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Boardwalk Empire - Season 2 (HBO)
It feels good to be back in Atlantic City with Boardwalk Empire's second season - even if that positive sentiment is unlikely to be shared by many of the show's central characters. After all, season one ended with both the brother and surrogate son of gangster-kingpin Nucky Thompson conspiring to lead a secret rebellion against him, at the same time as the authorities began to close in on him for election fraud, and a gang war was continuing to brew between Nucky's crew and the gangs of Chicago. And that's not to mention the show's other dark turns (including prohibition agent Van Alden descending into murky moral areas through murder and marital infidelity) and deep-seated psychological angst (including Jimmy Darmody's increasing awareness of how his mother was abused by the men in her life).
So where can the show go from there?
The answer, it seems, is even darker and even deeper. Because Boardwalk Empire season two manages to add even more depth and shade to its characters, pushing them all into ever-more-difficult circumstances whilst continuing to plough forwards with the larger narrative surrounding the gangsters, politicians and law-enforcers who battle to keep control of Atlantic City and Chicago during the heyday of prohibition.
But despite the added complexity that's inevitable with the second year of an ensemble show like this one, the sophomore season of Boardwalk Empire somehow feels like it gives us even more of an "origin story" for the show than the first. That's possibly because the writers feel more comfortable in stepping away from the day-to-day affairs of Nucky, his friends and his enemies, instead focusing in greater detail on the characters themselves. So, we get a much more detailed look at Margaret's Irish family; we learn more about Jimmy's upbringing and his wartime experiences; we see Nucky put in positions where he's no longer the most powerful player in the room and has to really fight to survive; and we witness Van Alden's incremental corruption as his past sins conspire to find him out.
Yes, by the end of this season, you'll feel like you have a much fuller understanding of all the characters of Boardwalk Empire and how they relate to each other, including relatively minor players like Chalky White (who is one of those characters that I wish we saw more of in this show) and the burgeoning criminal activities of Al Capone (who's another).
However, my one criticism of the show is that there's a nagging feeling that all of this extra depth comes at the expense of a truly compelling central plot. Rather than hanging everything off a relatively central core storyline (as in the first season) we get lots of intersecting subplots, most of which take several episodes to play out in their entirety - and even then they only lead to more intrigue and backstabbing, rather than getting a truly satisfying payoff. It's a sophisticated web of storytelling, certainly, but it's missing a little of the visceral thrill that made the first season so enjoyable.
That said, perhaps it's unfair to hold season two of Boardwalk Empire to the extremely high standards of the first, because I'm not sure anything could really top what the show achieved in its first year. And to give the series its dues, the final episodes of this season do in fact manage to pull off some genuinely daring and unexpected developments, with certain characters rising in prominence at the same time as others are shuffled off the stage (and I'll say no more than that to avoid spoiling the shocks and twists). I just occasionally wish there was something a little more substantial and fast-moving to get your teeth into. Perhaps that will come in season three.
Ironically enough for a film called Total Recall, Len Wiseman's bland summer-action-movie remake is completely forgettable.
To be fair, it was a film that was always going to have the cards stacked against it. Because if there's one thing that's guaranteed to raise the ire of science-fiction fanboys, it's the unnecessary remake. Trying to recapture past glories is a tricky business at best, and it's rare to find a "re-imagining" of a classic franchise that has ever surpassed the original. After all, you only need to look to movies like Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes or Stephen Hopkins' film version of Lost In Space to see how badly wrong it can go.
Total Recall isn't quite as egregious a remake as those examples, but neither does it succeed in bettering the Arnie vehicle that was originally released way back in 1990. Retaining the same basic paranoid-thriller storyline (involving a man called Douglas Quaid who's not sure whether he's a secret agent who's been programmed to believe he's a regular Joe, or a normal guy dreaming he's a super-spy), the film seems somewhat schizophrenic when it comes to deciding how closely to stick to the original. Because whilst it jettisons many of the significant details of that movie (such as the colony on Mars, or the mutant sub-species of humans) it also retains several key scenes or lines of dialogue that only serve to keep reminding you of the earlier story that this one is aping.
So, you get reprises of classic Arnie lines like "If I'm not me, then who the hell am I?", you get another appearance by a three-breasted woman (which is particularly conspicuous here because she was meant to be a mutant in the original - so what's the explanation for her here?), you get the memorable "shoot me" scene and you get a cameo from a lady passing through a customs check who looks suspiciously similar to Arnie's disguise from the earlier film. All of which is presented in such a half-hearted way that it makes you wonder why you're not watching that version of the story instead of this inferior facsimile.
That's perhaps a little unfair: there are one or two neat touches that are unique to this movie, most notably in the impressive production design and special effects, all of which outclass the more primitive efforts of the Arnie version by quite some degree. But even here, there's a sense that the new version of Total Recall is imitating more than it is innovating. So, you get futuristic video displays and technology that feel as though it's been lifted from Minority Report, you get a multicultural rain-soaked and neon-lit urban environment that evokes Blade Runner (complete with flying cars), and you get an army of robotic police drones that feels oddly reminiscent of the Star Wars stormtroopers crossed with the droids from I, Robot, but dressed in a colour scheme and mask that makes it look as though they're doing an impression of Top Gear's Stig.
