Archive | June, 2013

‘Snitch’ (2013); a boring-ass film with a righteous message.

24 Jun

Snitch posterWith about as much tact as you’d expect from a film starring The Rock, Snitch kicks things off with the battle cry of ‘mandatory sentencing laws are BAD!’ as Jason (Rafi Gavron) gets ten years in the slammer for selling narcotics. Knowing his son was set up, Jason’s truck company-owning father John (Dwayne Johnson) must go undercover and infiltrate the drug rings to sort things out. Aided by wily lawyer Joanne (Susan Sarandon), Special Agent Cooper (Barry Pepper) and reformed junkie Daniel (Jon Bernthal), The Rock gets rolling to clear his son’s name and secure his release.

The film has some interesting points to make about the archaic nature of mandatory sentencing laws, but it does so in the most amateurish way that the half-baked result undermines any and all attempts at a coherent message. Director Ric Roman Waugh desperately wants to inform us that ten years for drug distribution is too much, that the system is draconian and flawed. Of course, what with the real-life systematic imprisonment of drug dealers/users in the USA being as financially motivated as it is, Snitch tackles this relevant problem head-on.

But in doing so it misses its target by several hundred feet and crashes into a brick wall, leaving a disfigured and unintelligible mess in its wake. Tell me, if you were to cast a timid, inexperienced ‘nice guy’ who must turn to crime to save his son, who would you not choose for the role? Definitely not a retired wrestler! This may be one of Johnson’s more thoughtful performances, but he could still be out-acted by any common house plant. His name being brilliantly symbolic of both his charisma and personality, he is an actor for big dumb action movies, and nothing more. But here we’re supposed to be worried for him – he’s about eight feet tall and built like a cathedral!

An already-small gun is rendered tiny in the hands of the Mountain Man.

An already-small gun is rendered tiny in the hands of the Mountain Man.

Gavron, Pepper and Bernthal are all complete nothing-characters, thin as wallpaper and twice as boring. Sarandon stands out not only as the sole female of any consequence, but also as the only competent actor of the bunch. Her presence is welcome but undermined by the tangible feeling that she’s only showing up so she can cash a paycheck later – there’s a reason she usually lands better roles than this one.

The story is clichéd and breaks absolutely no new ground whatsoever. The Rock beats people up, the other leads occasionally come in useful (but not very often), the dialogue induces mass squirming in the cinema and nothing even remotely interesting happens. Concluding with statistics which show that first-time drug offenders serve longer sentences than rapists, Snitch is one of those ‘message movies’ that beat you over the head with its agenda in the least subtle way possible.

A ham-fisted attempt at tackling a major political issue, Snitch is plagued by story problems, bizarre and scatterbrained casting choices, and simply fails to excite on any level whatsoever. It’s long, boring, badly-made and not worth any of your time or money.

Simon says: I wish people would just accept that The Rock can’t act.

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7%?! ‘The Big Wedding’ (2013).

17 Jun

The Big Wedding posterOn the face of it, The Big Wedding doesn’t promise much. First of all, the super-generic title sounds about as exciting as eating Ready-Salted crisps at an accountancy convention. Secondly, Katherine Heigl is in it; her cinematic résumé is dotted with horrendous rom-coms and the sort of god awful  family-friendly dirges your mother would enjoy (Knocked Up, The Ugly Truth, New Year’s Eve – you get the gist). Thirdly, it has Robin Williams reprising his role as a clergyman from License to Wed, a molten turkey of a film. Finally, it’s impressively low score of 7% on Rotten Tomatoes inspires only fear.

But hold the phone, stop the cavalry, and don’t drop the bombs just yet – The Big Wedding is a surprisingly OK movie! Perhaps it was the abysmally low expectations going in, unavoidable given the above information, but the fact that this film didn’t wound me in any shape or form is nothing short of a miracle.

Yet another ‘White People With Problems’ movie, this time round several of the lead characters are noticeably more tanned than usual. Al (Ben Barnes) is marrying Missy (Amanda Seyfried), but the couple are hounded by a cacophony of problems convoluted enough to make Jerry Springer blush. Though Missy’s parents have issues, Al hails from a litany of oddballs: his crazy adoptive father Don (Robert De Niro) dumped the rather dull Ellie (Diane Keaton) for the hippyish Bebe (Susan Sarandon), even though the former bore him two children; a celibate doctor (Jared, Topher Grace) and an aggressive lawyer (Lyla, Katherine Heigl). Amidst it all, both his birth mother and Father Moinighan (Robin Williams) demand they undergo a traditional Catholic ceremony.

