Often there is no point reviewing a comedy film because what’s funny can be so subjective. It doesn’t matter when the actors are rubbish or the plot makes no sense if it makes you laugh. But I’m making the effort for Horrible Bosses, because it is a good film, with a great cast and it is hilarious.
For a start, the premise is funny, onto which a fiendish plot is built. I don’t mean to sound surprised or flippant! But when was the last time you saw a comedy movie that had an actual plot driven story? Just look at The Hangover II; funny as hell, but the story was so dumb and repetitive, it was almost depressing. But the first Hangover was successful because the characters were realistic and as well as a good plot, Horrible Bosses has the same sort of people. The bosses themselves are absurd, but the employees are largely normal, caught up in a silly situation.
While Anchorman was genuinely hilarious, like all Will Ferrell and/or Ben Stiller films of recent years, it relied on ridiculous characters. That’s getting old and audiences needed a change. Meanwhile Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) seems to have lost momentum to Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) who has nevertheless failed to capture the same balance of sentimental crudeness Smith was so good at. At least Will Gluck’s Easy A recaptured the teen comedy last year in superb style, and now Seth Gordon is doing the same thing for grown-ups with Horrible Bosses.
If you like heist movies, you probably remember the line in Ocean’s 11 where George Clooney has a conversation with a silent Brad Pitt. “You think we need one more? You think we need one more. All right, we’ll get one more.” That was to give him a gang of 11 and a film fast and frothy enough to exploit all of them. Tower Heist wheezes along with 5 and can’t even use those properly.
You might think I’m being unfair. This is a Ben Stiller comedy after all, with Eddie Murphy in a supporting role (at last!). It surely isn’t supposed to be cool and slick like Soderbergh’s movie, but consider that Clooney’s lot are far funnier and then you see we have a problem. In fact, we have several.
Ben Stiller is the first one. He’s a genuinely talented comedy actor, but he plays it virtually straight here as manager of The Tower, a prestigious hotel. While it might be commendable that he isn’t relying on gags, it means he has to rely on his characters personality (zero), good dialogue (very rare, aside from a routine about vaginas!) or at least some sort of surprise for the viewer (very predictable instead).
The next problem is director Brett Ratner. Again, it’s commendable he clearly wants to make a film with a little more substance than a rom-com that relies on fart gags and he’s never been that kind of director anyway. Say what you like, but Rush Hour is a decent action flick, a nice attempt at the sub-genre that includes 48 Hours, and here he has Eddie Murphy at his disposal. Except he’s trying to make a heist movie and he just doesn’t have the deft touch required. I don’t know if he’s responsible for the dreadful editing, but the first third drags, setups are never exploited and scenes can feel disjointed. Seriously, though this isn’t that kind of film, mark my words that the DVD release will have “Exclusive Extended Unseen Edition” stamped on it, or at least, deleted scenes running to about 25 minutes. That can’t be excused in a film like this. You need a rhythm and you need to know that the characters know every angle better than you do. There are way too many leaps of faith and contrivances.
Finally there’s the script that pulls every punch. This film plays it so safe. The very funny conversation about “small vaginas” is the only recourse to old sparky Stiller and an edge. It’s not all bad. It’s harmless and optimistic (the plot is about compensating the hotel staff that lost their pensions to wily old crook and soon-to-be-fleeced Alan Alda on the top floor) and the last act where the job is being pulled is a pretty good sequence; though possibly only because you’ve been brainwashed into lowering your expectations over the preceding hour or so.
Where this film does win in a big way is in the supporting cast. Their characters are daft, their motivations confused, but they are great fun and it feels like they could give a lot more, if only the dialogue was there. But in any case, Alan Alda brings some old fashioned class and it was good to see Matthew Broderick adding some natural charm as a down on his luck banker. Gabourey Sidibe, previously seen being brilliant in deadly serious Precious, is a gem with some serious sass! She is the funniest one in the film for definite. Casey Affleck is excellent too because he has to work at making an impact. As a straight man to Stiller, who is already a straight man himself, Affleck was poorly served by the script, but makes the best of it and he’s always worth watching. And of course, we can’t forget Eddie Murphy. Well, we can, after the run of terrible movies for the past decade. Here he is back on old form. I wish there had been room for him to really cut loose, because he proves how good he can still be, especially acting with others; there is no sign of that horrible ego that has weighed down all his movies since Nutty Professor. He could have coaxed more out of Stiller if the script could have allowed it, I’m sure, because that’s what Tea Leoni does. There’s a half-arsed predictable romance between the two of them (Soderbergh again, I know, but Out of Sight this is not), but she like Affleck brings something a bit more punchy to the role and Stiller responds. It’s like he wakes up every time she speaks. I don’t blame him! She’s still sexy and long missed. Just more scenes with the cast being allowed to be freer, then we’d have a cracking movie on our hands instead this strange hybrid of half-efforts.
