franchise — or, should this prove to be the final instalment, a fitting end. The series may have come full circle, but as is so often the case at theme parks you can’t help but want to go back around again.

4-Stars

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2015)

A Girl Walks Home Alone At NightIn Bad City, Iran, Arash (Arash Marandi) is struggling to pay off his drug addict father Hossein’s (Marshall Manesh) debts using only his gardener’s wage. For collateral, dealer Saeed (Dominic Rains) seizes Arash’s prized convertible, driving it out into the suburbs to meet Atti (Mozhan Marno), a prostitute favoured by Hossein. Saeed is followed back into town by a mysterious Girl (Sheila Vand), who he mistakes for another impressionable young woman open to being pimped. She kills him in his living room, leaving the scene of the crime just as Arash builds up the courage to confront the car thief himself. They cross paths once more a few nights later — Arash now selling Saeed’s inherited narcotics to his ex-employer — and begin to develop feelings for one another; a hunger of another kind.

Recent years have seen the traditional vampire gather dust, as filmmakers from Sweden, South Korea and New Zealand cast the creatures in a whole new spectrum of light. These days, vampires are more likely to sparkle, ghost-write for Shakespeare or flat-share in Wellington than burn up on the cross, but even by contemporary standards Iranian-American writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night places itself well outside of the funerary box. The eponymous vampire — a hijab-clad, techno-punk skater-girl whose lair is lined with pulp posters — is about as far removed from Bram Stoker’s Count as it is possible to get; a discordance further emphasised when Arash dresses up as Dracula for a costume party.

Sheila Vand’s alternative vamp isn’t the only distinguishing factor, however; the Iranian setting, the chiaroscuro aesthetic, and the niche soundtrack also contribute to a sometimes overwhelming sense of originality. Although undoubtedly an arthouse effort, and a film fated for the festival circuit, Amirpour isn’t above more mainstream approbation. The black and white visuals are more likely to recall Sin City than classic pre-colour cinema, while her decision to produce a tie-in graphic novel also speaks to a more modern genre sensibility. That said, there is still something timeless about the whole thing. The film is so singularly surreal that it defies categorisation, contextualisation and even the simplest comparison.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t just sleek and stylish, though; it’s also incredibly visceral, scintillating and seductive. Some have suggested that the film is patently political and feminist, readings that can be both supported and challenged, but there’s no denying that the film is far more explicit than you might reasonably expect. Shot in America with an international cast, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is free to explore addiction, depravity and sexuality with an openness that wouldn’t have been possible had it been filmed on location with native actors. That said, while Western culture influences the film (indeed, it feels very much like a Western itself), Amirpour is neither condescending towards or critical of Eastern customs; the Girl denies that she is religious rather than Muslim, while Arash is shown to be more traditionalist than most.

Endlessly imaginative and effortlessly iconic, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is likely to be an instant cult classic. However, as eerie, entertaining and evocative as its scenes can be in isolation (the finest of which, scored at first by White Lies and then Arash’s heartbeat, leaves the viewer longing for someone to fill the empty frame), there is an incoherence to the full picture that becomes increasingly frustrating as it goes on. As straightforward and apparently direct as the film’s title appears to be, you’ll likely leave the cinema wondering if the Girl of the title reached her destination or not.

4-Stars

May 2015 – All my teeth come from different people

Top Five PosterAfter a pretty unproductive April, which saw only two reviews added to this blog, I’ve this month stretched to the marginally less pathetic number of five.

Perhaps fittingly, the best of the bunch was Top Five, Chris Rock’s Birdman. It had some tough competition, though, in the shape of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended.

On first viewing, Pitch Perfect 2 also seemed like a solid effort from actor-director Elizabeth Banks, but second time around — when the jokes had lost their punch and the songs their novelty — the issues became clear: it all fell a little flat.

As did Tomorrowland, Brad Bird’s second live-action effort after 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. A silly story taken rather too seriously, the film suffers from a distinct lack of credible stakes, a confusion of focus and the iconoclastic touch of Damon Lindelof.

This month I also attended the Edinburgh International Film Festival programme launch for HeyUGuys, wrote up April’s visit to Monaco for FindingANeish, and submitted a competition entry to WorldNomads.

Film of the month: Top Five

Tomorrowland (2015)

TomorrowlandArrested for repeatedly sabotaging demolition machinery at a decommissioned NASA facility, frustrated science student Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is bailed out by her father only to discover a mysterious pin among her confiscated belongings. Identifying the logo using eBay, she travels to a science-fiction store listed as being interested in acquiring the item. There, after a fight with its incognito robot employees, she encounters Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a little girl who identifies herself as the gift-giver and instructs Casey on how to get to Tomorrowland, the futuristic city she glimpses whenever she touches the badge. With the help of disillusioned and disavowed inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney), Casey sets off for Paris where a chartered rocket awaits them beneath the Eiffel Tower.

Tomorrowland? Tomorrowland: A World Beyond? It’s John Carter (of Mars) all over again, only without the media coverage that a $300 million flop tends to generate. There have been a few defences and deconstructions since its understated release, but for the most part Brad Bird’s follow-up to the similarly underwhelming Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is already yesterday’s news. Where did it all go wrong for the director of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille — almost all animated classics that are still adored and adulated today? Could it simply be that his talents are not as well suited to the live-action medium? The issues with his Mission: Impossible movie were manifold, but with Tomorrowland the main problem is obvious: Damon Lindelof’s fingerprints are all over it.

The Lost showrunner turned franchise killer has a habit of overcomplicating his various projects to the point that even the most open-minded or easily-pleased viewer ceases to care about whatever’s transpiring onscreen. JJ Abram’s built up a lot of goodwill with his reboot of the Star Trek franchise, while Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien series was met with almost unanimous excitement, and yet both Star Trek Into Darkness and Prometheus were ultimately undermined by Lindelof’s convoluted plots, calculated misdirections and iconoclastic whims. While his blatant disregard for established canon was always going to be less of an issue in a stand-alone movie, particularly one based on a theme-park attraction, he still manages to compromise the inane, nonsensical third act. It’s like watching the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy — Disneyland’s other big screen adaptation — in miniature: what starts out as innocent fun eventually becomes tediously serious.

Tomorrowland has other issues, too; not least its stilted and undramatic editing. The film opens with Frank Walker and (a bafflingly out of shot) Casey Newton mid-pickle, initially upending an audience expecting Robertson to take centre stage and immediate robbing the film’s entire first act of any interest whatsoever. Rather then race straight into the story — an already pretty insipid yarn about a girl who finds a badge — the film stalls on the starting line and never really recovers. It’s a shame, because for all its faults Tomorrowland isn’t without the odd point of interest. The performances are entertaining, if a little exaggerated; the effects are impressive, especially with regards to a gravity-defying swimming pool; and there are a couple of decent laughs to be had along the way, not least when a pair of robots-in-disguise collectors attack Casey with Star Wars memorabilia, to the tune of Ben Burtt’s iconic sound effects. Even the cynics — seeing Disney’s attempts for cross-promotion for what they are — will struggle not to at least smile.

Unfortunately, the occasional ceded smirk is not enough to support an entire movie, especially one selling itself as fun for all the family. For a film so expressly, relentlessly, unambiguously optimistic, Tomorrowland is incredibly uninspiring.

2-stars

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)

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