There are also some interesting new details added in terms of location. Rather than sharing its action between Earth and Mars, this version of the story takes place in a futuristic British empire inhabited by the upper classes, whilst the lower-class citizens dwell in a giant overpopulated slum in Australia. The characters commute between the two via a giant elevator through the middle of the Earth, which allows for some (again) impressive special effects, including a neat mechanism that sees the passengers experience a gravity-flip halfway through the journey. But this is all just window-dressing, and doesn't really help the story along to any great extend.
However, one thing that the new Total Recall does have going for it, compared to the original, is its cast. Colin Farrell is an improvement over Arnie in one critical department: he can actually act. And Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel turn in good performances as the two women in Quaid's life, with the former playing the good-wife-turned-bad with great relish, and the latter managing to stand around and look vulnerable and pretty when the script demands it. Bryan Cranston (who you might recognise from Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle) is also great fun as the scenery-chewing nasty president, whilst Bill Nighy makes a fun extended cameo as the leader of the resistance for whom Quaid believes he is working.
But as good as the cast is, they can't elevate the material above the mediocre, even with their all-round decent performances. As a result, this sci-fi remake joins the list of "why did they bother?" movies, ending up feeling derivative, predictable and unimaginative, even when taken on its own merits.
Killing Them Softly
Set during the U.S. recession of 2007-08, 'Killing Them Softly' is an inspired gangster movie from director Andrew Dominik ('The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford') that takes place in the aftermath of a robbery at a mob run card game. The film doubles as a pointed satire on American culture and examines the underbelly of small-town Mafioso, think Matteo Garrone's 'Gomorrah' in the age of austerity.
Soft spoken hit man, Brad Pitt, is called in to find and take care of the pair of amateur stick-up men who ripped off middling mobster Ray Liotta's card game. But can't seem to get much done what with all the toing and froing, calls to the bosses back home and the general sense of disorder in the crime business. 'Killing Them Softly' is a film where words are as deadly as bullets, where life & death is casually discussed over a Scotch or in a parked car in the rain. Dominik directs with a sure hand and gives the characters plenty of room to manoeuvre with the detached, almost dreamlike, slow burn approach he used in the 'Assassination of Jesse James...'. This visual style and pacing tends to divide audiences but I think it works here, developing the personalities and making the brutal bursts of violence all the more jarring. The cast are uniformly excellent and Pitt's brilliantly written and delivered monologue makes it worth your while. 'Killing Them Softly' won't appeal to everyone and requires a bit of concentration to pick up on the undertones, but its' certainly one of the more creative crime movies to come out of Hollywood for a while. Worth a look.
End of Watch
Another month, another cop drama. You could be forgiven for skipping it out of hand but that would be a shame because End Of Watch really is quite different. The film follows two LAPD cops Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miguel Zavala (Michael Pena) as they carry out their duties. At first the action is viewed through Taylor's handheld camera which he is using for a film project. But viewers need not fear two hours' worth of shaky screens and poor image quality. Director David Ayer himself admitted in an interview that he did not want to be tied to a particular style, so normal cameras are increasingly deployed as the film unfolds. This proves to work well because it adds to the steadily rising dramatic tension.
Camerawork aside, it's the sheer quality of the scriptwriting that immediately stands out. The film's early scenes are a burst of originality; when our two cops respond to a house disturbance, the intimidating perpetrator challenges Zavala to a square, no-weapons fight, which to the surprise of everyone, he duly takes up. Instantly we warm to these two officers, who refuse to hide behind their uniforms and weaponry as they engage with the public in LA's notorious south central district. The dialogue is also sharp as knives and we are treated to buddy-banter as witty as anything seen in previous films of this genre. In one example, Taylor declares to Zavala that he wants a daughter, to which Zavala says "Just don't let her date cops" and Taylor responds "She's not dating anyone.ever!" Even the taboo of race is tackled head-on in a humorous way. Mexican-descended Zavala playfully mocks Taylor for his supposedly white predilections to which Taylor responds by offering to bring him back a burrito after attending a symphony concert. Critics often like to talk about chemistry between actors in romantic films but End of Watch is surely a masterclass in the cinematic portrayal of friendship.
And it's this aspect which helps the audience feel so involved when the film takes a more serious tone. We fear for our heroes as they become embroiled in dealing with a Latino gang linked to the Mexican cartels. This is genuinely frightening because the police appear powerless to respond against a tidal wave of heavy weaponry, faceless crime bosses, drive-by shootings, decapitated bodies and human trafficking. One disturbing sequence sees Taylor and Zavala's fellow officers inadvertently run into this element with profound consequences. It also leads the viewer to conclude that Mexico's cartel problem is coming to America - it's no longer a matter of if but when. Our two cops are soon themselves targeted and even warned by the FBI that hampering the cartels' activity will lead to reprisals against them. Without spoiling the ending, this plays out violently and tragically but with a heartwarming twist at the end.
More broadly, the film carries a strong political theme, vividly portraying an American underclass in crisis as it struggles under the burden of drugs, crime, urban deprivation and lack of opportunities for minorities. The scene where the crack addict mother hides and duct-tapes her children to keep them quiet is particularly difficult to watch. Maybe for this reason, David Ayer has consciously eschewed tackling the corruption of the LAPD (as per 2011's Rampart starring Woody Harrelson), instead keeping our two heroes clean and honest - but never boring - in order to heighten the contrast between the good guys and the ever-worsening patch they have to police. The film is also undoubtedly a tribute to law enforcement officials in America who do a tough job in the face of sometimes enormous risks. It's worth remembering that in 2012 alone, a staggering 120 officers died while on duty in the country.