Tower Heist is out of its depth in the heist genre; it doesn’t flow whether you see it as a full-on comedy or slightly more serious caper, but the cast work hard and by the end, it’s harmless fun that everyone can enjoy. With names like Stiller, Broderick and Murphy it should have been electric, but at least you will leave the film with a smile.
Wrestling legend Dwayne Johnson joins the crew for this new adventure, playing the ruthless federal agent Luke Hobbs, now on the trail of ex-cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and ex-con Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel). Brian has broken Dom out of prison, and joined him as they race across borders in an effort to avoid capture. Cornered in Brazil, the fugitive racers and their allies know that they need to pull off one last job if they are ever to gain their freedom, both from the law and the criminal syndicate they have angered. But with a corrupt businessman determined to see them dead, and a relentless agent hot on their tail, the odds are not in their favour! Hitting the gas has never been more vital than in this turbo-charged action thriller.
My sentiments about the fifth outing for the Fast and Furious team are basically the same as four. It’s silly macho nonsense that if you approach in the right frame of mind will be thoroughly entertaining. There is more to say about this ultimately curious slice of petrol-head fun though.
The meat and potatoes of the film is the pure action and it is very fast and much more furious than ever before. Justin Lin has now directed the last three instalments and has improved with each one to be a very effective action director. He’s no Paul Greengrass and definitely no Kathryn Bigelow, but he is also much better than Michael Bay. He never loses sight of his characters in the middle of the metal crunching action, which is, even in this film, essential. The staging of each major sequence gets more audacious and ridiculous (who needs physics?), that it does get tired by the end, but he also has a variety of scenes outside of the cars. A foot chase through a Rio slum and an ambush reminiscent of Clear And Present Danger (nice having Joaquim de Almeida play the villain in both) stand out. Yes, I did just compare Fast 5 to a political thriller, but Phillip Noyce’s film was a stepping stone in action cinema, so it’s valid. So there.
I did find a basic lack of pure car chase action odd. There’s one street race and we don’t even see the actual race! Ok, so the outcome was predictable and the cute edit recognises that so pacing is unaffected in an already over-long film, but this is The Fast and The Furious, for goodness sake! The first (train) and last (vault) major set-pieces are fantastic, but it was built on car porn and there isn’t quite enough. Apparently, Fast 5 was born from an abandoned sequel to the Italian Job remake, which explains it, and the middle act at least is a pure heist film. F&F was always about heists, but they were never structured like an Ocean’s Eleven film before, right down to the plans, test runs and sleight of hand reveals.
It’s a great excuse for Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker), along with Mia (Jordana Brewster) to pull in a few of their chums from previous outings (like Tyrese Gibson as Roman from 2 Fast 2 Furious) and the banter between them makes for the best dialogue of all the films. It’s great fun. Definitely more Ocean’s Eleven, but this weird, light Rat Pack style charm sits uneasy with the franchises basic appeal. When we do get the testosterone fuelled boobs, cars and ignorant bruisers knocking hell out of one another, it feels a bit shoe-horned in. They also bring back Vince (Matt Schulze) from the original film and with him, that sense of a family that was the core of the story, but he just doesn’t fit in properly any more.
We also get two villains and they feel like separate films. Almeida handles the typical heist film business man target, while Dwayne Johnson leads a blood and bullets tactical strike team chasing down Dom and Brian and he could have fitted anywhere in the franchise. As a result, Johnson brings his easy charm to the best character, a hulk of a man who probably gargles petrol every morning, but he has some terrible lines that will make you laugh out loud! He’s still great fun though as a human tank, looking like he could eat Vin Diesel whole and his meeting with Almeida is just brilliant.
