About Eric Wood

Eric Wood is 21 years old, from Bury in Greater Manchester, and a graduate of Salford University where he studied Journalism and English Literature. His first novel comes out later in the year, and he begins work directing his first feature length movie in the summer. Eric absolutely adores all forms of writing and loves movies so he’s the ideal film critic. His greatest inspiration for many years has been Michael Crichton, as Crichton has written novels, non-fiction, screenplays, and directed movies. Eric would love to be able to achieve all of those things in my lifetime.

Film Review: Amour

2012 has seen quite a few directors leave their comfort zone to try something new, and quite a lot of the time it has paid off. David Cronenberg left behind his body horror traditions to make the brilliantly cerebral Cosmopolis. Ben Affleck set his third film outside of Boston for the first time with Argo. And now Michael Haneke, who is often accused of being distant and nihilistic makes something more humane and heartfelt with Amour.

This will blindside many people, especially Haneke’s fans. And it’s a little ironic that when the director chooses to change course, he actually packs an even bigger emotional punch. Amour doesn’t force a harsh reality onto the audience. It present a harsh reality instead, something that the audience already knows but is trying not to think about. It’s a film that says that the hardest part about getting old is that you have to watch a loved one slowly succumb to the ravages of old age. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but as the title suggests, Haneke tries to show the love that’s at the very heart of a long term relationship.

We begin the film with the police breaking down a door to a stylish apartment, where they find Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly woman dead in her bed surrounded by flowers. Flashback two months, and we find out how she ends up there. Anne suffers two strokes that leave her in a slowly deteriorating state, and it’s up to her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to take care of her.

Jean-Louis Trintignant is sensitive by still unsentimental as Georges. To begin with he’s accepting of his wife’s debilitation and caters for her every need. But as her condition gets worse, his love and tolerance are pushed to what can only be described as superhuman limits. There is one particularly painful scene when Anne starts refusing food and drink. It’s a scene where Georges is truly pushed right to the brink of total meltdown, and yet despite this we still know that they love each other. That’s what makes the scene almost unbearably heartbreaking.

Your heart of course bleeds for Anne, whose debilitation is obviously humiliating. What starts out as a little help with food soon turns into help with toiletry needs. The film is just over two hours long, so her mental deterioration is painfully slow. With every scene that passes, another part of her has been chipped away until all that remains is the mind of a helpless child. It’s hard to say if she’s fully made peace with her fate, because she may not fully understand anymore.

It’s important to point out that Amour doesn’t attempt to emotionally manipulate the audience. Haneke has been known to experiment with emotional interaction with the audience before. His film Funny Games is probably the best example, when a character actually turns to the camera and asks the audience if they want another plot development. But in this case Haneke doesn’t attempt to manipulate how sad the audience feels. Amour is not a typical tearjerker like The Notebook which thrives on manufacturing audience tears. Every tear you shed for this films is real. And yes you will shed many.

In a sense because we know where the film is heading, as an audience we feel prepared for the conclusion, but in the end it packs an incredible punch. The eventual loss is so humane that it is shocking, and feels incredibly cruel. Whether or not it’s humane from Anne’s point of view is certainly going to divide audiences. Still it sticks by it’s central idea that while love can’t defeat death, it can still give some of the worst moments in life a fair fight.

Obviously this isn’t the ideal film to see on your first date, and many will think of it as the feel bad movie of the year. But to think that would be selling the film short. At it’s heart it is a very genuine love story above a love that can’t transcend death, but puts up a much bigger fight than the people who actually feel the emotion. For many it will be unbearably sad, but Amour has to be one of the best films about old age ever made. It’s an uncomfortable watch that will stay with you for a long time, but it’s totally unmissable.

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Film Review: Argo

Argo is one of those true stories that are so bizarre and farcical that it must be real. Earlier in the year it was a similar story with the chilling documentary The Imposter, about a young French boy who was able to impersonate a missing American child. It’s a strange thing, but because it is a true story we are willing to go along with the story. If Argo was a complete work of fiction, Hollywood would have probably laughed the idea out of the room. But Argo does work. In fact it works spectacularly. This is largely thanks to the ingenious directing of Ben Affleck. Now on his third film after the small hits of Gone Baby Gone and The Town, he is quickly shaping up to be one of Americas smartest mainstream directors. For many in Hollywood, Argo would be considered a break out film. And yet, it doesn’t feel that way with Affleck. He’s hotly tipped for an Oscar at the beginning of 2013, and deservedly so, but still you get the feeling that the best is still yet to come from this young director. Argo takes place in the November of 1979, when the US Embassy building in post-revolution Tehran is taken over by a group of students supporting the Ayatollah. During the occupation, six officers are able to slip away and quickly attempt to seek sanctuary with the Canadians. The only problem is, it will only be a matter of time before they are discovered by the revolution. So CIA officer Tom Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with an unconventional idea to get them out. He and a group of CIA agents create a fake movie, and head into Tehran as a fake film crew. Argo has an ensemble cast, but Ben Affleck’s Tom Mendez really serves as the main character. He approaches it with a rather delicate touch, creating a role that moves around the story rather quietly. Affleck certainly doesn’t make the mistake of cutting down on his own scenes because he’s directing, instead he surrounds himself with an excellent supporting cast to help share some of the workload. Affleck’s performance though is as exact and as thoughtful as ever, and he seems to delight in being surrounded by such a talented cast. Most of the comedy elements come from the two Hollywood executives, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman). Chambers is more than willing to produce a movie for free as long as it gets the hostages out of Tehran. Siegel wants to make a fake movie that’s a fake hit. Incidentally, the real life John Chambers received an Oscar for the huge amount of research he did for The Planet of The Apes, which involved a lot of sitting around in a zoo. On the CIA side, we’ve got Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston). This is clearly a role the Cranston revels in, as he gets the majority of the best lines. “This is the best bad plan we have… by far” he says. It’s a little surprising that Argo feels so comfortable and flows so well, considering this is the first time Ben Affleck has stepped out of his directorial comfort zone. Both Gone Baby Gone and The Town are set in Boston, so to jump to a whole new level with a tense thriller set on location in a different country is a bit of a leap. He does at points twist the truth a little, purely because real life very rarely resembles the flow of a movie, but he is always respectful of what the CIA agents did. The section of the story that involves the negotiation with Hollywood to make a fake movie certainly will have appealed to Affleck. It’s very self-deprecating and you can see that Affleck enjoys poking fun at himself and his own industry. When it comes to the serious moments though, Affleck doesn’t hold back with the dramatic tension. For many it would be a stumbling block, but Argo is able to use humour in a way that compliments the tension. It’s a real balancing act that can easily go wrong, but Ben Affleck makes it look like second nature to him. So often we go to the cinema to watch a hero save the day. In this case, Argo is the bizarre true story about when the movies really did save the day. It’s just a shame that because the actual CIA file was classified for so long, it was a story that no one noticed. Thanks to Ben Affleck though, we certainly have noticed now. Much of the younger audience may be put off by the 1970s setting, but Argo proves to be a wonderful winter thriller for one of Hollywood’s best new directors. There will be Oscars. Image reproduced from collider.com Video reproduced from YouTube / FilmsActuTrailers

Film Review: Rust and Bone

Rust and Bone is a melodrama, but this by no means should put you off seeing it. Yes, it does have a plot you would expect to find at three o’clock in the afternoon on Channel 5, but it’s handled in a way that makes it feel like something so much more. This is in part down to Marion Cotillard’s performance, but it’s a film that’s designed to linger long in the memory. Rust and Bone certainly achieves that.

There are many films that stay in the back of your mind for a while, but very few can do it with good reason. Gregor Jordan’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ collection of stories The Informers lingers a while after seeing it, but it’s also crammed with so much uncomfortable dreck it makes you want to take a shower. Rust and Bone doesn’t necessarily serve the role of a pleasant memory, but then again, that does seem to be the point. It wants to catch you off guard, and it wants to make you think for a long time after you leave the movie theatre.

When Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is put in charge of his young son, he decides to leave Belgium behind and head for Antibes. When he arrives there, he moves in with his sister and her husband, hoping to live as a family. When Ali gets a job as a night club bouncer, he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer. When Stephanie is involved in a horrific accident, Ali finds his bond grow deeper with her.

It’s quite likely that Marion Cotillard will earn an Oscar nomination for her performance, and rightly so. Many will even see her as a dark horse for the award. She looks to be in control throughout the film. A free spirit who is just able to pour herself gracefully into the role. Her performance is flawlessly natural, which is something we’ve seen a lot of recently. With this and The Dark Knight Rises, Cotillard has certainly had one of the best years of her career.

Cotillard of course doesn’t work alone. The scenes in which she sparkles the most usually involve her co-star Mathias Schoenaerts, with whom she has a rather uneasy chemistry. You can see there is tremendous affection between Ali and Stephanie, but they both have a very difficult time admitting it. Ali is a part time kick boxer struggling to find work and settle down. Stephanie is a whale trainer struggling to come to terms with her accident. It’s the briefest of moments when their paths cross, but they’re both desperate to cling onto that moment.

The director Jacques Audiard takes a much more hands off approach with the subject matter, which is quite different from his previous films. He wants to step back and allow Ali and Stephanie to figure things out for themselves. Having said that, he remains as critical as ever with the central relationship.

This is the main reason why Rust and Bone is such a triumph. Audiard is unsentimental in his handling of the story, and because of this it gives what should be a throwaway melodrama some genuine weight. But Audiard doesn’t sacrifice the intimacy of the story in order to pack an emotional punch. With the help of the stunning Marion Cotillard he finds a happy medium. Rust and Bone has to be one of the most intimate and genuinely human films of 2012.

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Film Noir Classic: Double Indemnity

If Billy Wilder hadn’t been a tolerant man, Double Indemnity would never have been made. While Paramount was getting set to abandon the project because they couldn’t find someone to co-write the script, Wilder took it upon himself to find someone. After a little searching, he came across a fiction writer called Raymond Chandler. Wilder set up a meeting with Chandler, expecting to meet some retired private eye who had turned his hand to writing. Wilder couldn’t have been more wrong, something he learnt the hard way when a journalist walked through the door. And he was drunk.

