Archive for March, 2013

Trance

Posted: March 29, 2013 in Film reviews
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Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel

Whilst he was preparing an Olympic opening ceremony to dazzle the world, Danny Boyle took a few days off every week to make something that was far less family friendly, and something the Queen probably wouldn’t have agreed to be parachuted into.

Simon (McAvoy) is an employee at a prestigious London gallery, he’s also the inside man for a heist led by Franck (Cassel) and his gang of violent criminals, a heist that sees them steal a Goya worth over £25 million.
Except Franck only gets away with an empty frame, because at some point during the raid Simon managed to hide the painting, and after Franck slammed him in the side of the head with the butt of his shotgun Simon can’t remember where he stashed it.

Once Franck and co believe that Simon truly has lost his memory—after a little wince inducing torture—they hit upon the only reasonable solution; hire a hypnotherapist to go into Simon’s mind and help him remember where the Goya is.

Franck lets Simon choose a doctor from the internet and he chooses Dr Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson), but whilst the initial plan is to fool her into thinking Simon’s just lost his car keys, she soon cottons on to the real motivation behind their sessions, and agrees to help, but only for a cut of the money once the Goya is found.

And so the scene is set for a game of misdirection and betrayal, and can anything in Simon’s mind truly be trusted?
This might be a harder review than usual, because Trance is the kind of twisty mind bending film that you really need to see spoiler free.

What can be said, without fear of giving anything away, is that it looks and sounds gorgeous. The film is fabulously shot, a gleaming London of swanky apartments, Harley Street consulting rooms, auction houses ,seedy clubs and scrapyards, all lit in varying shades of red and blue neon, and whilst some might find the soundtrack intrusive, I really liked it.

The cast is good, with McAvoy the stand out for me, and he continues to make interesting career choices, and though comparisons with Ewan McGregor are always likely, in many ways I think he’s a more daring actor, and even playing victims he always brings a nice edge to his roles.

Cassel is an actor I like a lot, and he provides an interesting riff on his oft seen Gallic thug here. He perhaps could have been more threatening (certainly I’ve seen him scarier than here) but given some of the twists the story takes it’s probably for the best that he wasn’t.

Dawson is quite subdued, especially given Doyle is clearly trying to portray her as a femme fatale, although again there are reasons for this, and she manages to convince both as a woman who’s in control, and as a woman who’s a victim.

A film like this stands or falls on the twists. If the film doesn’t slot into place at the end you can feel cheated, and even when the dots do connect you can still end up feeling frustrated because the contrivances are a little… well a little too contrived.

If I’m honest I don’t think I realised I liked this film as much as I did until the end, but it really does all fall into place, and whilst perhaps not wholly convincing, for the most part everything does fit together, especially once the final reveal is made, and suddenly even things you thought were a stretch suddenly make more sense. I shouldn’t have been surprised at this given the story originated with the writer/director Joe Ahearne.

If it has a fault, aside from some of the performances being a little subdued, it’s that it all feels very hollow, but then again for a film about the vagaries of memory, about how easily our remembrances can be manipulated, this perhaps makes a lot of sense.

At the moment it’s probably my film of the year, though somehow I doubt it’ll feature in my top five by the year’s end. Still, as beautiful as it is brutal (be prepared for a few wince inducing moments, especially if you’re a bloke) it had no problem keeping me entranced.

James Herbert

Posted: March 27, 2013 in Regarding writing
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Last week the writer James Herbert died at the age of 69. Author of some 23 books, a smattering of short stories, a couple of non-fiction books and a single graphic novel he was, it is fair to say, one of my all-time favourite authors, and a man who was a big influence on me, both as someone who enjoyed his work, and from the perspective of someone who wanted to emulate him.

I guess you know you’re getting old when all your heroes, be they writers, singers or actors, start to die. The death of Elisabeth Sladen (Doctor Who’s Sarah Jane Smith) a couple of years ago was a huge shock, and the death of Herbert, a man whose books I’d been reading since my teenage years, was yet another one.

It’s all the more shocking because I hadn’t even realised he was that old. Of course I must have known, this is a man who wrote a novel set in an alternative version of the late 1940s, a time he remembered. This was a man born in the midst of World War 2.

And yet…

To me he seemed ageless, permanently the thirty something man in the black leather jacket, black of hair and vulpine of features, staring out from the back of a book, or from a magazine article.

He rose to prominence in the 1970s, a new age for horror which saw the rise of Stephen King in the US, and James Herbert in the UK. His first novel was published in 1974, it was, of course, The Rats, and he would return to the tale of killer rodents three more times, in the novels Lair and Domain, and the graphic novel The City.

It’s oddly fitting that as his first novel was the first of a trilogy of books, his last, Ash— published last year in hardback and just out in paperback—was the final part of another trilogy, this one not about evil rats, but about the paranormal investigator David Ash.

