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: Red Lights

It may have been a while ago, and not that many people saw it, but you may remember Rodrigo Cortes’ brilliantly terrifying debut Buried. Now for his second feature film, Cortes has left the one-man show behind him in favor of a glittering all-star cast in Red Lights. He was much better off with the man in a box.

Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver play paranormal detectives, who basically travel up and down the country exposing people who are pretending to be magicians and psychics. A ‘red light’, Weaver’s character Margaret explains, is a sign that a psychic is in fact a con artist. When Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a blind psychic, comes out of retirement after thirty years for one last series of shows, Tom and Margaret can’t help themselves but take him on. Interestingly (or probably not), Silver’s harshest critic was killed during his last performance thirty years previous. Let the thriller clichés commence!

What’s most disappointing about this is that Red Lights gets off to a great, fun, and intelligent start. Tom and Margaret expose two con artists who both have tricks so well constructed they could have been made into movie plots by themselves. It’s actually when Robert De Niro arrives on the scene that the film takes a sharp turn for the worst, resorting to basic thriller conventions. As we’ve seen with Buried, we know Cortes is better than this. Perhaps the relatively new director didn’t have as much control over the project as he thought he did.

As usual in these cases, the cast are left to carry the film. Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver both do well as the psychic detectives, out trying to figure out very complicated tricks. Think of them as the US cast of Jonathan Creek, only not as funny. Robert De Niro does what he does best, diving into a role with his own unique charisma and gusto. He even manages to keep his cool when he reads one or two rather poor lines of dialogue. “Are you questioning my power?” he bellows from a stage at one point like he’s a pantomime villain. Yes Robert, I believe they are questioning your power. Welcome to the film.

While Red Lights could have saved itself with a satisfactory ending, it instead decides to go down a more horrifying route. Not to give too much away, but the ending involves a twist that requires a montage and some voice overs to recap over what we’ve just seen, The Usual Suspects style. The only problem is, this montage just reminds us of how convoluted and dreary it’s all been. And the ending twist is so unbelievably ridiculous it stinks to high heaven of desperation to try and seem interesting. The cast make this almost bearable, but this could have been so much better considering the talent involved.

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Film Review – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Seth Grahame-Smith has been a very busy man over the past month or so. First he scripted Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, a film that was so scattershot and all over the place it was almost as if it didn’t want people to like it. Now he’s adapted his own mash-up novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for the screen, a project that the aforementioned Burton has wanted to get off the ground for a while.

The story essentially is about the life of Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker), and how whilst serving as the 16th President of the United States, he’s approached by a mysterious British man called Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) who tells him that vampires are planning on taking over his country. Lincoln then makes it his life mission to kill them all with axes, makeshift guns, and backflips.

The novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was a big success, and rightly so. Its tongue-in-cheek humour and general craziness made it a thrilling read, almost reminiscent of the old pulp fiction stories. The main problem with the film is that it decides to ditch the humour in favour of making something altogether more serious. It could just be that Smith didn’t want to risk the film’s big budget on something that could easily backfire so decided to go mainstream, in which case it would be a massive misjudgement. With the tongue-in-cheek humour it becomes something more fresh and vibrant; and it would live up to its rather tantalising title.

The CGI action would have been more bearable too. While the fight scenes are very entertaining, with some humour they would have been more effective. Without it, the CGI just looks plain barmy, Abraham Lincoln running up walls and defying gravity on the roof of a train as though a crowd of potential voters are watching. The majority of these scenes are too dark and rather dreary, making it a rather bland visual experience.

That’s not something you expect from a director like Timur Bekmambetov, the man who famously brought us the breathtakingly crazy Wanted. He’s very good at directing action scenes, that much we knew, but he seems unable to create any tension with them. Given that Tim Burton was originally going to direct, you can’t help but think it would have been better in his hands. Personally I would have liked to have seen this helmed by Quentin Tarantino. At least he has a sense of humour.

Benjamin Walker and Rufus Sewell are really the only people to come out of this without being disappointing. Walker makes for a great lead, with his charisma and quite physical presence. He is a leading man of the future if he plays his cards right. Rufus Sewell does good as the lead vampire Adam, coming across with a genuine air of menace without seeming like a villain from a cartoon. Overall, it doesn’t meet its expectations, but you will be mindful that it could have been a whole lot worse than it is.

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Film Review – Woody Allen: A Documentary

Earlier this year, Woody Allen won his fourth Oscar, the award for Best Original Screenplay for his hugely enjoyable film Midnight in Paris. The presenter of the award Angelina Jolie had to accept the award on his behalf, due to Woody Allen once again not attending the ceremony. He has said that he doesn’t feel any pride in winning Oscars, because he doesn’t believe the popularity of his film makes it one of the best from that year.

This is just one of many interesting facets of Woody Allen’s personality, and they are all laid bare in Robert Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary, although perhaps not with the depth you would want or expect. Weide’s film comes across more as a tribute rather than a documentary, filled with clips and talking heads. The interviews though are quite often a treat. From fans such as Martin Scorsese, who speaks with delight and almost child-like excitement when talking about Allen’s films, to Diane Keaton, who explains how she tried to get Woody to fall in love with her.

There are of course understandable absences from the film. Mia Farrow doesn’t make a personal appearance, but you are left wondering if Robert Weide even thought of asking to speak to her. It is all handled rather delicately as the director keeps a respectful distance. This could explain how he’s able to get exclusive access to the set of You’ll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, where we see him running through a scene with Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin. Watts clearly loves every minute of working with Allen, while Brolin seems like a nervous wreck because his director isn’t giving him enough feedback. This is an interesting insight, but it still feels like it could go a little deeper into Allen’s filmmaking process.

If you know anything about Woody Allen’s personal life, you’ll know that it’s worthy of a documentary all of its own. However, Weide deals with these incidents as briskly as he does almost everything else in the film. Weide does however show a clip of Farrow and Allen together in Husbands and Wives, not long after Farrow had refused to go back on the set when she learned that Allen had been having an affair with her daughter. Watching it you can see how visibly uncomfortable they both look, which luckily for them actually adds to the scene. It’s about as deep and as probing as the film gets.

Despite its lack of depth and insight, if you’re a fan of Woody Allen this will be an enjoyable treat. It’s filled with some hilarious clips, the best of which are from talk shows and when Allen had a boxing match with a kangaroo, and some intimately touching moments from Allen himself. He shows Weide the typewriter that he’s written all of his films on, and says that the guy who sold it to him said it would last longer than he would. He shows us how he organises his handwritten notes, and how sometimes he just staples these notes to the script if he’s grown particularly attached to them. Having said that, this was originally a 3-hour special made for PBS before it was edited down to less than two hours for a cinema release, you have to wonder if we’ve lost out on over an hour’s worth of genuine depth.

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Film Review: Prometheus

In 1979, a cheaply made B-movie made its cinematic debut. It would later become one of the most popular movies in cinema history. It contained brooding silences, chilling imagery, and John Hurt struggling to keep his food down as his chest exploded. The film was of course Alien, and its success, for good or ill, spawned an entire movie franchise. Now Ridley Scott returns to the franchise that launched his directing career into the stratosphere, looking to ask (but not really answer) some really tough questions.

