Black and Blue; ‘Blue Jasmine’ (2013).

27 Sep

Blue Jasmine posterIt’s that time of year again! Christmas has come early for Woody Allen connoisseurs, as his annual motion picture hits cinemas. Arriving amidst a flurry of eager anticipation and wrapped in Allen’s trademark studio polish, the real treat is that Blue Jasmine not only betters 2012’s middling To Rome with Love, but also presents a career highlight for the veteran director.

After a three-year European holiday, Allen returns to the United States (sun-soaked San Francisco to be exact), where the singularly uptight Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) comes to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Reeling from the imprisonment of her husband (Alec Baldwin) and corresponding collapse of her affluent social life, the movie follows her downfall from riches to rags and how she deals with the resulting emotional trauma.

Allen’s filmic endeavours can usually be neatly divided into either the ‘comedy’ or ‘drama’ brackets; Blue Jasmine is a rare example in that neither shoe really fits. The peppy trailer and neurotic female star are both comedic Woody Allen hallmarks, and undoubtedly funny moments are sprinkled throughout the film’s 98 minutes.

But only a masochist could label this a comedy. Blue Jasmine is tragic in the classical sense of the word in that it examines a powerful figure’s fall from grace. Jasmine is a mess, boasting a litany of mental issues while simultaneously combating apparent alcoholism (she’s hooked on Stolichnaya, no less). Her downward spiral is difficult to watch at times, and as various secrets are revealed, her collapse becomes increasingly upsetting.

Although she’s the protagonist here, Jasmine presents next to no redeeming qualities whatsoever. A condescending, elitist snob who avoids her impoverished sister like the plague, until of course she needs a favour, that we sympathise with her at all is not only a testament to Blanchett’s acting prowess, but also a reinforcement of the scriptwriting and directing talent of Woody Allen.

Blue Jasmine also features a spectacular supporting cast. Sally Hawkins is marvellously convincing as the ditsy Ginger, Michael Stuhlbarg has a handful of wonderful scenes as a pervy dentist (the hilariously-titled ‘Dr. Flicker’, who refuses “to beat about the bush”); and who knew Louis C.K. could act? This veritable cornucopia of stellar performances should linger in the minds of Oscar nominators in the coming months.

Eyebrows are raised at the inclusion of an older man running off with a teenage girl, though Allen movies usually bear some semblance of autobiography. More sociologically-minded folk may also find Allen’s miscomprehension of the working class slightly nauseating – Ginger’s “hovel” of a flat is charming and spacious, while the less wealthy characters sport embarrassingly awful haircuts that only the blind could appreciate.

That said, Blue Jasmine is Allen’s most emotionally complex movie in a long time, featuring perhaps Cate Blanchett’s greatest performance yet. It’s a tough but rewarding Woody classic.

Simon says: Allen’s best work in years.

[Written for GCN]

Red Herrings in the Sunset; ‘Prisoners’ (2013).

26 Sep

Prisoners posterAt what point exactly did Jake Gyllenhaal become so goddamn old? Gone are the days where he’d either play the resourceful son (The Day After Tomorrow), an impressionable young cowboy (Brokeback Mountain), or a hot soldier lying around in his underpants (Jarhead). As an oily-haired cop literally exuding a negative backstory in French director Denis Villeneuve’s American début, Prisoners, he has finally joined the elders club, along with co-star Hugh Jackman, who let’s face it, was old before his time when we first met him in X-Men.

Jackman is a deeply religious and devoted father that likes to shoot deer; Gyllenhaal is a quiet, softly-spoken cop with a facial tic. Their paths cross when the former’s kid (and her equally adorable friend) go missing during a Thanksgiving thunderstorm, and what follows is a gripping crime drama full of plot twists, some supremely tense scenes and a veritable ocean of red herrings.

Prisoners fails to break even a square inch of new ground, but in digging up the long-established tropes of the suspenseful thriller it manages to strike gold. Yes, every single character is a stereotype, and yes the whole affair peddles the tired ‘family is important’ message, but Aaron Guzikowski’s clever script manages to keep us guessing before finally revealing the big ‘gotcha!’ moment, which even I didn’t predict.

A major flaw comes in the form of a minor – one of the abducted kids, Erin Gerasimovich, displays such wooden acting that in her handful of scenes you’re kind of glad she’s kidnapped and out of the action. On the other hand, both Jackman and Gyllenhaal turn in decent performances. Actually, because Jackman plays a white drunk with a missing kid though, he’s virtually guaranteed an Oscar nomination.

