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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Begin Again (and a roundup of the last couple of weeks worth of movies)

OK, by this time, "couple of weeks" is probably something of an understatement. Still, there's some good stuff that I haven't touched on yet... as well as one or two serious stinkers, of course.


Starting off with what is probably my favourite of the films I haven't reviewed yet this month, Begin Again (8/10) is John Carney's spiritual followup to his wonderful breakthrough film, Once: a serious charmer of a film that came out of nowhere and won over audiences, award ceremonies, critics and other filmmakers, before becoming a highly successful Broadway play. Begin Again isn't quite in the same league as its predecessor but it is certainly in a similar vain. Originally titled, Can a Song Save Your Life, Begin Again is about two lost souls finding each other through music and plays out basically like a more fully produced (and therefore somewhat less charming) remake of Once - but with enough differences to make it worthwhile on its own terms. Even if it doesn't quite match the earthy beauty of Once - neither in its music, nor in the film itself - it's still a wonderfully observed comedy-drama with loads of heart, good jokes and immensely likable characters, anchored by two exceptional performances from Keira Knightley (who can really sing!) and the ever-cool Mark Ruffalo.

Begin Again isn't the only musical dramedy on circuit right now though, and it makes for an interesting companion piece to the infinitely cheesier, Sunshine on Leith (7/10). Following in the footsteps of Across the Universe and especially Mama Mia, Sunshine on Leith is yet another "jukebox musical" where a narrative is very clumsily constructed out of the songs of a beloved musical group - in this case The Proclaimers. As expected, it comes very close to being a guilty pleasure but its mixture of heart, humour and killer tunes makes for an unapologetically goofy feel-good gem. That it has by far the most amount of grit of any of the films of this genre to date (which, to be fair, still doesn't exactly make it Trainspotting) doesn't take away from its bouncy good-nature and slightly daft charm. If nothing else, it proves that The Proclaimers are much, much better than the one-hit-wonder label they are usually stuck with outside of Scotland.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Great Beauty (La Grande Ballezza)

Zzzzzzzhmmmmmmwhoa - This movie in a nutshell...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Jep Gambardella is a lothario who has lived the high life in Rome for most of his sixty-five years thanks to the success of his one novel and his affluent social circle. After he finds out that his first love has died and that she had carried a torch for him throughout her life, Jep finds himself taking stock of a life lived in high society but one without much substance behind it.

What we thought

The Great Beauty won the best foreign language Oscar at last year's Academy Awards but, unlike some of the more approachable fare that has won that particular award over the years, it's a film that is clearly aimed at an arthouse crowd. Forget the fact that it's a subtitled Italian movie – because, seriously, is it really that hard to read subtitles? – it's a 122 minute film that takes its sweet time getting to any sort of point and is filled with a cast of fairly repugnant upper class toffs doing seemingly nothing but gossiping, partying and bitching about and to one another.

The first twenty-or-so minutes are particularly gruelling, as all the slowness and obnoxiousness of some parts of the rest of the film are magnified with a particularly chaotic shooting style that leaves you both irritated and utterly disorientated. It's a terrible (or at least terribly difficult) beginning that is bound to have huge swathes of its audience storming out in a huff – which is kind of a pity seeing how good the rest of it is.

The Equalizer

Denzel Washington is back in a very Denzel Washington-y kinda movie. Take that as you will...

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) seems like an ordinary blue-collar worker but when a young prostitute (Chloe Grace-Moretz) he befriended is viciously beaten up, his mysterious past comes to the fore as he finds himself up against a ruthless organized crime ring.

What we thought

Antoine Fuqua is a director who spends his time alternating between grity and quite serious dramas (Training Day, Tears of the Sun) and disposable action movies (Olympus Has Fallen, Shooter) and despite the fact that his last film was the underwhelming shoot-em-up Olympus Has Fallen, it's interesting to see him diving so soon into another glorified b-movie – especially as he has brought along Denzel Washington, the star of his most acclaimed film, along for the ride.