Let’s be fair, it was the 1940s and this is what Hollywood was like during that period, but it’s still surprising that Wilder didn’t just storm out of the room and leave the incompetent looking Chandler to pass out. Instead Wilder gave him a chance, and much to his surprise found that he was right about many of the scripting issues. With his help, Double Indemnity went from a novella that was deemed unfilmable by everyone, to becoming a seven-time Oscar nominated classic.

Double Indemnity spawned the creation of American film noir, and one of it’s most recognisable themes; an innocent man dragged into a world of crime by the lust for money, and of course lust for the great looking dame. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance salesman trying to make an honest living when he meets the voluptuous Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) while visiting her husband about his insurance policy. Phyllis wants to set up some life insurance for her abusive and negligent husband without him knowing, and Walter soon realises she wants to kill him and claim insurance money. He dismisses it at first, but soon finds he’s attracted to Phyllis, and they both hatch a plan to kill her husband and make it look like he fell from a moving train.

The centre of the story is of course the dangerous love affair between Neff and Phyllis. And yet, when you examine it closely, it looks like they are anything but in love. Is Neff just a greedy guy after the money? It certainly doesn’t seem that way. For the most part, Neff is rather cool and confident. Not exactly what you’d expect from someone who’s supposed to be desperate for the love of the femme fatale. It’s a strange thing to see, but for the most part Neff and Phyllis are rather cold towards each other. Double Indemnity was of course made in 1944, so it’s unclear if they ever do sleep together. If they did, it would more than likely have taken place when Neff tells Phyllis he wants to organise the death of her husband.

Raymond Chandler didn’t have any experience writing screenplays, and during the early drafts it showed. He wanted to go away and write the screenplay alone over a booze-fuelled weekend, while Billy Wilder wanted to work with him and plan it meticulously. They ended up doing it Wilder’s way, when Chandler’s first draft looked like a list of camera directions. For the most part Wilder and Chandler didn’t get along, which led to Chandler quitting at one point when they disagreed over the dialogue. Wilder wanted the original dialogue from the Jame M. Cain story, while Chandler thought it wouldn’t work. Wilder brought in two actors to read out the dialogue, and found much to his surprise that the prickly Chandler was right.

Despite the scripting issues, Wilder decided to stick with it and finally began filming. Even though this was only the third film that Wilder directed, he is able to bring to it an original style. He doesn’t follow the traditional rules of film noir, and at many points doesn’t even seem interested in the issues on the character’s minds. Wilder goes his way, and allows the story to flow without any interference.

There are two rather noticeable tense scenes, and both involve Keys (Edward G. Robinson), Neff’s boss at the insurance company. One scene comes not long after the murder, when Keys brings in a man who saw someone impersonating the dead Mr. Dietrichson on the train. It was Neff he saw on the train, so he is understandably tense when the witness is brought in. The other more memorable scene though comes when Keys arrives at Neff’s apartment unannounced, and tells him that he’s convinced Phyllis killed her husband. Phyllis then arrives at the apartment, and because being there would be rather incriminating, she’s forced to hide behind the door until Keys finally leaves.

MacMurray in the end is able to bring a slightly lighter and more likable side to the character of Neff, and Stanwyck of course was one of the first actors to craft what we now know as the femme fatale. Neff and Phyllis play off each other in a rather unusual way that barely even resembles two people falling in love. If anything, they are only attracted to the idea of murdering Phyllis’ husband and running away together with the insurance money.

Wilder’s first choice for the role was Barbara Stanwyck, who wasn’t just the highest paid actress in Hollywood; she was the highest paid woman in the whole of the United States. Initially Stanwyck turned down the role, concerned about the idea of going from the lead heroine to being a cold blooded killer. Wilder was able to convince her though, telling her that it would be invigorating for her to take a risk. Wilder had a much more difficult time casting the role of Neff, who on paper seemed like a rather weak and insignificant person. Gregory Peck and James Cagney were about the many actors offered the role, and all of them turned it down. Fred MacMurray, an actor best known for comedy roles, was eventually offered the role, but Wilder had to effectively stalk him for a period of a month before MacMurray gave in.

With this being one of the very first American film noirs, it played a big part in crafting it’s original visual style. Wielder brought in John Seitz to photograph the film, a man considered to be one of the first in Hollywood to use large looming shadows, expressionistic jagged edges, and the infamous use of lighting through venetian blinds. It all fits in rather well with the rather hard urban atmosphere that Billy Wilder creates.

The only instances when we see any genuine emotion conveyed are during scenes between Neff and Keys. Edward G. Robinson also had apprehensions about taking a role in the film, considering he was going to be billed as the third star. However Wilder was able to convince him to take the role, by offering him a large salary and fewer filming hours. Keys comes across as a father figure for Keys, if not something more. Keys often confides in him, often hinting that he wants to make him his partner in the company. “The guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from you” Neff tells Keys during the final scene. “Closer than that, Walter” Keys replies.

There is however one rather big issue in the film that never really gets addressed. We see at the beginning of the film that Neff goes to the office to record his confession to Keys, and yet when the film reaches it’s conclusion we see that he still plans to make an escape. Why would he confess and then escape? Perhaps Neff wanted to be caught by Keys all along. Maybe Neff is unable to control himself and must keep going, but still lays things out so then eventually Keys will discover the truth.

Double Indemnity certainly didn’t begin the film noir craze that ran from the mid 40s until the late 50s. It was however one of the first films to use the more darker, European style of film making, and present it to a wider audience. It has at its very heart a torrid relationship that appears to be so complex there are many different opinions on what Neff and Phyllis feel about each other. Perhaps, like most of their actions and motives, they’re keeping it to themselves.

Double Indemnity is now available on Netflix.

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Film Review: Skyfall

Bond is well and truly back. After the disappointment of Quantum of Solace, Bond needed to make an impressive comeback. As though the pressure wasn’t high enough, but Skyfall also comes when Bond is celebrating his fiftieth birthday. What 007 needed was a film that not only celebrated the last fifty years, but also brought something fresh to the table. Skyfall well and truly ticks both boxes, by taking Bond to places he’s never been before, and setting things up beautifully for the future.

The main problem with Quantum of Solace was that it took the pulsating action scenes of Casino Royale, but forgot to bring an interesting plot with it. In fact anyone who can remember or explain the plot of Quantum deserves a medal. A lot of people blamed the director Marc Foster, who up until that point had only had experience directing lower budget dramas. Skyfall director Sam Mendes hasn’t exactly had experience directing action movies, but you still felt that Bond would be safe in his hands. And that perhaps we would finally be able to get to the nitty gritty of Daniel Craig’s incarnation.

During a blistering pre-credits sequence, James Bond is killed. This is hardly a spoiler. He does of course survive in a very Bond-like way, washing up in a tropical climate where he can “enjoy death” with lots of alcohol and lots of sex. He decides to come back from the dead however when he hears that a group of MI6 officers have been killed after M (Judi Dench) lost a disk containing their secret identities. The disk has fallen into the hands of Silva (Javier Bardem), a man from M’s past. So it is up to Bond once again to stop a criminal mastermind, before the whole nation comes under threat.

There have been a lot of whispers and rumours that Daniel Craig could in fact be nominated in the Best Actor category at the upcoming Oscars. Given Craig’s performance it’s not surprising that people would consider a nomination likely. We see Bond in a way we never have before. He’s not just put under the microscope, but he’s also presented as a man in his twilight. His time away has obviously left him a little out of shape, but from what we see of his training he’s a man struggling to keep up.

Bond is not the only one who comes under severe scrutiny. We have been waiting a while for their to be a Bond film worthy of Dame Judi’s outstanding acting abilities, and at last we have one. She plays a considerably more central role here than ever before, struggling to hide her guilt over causing the death of some of her own officers. M is also entering her final years, with new government officer Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) trying to force her into retirement. And of course Javier Bardem is as superb as ever as Silva. A modern day creepy maniac with the look of an old fashioned villain, Bardem helps Skyfall succeed in an are where only films like The Dark Knight have previously: to have a convincing hero, and a memorable villain.

Given that 2012 marks Bond’s fiftieth anniversary, it would have been very easy for director Sam Mendes and screenwriter John Logan to play to the gallery with a few nudges and winks towards the previous catalogue of films. Instead Mendes gives Logan plenty of room to explore the Bond psyche in ways we haven’t seen before. The final act of the film, which takes place in Scotland, contains more insightful information about Bond than all of the previous films put together.

Even though Mendes takes Bond into new territory, there are of course flourishes of traditional 007 style. There is one scene in particular when, while tracking down Silva, Bond and M decide to take a back-up mode of transport. This leads to the reveal of one of the franchise’s most famous gizmos. M brings a little comedy to the scene by mocking something that obviously means a lot to Bond, but in all honesty you should be smiling anyway. If your not, then simply don’t have a soul.

Another moment comes during the pulsating pre-credits sequence, where Bond tears apart Istanbul while tracking down a man thought to be in possession of the disk containing the identities of MI6 agents. Bond starts off in a jeep, then on a bike, then on the roof of a train, before finally tearing the roof off said train with a crane. He completes the melee by jumping from the crane into the now roofless compartment, and rearranges his cuffs before continuing. He destroys half of Turkey, but still takes a moment to make sure his suit still looks smart. Yes, Bond is well and truly back.

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Film Review: Pusher

It was 1996 when Nicolas Winding Refn made his directorial debut with Pusher, a film about a drug pusher with a debt that’s getting increasingly larger. It launched Refn’s career, and spawned two sequels, which he also directed. Now he’s turned his attention to remaking the series, serving as executive producer and moving the setting to London. The only problem is, like with many remakes, Pusher 2012 doesn’t really bring anything fresh to the table.

Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho suffered from the same problem. Even though Van Sant made it a shot-for-shot remake for the most part, he admits that his version of the Hitchcock classic lacks some of the dark undertones of the original. The Pusher remake is rather stylish, and is by no means a shot-for-shot remake, but it fails when given the chance to bring anything new to the story. The change in location to London merely makes it another in the long line of mundane gangster films. The drug pusher at the heart of the film is from the same species of previous big screen incarnations of drug pushers.

