Hell or High Water (Review)

This will be brief. I could be even briefer and just say ‘check this film out’.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers. Bank robbing brothers. They have one simple method and they stick to the script, taking smallish ‘pots’ from one particular chain of Texan banks.

As the film opens they are performing one heist, and it seems they are in the midst of a spree that is quickly building in intensity.

News of a pair of serial bank robbers sets sheriff Marcus (Jeff Bridges) on the trail. Marcus is gruff, ornery and somehow endearingly racist, mostly to his Native American partner Alberto. With days until retirement he seems determined to wrap this case up in quick time so as not to leave his career with an unsolved asterisk hanging over it.

For days on end the two brothers stick to their plan with Marcus and Alberto in pursuit, seemingly simultaneously one step ahead and behind.

As the film progresses we learn more about the motives of all parties, potentially rendering a humble crime drama with more nuance than most. Like the best southern fried films of recent years (Shotgun Stories, Undertow) Hell or High Water takes a small tale and nails it.

The small cast is excellent, with a couple scene stealing minor roles fleshing things out. When the black and white hats do inevitably come face to face, it feels satisfying and earned.

Again, don’t let the small budget and meagre ambitions dupe you, this is a film well worth tracking down, and one of the better films of 2016.

Final Rating – 8 / 10. A southern fried, sun baked character study crime drama that is more than the sum of its parts.

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Ride Along 2 (Review)

ride_along_twoSo a year or so ago I wrote this about the original Ride Along:

“I was totally ready to dismiss Ride Along and move on with my life. Then a funny thing happened; not only did I not hate this film, I kinda liked it.

The premise doesn’t help explain my enjoyment. Ben (Kevin Hart) the college security guard who thinks that videogames are his life, wants to impress his girlfriend and her surly brother by being accepted into the police training program.

James (Ice Cube) is the surly brother. Already a seasoned Atlanta cop, James wants no part of yappy and annoying Ben, and he wants Ben to have no part of his sister. He decides to call Ben’s bluff, organising a ‘ride along’, where Ben will accompany him for a day’s police work. The twist being that James plans to engineer it so that this particular day will paint an awful portrait of what being a member of the Atlanta PD actually entails.

Kevin Hart is running this ‘over confidence until confidence is required’ thing into the ground – just as Pauly Shore ran the adorable gibberish stoner thing and Rob Schneider the fish out of water klutz before him. His mix of bluster and bluff works in interviews and small parts, but expecting it to be rolled out in film after film is patently foolish. I am already at the stage where I hear his every line as “yap yap yap… Scream“, and I can’t be the only one. The menacing quizzical expression sported by Ice Cube in the face of his nonsense must have been some of the easiest acting of Ice’s career, which to be fair hasn’t really involved much ‘acting’ since Boyz ‘N the Hood.

The centrepiece of the film, in which Ben must do Grown Cop work, is especially excruciating, highlighting his every deficiency for alleged comic effect. Fortunately for the film though, there are enough other funny bits to make the film momentarily distracting in a positive way.

If, like Ben, you just give in to the silliness and settle in for the ‘ride along’, there are jokes to be had. The fact that many are at the expense of Ben is expected, but still satisfying. This leads me to believe that Hart’s career will go for as long as we can still derive pleasure from his suffering.

EDIT: Ride Along shouldn’t expect to be considered alongside Lethal Weapon or even Rush Hour as an action comedy, but it is OK’

Final Rating – 7 / 10. A 7 would be a ride with Cube in the car. If it were exclusively Hart is would be a 4.”

Back to the Present: I present; Ride Along 2

So now it seems they did it again. Rather than rewrite all of the above please feel free to replace ‘Atlanta’ with ‘Trip to Miami’ and realise that in this one Olivia Munn plays a streetwise Miami cop and Kevin Hart wears some ridiculous outfits.

The rest is exactly the fucking same, only slightly less so. All flash, no function.

Final Rating – 6.5 / 10. A copy of a copy of a great many copies. This Kevin Hart shtick is fading quick.

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Fifty Shades of Grey (Spoiler-Free Review)

They couldn’t be more alike.

She is Anastasia (but you can call her Anna), a mousy insecure university student with a sensible cardigan and budget haircut. She can’t finish a sentence without becoming flustered.

He is Christian Grey (but you can call him Grey), an arrogant confident mid twenties billionaire surrounded by luxury and beauty. He doesn’t see the need to begin a sentence.

He has others for that.

So alike.

