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Friday, 28 November 2014

Serena

(M) ★★

Director: Susanne Bier.

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Sean Harris, Ana Ularu.

"To be honest, dear, I'm just as unimpressed by this shit as you are."
ON paper, Serena looks like it should be great.

Cooper and Lawrence reuniting for the third time, Academy Award-winning Danish director Susanne Bier at the helm, with Ron Rash's best-selling novel as the source material - what could possibly go wrong?

The answer is "the script".

Set in 1929, the titular Serena is a headstrong yet haunted young woman (brought to life by Lawrence with her usual skill) who marries fledgling timber baron George Pemberton (Cooper) and quickly asserts herself as his business partner.

But their logging company's niche in Carolina's Smoky Mountains is under threat from some progressive locals keen to establish a national park, while their marriage has to deal with the bastard child Pemberton fathered just prior to meeting and marrying Serena.


There are subplots aplenty here as well - Pemberton's quest to hunt a panther, his relationship with his off-sider Buchanan (Dencik), the dangers of logging (shown occasionally in graphic detail), the unnecessary attentions of the local sheriff (Jones) - but so many of the film's ideas are either rushed, undercooked or overdone.

For example, the whirlwind romance between Serena and Pemberton is so whirlwind, more time is spent later in the film dedicated to Pemberton bathing Serena than is actually spent on showing us how and why they fell in love.

Then there's the mysterious figure of Galloway (Ifans), a tracker hired to help Pemberton in his quest to kill a panther. The role of Galloway and the panther in the story are as idiotic as Pemberton's passion for killing the endangered feline.

I've not read Rash's book, but reading the way reviewers describe it, it seems like a completely different story, one filled with menace, strong themes and equally strong characters (who sound like an unlikeable pack of mongrels). None of that comes through in the film. The characters are blandly likeable despite doing terrible things, there is a real lack of tension or menace even as the movie builds to its bloody climax, and so many motifs go unexplored.

The film leaves the impression of being either a novel mangled in the screenwriting process or a film interfered with in the editing process (there are even a couple of scenes that feel like they are in the wrong place, like they were forgotten about and thrown in at the wrong moment).

The ending is fairly bonkers too, as if it jetted in from another film - at one point a character actually says "you've got 24 hours before I call the judge" and suddenly you feel like you're in an '80s cop movie instead of a drama set in 1929.

Lawrence, Cooper, Jones, Dencik and Ifans do their best and are the saving grace of the film, particularly the lead couple, even if Cooper does occasionally seem like he's channelling Pacino or De Niro rather than trying to do his own thing.

The film also looks gorgeous, with the Czech Republic standing in for the logging towns of North Caroline, and there are a couple of nice moments where Bier lets a look tell a thousand words.

So much goes begging given the talent on offer here but instead we're left with a largely forgettable melodrama based on a book that sounds like it would be far more enjoyable.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

(M) ★★★★

Director: Francis Lawrence.

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, Donald Sutherland.

Pictured: A typical American school outing.
Diving back into the dystopian world of Panem and its arrow-firing heroine Katniss Everdeen continues to be a heady and exhilarating experience.

Three films into the four-film series (book three of the trilogy is being adapted into two movies) and the comparisons to Korean film Battle Royale are far behind us.

No longer focused on its child-versus-child death matches, The Hunger Games spreads its wings in this powerful and political third instalment that not only shifts the focus to the dictatorial machinations that have been simmering in the background, but showcases why these young adult novels have been so highly revered. They deal with mature themes in an intelligent way that never speaks down to its intended adolescent audience, and if you thought the first two movies were dark, then brace yourselves because this a whole other shade of black.

Mockingjay - Part 1 tells of civil war and the power of propaganda - far more worthy subject matter for inquisitive teenage minds than love triangles involving sparkly vampires - and it doesn't pull any punches in the process. There are executions, massacres, torture, and fields of blackened corpses. This is no walk in the park.

Watching the previous two films is a prerequisite as this one dives straight into where we left off at the end of Catching Fire. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), having been whisked away to the supposedly uninhabited District 13, finds herself at the centre of a rebel uprising against the government of President Snow (Sutherland) based in the opulent Capitol City.

Reluctant at first to be used as the symbol of the rebellion, Katniss soon learns what has been going on - about the destruction of her home district, about the government's suppression tactics, and what has happened to her beloved Peeta (Hutcherson) - and realises she can't stand by while the lower classes are crushed beneath the military's boot heel.


It's heavy stuff that invokes everything from the American Civil War and socialist iconography to the influence of the modern media and the work of journalists in war zones. Director Francis Lawrence keeps everything moving at a good pace and gives all the key players at least one moment to shine.

His biggest problem is grappling with the film's high level of emotions, which feel way over-the-top at the start of the film because we're coming in cold.

There is no easing your way in on this - Mockingjay - Part 1 throws you headlong into the storm of feelings left behind from Catching Fire and you're expected to keep up. As such, this is for the fans and certainly not the place to start your passion for The Hunger Games.