End Of Watch may have all the standard ingredients of a police-based action drama, but it also brings much, much more to the table. The characters are so believable you sometimes think it's a documentary, while the plot pulls off the feat of simultaneous unpredictability and plausibility right to the end. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is undoubtedly excellent but it's Michael Pena's unpretentious cop who accepts life as he finds it which proves the more honest and endearing portrayal. This in turn helps generate the audience sympathy required for the film's final, devastating scenes. End Of Watch narrowly misses redefining the genre but the caliber of its plot and acting easily place it in the top five of its category.
Pitch Perfect (Blu-ray + Digital Copy + UV Copy)
Best musical film in years. Would not have been as good without Rebal Wilson aka fat Amy. Her sense of humour will bring tears to your eyes with laughter.
You watch with shock and anitcipation as the village of Broadchurch goes through a murder investigation.
The acting is phenominal and the storyline is extraordinary. It is not to miss
Game of Thrones - Season 2
'Game of Thrones' has become something of a phenomenon in the US. A complex story of inter-family conflict revolving around various factions - all of whom want their respective leaders to rule the fictional medieval realm of Westeros - it somehow hasn't caught on in quite the same way in the UK. Perhaps that's because it's only accessible through the Sky Atlantic channel, which has a limited audience - or perhaps it's because it just hasn't been marketed in a way that catches the public's imagination. After having watched this second season, however, I'm struggling to think of why anyone *wouldn't* enjoy this excellent show.
Picking up from the aftermath of season one - in which one major character lost his life (no spoilers here!) and many others were left in very changed circumstances - this season immediately throws us back into the build-up to a great war involving the Stark family, the Lannisters, and various other players who all have designs on the Iron Throne. If you were confused by the large cast of season one, then you'll probably be even more intimidated by this follow-up, as the number of characters continues to expand exponentially, adding a real sense of scale to proceedings but occasionally making it difficult to keep track of exactly who everyone is and where their loyalties lie.
Still, the show manages to anchor things by giving each faction just one or two lead characters around which most of the action revolves. And even if the early episodes of this second season require a bit of concentration and a good memory from the audience to be followed, there's never a sense that the unfolding action is unclear - just that it's so epic and wide-ranging that it's sometimes difficult to hold it all in your head at once.
As the war between the various families begins to heat up, we see all sorts of interesting political manoeuvering and horse-trading, reminding us of one thing and one thing only: everyone in Game of Thrones has their own interests at heart. And it's watching how these interests clash - and how the various conflicts are resolved - that makes for the most interesting parts of the show.
In this second season, everyone becomes a little bit more closely interlinked, with lots of characters travelling between different locations and meeting up with other groups, reinforcing the idea that Westeros is one big web of personalities that's getting more and more tangled as time goes on. The only exception to this increasingly incestuous network of relationships is Daenerys Targaryen, the widowed white-witch who also has a claim to the throne, but who spends most of the season traipsing around the desert with her baby dragons, completely separate from the rest of the action.
Still, that's not the end of the world, because Game of Thrones is definitely a series that's playing the long game, and I fully expect Daenerys to become a more important player in future seasons. And the same goes for some of the other slow-moving subplots, too, like the Night's Watch group in the North - who, by the end of this season, are only just beginning to pay off ideas that have been in play since the very first scene of season one. This big-picture approach only serves to make the show feel all the more epic, coupling the intimate Shakespearean family drama of the Starks and Lannisters with grander, more impressive ideas (including the increasing prominence of magic and fantasy elements).
It seems mean to single out one actor for special praise among such a great ensemble cast, but it's difficult to ignore the wonderful performance of Peter Dinklage as the diminutive yet razor-sharp Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion started off as something of a comic character at the beginning of the first season, but he has gradually grown in stature (figuratively, if not literally) to become one of the most important and likeable characters on the show. Yes, there are other fine performances - Jack Gleeson as the enormously unpleasant young king Joffrey Baratheon is particularly watchable, in a love-to-hate way - but it's Dinklage who really anchors the show in this second season, and provides something approaching the moral compass that the series lost when it offed one of its key players at the end of season one.
By the time you finish watching season two of Game of Thrones, you'll find yourself anxiously awaiting the third - because the last few episodes of this boxset set up some even more intriguing circumstances for the characters next year, as well as providing some of the most dazzling action sequences that the show has yet seen: for example, the penultimate episode, 'Blackwater', provides a sea-battle and a castle siege that can stand comparison with the likes of 'Lord of the Rings', despite the limitations of the show's TV budget. Hopefully that's a sign that things are only going to get bigger and better for Game of Thrones - and my only complaint about the show is that I'm going to have to wait another year now until I can devour the season three boxset.
Argo (Blu-ray + UV Copy)
Ben Affleck's Argo marks only his third feature behind the camera, cementing his status as one of the finest directors of his generation. Affleck has been rising to fame as a director in recent years after making his debut with Gone Baby Gone, and following it up with The Town.
His third feature finally won him his incredibly well-deserved second Academy Award, taking home the Best Picture Oscar alongside George Clooney and Grant Heslov, with screenwriter Chris Terrio winning Best Adapted Screenplay and editor William Goldenberg winning Best Film Editing on the night as well.