Frank (Richard Coyle) lives a life of flashy nightclubs and easy money. As we observe a week in his life, we see him interact with reptilian mob boss Milo (Zlatko Buric) who gives him a kilo of cocaine to sell. However, when the police catch Frank out, he’s forced to get rid of the cocaine by throwing it into a lake. This leaves Frank with a £45,000 debt, and the local enforcers are closing in, cracking their knuckles and threatening to cut bits of Frank’s anatomy off. They don’t beat around the bush these people.

While the majority of the film is a repeat of the usual London gangster film, Richard Coyle does a very good job with the material he’s given. He makes Frank much more sympathetic that he was in the original Danish film. Frank’s life before the foul up with the cocaine is an enviable one, essentially living life at an easy going pace. And while Coyle is also much more refined and upmarket than the original Frank, we do find ourselves emotionally connected with him. We don’t want to see him suffer at the hands of Milo’s goons. That in itself is a rather notable victory.

Zlatko Buric essentially does what he does best; embodying a reptilian charm. You never know if he’s going to hug you and tell you you’re like a son to him, or threaten to remove limbs. He’s the only person who reprises his role from the original film, so for fans of the original trilogy it will bring a smile to their to see him here. Frank is also accompanied along the way by his mistress Flo (Agyness Deyn), who works as a pole dancer. Deyn is perhaps a little too clean cut and angelic to be a pole dancer, but given Coyle’s performance this could be an attempt to make her more emotionally engaging. There’s nothing wrong with that, but at some point realism has to take over.

It’s unknown how much involvement Nicolas Winding Refn had whilst serving as the executive producer. If he’s like a typical Hollywood producer, then his involvement will have been nothing more than his name on the posters and trailers to try and pull the audience in. It’s the screenwriter Matthew Read though who deserves at least a little credit. He writes quite a few genuinely heartbreaking moments in a film where you don’t generally find them. More effort is made to illustrate what Frank is like a person before he plunges himself into a nihilistic underworld.

At the heart of the film does lie a lesson that many gangster films have attempted to illustrate before. While Milo may seem a charming man to begin with, telling Frank’s he’s “like a son to me”, as soon as the drug deal goes awry he wouldn’t think twice about torturing and killing him. Loyalty will always take a back seat to money is this world, and that’s something that Frank finds difficult to comprehend.

Director Luis Prieto does bring a hefty amount of style to the film with some rather engaging cinematography, but you can’t help but feel that this could have been so much more. It is able to pack an emotional punch in a way most gangster movies fail to, but in the end it is all just a little too grim. It may get some fairly solid numbers from the box office (no doubt thanks to Refn’s name), but with a remake like this you expect to find something that advances on the original story. If anything, this is a bit of a step backwards.

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Film Review: Liberal Arts

There haven’t been many good nostalgic films about university life over the past few years. The closest we’ve ever got is with High School Musical, where people are so happy and carefree it can’t possibly be a genuine high school. It’s quite surprising when you consider how easy it is evoke that sense of nostalgia in a university setting, considering that many graduates refer to it as “the best years of my life.”

Liberal Arts certainly knows how to play on that nostalgia. I evokes every possible romantic notion of university life, which is why it will resonate powerfully with many people. It’s a film that knows all too well that if we did return to university after graduating many years previous, we would yearn for the days we walked through the autumn leaves, carrying a coffee in one hand and a selection of books tucked under the other. Indeed just like university life, Liberal Arts is for the most part very light and easy going, but at the same time has interactions and relationships that make it rather consuming.

Jesse (Josh Radnor) is a 35-year-old college administrator, hanging onto his past academia by holding one of its least desirable jobs. He basically has to turn people away at the gate for a living. Then one of his undergraduate professors Peter (Richard Jenkins) invites him to a retirement party back at his alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio. Jesse happily goes along, and when he gets there, desperately doesn’t want to leave again.

Josh Radnor (who writes and directs the film) is in his element as the jaded Jesse. Setting the story in his real life alma mater in Ohio, it is like he’s reminiscing about his younger life. He wonders around the campus filled with intellectual curiosity; it’s like he hasn’t changed a bit. It’s Elizabeth Olsen as the perky student Zibby who is the real winner here though. She’s wise and very believable. Throw that in with her rather subtle attractiveness, and she’s a bookish, shy guy’s dream girl.

It’s the central love story between Radnor and Olsen that makes the film sparkle. They are basically two old souls finding each other in one brief unlikely moment. Radnor also does a good job in casting the supporting roles with more experienced actors. Richard Jenkins is as always reliably good as Jesse’s old professor Peter Hoberg. Allison Janney also stars as a strong, highly sexed university professor, a role she clearly revels in. Zac Efron even makes a surprisingly funny cameo, no doubt playing on the irony of his High School Musical fame.

Even though Radnor does keep things feeling relatively fresh, he does keep the narrative and direction in check. Even though the indy romantic comedies are leaning further towards quirkier narratives, Radnor keeps the story in the mainstream. And even though this was perhaps an attempt to show his directing flare, he doesn’t really do anything particularly memorable. Liberal Arts does have one of the smallest production budgets out this year’s releases (just over $100,000), but it is perhaps a missed opportunity for Radnor to show what he’s made of. When it comes to the script however, Radnor rarely falters by keeping in smart even during the film’s more romantic moments.

In the end though Liberal Arts isn’t really about the story of 35-year-old Jesse falling in love with 19-year-old Zibby. It’s more about Jesse falling back in love with the idea of intellectual youth. Zibby likes to have idealistic conversation about ideas. For her this is common, while Jesse has been looking for it ever since he left Ohio. Even the retiring professor Peter doesn’t want to leave university life, after finding comfort in being seen as a mentor by his students.

Apart from making the audience reminisce about their more enjoyable youth, it also highlights a rather interesting irony. As adults we crave to go back to university when life was more idealised, while students like Zibby crave to be adult and go out into the real world. Radnor does well to strike a balance between Jesse’s trip back in time, and Zibby’s knowledge that the big wide world is waiting for her. While at times Liberal Arts does seem a little too self conscious, it makes up for it by having a big brain and a big heart.

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Film Review: Ruby Sparks

Zoe Kazan is just one of the few actors in recent years who have decided to write a screenplay with a central character made for themselves. In most cases these films are usually from actors struggling to find a breakout performance, so they decide to write their own. Kazan however, is a playwright slowly making a transition to the big screen. With Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan not only illustrates her ability as an actor, but also as a smart screenwriter.

It’s something that seems to run in the family. Zoe Kazan’s grandfather, Elia Kazan, directed On The Waterfront. Her mother, Robin Swicord, wrote the screenplay for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And her father, Nicholas Kazan, wrote the screenplay for Reversal of Fortune. While these family members have all been blessed with career defining movies, you get the feeling that Zoe’s best is still ahead of her. Ruby Sparks is one of the smarter films of the year, but you get the feeling that Kazan is going to go from strength to strength after this.

Calvin (Paul Dano) is writer living of the success of his first novel, which he wrote when he was nineteen. Since then, he has struggled to find anything to top it. His therapist (Elliott Gould) tells Calvin to write about the girl that has been appearing in the novelist’s recent dreams. After a while, Calvin finds that he is falling in love with his fantasy woman, who he has named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Things however take a rather strange turn, when Calvin finds Ruby is now a living person, who thinks she’s his girlfriend, and is walking around his apartment wearing just his shirt.

Paul Dano (who is Zoe Kazan’s real life boyfriend) is surprisingly well cast as the struggling writer Calvin. Kazan could have easily fallen into the trap of making Calvin the stereotypical loner, but that’s far from the case. At one point we briefly meet one of Calvin’s ex-girlfriends Lila (Deborah Ann Woll). We find out she dumped him because he tried to put her up on a pedestal. Calvin is hauntingly similar to many young cerebral men – he wants to find the perfect woman, and feels he can change women into his idealised vision.

Even when it comes to the cast though, Zoe Kazan really does own the film. It certainly is a breakout performance, literally playing the girl of Calvin’s dreams. And just like with Calvin, Ruby is a character we recognise. She’s an amazing cook, with a love for zombie movies and video games. She is every brainy and shy guy’s perfect woman. It’s a shame then that the other characters aren’t so well planned out. Steve Coogan’s portrayal of the literary agent Langdon Tharp feels rather out of place, with Coogan trying to provide his own brand of dry wit to a film that’s more about quirky humour.

For the most part Kazan does stick to the premise of her idea. The most enjoyable scene in the film is when Calvin and his brother Harry (Chris Messina) put Calvin’s ability to control Ruby to the test, and make her speak fluent French while looking puzzled as to why they can’t understand her. It’s a great light hearted moment, but when the film starts to head in a much darker direction, Kazan pulls her punches a little. Instead of making a larger issue out of Calvin’s ability to control her, the darker side to the premise is crammed into one scene.

That is an opportunity missed, but it’s true testament to Kazan’s writing ability that she is able to keep the film on a solid track, and stick to the central theme. Ruby Sparks is all about how people attempt to change the person they are in a relationship with into their ideal partner, and the dangers of attempting to do that.

In the end it does all come together with perhaps an ending that’s a little too neat and tidy, but it sticks to its guns and doesn’t give up on its premise during the film’s shakier moments. It’s certainly an ambitious film for someone making their screenwriting debut, and it’s handled with an artful relish. It may drift into the more traditional idea of a rom-com at times, but this is still one of the funniest and smartest indy films of recent years.

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Classic Hitchcock: Psycho

Universal Studios, 1959. The production crew of a TV show are gathering at the back of the Universal lot to make a film. They have only a small budget, and only thirty days scheduled to get filming finished. You’d think the water would be over their heads, but the director has pointed out that the film will be very cheap and cheerful. He’s only just come off a massive hit the year before, so for the executives at Universal this is a bit of a surprise. But they have gone along with the directors vision. A director who just happens to be on of the most famous in the world. And during that November of 1959, at the back of Universal Studios, a crew is building the Bates motel.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had all the characteristics of a cheap exploitation movie. It had a budget of $800,000 which even in the 1960s was considered low budget. Instead of seeing the minimalism as a weakness, Hitchcock decided to embrace it. He decided to film it in on cheaper black & white film. He used the same cost effective crew that made his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series, as appose to the more extravagant team that had made North by Northwest the year before. It’s almost like Hitchcock was feeling a little tired with all the big budget work and wanted to do something smaller and more intimate.