Before we get too carried away, Fast 5 gets reassuringly crap by the silly end, but at least it feels fresh and while the Fast And Furious films have always been dismissed as fun junk, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker have managed to create characters you actually care about, with Jordana Brewster bringing out their best. They are not Expendables, you could say. This is the best film of the series since the first one and if you like this kind of stuff, you’re going to love every second of it. I actually hope this becomes a six-speed box-set and they bring back The Rock!
One of the things I appreciate most in cinema is when someone takes an genre story and strips it bare, right back to a basic character piece. It doesn’t happen often, but can be very special. Animal Kingdom at least aspires to this and despite any criticism I may have, it is substantial and memorable. Sadly, I was still largely disappointed.
You can’t please some people, eh? I’d be the first to bemoan the state of the Gangster film, a genre that had slipped into self-parody so far that even the best examples of recent years were still predictable and desperate. Animal Kingdom‘s approach is so refreshing that I wanted to like it very much. And up until about halfway, I really did.
The story follows J, a docile teenager who has just lost his mother to a heroin overdose. He’s literally numb to the situation and turns to his grandma, who he hasn’t seen for years. She takes him to live with her and her sons, who are all career criminals. He joins the family as they are starting to implode, with too much police attention frustrating them. The most notorious of the brothers, Pope, is in hiding, but he soon returns and that’s when the trouble really starts. So it’s an interesting twist on a dumb, impressionable teenager, surrounded by a hedonistic outlaw lifestyle, leaving him with a choice of glory or normality? Actually it’s better than that. Far more subtle. Nowhere near as much fun either.
It would be easy for any potential viewer to read that and second-guess the plot and I’d bet they’d be wrong. You could also try and imagine which stereotypes the characters fit into and you’d still be wrong. Well, “ish”. The plot is very indistinct and the acting naturalistic, largely humourless and quiet (which is a good thing) and some early moments are very powerful. There’s a noticeable and welcome lack of irony, another staple ingredient of the genre. The title as a metaphor for the world J is trying to fit into is about the most obvious thing about the film. There is an incredible early scene where J is persuaded to threaten someone with a gun and he does so, terrified and silent. Of course, he wins the stand-off. He’s the guy with the gun.
I wish the film could have built on that, but it seemed to just tread water from then on. Despite that fantastic moment, J remains passive and emotionless (a twist on a typical teen, I suppose!) for almost the entirety of the film and I found it numbing. Also, a lack of plot is one thing, and that really supports the idea of this family who can’t move in any direction, but a couple of developments felt very contrived to force something to happen. Add to this too many attempts to catch the audience out (including the ending, which is so obvious it might as well have been narrated) and suddenly it felt unfocused and disappointingly obvious. That was especially frustrating in a film so fresh as I certainly didn’t expect it to be predictable, if you pardon the expression.
While I found J monotonous, that was clearly the intention and James Frecheville is perfectly cast. Only time will prove if that’s a back handed compliment! All the brothers are good with their own personalities, especially Ben Mendelsohn as Pope. I wish he’d had more to do and wasn’t given such a weak last act, but more than once he’s the best thing on screen (see the simmering tension as he watches the ‘All Out of Love’ music video!). If there was any reason at all to watch this film again, it would be for him and Jacki Weaver as Janine, the mother. Hers is the most well written and satisfying role, which you might assume is similar to Billie Whitelaw in The Krays, but Weaver’s is a more interesting perspective. Best of all though, despite having the least screen time of the main characters, is Guy Pearce as Leckie, the detective. He really is superb, working the scene for all its potential while seemingly doing nothing. A late moment between him and Weaver is a brilliant one.
As a debut, as a film-making achievement, this is a great piece of work from David Michôd. I really enjoyed his balanced approach and I wish it could have been sustained for the full running time, but for me it collapses in the middle quite badly. There’s no rule to say you must like or hate a film absolutely on first viewing, but I wonder if such seemingly fundamental issues can be smoothed over by time? Despite the hugely positive reaction (97% on Rotten Tomatoes? 2010 Sundance Winner?) I find I appreciated it more than enjoyed it. It pales significantly against other recent examples of dialled back raw film-making, such as Monsters or especially the wonderful Winter’s Bone. Still, Animal Kingdom is indicative of a thoughtful, measured style of film I hope takes a stronger hold.