Prometheus is a prequel to Alien, and at the same time it isn’t. Ridley Scott has said that while this film does take place inside the Alien franchise, we are still at least two more movies away from when the Nostromo decides to answer an unknown warning beacon. So think of this as the Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace of the franchise.

Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are both on an expedition in the Isle of Skye in Scotland. They come across a cave painting, which bares the same pictogram they found from other civilisations. They depict an alien being, inviting them to what is supposedly their home planet. Both Elizabeth and Charlie believe that these depictions are showing where mankind came from. So they set off on the billion dollar science vessel Prometheus, hoping to meet their maker.

Prometheus essentially just confirms for us something we’ve already known for quite a long time – that Ridley Scott is an incredibly intelligent person who knows how to tell compelling stories. Prometheus doesn’t have many answers, true, but Scott’s brave attempt to even ask the questions ‘where do we come from?’ and ‘why are we here?’ is commendable, and they are handled with admirable intelligence and complexity.

The only problem is in the mist of all the complexity, the characters are made to suffer. Charlize Theron’s Vickers and Idris Elba’s Janek are the main victims of this; however a stellar performance from Elba makes his character come across considerably more rounded. What made Alien so good was that we were given time to care about the characters, to be scared with them whenever the threat of the alien intruder approached. We don’t really get much time to get attached to the characters in Prometheus, as it moves along at a considerably faster pace. Michael Fassbender however puts in a superb performance as the android David. It’s yet another thoughtful performance that we’ve come to expect from Fassbender, even when it came to the viral marketing video he did where he chillingly cries on cue.

The visuals and special effects are breathtakingly good, most notably when Fassbender’s David initiates a holographic video while inside a desolate canyon. While the visuals may be good, and the ideas the film tackles are complex and interesting, it will still leave people wanting more answers. Considering there should be two more films on the way from Ridley Scott, we shouldn’t really have expected to learn everything in one movie. What we do know however, is that as long as Ridley Scott is involved, we will be captivated right up until the end.

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Film Review: Red Tails

It was 1977 when George Lucas brought us one of the biggest movie franchises in cinema history. Now, he’s planning on leaving professional filmmaking behind and walking off into the sunset, to work on smaller and more personal movies. The writer, director, and producer leaves behind him a catalogue of films, which we all know include the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises respectively. There is no doubt this is the end of an era. In which case, Red Tails is Lucas’ final film. It tells the true story of an all-African-American fighter pilot squadron in World War II, who are fighting against the racial discrimination of the Nazi threat, while dealing with the racial discrimination of fellow American soldiers. However, under the leadership of Colonel Bullard (Terence Howard), the squadron are given a chance to prove their worth in battle. This is a project that Lucas has been trying to get made since 1988. Concerned that a film with an all-African-American cast would seem unmarketable, he has now put forward most of the money for the film himself. It’s unfortunate then that throughout you can’t help feel that this could have been better. Lucas reportedly did lots of research into what the real life squadron persevered against, and yet you still feel like most of the story is being censored from us. This is a story worthy of an epic yet understated three hour adventure, rather than a two hour CGI filled romp from LucasFilm. The special effects are, unsurprisingly, the real winner here. The beautifully stylised action scenes with have many people thinking back to the space-set epic that Lucas brought us in 1977. This is after all a Lucas film, so the dialogue is as cloth eared as usual. Some will see it a corny quirk that is easy to put up with, while others will find it so infuriating they’ll be wondering how any let this get to screen without someone objecting. One rather key scene is obliterated by a character shouting “Die, foolish American!” This was such a bad line that people in the screening were physically wincing, as though the words had flown out of the screen and punch them in the eye. Despite the flaws however, Red Tails is an enjoyable B movie, that’s as fun as it is silly. The director Anthony Hemingway makes his big screen directorial debut here. When George Lucas called him to let him know he was hired, he reportedly broke down and cried, completely overwhelmed by the fact that his hero George Lucas had picked him. You could have done better than this George, but boy will we miss you. Image reproduced from movieinsider.com Video reproduced from YouTube / RedTailsMovie

Film Review: Moonrise Kingdom

There are few things quite as intriguing, and yet familiar in cinema than a Wes Anderson film. He manages to invent a world of his own, with his own rules, and yet the central story always carries resonance with its audience. Moonrise Kingdom is yet another brilliant Anderson-esque tale, carrying with it plenty of nostalgia and some uncomfortable truths.

It’s 1965, and we’re on a peaceful Khaki scout camp. Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) wakes up one morning and finds that one of the scouts, Sam (Jared Gilman), has run away during the night, leaving a note behind telling them not to even try looking for him. Ward heads straight to the local Sherriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who immediately organises a search for the missing scout. However, things take an unexpected turn when local residents Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Francis McDormand) find that their daughter Suzy (Kara Hayward) has also ran away during the night. The young Suzy and Sam are in love, and want to run away to a remote part of the island to live out the rest of their lives together, far away from any of the adults that control their lives.

Considering the all-star cast this film displays (including cameos from Harvey Keitel and Tilda Swinton), you’d expect the two child actors at the heart of the film to get lost in the story. If anything, it could be other way around. The glittering line-up doesn’t have that much screen time, while Sam and Suzy are given the audience’s full attention. This is for the best of course, considering this is supposed to be their love story. It’s also a coming of age story, filled with all the delights of childhood innocence and confidence. Only two children would believe that they could actually run away together and live the rest of their lives in a secret cove by the beach.

Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman)

Anderson paints for us a truthful, and occasionally brutally honest picture of what the kids are running away from. Bill Murray and Francis McDormand play Suzy’s parents. They’re stuck in a stricken marriage that seems to have been doomed for quite some time, and the fact that they see something of themselves in the young couple unsettles them. Suzy hates her mother when she finds a pamphlet in the house about dealing with a troubled child. Here lies the film’s really unsettling truth – some parents really will do anything to make sure their kids don’t turn out like them. Then we have Bruce Willis’ Sherriff. A sad and lost soul, struggling to get over the regrets he has in life. He actually sees something of himself in the young Khaki scout Sam, trying hard to run away from his oppressive surroundings and claim his true love. This is what the kids are really running away from – turning into an adult.

It is the surrounding stories and character relationships that make the central love story work so well. The young actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are quite simply superb in the central roles. Despite all of this, there is actually another key element that makes this such a delightful winner. Sam is considered to be socially challenged, and is hated by his fellow scouts. He has no friends. Suzy is considered a troubled child, and has difficulty finding someone who really understands her. She has no friends. Wes Anderson then throws them both together; just to prove that no matter how big an outsider you may feel you are, if you look hard enough you will never be alone.

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Film Review: Men in Black 3

You have to feel sorry for the Men in Black. They really didn’t stand a chance. It was fifteen years ago now when they first appeared on our screens to protect us from the scum of the universe. Now, with all the people in capes running around who seem to be doing a fairly good job, everyone has forgotten about the secret organisation whose members dress like the Blues Brothers.

They’re not entirely blameless in all this however. They have after all absent from the big screen for ten years, ever since Men in Black 2 was released and disappointed pretty much everyone. They were forgotten as a franchise, but remembered as a late 90s cult hit that seemed so fresh and new. But now the Men in Black are back with Men in Black 3, a film Will Smith has been publicising as the best in the series. He really couldn’t be more mistaken if he tried.

