The Gambler (2015)

The Gambler 2015By day a literature professor and by night a gambling addict, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is in even more debt than his students. Despite owing $260,000 to an underground gambling ringleader and another $50,000 to a loan shark, Jim is determined to keep on betting; first borrowing money from his mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange), and, when that’s soon squandered, turning to gangster Frank (John Goodman) for a top-up, the latter of whom threatens to have Jim murdered if he can’t pay up. His two worlds begin to collide when he is spotted at a casino by a promising young student who works there after school, and later when one of his debtors takes an interest in an aspiring basketball player who just happens to take his class.

It says a lot that in a cinematic landscape populated by talking raccoons and robot dinosaurs it is still a stretch to imagine Mark Wahlberg as a university lecturer. And this isn’t even the first time he’s played an academic — who could ever forget his turn as a high-school science teacher in M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening? And yet, the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept Max Payne himself lecturing an enraptured audience on artistic integrity is too great to make. Jim Bennett just doesn’t make any sense as a character. How does he have a job? Why that job? What even is his job? It certainly doesn’t seem to involve any sort of transfer of knowledge; he doesn’t seem to teach his students anything at all. He just endangers them.

Even then, however, The Gambler struggles to establish sufficient stakes. Beyond the fact that one can write and the other can throw a ball nothing is really done to develop Brie Larson’s Amy or Anthony Kelley’s Lamar into sympathetic or even believable supporting characters. Nobody in The Gambler seems to care much about anything, be it literature or self-preservation, least of all Jim. There is no conflict of any kind — either internal or external — just meaningless money changing hands without any thought for what those sums might in fact represent: be it a bad investment or a dead family member. At no point do you believe that Jim’s life is in danger; instead, it’s just a case of waiting until William Monohan has finished writing the same scenes over and over and finally decided to (literally) write off his protagonist’s debts — Jim Bennett having apparently learned absolutely nothing along the way.

Amazingly, The Gambler isn’t completely without merit. Director Rupert Wyatt does the best he can, and in spite of a largely unremarkable cast and a repetitive script he manages to keep things at least watchable. John Goodman and Emory Cohen are similarly on fine (as in: acceptable) form, with the former stripping half-naked for one of the more bizarre business transactions of the year so far. The only fully clothed person to really make an impression is Jessica Lange, who, applying all the tricks she has learnt over the seasons at FX’s American Horror Story, adds another scene-stealing matriarch to her collection. Sadly, however, Jim’s mother is all but forgotten after only her second appearance, and disappears from the narrative mid-way through the second act, having bailed her son out for the very last time. Tellingly, you spend the rest of the film wondering whatever happened to her.

Self-destructive behaviour is never much fun to watch, but coupled with uninspiring seminars and interminable poker sessions Jim Bennett’s downward spiral is particularly tedious. Wahlberg has been worse, but sadly that’s not saying an awful lot.




Transformers: Age Of Extinction (2014)

Age of ExtinctionYears after the Battle of Chicago, the Autobots have been forced into hiding by CIA officer Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), while sister organisation the KSI are using Megatron’s decapitated head to create their own robot army, to be lead by prototype Galvatron (Frank Welker). Attinger has enlisted the help of alien bounty hunter Lockdown (Mark Ryan), and together they trace Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to Texas, where he is being rebuilt by inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). The three escape thanks to Tessa’s boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor), and soon reunite with Bumblebee, Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe) and Crosshairs (John DiMaggio). They are each called upon by Prime to help storm the government facility and put an end to scientist Joshua Joyce’s (Stanley Tucci) work.

Of course, running in at a truly astonishing 165 minutes this only begins to scratch the surface of Transformers: Age Of Extinction‘s plot. The film opens during the Cretaceous Period, where The Creators put a premature end to dinosaur life with the aid of Seeds, devices which “cyberform” planets by exposing them to “Transformium”. One botched jump cut later and all that remains of this extinction event is a metal T-Rex skeleton, unearthed by a character who we will not meet again for hours. You see, Attinger is helping Lockdown track down Prime in exchange for one such Seed, for unknown reasons. Everything in this film happens for unknown reasons.

Instead, we meet Cade Yeager, a character who is even more preposterous than his name might have you believe. He’s an inventor who specialises in crap, and who seems to think that a world populated by futuristic alien robots will be interested in a beer-retrieval machine that only occasionally works. After all, it’s not like advanced synthetic life has literally only just been shown to have predated humankind by 65 million years. He is father to Tessa, who is only notable for wearing a skirt that is so short you can see the lining of her pockets against her naked legs — often that is all you can see. It’s a relationship that fails to convince on just about every level possible, particularly with the introduction of Shane, an Irish racer who is hilariously dubbed Lucky Charms by Wade.

