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Thursday, 27 August 2015

Ricki & The Flash

(PG) ★★★

Director: Jonathan Demme.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan.

"Push the little daisies and make them come up!"
MERYL Streep doesn’t give bad performances. She never even gives average performances.

Occasionally she stars in average films (perhaps increasingly so), but never is she anything less than great, even when everything around her is exceedingly average.

Such is the case in this strangely lifeless comedy-drama, which lacks the laughs to be a comedy and the bite it would need to be a strong drama.

Luckily Streep, perhaps the greatest actor who has ever lived, is present to elevate things, bringing all her charisma to bear as Ricki Rendazzo – a woman her walked out on her life as a married mother-of-three named Linda Brummel to follow her rock ‘n’ roll dreams.

A couple of decades on from her divorce, Ricki is doing it tough, playing in the house band of a Californian bar with her boyfriend Greg (Rick “Jessie’s Girl” Springfield) by night and working as a check-out chick by day.

A phone call from her ex-husband (Kline) drags her back into her past, forcing her to reconnect with her recently dumped daughter (played by Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer), her estranged sons, and the damage done by her departure all those years ago.

Much has been made of Streep’s rock chick persona and the fact that she (in true Streep fashion) is really singing and really playing guitar. While her guitarwork looks shaky at times, she nails her vocals, using them as just one of facets of another excellent performance that is typically multi-facted. Ricki is intriguingly flawed – she’s comfortable with who she is, but she's increasingly uncomfortable with how she got there, and it makes for a compelling character, especially in Streep’s guitar-playing hands.

Her chemistry with Kline is excellent, but almost everyone else – particularly Gummer and Springfield – is struggling to keep up with her talents.

The script, written by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) is oddly tame. Its set-up, characters and cast suggest this should have been funnier or tougher or both, but instead it is neither.

None of this is helped by Demme, whose perplexing directorial choices (too many awkward slow zooms) and his inability to nail the “dramedy” tone leave the film blowing in the wind with no direction home.

So why watch this? For Streep, of course. The extended musical interludes, which are at first slightly tiresome, end up being the most memorable bit. The perfect example is the unsurprising ending, which is cornier than a popcorn festival in a cornfield but sucks you in thanks to the fact Streep and her band look like they’re really giving it their all and having the time of their lives.

As a result, for all it flaws, Ricki & The Flash becomes watchable and almost enjoyable purely on the back of Streep and her Suzie Q attitude and Joan Jett moves.

Friday, 21 August 2015


(MA15+) ★★

Director: Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley.

Cast: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo.

Remake of Vacation or Duel?

AS discussed last week while reviewing the millionth reboot/remake/rehash of the year (the actually quite good The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), rebooting/remaking/rehashing is not necessarily an automatic fail.

If the idea at the heart of whatever is being rebooted/remade/rehashed remains valid after all these years, then, by all means, go for it. Mankind has repackaged and retold the same stories again and again for millenia.

The rehash in question this week is Vacation, a reboot and direct descendant of National Lampoon’s Vacation (and European Vacation, Christmas Vacation, Vegas Vacation, and the best-forgotten made-for-TV spin-off Christmas Vacation 2).

As with its predecessors, it centres on the Griswold family taking a holiday and everything going wrong. The patriarch here is Rusty, the son of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold from the 1983 original. It’s a character that’s been played as a kid by Anthony Michael Hall, Jason Lively, Johnny Galecki and Ethan Embry but here he’s brought to life as a middle-aged loser dad by Ed Helms.

At the core of the story is Rusty trying to redo the mission of the ‘83 original – a family vacation to theme park Walley World – as a way of getting his family out of a rut and to reconnect with each other.

The bad holiday scenario is worth revisiting and many of the original Griswold adventures are fondly remembered as comedy classics from an era when Chevy Chase was a household name. But although this doesn’t totally disgrace the family name, it’s certainly not a comedy classic like some of its forefathers.

Its laughs – and there are a few mild chuckles here and there – aren’t that far removed from the tone of the original films, but it’s the three Ps of profanity, poop, and penises that tend to get the biggest giggles. Unfortunately there are no moments that will live long in the memory – no quotable quotes or bits you’ll be telling your friends about (except perhaps Christina Applegate projectile vomiting her way through a sorority dare and Chris Hemsworth’s showing off Thor’s hammer, if you know what I mean).