Psycho marked the first time Hitchcock moved away from his traditional taut thrillers and shifted into full on horror. He crafted a tale that plays on the audience’s fears with great effect. The fear of being forced into a corner where murder is the only way out. The fear of law enforcement watching your every move. The fear of a madman deciding you will be his next victim just because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And of course, the fear of disappointing your mother. The main reason why this is so effective though is that Hitchcock successfully convinces us that the film is about Marion (Janet Leigh), and then leads us up the garden path.

It certainly broke more than it’s fair share of taboos in its time. Even the opening scene when Marion walks around her divorced lover Sam Loomis’ (John Gavin) bedroom in her bra was considered controversial. Even Marian flushing a torn-up note down the toilet was considered risky; at this point a toilet had never been heard flushing in mainstream cinema let alone seen. It was one of the most shocking films the audience had ever seen, but not because of its content. It was the way the director manipulated it and the viewer. The shock that occurs around a third of the way into the film is one of the most memorable moments in cinema history, because Hitchcock convinced us that Marion is our heroine. Then he delivers a shower-based shock.

The screenplay was originally supposed to be written by James Cavanaugh, who had previously written a few episodes of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Upon reading Cavanaugh’s screenplay, Hitchcock rejected it saying that it was too dull. With no writer left to take over, Hitchcock reluctantly turned to Joseph Stefano, who had only made his movie début a couple of years previous with The Black Orchid starring Sophia Loren. However, Hitchcock liked Stefano’s approach to the story and hired him. It’s during the scene when Marion sits down to talk to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) that Stefano reaches his peak. We see how the two connect, and how Marion feels sorry for the innocent and wounded-looking Norman.

Psycho is probably the most audacious film Alfred Hitchcock ever made. Regardless of the taboo-breaking scenes or the shock twists, Hitchcock was on his own admission playing a game with the audience. It was a risk that could have so easily backfired. Hitchcock wouldn’t allow Janet Leigh or Anthony Perkins to attend any press events for the film, and it wasn’t even screened in advance for the press. The posters in the cinema lobbies showed Hitchcock himself, pointing to his watch like an angry boarding school teacher. “No one… BUT NO ONE… Will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho” it read alongside the director. This was quite a bold move, but still a necessary one. Hitchcock didn’t want word to get out, nor people to miss what would happen a third of the way into the film.

The shower sequence took seven of the thirty filming days to complete, and yet it only takes up around three minutes of the film. It’s still held up to this day as an example of artistry defeating graphic violence. One of the main reasons Hitchcock chose to film in black and white was because he didn’t the audience would be able to deal with all the blood that is spilt when Marion is attacked in the shower. If only he knew the slasher films of the future would consider bloodshed a quality. The sequence was filmed from seventy seven different angles, and with fifty cuts. Only one split second shot actually shows a knife penetrating Janet Leigh’s skin. So if you think we weren’t going to include the clip below then you’re out of your mind.

There are many myths about the shower scene. That Hitchcock used freezing cold water to make Janet Leigh scream louder. That she didn’t even know her character would be killed off to make her reaction when the shower curtain flies open more authentic. That for the majority of the time Leigh’s body double was used. That if you slow the film down enough, you’ll see a shot of Leigh’s nipple. All except the latter are false (if you’re curious, it’s when Marion pulls the curtain down). Just like the chest-burster scene in Alien, the scene had such an effect that people believed something more must have been going on in order to make it so memorable. It’s hard for us to believe that it was just another week at the office for these people.

Janet Leigh’s Marion occupies a role that we see regularly in Hitchcock’s work. She’s an innocent person caught up in a criminal’s world. Although she’s not strictly innocent, as an audience we think of her that way. She’s in love with a divorced man and steals $40,000 in order to be with him. But she ends up crippled with guilt, and whilst staying at the Bates Motel because of a rain storm, she decides to take the money back, and takes a shower to wash away the guilt.

Because of Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation, he was able to cast his first choice to play Marion, Janet Leigh, for just a quarter of her usual salary. Leigh had apparently read the novel by Robert Bloch on which the movie is based, and instantly signed up before even reading the script. Leigh initially didn’t even ask what her salary would be when she agreed to the role. Anthony Perkins proved an interesting casting choice, considering that in the novel Norman Bates is middle-aged, overweight and enjoys pornography. The scriptwriter Stefano liked the idea of changing the dynamic of the character to match Perkins’ style.

At the time of the release of Psycho, Hitchcock was at the height of his career. He was thought of as the most famous director in the world, and people were going to see his films just because his name was on the marquee. It’s very unlikely that an audience will gravitate to a director like that today. Perhaps it is because the audience was following him religiously that Hitchcock thought he could get away with emotionally manipulating them throughout the film. The death of Arbogast (Martin Balsam) and the revelation about Norman’s mother provide shocks later in the film.

Hitchcock opted to film Psycho with 50mm lenses, which gave the effect of human vision. This made the darker scenes in the film all the more unnerving. Especially during the sequence when Norman is watching Marion undress through a tiny peephole. Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates certainly has to be classed as a landmark performance. He makes Norman a likeable character – an innocent person who is having to cover-up his mother’s mistakes. Even when he’s removing Marion’s body and pushing her car into the swamp we’re on his side. In a strange way we want him to succeed, which is by far the most audacious aspect of the film.

Psycho is considered to be the first ever slasher film, and when you think about it nothing has ever really compared. Modern-day slasher films tend to drive towards gore and exploitation, rather than trying find something new and invigorating. The same can be said of blockbuster movies. Perhaps the big earners will never be as good as Jaws, the first film ever to break the $100 million mark. One thing is for sure, a legacy of horror movies exist today because of Hitchcock’s flare and creativity. Psycho is about an artist tackling movie convention and cliche – and winning.

Perhaps we will hear more stories about what happened on the set of Psycho yet. February 2013 will see the release of Hitchcock, a film based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. It stars Anthony Hopkins in what certainly will be an Oscar nominated role as Alfred Hitchcock, with Helen Mirren playing the director’s wife Alma, and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. The trailer for the film shows us a Hitchcock willing to do anything to make his film the best one yet, and that is something that we have no difficulty believing. Yes, he was an arrogant control freak, but he also made some of the most influential movies of all time, and out of all of them, Psycho will probably remain the most memorable.

Psycho is part of the Alfred Hitchcock Collection, available to buy on Blu-Ray now.

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Film Review: Taken 2

There is an episode of CSI Miami when it’s clear the show had gone completely potty. In the episode there is a fire which traps one of the crime scene investigators underneath a concrete pillar. Two burly men try and lift it, but fail miserably. Then the shows hero Horatio Caine, armed with his shades and flamboyant ginger hair, is able to lift the pillar single-handed and sling it across the room. The fact that he’s in his fifties didn’t seem to matter. Because he’s the hero; the man who can do anything no matter how unrealistic.

Taken 2 has one of those moments. Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) finds himself in a tricky situation when his past comes back to haunt him. He’s in Istanbul and has no idea where he or his daughter is. So he decides to call his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and hatches a plan. He tells her to throw a grenade in the air so then when he hears the explosion, he can calculate the exact distance between them. Just like that. In his head. It’s an idea that is laughably insane, but it is the kind of the thing you expect from action B movies like this. But B movie actioners at least have the enjoyability factor. Taken 2 is devoid of this. Bryan Mills used to have a particular set of skills; now he’s a cartoon.

While doing some work in Istanbul, Bryan invites his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and his daughter Kim to join him for a short holiday. While attempting to patch things up with Lenore, Bryan finds the holiday turning into a nightmare when the Albanian family of the man he electrocuted to death in the previous film have tracked him down. Bryan and Lenore are taken, so it is left up to Kim to come to their aid and save them.

It really is a shame that Liam Neeson is being forced to make his way through such a bad story. He is watchable and engaging as always, but there are moments when you get the feeling he’s just thinking about picking up his pay cheque. This is certainly something we didn’t see in the first instalment, when he made his transformation into middle-aged action hero. Neeson himself admitted that he thought it would go straight to DVD, instead of becoming a massive box office hit.

Maggie Grace returns to play Bryan’s daughter Kim, and she has made quite the transformation. She used to be the innocent, virginal victim. Now she’s an innocent, virginal action hero. When Bryan and Lenore are captured, Bryan doesn’t think twice in telling his 19-year-old daughter exactly where he has stashed a handgun and some grenades. With them in hand she’s off leaping across rooftops. It’s difficult to decide what’s harder to believe – that Kim could make such a ridiculous transformation, or that Maggie Grace is still convincing as a 19-year-old even though she is now 28.

A lot of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the director Olivier Megaton. Having directed two other poor action films (Transporter 3 and Columbiana) he continues his bad run, this time with horrifically filmed set pieces. Bryan’s close encounters with Albanian thugs are quite often filmed with a handheld camera, so there is so much shaking it’s impossible to tell who’s pummelling who. If it weren’t for shots of Bryan as the last man standing we wouldn’t know who won these fights. Luc Besson has co-written the script again, but this time it’s like he can’t think of anything cool to show us.

Taken 2 has a 12A certificate, unlike the first film which was a certificate 15 and an 18 when it was released uncut on DVD. There’s no doubt that this sequel has been watered down in order to reach a wider audience, and we will probably see an uncut version of the film on DVD shelves in time for Christmas. But it’s clear from the total lack of creativity that this was purely made for the money.

During the press interviews leading up to the film’s release, Liam Neeson said he doubted there will be a Taken 3. However, Luc Beeson said he wasn’t planning on doing a third film, but because Taken 2 has made a huge amount of money at the box office he is considering it. This says it all right here. Forget creativity or actually giving the audience value for money, just keep churning out the same garbage as long as it makes money. Taken 2 does have a tiny plot thread in the vengeful family that could have proved interesting, but in the end it’s nothing but bile.

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Film Review: Looper

It’s advised that when you go and see Looper you don’t think about it too much. That’s not to say that Rian Johnson’s third film is rather lightweight, in fact it’s quite the opposite. But as Bruce Willis points out during one scene in a roadside diner, focusing on the time travel aspects of the story isn’t the best way to go. This is rather sound advice; if you do think about time travel it will either drive you crazy or give you a headache.