If the human characters are insufferable then the Transformers are just plain inexplicable. Despite having now directed four feature films on the subject (four very, very long feature films), Michael Bay still doesn’t seem to understand his titular aliens. We’ve already had girl robots, urban robots and even robot testicles, but Age Of Extinction only confuses things further by introducing robot cigarettes, techno-organic space wolves and prehistoric robots that transform into dinosaurs — you know, just in case they had to blend in with those animals their forebears had already eradicated. Most baffling of all is Drift, a Japanese alien robot who refers to Optimus Prime as sensei and wears a robot cloak into robot battle. Despite being aliens who spend most of their time as automobiles, their exchanges make regular references to chess, ballet and fortune cookies. For unknown reasons.

There really are an astonishing number of characters vying — unsuccessfully — for the audience’s attention. The first film involved a handful or Autobots fighting a handful of Decepticons, while a handful of humans avoided being squashed underfoot. It too was awful, but while the visual effects were completely incomprehensible the story at least made some sort of sense. This latest film boasts Autobots, Decepticons, a new handful of human characters (including a second Hong Kong-set ensemble during the last act), human-made Transformers, The Creators, inter-galactic bounty hunters, a car which seems to exist for the sole purpose of giving the Transformers paint jobs and Dinobots, which may star in the promotional material but in reality only play a pitiful role in proceedings. Even with nearly three hours at his disposal, Bay can’t even begin to make sense of his own story. That said, given how terrible Ehren Kruger’s script is (“I know you have a conscience because you’re an inventor like me”) you can’t help but wonder if he ever even tried.

Nobody makes a film as bad as Transformers: Age Of Extinction by accident; Bay has spent the last seven years honing his craft, methodically weeding out every redeeming feature the first few films may have had until he is left exclusively with the worst aspects of contemporary feature filmmaking. Transformers: Age Of Extinction, with its interminable action scenes, cynical product placement and overwhelming contempt for its audience, doesn’t refer to the end of prehistoric or modern life, but the death of cinema as we know it.



Monsters University (2013)

Monsters UniversityMike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) has always wanted to be a Scarer, at least since he visited Monsters Incorporated on a school trip and met his idol, “Frightening” Frank McCay (John Krasinski). After years of studying, Mike finally enrolls at Monsters University, befriending new roommate Randal (Steve Buscemi) and butting horns with entitled class clown James P. Sullivan (John Goodman). When their rivalry leads to their expulsion by headmistress Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), however, they must join a fraternity — Oozma Kappa — and work together to win the Scare Games if they are to be allowed to rejoin the programme. Read more of this post

The Hangover Part III (2013)

The Hangover Part IIIWhen he inadvertently decapitates a giraffe and causes a motorway pileup, Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis) returns home to find his friends staging an intervention; Alan has been off his prescribed ADHD medication for months, and his beloved Wolfpack wish to drive him to a rehabilitation clinic in Arizona. On the way, however, they encounter mob leader Marshall (John Goodman), who kidnaps Doug (Justin Bartha) as collateral and orders Alan, Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) to find Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) and return the millions of dollars worth of gold that was stolen from him. Read more of this post

ParaNorman (2012)

Able to commune with the dead, horror nut Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has been ostracised by his parents, his peers and his community of historic witch-hunters; a state of affairs that he rather prefers. When he is informed by his dead uncle (John Goodman) that it is his duty to perform an ancient ritual to keep the dead from walking the earth — by overruling a legendary witch — Norman sets off for the local graveyard to undo the age-old curse. Followed by his sister (Anna Kendrick), the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), friendly student Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) and Neil’s older jock brother (Casey Affleck), they soon find themselves confronted not only by the zombified remains of the town’s puritan founders, but a mob of terrified townsfolk desperate for answers. Read more of this post

The Artist (2011)

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a bygone idol of a no longer silent era, is watching helplessly as his career trundles to an end. One of his last acts as a beloved Hollywood star is to tutor a young actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) following a chance encounter during an impromptu photo-shoot. Despite an undeniable mutual attraction, Valentin lets his pride get the better of him, burning bridges with the young actress and refusing to embrace the encroaching talkies and in the process resigning himself and his upcoming movies to obscurity. Dropped by his studio and abandoned by his wife, Miller is left to grow bitter with only his trusty driver (James Cromwell) and trustier canine for company.