The Equalizer is apparently based on an '80s TV show (nope, me neither) but its mixture of quite bloody violence and stylized visuals means that it is presumably only tangentially related to its source. What it is, really, is something we've seen about a thousand times before, in everything from its basic story to its almost superhuman “regular Joe” protagonist to most of its action scenes, but is still quite a bit better than it has any right to be.

Monday, September 22, 2014

If I Stay

The Faultier in Our Stars, perhaps?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Mia Hall is your average teenage girl about to graduate high school: juggling boy problems, trying to get into the college of her dreams and figuring out where she, a classical-music-loving cellist fits into her hip, punk-rock family. After being involved in a major car crash and with her life hanging in the balance, she has is suddenly confronted with the most crucial question of all.

What we thought

It's all but impossible not compare If I Stay with The Fault in our Stars when the two films, separated by a mere couple of months, have so much in common - at least on the surface. Both films are based on highly successful young adult novels, both feature the struggles of a teenage girl at their centre and both deal with themes of love and loss, when superimposed against life and death. They're also both, as it so happens, the work of newcomer directors as Fault's Josh Boone only had one directing credit to his name before taking on the massive YA hit, while If I Stay's R.J. Cutler may have a fairly extensive career on TV but this is his first feature film.

Unfortunately, If I Stay doesn't exactly benefit from the comparison. It's a perfectly good teen tearjerker that more or less accomplishes what it sets out to do and features a number of nice performances, an enjoyably eclectic soundtrack and plenty of heart. What it doesn't have, however, is a level of intelligence or a sense of humour to counteract its more mawkishly sentimental moments. More than anything else though, it suffers from everything looking a bit second rate in comparison to the Fault in Our Stars: its script, direction and performances are all fine but it's unlikely that they're strong enough to bump the film's appeal beyond its target audience.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Calvary

I'll have a review up soon of the other really worthwhile movie to come out this week, but I can safely say that if you're going to see one film this week, definitely make it this one. And I don't say this lightly but Calvary may well beat Boyhood as being THE movie to see this month.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

The good, well-liked Catholic priest (Brendan Gleeson) of a small town in Ireland is marked for death by a disturbed congregant, who swears to make him pay for the entirely unrelated actions of a paedophilic priest who abused him as a child. With what may be one week left to live, the priest is forced to confront an increasingly belligerent community and a daughter who had just attempted to end her own life, all the while being racked by doubts about his faith, about his role as a Catholic priest and about the decision in his life leading that lead him up to that point.

What we thought

John Michael McDonagh blasted on to the scene a couple of years with the Guard, a brilliant, blackly comic crime-film that boasted what may have well been a then-career-best performance by its star, Brendan Gleeson. Unlike so many promising new directors, however, McDonagh has not fallen prey to the “sophomore slump” and has delivered a film that not only builds on the promise of the Guard but takes the kind of giant leap forward that most filmmakers take years to so much as attempt.

While the Guard was an exhilarating, bitingly funny piece of sharp entertainment, McDonagh sets his sights much higher with Calvary. Quite aside for its stunningly moody cinematography, pitch perfect performances and dialogue so sharp you could cut yourself on it, Calvary is a deep, multi-layered work of art with plenty to say and a personal axe or two to grind. It's also a film steeped in Catholicism but with its piercing questions about faith, about the nature of sin, about personal responsibility and, most damningly, about the evils perpetrated by the Catholic Church and those who supposedly represent it, it is as far away from those cheesy Church-approved “Faith-based films” as it is possible to be.

Mr Morgan's Last Love

It's a pretty big week for quality movies but, sadly, despite it's promise Mr Morgan's Last Love isn't really one of them.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Matthew Morgan (Michael Caine) is a widower living in Paris, lost after the death of his wife two years ago. When he meets the slightly odd, but vivacious young French dance instructor, Pauline (Clemence Poesy), however, his life is given a renewed energy – an energy that he's going to need to deal with his (both literally and figuratively) distant children.

What we thought

Everything was in place to make Mr Morgan's Last Love something quite special. It has a killer cast, including Michael Caine in a lead role; an “exotic” locale and a story that may never have had a chance at being original but should have provided the sort of simple pleasures that this kind of family drama usually thrives on. Unfortunately, it never really manages to get off the ground.