But she disarms him. Something about her ill-prepared half-arsedness. Her lack of social skills. (She asks if he is gay.) Her total absence of savvy and the inability to think on her feet. (She doesn’t think to follow up on his bizarre “I enjoy various physical pursuits” statement.) Even her sheer ineptitude can’t sway him. (She leaves her list of questions behind.)

But she sucked the end of a pencil in the way that (frankly no) one does…

Then, when she drunk dials him just before vomiting on herself, he tells her that he has been watching her. Researching her. Analysing her.

It was love at first stalk.

Four awkward and decidedly stilted conversations and one strange non-disagreement, later, Grey opens up about the breathtakingly reprehensible nature of his desires. An onlooker might describe it like this.

Him: I am selfish, creepy, depraved. It’s lucky I am a good looking billionaire so I can get away with being a serial predator.
Her: He is soooo rich.

If I am not mistaken, this is a film with the central plot device is a ‘mistreatment contract’, a document that is entirely one sided in favour of Grey, while imposing all kinds of restrictions upon Anna despite her being at the… um ‘pointy end’ of most of the activities. Activities designed to permit Grey to indulge his socially frowned upon desires.

Make Christian Grey a forty something office manager earning 80k and this is not a modern day alt-romance, it’s a slasher film.

But wait, middle aged E Channel disciples, what of the sex? Oh there is sex. Sex indeed. So much sex. Sexy times for all.

So the sex. (Not that I’m interested in that kind of thing, but) despite the constant talk about the topic and the incredible array of tools ‘n’ toys at Grey’s disposal, the sex is quite vanilla. There is quite literally a sequence where sexually charged threats turn into being tickled with a feather.

Which is this film. All clumsily written dialogue masquerading as salacious high art. This is the person who buys a candle for $9 and feels they are being exotic. This is the teenager who takes his date to Sizzler and thinks he is being ‘pimp’. This is the woman who breathlessly tells her BFF of her wonderfully romantic experience, when the reality is she got drunkenly banged in the KFC toilets at 2 am.

This is dangerous in the way that a second beer at Friday lunch is dangerous. When really it’s just ill advised.

The acting is unmemorable. The cast poorly chosen to pander to an audience craving easy acceptance; the plot would be more effective with a considerably older Grey (think Clive Owen or even Kevin Bacon) but they settled for handsome charisma-free abs instead.

And the music throughout – no doubt selected for the soundtrack sales potential – is terrible and often entirely inappropriate for the scene.

So in summary; two reasonably attractive young people with nothing in common find reason to get it on. Ooooooohhhh, risqué.

The reality is that Fifty Shades of Grey is about as titillating as the word ‘titillating’.

Final Rating – 5 / 10. The safe word is ‘tepid’.

Happy Valentine’s Day all…

And for those who have seen the film and want a counter-point to think about, here is my ‘spoiler filled’ summary of what the film is really about.

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*SPOILERS* Fifty Shades of Grey (Spoiler-filled Protest Review)

Obvious spoilers to follow.

Man meets woman. They are inexplicably attracted despite no chemistry being evident.
Man gives woman an expensive first edition book.
She threatens to but does not leave.

Man tells woman he is sleazy and depraved.
Man gives woman a private helicopter ride.
She threatens to but does not leave.

Man explains the nature of his depravity. In detail.
Man buys woman new laptop computer.
She threatens to but does not leave.

Man shows woman the room filled with stuff that would indulge his depravity.
Man buys woman new car.
She threatens to but does not leave.

Man gives woman details of how he would indulge his depravity upon her. In detail. In a legally binding contract.
Man gives woman private glider ride.
She threatens to but does not leave.

Man and woman discuss the details of the contract. Exhaustively. For hours.
Man admits feelings of love for woman.
She threatens to but does not leave.

Woman consents to part of the contract.
Man gives woman 6 smacks on her bare bottom.
Woman is disgusted. Leaves.

Final Rating – WOMEN!?! #amirite

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Zodiac (Review)

zodiacLike last year’s Spotlight, Zodiac tells a story in a deliberate and procedural way without flash and bullshit – and it is all the better for it.

As with Spotlight, this film concerns itself with real events, in this case the self-dubbed ‘Zodiac Killer’ who kept much of California’s doors bolted and it’s citizens home bound for over a decade commencing 1969. Unlike Spotlight, the guilty party is never actually identified… But that doesn’t make the search any less compelling.

Regardless of his true identity, the Zodiac Killer craved attention above all. His murders are depicted as slightly haphazard and rushed, while his admissions to the media and lengths to remain notorious are far more intricately planned.

It is a letter and code sent to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper that anchors the film.

This letter gives investigative crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey jr) a signature story, and catches the code-cracking eye of cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who allows himself to become more and more involved in finding the killer’s true identity.