Brooklyn’s Finest? Not really. Oh, why do they use film titles that lend themselves to cheap puns? But in all seriousness, this isn’t very good.
Antoine Fuqua has had an odd career, with a couple of gems, like albeit flawed Training Day or unashamed actioner Shooter, but in-between he produces absolute rubbish, such as Tears of the Sun and especially King Arthur. Both of those films suffer from ambitious over-reaching and despite Brooklyn’s Finest seemingly cut from the same cloth as Training Day, it’s definitely the same problem.
Instead of giving us one, focused and gritty tale of a cop, he tries to give us three. Focus goes out the window and the result is awkward and desperate. We have loner Richard Gere as a regular cop a week away from retirement, forced to train new recruits. He’s jaded, cynical, alcoholic and emotionally dead, except for being in love with a prostitute, the silly sod. Then there’s Don Cheadle as an undercover officer who desperately wants out before he loses his mind. And finally Ethan Hawke plays a narcotics officer who has almost completely gone over the line, willing to do anything for cash so he can get his family into a better home.
They all inter-cut together, supposedly culminating on the same night, so you might be forgiven for thinking that the three separate plots might converge at some point, in some clever and insightful manner. Well, Pulp Fiction this is not. There are one or two minor overlaps and one more important scene that might just make you groan and that feels so desperate it ruins Cheadle’s segment, which had been the best of the three (strangely, that was the problem with Training Day). Gere’s plot ends up being the most satisfying, though it’s so ploddingly predictable, it hurts! And Hawke’s story line is a miserable experience from start through to its nasty, pointless ending.
All three leads do their best to put the fine in Finest and they might keep you watching. I did enjoy watching Cheadle and Gere, and Hawke did nothing wrong, but his story was so awful it detracted from his efforts. Wesley Snipes is great too. He pops up as a friend of Cheadle’s that he is forced to consider entrapping by Ellen Barkin, who has an dreadful character to play. A rabid Rottweiler would have been more subtle and would definitely have had better dialogue. A curiosity to see Snipes in a rare sombre role is as good a reason as any to see this film though.
All three plots are too weak, but two could have been bulked up into fairly decent movies on their own. They would have always been predictable, so joining them together seems like an attempt to hide them and make you feel like you’re watching something important and worthy. But it was done in such a cack-handed manner, it’s just pretentious and the almost complete absence of any tangible link is insulting. I could excuse it if there was some gratuitous action to balance it out, but there’s nothing.
In one scene, Gere visits his hooker friend and walks in on her and another client. Later she tells him, “I’m sorry you had to see that”. I know what she means, still, like Star Trek odd numbered movies, I’m now looking forward to Fuqua’s next project because it should be a cracker!
I’ll get right to the point: The Fighter is a stunning film and near perfect. Watching the trailer and reading the glowing reviews, something still wasn’t clicking for me. On paper, it’s easy to be cynical about a film that was so easily nothing more than Oscar-bait; a true story, complete with triumph over adversity emotion and plenty of dialogue for award starved actors to chew on. But in truth, it genuinely deserves all the plaudits and away from all the nonsense and analysing it’ll get subjected to, it’s just a bloody good film. A great film, in fact. I thought the boxing movie was done and dusted, with nothing more to say after Rocky and Raging Bull, but David O. Russell’s film is truly magnificent.
At the centre of the film are brothers Micky Ward (Mark Whalberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Dicky is an ex-boxer, addicted to drugs, but still devoted to training his younger brother, who is looking for his first major win. It’s a family affair throughout, as his manager is also his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), but a dysfunctional family nonetheless. Micky is losing faith, Dicky is heading for jail and Alice is obsessed. Micky’s faith is restored by Charlene (Amy Adams) and the story follows his attempt to give his life some meaning and independence, while his brother seeks redemption.