There are bigger throwbacks to the original, including a typically idiotic car in which to undertake the journey, while Lindsay Buckingham’s awesome theme song Holiday Road gets a good work out (as does Seal’s Kiss From A Rose for some reason). There’s also a slightly ham-fisted attempt to poke some self-reverential fun at the whole reboot concept, but it falls flat.

Part of the reason that doesn’t work, and indeed why the film doesn’t work as a whole, is Helms. He’s so good as the straight-laced Stu in The Hangover, but here he’s a weird mix of slapstick goofiness, oblivious idiot and decisive patron that never quite gels, and unfortunately his performance keeps the film off-balance.

Far better is Applegate as his wife Debbie, and showstealer Hemsworth as Rusty’s slightly inappropriate yet successful brother-in-law. Chase also turns up for a welcome cameo, and the film is dotted with drop-ins that range from the welcome (Charlie Day as a rafting instructor having a bad day) to the nonsensically stupid (Norman Reedus’ truck driver).

But largely, nothing feels fresh, none of the sequences really hit it out of the park, and nothing makes the film stand out. It’s not a total misfire, but it’s unlikely to be remembered down the track, except as that attempt to reboot a franchise that was perhaps best left alone.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

(M)  ★★★★

Director: Guy Ritchie.

Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant.

Just when they thought they were alone.

EVERYTHING old is new again.

It’s an adage that’s been the unofficial motto of Hollywood since it began. People tend to forget that Alice In Wonderland was filmed six times before Walt Disney got his hands on it, and there had been at least four versions of The Wizard Of Oz before Judy Garland tried on the ruby (originally silver) slippers in 1939.

So while it’s easy to write off this update of an almost forgotten ‘60s TV show as part of a modern-day trend to reboot, remake and rehash everything, really it’s just Hollywood’s inbuilt predilection to re-use good ideas in the hopes they work from generation to generation.

Maybe no one has been clamouring for a new version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but maybe people want to see a film about two Cold War spies from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain forced to work together to save the world. And that just happens to be the plot for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., so rather than re-invent the wheel, why not just remake it instead?

British actor Henry “Superman” Cavill plays debonair CIA agent Napoleon Solo, who was created by 007 mastermind Ian Fleming to be American TV’s answer to James Bond, while American actor Armie “Lone Ranger” Hammer plays KGB operative Illya Kuryakin, a by-the-book Russian with anger issues.

Despite having crossed paths as rivals in East Berlin, the pair is teamed up to hunt down a former German scientist who is believed to be making nuclear bombs for a criminal organisation.

With its cool ‘60s setting and its Cold War friction, it’s a compelling set-up, and it’s easy to see why it’s been kicking around Hollywood for 20 years, with everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Steven Soderbergh almost sitting in the director’s chair and Clooney and Cruise among the names that almost played Solo.

It’s Guy Ritchie, enjoying a career rebirth on the back of the recent Sherlock Holmes films and a divorce from Madonna, who has stepped up to the plate and he clearly relishes the opportunity to direct what is essentially an impossible dream – a ‘60s-era James Bond film with a ‘70s-era Bond, made with modern movie-making sensibilities.

The Bond-isms are hard to escape – after all, that franchise pretty much defined the spy genre in the era when The Man From U.N.C.L.E. takes place. Solo’s dapper style, the Roman locations, the femme fatales, the gadgets, and the set-pieces help make this the Bond film that never was.

But the great thing, believe it or not, is an ever-so-light Roger Moore-ish touch. While Bond has increasingly become something to be taken very, very seriously in the Daniel Craig era, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fills a void we’d not realised was empty – it reminds us that spy films can be fun and give us a laugh, without being spoofs or resorting to Austin Powers (or latter era Roger Moore) levels of silliness. In that sense, it’s like a more refined, mature companion piece to Kingsman: The Secret Service ie. less blood-spurting and fewer inappropriate jokes about sex acts.

There are no enormous Mission: Impossible-style, edge-of-your-seat set pieces, nor is the plot overly complex. This is just good old-fashioned spy-vs-spy shenanigans with an odd-couple twist.

Cavill is ideal as Solo and Hammer is good as Kuryakin, but together they’re great, engaging in an almost endless game of one-upmanship against a backdrop of nuclear annihilation. Aussie Debicki makes for a decent but non-descript villain and Vikander is a handy offsider, however Hugh Grant is the most memorable bit-player, swooping in on occasion to steal a few scenes.

