Monday, 28 July 2014


(Mark Mylod, 2011)

Despite the reliable efforts on Anna Faris and Chris Evans in the lead roles, What's Your Number? remains frustratingly second-rate throughout. The concept - based upon a lifestyle book - centres on the number of men the average American woman must sleep with before she finds her future husband. The average is 10, so when Elly (Faris) realises she has twice that to her name, she flips out and determines to track down all of her exes, so that she can marry one of them and not pass the 20 mark.
She enlists the help of her slacker neighbour Colin (Evans) in her quest and he sends her across Boston to rendezvous with various men, played by a nicely random selection of character actors including Martin Freeman, Andy Samberg and Anthony Mackie.
Inevitably, Elly and Colin fall for one another but don't realise it until the last five minutes of the film.
This is a romcom lacking in much com. Faris is a great comic actress, blessed with perfect timing and a good sense of physical comedy, and Evans has effortless charm. They have chemistry too, but there are virtually no laughs here. Scenes play out and the mechanics of comedy are visible, but not much works. Its too safe and obvious, too calculated and cold.
Mylod directs it like any one of a dozen directors might have - without much energy or anything visually distinctive. It's just there, wasting its cast, looking pretty.

Sunday, 27 July 2014


(Brett Ratner, 2014)

Surprisingly short and decently-paced, Ratner's adaptation of Steve Moore's revisionist comic book take on the myth of Hercules is also a tad generic. It's gimmick is that Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is not the demi-god son of Zeus of legend, but in fact an extremely skilled and fearsomely strong warrior supported by a tight, experienced team of comrades who understand the power of the legend and do their best to further its dissemination.
Hercules' Labours (which feature prominently in the trailer) are all dispensed with within the first five minutes of the film, and then we are introduced to reality - a jolly crew of mercenaries of differing skills and temperaments including the likes of Rufus Sewell as a quick, cynical knife-fighter, Ian McShane as a staff-wielding seer and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as an amazon archer. Hercules leads the group, and his legend is known throughout Greece, though we see glimpses of his real-life tragedy (a bloodily-killed family, Hercules with gore on his hands) in Athens, from where he has been banished by King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes).
In yet another run-through of one of the oldest stories, they are hired to protect Thrace and the kingdom of Cotys (John Hurt) from a murderous, brutal army, and Hercules and his crew have to train an army in a couple of montages before the battle scenes - all flaming arrows, chariots, shield-walls, etc - begin, followed by some predictable plot revelations, more battle scenes, a bit of character development, then a big climax. Johnson could carry a continent, and a film this thin is no problem to him, especially when supported by a cast of slumming British thespians like this one.
The action scenes are competent - even refreshingly coherent - but it is all over-familiar and a tad too generically swords-and-sandals, despite classy Dante Spinotti cinematography. It all feels strangely small-scale even though there are humungous battles and teeming cgi cities.
That helps in that it ensures the human story at the centre of the film is intimate, but since the story is so hoary and undistinguished, it doesn't help as much as it might.
The temptation to blame Ratner - whose dwindling career won't be helped by this - is overwhelming. So I'm going to blame him too. It's Ratner's fault.

Thursday, 24 July 2014


(Jaume Collet-Serra, 2014)

Over the course of a few mid-budget genre entertainments, Serra has transformed himself into one of Hollywood's premier craftsmen. His movies operate as efficient thrill-machines, yet there is undoubtedly more on offer if you want it; in Non-Stop it's not too difficult to detect an allegory for modern America and its troubled relationship with its security services. But it works perfectly well as an action-thriller too, giving Liam Neeson more to do than the Taken franchise does.
Neeson possesses an air of soulful melancholy and Serra has utilised that both here and in Unknown, in each film pushing Neeson's protagonist through a sort of identity crisis before he can really indulge in teh sort of righteous ass-kicking his fanbase presumably expect.
Here he plays Marks, an Air Marshall with numerous problems - debts, alcoholism, guilt over the death of his daughter a decade before. What should be a routine New York to London flight is derailed when Marks starts receiving texts from a mysterious passenger who knows an awful lot about him. Demanding $150 Million be wired to an account, the mystery man tells Marks that if he does not co-operate then a passenger will die every 20 minutes.
Marks then has to figure out who his opponent is, keep the passengers safe, and keep himself together, while the stakes keep on escalating; the plan is seemingly to frame Marks, and his own actions don't help him prevent that - he stumbles from mistake to disaster while the media decides he is a hijacker and the passengers begin to panic.
Serra is excellent on the claustrophobia of his setting. This is a red-eye flight and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano lights it in purples and blues. The rows of seats become as much a plot point as a visual motif - they obscure the actions of passengers from Marks, and one great shot pans from his anxious, doubtful face to a sea of eyes on faces turned and peering at him over seat-backs.
The action is sparse here; this is more of a pure thriller, with lots of slow-burning suspense, but Serra pulls off a couple of fine set-pieces, most obviously the brutal fist-ight inside the onboard toilet.
The final act is undoubtedly silly, as the villains and their motivations are revealed, but by then its too late and most audiences will be hooked. Neeson is excellent and the supporting cast are all fine, but Serra is the real star here, taking such unpromising material and making a rousingly skillful entertainment of it.