The three Oscar statues that Argo won back in February are a good indication of how brilliant a film this is, on all sides of production.
Based on a true story, Argo opens in late 1979, portraying events when militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking control of the site and holding the workers there as hostages. What the militants didn't then know, and what Argo is centred on, is that a handful of Americans managed to escape from the building and into the city, and desperately seek a way to get out of the country.
Enter, CIA exfiltration specialist, Tony Mendez (played by Affleck).
With the US State Department at a complete loss as to how to handle the situation accordingly, Mendez devises the answer. He'll fly into Tehran, under the guise of being a Canadian film producer, and fly straight back out with the escapees, giving them all new identities as his Canadian crew.
The plan, of course, is far easier said than done. And what is most remarkable about Argo - which I think is one of the many reasons it won the Best Screenplay Oscar - is that it manages to keep the tension constantly on high for the full two-hour duration.
There aren't many films capable of sustaining such a high level of tension, keeping you nerve-wrackingly on the edge of your seat, for quite so long. But Argo pulls it off spectacularly. You cannot help but be drawn into its narrative, desperately hoping the plan will succeed at every step of the way, despite the multitude of problems these characters face, with the odds ever stacked against them.
Affleck's career has taken an incredibly impressive new direction since making his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, and after confirming his status as a prominent new director with The Town, he's really proven himself once more with Argo. For years to come, it will remain the talk of many that Affleck's work didn't earn him an Oscar nomination in the Best Director category, for this truly deserved such recognition.
His camera work is impeccable, choosing his moments brilliantly, finding and bringing out the inner and most affecting emotions from his characters.
What matters most to Argo is that it really makes you feel that the stakes are real. This isn't just a movie you're watching. This is actually unfolding before you. It breaks down the barrier between audience and screen so well. And whether or not you know how events transpired in history, you still find yourself hooked right through to its immaculate conclusion. These characters are more than just characters; they're real people, with real lives, and real fears.
Affleck makes them come to life in a way that few directors seem capable of in recent years.
Certainly, it helps that he assembled one of the finest casts of all time, with Affleck leading the way alongside the likes of Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), John Goodman (The Big Lebowski), Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), and Scoot McNairy (Monsters). Each of his cast gives him a hundred per cent on camera, and there isn't a single moment in the film that lets the film down to make it feel like it's being acted.
For that to happen, you need a remarkable director, capable of having the cast's trust placed entirely in their hands. And, for that reason, so much credit here belongs to Affleck for what he did bringing Argo to life, to the big screen. It is by far one of the most powerful and affecting movies committed to film in recent memory, and with its basis in fact, it is therefore one of the most important. Such a story needed to be told, and Affleck was the one to tell it. If you see just one movie this year, let it be Argo.
Science-fiction. Why can't it be more realistic, more involving, and more relevant to our day-to-day lives? Why can't it be (for want of a better term) more human? Well, David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense seeks to answer those kind of complaints about the genre by presenting a very sci-fi idea - a global epidemic of a disease that gradually strips away your senses, one by one - but viewed through the lens of a very grounded and relatable love story between two very sympathetic and likeable leads.
Set in Glasgow (again, eschewing the glamour and Hollywood-ness that would be offered by more high-profile locations), the movie sees a chef, Michael (Ewan McGregor), begin a romance with a doctor, Susan (Eva Green, perhaps best known as Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale), at the same time as they try to cope with the effects of the weird sense-sapping epidemic. But whilst the disease certainly plays an important role in the movie, underpinning everything that happens from beginning to end, it isn't really the focus of the film. Rather, it's merely the backdrop against which Michael and Susan's relationship plays out: the film is far more interested in the smaller human details of how their romance and their daily lives would be affected by such a condition.
(You just know that somewhere else in this world there's a story about a Tom Cruise-type character who's running around trying to uncover the source of the illness, and save humanity by finding a cure - but this isn't that movie.)
Indeed, it's the smaller moments that really hold the appeal of the film. For example, Michael's restaurant constantly finds itself having to adapt to the changing needs of its patrons. When they lose their sense of smell, the food has to become much spicier; and when they lose their sense of taste too, the restaurant survives by offering people food that has an interesting texture, or which makes an interesting sound when eaten. It might not sound particularly thrilling, but it suggests that writer Kim Fupz Aakeson has given a certain amount of thought to what the real-life repercussions would be for a disease that affects people so fundamentally, and how to present those problems in a thought-provoking way.
The film also benefits from a (slightly contrived) device that sees people experience a burst of extreme emotion immediately before they lose one of their senses, as a side-effect of the disease. The nature of this emotion varies: sometimes it's euphoria and joy, but sometimes it's depression or anger. The device leads to the movie's quieter periods being regularly punctuated by moments of high drama, enabling some painful revelations about both of the lead characters that help to add substantial depth and shade to their personalities, and to the pair's relationship.
Interspersed between the film's scenes are some flashy montages narrated by an unseen character who muses on the nature of humanity and human relationships, and on the importance of senses as our conduit to experiencing the world. Occasionally these segments get a bit cod-philosophical, and address the film's themes in a slightly too on-the-nose manner, but they make for a refreshing (and visually interesting) break from the rest of the action.