Don't fall for the apparent innocence; this movie is disgusting.

Don’t fall for the apparent innocence; this movie is disgusting.

So yeah, it’s a fairly big wedding alright. As you can probably gather from the synopsis, this movie is as hokey one can be, pelting us as it is with the traditional ‘family is important’ and ‘love is good’ cheese. Also, ‘non-American people are weird’, but we can let that one slide.

But where The Big Wedding works lies not in its story, dialogue, characterisation; from a technical standpoint, this film is fairly dreadful. What I enjoyed most about the movie is that it’s an R-rated comedy that actually deserves its label. A quick stroll past your local cinema will reveal nothing but the usual suspects – a laughably safe ‘comedy’ starring Owen Wilson or Eddie Murphy, the ‘hilarious’ family-friendly hijinks Ben Stiller and co., or another expansion of the tumour that is Adam Sandler.

The Big Wedding, on the other hand, is an American attempt at the antiquated ‘French Farce’ sub-genre of comedy that, for the most part, totally nails it. This is a bawdy, naughty, rowdy movie ridden with innuendos and under-the-table masturbation. Cunnilingus is explored in-depth within the opening scenes, nine-hour orgasms are discusses and everybody is having lots of sex with everybody else – they work the blue material. It’s also refreshing to see the typically mellow faces, such as Katherine Heigl or Susan Sarandon, play such unusual roles for them (a borderline demonic woman full of rage and a horny pastry chef, respectively).

Look, it made me laugh. Perhaps not for the duration, but often enough to ensure a fairly consistent grin on my part. A chimp could have written the script, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself immensely.

Simon says: don’t judge a book by its cover – or a film by its RT score.

‘The Iceman’ (2013) ultimately leaves us cold.

12 Jun

The Iceman posterAnyone hoping for a gritty, Batman Begins-style reboot of the Marvel superhero unfortunately has to wait. The Iceman of The Iceman isn’t one of the original X-Men, but is in fact a real-life serial killer responsible for at least one hundred murders across New York City during the seventies. (Un)fortunately, he shoots and knifes people, rather than freezing into an icicle.

Michael Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, a pornography director turned hired gun in 1970’s New York. Nonchalant and aloof, he nonetheless has a doting wife (Deborah, Winona Ryder) and kids –  to double-quote Foreigner, he is hot-blooded, yet cold as ice. Dabbling as he does in various illegal activities, he eventually becomes a hitman for Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta). Things quickly spiral out of control as the bodies pile up, but unfortunate circumstances result in him having to do a bit of work ‘on the side’ with the long-haired Mr. Freeze (Chris Evans) in order to support his family. Can he reconcile his two nefarious day-jobs with his life as the head of a nuclear family?

This may sound like the plot of virtually every underground crime drama of the last fifty years, and that’s because, well, it is. The Iceman is noteworthy for taking several hundred leafs from The Godfather, The Untouchables, Goodfellas and the like, while unfortunately not reaching anywhere near the heights of these classics. The colours are dark and murky, there are more guns than “hellos” and bodies drop like flies, but of course our protagonist is doing it all for the right reasons – you know the drill. We’re not so much flogging a dead horse here as we are demanding where it’s hiding the cocaine and the blood-money it owes us.

This happens roughly 99999 times, though thankfully Shannon loses the 'tache.

This happens roughly 99999 times, though thankfully Shannon loses the ‘tache.

What lifts this movie above the threshold of mediocrity is unquestionably Michael Shannon, the perennially low-key actor who continues his status as perhaps the most underrated man in the business. His wonderfully deadpan and dour demeanour fits the role of a blank, ruthless killer perfectly; his character claims to only care about his family, and Shannon is so convincing. He’s so great that every other face just pales in comparison. Ray Liotta is tough to buy as a crime overlord, the best part about Chris Evans is his wig, Winona Ryder is the most vanilla-flavoured token female you’ll ever see, and don’t even start me on David Schwimmer and his inconceivable shoebrush moustache.