You’re probably yawning already. Another boxing drama? Really? Yes, really. And it’s a true life drama, which just makes it worse, doesn’t it? Biographical films rarely work properly, because life doesn’t have the decency to follow an interesting narrative. They so often become too sprawling and obvious to focus attention or concentrate too much on the subject. But the genius of The Fighter is in its screenplay, which is very clever and sharp. Most important of all, it isn’t predictable and frequently surprises. It gives in a little to sports movie convention in the second half, but that’s by necessity and it just couldn’t run without it. This is no dark introspective Raging Bull, but a more optimistic and likeable story.
It might be Micky’s story, but both brothers are important and it moves focus between them beautifully. The dialogue is sparky and frequently funny, especially in the family scenes. Don’t underestimate any of them though. Micky and Dicky’s mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), is especially powerful, convincing as both loving but obsessed to ruthless yet deluded. Plus she’s like a gang leader with half a dozen daughters in tow, ready to defend the family by any means, even against long suffering dad George! There actually isn’t a duff note in the cast at all. Amy Adams for instance could easily have got saddled with a basic girlfriend role, but her sassy delivery makes her impossible to dismiss, just perfect for her character, especially when she takes on that formidable family.
Christian Bale is getting a lot of attention during this awards season and it’s a shame that Mark Whalberg isn’t, but Bale does deserve his share. His role as the fidgety, crack-head older brother should be an obvious side-kick one-note performance, but the screenplay gives him great material to round out the character with and he is superb following his own path. The two work together perfectly with Whalberg being so quiet and subtle and again, note perfect. This is by far Whalberg’s best role and to be frank, I never thought he had it in him. In fact a few years ago, rumours suggested he was walking away from acting. Very glad he didn’t as he puts everything into this part. All the main roles have to have a fine balance and David O. Russell is either a genius for pulling them altogether or very lucky. Judging by his directing though, I’d go with the former.
Russell directs like an early Scorcese, with none of the indulgence of post-Goodfellas Scorcese. Some shots are breathtaking, and not just in the fight scenes, mainly because it’s always driven by the characters so every visual decision is grounded. Use of sound and editing is incredible too; when the two brothers are entering one of the fights to a chorus of boos drowning out Micky’s walk-on song, they sing it quietly to themselves instead. The film has a fluid style that flows effortlessly, perhaps mirroring the grace of the boxers in the ring, and it makes it very watchable even in the most powerful scenes.
It’s an exhilarating experience watching The Fighter. If like me you were ready to dismiss it because it’s release is conveniently timed in the awards season and it looks like more than one person involved is making a shameless bid for recognition, then just try to ignore all the nonsense and see it for what it really is. A genuinely powerful story with substance that’s a lot of fun too.
Like Val Lewton in the 1940s, Gareth Edwards could be accused of pulling a fast one. Lewton was influential in creating cheap b-movies with evocative titles (I Walked With A Zombie) that were actually intelligent character pieces. Likewise Monsters is severely lacking in actual monster action and cannot be dismissed as a basic crowd pleaser. Instead a very real present day world that is dealing with unusual “creatures” merely forms the backdrop for a road movie as photo-journalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) chaperones his boss’s daughter Sam (Whitney Able) through the Infected Zone of Mexico and back into the US. Actually, even the road movie is a cover for what boils down to a romance, a trick Hitchcock would frequently employ.
Lewton? Hitchcock? These are the fathers of modern genre cinema! Who the heck does this Gareth Edwards think he is? As a debut, Monsters is incredible. As Neill Blomkamp did with District 9, Edwards brings special effects experience and a genuine talent for film-writing on a shoestring budget, but even so, that doesn’t account for his ambition.
Monsters has been compared to District 9, but apart from the loose premise (alien discovery leads to uneasy human tolerance of new species), that film is very much classic comic book material. It’s also reminded people of Cloverfield, but Monsters isn’t hooked on a gimmick and doesn’t treat its characters as lively monster munch. Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist stands as a finer example of using monsters as a backdrop for the human condition, however Monsters is distinct for its optimism. While it lacks set-pieces and gore, the detritus of fights with the creatures litter the route and create a sombre atmosphere. If anything, the film it reminds me more of is The Road. Again, I must stress the more optimistic tone though.