In conclusion, then, this is an interesting and thought-provoking little film that takes a subject that could come off as depressing and imbues it with a certain sense of wonder and hope. If there's any core message to the film, it's that life goes on; that humanity finds a way; and that the pleasure and pain of our relationships is more important to us than any tangible sensations. That it manages to convey this message through blending a big sci-fi idea and a very grounded, personal story is to its credit. Even if you don't think of yourself as a fan of science-fiction, Perfect Sense could change your mind.
The Iron Lady
It's perhaps a little perverse to complain that a biopic gets too close to the character of the person that it's about. But that's my main problem with The Iron Lady: a film about the life of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that relies far too heavily on a fictionalised account of what the filmmakers think Thatcher might have been like in private, at the expense of giving us any great insight into her public and political career.
Framed by present-day scenes that show an elderly Thatcher reflecting on her life, the film immediately made me feel uncomfortable by portraying her as extremely disoriented, suffering from severe dementia and haunted by hallucinations of her dead husband, Denis. Whilst we know that Thatcher did suffer from this kind of illness towards the end of her life, the way it's depicted here - and the extent to which it affects her - feels like it's been completely invented by director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan.
It's suggested that Thatcher has trouble distinguishing the past from the present, hears voices, sees 'ghosts', doesn't remember that her children are now grown-up, and generally behaves like an out-of-touch and mentally-ill old woman. Whilst it's possible that this was true in her later years, these aren't details that were ever made public about Thatcher - and it immediately starts to ring warning bells that the filmmakers might be letting their dramatic licence get in the way of a faithful biopic.
Because it's not as though there isn't enough meat in Thatcher's life story to make for a good movie without having to invent things. As Britain's first female Prime Minister, she oversaw such crucial political events as the miners' strikes, the Brixton riots, the Falklands war and the poll tax - as well as making waves in her own party to such an extent that she ultimately triggered a leadership contest whilst she was still in office. But sadly, much of this is skipped over far too quickly, almost as an afterthought .
And when these matters are finally given a bit of screentime, they're beset by minor errors and a lack of correct chronology that further obscures the most important events of her premiership for anyone who might be hoping to learn about them. There's also a frustrating lack of detail that leaves many significant episodes of Thatcher's life unresolved: for example, despite finishing its account of her career with the leadership contest that ultimately deposed her, we're never actually told the final outcome of that contest - and we barely get to see her successor, John Major, depicted in the film at all.
So what are the film's redeeming features? Well, despite the weaknesses in the script that I've already touched upon, the movie is almost - but not quite - saved by some fine performances from all of its leads. Most notably, of course, Meryl Streep completely transforms herself to play an uncannily convincing version of Thatcher that manages to reign itself in from the exaggerated hyperbole that could so easily have accompanied the role. Rather than trying to do a straight impersonation of Thatcher, Streep instead gives us a very believable impression of her, and effectively turns her into a three-dimensional person (rather than a caricature) through some unexpectedly human touches.
Of course, it's easiest to compare Streep to the genuine article during the scenes that focus on actual recorded events (which the actress presumably studied to prepare for the role). But it's also surprising to note just how realistic the more private scenes feel, too, especially when it comes to her interactions with her family. Whilst I've already stated my problems with including so much invented personal detail in the film, Streep almost manages to sell us on it through the strength of her performance alone.
And the supporting cast is excellent, too: Thatcher's husband Denis is played wonderfully by Jim Broadbent, who strikes a daring balance between absurd buffoonery and disturbing darkness - especially during the scenes in which he appears to his widow in spectral form. In these scenes, Broadbent manages to offset Denis' goofy charm with a more sinister side, hinting at a more complex character than most audiences will imagine from the man's public appearances in real life.
And Olivia Coleman (perhaps best known as Sophie from Channel 4's 'Peep Show') is also excellent as Carol Thatcher, bringing some heartfelt angst to the scenes in which she deals with her mother's illness, but without ever pushing things so far that they become saccharine or overly sentimental. Add a couple of scene-stealing cameos from the likes of Richard E. Grant (as Michael Heseltine, which turns out to be an inspired choice), and you have a truly impressive cast that almost manages to overcome the film's other problems.
Almost. Because no matter how good the cast is, they can't quite outweigh the sense that this dramatisation of Thatcher's autumn years leans too heavily on invented scenarios and imagined dialogue, and doesn't give enough credence to the real-life events that were so critical to her success as a politician and her management of the UK. I was no fan of Thatcher's politics, but she was undeniably one of the most important British political figures of the 20th century - and from a historical point of view, it simply doesn't feel as though this film does her justice.
Morecambe and Wise - Night Train to Murder
This TV movie usually doesn't get a fair deal and is not that popular, however I found it enjoyable. Granted, it's not Morecambe and Wise at their very best however it has funny moments, Eric and Ernie still have that magic touch even if the story is a little slow at first. This is Morecambe and Wise's last work on television together and as they walk off to their next gig they are still joking until the very end.
The picture quality is good. Shot on video tape, I didn't notice any video drop outs or any other problems. However this DVD has no menu or chapter points.
The Last Tango in Halifax
This quintessentially British drama has become an instant classic. Warm, funny, endearing, insightful and challenging by turns, and compulsive viewing throughout.