The fact that Zodiac seems to prefer to correspond with the media infuriates the police, especially Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who – like us – just wants closure in the form of an answer.

Such a landmark and fascinating case ensures that all involved become varying degrees of obsessed with solving it. All who permit themselves to the cause are changed, none for the better.

The acting here is uniformly excellent and without a weak link. Even the minor roles are well cast and impressive.

The film deliberately and expertly crossed decades, with new clues, red herrings and minor breakthroughs all proving equal parts frustrating and motivating. Despite the knowledge that the true killer was never categorically known, the film remains captivating and worthy of your two and a half hours.

Final Rating – 8 / 10. It rarely happens that a bona fide true story is worth watching. Remarkable then that this one doesn’t even have a clear resolution.

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Life (Review)

lifeBefore Kevin Hart there was Martin Lawrence, a man who found the spotlight despite over a decade elapsing without any evidence of his being humorous. In Life he is almost literally shackled to poor Eddie Murphy, who spends almost the entire film watching on droopy eyes, as if he is as confused as we are how it all came to this.

Ray (Murphy) and Claude (Lawrence) are big city boyz thrust together by inconvenience and ultimately sentenced to life of imprisonment in a semi-rural penitentiary.

It is their incompatibility and the close proximity of jail that is supposed to supply the friction and to no doubt be the catalyst of the inevitable laughter that must ensue, alas it never arrives.

Day on day, year on year, decade upon decade, life within the prison goes on, with a rich cast of recognisable black actors vying for screen time. But laughs never come, instead as Ray and Claude take their ‘one step forward, two steps back’ on their mission to either escape or be released, vaguely amusing moments are set up and knocked over, without anything more than a wry ‘so that happened’ reaction.

If I was wrongfully imprisoned for a crime I did not commit – or a film that would not end – I would rather try something Big and have it boom or bust; an attempted escape, a daring adventure, an actual joke, rather than sit for an interminable time until the end arrives.
If the script for Life was leaked, it might read; “Open. Ray and Claude go to jail. Nuthin. Nuthin. Nuthin. Nuthin. Nuthin. Nuthin. They old now. The end.”

Life should be about the vitality of being, of overcoming, of surviving. Instead to this viewer it sure felt like the ‘life’ sentence imposed upon two unwitting small time criminals was somehow passed upon to me. I’m innocent too. Why punish me Martin Lawrence?

Final Rating – 5.5 / 10. Shrek arrived only a couple years after Life, and with that, Eddie Murphy knew he no longer needed to try…

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Ouija 2 (Review)

Never saw the first film. Now here’s Ouija 2…

When a family of sham psychics find that even their elaborate (and especially unlikely) shtick isn’t fleecing enough customers to keep the bank from threatening to take away their home, they pray for something more.

‘More’ arrives in the form of a store bought Ouija board that fortuitously grants the youngest daughter special ‘seeing’ powers. Suddenly thief once fabricated foretellings become accurate and the shows more impactful, what with the young girl able to channel the dead and everything.

The fact that she very well may be inhabited by a demonic presence seems to be written off as a cost of business. As the famous saying goes; You can’t make money without letting evil spirits have their way with your daughter’s soul. Or something.

What the film does well is picking the right young girl to possess, this enables us to overlook the ridiculousness of it all. Mostly. I mean a speed writing Ouija board? A mother that doesn’t seem to fret when her daughter passes horrific news direct from the undead? The fact no one seems to think it odd that any of this is possible in the first place?

Ouija 2 is the usual collection of rips and cliches but it performs its work better than many. It progresses like an office Christmas party, starting out quietly and with some dignity, before getting noisier and slightly more embarrassing for all involved near the end.

At least there is no need for the ‘walk of shame’ after this one.

Final Rating – 6.5 / 10. If the original Ouija is as good as this one… well I probably still won’t bother looking it up.

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Spring (Review)

springAfter a week no young man should have to experience, Evan finds himself at a crossroads, with no parents, no job and unwanted police attention emanating from a drunken encounter.

In an act borne of desperation Evan buys a ticket to Europe, where he backpacks around, running into other such young men, trading stories and drinking, before he arrives in a small seaside town… and meets the beautiful Louise.

What starts as a road movie with the promise of self discovery, suddenly changes in ways I cannot describe. Suffice to say that while this is indeed a romantic film about young love, it is more than that also. You see it’s complicated, and far more complicated than your average Aniston romance where they break up with fifteen minutes to go and get back together five minutes later.