Boris The Animal (Jemaine Clement), a particularly rubbish villain, escapes from his prison on the moon and swears vengeance against the man who put him there, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). So Boris travels back in time and completed erases the aged Agent K from history. This forces Agent J (Will Smith) to follow Boris back in time, and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to try and prevent his impending disappearance.

You have to bear in mind that this is a film that has been stuck in development hell for nearly eight years. There was at one point talk of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones teaming up to write the script for MIB3 themselves, which would have been more appealing than the corporate-made tosh we’re given here. Apparently it was Smith who came up with the time travelling idea, which would be appealing if someone had actually took the time to write it before filming started. Around midway through filming, the production had to take a break while the director Barry Sonnenfield, Will Smith, and some writers took some time to write the rest of the unfinished script, because what they’d filmed so far was all set to spin out of control. Even this is no excuse for the ridiculous plot hole when Jones’ K disappears. How is J the only person who remembers him? No explanation is given for this, unless we should assume that Will Smith is so cool that the laws of time literally have no effect on him. It is such a stupid plot hole, you have to wonder how come some prop guys or child extras didn’t go to the director to voice their concerns.

In a strange way you are thankful that Smith came up with the time travelling idea, because if he hadn’t it would have meant more screen time between him and Tommy Lee Jones, which in this case would be a bad thing. Poor Tommy Lee looks very tired, and doesn’t even seem to be trying during the fifteen minutes or so he spends on screen. Maybe he’s upset he doesn’t have more screen time? Or maybe he’s read the script and can’t wait to get as far away from the set as possible? What’s more likely is that he’s now 66, and so is perhaps a little too old for all this. If this had been written when Smith and Jones wanted to do it themselves, he would have been 58. Given that the chemistry between Smith and Jones was a key part of what made the first film so enjoyable, seeing it all go to hell here is a very unpleasant and depressing sight.

Thank goodness then for Josh Brolin, that only actor in the film who seems to be on form. Brolin manages to master the very difficult art of impersonating while making the character your own. Michael Sheen is an expert on such matters. Here Brolin nails Jones’ accent perfectly, while the same time giving him a little more youth and vigor.

It’s probably for the best then that MIB3 disappears among the vast collection of blockbusters on our screens this year. The best thing to do right now is stick on that special edition DVD of Men in Black, and remember how utterly superb it was. Because, if you haven’t learned any lessons from the disaster that was MIB2, then going to see Men in Black 3 could well be the most disappointing experience you have in the cinema this year.

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Film Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

You may get the feeling while watching Snow White and the Huntsman that you’ve seen it before. You’re probably right about that. We’ve had so many of these fairy tale stories over the last few years that you would think film producers would have taken the hint by now, every time they read “Once upon a time…”. But then again, why should Hollywood stop when they’re making so much money? So let’s not kid ourselves, this is going to rake it in.

But where is all this money going to come from? Well, there’s the Twilight audience for a start. They will all flock to see a fairy tale starring Kristen Stewart, the only actor in the Twilight series who seems to take her job seriously. So that’s the teenage girl audience locked, but how do we get the boyfriends to agree to go with them? It’s a tricky one. I wonder how long Hollywood executives we’re sat around for before someone suggested Chris Hemsworth with a crossbow and eight funny dwarves. That’s right, I said eight dwarves. I bet the suits in Hollywood were patting themselves on the back with that one, self-congratulating their own ingenuity. They shouldn’t, because this is about as inventive as the film gets.

Kristen Stewart plays Snow White, the king’s daughter. When her father is killed by the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), she is imprisoned for seven years. Snow is able to escape however, and Ravenna has to bring in a Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down. There’s no point in explaining the rest of the plot, you know how it goes. Dwarves, apple, battle, end. Something like that.

Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna

Charlize Theron’s evil queen is the real winner here. Her English accent comes across with a certain degree of creepiness, and she expertly handles herself with a cold, reptilian style. Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman is Scottish, apparently, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from his accent. It may spark a few memories of Russell Crowe’s accent in Robin Hood. Also he seems to be Scottish for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Maybe it was just a bad attempt to make Hemsworth look like a better actor. He’s not bad, but he’d be better if he dropped the accent. Sadly, you can’t be so lenient with Kristen Stewart. It’s a rather unimpressive performance from her, perhaps still stuck in Twilight mode. The sooner that series ends the better for Stewart and her career.

The film’s main problem right from the off is the storytelling. Snow White has to be good, the evil queen has to be, well, evil. There is absolutely no room for ambiguity, so there’s very little in terms of freshness there. There are also too many characters thrown at us, which would be forgivable if this was a sequel. Most of them serve absolutely no purpose at all, which is rather annoying. Having said that, the dwarves are rather funny. Ian McShane, Nick Frost, and Ray Winstone are among the CGI dwarves, and all serve the purpose of providing a lighter side.

In terms of visual style though, this is rather engaging. Director Rupert Sanders makes his directorial debut here, and given his background in advertising, he could be the next Ridley Scott. He isn’t able to rescue the plot here, but his visually style is entertaining. You get the feeling that if the right script is put in front of him he’ll soar with it. Chances are though Sanders’ next film will be Snow White and the Huntsman 2. We all know it’s coming.

In Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum delivers the now famous line “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Here, Hollywood has obviously been so preoccupied with who this film was for, they didn’t stop to think what it was for. It’s visually ambitious, and it will do well with its target audience, but you’ll still wish they’d put a little more effort into it.

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Film Review: The Raid

Remember the first time you went to see Die Hard? While watching it, you knew you were watching something that just felt fresh and new. And yet, Die Hard is just your regular action movie. The regular hits of adrenalin just keep you glued to the screen, and before you know it you realise you are watching one of the best action movies ever made. If you’re planning on seeing The Raid, then you should prepare yourself for feeling that way again.

The Raid is not anything special in terms of its plot or even indeed its action set pieces. What makes it such an exhilarating experience is the way it’s executed. The raid in question takes place in a high-rise building occupied by a mob boss (Ray Sahetapy) and his group of very well armed henchman. Before you know it the SWAT team is bursting in, among the ranks of which is rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais). The SWAT team now must climb every floor to clear the place out, amidst a melee of bullets, machetes, martial arts, and fridges.

While it is quite easy to turn your nose up at the prospect of a film filled to the brim with violence because of the assumption there will be no plot to speak of, you should think again. There is, believe it or not, a coherent plot and even a few twists along the way, just to test how much this a human heart can take. Think of it as a slightly more intelligent Taken. Or perhaps that should be slightly less dumb. Either way it would probably be best to leave your brain at the door.

The action is, for want of a better word, barmy. There is nothing Hollywood about this; no shaky cameras or trying to make you feel like you are right in the middle of a brawl. That used to be rather entertaining, but now it’s starting to wear thin. Director Gareth Evans though injects his own style into the film, and that is wear its horrific beauty really lies. Some fight scenes are filmed astonishingly in one take, and shot from bewildering angles that Evans probably would have been told to avoid at film school. The editing is skilfully timed to maximise just how amazing the fighting skills of the cast really are. If you’re not wincing and gasping with every punch, kick, machete attack, or fridge attack then something is wrong.

So Hollywood should really take note. If you want to do action movies, this is the way to do it. With brutal and original flare, while making sure the plot and adrenalin are given out in equal, constant doses. It will be very surprising if this is not the best action movie of the year.