Writer/ director Sandra Nettelbeck dedicates the film to her father and it's pretty clearly a personal, heart-felt work but, though it might be churlish, even mean, to simply write it off as a cliched, plodding and largely unsatisfying drama with an over-reliance on platitudes and manipulative sentimentality, it is what it is and all the good intentions in the world can't really make up for so many fatal flaws. Still, the fact that it is a well-meaning failure, rather than a crass, cynical Hollywood product does at least engender enough good will towards it that the ultimate result is boring, rather than anything remotely hateful.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Boyhood

That 100% Metacritic rating don't like, folks...

This review is also up at Channel 24 - with one or two more typos.

What it's about

Twelve years in the life of an extraordinarily ordinary young man, Mason, from childhood to young adulthood.

What we thought

Shot over a few days each year for twelve years, it would be all too easy to write off Boyhood as little more than an admittedly very impressive gimmick, but the truly wondrous thing about Richard Linklater's latest and perhaps greatest film is the way he uses this “gimmick” to tell a story that perfectly and accurately captures the process of growing up. More than just a twelve-year process, however, Boyhood is pretty much the film that Linklater has spent his entire career working towards.

The actual plot, as you may have noticed, is beyond threadbare and, though it may technically be classified as a “drama”, there's actually very little about the film that is particularly dramatic. Rather, Linklater paints a compellingly authentic view of growing up, of adolescence and of a slowly evolving family system, by focusing primarily on those incidental, seemingly unimportant moments that truly make up a life. There are abusive step-fathers here and high school graduations there, but they're given no extra import over passing conversations with girls or uneventful family holidays.

Mom's Night Out

Rather stay in and wait for the cavalry. Wait, did I say "cavalry"? I meant Calvary...

This review is also up at Chanel 24.

What it's about

A group of over-stressed mothers try to have a girl's night out but things don't go quite as planned.

What we thought

I hate to once again bemoan the sorry state of Hollywood comedy movies but Mom's Night Out is a particularly troublesome offender. Not only is it a wretched, thoroughly unfunny comedy but it's one that's mixed with large dollops of lame Christian sermonizing. It's not quite as preachy as the worst Christian movies tend to be but it's still pretty cloying. Mom's Night Out is pretty much Touched By an Angel meets the worst, schlocky sitcom you can imagine and, though I'm sure it's Church-approved, one has to wonder just which side the makers of Mom's Night Out are really playing for.

There's definitely the sense that this film is aimed squarely at church-going housewives but you have to wonder to what end. Based purely on the evidence that the human race is still here and has not, in fact, sterilized itself into extinction, I can only assume that real parenthood isn't anywhere near as horrifically annoying as it is presented here. As such, the only conclusion to be drawn here is that Mom's Night Out is some sort of fun-house mirror designed to make moms everywhere appreciate there own lives and their own children because, no matter how bad things might be here in the real world, at least things aren't as gruesome as this.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Lucy

It's probably not even 10% scientifically accurate but this bonkers, high-octane sci-fi flick is still easily worth your time. 


Lucy marks the third arty science fiction movie of the year to feature the prodigious talents of Scarlett Johansson (and, come to think of it, if you also factor in the espionage-superheroics of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there's even less place to doubt that Ms. Johansson is pretty clearly the reigning queen of genre cinema) and, though Lucy is certainly more low-brow than either Her or Under The Skin, it actually compliments both films quite brilliantly. Even more importantly, Lucy is the genuine, long-awaited return of maverick filmmaker, Luc Besson.

Not that Besson himself has been away, you understand, it's just that generic thrillers like Taken and austere biopics like The Lady are a far cry from the sort of deranged, audacious genre films on which he made his name. Lucy is very much the Besson of Leon: The Professional and the Fifth Element but with a new existentialist drive that brings to mind everyone from Kubrick (via Arthur C. Clarke) to The Wachowskis.

The basic plot of Lucy is somewhat convoluted, completely preposterous and it goes something like this...