Ritchie does a great job, even if his attempts at some flashy ‘60s-inspired cuts and split-screens get in the way a little bit. Generally though he keeps the tone light and the plot moving along.

The look of the film is particularly superb. The costumes and set design are perfect, and some tasty CG helps recreate Cold War Berlin in the film’s excellent opening act.

Maybe this is a remake no one was asking for, but in that category it is more like Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films – stylishly successful – than Hammer’s noisy flop The Lone Ranger.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Fantastic Four (2015)

(M) ½

Director: Josh Trank.

Cast: Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson.

"I sure hope that's not our careers getting sucked into that skyhole."

TWENTIETH Century Fox has big plans for the Fantastic Four.

Marvel Comics’ so-called “first family” (they’ve been a cornerstone of the company since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created them in 1961) is already lined up for a sequel scheduled to be released on June 9, 2017, and the actors have all signed multi-film deals.

There are also talks of the characters teaming up with Fox’s other Marvel-made heroes, the X-Men.

Of course, none of that is going to matter if this first film isn’t any good.

The short answer to that unspoken question is “not really”. It’s certainly better than the corny, groan-worthy Fantastic Four movies made in the ‘00s but in an oversaturated market where even Ant-Man is gleefully making the most of his moment in the sun, this origin story doesn’t take its opportunity to step out of the shadows.

The quartet in question is brainiac Reed Richards (Teller), his long-time friend Ben Grimm (Bell), a hot-headed mechanic named Johnny Storm (Jordan) and his adopted sister/also brainiac Sue (Mara).

Richards’ experiments in teleportation attract the attention of Johnny and Sue’s dad Franklin (Cathey), who recruits Richards to work with his children on a similar project backed by the government.

Along with fellow bright spark Victor Von Doom, the group succeeds in opening a pathway to a parallel dimension, but an accident leaves them with a bizarre array of superpowers.

Unfortunately, this origin story is all origin, no story. The long build-up wouldn’t be so bad if it built up to something worthwhile, but it takes so long to set up its heroes and their transformations that it forgets to give them something to fight against, leaving the final (and only) battle of the film to be squeezed into five minutes at the end.

In place of a story we get a mildly interesting bunch of characters, hanging out and doing science, with little in the way of actual conflict, dramatic or physical.

Fantastic Four seemingly wilfully ignores the superhero movies that have gone before and instead buries itself in science montages, grand speeches (all made by Cathey’s Franklin Storm), and minor character interactions, rather than laying on the wow factor of spectacle, excitement, and strange people using strange new talents. Again this would be okay if the speeches and interactions led to deeper themes and stronger characters with intriguing arcs, but they don’t, and we’re left  shortchanged in the spectacle departments.

Unlike other movies starring Marvel characters, Fantastic Four (or “Fantfourstic” according to the poster title) takes the gritty and serious route, making it closer in tone to comic book rivals DC and their recent Superman reboot Man Of Steel than anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That’s not a criticism necessarily, although the tone does sit uneasily when they try to work in some humour (most of which falls flat) and there is no deeper theme to give all the gravitas a purpose. In some ways, Fantastic Four is admirable in its different-ness, but it’s sadly unmemorable and unsurprising.

The big shame here is that the casting is spot-on – it’s the script that's off. Teller is perfect as Reed Richards, while Mara, Jordan and Bell all fit their roles nicely. Kebbell underplays Doom pretty well until it all goes down the insane drain at the film’s end.

For the superfans, most of the requisite boxes are ticked. Ben says “it’s clobberin’ time”, Johnny says “flame on”, and someone says the name “Fantastic Four”, although it all feels so lacklustre. The use of the origin story from the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic book series works nicely, making all the characters younger and dispensing with the “we got our powers from a cloud in space” origin, which is good.

But Dr Doom looks weird. Really, really weird. And not in a good way.

There are some good moments in here – it’s not all a total waste – and for fans of the genre it offers something different. There’s certainly some novelty value in seeing the direction the film takes when compared to the 2005 iteration.

But cynics might be right in suggesting this movie was only made to ensure Fox retained the rights to the Fantastic Four, preventing the characters from reverting back to Marvel.

After this, we may see the rights going back to their comic book home sooner rather than later.