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Film Review: Dark Shadows

In recent times, many directors and indeed audience members have complained about how trailers are made these days. Many voice concern that some reveal too much of the story. I would suggest you don’t watch the trailer for the film Stranger Than Fiction, as the only thing that is left unrevealed is the final ten minutes or so. The Dark Knight Rises is an example of the perfect trailer; entertaining and reveals absolutely nothing about the plot.

In the case of Tim Burton’s new film Dark Shadows, it’s a very different story. The trailer makes it seem like some fantasy comedy romp, whereas the reality is much different. The funny moments in the film are all packed into the trailer, where they actually seem funnier than in the film. You have to wonder if Tim Burton agrees with his film being marketed in this way, considering how much effort he puts into making it as genre defying as possible.

An adaptation of a gothic soap opera that ran on American TV during the late 60s, Dark Shadows tells the story of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a man living in the 1700s about to settle down with his wife Josette (Bella Heathcote). However, the jealous witch Angelique (Eva Green) who had her advances spurned by Barnabas, condemns him to spend entreaty as a vampire. He’s buried in a coffin for centuries, until workers inadvertently come across him in the year 1972. Barnabas returns to his run-down mansion to find it occupied by an all-star cast family, including Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter. The family fish business is now under threat from the evil Angelique, who’s still alive, well, and blonde, and she will only leave the family alone if she can have Barnabas for herself.

This all sounds like an Edward Scissorhands fish out of water kind of story, and at many points it is. The main source of the occasional comedy is Barnabas attempting to make sense of the more modern world around him, including his first experience of a performing Karen Carpenter on a TV screen (“reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”). Yet at the same time in injects the occasional moments of horror. Barnabas after all is a vampire and needs to feed, as some hippies find out the hard way. It cuts between moments of comedy, to moments of horror, to moments of something else without even a breath, and instead of it coming across as something fresh and alive, it actually is more of a beautiful mess.

It’s very hard to know what to make of it. Either Burton is making a gallant attempt to bring outsider cinema into the mainstream, or he simply has no idea what he wants the film to be. The strong performances of the main cast members make it a little easier to swallow, most notably Johnny Depp in the lead role, approaching the horror scenes with gusto and making even the slightly unfunny lines seem hilarious (“you may place your beautiful lips upon my posterior and kiss it repeatedly”). Having said that, there are moments you feel are a little too raunchy for a 12A certificate. One rather acrobatic, room demolishing, lizard-tongued sex scene will probably leave younger audience members a little confused. And Depp saying “they haven’t aged a day” while referring to Eva Green’s breasts may be an inappropriate joke too far.

Considering the track record of success Tim Burton has under his belt, it’s hard to believe that he would approach a project like this completely undecided on what he wants it to be. It is therefore more likely he’s attempting to blend the personal with the mainstream, and the offbeat with the downright inappropriate. In that case, he should get plaudits for making one of the strangest mainstream films in years, but for some this may be just a little too demanding.

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Film Review: Headhunters

Thirty minutes. That’s how long Hollywood executives were watching Morten Tyldum’s Norwegian adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s bestseller Headhunters when they decided they wanted to remake it. Whether this is because the film is a superbly smart and stylish thriller, or that Hollywood once again seems unable to look inward for its own new and creative ideas remains to be seen. The former is certainly true though.

Aksel Hennie plays Roger Brown (very Anglo-sounding name, coincidence?), a head hunter struggling to keep his head above financial waters. He lives in a large stylish penthouse which he hates, and lives a life of luxury. He can’t afford pretty much everything he owns, but he buys it all anyway to please his beautiful wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund), who he fears will leave him unless he spoils her. To make ends meet, Roger breaks into the homes of the people he interviews at work, and steals their expensive artwork and sells it on the black market. As he points out though, one painting usually doesn’t even cover his mortgage payments. He needs something more substantial. Enter Clas Greve, a charming businessman and owner of a very valuable painting by Rubens, which Roger soon plans to steal.

This film achieves in areas where so many other thrillers have failed – it manages to use blistering action and yet still make it an examination of the characters. The screenwriters Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryburg will have known that by achieving this delicate balance they were onto a winner. It still even manages to find time to blend in its own native Scandinavian style and very dark humour reminiscent of the Coen Brothers.

The director Morten Tyldum deserves the most credit for crafting this Norwegian box office smash hit. Not only has he managed to take some superb source material and do it justice, but in a rare movie fete he manages to improve on it. Tyldum seems very aware that some of the plot twists do head towards the ridiculous on a few occasions, but his sense of timing and ability to use dark humour mask these moments perfectly.

If you were in Roger Brown’s position you would need a sense of humour to avoid descending into madness. He is a profoundly unlikeable character – adores his wife but still has a mistress, and because he’s only 1.68 meters tall (around five foot six, but don’t take my word for it) he has quite a serious Napoleon complex. He is in all honesty a poisonous rake, and you feel he deserves everything he’s got coming to him when Clas Greve starts looming in on him.

Remarkably though, we don’t feel that way. In fact we want him to stand up and fight back. Perhaps it’s the many indignities that Roger is put through that finally wears down our defences. Poor Roger really does go to hell and back, as he is humiliated more and more by what he’s put through. The most notable indignity certainly comes when Roger is forced to hide in a very full outside toilet, where he uses a toilet roll tube to breathe as he submerges himself under the human waste. Filming that scene apparently put Aksel Hennie off drinking coffee for a whole year.

Hennie without a doubt gives a performance that will see him receive much recognition worldwide. Oscar winning? Not quite, but it still would be pleasant if his name was even mentioned in the same sentence as the Academy Awards. He adds a certain charm to the reptilian Roger Brown that deserves much praise, and should put him in good stead for any future bad guy roles in Hollywood. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (best known for Game of Thrones) also makes a good impression as Clas Greve. He processes all the qualities you’d more likely find in a protagonist – charming, handsome, charismatic, and as we soon find out much to Roger Brown’s dismay he’s also quite the ladies man. He’s also tall, which goes a long way to explaining why Roger has nothing but contempt for him from the moment they meet.

If you log onto IMDB, you’ll find that the American remake of Headhunters is currently slated for release in 2014. It’s not so much irritating that Hollywood seems to think that wide audience is too stupid to read subtitles, but that they’ve made the decision to proceed with this project based on the first half hour. In the first thirty minutes we are very well set-up for what’s to come true, but the majority of that time is filled with scenes of Roger interviewing clients. These incidentally are the only times when Hennie looks out of place in the role. Not just that, but what makes Headhunters so superb is its distinctly Scandinavian style, something that would evaporate in an American translation. Either way it will probably make double the money of the original version, more to the pity. In any case, Headhunters proves that the Scandi-crime phase is still not over, and when it’s resulting in films like this, long may it continue.

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Film Icons: The Femme Fatale

During the 1940s, a new film genre started to emerge. The film noir genre flourished into life during the post war era in America, starting what was described as “the golden age” of the genre, until it disappeared from prominence during the early 60s. Film noirs were bleak representations of the world and very rarely sported a happy ending, the perfect genre for a world struggling to rebuild itself after the devastation of World War Two. But with the new film genre came one of the most iconic of characters.