Monday, 21 July 2014


(Matt Reeves, 2014)

The real glory of this film lies in the way director Reeves tells his story. Good cinematic storytelling is becoming something of a rarity in blockbuster cinema. But he puts together a series of beautiful visuals that flow together to tell this story with economy, power and wit.
The film picks up ten years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes; the human race is almost extinct, civilization more or less vanished. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the super-intelligent chimp who led a group of apes into the woods near San Francisco at the climax of the first film, is now leader of a settlement in that forest. The apes communicate using sign language and some speech, live in tree houses and ride horses. They teach one another rules and hunt deer with spears. Caesar's allies from his escape are now his most trusted advisors- gentle Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), angry Koba (Toby Kebell) and loyal Rocket, alongside Caesar's son Blue Eyes. The apes have seen no humans for two years.
But they soon encounter a group of humans in their territory, there to repair a dam so power can be restored to their home, a tower in the city.
This group is led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and he, like Caesar, is intent on protecting his family, which includes a son (Cody Smit-McPhee) and new wife (Keri Russell, largely wasted). The initial encounter goes badly, setting the tone for all to come. While Koba - scarred by years of experiments in human labs - preaches that the apes should attack the humans, Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), who set up the colony with Malcolm, counsels much the same to his group.
From that point in, what Reeves shapes is a slow-motion tragedy, as the minority hawks on each side drive their species into a bloody, destructive war that Malcolm and Caesar are powerless to stop, hard as they try, and much as their own friendship suggests there may be another way. The details are perfectly observed; the way Koba clowns as a stage chimpanzee to gain human trust, the way Maurice and Malcolm's son bond over a graphic novel (Charles Burns' Black Sun), the brief human euphoria at the return of power, Blue Eyes and his adolescent rebellion, even the way the city is already an overgrown mossy jungle.
Most of all though Reeves conjures up a sense of wonder and alien fear - the ape society is so well-evoked and detailed in the first act, that it is a little coup how strange and otherworldly it (and its denizens) becomes when the humans see it. These two sides fear one another, but they are curious too.
The inevitable violence is thrillingly shot, and as he did in Let Me In, Reeves indulges himself with an impressive single-take shot of Koba atop a tank progressing across the battleground. But it all works so well because here Reeves has established these characters - both ape and human - so convincingly, and made us care about them. The emotional connection we feel pays off in the climactic scenes, which are tragic and weighted with sorrow and regret.
The effects are - obviously - superb.

Saturday, 12 July 2014


(Richard Linklater, 2014)

So much cinema is about so little. Filmmakers manufacture conflict, finesse character arcs and shape story lines, all to bow down to the great God of "story". That is obviously not a bad thing in every case. But when that story is about nothing, amounts to nothing, says nothing, provokes nothing; when real life and humanity and thought is more or less absent from a work of "art", it can be hard not to ask yourself what is the point of it.
Richard Linklater generally makes films about life. That sounds like a simple, small, obvious thing. But in modern American cinema it is precious and actually quite rare. And Boyhood may be his best conceived and most fully articulated work; a film about the magic of everyday life and how difficult that is to appreciate, a film about time and the way it slowly steals our lives from us, minute by minute, day by day.
The process is the aspect of this production most of the promotional material focuses upon; shot for a short period with the same cast annually for twelve years, we watch young Texan Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow up as his life and circumstances change around him. His mother (Patricia Arquette) grows from a stressed young single Mom into a College Professor, mourning the loss of her life as her youngest child prepares to leave the nest, acquiring and shedding a couple of husbands along the way. His father (Ethan Hawke) goes from an irresponsible but fun free spirit to a "boring old fart" with a mini-van and a new young family, consistently giving Mason heartfelt advice based on his own mistakes and revelations.
His sister (Lorelai Linklater) and he move house several times, change schools and stepdads, by turns stoic and petulant. All of these characters are complicated and believable, their complexities and quirks revealed incrementally over the years. Mason himself is a quiet, watchful presence for most of the first half of the film; we hear other people's opinions of him more than we hear his own. And then puberty hits, shockingly, and he is suddenly a pretty, moody teen, and a conversation with his father on a camping trip is followed later by a long reveal of his sensitivity and distinctive view of the world in a romantic chat with his first love. Suddenly this young man comes into focus, a product of all the influences we have glimpsed, and more fascinating for that.
There is something so casually profound in this it is almost impossible to process on a first viewing. Like in life, scenes just pass by, people change, circumstances alter. This prosaic quality is a big part of what makes the film so profound. This could be any life, every life. Linklater refuses the easy dramatic option on so many occasions it cannot help but underline this universality. The one real passage of melodrama - his mother marries an alcoholic at one point, and his abusive, violent nature doesn't take too long to reveal itself - is shocking because it is so different from the rest of the film. It is also brilliantly written and acted, and, like everything else here, beautifully naturalistic. The cast are all excellent - so much falls upon Coltrane's shoulders and he carries that effortlessly, with a quiet, mysterious charisma that is intensely watchable. Arquette reveals her character's strength best in desperate times, and her final moment of emotion as her son leaves may be the most moving moment in the film, and Hawke has perhaps the showiest role and really, evidently enjoys that and the many speeches he gets to make about women and politics and the Beatles and the meaning of life.
While Boyhood is fundamentally a coming of age story, it is so many other things besides. It is a story of family, of how we need and rely on support networks, of how parenthood changes people. It subtly portrays the way technology has changed our lives over the last decade. It's soundtrack is perhaps a tad too on-the-nose at times in its use of so much indie to track Mason's movement through the Noughties.
It contains lovely little moments and juxtapositions like the one where we see him shyly walking and talking with a female schoolfriend who informs him her friend has a crush on him, then witness him and his friends acting experienced and knowing about females with the older brother of a friend.
It offers a telling, poetic portrayal of young love and its inevitable dissolution. And miraculously it ends on a lovely moment of promise, potential and excitement.
It runs for almost three hours; yet flies by, and I didn't want it to end. It is magnificent.