I’ve been wracking my brains but I can’t actually recall which one of his novels I read first, and nor can I remember how old I was when I read it, I have a sneaking suspicion it was The Fog (his second book) but the truth of the matter is lost in the mists of time.

What isn’t lost is the fact that I’ve read every single one of his books (ok, apart from Fluke which for some reason I never have) at least once, and in the case of my favourites multiple times.

If I had to pick a favourite it would be Sepulchre (lord knows how many times I’ve read it) which showcased his ability to write a book that worked both as a thriller and as a horror story, with neither element feeling short changed.

My top five would probably go something like this: Sepulchre, Creed, The Dark, Domain, and Haunted. As you can see, if I’m honest I preferred his earlier work. Whether this is because his writing changed, or because my tastes changed, I’m not entirely sure, but even though I didn’t always like his newer work as much, the arrival of a new James Herbert novel was something that always got me excited.

I like to think of myself as a writer, and I’d like to be a properly published novelist someday, and whilst some may dream of untold riches, of JK Rowling levels of success, the plain truth is, for most of the time that I’ve dreamed of being a writer, all I’ve truly wanted to be is James Herbert, and that’s perhaps the best tribute I can pay him.
So farewell James, but this isn’t goodbye, because in some ways you’ll always be that youthful guy in the leather jacket, and when I finish the book I’m currently reading the next thing I pick up will be one of your novels.

And it won’t be the last time I do that either.

Written and directed by Eran Creevy. Starring James McAvoy, Mark Strong and David Morrissey.

A glossy British crime thriller made in the style of a Hollywood action film and with a cast to die for, but does it dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee or take a dive in the fifth?

Max Lewinsky (McAvoy) is a burned out cop living with a gammy knee, courtesy of an incident three years before when he failed to catch arch criminal Jacob Sternwood (Strong). During a heist Sternwood shot him in the leg and then fled the country with the proceeds of the robbery, turning Lewinsky into an embittered man.

When Sternwood’s teenage son is shot and wounded in London however, Lewinsky sees an opportunity to get his revenge on Sternwood, figuring he’s bound to return to the UK to try and see his boy. He gets permission from his boss (Morrissey) to stake out the hospital where Sternwood’s son has been taken, and from then on Lewinsky and his partner (Andrea Riseborough) slowly become embroiled in a conspiracy that goes beyond Sternwood and may even involve their fellow officers. Lines blur and before long Lewinsky and Sternwood might find themselves on the same side…

Visually this is a film that looks great; with large swathes filmed at night and in the Canary Wharf area it shows London in a way that’s not often seen: slick bright, modern, and at times it’s almost like you’re watching the Shanghai scenes from Skyfall.

Creevy directs with good pace and a nice eye, and several of the set pieces are deftly handled, in particular an assault on an Icelandic house, and shoot-outs in a hotel room and an empty club. Cast wise it’s hard to imagine you could do much better, and everyone in it gives a great performance, even if some of their roles entail paper thin characterisation. In particular McAvoy and Morrissey excel, and whilst Strong is perhaps a little too taciturn at times he still comes across as a forceful presence and it says a lot when even secondary characters are played by the likes of Peter Mullen and Daniel Mays.

It’s a shame then that the script doesn’t equal the direction and casting, and it suggests that perhaps it’s in directing rather than writing that Creevy’s talents lie. Beneath the glossy exterior and top notch cast, is a story that’s all too familiar, a tale that throws up few surprises, and is too convoluted for its own good.

The dialogue is at times clunky and derivative, and when early on someone shouts down a radio at Lewinsky something to the effect of “Wait for back up, don’t go after Sternwood on your own, you’re obsessed!” it kind of sets the tone and you’re almost waiting for a “Leave it, Terry, he’s not worth it.” Though luckily it never gets quite that bad…

Character wise as good as the cast are, they’re all lumbered with fairly standard types from this kind of film (the cop on the edge, the noble criminal, the crooked copper etc.) and it’s a shame that better couldn’t be done with the cast and premise than this.

It has a lot going for it, but as a whole it’s summed up by one particular scene in a chintzy front room involving four men with guns and a dotty old woman that goes from tense yet humorous to just plain silly in the space of a few moments.

Glossy looks and a great cast don’t compensate nearly enough for an unoriginal plot and by the numbers script. Welcome to the Punch is a film that lands a few sharp jabs, but fails to deliver a knockout blow.

I Give it a Year

Posted: March 3, 2013 in Film reviews

Written and directed by Dan Mazer. Starring Rose Byrne, Rafe Spall, Simon Baker and Anna Faris.

A somewhat novel entry to the rom-com genre, this is a film that starts with the happy ever after, and then takes the story from there. ..