Jeff Daniels’ Abe makes a similar point when giving advice to the young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He tells him not to think too much about time travel because it “fries your brain”. Abe is from the future, so he also advises Joe to go to China and learn Mandarin. Looper is filled to the brim with time paradoxes, the kind of things modern sci-fi movies avoid just in case it makes the audience think too much. Rian Johnson though has never been a director that chose to do things the easy way.

It’s the mid-21st century, and Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper; an assassin who kills people when they are sent back in time from the future, when time travel is illegal and only used by the mob. Joe has a relatively easy job (wait for target, BANG!, go for coffee, job done) and gets paid a lot for it. Then a mysterious figure from the future called The Rainmaker starts “closing loops”; sending back a looper’s future self to be killed. The looper gets a huge payoff and told to enjoy the rest of their life.

Hence the arrival of an older version of Joe (Bruce Willis), who has no intention of having his loop closed. He scuppers his younger self’s attempt to kill him, and sets off to find the Rainmaker in order to stop any of the horrifying future events happening. It’s only when Bruce Willis turns up that you realise what a convincing performance Joseph Gordon-Levitt is giving. During a quick montage when we see how the young Joe spends his thirty years of freedom as he turns into old Joe, it becomes all the more believable that the young man will eventually become old and battered.

While old Joe heads off in search of the Rainmaker (who is just a child at this time), he is able to narrow it down to three possible candidates. Young Joe decides to hide out in a farmhouse where one of the said candidates, Cid (Pierce Gagnon) is living with his mother, Sara (Emily Blunt). It shows what a great writer Rian Johnson is when he casts Blunt as something more than a heroine for the main character to swoon over. She has ideas, feelings, and is a well-crafted character that does have a purpose within the story.

This is a quality that Johnson injects into pretty much all of his characters, which would explain why the likes of Bruce Willis are always willing to take a pay cut in order to work with him. As with his two previous films Brick and The Brother’s Bloom, Johnson combines rather crisp dialogue and unique characterisation in order to keep the audience interested. Many other films in the genre would have given up on those things in order to further the plot, but as far as Johnson is concerned they all work together, and complement each other. It may not always make sense, but it is superbly crafted.

It’s strange to think about it, but underneath all the special effects, explosions, and time paradoxes there is a simple truth at the heart of Looper. If you could go back in time and give your younger self some advice, the likelihood is that your younger self wouldn’t want to hear it. And by attempting to do so, you’d probably make things a lot worse. It’s a film about trying to find redemption, and the consequences that can ensue.

While most of the film will be predictable for some, there is one key scene that is rather unexpected. When the older Joe finally comes to terms with what he has to do now he’s travelled back in time, Rian Johnson bravely sticks to his guns and follows through with the story. It’s a big risk, and you have to wonder if someone tapped him on the shoulder at any point to ask if it’s a good idea. Johnson stands by his premise though, and is able to deliver a sci-fi film that isn’t afraid to use its brain and wear its heart on its sleeve. That’s what really makes this a wonderful and enjoyable triumph.

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Film Review: The Campaign

For a while you would have though the American politics is beyond parody. We see the various gaffs and mishaps coming from a certain Presidential candidate, and then see that the race to win the 2012 election could still be a photo finish. It’s hard not to crack a smile of incredulity. And yet The Campaign proves that you can mock US politics by going in a different direction.

Instead of focusing on satire, The Campaign heads more in the direction of farcical and crude humour. The political orientation of the two candidates doesn’t really matter, only that they are both completely incompetent. The film instead decides to make satire out of the large amount of money that is put into the system, the simple message being that if you have the backing of someone with huge piles of cash you can win any election you want. Political attack ads are also held up as being rather petty, overblown, and full of lies. They usually are, but as you’ll see these candidates won’t shy away from accusing each other of being terrorists.

Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is the Congressman for the small constituency of Hammond. Looking to serve a fifth straight term, it looks like he will stand unopposed, until a gaff involving an answering machine sends his approval ratings through the floor. The mega-rich Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) see that Brady could be in trouble, and so decide to find another candidate to be their puppet. And so they select Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a local man who runs a tourism company.

The incumbent congressman Cam Brady is a Democrat, but you wouldn’t think that when you see him. He looks like Bush, and has the brains of Chaney. The only sign that he’s a Democrat is that he has the hair of John Kerry. It’s clear that Will Ferrell has based Cam Brady on the selection of Republican blowhards that march around Washington, and let’s be frank he has plenty to choose from. He will do anything to win, including making a sex tape for a campaign commercial. He has a wife (Katherine LaNasa) who only sticks around because Cam is under consideration to be the next Vice President.

Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) is the Republican candidate challenging Brady. We only know he’s a Republican because he states that he is when he announces his candidacy, and his silent rage when his son confesses he took the Lord’s name in vain (along with many other offensives). Huggins is essentially the village idiot, walking around with his two dogs, saying hello to people on the street who shout back that they have no idea who he is. It is basically Zach Galifianakis doing what he does best.

To make sure that Huggins’ campaign goes smoothly, the Motch brothers send campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to help. McDermott steals every scene he is in as the slimy and venomous campaigner. Never will you see someone make eating cereal so hilariously sinister. The Motch brothers themselves (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) are exactly what you expect from rich backers, and that’s pure evil.  They have a quality that’s vaguely reminiscent of Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister; they are charming, vindictive, and seem to have control over everything. It’s almost certain that they are based on the real life Koch brothers (look them up – pure evil).

The Campaign has plenty of laughs, and it is well paced so then the election race doesn’t become too mundane. Instead off an underdog trying to break down an insurmountable lead, the polls show a roller coaster ride. The only thing that lets this film down is the ending, which many will see coming, and many will wish it’s not going to happen. The central message of the conclusion is that no matter what honesty and integrity prevail in politics. This is not funny, in fact it’s rather sad, considering that it is hardly ever the case.

It’s the chemistry between Ferrell and Galifianakis that really makes this film tick. Also serving as producers, they will have been able to shape the script into something that suits them perfectly. The supporting characters provide just the right amount of humorous relief from the pair, especially from Dylan McDermott who is superb. If it wasn’t for the lazy conclusion it would have been one of the best comedies of the year. The most sobering thought however is that even though it is totally ludicrous, it wouldn’t be surprising if this story came true.

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Film Review: Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly is a film about incompetent gangsters. Seriously, these gangs certainly aren’t The Sopranos. We feel for Brad Pitt’s hitman Jackie Cogan, who is exasperated when he learns the very people he is tracking down almost want to be caught. When you see Cogan’s frustration, you might even think he’s annoyed that they’ve made his job too easy. The general stupidity of the gangsters gives the film a darkly witty tone, but when it drifts into social commentary, Killing Them Softly loses sight of what it wants to be.

As a basic gangster movie, this really does get it spot on. It has a delicate blend of old fashioned and modern techniques, that evoke memories of David Mamet while still feeling fresh. And yet, Andrew Dominik doesn’t seem satisfied with this. He has to inject social commentary by setting the film in the backdrop of the 2008 Presidential Election. It’s like the country has a hangover, but it doesn’t say as much about the condition of America as it thinks it does. Thankfully, the more dialogue heavy scenes save this film from drifting into limbo by injecting some black humour for relief. One particular scene which leads to a story about a car burning is rather hilarious.

Frankie and Russell (Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are both rather smalltime junkie thieves. They are hired by Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) to hold-up a card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Trattman has organised a hold-up of his own game before, so he instantly becomes the prime suspect. The high rolling victims though are not completely satisfied, so decide to bring a little outside help.

And so in rides Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), an outside enforcer to track down the real culprits. Cogan is a brooding, introverted anti-hero, the kind of role that Pitt revels in. It’s hardly surprising then that this is one of his best recent performances, and at times he is required to carry the film on his back. He had to face up against a lawyer (Richard Jenkins) who just won’t condone any violence (even though Cogan knows it is inevitable). And when Cogan decides to bring in his friend Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help, he starts to spiral into a pit of booze and prostitutes. Cogan could not be more alone.

Lucky for Cogan then that his targets are making it all very easy for him. Scoot McNairy’s Frankie is a layabout who probably hasn’t done a day’s work in his life. Ben Mendelsohn’s Russell is a junkie who steals dogs and sells them on. When they first meet up to arrange their heist, Frankie is ideally smoking while standing on a wooden stool that has been left in the street. Russell is towing along around eight dogs that are varied in size. Why would someone want to hire these two idiots? Probably because they were the only two people available. And because this will probably be the most accurate representation of thieves on the screen this year.

Killing Them Softly marks the second collaboration between Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominik, their first being the superbly eerie The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford. This film is based on the 1970s novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Dominik manages to drag the story into the modern day world while at the same time keeping a 70s style. It’s like he’s turned back the clock to the pre-Tarantino era, keeping it for the most part rather traditional. However there are a few flares of modernism that lead to the more memorable moments in the film. There is one notable slow motion set piece, filled with shattering glass and spurting blood.

However the film really does start to let itself down with its blunt attempts at social commentary. In the background of many scenes, we can hear rolling news reporting on the latest speech given by outgoing president George W. Bush, and the Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama. They are always talking about the economy and the latest bailout. We do understand where the film is coming from, but it feels like it’s being shoved down our throats when it’s not what we’re looking for. The only thing that is more distancing is the rather abhorrent representation of women. They are constantly being referred to in strikingly offensive ways. The only female character is a nameless prostitute that Cogan finds in Mickey’s room. They have a brief conversation which is colourful to say the least.

As a gangster film, Killing Them Softly evokes memories of Mamet, Stone, and Scorsese without feeling like a carbon copy. It also has one of the most severe beatings you’ll ever see on the screen, which is exactly what you come to expect from a film like this. But at times it’s trying a little too hard to make a point. Dominik is showing us that the idea of the community is a complete fallacy, and that people are now only concerned with greed and self-interest. There is nothing wrong with this, and while the final line of the film is snappy and memorable, everything that came before makes you feel a little distanced. It could have been one of the best films of the year, if it had only taken it easy.