Think Splice but don’t. Think Let the Right One In but not really. Think Audition but try to aspire to more. Spring isn’t really anything but many things. Again above all it is a romance despite many other things, just know that it is extremely compelling and entirely original. That’s probably why it is so hard to describe, even vaguely.

And that’s probably why you should just check it out…

Final Rating – 7.5 / 10. Spring doesn’t nail everything it tries, but you must admire the effort and audacity to try… this. I cannot describe it in detail, but I can heartily endorse it.

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The Imitation Game (Review)

imitation_gameBased upon an amazing story that was classified top secret for so long that once the truth arrived the impact had dulled, The Imitation Game follows the UK army intelligence’s efforts to crack the Nazi ‘Enigma’ code, thereby learning enemy secrets and gaining an advantage in World War 2 (Spoiler: they did and they won).

The only problem being that the Enigma code was uncrackable…

With the usual code breaking methods and the best efforts of experienced army crackers failing, the government moved to other means.

Enter professor Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mathematician of undeniable genius, but with his smarts coming at the expense of social grace. Turing agrees to take on Enigma not to turn the tide of the war or even to aid his country, but to break a code no one else can. When he finds that none in the intelligence team think like him, he foregoes such experts and seeks other… Nerds essentially. Crossword addicts and pasty shut-ins fascinated by puzzles. One of them *gasp* is even a girl named Joan (Keira Knightley), whom the top brass feel is better suited for the typing pool.

But Turing cared not for the usual rules and gender stereotypes. Actually the usual niceties and norms did not apply to this man. Again this leads us though back to the film’s conundrum; Turing’s solution to the Enigma code was to build a huge machine – a calculator of sorts – capable of screening millions of scenarios of code. The machine, elaborate and imposing, is so complex that there is no way we mere mortals could understand its workings, so the film becomes more about ‘the stuff that goes on while Turing and the crew build it’.

Thankfully this remains compelling and interesting across the film’s two hours, with Cumberbatch giving a portrayal of a brilliant but socially retarded man leading a life full of secrets and compromise.

The Imitation Game nearly falls for the same trap as The Theory of Everything and pretty much anything about Steve Jobs: in that it has a reasonably fascinating subject but is incapable of ‘dumbing down’ their central figure’s work while entertaining us popcorn chewing automatons. So they focus on the eccentricities and foibles of the individual, and it is here that The Imitation Game excels.

Unfortunately being a movie about a nerdy mathematician that no one has heard of, and with an unwieldy title that tells us nothing, means that the only code Turing couldn’t break was how to make this commercial…

Final Rating – 7.5 / 10. The Theory of Everything’s spiritual kin; a semi-bio about a character of more interest to the film’s plot.

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Harlem Nights (Review)

harlem_nightsHarlem Nights seems in the surface as something of a vanity project. A perfectly understandable and often admirable one yes, but a vanity project nonetheless. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and a large group of comedians and character actors get the chance to dress up and engage in a gangster period piece. This is not meant to be disparaging or condescending, I would love it if this was a good film. But it just isn’t.

In swinging pre world war 2 New York City Harlem is the place to be, with bumping clubs and any number of illicit distractions. Perhaps the most swingingest is Sugar Ray’s, a club that has become the epicentre of late night entertainment, and the place to find hookers, gambling and all things fun.

The manager is appropriately Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor), a man who achieved his position through sensible moves and remaining loyal to those who help along the way. Ray’s right hand man is Quick (Eddie Murphy) a man younger and brasher. Behind them both are a team of loveable eccentrics, a colourful crew of coloured folk delivering lashings of colourful language.

Of course one of the side effects of success is envy, and Sugar Ray’s rise is accompanied by the unwanted attention of vicious business rivals, crazy clients, crooked cops and foxy ladies, all lusting for money and power.

With pressure coming from all sides, it would seem that Sugar Ray and his crew’s days in Harlem are limited, and perhaps due to end at the same time as the big heavyweight title fight that looms large on the calendar. With a contest as anticipated as this one, gambling money is sure to flood in, and Ray concocts a high stakes plan of his own.

With a lavish setting and an apparent license for larger than life action and characters, Harlem Nights could and should have been more than it ends up. With Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor on hand, this should have been an irreverent laugh fest from beginning to end. Somehow though, they end up as almost the straight men, watching on as those around them all take turns to steal the spotlight. Alas, aside from these few notable moments from a supporting cast including Arsenio Hall, Redd Foxx and Della Reese, Harlem Nights cannot overcome itself, resulting in a few amusing moments caught in the midst of almost two hours of well dressed tedium.

Final Rating – 6.3 / 10. So many comedians,  so many funny people, all waiting for someone else to bring the laughs…

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