The actual story itself is hackneyed and very derogatory – it’s been done to death so twists can be seen coming a mile away. It never descends into plodding territory, and the drama is certainly piques interest, but it’s treading on so much old ground it may as well be on a pilgrimage to Mecca. In doing so it’s clearly worshipping the crime classics, but unfortunately for director Ariel Vromen, all of the aforementioned films have already nailed the underground crime story, and in much more impressive ways than this.

All in all, The Iceman is a decent if unmemorable crime thriller than weaves an interesting yarn out of a grisly true story, but in doing so breaks absolutely no new ground. Shannon’s performance raises the bar and makes it worth a watch, though.

Simon says: officially joining the Michael Shannon fanclub.

Dumb and dumber: ‘The Purge’ (2013).

9 Jun

The Purge posterMuch like giving battleaxes to infants or letting lobotomy patients ride motorbikes, stupid things in the hands of stupid people is never a good idea. Since battleaxes look great with a vintage suit of armour, and as any fans of Ghost Rider or Street Sharks could testify to the awesome potential of the motorcycle, the problem lies not in the product themselves; rather, it’s the people who are at fault. While not as catastrophic as either of the above examples, The Purge is a dumb film built on a promising if goofy concept by people who clearly have no idea what they’re doing.

It’s 2022, and or one day a year, in the USA at least, all violent crime is legal. You can sharpen that old machete of yours and hunt down your asshole boss, you and a few buddies could have a few beers and play a real life game of Call of Duty – the possibilities are endless! Officials claim that annual crime figures are down and the economy is booming as a result of this yearly onslaught, but the film hints at the possibility of the whole idea being nothing more than a way to rid the streets of its least productive members of society – a ‘spring cleaning’, as it were.

Enter James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a businessman who’s made his fortune off of selling home defence systems. The entire neighbourhood is pimped out with his protective wares,  and as a result he now presides in what is basically a palace overlooking his fellow suburbanites. Here he lives with his placid wife Mary (Lena Heady), stereotypically difficult teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and introverted young son Charlie (Max Burkholder). However, it’s quite possible that each actor is actually a painted mannequin or perhaps a robot, as every single character has the personality of a dried squid.

They lock up for the night, and of course things almost instantly take a turn for the worse. Thanks to a series of nonsensical and completely silly events the family is separated, the power is gone and people, both inside and outside the house, want them dead. The Purge is a pants-on-head crazy movie which makes absolutely zero sense, yet doesn’t seem to be aware of this. You’ll want to shake the protagonists and interrogate them on why they don’t behave like human beings, you’ll wallow in your own frustration for each twist being visible from light years away, and, most damningly, you’ll be bored out of your tree.

Ethan Hawke; a great actor wasting his time.

Ethan Hawke; a great actor wasting his time.

Ignoring the wacky concept for a moment, the main problem with this film lies in the script. The Purge is guilty of some of the most brazenly shameless foreshadowing of events in recent memory – which is a tough feat, as virtually all lower-budget horrors commit the same filmic crime. You see a gun in Act 1, so you know it’ll go off in Act 3; a neighbour less than subtly informs Mary that everyone hates them, so it’s hardly a mystery that they’ll show up later… You get the gist. It’s annoying for the viewer, and really telling of a shoddy production.

What comes out of their mouths is almost as dire as what actually happens. The dialogue is atrocious – while we shouldn’t expect Shakespearean levels of dramatic monologues or soliloquies, I’m fairly sure I could have written a better script in Double-Dutch, a language whose existence I’m not even sure of. Each character is inherently unlikeable, the villain(s) are loony but not threatening, and every supposedly “tense” moment, of which there are many, lacks any and all effect as the movie telegraphs each surprise. This film is a mess.

The Purge could have been an interesting film. The premise is philosophically interesting: do we harbour so much pent-up anger that an annual release could be justified? In more talented hands this movie could explore the issue, but as it is The Purge kiboshes any vestige of anthropological introspection by making a sub-par thriller that fails to thrill.

Simon says: ‘survive the night’ by doing something, anything else than seeing this.

‘Populaire’ (2013) will give you a toothache.