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Film Review: The Myth of the American Sleepover

The Myth of the American Sleepover will for many be one of the most nostalgic films of the year. Anyone who remembers being a teenager, and the growing pains that ensue when adulthood beckons will find something bittersweetly familiar about this teen drama. And while all the elements of this film may not fit together perfectly, it does evoke the pleasant memories of past teen movies without seeming like it’s copied from the same script.

This directorial debut from David Robert Mitchell is rather tame and tender, and is often treated like a dreamy bliss. It all connotes perfectly the mind of an adolescent during this time of life; nothing but a carefree existence without a care in the world or any consequences. You can see in the characters’ eyes that they enjoy this, but at the same time there is a yearning for something more. They’re starting to crave a life with a forward trajectory, that involves biting the bullet of adulthood and accepting responsibility for their own lives and move on. But before they do, they want to enjoy one last night of freedom.

The story takes place in a suburban area of Detroit, which is made to look so immaculate you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s an episode of Last of the Summer Wine USA. It’s the last day of summer, and the various teenagers in the movie are getting ready to bid their families, friends, and Detroit goodbye as they head away to college.

The only problem with the ensemble cast is that none of them are particularly memorable. You are rooting for them to succeed in whatever endeavour they have planned for their final night of freedom, but you would be forgiven if some of the stories just mould together into one. The majority of the film is taken up by easy going conversations between the teenagers, and while that certainly isn’t a bad thing, it is a missed opportunity to give the character’s a little bit something extra to make them more memorable.

The cast for the most part is taken up by young, unknown amateur actors. It is a lot to expect such a young and inexperienced cast carry a film, but David Robert Mitchell’s script and direction make it a relative breeze. The script contains natural, easy-going dialogue, which allows the actors to settle into the more natural aspects of their roles. They’re teenagers playing teenagers, and it’s the nervous anxieties and raging hormones of the characters that make them all the more believable.

The Myth of the American Sleepover marks David Robert Mitchell’s directorial debut, but you wouldn’t think that is the case watching it. It is a very well made film that knows exactly what it wants to be. While it does often bare similarities to past teen dramas (and on some occasions, it directly refers to them), Mitchell manages to inject something into the heart of it that makes it feel much more fresh and engaging. It feels much more naturalistic than previous summer break movies, while at the same time keeping a dream-like quality.

The film benefits from its slow pace, as it allows the audience to ponder why it is these characters are in such a rush a grow up. The majority of us think of our teenage years as the best part of our lives, and yet as a teenager there is nothing you crave more than being an adult. Mitchell understands that being young is a magical time in a person’s life, full of new experiences and discoveries. But he also notes that a day comes when a teenager realises that he/she is ready to take the final step to becoming an adult.

The lack of interesting character’s is certainly a drawback, but David Robert Mitchell’s tale is more about what is happening to the teens, rather than the teens themselves. As they sit back and watch the season change around them, they themselves take the next step in the movement of their lives. It is bittersweet and nostalgic, and in the end that’s all that really matters. Mitchell’s debut film is all about the mood, and he nails it perfectly.

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Film Review: The Imposter

Imagine for a moment that you are screenwriter in Hollywood. You come up with this idea for a psychological thriller about a young boy who is kidnapped, and then some years later a boy is found claiming to be the missing child. He looks nothing like the kidnapped boy, but the family believe it’s him, at least at first. Chances are you’d get laughed out of the executive’s office for pitching such an outlandish idea.

It does however make for an astonishing story for a documentary. After all, the cliché does say that the truth is stranger than fiction. The Imposter tells the story of Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old boy who disappears from his hometown in Texas, his family fearing that he has been kidnapped. Three years later, a boy is found in Spain claiming to be Nicholas Barclay, and he is returned to his family who are waiting for him with open arms. However, as time goes on they begin to suspect that the boy isn’t who he claims to be. They soon discover that he is in fact Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman who impersonates missing people.

What is so alarming about this story is that Bourdin was accepted by the Barclay family so warmly, even though he looks nothing like the actual Nicholas Barclay. It even takes a while for someone to notice that Bourdin can’t speak English without an accent. There is absolutely no resemblance between the two of them at all. So why did the Barclay family believe him?

When we see the heart breaking interviews with the Barclay family, it seems clear that they believed Bourdin because they just wanted to. They were in denial on such a massive scale that they were willing to accept that Bourdin was Nicholas. Having said that, the director Bart Layton handles the ambiguity of the story so superbly that we actually see signs of something much more sinister underneath; that Bourdin was a convenient cover-up for the skeletons in the family closet.

Layton combines talking head interviews with the family of Nicholas Barclay, and Frederic Bourdin himself, along with dramatic re-enactments. You can almost hear the documentary filmmakers scream at the thought of the latter manipulating the truth, and yet that really is the point of the film. Like Verbal Kint telling the story of Keyser Soze, the family and Bourdin are telling their own versions of the story and we have no idea which is the truth. That’s assuming either of them are. It doesn’t attempt to connect the dots for the audience, which is what makes it such an unnerving experience. Probably the most gripping and terrifying documentary of the year so far.

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Film Review: Shadow Dancer

Recently the spy genre, that usually involved tuxedos, continental locations, and loads of explosions, has been brought crashing back down to Earth. Now even the new James Bond film will be taking place in London’s underground. Spies are going through a bit of a reality check, and Shadow Dancer is indeed so plausible and realistic it almost sends a shiver down the spine.

The film takes place in Belfast in 1993 during the troubles. IRA member Colette (Andrea Riseborough) is caught by MI5 while attempting to leave a bomb on London’s subway network. MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen) tells Colette that she can either go away to prison for 25 years, and therefore only see her young son on rare occasions, or she can go back to Belfast and spy on her IRA brothers (Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson). Colette chooses the later, but it’s not long before suspicions start to rise, and Mac thinks his boss (Gillian Anderson) is covering something much more sinister.

The most alarming thing about Shadow Dancer is how incredibly bland and grey it looks, and it’s not a bad thing. It is something the audience would expect when they see Colette return to her dull run down home in Belfast, but even the MI5 office where Mac works is the dullest shade of beige. Fortunately though it’s what is beneath the surface of the film that makes it such a treat. Director James Marsh takes a rare stab at directing fiction, after becoming best known for his documentary work such as Man on Wire. It is perhaps down to his work in documentaries that he is able to create such a chillingly realistic world, where it’s surprising ‘based on a true story’ isn’t on the credits.

Marsh certainly doesn’t sacrifice character development for a quick moving plot. It’s a very slow burning drama that takes it’s time, and it’s because of this it is able to be so riveting and tense. When Colette is leaving her bomb on the London underground, it is just a small part of a dialogue-free sequence that lasts around fifteen minutes. The atmosphere is so superbly crafted and tense that it has to be one of the best moments of British cinema in 2012.

Perhaps during the early stages there are a few too many questions being asked, but it eventually settles down into an easy and efficient rhythm. It may be about as beige as you can get, but under the surface it is an intelligent and emotionally complex spy drama. On this evidence, there’s no reason why James Marsh shouldn’t be offered a Bond film as soon as possible.

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Film Review: The Flowers of War

Given that we have now bid a fond farewell to the London 2012 Olympics, it somehow seems the perfect time for the release of the latest film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who directed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His new film The Flowers of War is probably the most accessible film he’s done to date. Filmed with English dialogue, and with the biggest budget Chinese cinema has ever seen, this is Yimou returning to period epics, which made him one of the best of China’s Fifth Generation directors.

The Flowers of War is set in Nanking during the 1937 siege, when the invading Japanese massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians, and woman were forced into sex slavery. John Miller (Christian Bale) is an American lout, drunkenly stumbling around Nanking and looting in the wreckage left by the Japanese invaders. However, when he himself takes refuge in a Catholic cathedral, he finds a group of convent schoolgirls and prostitutes also hiding out from the massacre. Upon finding them, Miller becomes their reluctant protector as he poses as a priest to try and find a way to get them and himself out of Nanking.

This is Zhang Yimou returning to the epic heroism films that made him great, and with the biggest budget in the history of Chinese cinema (a reported $94 million) he makes every penny count. The action and battle scenes are thrillingly crafted, and are often made to look like a graphic novel adaptation. Yimou certainly knows how to create a beautiful image, and with a running time of over two hours it’s very impressive that he’s able to make every other shot in the film a memorable one.

The only fault with the film though is the rather clumsily constructed characters. Christian Bale’s John Miller goes from being a drunken idiot to the defender of schoolgirls and prostitutes in a heartbeat, without even a little transition or convincing debate. Christian Bale though is able to take all this in his stride and craft a rather convincing performance out of the flimsy script.

Similarly to Bale’s other Summer film The Dark Knight Rises, you do worry at one point that the film is getting carried away and will tumble off the rails at any moment, but Yimou and co. are able to craft a thrilling and beautiful epic, and with the English dialogue this surely will only widen Yimou’s appeal.

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Film Review: Ted

If you were part of the young generation that first saw Toy Story hit cinema screens, you will have wondered if your toys came to life whenever you left the room. Perhaps you wished they would come to life, talk to you, and be your friends forever. Seth MacFarlane’s debut film Ted shows you the main reason why that would be a very bad idea – because one day you have to grow up. At least you’re supposed to.

It’s 1985, and an eight-year-old John Bennett is shunned by the rest of the kids in his community in a suburban area of Boston. When one Christmas his parents buy him a brand new teddy bear, he cherishes it and talks to it like it’s his best friend. One night he wishes that Ted would really come to life, and lo and behold the next morning Ted is alive and kicking. Fast forward 25 years with a well-crafted montage and a now adult John (Marc Wahlberg) still has his trusty friend Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) by his side, as well as a beautiful girlfriend (Mila Kunis).

Making his directorial debut, Seth MacFarlane manages to demolish the main obstacle he was facing, and that was steering himself away from Family Guy. There was always the risk that Ted would come across like an overextended TV show, but MacFarlane clearly has a keen eye for cinematic storytelling. He’s able to craft a solid, if occasionally misjudged story that feels like a movie without giving up on laughs. And boy, are there plenty of laughs to be had; Ted is packed with so many crass and silly jokes it almost makes you dizzy.