Although the film’s 153-minute runtime could have done with a half-hour haircut, Prisoners cherry picks the highlights from many’s a dramatic thriller that came before it to make for riveting viewing. Unfortunately, it’s also bursting with the genre’s tired clichés and the curtains are only drawn following an irritatingly derivative CSI-esque final act. Still, Hollywood needs to know that dialogue-driven dramas can still sell tickets, so check it out.

Simon says: bring a picnic.

[Written for GCN]

Irresistibly poignant: ‘Any Day Now’ (2012).

21 Sep

Any Day Now posterTackling the ongoing “issue” of gay adoption (and, by virtue of association, LGBT rights in general) is a difficult feat for any director to achieve in an artistically credible way. An emotionally charged topic by definition, Travis Fine’s latest picture could easily have descended into a preachy political lesson or some morality sermon. Thankfully Any Day Now manages to compassionately woo its audience while also avoiding any sort of cloying sentimentality.

Alan Cumming plays the enjoyably audacious Rudy Donatello,  an aspiring singer by day and drag queen by night with a New Yawk drawl so thick you’d lose a shoe in it. It’s the 1970’s, so poor Rudy is forced to put up with his awful drug-snorting and T.Rex-blaring neighbour (Jamie Anne Allman). One day he discovers her intellectually disabled son Marco (Isaac Leyva) frightened and alone; we learn that his mother has been thrown in jail, so Rudy and his recently-acquired lawyer boyfriend Paul (Garret Dillahunt) undertake to raise Marco as one of their own. Amidst a culture of internalised fear and loathing of homosexuality, can a same-sex couple hope to raise a disabled kid in peace?

Irrespective of one’s viewpoint on the idea of gay adoption (for which none should exist; it’s a non-issue), Any Day Now exudes so much charm and such wonderful acting that to fault it on a technical or performance level would betray all reason and logic. Ridiculous wig or not, we’ve never seen better out of Alan Cumming as the punchy drag performer who, as this movie showcases, has a truly remarkable singing voice. This is likewise a career-best for Dillahunt, while newcomer Levya steals the show and, in doing so, breaks some exciting new ground in championing screen presence of actors with Down’s syndrome.

But the movie’s focus on the child, Marco, is what makes Any Day Now such a profoundly moving and potent experience. The singularly nefarious antagonists (right-wing lawyers, conservative judges, horrible bosses etc.) aside, the film repeatedly chants the mantra of “this is about the child”; Rudy and Paul’s (believably) idyllic household boasts an immeasurably higher quality of life for Marco than anything his empathy-devoid mother could possibly provide, especially while behind bars. Fine could easily have centred events around the two adult leads, but in advocating the kid’s welfare as top priority he utterly eradicates any and all remnants of a debate.

Regardless of whether custody rights are granted or not, the ending could only ever have been a tear-jerker. But the route taken is so harrowing, so heartbreaking that leaving the cinema with a pair of completely dry eyes is a virtual impossibility. Bring tissues, but make no mistake; this is a stunningly beautiful movie with a powerful message that’s unfortunately as relevant today as it was four decades ago.

Simon says: a message movie that hits home like a wrecking ball.

Berry Phone Home; ‘The Call’ (2013).

20 Sep

The Call posterHalle Berry’s career has had more ups and downs than Harry Styles’ underpants. She may have won an Oscar for Monster’s Ball, but few other actresses have scraped the Hollywood barrel as often, or as spectacularly. Catwoman anyone? New Year’s Eve? If you approach one of her films without great expectations, you’re bound not to be disappointed. Well, not too disappointed.

Fortunately, my expectations for The Call were entirely off-kilter. This film sits on the upper end of the Berry Spectrum.

Opening with panoramic shots of a moonlit Los Angeles, we quickly zoom to ‘The Hive’, or the base of operations for 911 operators. Distracted by her uniformed love interest Paul (Morris Chestnut), experienced staffer Jordan (Berry) fatally botches a call that alerts a serial killer to his prey. While taking leave of absence to train new operators, a terrified teenager (Abigail Breslin) locked in the boot of a car rings in and Berry, in a double-edged effort to redeem herself and save the girl, takes the call.