6 Jun

Populaire posterRose Pamphyle (Déborah François) is a typical 1950’s girl; though living in rural-ish France, she seeks the exciting American Dream of becoming a secretary for some big-shot man in the city. So she travels to bustling Normandy, and her new boss Louis Echard (Romain Duris) notices her incredible typing ability. Their employer-employee relationship soon turns to coach-athlete as they work together to improve her chances at winning the French typewriting championships. Drama ensues along the way, however, as their professional relationship morphs into something altogether more personal.

European romance films are a different beast to their Hollywood counterparts. Whereas American love stories tend to focus on the happily-ever-after, French films in particular are concerned with the journey itself, the quest to romantic fulfilment. The actual conclusion to the story is fairly obvious, and Populaire is guilty of this particular anomaly. As a result, the film is unashamedly predictable and formulaic, but along the way we’re treated to some really funny lines, great costumes and tense drama which all fuse together into an enjoyable, if unmemorable movie.

From the bright, vivid colours to the unflinching glee typical of French cinema, Populaire teeters on the brink of being too sweet and jolly. The small number of dramatically tense scenes is vastly outweighed by an almost overbearing exuberance that could really irk certain audiences, especially those unfamiliar with French film. Rose is basically a large child whose happy-go-lucky demeanour fades maybe twice, Louis is more layered but still generally upbeat, and together they are surrounded by a cast of friendly faces, one of which has this incredibly annoying tendency to burst into some random American slang term or movie quote.

Set as it is in a conservative period of history, there is a helluva lot of misogyny in Populaire. But before any feminists get all riled up, the film avoids the ‘offensive’ tag for two reasons. First of all, the sexism is contextual, while simultaneously satirical; much like Mad Men, the various ways in which women are subjugated are all teased and called out for their inherent ridiculousness. Secondly, without giving anything away, the female characters wind up in the best light by being portrayed as having far fewer flaws than their male counterparts.

This unflinching positivity gets a bit old after a while, but in the end Populaire remains a charming enough, entertaining if very predictable slice of French cinema. There is nothing new, innovative or even particularly creative here, but everything is handled so gracefully that Populaire’s lack of originality is totally forgivable.

Simon says: if Mad Men had a baby with Amélie… And Cool Runnings was watching.

‘Behind the Candelabra’ (2013) is a dazzling revelation.

4 Jun

Behind the Candelabra posterBefore Elvis, before Elton John and before Freddie Mercury, there was Liberace. If you’re like me and know nothing about the bombastically flamboyant and over-the-top pianist of the sixties and seventies, then Behind the Candelabra is a simultaneously hilarious and educational experience, bursting as it is with camp humour, diamond-encrusted fur coats, destructive arguments and, most noticeably, lots of sex..

Based on the memoirs of Scott Thorson, Liberace’s secret lover, and directed by the legendary Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects, Contagion, the Ocean’s series), Behind the Candelabra is a drama-comedy-biopic hybrid (dromopic?) starring Michael Douglas as the ageing superstar. While approaching middle-age with about as much grace as a hippo on rollerskates, he runs into Scott Thorson; a ridiculous blond wig with Matt Damon lurking underneath. Deep conversations about Liberace’s lack of children and Scott’s lack of parents lead them to form a Platonic father-son relationship, which quickly turns sexual as more and more bubbly jacuzzi baths are shared.

Liberace’s joyous extroversion is completely at odds with Scott’s more subtle introversion, yet an uncontrollable attraction develops; they are opposite poles of the same magnet. Ructions arise as the former’s insatiable sexuality clashes with the latter’s addiction to various narcotics, and the resulting sparks are portrayed, in traditional Soderbergh fashion, with powerful honesty. Priceless vases fly and words cut to the bone, but it’s all handled with grace and an appreciation for the characters’ situation: namely that of a forbidden love in a prejudiced, constantly-watching society.

The makeup and costume design are both top-notch: the highlight being the wig Damon stole from Jon Bon Jovi.

The makeup and costume design are both top-notch: the highlight being the wig Damon stole from Jon Bon Jovi.