Mark Wahlberg gives a superb comedy performance, his first since the rather underrated The Other Guys. He’s proving to be one of Hollywood’s leading versatile actors, as one particular scene when he rhymes off names without taking a breath demonstrates. Mila Kunis is able to make the best of her role as John Bennett’s girlfriend. She’s a very likeable and occasionally funny character, already elevating her above the traditional female roles in rather blokey comedies. Patrick Stewart even puts on his best reading voice as the film’s narrator, providing the prefect humorous antidote to the bad fairy-tale movies we’ve had this year.

It should come as no surprise though that the real stand-out performance comes from Seth MacFarlane’s Ted. MacFarlane is able to make Ted a convincing central character without giving up on any of his charm. It’s probably in some way sacrilegious to make this comparison, but just in the same way you forget that The Simpsons are yellow and goofy looking, you forget that Ted is just a stuffed bear. Having said that, because Ted is a child’s toy he is able to say rather offensive and risky things that only he could really get away with. If you are Asian, Muslim, a woman from Boston, or a woman with what might be described as a “white trash name” then brace yourself. The rest of you, sit back and enjoy the best comedy of the year.

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Film Review: Undefeated

If you weren’t aware that Undefeated was a documentary beforehand, then you could be forgiven for thinking this is just another American sports movie. You may be sat watching for a while, waiting for Kevin Costner to show up. But he doesn’t. Instead Undefeated demonstrates rather sublimely why it won the 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary.

Undefeated documents the 2009 season for the Manassas High School football team, nicknamed The Tigers. In their entire 110-year history, they have never advanced to the end of season play-offs. Already this is starting to sound like a bad sports movie, and when it comes to the clichés of the genre, Undefeated is packed to the rafters with them. You’ve got the obligatory comebacks, team mates fighting amongst themselves of the training field, and one storyline which is almost exactly the same as the plot from Sandra Bullock’s Oscar winning football movie The Blind Side. The directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin do a good job of combining fictional style with non-fiction storytelling, but at times it does feel like the truth is struggling to break through, or even getting in the way of the drama.

When Lindsay and Martin do focus on the heart of the story though, they are able to tap into some genuine emotion that makes you forget about all the story clichés. While most of these movies would try and preach that football builds character, this is a film that shows that it actually reveals who these high school students really are. The true star of the film, as is quite often the case, is the coach of the team Bill Courtney. He works on a voluntary basis, but when we hear his passion and his belief in his team of young athletes you feel someone should be trying to pay him instantly. He’s very much a father figure for many of the team, and one particular scene when he shows one of the players how to put on cologne, it’s hard not to let the poignancy completely take over. And because we’ve seen everything he has been through, when things go wrong you can’t help but share the frustration he feels.

In comparison to documentaries such as Senna which was horrifically overlooked at last year’s Oscars, Undefeated doesn’t really match up. Having said that, it is probably one of the most emotionally satisfying documentaries you’ll see in a long time. It may prefer to focus on emotions instead of analysing things, but its universal nature will even bring the severest critics of American Football round and make them pay attention.

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Film Review: Killer Joe

Just when you think nothing in cinema can shock you anymore, William Friedkin shows up and does something so horrifying that it beggars belief. His latest film Killer Joe contains such a scene. Let’s just say it involves Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken leg. If you’re a big lover of KFC, you should be prepared to be put off for a long time.

Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a drug-addicted, alcoholic redneck who soon finds himself in trouble with some local goons. He owes them a lot of money, something he and his lowlife family, including his father (Thomas Haden Church) and his step mother (Gina Gershon) certainly don’t have. The only solution anyone can think of is to bump off Chris’s mother in order to get insurance money. They decide to hire the infamous Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a police officer who’s a hired gun on the side. The only problem is, Chris and the rest of his clan can’t afford the upfront fee that he requires, so Joe decides to take something else as collateral – Chris’s younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple).

This is the second film in a row by William Friedkin that is based on a stage play, and in this case it is rather noticeable. Quite a few moments feel rather stagey, with plenty of dialogue and actors breaking into monologues. Friedkin deserves credit then for not allowing these scenes to take anything away from the cinematic effect of the film, instead using the monologues to show just how good the cast he’s brought together really is. You would call it sophisticated it the film’s content wasn’t so barbaric.

Friedkin is as unflinching as ever when it comes to what he shows us on screen, but on this occasion his great sense of purpose will make many despise watching this. It’s filled with extremely dark humour that makes you feel terrible for even thinking of raising a smile; this includes the aforementioned scene with a chicken leg. It is a truly chilling and disturbing scene, mainly because the humiliation that Friedkin is showing us is intended to make us laugh. That is a catastrophic misjudgement on Friedkin’s part.

In the UK it has received an 18 certificate, while in the US it has received the infamous NC-17 rating, something some filmmakers aim for. If Friedkin has released this as an NC-17 back in the 90s it probably would have become a cult hit during the “video nasty” era. It earns this rating and then some with its scenes of violence, sex, violent sex, and violent sex related simulation. It all borders very closely on misogyny and many will not forgive the film for this.

The title role though is occupied by someone who gives the stellar performance it deserves. Matthew McConaughey gives a terrific performance, creating a sense of dread whenever he is on screen with his vile demeanour, which often leads to the film’s funnier moments. Killer Joe is rather compelling, but it’s unflinching and brutal nature will leave you squirming all the way home to take a shower.

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Film Review: Take This Waltz

It was five years ago when Sarah Polley made a great first impression with her debut feature film Away From Her. Her very subtle and touching film about a person suffering from Alzheimer’s earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. This year she brings us Take This Waltz, a film which quite possibly could earn Polley her second Oscar nomination.

Michelle Williams plays Margot, who while on a business trip in Nova Scotia meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), a handsome artist. The two flirt with each other, and as they talk they learn that they are both from Toronto. It is only when they share a taxi home from the airport that they realise they even live on the same street. It is only when Margot arrives home that we learn she is already married to cook book writer Lou (Seth Rogen). They have a rather comfortable marriage, but now that Daniel is in Margot’s life, their relationship starts to break down.

Margot and Lou’s problems don’t just arise overnight though. This isn’t a film where characters make decisions just because it suits the story. Sarah Polley really takes her time, and allows the characters to decide what way the story goes while avoiding the temptation of using cliché or cutting corners. When Polley does bring in more eccentric and humorous scenes, she still manages to keep things truthful and involving. The most impressive thing though about Polley’s approach is that she asks the audience to do something that most directors wouldn’t, and that’s to accept the idea of an extramarital affair.

It goes without saying that this film contains rather sensitive material, but Polley does well to keep it under control. She is aided along the way by a couple of stellar performances from the main cast. Michelle Williams goes back to the realms of the brutal romance, just like when she starred in the superb Blue Valentine, for which she received an Oscar nomination. On this occasion however she dives into a performance which may well be her most complex yet. Seth Rogen is surprisingly sombre as Lou, the husband who you get the feeling knew something was wrong in his marriage sooner than he lets on. Polley of course doesn’t constantly try to make him look like a victim, but Rogen’s performance does provide some of the film’s more emotional moments.

What separates this from the majority of films about infidelity is that Polley isn’t able to dive under the skin of the characters, no matter what we will find. And at its heart it has a simple but tragic message that no matter who we are with, we will always be alone. It’s very risky, but it’s subtle observations make this a masterfully told story.

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Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan may have inadvertently created the hardest job in cinema – directing the reboot to the Batman franchise. There almost certainly will be one at some point, whether it’s in a couple of years or ten years. Nolan has taken a franchise that looked dead in the water of the debacle of Batman & Robin and turned it into the greatest comic book franchise in cinema history. The Dark Knight Rises plays a very big part in that success.

It’s been eight years since the death of Harvey Dent, and Batman hasn’t been seen since taken the blame for his murder and the people he killed. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has now become a recluse, his body damaged from the pounding it’s taken since he became The Dark Knight. Batman though isn’t really needed anymore; thanks to Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) crime in Gotham is at a record low. That is until the super-strong Bane (Tom Hardy), and versatile cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) arrive in Gotham, forcing Bruce Wayne out of semi-retirement to wear the bat suit once again.

Something that has happened in nearly every Batman movie (except Batman Begins) is that the villain steals the show from the caped crusader. In The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan manages to keep things fairly balanced. Just when it looks like Bane or Selina Kyle could start to dominate proceedings, Batman is given twice as much attention. This is after all supposed to be the end of his story, at least in terms of this trilogy, and Christopher Nolan seems to be very conscious of that. Christian Bale doesn’t quite reach the heights of his performance in Batman Begins, but the role of the dark broken hero certainly suits him.

Tom Hardy certainly has a commending screen presence as Bane, but one of the most common complaints from audiences will be his voice. At times it is very difficult to hear what he is saying, but the lines you do catch generally are some of the best in the film (“When Gotham is ashes, you have my permission to die”). Anne Hathaway though is the one who gives the stand-out performance as Selina Kyle. She is a femme fatale in every sense; stylish and just as much physical prowess as Batman. She also brings to the character an understated sexiness, which Christopher Nolan at no point exploits through camerawork. He rightly assumes the audience will already have noticed how beautiful Anne Hathaway is without having to spell it out.

Michael Caine also returns as Alfred, whose role carries much more emotional weight in this final chapter. The real heart of the movie lies with Alfred, and a couple of his conversations with Bruce Wayne could well reduce audience members to tears. Gary Oldman once again gives an understated but superb performance as Commissioner Gordon, a man struggling with the guilt of being the only person knowing who Harvey Dent really was. And of course there is Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, busily trying to keep Wayne Enterprises going in Bruce’s absence. There are also new faces through, with the young moral cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).

There are a lot of characters and a lot of storylines to get through, and around midway through you do begin to worry that it’s all about to fall off the rails. Nolan keeps things well on track though, and does the very thing most trilogies fail to do – give it a good ending. I obviously won’t spoil the ending, but it does allow the audience to take away from the film whatever it wants. It is very satisfying, and indeed gives this remarkable trilogy the send-off it deserves. Christopher Nolan is certainly a very intelligent man, who treats his audience like they have a brain, instead of being patronising like many blockbuster movies. It’s without a doubt one of the best movies of the year, and firmly cements Nolan’s Batman trilogy as one of the best in cinema history.