With reports that a number of ignorant Liverpudlians are demanding their money back having not anticipated The Artist being a silent, black and white film from *gasp* a foreign country, it is difficult to argue that Michel Hazanavicius’ darling has indeed been over-hyped. That said, with considerable Oscar buzz and a staggered release which means that everybody – even people who knew nothing about it – saw it before I did, I was worried that the finished product might not live up to my already towering expectations. Despite the best attempts of the world’s worst cinema audience, however, I needn’t have worried.

For, while the novelty of what at first appears to amount to a half-told story does take some getting used to, any initial unease soon gives way as the story’s charms lull you into immersion. There are those who will inevitably complain that the narrative is half-baked and unoriginal, but, just as with Avatar before it, the simplicity of the plot only helps serve to highlight the innovation and creativity on show elsewhere. When the characters are so expressive, the visuals are so striking and the sound design is so counter-intuitively compelling, who really needs a memorable twist or some gaudy gimmickry in order to distract them from the film’s inherent majesty.

Perhaps the biggest joy in The Artist is just the sheer talent on show. Without language barriers to overcome, Hazanavicius was able to pick and choose the performers best suited for the parts at hand. Dujardin and Bejo are both astounding in the lead roles, thriving in the film’s Old Hollywood setting and duly rising to the challenges inherent in making a silent movie. Immensely talented, the performers dabble in dance and tap, all the while imbuing their silent performances with absolute verve and emotion. John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell, meanwhile, simmer in the background, while the film’s secret weapon – a charmingly animate dog – threatens to steal the show from beneath them.

The Artist is quite simply pure cinema; an homage to a storytelling format that is still as relevant today as it has ever been. In an age of CGI and 3D (never mind sound and colour), it is refreshing to see such a stripped back expression of moviemaking that is every bit as capable of telling an arresting story as the latest pixilated popcorn movie. If you want your money back having seen this then there really is nothing left for us to talk about.

Speed Racer (2008)

Motivated by the memory of his brother, Rex Racer (Scott Porter), Speed daydreams his way through school and sets about becoming an accomplished racer in his own right. When Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) – the criminal conglomerate of Royalton Industries – offers Speed a luxury lifestyle in exchange for his signature and services, however, Speed’s decision to stick with his roots and continue to race for the family label, Pops (John Goodman) and Mom’s (Susan Sarandon) Racer Motors, leaves him the target of ‘fixers’; car crashed and facing fines for infringement. Teaming up with fellow racer Taejo Togokahn (Rain) and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), Speed seeks to expose Royalton’s crimes and put his brother’s untimely death to rest once and for all.

Have you ever tripped,  stumbling after having stood on a toy car, and fallen, retina first, into a trough of sherbet? If not, a warning: this is your dizzying introduction to the world of Speed Racer, a custom built fun house courtesy of the reliably electric Wachowski brothers. By the time your eyes adjust to the searing visuals and warp-speed car races, you will have missed about ten pages of plot and reflexively regressed to your earliest memories of childhood.

Two things should be immediately clear from any synopsis you are likely to read of the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer: it is both unashamedly childish and about as needlessly complicated as any fictional sport could be. From the day-glo colour scheme to the gumming, dungarees-wearing monkey, this is children’s entertainment at its most radioactive, full of flashing lights and onomatopoeic dialogue. Most of it, however, will go right over its audience’s hyperactive heads, as it wiles away the minutes in between races in vague discussion of litigation and sporting politics. It really is a beast of its own.

Good thing, then, that you will hardly have time to notice. Boasting special effects that will single-handedly justify the purchase of a Blu-ray player, Speed Racer is every bit as impressive and visually interesting as the directors’ Matrix movies. The races are dazzling, blinding and strangely poetic, while the matte colour pallet perfectly compliments the action; if you can look past the shallow visuals and sugary slap-stick, Speed Racer is a genuine revelation: a live-action cartoon imagined to perfection.

Of course, it helps that Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman and Susan Surandon are on hand to give it their all. Attacking the screenplay with the zaniness it rightfully deserves, the actors successfully offset the churlishness of the younger actors and the flat-tyre that is Korean pop-sensation Rain, giving the movie an absolutely staggering energy. Hirsch is surprisingly well suited in his role at the eye of an e-number storm, providing the perfect cypher for an audience caught in the midst of a two-hour-long seizure.  Everyone is just so delightfully earnest, so belligerently harmless: the characters celebrate victory not with alcohol, but with a nice, wholesome glass of milk.