Many laughs are had against this backdrop of Las Vegas hedonism. While some of the humour is very contextual and audience-specific (jokes about Jane Fonda making too many ‘message movies’ may fly over heads), Douglas does a sterling job at playing a preposterous, larger-than-life character whose mere presence elicits roars of laughter. Damon is forced to embody the ‘straight man’ (heh) in the face of such crazy exuberance, but Rob Lowe, who plays Scott’s drug dealer and plastic surgeon, deserves special acclaim. Every one of his scenes is downright hilarious; from his stoned facial expressions to what comes out of his substance-ridden mouth, he is a total hoot.

The pacing is a little clunky – the film takes a good twenty minutes to summon any laughs, but once the train gets rolling, it stays on course for the remainder of its 118 minute-duration. All the razzmatazz brings to mind The Great Gatsby of recent weeks, but where the two films differ is in execution rather than aesthetics: while Gatsby is an ironically shallow experience, there is far more to this particular film than gratuitous glam. Laden with equal amounts of innuendo, great acting, and cocaine, Behind the Candelabra is a raucous and incredibly entertaining comedy concealing a poignant, heartstring-tugging drama. An excellent movie.

[Written for The Student Standard]

Simon says: worth seeing for the rhinestone-studded clothing alone.

‘Fast & Furious 6’ (2013); a masterclass in escapism.

2 Jun

Fast 6 posterA long-established and steadily improving series about explosions, impossible car chases, scantily-clad women, extended kung-fu sequences and general mindless action – what could it possibly be missing? The answer: Dwayne Johnson, of course. The Rock is the latest edition to the Fast & Furious lineup, who in this sixth instalment of the seemingly-immortal franchise joins regular faces Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and company in an effort to uncover the evildoers behind a recent attack on a Russian military convoy. In doing so, familiar faces are found, while others may not be as trustworthy as they may seem.

But that’s plot, which is definitely not the focus of this film. Bare minimum backstory, inexplicable new characters. nonsensical plot twists and obvious telegraphing of future events are all proof of this complete disregard for any deftness in approach to story. The dialogue doesn’t fare much better: the bulk of what comes out of their mouths is laughably terrible (the repeated mantra of ‘we’re a FAMILY, and FAMILY is important’ is as annoying as it sounds), and should cause a substantial amount of squirming in the aisles. So why should anyone go see this

The Fast & Furious crew are basically The Avengers of dumb action movies. Think about it; they’re a ragtag bunch of misfits, from a politically correct array of ethnic and social backgrounds, who must band together for the common good of the world at large. Their individual strengths fuse into an incredibly potent power; but instead of Norse demigods or green monstrosities we’re instead treated to a group of dudes (and a lady or two) who can drive cars really well. Actually, that’s not a fair appraisal of their worth… They can also drive motorbikes really well.

"Yeah, I'm a giant bald guy too. WHAT YOU GONNA DO ABOUT IT, MOTHERFUCKER!?"

“Yeah, I’m a giant bald guy too. WHAT YOU GONNA DO ABOUT IT, MOTHERFUCKER!?”

People may wonder what separates a film like Fast & Furious from some other, universally-panned ‘dumb’ action movies such as the Transformers series. There are good movies like this, and then there are bad ones, and the distinction is often based on levels of self-awareness. Transformers is this massively over-the-top production that tries to weave as much illogical story, hammy dialogue and, most notoriously, product placement (grr!) into its big dumb self as possible, but in doing so it ultimately takes away from the overall enjoyment.

Fast & Furious, on the other hand, knows it’s a big dumb action movie, accepts this reality and brazenly revels in its own lack of sense. While previous efforts had an on-off relationship with ‘realism’, director Justin Lin decided around the time of Fast Five that his films are now essentially live-action Looney Tunes episodes. Vin Diesel’s stunning feats of survival bring to mind Wile E. Coyote emerging from the dust clouds of 10o-ft falls, romantic lines make Pepé Le Pew sound like Shakespeare, and Dwayne Johnson may as well be using a giant comedy mallet á la Bugs Bunny when fighting his hilariously buff evil twin.

If you require something a bit more ‘highbrow’, then Fast 6 might not be the film for you. But swimming as we are in a sea of dumb action movies, this series continues to be an unbridled and unmatchable mode of escapism… And this one has a tank!

Simon says: The Avengers on Wheels.

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