The femme fatale was more than an on-screen male fantasy; it was a representation of how men were threatened by women. During the war when the majority of male adults were off fighting on the front line, women were forced to stop being the stay at home housewife and go out to work. In some cases many of the weapons used during the war were made by women in the weapons factories. Once the war had concluded though, men suddenly found their masculinity under threat from women, now bored with the domestic life and wanting a career for themselves. The femme fatale is almost a fight against domestic life. Nearly all of the characters have no children, and whenever they are referred to it is always as a handicap to a woman’s independence.

The idea of gender role reversal in film noir is still considered rather radical to this day, and many feminist critics have often delighted in examining the male and female relationships in these movies. Take for example Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street, where Joan Bennett plays Kitty Marsh, a young beautiful woman attempting to trick an older man (Edward G. Robinson) out of his money by seducing him and pretending to fall in love with him. Edward G. Robinson’s character is presented as a very lonely and desperate man, and from the very moment he meets Kitty Marsh she is in complete control of their relationship. It is a classic example of how male protagonists are affected by the presence of the femme fatale. Most of their actions are done for love, but come the film’s conclusion we usually find that love had nothing to do with it.

The male protagonist often becomes obsessed with the femme fatale, and the femme fatale usually exploits this by any means necessary. They often deploy men as their hitmen, henchmen, decoys, and sometimes even pray. They are always politically very ambitious characters, but in the end they are usually punished for the indiscretions. They are of course a male fantasy, an unpredictable character who could kiss you one minute then kill you the next. The mysteriousness and rather opaque nature of the characters made them very intriguing to men.

Some feminist critics have said that the femme fatale is not just a male fantasy but a female fantasy also. Femme fatales are often breaking out of the system and throwing away shackles of repression. Back in the late 1940s marriage was an institution that should never be broken, so it was often deemed a deep delve into a fantasy world when femme fatales criticised monogamy and marriage. Rita Heyworth’s performance in Gilda is a classic example of that.

Considering that femme fatales are often considered a critique on marriage, how can a femme fatale exist in today’s world where marriage is no longer considered an institution? The character Alice (played by Ruth Wilson) in the British TV drama Luther is a good example of how the screen icon has changed. Instead of the male protagonist being obsessed with the femme fatale, in the case of Luther the role is reversed. Perhaps in this case the real fear is that the femme fatale will know too much about the male character, as appose to the more traditional vice versa. The character no doubt will undergo more philosophical and thematic changes, but either way the femme fatale will still remain one of the most complex and iconic characters in cinema history.

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Film Review: The Cabin In The Woods

We need to clear something up before we start. The Cabin In The Woods has many plot developments and twists that are naturally integral to the film’s themes and messages. They are also best discovered during an actual viewing, rather than in a review. In fact, even the trailer below may reveal a little too much for people who like to go and see a movie without expectations. In my opinion, that is the best possible way to watch The Cabin In The Woods, and so with that in mind I will try and tread as lightly as I can around the plot, but I would suggest that you watch the movie first and then come back.

Still here? Then we’ll get started. The Cabin In The Woods begins the way many horror films before it have started, but in this case it’s is with good reason. We are introduced to a group of young college students (including Thor’s Chris Hemsworth) as they get ready for, yes you’ve guessed it, a camping holiday in the woods. Don’t worry; it’s good that you guessed it. They’re even going in a van, and would you believe it they bump into a crazy redneck along the way that helps propel them towards their almost certainly foreboding destination. There’s even the obligatory overhead shot as the van heads up the mountain road and all we can do is sit back helplessly as they head towards what we know will be a terrifying experience.

I suppose you are asking why it is okay that we can predict everything that is happening during these early stages, and the answer is because that is exactly what director Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon wants you to do. It is both a celebration and a critique of the horror genre, and what is truly impressive about this is that you know the clichés are there for a reason.

The script is handled very playfully, and yet preserves a great intelligence and wit. It would be very easy for this to have come across as a painfully formulaic film and for Goddard and Whedon’s points to go high over the audience’s head. But they don’t, and it still manages to find time to be genuinely funny. Perhaps the only downside is that the characters do not get as much attention as they deserve, but they do on occasion put in as much effort avoiding cliché as they do looking for it.

This is of course similar territory for Joss Whedon, a man we know likes to challenge the formulaic and critique the way things are done. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, one of the most successful horror TV shows ever was based around Whedon’s critique of the sexy blonde girl who always dies in movies. He likes to be playful and try new things, while at the same time putting as much effort into making it a crowd pleaser. The Cabin In The Woods is certainly that.

Is it a game changer? That remains to be seen. It does have a surprisingly fresh feel to it, even though it is almost entirely made up of bits of other movies and constantly makes reference to them (sometimes explicitly so). Will it become iconic? Quite possibly. If so, the line “I kinda dismembered that guy with a trowel. What have you been up to?” will go down in history as one of the best in modern horror. Considering this has been sitting on a shelf for over a year while its producer MGM struggled to make ends meet, it deserves a lot of credit for still working. Perhaps that is even its best achievement.

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DVD/Blu-Ray Review: Scarlet Street

During the late 1930s, German director Fritz Lang fled Germany to escape the impending Nazi rule, and arrived in Hollywood. He brought with him the unique German expressionist style, best illustrated in Lang’s early works such as Metropolis and M.

Scarlett Street was one of Fritz Lang’s early film noirs, and has all the originality and rough edges you expect from a filmmaker trying to settle down in his new surroundings. Edward G. Robinson plays Chris Cross (don’t worry, even he knows his name is funny), a board banker and amateur artist celebrating 25 years of service. On his way home from a dinner celebration in his honour, he sees the beautiful Kitty Marsh (Joan Bennett) being attacked on the street. Chris intervenes and saves Kitty, and the two become very close friends, only Chris is unaware that the man attacking Kitty was Johnny (Dan Duryea), her thuggish boyfriend, and the pair is attempting to con him out of his money.

I should warn that this is a special film in the history of American cinema, and for that reason spoilers are unavoidable. So if you don’t want to know too much about the film’s plot, now is the time to look away…

"They'll be masterpieces": Robinson painting Bennett's toenails

Still there? Great. Scarlett Street was the first of its kind – it was the very first film Hollywood film where the criminal is not punished for their crime at the conclusion. As you would expect this was considered rather controversial, to such an extent that the New York State Censor Board and the Motion Picture Commission in Milwaukee banned the film on the grounds that it was immoral and “sacrilegious”.

Indeed the incredibly dark nature of the film’s final act can still pack quite a punch to this day. The sense of underlining bleakness though has always been a characteristic of Fritz Lang’s work, and you combine that with his expressionistic visual style and we are presented with a brooding and dystopian world, where the aforementioned Joan Bennett is the only thing that can light up the screen.

This has to be one of the best performances by Joan Bennett in her career. As the feisty Kitty Marsh she became one of the most iconic of femme fatale characters. We’re given plenty of reasons to dislike her, namely faking the most sincere emotion of love to trick and old and lonely man out of his money. We also can’t help but fall in love with her though, and think of her as an innocent catalyst caught up in a bad relationship that leaves her with no choice but to agree to her boyfriend Johnny’s demands. Her husky growling voice and general body language is also very appealing, but that could be male bias on my part.

Edward G. Robinson’s Chris Cross is a man you can’t help but pity from the start. A lonely man trapped inside an unsatisfied marriage, thinking he’s found love once again in the young Kitty Marsh while all the time he’s being used. When Chris finds out what Kitty has been doing during the final act, Fritz Lang dares to go where Hollywood cinema at the time wouldn’t dare go. It was upon its release a real game changer, and a film that signalled the glory years for film noir.