The film opens with the wedding of Josh (Spall) and Nat (Byrne). She’s an ad-executive, he’s an author, and they’ve known each other just seven months, so the wedding comes at the end of a whirlwind romance, some of which we see in snippets of flashback that paint a picture that wouldn’t look out of place in a more traditional rom-com. Given the two are a bit of an odd couple some people don’t give the marriage much of a chance, in fact at the wedding Nat’s sister (Minnie Driver) mutters the titular phrase; “I give it a year.”

All too soon it becomes apparent that Josh and Nat’s courtship might have been a bit too much of a whirlwind, as they discover they don’t know enough about each other, are slightly annoyed by each other’s quirks, and that living together proves harder than they might have imagined.

Things are further complicated by the presence of Josh’s ex-girlfriend (Faris) and a suave businessman (Baker) who has his eye on Nat. And a deranged marriage guidance counsellor doesn’t help matters either.

Will the course of true love run smooth, and will anyone notice that Stephen Merchant appears to be in a different film to everyone else?

Considering that, the premise aside, this is fairly predictable and familiar fare, what’s most surprising is how much I enjoyed it. Familiar tropes abound. Nat is posh and ever so slightly anal, Josh is a bit of a slob. Her parents are snooty and look down their noses at Josh, his parents are a little too laid back and overly familiar. Stephen Merchant plays Josh’s best friend, the kind of obnoxious best man who (thankfully) only really exists in romantic comedies. Baker plays a man who’s handsome, funny and also rich (heck I’d marry him) whilst Faris is the kind but frumpy girl next door. Throw in the fact that Josh leaves the toilet seat up and…well as you can see hardly ground breaking stuff.

And yet it pretty much works, which is down to a large part to the cast. Byrne (sporting a slightly too cut glass but still pretty good) English accent manages to take a character who could have been annoying and actually has you caring about her, and whilst Spall’s Josh is maybe a tad too annoying, he still comes across as likeable enough. Baker and Faris do what they do best, though neither role is much of a challenge. TV’s The Mentalist dials back the darker (and also more childlike) qualities of Patrick Jane to leave just the suave charming nice guy, whilst Faris can do kooky without raising a sweat. They all interact well together however, and whilst the film isn’t laugh out loud funny (this is no Bridesmaids) I laughed throughout and there are some very funny scenes (one involving some doves suggests that either Rose Byrne was genuinely terrified, or else should be seriously considered for an Oscar). Similarly the romance(s) never quite reach in and grab your heart (this is no Bridget Jones’ Diary) but it’s nice enough, and contrary to some reviews I’ve read, I actually found myself rooting for a happy ending.

I’ve seen better rom-coms, but I’ve also seen a lot more worse ones (Yes ‘Along Came Polly’ I am looking at you …). Olivia Coleman is funny as the marriage guidance counsellor, Driver does shrewishly well as the sister, and whilst Merchant could have been too much, thankfully his presence is minimised enough to ensure he actually stays just the right side of annoying and is actually funny.

Clearly it’s trying to be a Richard Curtis film (heck this is a working title production) but it isn’t anywhere near that good. Still, predictable and lightweight it may be, but it’s also funny and enjoyable.

I give it a slightly tentative thumbs up.

A Good Day to Die Hard

Posted: March 1, 2013 in Film reviews

Directed by John Moore. Starring Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney.

Die Hard means a lot to me, occupying a special place in my heart (don’t laugh). It was one of the first films I saw at the cinema with my first girlfriend, and though I found the first fifteen minutes a bit slow (give me a break I was 18) what followed was one of the most intense, edge of my seat cinema experiences, EVER. Make no mistake, Die Hard is a seminal film within the action genre, in fact as far as I’m concerned it probably is the best action film ever made, the film that took the genre away from the muscle-bound and/or martial artists of the 80s and dumped it on the shoulders of an everyday kinda guy (a ‘comedy’ actor no less). It’s now more than 20 years since John McClane wandered into Nakatomi Plaza and took his shoes and socks off, and there have been a succession of sequels produced with varying degrees of success. With the arrival of the 5th entry in the canon, it’s time to ask the question; is it a good day to die hard?

In Moscow a political prisoner named Komarov is about to go on trial for corruption, he’s offered his freedom by a corrupt official named Chagarin, his former business partner and friend, but refuses, claiming he has a file that will see Chagarin discredited. Chagarin says he’ll never make it to court. At the same time a brash young American is arrested for attempted murder, and scheduled to appear in court alongside Komarov…

In New York John McClane discovers that his son, John Junior, “Jack”, has been arrested and is going to be put on trial. He immediately hotfoots it to Moscow where, wouldn’t you know it, he becomes embroiled in an attack on the courthouse masterminded by Chagarin, screwing up the best laid plans of a top CIA secret agent…one Jack McClane. Soon father and son are on their own in a foreign land, up to their neck in Chagarin and Komarov’s dispute. Can they survive? Will they finally bond? Will McClane get to say yippee Ki-yay Mother….er Russia?