Edwards has used real locations (albeit with occasional CGI retouching) and the story benefits ten-fold from that authenticity especially as he has a style similar to Cinema Verite. Mexico looks war-torn and you would swear an emotional moment following a street party in a village while the community mourn their dead is absolutely real. Toward the end, they make their way through a destroyed empty town which looks incredible. McNairy and Able’s understated performances are perfectly judged, especially considering there isn’t a single set-piece that distracts your attention from them. Throughout this is their story and theirs alone.
It does have its moments though, particularly a nervy river scene where an obvious opportunity to mimic Jaws is sidestepped beautifully. For actual footage of the creatures, there are one or two fire-fights, but the money shot is wisely saved until the end. It’s magnificent and strangely beautiful, while also underlining the films only real problem. I think it’s a biggie: Monsters would be a better film without the monsters at all. If this were a war-time drama the exact same couple with the same backgrounds could have a similar journey, meet similar people and it might be better, more affecting for it. You could argue it would be over-familiar, but the emotional link between the misunderstood creatures (they are only aggressive when attacked by military) and the couple is so clumsily handled it borders on embarrassing. Science Fiction is usually metaphorical, but it just doesn’t work when it has to be forced.
It feels like Gareth Edwards is a genuinely talented film-maker who perhaps started this project from an urge to use his own well practiced special effects in an authentic setting, but didn’t realise when his natural talent for writing drama sidelined his sci-fi premise and it became a crutch that needed forcing back in to be relevant. Still, as mistakes go, it’s a noble one!
Don’t expect a gritty Jurassic Park thrill-ride, but go in with an open mind and there is much to admire. Monsters is a masterful film that demonstrates a more effective, restrained use of CGI than any of its contemporaries, from War of the Worlds to Cloverfield, while having a grasp of cinematography and editing so confident it could rival a political thriller like Syriana and lends the premise a “this could actually happen!” vibe. Ultimately it just isn’t exciting enough to support there being monsters at all and the heartfelt science fiction feels awkward. Still, hell of a debut and such a bold attempt at reshaping a genre, it could yet turn out to be a milestone. I look forward to seeing what Gareth Edward’s next project is because he’s capable of anything and could have a lot of mainstream directors running scared.
What an infuriating film! It is born of the most cynical of ideas to capitalise on the success of a true modern classic; there is absolutely no excuse for remaking Let The Right One In. Yet they have and it has been crafted to the highest possible standards and I’m sure Matt Reeves at least approached the job properly and aimed to produce something valuable. If not for the pointless reasons it was made at all, this could have been an important contribution to American horror, lying somewhere between The Exorcist and The Omen. There is a huge difference between this and the recent run of remakes based on Asian films, like The Ring and The Eye. Let Me In is worth a dozen of those, seriously.
The first thing to notice, is that Let Me In is a very American film, with a strong social and visual identity, plus genuine justification for being set in the Reagan years (the scene with his speech in the background is clever and not the only time the screenplay finds relevance beyond the considerable capabilities of the Swedish version). Matt Reeves couldn’t have made a more different film to Cloverfield and he demonstrates real skill, choosing a very claustrophobic framing of characters, while using a lot of wide-open compositions for some of the sets. The opening scene is a perfect example and in many ways the film reminded me of Fincher’s Seven. But I’ll stick my neck on the line and say that Reeves promises to be a much more mature director if he can carry this standard through to more original work.
In one sense you can see how hard they have worked at this film, because they do exactly what they feel is right for the story. So, some scenes are absolutely identical, while others take a brand new approach. Nothing is done for the sake of sensationalism; what set-pieces there are feel organic to the plot. Take Abby’s transformation, using more CGi than the original. I was sure I would be disappointed, but it’s important to realise how elegant those scenes are done. She doesn’t transform on screen, but raises her eyes to reveal the change in an extreme close-up. It’s breathtaking and seeing how vampires have been done so often that they’ve become a cliché, it is commendable that the original yet traditional twists Let The Right One In provided have been done differently without resorting to Hollywood nonsense. The new transformation does remove one angle of the screenplay which hinted at her real age, but it’s replaced by a cute, if more obvious tweak.