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Film Review: The Island President

In 2009 Copenhagen hosted one of the most important events in the battle against climate change. The Climate Conference was designed so then all the nations of the world could voice their opinion on what was happening, and come to some form of arrangement on how to deal with it. For President Mohamed Nasheed of The Maldives, it was more than just a negotiation. He was trying to save his country.

If current climate trends continues, The Maldives will disappear under the Indian Ocean, an event with startlingly could happen in our lifetime. At the moment, The Maldives is only one metre above sea level, and the sea levels are continuing to rise. The Island President documents Mohamed Nasheed’s first year in office, attempting to show to the big political powers in the world just what is happening to his country.

This is not your typical environmental documentary. First of all, it’s not presented a bleak vision of a future apocalypse. In fact it’s surprisingly optimistic. The beaming smile and general charisma of President Nasheed no doubt is the cause of this. He most certainly is a showman, hosting an underwater cabinet meeting is a prime example of that. Nasheed is more like a hero from an upbeat drama, about a young underdog attempting to take on the elite.

The pressing subject matter of course remains at the forefront, but director Jon Shenk knows that very little has changed since Copenhagen 2009, and he’s not afraid to show it. What was an international crisis and front page material in 2009 is now barely even mentioned. Nasheed’s attempts to save his country are also absent from most news outlets. Nasheed even points out during a radio interview that Manhattan is also only one metre above sea level, and that if things don’t change soon one of the world’s major cities could also become engulfed by the ocean. It’s startling, but in a way you expect Nasheed’s point to go unnoticed.

Despite its upbeat and optimistic outlook, the final scene is rather an emotional one. Nasheed looks directly into the camera and says, “We just can’t disappear. We just can’t.” The harsh reality of what’s going on hitting the audience in one final blow. You’ll leave hoping that the world leader’s have heard Nasheed’s cry and will do something. And if in the event, god forbid, that The Maldives does disappear under the Indian Ocean, you’ll hope that Nasheed’s words will echo through time. The final cry for help from a nation before its painful and tragic death.

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Film Review: Wild Bill

Even though the British film industry is going through a few seismic changes since the abolition of the UK Film Council, it still seems to be business as usual. Wild Bill is yet another addition to the East End gangster saga, and yet it feels like something much more fresh and engaging.

Charlie Creed-Miles plays Bill Hayward, a man just out of prison and desperate to leave his life of crime well and truly in the past. He arrives home and finds that his two young children, Dean (Will Poulter) and Jimmy (Sammy Williams) have been left to fend for themselves by their mother. Dean, desperately trying to avoid him and his brother being taken into custody, insists that his estranged father stay with them in the family’s East London flat.

Wild Bill comes across as more of a Western than a London based gangster movie. Charlie Creed-Miles’ Bill is like a lone wolf, fighting frantically to avoid being sucked into his former criminal world, even though it tries to beckon him back at every turn. And of course there is the inevitable showdown at the film’s conclusion. While the Western style is the driving force of the plot in terms of creating suspense, the real beauty lies in the central father son relationship. There is plenty of substance there, but it is handled with a rather easy going sense of humour that makes it surprisingly heart warming.

The young Will Poulter however is the one who has the breakthrough performance. He’s now in the process of moving up from child roles to adult roles, and if Wild Bill is anything to go by then he could become one of Britain’s next big acting talents. Given that he’s attempting to move from one acting class to something altogether different, playing the young teenager forced into responsibility is perfect for him. Plus he’s armed with menacing eyebrows, which gives him a look that could tee him up to be tomorrow’s big screen hard nut.

It’s a very impressive debut from Dexter Fletcher, the actor making his directorial debut, adding his own voice to the East End gangster sub-genre.  While there are a few moments that feel like they have been cut out of every gangster movie since the birth of celluloid, it continuously feels like something we’ve never seen before, and the central character relationships are what makes Fletcher’s debut so engaging. I think we can safely put him in the same actor-turned-director class of Gary Oldman and Paddy Considine, which is certainly good company to be keeping.

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Film Review: Gone

Spring is a fairly grim season for Hollywood. Apart from the occasional big budget blockbuster, spring is generally used as a dumping ground for the films Hollywood doesn’t have any faith in. Gone is certainly one of those films.

Gone was released in America last year, where it received very little press coverage. You would have had to try very hard to find any TV spots or trailers. It’s a similar story here in the UK, where Gone has a very limited release – showing in cinemas from Friday 20 April.

Amanda Seyfried plays Jill, a young woman who survived a kidnapping ordeal just over a year previous. After her experience she starts attending self-defence classes. Then one night she returns home, and finds her sister Molly (Emily Wickersham) has disappeared. Jill assumes that her sister has fallen victim to her own attacker, and goes to the police to file a missing person’s report. The police however dismiss Jill, believing her to be insane. This leaves Jill with no choice but to pick up a gun and go and search for Molly herself.

The main problem with Gone is that everyone involved seems to have given up on it from the get go. Amanda Seyfried is miscast once again as the self defence expert taking the law into her own hands, but she makes very little attempt to make her character believable. The plot moves along exactly the way you would expect it to, but just when things start to get interesting, we are left with a dead end. Either they were incapable of finding any originality, or they just couldn’t be bothered.

Brazilian director Heitor Dhalia soldiers on throughout this, not really demanding much from his cast. The few actions sequences we have are rather on the dull side too. However the shots of the more run down areas of Portland do have a certain brutal beauty about them, something that would have been far better exploring than the rather mundane plot. Allison Burnett’s script lacks any notable scenes, and most of the dialogue is rather flat and unemotional.

There is an underlining realism however, that does give Gone a slight edge. No attempt is made to make the kidnapper at the centre of the story some domineering or frightening character. He’s just a man at the end of it all, creating and edgy and realistic atmosphere. But the dire script, the dull set pieces, and the painfully formulaic plot means this one will be forgotten in a hurry.

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Film Review: Into The Abyss

Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life to use its full title does stand out in the works of director Werner Herzog. It lacks the usual focus on the bizarre and unexpected, but the persistent exploration of the human condition makes this the best documentaries of the year so far.

Werner Herzog documents the final week in the life of Michael Perry, a man who’s been on death row since he committed a triple homicide in 2001 in order to steal a car. Herzog also documents Perry’s partner in crime Jason Burkett, who is serving a life sentence, and also the convict’s and victim’s family members who are still understandably traumatised by what happened over ten years ago.

What is quite startling is that while Perry and Burkett are murderers, and are laying bare to Herzog their motives behind what they did, they are still the least interesting people who are interviewed. The real and genuinely emotional insights come from the likes of one of the victim’s sister, who has suffered so much loss in her life that she fears getting too close to someone just in case she loses them too. The interview with the ex-death row guard who quit in the year 2000 despite losing his pension is a harrowing example of how death affects a person.

Herzog is certainly someone who doesn’t let little details pass by. He still enjoys listening to people’s odd anecdotes, but his passionate humanism is what wins the day. He looks and probes into areas of his interviewee’s lives that other people wouldn’t, and he gets better results from doing it. He makes it clear early on that he is opposed to the death penalty, but still doesn’t attempt to defend those who have been convicted. In fact during the first meeting with Michael Perry, Herzog honestly explains to him that while he doesn’t think he should die for what he did, under no circumstances will he like him. Herzog’s honesty does shock Perry ever so slightly, but it’s that honesty that woos people into being completely honest with him.