I watched this last night! not normally a fan of found footage and shaky camera work myself BUT this was engrossing and the shaky camera settles after 10 mins, gotta say was really surprised by this it's different to any of the other found footage type films iv'e seen before in the sense that it is probably the most consistant and detailed found footage film to date, normally i'm watching and picking at what has been missed or the impossibilities but i didn't with this one , although i knew on a couple of scenes i didn't want to see what was coming i couldn't tear my eyes away, i scratched at my skin all the way through it lol this is what my nightmares are made of and i really loved it. Barry Levinson's Direction is what sets this apart and completely raises the bar for found footage movies of the future. Definitely worth a watch but be warned you will never look at a glass of water the same way again ;)
Its-not-about-Scientology-but-it-is-really, epic from writer / director Paul Thomas Anderson ('Magnolia', 'Boogie Nights'). 'The Master' explores the troubled relationship between a traumatised WWII sailor (Joaquin Phoenix) and charismatic cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in 1950s America. Phoenix and Hoffman give the performances of their lives, both are equally brilliant: Phoenix is the raging alcoholic who'll drink anything (e.g. solvents, mouthwash etc) with a demented, gormless grin and squint that can shift from mild mannered to out-of-control in an instant. He's the quintessential lapdog, indoctrinated muscle for the cult who accommodates his own demons whilst embracing those of his mentor. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the eponymous Master, an approachable but short tempered megalomaniac-in-waiting who embodies the cruel hoax of the American dream. Hoffman's soothing, spiritual mumbo jumbo conceals the dark heart of a dyed-in-the-wool conman out to make his fortune.
The scene where Hoffman 'processes' Phoenix with a series of probing, rapid fire questions was easily one of the best acted and directed scenes of 2012 and perfectly serves to illustrate the ruthless determination of the group to break & compromise its inductees: Phoenix's disturbing revelation in this scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. And that's the problem: The rest of the movie. Now since I've got nothing but praise for the acting, directing, cinematography and beautiful 70mm scope of 'The Master' I really ought to like this movie more than I do. But as with every PTA film, the flaws are there for the taking and I'm surprised that a director of his calibre still hasn't grasped the importance of pace and editing. 'The Master' would've been a 110 minute classic, what it is, however, is a 137 minute OK-ish film with a lot of padding and a couple of scenes so superfluous and self indulgent (e.g. Philip Seymour Hoffman's nude musical number) that it drags down an otherwise excellent film.
There are points in the film where its already been established that Philip Seymour Hoffman is a charlatan and that Joaquin Phoenix is a bit of a loose cannon, but PTA wants make these points again...and again, and again. I mean; I love the dark, laugh-out-loud humour of the scene where they make Phoenix go from window to window describing what he feels, Hoffman and Phoenix's explosive confrontation in jail or the part where it becomes clear that Hoffman's wife (the brilliant Amy Adams) is the power behind the throne but these scenes, great as they are, lose some of their potency when Anderson repeats himself. For its as if he didn't think those moments were good enough or, worse still, that he doesn't trust the audience to grasp the argument he's trying to make.
'Magnolia' is probably Anderson's most accomplished work to date, though 'There Will Be Blood' is a close second. As far as pace goes, I'd have to say 'Hard 8' and 'Boogie Nights' were the best edited. 'The Master' is a frustrating film for the reasons cited, but there are still enough great scenes to warrant a recommendation. Its one of those movies you'll find yourself thinking about afterwards; placing certain images into the subtext and recalling visual clues that connect to certain aspects of the story that may have only briefly registered whilst you were watching it. By no means a classic but worth seeing for the performances alone.
End of Watch
Entertaining pro-police propaganda film from cop-centric writer/ director David Ayer ('Training Day'). 'End of Watch' is a well paced, brilliantly acted and often-tense picture, that follows the personal lives and work-related misadventures of L.A cops Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. International audiences dismissed this movie as yet another cops and robbers escapade from the man who bought us 'Dark Blue' (reasonably good), 'Training Day' (good), 'SWAT' (average) and 'Street Kings' (quite good). But 'End of Watch' is slightly more than the sum of its parts and executed with such verve / style that you'll be drawn into the story however absurd it may actually be.
'End of watch' also tends to rely on negative stereotypes and isn't above employing clichés e.g. the Hispanic gang-bangers are one obscenity away from self-parody whilst I was kind of surprised that some African American actors would accept roles that hark back to the way they were portrayed in the 60s and 70s. That said, this isn't exactly a whitewash of the police but the scene in which the system is critiqued is far too subtle given the tone of the film as a whole and I'm sure many people would miss it altogether.
Ayer's police procedurals always borrow thematic elements from westerns like 'High Noon' and 'Shoot-out at the OK Corral'. 'End of Watch' is no different, in that the script often refers to the protagonists as "Ghetto gunfighters" and the basic structure revolves around these likeable leads proving how heroic they are (e.g. rescuing a baby from a fire etc) before squaring up to two-dimensional Latino layabouts for a gripping and brutally violent finale.
Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal are on top form, patrolling the mean streets of south central in the midst of a deadly turf war between Black and Hispanic gangs. The leads successfully mange to hold the film together and some of their improvised, buddy cop banter is hilarious and gives the movie a sense of immediacy and realism that was absent in some of Ayer's previous screenplays. 'End of Watch' is a good, well acted film that lets itself down with an over-reliance on ridiculous 'street' parlance, an anachronistic depiction of minorities and doesn't come close to Ayer's underrated, anti-war masterpiece 'Harsh Times' (2005). Even so, its definitely worth a look: Watch it.