The cast uniformly give a great performance. As with everything, you can’t help but compare with the first one, but in trying to be fair and judging by their own merits, this cast are excellent. Elias Koteas couldn’t give a bad performance if he tried and he invests the down-trodden detective with just the right balance of emotion. Similar is a haunting Richard Jenkins as Abby’s resolute guardian. Abby herself is played by Chloe Moretz who builds on Kick Ass to exploit her impressive range in a more sombre manner. And Kodi Smit-McPhee proves adept at another challenging and emotional role following The Road, as the quiet and lonely Owen. Particularly good are the scenes with his mum (Cara Buono), as she is never seen properly. She is always out of focus or frame, building the emphasis on Owen’s sad childhood.
As if to prove how different this approach is to a normal cash-in remake, consider my only real fault with the film. I found it paced a little too slow! Normally I’d expect such a film to hype the drama.
There is one excuse after all for wanting to make this film and that is in creating a brand for the recently revived Hammer studios. Ironically, even many years ago they started with The Quatermass Xperiment, an arguably unnecessary remake of the BBC series and they made their name with remakes of classic Universal monsters. Their upcoming roster of films is very promising and if they manage to generate more interest and success by being able to stick “from the producers of Let me In” on the posters, then I’ll have another excuse for liking this film as much as I do! I’m ashamed to say I thought it was superb. Bugger. I really wanted to slag them off.
You can’t judge a film by its title. And you mustn’t in the case of The Karate Kid, should you become confused and cynical! After all, it’s set in China and features Jackie Chan, so Karate is never even mentioned. It’s just a slightly offensive marketing ploy to live off the back of the 1984 hit, which makes you question the motives of making it at all and dismiss it out of hand. They really should have proudly named it “The King-Fu Kid”, because despite being a near step-for-step remake, it’s actually very good and deserves a chance to stand on its own.
It’s a story about Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) who moves with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) from Detroit to Bejing. Struggling to fit in, he tries and fails to stand up to a crowd of bullies led by Zhenwei Wang. He becomes afraid of even going to school until meeting Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the quiet maintenance man who knows Kung-Fu and who reluctantly agrees to teach Dre. A local, ruthless Kung-Fu teacher (Rongguang Yu) has agreed his students will leave Dre alone, so long as he fights in an upcoming tournament.
Jaden Smith does really well in the title role and has clearly put a lot of work in that demands respect. As well as the physical aspects, he also has his father Will’s cheeky humour and timing. Importantly, all the young characters act very well with the adults. Often this kind of film underwrites the grown-ups and the relationship between Dre and Mr. Han especially is very real.
As Mr. Han, Jackie Chan is just magic in what might be his best English speaking role. Through no fault of his own, he doesn’t have Pat Morita’s natural unassuming calm (well, he is Jackie Chan!) that made Mr. Miyagi so iconic, but he is just as poignant and brings a beautifully judged humour to the character. The moment he rescues Dre by disabling six bullies without throwing a punch is wonderful. It’s brilliantly choreographed; thrilling and very funny in that Chaplin-esque way Chan is so good at. From that point on, he keeps the film alive and proves why he’s one of the biggest movie stars around. As with the 1984 film, the last half is predictable, but that’s the curse of sports based tournament movies and you’ll nevertheless be on the edge of your seat!
The film doesn’t flow as nicely as the first version, and that could be an effect of over-familiarity, but this version does lack some potential by using a much younger cast, despite their considerable ability. While Zhenwei Wang brings a convincingly vicious ferocity to the role of the main bully, Wen Wen Han as Mei Ying (the girl Dre has a crush on) is awkward and the story loses momentum in those sequences. They are just too young to convince for a romantic angle. The original plot worked as a coming of age story that teenagers could identify with, so the test will be if the young audience take to Jaden as their Karate Kid as much as my generation took to Ralph Macchio.
So you might be cynical about why it was made and how it was marketed, but give it a chance, because it’s honest and likeable. The Karate Kid has had a very good reception in the States and has confused people by beating The A-Team, but it’s easy to see why. This is a children’s film that respects its audience, including the adults, and outside of Pixar animation, that is rare and very reassuring.
The Karate Kid is a great family film, with a solid message and deserves to become as loved as its reassuringly cheesy predecessor. If only it hadn’t have been let down by the silly title.