It certainly knows how to pack an emotional punch. The crime scene video which documents the bloody scene at the victim’s home, and the well edited shots of the dumped bodies are more powerful because of their subtlety, and the score from Mark Degli Antoni even adds a little hint of terror. This is not an investigative documentary in the sense we come to expect. It doesn’t focus on the crime itself or make some attempt to uncover some hidden truth. We know what the truth is, we don’t need it probed. But Herzog’s devotion and fascination with the human condition is the real driving force of this film, and what makes it so devastatingly compelling.

Accompanying the screening of Into The Abyss at the Cornerhouse in Manchester was a short film entitled MES, as part of the Virgin Media Shorts Competition. MES is a short documentary about a woman struggling to cope with suffering from musical ear syndrome. It was the perfect accompaniment to a Herzog documentary – unique, and incredibly personal.

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Film Review: Contraband

You’ve all seen Contraband before. Granted, it probably wasn’t called Contraband, but you’ve seen it just the same. In fact you’ve probably seen it several times over your movie-going years, so much so that you’re probably getting a little tired of it.

Contraband tells the story of Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), a former smuggler who decides to come out of retirement for one last job when his brother-in-law gets into trouble with a dangerous drug dealer (Giovanni Ribisi). Sound familiar? It should do. The criminal coming out of retirement for one final job storyline has been around for a very long time, and has probably been used so many times it must be out of copyright like an incredibly old song.

The predictable and overly used plot still isn’t this film’s biggest failing. Giovanni Ribisi, an actor we know is capable of great things, is boxed into the homicidal drug dealer category, something we’ve seen him do before and doesn’t do him any justice. Spare a thought for poor old Kate Beckinsale too. Here we have an actress who is capable of carrying an entire movie franchise on her shoulders, no matter how bad it may be, reduced to playing the perfect wife in danger role. Her character is so underwritten it is borderline lazy.

Let’s not overlook what this film gets right though. The action sequences are top notch and riveting, and let’s face, the action scenes are the reason this film exists. The heist at the centre of the story is incredibly planned out, right down to every little detail. It’s all rather ingenious, to the extent that it would make Danny Ocean scratch his head. It is hard to believe that these nitty gritty street-wise thieves are intelligent enough to plan something like this.

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur does a good job considering this is his first Hollywood movie, and if this project is a test to see if he’s ready then he almost certainly is. Mark Wahlberg does a good job in the lead role, now being more selective about the film roles he takes on. After starring in absolute howlers such as The Happening, it would be understandable if he is slightly weary. It is thanks to Kormákur and Wahlberg that this film is able to lift itself out of the doldrums and make it credible, but when there is so much potential and very little delivered, other people may not be so forgiving.

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Film Review: 21 Jump Street

"Channing Tatum", "Jonah Hill", "comedy", "movie review", "film review"Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have to be one of the most unlikely comedy double acts in recent years. On the one hand you have Tatum, a big screen tough guy who can get away with doing a love story every now and then, and on the other you have Hill, a comedy actor still struggling to make himself comfortable in Hollywood. In 21 Jump Street though, the two blend together with sublime comedy effect.

Hill and Tatum play Schmidt and Jenko, who are partners on the police force. They’re best friends, but when they were at high school it was a very different story. Now the two police officers are given a special assignment to go undercover as high school students to try and bring down a drug ring.

For those of a certain age, 21 Jump Street is actually based on an American TV series from the 80s, which coincidentally launched the career of Johnny Depp. This doesn’t really mean much though, as Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall write a hilarious script that stands up well by itself. In fact it does more than stand up, it runs around screaming like a crazy person. If we’re to look at this film in terms of plotting and structure, then this film is a total mess. But of course this is a comedy so the only question that matters is – is it funny? And the answer is a resounding yes. Hill and Bacall throw gag after gag at the audience at a ridiculously quick rate, so naturally some of them won’t get much of a reaction, but those that do generate a laugh will be well worth the wait.

The big surprise here though is Channing Tatum. Coming into this movie, you would be forgiven for expecting him to look like he’s in too deep, and overacting to try and make a gag work. Tatum actually takes to comedy like a natural, taking it very easy and allowing the material to speak for itself. Hill once again puts in a great comedy performance, and the two together make an unlikely comedic duo.

What’s the most appealing about 21 Jump Street though is its bravery. The high school comedy genre has been used a few times, and even attempting to make something new out of that is commendable. But here we have a film that’s experimenting with the whole idea of creating complete and utter madness, and seeing what happens. Sure, it is a little hit-and-miss at times, and it does lose its way towards the end, but that doesn’t prevent it from being one of the best comedies of the year so far.

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Film Review: This Means War

This Means War is the perfect Hollywood movie. It has lots of action set piece to appeal to a male audience, and a rom-com storyline to appeal to women. Throw in some attractive movie stars and its win-win. The only problem is the end result is absolute tosh.

The story (if we can call it that) revolves around two CIA agents, FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy). They’re both best friends, and because the filmmakers deemed the audience too stupid to figure that out for themselves, it is pointed out to us several times. Tuck is a very quiet introverted man who has recently divorced, while FDR is more of a womaniser. Tensions build between the two though when they both start dating the same woman, Lauren (Reece Witherspoon). So, it proper caveman style, the two agents decide to do battle for Lauren’s affections.

The first thing you need to know about this movie is that it’s directed by McG, which should be considered your first warning to run for the hills. From the horrifically cheesy Charlie’s Angels to the overly loud and boring Terminator Salvation, the director has been unable to shake off his ability to direct every movie as though it’s a music video. The only things that matter to McG are soundtrack, costumes, and action. That’s why it’s quite surprising that the CGI shots in This Means War are rather poorly done. If it wasn’t for the cast and expensive suits, it would look rather cheap.

This does mark a low point in the careers of all three of the main cast members, but their efforts are commendable. Pine and Hardy have good chemistry, and along with Reece Witherspoon do try their best with a rather cynical and altogether misjudged script. The dialogue is rather sharp, and the ping-pong of dialogue between characters is probably the film’s only redeeming feature. It aims for comedy so many times, and it misses the mark so completely it’s almost painful to watch.

Throw into the mix the scenes involving hidden spy cameras on dates, which are so horrifyingly voyeuristic it makes you want to tear your own eyes out, and this film is a total disaster. What’s worse though, is that this is the kind of movie Hollywood thinks we want to see, and considering the cast and combination of action and romance (again, if we can call it that) it will attract a big audience. It will do well, but it would be a great moral victory if it didn’t. For all our sakes, please avoid.

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Film Review: Margin Call

In a movie industry that is increasingly demanding more spectacle than intelligence, Margin Call isn’t a film you expect to see on a big screen. It seems more like a TV special that wins awards but no one actually sees.

Having said that, Margin Call deals with a subject that another pair of hands could have been treated like a sequel to Wall Street. Margin Call tells the story of twenty four hours in the life of an investment firm that makes a horrifying discovery in 2008 that the whole financial system is about to collapse before their eyes. After several meetings through the night, the big investment bankers decide to perform what is called a margin call, in other words sell their entire bad stock as quickly as possible, fully aware that it will destroy all the companies that buy from them.