None of this would work without great actors, which the series has a surplus of. Newcomer Moore is a welcome addition, Banks and Harrelson have reduced roles but chime in nicely, Hemsworth has his biggest part in the series to date, and the film is dedicated to the memory of Hoffman, who is as effortless as he always was.

And at the centre of it all is Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen - the film's beating heart, its moral compass, and its sharpened arrow. When I reviewed Catching Fire, I noted that future lists of the greatest movie heroines should read "1. Ripley, 2. Katniss Everdeen ...". I'm seriously considering bumping Everdeen to #1.

As with Catching Fire, Mockingjay - Part 1 finds a weird note to end on, as is always the case of a story part-told. It's a bittersweet and slightly unbalanced finale, but one that tantalises the tastebuds ahead of the big finale due out 12 months from now.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Let's Be Cops

(MA15+) ★★

Director: Luke Greenfield.

Cast: Damon Wayans Jr, Jake Johnson, Rob Riggle, Nina Dobrev, James D'Arcy, Keegan-Michael Key, Andy Garcia.

These cops are getting hard on crime, if you know what I mean, wink wink nudge nudge ah forget it.

MOVIES often make it seem like being a police officer would be awesome fun, what with all the donuts and shooting bad guys and being lauded as heroes.

We all know the reality is far different and that these hard-working men and women have one of the toughest gigs there is.

But the reality of policing is about the furthest thing from the world of Let's Be Cops, an increasingly idiotic but sporadically humourous comedy about pretending to be policemen.

The faux fuzz are Justin (Wayans Jr) and Ryan (Johnson), two down-on-their-luck 30-year-olds who find that dressing up as boys in blue gives them a level of respect and self-confidence that has been lacking from their lives.


These two characters are the best thing in the film - better than the majority of the jokes, the entirety of the plot, and the terrible editing.

While the whole thing is a loose vehicle for the old "seize the day" theme, Justin and Ryan are more fleshed out and interesting than characters tend to be in these kind of trashy, forgettable comedies. Justin is rational yet cowardly, his talents as a video game designer held back by his lack of assertiveness, while Ryan is the directionless ex-jock, a victim of his own impulsiveness with his greatest accomplishments far behind them.

They're nothing new here, but at least in the hands of Johnson and Wayans Jr (both from TV comedy New Girl) and a semi-literate script Justin and Ryan seem like more than caricatures. The same can't be said for love interest Josie (Dobrev) or sadistic villain Mossi (D'Arcy), but Riggle, Garcia and Key lend good support.

All this helps keep you vaguely interested in a plot that quickly spirals into stupidity as the two pretend policemen find themselves increasingly caught up in their own lie, which starts to be believed by Russian mobsters (who want to kill them) and real police officers (who want to help them).

Given the efforts of Johnson and Wayans Jr, it's a shame the film isn't funnier and didn't have to rely on tired scenarios - women beating up a man, someone being sat on by a naked fat man, the obligatory drug-taking sequence - for what are unfortunately the funniest bits in the film.

Let's Be Cops ends up being mildly chuckle-worthy but inevitably forgettable because the biggest laughs feel like they've come from any of a hundred other pre-existing comedies.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Interstellar

(M) ★★★½

Director: Christopher Nolan.

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow.

McConaughey took a wrong turn in the produce aisle.

FILM-MAKERS have long tried to predict the future.

One of the most intriguing of these sci-fi predictions is 2001: A Space Odyssey - a film that's now confusingly set in the past - and it is the obvious reference point for Christopher Nolan's own attempt at prophetic cinema.

Just as 2001 wanted to explore the possibilities of space and beyond, Interstellar aims to go to the final frontier and further, all the while exploring the nature of humanity and the unknowns of the universe.

Even the structures of the two films are similar, which makes it even harder to avoid these comparisons - it's impossible not to think of Interstellar as Nolan's Space Odyssey.

As such, this film is incredibly ambitious, even for the director who took us into a dream inside a dream inside a dream with relative ease. However, this might be a starbridge too far.

As fascinating and scientifically intriguing as it is, Interstellar asks a lot of the viewer in terms of endurance (it's almost three hours long) and whether you will buy into the plot twists that come with its cosmic destination. And after just one viewing it's not immediately obvious how successful it is.

The film spends the first hour on Earth sometime in the possibly not-too-distant future, where climate change has wiped out billions of people and ruined most of the world's crops, leaving the planet a dusty husk of its former self.

Among the farmers struggling to keep the world's mouths fed is Cooper (McConaughey), a former test pilot who turns to corn farming after the government shuts down non-essential programs, and while he still secretly yearns for the adventures of his youth, Cooper is mostly content to raise his two kids.

That is until some weird happenings in the family home inadvertently lead him into space as part of a mission to find a new home on a new planet in order to save what remains of humanity.