Much like 2012’s Argo, The Call is a remarkably intense and unrelenting thriller that grabs you in a stranglehold within the first scene and refuses to let go for 90 minutes straight. Even the litany of would-be distractions, from the occasionally laughable dialogue to Berry’s preposterous 1990-era Whitney Houston wig fail to distract from the riveting chaos unfolding on-screen. Berry injects buckets of soul into her very likable character in what is her best performance in ages.

Director Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist) expertly weaves the increasingly panicked conversation between Berry and Breslin while also juggling the drama unfolding on either end; Breslin kicks out tail lights and waves at passers-by, while the fascinating technical machinations involved in her rescue are shot almost documentary-style. Thanks to this movie, I now know the procedure, should I wake up stuck in a trunk on day.

Major props go to Breslin, whose character could have been painful had a lesser actress been cast; spending an hour fighting for her life in such a confined space without over-emoting or grating on the eardrums is an achievement. Michael Eklund plays the singularly horrifying abductor, whose general demeanour and overall motivation for the kidnapping makes him ten times creepier than all of Insidious: Chapter 2’s assorted monsters combined. The total lack of Bond villain-esque monologues is indescribably refreshing too.

The decision to turn Jordan into a foolhardy vigilante in the grand finale serves as a disappointing disconnect, reeking as it does of a director neither trusting his own material nor the ability of his cast to pull it off. Thankfully, however, it’s only a minor hang-up that validates itself with the absolute final scene, which acts as a campy if wonderfully satisfying shattering of genre conventions and, deliciously, audience expectations.

In the pantheon of movies that focus on phone conversations, The Call is leagues ahead of When A Stranger Calls, stands head and shoulders above Cellular and even manages to keep Phone Booth on hold. Nail-bitingly suspenseful from start to finish, this is one Call you won’t want to miss.

Simon says: I’m fresh out of phone puns.

[Written for GCN.ie]

Frocky Horror; ‘Insidious: Chapter 2’ (2013).

19 Sep

Oh look, another horror film with another number tacked on to the title. Seriously, the movie-going public needs a sequel to 2011’s Insidious about as much as they need an actual demonic possession.

Directed by James Wan and picking up right where the original left off, Insidious: Chapter 2 follows Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as a pair of petrified parents whose lives are turned upside-down by some rather frustrated ghouls and ghosts. No amount of house-movings, séances or Saw references will quell the undead, so the couple enlist the help of an array of paranormal researchers (including Lin Shaye and Steve Coulter). In doing so, they stumble upon alternate dimensions, ‘shocking’ family secrets, and a lot of other confusing stuff that I can’t go into here, because I’ve already forgotten it all. Deliberately.

The first Insidious was a strange and surreal movie that tried (and failed) to hide its ostentatious ambitions under the guise of a serious horror flick. Its sequel is a similarly madcap romp, but not in a good way. While the original featured a cast of paranormal villains including (but not limited to) The Crow, a zombie drag queen and some bizarre Darth Maul/Spider Man/Freddy Krueger hybrid, this time around a spectral Joan Crawford look-alike is calling the shots. The whole thing feels like a particularly zany episode of Supernatural, and for that it’s oddly endearing, without actually being any good.

One moment it’s trying to shock, but before you get to jump out of your seat one of the bumbling Laurel and Hardy-esque clowns falls over or Wilson trots out a line from a script that’s so B-movie, it’s verging on Rocky Horror territory. Balancing horror with comedy is a tough gig – too many scares suck the humour out, while an abundance of jokes or slapstick negates any empathy with the terrorised hero(es). It takes a truly skillful director to keep both plates spinning, and frankly Wan’s crockery is cracked.

“Boring” is perhaps an unexpected adjective for a such hyped horror, but this movie evokes far more yawns than screams. The peppy exuberance that made its predecessor somewhat memorable has been jettisoned in favour of a head-scratchingly convoluted plot and an avalanche of unnecessary exposition. In a post-Conjuring world (which, bizarrely, Wan also directed), the bar has been raised for this sort of thing. As it is, Insidious: Chapter 2 limbos neatly under said bar, with room to spare, before collapsing beneath the combined weight of a crazy plot, hammy acting and sub-par Shining plagiarism.

Simon says: Egregious: 2 Chapters 2 Many.

[Written for GCN.ie]

Die House Hard? No, ‘White House Down’ (2013).