When a wealthy woman unwittingly hires a con man and a phony psychic to find her missing heir, the results are diabolically funny in Alfred Hitchcock’s tongue-in-cheek mystery thriller. Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris star as a conniving couple plotting to bilk an old lady out of her fortune by pretending to find her long-lost nephew (William Devane). Meanwhile, Devane, a larcenous jeweller, and his beautiful girlfriend (Karen Black) have kidnapped a rich Greek shipping magnate for ransom. Together they’re on a nonstop merry-go round of mystery, murder and mayhem that combines suspense and comedy for unforgettable entertainment.
And so we come to the final Alfred Hitchcock film. It would be easy to make excuses for it, coming at the end of such an illustrious career that encompassed some of the greatest and most important films ever made, but the truth is, we don’t have to. It’s a great little film that is unmistakeably Hitchcock throughout and shows he never rested on his laurels.
The key thing about a typical Hitchcock plot is the simple, delicious premise and a claustrophobic situation, entrapping the central character. Family Plot doesn’t really have that. Essentially it’s two separate threads, but the light, farcical story by Ernest Lehman, built around a hugely ironic premise (jewel thief trying to do away with a couple who are simply trying to help him!), is still very enjoyable. There is a nod to previous ideas with the notion that the perfect murder was committed years before and gotten away with. For now.
The film opens with Barbara Harris as fake spiritualist Blanche in the middle of a session with Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nebitt) and being offered $10000 to track down –psychically- the only heir to her family fortune. We are then introduced to Blanche’s partner, taxi driver George Lumley (Bruce Dern) as they try to work out how to find this man who nobody knows. There is a neat switch to Karen Black as jewel thief Fran completing an audacious kidnap plot by silently collecting the ransom from a police station and taking it to William Devane (Arthur Adamson aka Edward Shoebridge, the guy Blanche will be looking for). It’s a grand and theatrical introduction for the second couple, including a brilliant reveal of a helicopter, almost like a magic trick. The neat hiding of the diamond makes for a couple of nice shots later on too.
Harris and Dern might not get the obvious set-piece to grab the viewer with, but you will quickly warm to their endearing partnership. Harris (Freaky Friday) in particular works her socks off throughout and is very funny. And this is one of the best roles I’ve seen Dern in. Not because it is particularly difficult, but he often plays characters that are difficult to empathise with. The jewel thief couple are more style over substance, but Karen Black does well with the thinnest role and William Devane is always worth watching, especially his smooth dealings with detectives who visit his jewellers (note his lapel picking to disarm them). Ed Lauter also pops up as a thug and does very well to be a viable threat in what is too light a story to handle anything really terrifying.
Most of Hitchcock’s American films had huge star power, but this had undone his later films. Marnie and Torn Curtain had the stars, but they were awkward, detached, incapable or all three! Topaz had the characters, but not the stars to pull them off. As if realising a change of gear was needed, in Frenzy he worked with a lesser-known, but a more capable and balanced cast and the story was tailored to suit them. Family Plot is the same and works very well for it, although at some cost to the epic visual style his best work is known for. Still, he rarely handled comedy well for that very reason, so this is a treat. There is one set-piece that acts as a nod to North By Northwest and the preceding car accident hilariously demonstrates Hitchcock’s grasp of the absurd cinema he helped create and reminding us a little of the humour he injected into Foreign Correspondent.
The low key setting, wider focused plot and cast of unknowns, can’t help but lend the film a touch of TV movie (though somewhat deflected by John Williams’ score), but rather than be a detriment, it simply highlights the director’s skills in composing a scene, or building character and dialogue. For some reason, I particularly noticed the sound design based on his earlier tricks to hide exposition; watch how he uses a radio to drown out dialogue and then has the characters complain so it gets turned down. It’s almost as if they acknowledge that the audience can’t hear them! And if you think that comes close to breaking the fourth wall, well just wait until the end! It’s a silly grace-note once the plot is done with, but cheeky Hitchcock clearly understands it can only work if the audience is complicit.
After his later American movies had seemed old fashioned in structure, like he was falling back on older, more reliable roots, it seems like Frenzy had given him a new direction. Tone down the visual and concentrate on a dependable, solid cast and a likeable premise. As such this is a fine swansong that while lacking the pure cinematic power of, say, Vertigo, nevertheless intrigues by suggesting what might have been. Certainly the great man was not running on empty and we couldn’t ask for anything more.