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Film Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Cast your mind back to the beginning of 2010. Remember anything strange happening that month? Perhaps the sound of a thousand keyboards being hammered within an inch of their lives echoing around your street? That was the sound of Spider-Man fans going postal after they heard the news that Sam Raimi and Toby Maguire would not be returning to make a Spider-Man 4.

Let’s be honest – Spider-Man 3 stank. It flopped both with the critics and with the audience. Was this a big enough offence to ditch Raimi and Maguire though? Probably not. They had after all made two previous films that, while they weren’t masterpieces, were certainly well executed. The arrival now of The Amazing Spider-Man, a reboot to the franchise, does seem to have arrived too soon. If Marvel are doing what they should be doing and trying to figure out how they can emulate the success of Batman, they should realise what makes The Dark Knight so big is the fact that when a new film is released it is an event movie. The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t an event movie, but it deserves to be.

Andrew Garfield plays the new Peter Parker, a science geek who’s bullied at school and has a crush on his fellow classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). He’s also trying to figure out what happened to his parents, who disappeared when he was a child and left him with his Aunt and Uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen). His search eventually leads him to his father’s co-worker Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), whose scientific lab contains a radioactive spider that has Peter Parker’s name on it.

There is no doubt that this reboot, which no doubt will lead to sequels, is heading in a completely different direction from Raimi’s trilogy, and for the most part this is for the better. We get more emphasis on Peter Parker’s school life, something which for the most part rather overlooked and skin-deep in Raimi’s films. Here it provides a good backdrop and atmosphere to the story of an outcast teenager discovering he has super powers. The discovery of the powers is even handled a little slower than Raimi did. When Toby Maguire discovered he had Spider-sense, it happened in one scene. Here we have a selection of comic scenes which add a little humour to the story.

The only problem is that with so many changes, many plotlines are left twisting in the wind. It just gets a little bogged down with all the possibilities, and clocking in at around 136 minutes, it should really have been able to achieve more in that time. The mystery plot of what really happened to Peter’s parents is the most intriguing, but that is often left to the side in favour of some action set pieces which really could have been better. They are good, but they’re not breath-taking.

This is director Marc Webb’s first film since his likeable indy hit (500) Days of Summer, so this is someone who certainly has more experience with actors than with special effects. It is certainly the actors and indeed the characters that come off best in Webb’s latest. Andrew Garfield is superb as Peter Parker, making for a comparatively better Spider-Man than Toby Maguire (I look forward to your letters, Maguire fans!). Emma Stone also puts in a solid performance as Parker’s lesser known love interest Gwen Stacy. With Stone in the role, she should be able to keep Mary Jane out of things for a while. Rhys Ifans and Dennis Leary provide great support as Curt Connors and Stacy’s father, the former of which of course transforms into The Lizard. And of course there’s Martin Sheen, as always doing what he does best.

This film does bold well for the rest of the franchise, and if in the future they are able to keep the depth in characters and find a good plot to go with them then Marvel will be on to a winner. But if you’re comparing this to the yardstick set by a certain British-American director, and a certain rich guy who likes to do push-ups and dress like a bat, then Spidey still has a long way to go.

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Film Review: Dark Horse

There are few directors in cinema who have such a bleak view on humanity, and indeed the world as a whole than Todd Solondz. His films are usually in your face, filled with violence and kink, and you don’t usually want to watch them or even hear the title again.

With Dark Horse however, Solondz seems to be steering a little more towards a compassionate view on human beings. Jordan Gelber plays Abe, an overweight, childish, thirty-something man-baby living with and off his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow). Abe though spots a way out of his pathetic little existence when he meets Miranda (Selma Blair), an incredibly depressed and damaged character. Abe proposes to Miranda at the very wedding at which they meet, and much to Abe’s surprise Miranda accepts. Miranda’s acceptance catches Abe off guard to such an extent that he starts to suffer crippling self-doubts that bring on various hallucinations.

What makes this so different from the rest of Solondz’s movies is that it is not as confrontational as usual, and it refrains from violence. The unbelievably tragic and often infuriating protagonist though is classic Solondz. Jordan Gelber puts in what has to be the best performance of his career as Abe, a man who throws tantrums at work when he’s asked to actually do something, and has a bedroom dripping in toys and memorabilia from The Simpsons, among other things. He is basically a spoilt brat, and there are many occasions when you want to climb into the screen and beat some sense into him, but at the same time you do feel an uncomfortable empathy for him. He is desperately trying to break away from his parents (an overbearing father and overindulgent mother) to try and live a life of his own, but when he finds that could very well become a reality he recoils back in favour of his old routine.

The always underrated Selma Blair as usual puts in a stellar performance as the damaged Miranda, appearing for the second time in a Todd Solondz movie. Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken however are for the most part surprisingly restrained. Walken though is sporting one of the most ridiculous toupees in the history of cinema. It’s never made completely clear if this is intentional or not, but considering the wry humour Solondz you have to think it is intentional.

While this isn’t something you should watch if you are looking for a lot of laughs, there are smatterings of wry pitch black humour that will please some people. Others may see this as Solondz chickening out of his usual cynical ways in favour of something with a little more heart. A very tiny bit of heart true, but it still shows. It’s doubtful that this will herald a change of direction for Solondz, but this still remains an unsettling and very effective experience, with a couple of superb performances from Gelber and Blair.

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Film Review: Cosmopolis

The director David Cronenberg has long been known for making films that are about, at their heart, the human body. Many people refer to his films such as Videodrome and Naked Lunch as part of the ‘body horror’ sub-genre.  In actuality, Cronenberg is able to raise his films to a much more intellectual level than that.

With Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg marks a change of course. Instead of making a film about the body, his adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel is much more cerebral. Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a billionaire businessman in a slightly futuristic New York City. Packer decides that he needs a haircut, and decides to take a white limo across town to a barber that he and his father have used for years. Along the way he has meetings in the limo with people who work for him, such as his art consultant (Juliette Binoche), his chief advisor (Samantha Morton), and several meetings with his estranged wife (Sarah Gadon). Along the way, Packer finds out that he’s losing money at a staggering rate, while his chief of security (Kevin Durand) informs him that a former employee (Paul Giamatti) has made a threat to kill him.

Considering all this, Cosmopolis moves at a surprisingly slow pace. Characters come and go from the limo (where the majority of the film takes place), after having conversations with Packer that make up scenes that last ten minutes. The final scene in the film when Packer confronts his homicidal ex-employee lasts almost twenty minutes. This is quite a daring thing to do, and should only really be done if the script is particularly superb, which in this case it certainly is. Cronenberg for the most part keeps the awkward and bizarrely crafted dialogue used in DeLillo’s novel. The characters speak in almost Pinter-esque ways, with a strange structure that pretty much strips it of all emotion.

Similarly in a Pinter-esque way, the events that take place outside the limo are almost treated like they don’t exist. At one point when Packer is talking to his chief advisor, the limo is attacked by a crowd rioting on the streets against capitalism. The graffiti and rock the limo from side to side, all the time Packer and his guest continue their conversation like it’s not even happening. The view from Packer’s limo is quite often of a world that looks artificial and manufactured.

Even the characters themselves come across as artificial beings. Robert Pattinson gives the best performance of his career as the mega rich Eric Packer. For want of a better analogy, Pattinson turns Packer into this vamperic character, who doesn’t react to anything that happens around him. He’s completely cut off emotionally, as are the rest of the characters. But in the case of Pattinson’s performance, it is more highlighting the soullessness of people who benefit the most from capitalism.

Herein lies the main point the film tries to make; the dangers of capitalism. Cosmopolis is set in the not so distant future, and considering the riots, and banks and businesses that only benefit the rich, this is rather timely. It is a bleak but still plausible vision of what the world will look like in twenty years’ time, maybe even less than that; a world filled with social uprising while the mega rich drive in their limos completely oblivious to it all.

Many people have criticised the film for not being emotionally engaging, but on the whole it does seem the point of Cronenberg’s film. He doesn’t want you to empathise with Packer, he wants you to see what the world is like around him, and try and figure out how it all connects to his own path of self-destruction. It is a superbly slick and stylish film, with a great cast led by the superb Robert Pattinson, and a truly unique script. Cronenberg tackles the difficult questions about capitalism, and with great intelligence and originality, leaves the audience with just enough room to try and figure out what is going on for themselves. In my opinion, the best film of 2012 so far.

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Film Review: Lovely Molly

Lovely Molly director Eduardo Sanchez has up until this point only been known for being co-director of The Blair Witch Project. The found footage film was the first of its kind. Filmed on a shoestring budget, it is the biggest profit making film in cinema history.

Sanchez has now left the found footage sub-genre he created behind, in favour of this new horror Lovely Molly. It tells the story of Molly (Gretchen Lodge) and her new husband (Johnny Lewis) returning to live in Molly’s childhood home. She is often left alone by her neglectful husband in the house, which she soon comes to suspect is haunted after hearing some strange noises. Her husband obviously thinks she’s imagining things, so Molly decides to set up their home video camera to record the strange goings-on.

This is where Sanchez is able to work in some handheld amateur camera work. It is handled with what can only be described as tradition. It’s like watching a thriller by Hitchcock or a gangster film by Scorsese; you know you’re watching a film made by someone who made the genre what it is today. It’s all suitably disorientating, while making sure we don’t lose track of what’s going on.

While Sanchez knows what he’s doing when it comes to camerawork, his plotting at times is a little lacking. For a period the film becomes a little too messy where we are presented with a few too many plot possibilities. It’s understandable he wants to keep us thinking, but it gets hard at times to be fully invested in the story. Sanchez is however able to blend kitchen-sink melodrama with amateur filmed horror with a great sense of maturity. He’s done a good job focusing on the characters and the story rather than giving in to making a gross out horror.

Gretchen Lodge’s performance as Molly is quite simply brilliant. She comes across naturally and convincingly, which is more than enough to unnerve an audience. It is, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, all about her, and Sanchez will have needed a strong actor in the lead role. Sufficed to say it is very good casting on his part. And that’s what is so surprising about this film; even though the plot gets bogged down in places, it’s handled with a great maturity that would expect from a director with more experience. Along with Lodge’s solid central performance, this makes for an effectively creepy haunted house flick.

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Video reproduced from YouTube / trailerobsessed