Obviously there are some major plot points removed from this synopsis, but you're better off not knowing them and just enjoying the surprises. Nolan's typical secrecy meant the trailers gave away little about this film in the lead up other than "McConaughey goes to space to save dusty world" and that's one thing of the key things Interstellar has going for it - it's a journey into the unknown for the characters and audience alike.

But is it an enjoyable one? That's the question you might find yourself asking as you walk out of the cinema after three bum-numbing hours.

Interstellar is definitely fascinating. It's filled with amazing ideas, stunning visuals, great performances, and what is apparently a level of scientific theory that's interesting if you're so inclined.

But after all this brain fodder and some genuinely awe-inspiring moments we finally reach the third act - and it's a long time coming - the story takes a turn that will either leave you tearing up your ticket or glued to your seat.

My initial reaction was the former but the more the film went on and the more I think about the film in the hours since watching it, the more I am willing to forgive it. Maybe. To be honest I'm still undecided.

And that's the general feeling I'm left with after seeing Interstellar - a sensation of indecision.

Large parts of the film are stunning, such as the depictions of blackholes, wormholes and space travel, but other bits are not so great, such as some of the dialogue, the lack of characterisation, and that plot twist. There are questions unanswered - some deliberately so but some seemingly ignored - and while this does make me want to watch it again to dig a little deeper into the film, its length is kind of off-putting. At the same time, the fact that I'm still thinking about it so much is probably a positive.

Interstellar is ambitious, perhaps overly so, and it's engaging and intriguing, perhaps at the expense of being truly entertaining. For now, the best I can say is that, yeah, it's pretty cool and particularly impressive on the big screen but not quite the five-star classic that Inception or 2001: A Space Odyssey is.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Best Of Me

(M) ★½

Director: Michael Hoffman.

Cast: James Marsden, Michelle Monaghan, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato, Gerald McRaney, Sebastian Arcelus, Sean Bridgers.

50 Shades of Grey - bringing people together since 2011.

The quality of a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book is becoming as predictable as the posters promoting them.

Just as you can bet that the poster will probably feature two people inches from kissing as one of them caresses the other's face, it's equally likely the movie will be a pile of mushy romantic tripe peppered with terrible dialogue, hackneyed plots, and maybe even a weird twist in the tail.

These films have their fans - particularly the overrated love story of The Notebook - and do well at the box office, so maybe all critics are wrong when we continually give them terrible reviews.

But having sat through The Best Of Me, I would be amazed to hear even the most ardent Sparks fan defend it as anything more than rubbish.

The premise follows Dawson and Amanda, whose love burns brightly for a few heady months in 1992 until something happens - and this is the film's big slow-burn mystery - that tears them apart.

Twenty-one years later, Dawson and Amanda are reunited by the death of mutual friend Tuck (McRaney), rekindling old feelings, past mistakes, and the prospect of adultery given that Amanda is apparently unhappy marriaged.


As a youngster, Dawson is played by former Home & Away hunk Luke Bracey, who appears way too old to be a high school student and looks nothing like his supposed older version, played by James Marsden, which is jarring, but not a deal-breaker.

What's worse is Bracey's unconvincing chemistry with the bubbly Liana Liberato, which never really sells the idea that this is some kind of undying love that will endure despite two decades apart - more like it's the kind of high school fling that was bound to fizzle out as they got older and went to different colleges.

Furthermore, the plot involving a middle-aged man never getting over his first crush is presented as super-romantic but comes off in places as being super creepy. From the point of view of the grown-up Amanda (Monaghan), it's kind of sad and slightly wrong that despite having been married for a long time she still carries a torch for Dawson.

Being a thirty-something male, I am not the target audience for these Sparks adaptions and I can see how these are (and I'm broadly stereotyping film demographics here) intended as the female equivalent of the superhero genre - they're about fantastical situations, escapism and a kind of wish fulfilment. But if one demographic daydreams about being Iron Man or Spider-man and saving the world, the other demographic apparently (according to The Best Of Me) yearns to commit adultery with hunky men from the wrong side of the tracks who garden with their shirts off, can fix cars, and read books about physics and quantum mechanics. This may be true - I don't know, but it's what the film would have me believe.

There's definitely something fantastical about the whole thing - no one in real life talks like the people in The Best Of Me, and even the best efforts of Marsden and Monaghan (who surely have better things to do) can't make these words fly. Equally out-there is the ending, which admittedly isn't quite as insane as the finale to last year's Sparks adaptation Safe Haven but is still mind-bogglingly redundant and contrived.

There are themes about fate and destiny among it all, ideas about things happening for a reason, but they're as laughable as the villains in the film.

A couple of highlights mildly offset things - the film looks pretty, Tuck is a good character and nicely underplayed by McRaney, and there are a couple of nice moments amid the clich├ęd bits we've come to expect in almost every Sparks adaptation (kissing in the rain, swimming together, sleeping on the floor together).

These positives are not enough to recommend The Best Of Me, which unfortunately brought out the worst of me as a critic.