If you imagine the answer to any of these questions might be no then obviously you’ve never seen a Die Hard film before, although in the UK at least Bruce’s signature catchphrase becomes more of a yippee Ki-yay cough cough mutter… stupid 12A certificate.

Ok, first things first. This isn’t a good Die Hard film, in fact I’m not even sure it qualifies as a good action film, and it’s a shame to see such a plodding unoriginal film bearing the Die Hard name, although in fairness out of five films only two have been classics (Die Hard and Die Hard With a Vengeance in case you’re wondering). Still can it be that difficult to give us something that’s at least as good as Die Hard 2? Obviously not.

The most noticeable thing about A Good Day to Die Hard (aside from how poor the title is) is how workmanlike it all is, there’s no pizzazz, no flair. Aside from one odd moment of slow mo with Chagarin and a bunch of lawyers which make no real sense, this is directed like the average Steven Segal film, and not even a good Steven Segal film.
They filmed this in Moscow yet we never get a feel for the city, a place with wonderful architecture and a very different way of life. For a Die Hard film it’s unforgivable not to play up the ‘fish out of water’ elements of having John McClane in another country dealing with another culture. Aside from an amusing cab driver, Komaron and his daughter, McClane has no interaction with any Russians, well unless shooting them counts. Really you could have set this film anywhere. In the first film the tower was a character in itself, in Vengeance so was New York. This film manages to make Moscow look just like AN Other Eastern European city. Later on the action supposedly moves to Chernobyl, but again it could be anywhere, the scenes there take place at night and they could have just been in a warehouse in Manchester for all it matters.

The early car chase is atrocious; I almost had to look away at times because it was giving me motion sickness. It was a mess that made little sense, and again wasted the location. Cars driving over other cars and explosions do not in themselves equal excitement. Worse is to come, I’ve rarely seen such lingering camerawork. How long do you have to stare at Jack’s boot gun/knife before you realise IT’S IMPORTANT! (Several minutes apparently)

Cast wise there isn’t much to enjoy here. I found Jai Courtney dull, if the intention is for Jack to carry on the family business then frankly I won’t be going to see any more. He’s muscle-bound and young, and that’s about it, obviously Jack hasn’t inherited his father’s wise ass nature. If they have to do a 6th I hope they bring Lucy McClane back because I thought Mary Elizabeth Winstead dominated the screen more in 2 minutes than Courtney did in 90+. The bad guys don’t have a lot of charisma either, Komarov and his daughter are vaguely interesting, but only vaguely. Oh for an Alan Rickman or Jeremy Irons to show up…

The twists and turns, and the grand scheme, once it’s revealed, add a little bit of interest, but the whole thing feels a little old fashioned, something of a throwback. Expendables 2 had the same problem, but at least it handled it better. Also various plans in this film are overly convoluted to a fault. Seriously, Jack’s plan is to shoot someone and hope he’s banged up in the courthouse next to Komarov?

Perhaps the most critical error in the whole film is the same mistake Die Hard 4.0 made, namely making John (and now John Jr) into some kind of invulnerable death machine. I can accept that McClane’s been round the block a few times now, but still…what makes the first three so good is the fact that McClane’s in over his head, which is why the Moscow setting should have been perfect. He really could have been the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time again…and I suppose he is, it just never seems much of an impediment. And where the heck are the Russian police or military, it’s like they don’t exist.

The film is peppered with little homages to previous Die Hards, yet I found no joy in them, well his ringtone was funny but that’s it, and you have to ask why he’d have that as a ring tone anyway? In a way it reminded me of Terminator 4 (only nowhere near as bad) in that it had these little moments, but they were hollow, clinical. Placed there to appease the fans, but with no real understanding of their significance. To see how to reference the past in the right way please see the 2009 Star Trek reboot.

On the plus side I thought Willis was great, considering I’d heard he looked bored throughout the film I was pleasantly surprised, I only hope he gets to make one more decent Die Hard film before he hangs up his Beretta. And in fairness this wasn’t actually as awful as I’d expected it to be, it’s mercifully short (why let talking scenes get in the way of all those explosions?) and it does at least try more than the 4th one did to return to the wrong guy/wrong place etc. motif that 4.0 seemed to ignore, it just didn’t do it very well, and for all its (many) faults, I enjoyed 4.0 at the cinema.

It’s just frustrating because with a better script, more charismatic cast, and a better director this could have been a much better film.

Must Try Harder…