14 Sep

White House DownI propose a constitutional amendment: each release of a new Roland Emmerich movie initiates a public holiday. Work would be cancelled, phones held and cocktails served in the lobby, for his movies act as badly-needed injections of unbridled fun into our (understandably) cynical, miserable society. His latest venture, White House Down, is a traditionally ‘Emmerich’ movie in that everything, everywhere explodes.

Jamie Foxx refers to himself as merely “the leader of the Free World”, but this is code: he plays President Obama. All his Democrat talk of world peace and militaristic disarmament clearly rubbed an assorted bunch of fundies the wrong way, for the White House is attacked by terrorists. Architecture is levelled, hostages are taken and flag poles are knocked over but have no fear! A body guard and wannabe special forces agent played by Channing Tatum is here to save the day! Unfortunately, he is forced to juggle his duties as an American citizen to save the president with those of a dad, for his kid gets caught up in the chaos too. Cue two hours of brainless entertainment.

Mincing words helps nobody, so lets cut to the chase: this is a pants-on-head stoopid movie. The spectacular levelling of the White House is complimented by frequent shootouts, rocket launchers, double-crossings and car chases on the famously green lawn. But Emmerich expertly follows his own tradition of depicting what would realistically be horrifying events in the most light-heartedly infectious of ways; the carnage occasionally takes five while the bouncy interplay between the two leads fills the spotlight.

You may recall an earlier 2013 action film by the name of Olympus Has Fallen. Both are Die Hard deviants, but the difference between Emmerich’s latest and its Antoine Fuqua(Fuck You Ah!)-directed counterpart lies in the tonal department. That movie is super self-serious and overwhelmingly patriotic, which ultimately clashes with the ridiculous mayhem unfolding on screen. White House Down, on the other hand, is self-aware; it knows it’s a big, dumb action movie and absolutely revels in the fact. It’s like watching a particularly happy-go-lucky pig roll around in its own filth – it’s an entertaining sight to behold, and Porky himself is clearly having the time of his life.

Roland Emmerich, bless him, is perhaps the hackiest of all the hacks working at Hollywood today. He’s not an artist, but just like Liam Neeson in Taken, he has a very specific set of skills. And boy howdy does he know how to use them.

Simon says: In Emmerich We Trust.

Armed and not very dangerous; ‘2 Guns’ (2013).

7 Sep

2 Guns posterOne of my favourite things about summer is the deluge of mindless popcorn movies that should, theoretically, fill the cinemas. Fast 6 remains the pick of the crop, however, as 2 Guns falls flat on its face trying to marry buddy-cop banter with some really rather egregious violence.  Much like director Baltasar Kormákur’s previous film Contraband (also starring Mark Wahlberg), this movie is massively forgettable, though could well be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

A DEA agent (Denzel Washington) and a naval intelligence officer (Mark Wahlberg) team up in an effort to infiltrate an infamous drug cartel. However, neither of them are who they appear to be, and their respective secrets unravel amidst a flurry of betrayals, bullets and bad guys. Can they work together, or is nobody to be trusted?

This movie is as vapid as action movies come; it’s the sort of film that’ll pop up a few months later on Netflix, forcing you to watch the first ten minutes before finally realising that you have, in fact, already seen it. Wahlberg and Washington both put in what’s required of them, and they do their damndest to sell some of the roughest dialogue to grace a major production in ages, most notably the recurring and bizarre motif of “never rob a bank across from the diner with the best donuts in three counties”. It makes Pacific Rim‘s script read like Othello in comparison.

What kills this movie is its gratuitous levels of gore and violence. Make no mistake,  it’s entirely possible to balance snappy dialogue with brutality – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a good example, and Tarantino achieves it to a certain extent. From taking pot-shots at trapped chickens to kneecappings to some rather ugly scenes involving baseball bats, this movie spots the line and pole vaults over it. Although Bill Paxton puts in a fine performance, every time he appeared I knew something awful was about to happen and it completely took me out of it. There are artful ways to demonstrate depravity and accomplishment with firearms; 2 Guns apparently missed this lesson.

An unremarkable, standard-issue action movie that’s about as bland as its name suggests, the random and extremely jarring scenes of unnecessary violence kibosh the whole experience by injecting a lethal dose of discomfort into the already dull affair. Oh, and there are plenty more than two guns, so the cherry on top is that we’re being lied to.

Simon says: not much firepower for 2 Guns.

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