The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air - Season 1
Well this is a story all about how
Will Smith's career got to where it is now
And I'd like to take a minute, just sit right there,
I'll remind you how he became a star in "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air".
The setup for the series, so the story goes
See Will get into trouble with some local bro's
So from West Philadelphia, Will's Mum decides
To send him to LA, where his uncle resides
As Will bonds with his uncle's son and daughter,
It soon becomes clear that he's a fish out of water
And as the streetwise Will explores their middle-class lives
It's from the clash between the two that the comedy derives.
In a supporting cast that works together well
(including deadpan butler Geoffrey, played by Joseph Marcell)
Alfonso Ribeiro stands out, as the uncool Carlton Banks
who's frequently the target of Will's jokes and pranks
James Avery also shines as Uncle Phil
Who tries to thwart the schemes put in place by Will
But letting nothing disturb his coolness and calm
Smith effortlessly shows us his charisma and charm
Other players' roles are more ancillary
Like Will's younger cousin Ashley or the older Hilary
But Carlton and Geoffrey get loads of good gags
ensuring that the story never grates or drags
This initial series rather shows its age
With a theatrical nature that seems more suited to the stage
But as it continues, the stars find their feet
And it turns into a sharp sitcom that's funny and sweet
(It's also fun to rewatch this show
as evidence of the fashions of long ago
As the nineties clothes on which the cast relies
are so bright that you'll want to claw out your eyes)
Joking aside, it's plain to see indeed
how this modest show made a star of its lead
as the show revolves around the likeable Smith
and the witty one-liners he plagues his family with
His timing is perfect, and his acting is good
(even if some of the actors seem to be made of wood)
He lends the show a great rap theme tune too
which is what inspired the format of this strange review
So if you want to see how an icon got his start
and turned a simple sitcom into quite an art
then the time is right to let down your hair,
and sit on your throne to take a trip to Bel-Air.
Friends With Benefits
It's a word (well, ok, hyphenate) that sends shivers up the spines of most right-thinking men. Usually uttered in response to our generous offers of "why don't YOU choose what we watch tonight?", it immediately conjours up the spectre of predictable plots, sub-Adam-Sandler-level acting, cheesy dialogue, lame and unfunny romantic situations, and a layer of schmaltz and sugar that would be enough to send you into a diabetic coma. "Why must it be this way?", we ask; "Surely somebody can come up with a rom-com that's actually funny, smart and original, and which has an appeal that goes beyond a single gender?"
Well after watching Friends With Benefits, it seems like someone has finally answered our prayers.
Because Friends With Benefits is almost the anti-rom-com. Starting out with an opening sequence that sees both of the lead characters reject romantic love outright (after they each separately suffer bad break-ups in their existing relationships) the film quickly brings them together to set up its central premise - and it's a doozy. Because whilst the most classic rom-com of all time (When Harry Met Sally) posed the question, "can a man and a woman ever be friends without the sex getting in the way?", Friends With Benefits flips this on its head, asking "can a man and a woman ever have a purely sexual relationship without their friendship getting in the way?".
That's a pretty smart inversion of the classic rom-com template, and it immediately stakes out Friends With Benefits as an altogether more adult and raunchy film than most rom-coms you'll see. Whilst it might end up treading some familiar paths (it's a Hollywood boy-meets-girl movie, so it's inevitably going to end up following the formula to an extent), the route it takes to get there is very different, and deals with some subject matter that's quite rare to see explored on film. For example, the minutiae of physical observations about the opposite sex that usually go unspoken; the various details of male and female sexual etiquette; and the conscious rubbishing of most rom-com clichés (which actually happens explicitly, on-screen, as the pair watch bad rom-com movies together and point out how stupid they are).
Talking of the central pairing, it seems remiss of me to have not mentioned by now that this movie stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis as the couple in question. And if you weren't interested before, I can guarantee you are now, no matter what your gender or sexual orientation. Luckily, as well as looking great, these two actors have a great chemistry on screen together, and you can really believe in their friendship as well as their attraction to one another - which is crucial if we're going to buy into the film's central premise. And happily, they can both act pretty well too, especially when the film moves into its more thoughtful second-half that deals with the backstory of Justin Timberlake's character and his relationship with his father and absent mother.
As well as the central relationship between the couple and the serious family stuff that gets explored towards the end, the film can also boast a smattering of comedy setpieces that go beyond the usual rom-com fare by actually being pretty funny. There's an amusing running gag involving Kunis' character's free-love-embracing hippy mother who can't remember who her daughter's father is; there's a charming performance from a child actor who plays Timberlake's character's magic-obsessed nephew, who can never get his tricks to go right (on one occasion setting himself on fire in the process); and there's a great physical-comedy setpiece involving the iconic Hollywood sign, which ends up escalating and escalating until it reaches a ridiculously over-the-top payoff. Oh, and there are some nice performances from supporting actors too, most notably Woody Harrelson as a gay sports journalist who works for the same magazine as Timberlake's character, and who manages to come off as a complete and well-rounded personality that avoids almost all of the clichés that usually accompany token gay characters in these kinds of movies.