With that in mind, it’s hard to see how you can sympathise with the main characters, but the genius of the script by J.C. Chandor (who also directs) is that we actually do care. We care about who gets fired and who doesn’t, and it may be the only film about Wall Street where you actually want the bankers to succeed. A slightly cynical trader Will Emerson, played sublimely by Paul Bettany, gives a speech about why the bankers are right and that “ordinary people” are wrong, in a way that actually makes you think he has a point.

Paul Bettany isn’t the only bright spark here. Kevin Spacey gives the best performance of the film as head trader Sam Rogers, with superb support from Stanley Tucci, Zachary Qunito, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, and Simon Baker whose performance has been surprisingly ignored. Everyone gets their big entrance scene where they have the commanding presence as the man (or woman) in charge as news of the impending collapse spreads, until the news reaches John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who gives a great performance as the commanding and almost vamperic boss.

The script is where the real strength of this movie lies. The stock market and the nature of its demise in 2008 is a very convoluted and difficult subject to grasp, something expertly dealt with by J.C. Chandor. When things get a little too complicated for a layman to understand, one of the high ranking execs ask to have it broken down to them in “plain English”, or as Jeremy Irons’ character puts it, “talk to me like I’m a small child, or a Labrador”. The fact that most of the people at the top don’t seem to know the first thing about the stock market is a running gag used throughout the entire film.

J.C. Chandor is a first time writer director, so naturally there are points where the film falters. Kevin Spacey’s B-story involving his dying dog is a little too clear an attempt to make him seem like a sympathetic character, and Stanley Tucci’s speech about the bridge he built in the 80s goes on a lot longer than is needed; he’s good with numbers, we get it. In the very capable hands of Spacey, Tucci, and the rest of the cast though the film still stays strong through these setbacks. We spend most of our time moving from room to room, and it doesn’t exactly move at an expeditious pace, but the intelligent script makes this a gripping, grown-up movie, the kind of which we really could do with seeing more of.

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Film Review: Moneyball

Aaron Sorkin seems to have a knack for this kind of work. Take The Social Network, a film that will forever be known as the one about Facebook, even though it’s not really about Facebook, but about its socially challenged founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Now we have Moneyball, a film about baseball that isn’t really about baseball. Moneyball tells the true story of the General Manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), attempting to build a competitive team with one of the smallest budgets in the league. It seems like an insurmountable task, until Beane meets a young man called Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who has an unconventional idea that you can build a team using statistics.

This certainly is not an easy sell – a true story where baseball and maths collide. Then again, neither was The Social Network, as anyone who saw the comments on IMDB when the film had just been announced (“are you kidding me?”, “how can this be serious?”). The premise of Moneyball though is not exactly hard to believe, it’s just difficult to see how this can go well.

First let’s consider the fact that it’s a sports film, a genre so ridden with clichés it’s hard not to fall into a trap. Some of the sports movie characteristics remain in Moneyball – the underdog hero, a situation where it looks like victory is sealed when it all falls apart, and a situation where there is no hope before a miraculous comeback. The one thing that makes this different from any other sports movie is that, well, it’s not really about sports.

This is a film about Billy Beane, a man who just can’t help being good at what he does in a field he never wanted to be a part of, and a young man who has just entered his first job attempting to take on the established order. Instead of looking for baseball players who are good at hitting the ball, throwing, running, and catching, Beane and Brand just want the players who statistically have the best chance of scoring runs. The scouts, who act as though every word they say should be gospel, stare back at Billy Beane as though he’s just tried to steal their kids.

It does all come rather unexpectedly, but this is a really superb film. There is a lot of talking, and we tend to spend most of our time moving from one office to another, but it is still surprisingly riveting. Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian make a great writing partnership, Zaillian for the most part containing Sorkin from allowing the characters to talk for long periods of time and at a brisk pace, but there is still sharp dialogue through and through. Director Bennett Miller (best known for Capote) does a good if slightly understated job, vaguely reminiscent of that from David Fincher on The Social Network.

There’s no chance of Aaron Sorkin stealing anything thunder here though. All the attention is firmly directed where it should be, and that’s at the mesmerising performance from Brad Pitt, a man who bravely stood by this film when it went through many directorial changes before production finally started. It was definitely worth it though, hanging on to a genuinely uplifting film, that is possibly one of the best sports films of recent years, and one of the highlights of 2011. If there are no Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Lead Actor, and Best Film Oscar nods in 2012, then something is clearly wrong with the system.

Image reproduced from impawards.com
Video reproduced from YouTube / MoviesYahoocom

Film Review: The Rum Diary

Whatever the varying opinions on Johnny Depp may be, one thing is for sure, his heart is in the right place.

After stumbling upon the manuscript for Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary in 1998, Johnny Depp convinced the author to publish it after it had been left to gather dust for over thirty years.

Depp even persuaded Thompson to sell the movie rights, and coaxed Bruce Robinson out of semi-retirement to write and direct the film. The Rum Diary is without a doubt a labour of love. Which leads us to the all important question – was it worth it? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding, sort of.

Based on Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Rum Diary tells the story of Paul Kemp (Depp), a writer who travels to Puerto Rico to write for the local newspaper, The San Juan Star. Not long after arriving there, Kemp is immersed in the island’s alcohol drenched lifestyle, and falls in love with Chenault (Amber Heard), the fiancé of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a wealthy entrepreneur.

One thing that is made resoundingly clear from the start of The Rum Diary is that we should forget all about the lunatic Depp portrayed in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Kemp is a young, inexperienced man still in search of his “writer’s voice”, which many a young writer watching will have complete empathy for. However inevitable comparisons between The Rum Diary and Fear and Loathing could prove to be the films biggest flaw, as Fear and Loathing wins without even having to break sweat.

There are a lot of things this film gets right. Bruce Robinson’s script is sharp and very witty, and his directing style emulates that of a regular worker than that of someone who hasn’t sat in a director’s chair since 1992. Johnny Depp does do a good job in the lead role, showing us his natural flair for comic acting while not giving up on his character’s depth and heart in the process. Also keep an eye out for Giovanni Ribisi as the wacky journalist Moberg, whose show-stealing performance will evoke memories of the grotesque eccentricities in Robinson’s Withnail and I.

Apart from Kemp and Moberg however, the rest of the characters aren’t much to write home about. This is fairly egregious, especially in the case of Chenault, the woman that wins over Paul Kemp’s heart. Amber Heard does a good job with what she’s given, but considering the importance of the character in this coming-of-age story, you do expect more from her than just someone classically beautiful twirling in pretty dresses.

Overall, this is a very witty light hearted film that deserves a lot of plaudits, but the inevitable comparisons to the source material and Fear and Loathing will mean that The Rum Diary will fall short of what’s expected from the people involved. That, unfortunately, really is a crying shame.

About the Author
Eric Wood is 20 years old from Bury in Greater Manchester and is currently studying Journalism and English Literature at Salford University. Eric is in the process of writing and directing his first short film entitled How Are You Sleeping. He absolutely adores all forms of writing. His biggest role model for many years has been Michael Crichton, as Crichton wrote novels, non-fiction, screenplays and directed movies. Eric says he would love to be able to achieve all of these things in his lifetime.

Image reproduced from pardaphash.com
Video reproduced from YouTube / TheRumDiaryFilm