Though the marathon narrative and juvenile comic relief may put many off (IT’S 235 MINUTES LONG!), there is no denying that the Wachowskis have a captivating eye for visual storytelling. From the feverish editing to the gravity and logic-defying camera work, Speed Racer really is an assault on the senses, its hyperactive sense of fun impossible not to contract. By no means a great movie, Speed Racer is instead a hugely accomplished recreation of the ADHD experience; an experiment in pop filmmaking that is as ambitious as it is refreshing. Fast, exciting and brilliantly fun, Speed Racer is a kids’ movie aimed squarely, unashamedly at kids. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

Before Emperor Kuzco (David Spade) can build his swimming pool (complete with waterslide), he must first determine which mountain top ‘sings’. Gleaning the answer from humble villager Pacha (John Goodman), Kuzco reveals his plans to decimate the man’s house in order to make room for Kuzcotopia. Accidentally turned into a llama at dinner by scheming advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt), Kuzco is carried out of the city by her sidekick, who has been instructed to kill him. Talked out of committing murder by his shoulder angel, Kronk (Patrick Warburton) instead loses Kuzco in the throng of the local market. Rescued by Pacha, the two must form a makeshift alliance in order to return Kuzco to his human form; Pacha taking the oppertunity to talk the Emperor out of building his water park. Having discovered Kuzco’s whereabouts from a talking squirrel, however, Yzma will do anything and everything to keep Kuzco off the throne.

From a studio renowned for its earnestness – where princes are always charming and in order to realise your dreams all you must do is wish upon a star – the occasional exception is always a welcome thing. Refreshingly for a mainstream Disney release, The Emperor’s New Groove refuses to take itself seriously or pander to Disneyland’s usual patrons. The film is instead populated by characters who run amok, only ever serving the plot only when it suits them — after desert…and coffee, for example.

Opening with a retrospective voice-over which layers on the sarcasm thick and fast, The Emperor’s New Groove wastes no time in establishing its desired tone. An inanely random buddy comedy, the film’s odd couple leads are almost immediately in conflict with one another. The set-up is incredibly simple, allowing more time to be spent on the characters and comedy. Kuzco is delightfully selfish, his narration only serving to emphasise his wonderfully spoilt, abrasive nature as he provides a meta-commentary for the narrative, ensuring that the focus is always where it belongs: on him. That said, he is a compelling presence who gives the film a winning irreverence as he is forced to interact with his subordinates.

While Kuzco inevitably learns the error of his egocentric ways, the directors have peppered the narrative with enough insanity to offset the studio’s token family values, embodied here by friendly-giant Pacha. The film’s secret weapon is its resident evil – on this occasion a frustrated mad scientist who must manipulate her incompetent sidekick if she is ever going to win the throne – a character so endearingly sympathetic that this is almost the villain’s movie. Animated with an impressive likeness to the late actress Eartha Kitt, Yzma is quite simply a revelation.

Without the hindrance of lovable idiot Kronk, however, Yzma would be an uninterestingly content picture of success having conquered the kingdom years earlier. Patrick Warburton’s heavy tones are an endless source of hilarity, the script spoon-feeding Kronk an unceasing stream of one liners and random observations. As he complete’s his own journey from sidekick to Junior Chipmunk instructor, he is immortalised as one of the studio’s best ever creations.

That we’ve got this far without once mentioning the animation itself really is refreshing. Sneaking into cinema’s before each new release had to push some sort of boundary, The Emperor’s New Groove is as basic as they come. This is not a criticism, however, with the animation proving almost as superfluous as the plot itself. Each character is well drawn and each joke punctuated by some perfectly timed visual gag, however the images exist only to serve the characters and therefore rarely have reason to draw attention to themselves. You aren’t admiring the billowing grass or cloud formations when you should be having fun.

A surprisingly self-aware assault on the funny bone, The Emperor’s New Groove is a lovably silly assault of witty dialogue and gleeful gags, invoking closer comparisons to Bugs Bunny than Mickey Mouse. Boasting a plot which, at its character’s own admission, doesn’t make any sense, the film’s winning direction and wonderfully realised ensemble keep the laughter coming at such an impressive rate that you won’t even notice. From Yzma to Kronk, Kuzco to Pacha, the talking squirrel to Tom Jones’ Theme Song Guy, The Emperor’s New Groove is surrealist character comedy at its best.