The only bad thing I can say about the film is that it occasionally seems a little dated - which feels like an odd thing to say about such a recent movie, but all the references to 2011-zetigeist stuff like flashmob dancing, Playstation Move and slick touch-screen computers now feels decidedly two-years-ago. Still, it's not a big problem, and it doesn't get in the way of all the film's other positive attributes. Because this film manages to be smart, funny, sexy, clever, touching (but not schmaltzy), sexy, unpredictable (and did I mention sexy?) - all within the framework of what purports to be a regular mainstream rom-com. Guys, if your girlfriend says she wants to watch a rom-com tonight, then this is the one to pick. And girls, if you want to pick a romantic comedy that your boyfriend will enjoy at least as much as you will, then Friends With Benefits is the choice for you.
The Planet of the Apes Collection (six disc box set)
Lawless is loosely based on historical novel The Wettest Country In the World and follows the fortunes of the Bondurant brothers in rural Illinois during the 1920s Prohibition. At nearly two hours long, this organised crime story naturally invites comparison with greats such as The Godfather trilogy. However, Lawless is more obviously similar to The Untouchables; both films are set against the backdrop of outlawed alcohol in and around Chicago and both plots concern crusading authority figures bent on upsetting the status quo. But there the comparisons must end. Lawless makes no bones about the fact that it is the Bondurants who are the heroes, moonshiners completing the supply chain between illegal countryside distilleries and organised crime in Chicago. Howard Brondurant played by Tom Hardy is the undisputed leader of the clan, supported by brothers Jack and Howard played by Shia LeBeouf and Jason Clarke respectively. They are pitted against Guy Pierce's Charlie Rakes who has been sent by the district attorney in Chicago to enforce a crackdown.
While this subtext of good ol' boys up against overzealous law enforcement may sound clichéd (Dukes of Hazzard, anyone?), Lawless is in fact quite original in many ways. For a start, it eschews the more urban backdrop of most crime movies so that we get an insight into a true cottage industry at work; whole hillsides are lit up at night as the distilleries make their illegal brew. Production is tolerated because it allows for a happy equilibrium between the local law, who just want peace, and the moonshiners, who just want to make a profit. But the peace is shattered when Rakes, surely one of cinema's most reprehensible screen villains, enters the scene. An immaculately pruned dandy, he reminds us of Frank Nitty from The Untouchables, only this version is supposedly on the 'good' side. Insulting to the locals, disdainful of rural life, abusive to women, disrespectful of the local sheriff, unlawfully violent and psychopathic, it's not long before we are jumping out of our seats willing on his demise. It is this portrayal of the ghastly Rakes which surely confirms Pierce's status as the consummate character actor.
This is not to say that the other performances are less worthy. Tom Hardy underplays well the man of few words that is his character Forrest while Shia LeBeouf is interesting as his brother; emerging from the shadows of Transformers, he is gaining the confidence to tackle weightier roles like Wall Street 2 and now Lawless. LeBeouf is undoubtedly at his best when playing wide-eyed bewilderment and this energy transfers well to wooing a local girl too. But it is Hardy's passivity that is probably better suited to the scenes where violence and revenge are the overriding themes. The performances are rounded out by Dane DeHaan playing Cricket, Jack's side-kick who conveys utterly his vulnerability in a harrowing scene with Rakes. Love interest is served by Jessica Chastain who plays Maggie. Time magazine recently featured her as one of the "100 most influential people in the world" and one film critic labelled her "one of the finest actors of her generation". To say expectations were high would therefore be an understatement but thankfully they were justified when her character audaciously seduces Forrest in one of the film's most memorable scenes.
So how does Lawless measure up overall? Firstly, we should remember that it's against very tough competition in its genre. The Godfather trilogy and The Untouchables have already been mentioned while its more contemporary rivals include Public Enemies with Johnny Depp, set in the same era. My own view is that Lawless does a good job of holding its own in this exalted company. Critics have highlighted a certain soullessness and the fact that the violence is often played out in a vacuum. It is true that some of it can lack context, for example the scene where a Chicago crime boss suitably played by Gary Oldman randomly punishes one of his lackeys with a spade (needless to say he wasn't assigning him gardening duties). However, these momentary lapses are more than made up for in the final, climactic shootout. This scene is choreographed and conceived superbly, but it's rendered even more powerful by its blood-soaked message, that laws are only legitimate if they have the consent of the people who are expected to observe them. Without this, the film tells us, enforcement can legitimately be resisted and, if that enforcement is brutal and indiscriminate, then it should be resisted with extreme violence. Based on what happens in the film most viewers will sympathise with this viewpoint even if they are slightly uncomfortable with the moral ambiguity of violent moonshiners doing the resisting. But gangster flicks have had us rooting for the 'baddies' before; Ray Liotta's Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Al Pacino's Tony Montana in Scarface (before he completely loses it) and Robert de Niro's Neil McCauley in Heat are just a few examples. That such comparisons can be made at all surely bodes well for Lawless's legacy in the annals of crime cinema; its moral message, confounding of audience expectations and genuine acting highlights make it a vital watch.
The Cabin in the Woods
I had expected more because this was from director/producer Joss Whedon, but was sadly disappointed. The effects are the latest thing true enough, there is a little bit of creepy tension-building, and from then the action is fast and furious. However this film has nothing that all those surprise-reveal "surely that cant be true?" twist in the tale horror movies were doing in the 70s and 80s. Except in this film, the weird surprise that would have been novel or unsettling and revealed near the end of a movie in 1970, seems a bit lame, and is explicitly revealed almost from the outset here. Its your time, but I felt mine had been wasted.