The Review: If they ever come to update the Chinese zodiac, then 2011 might need to be revised from rabbit. With Drive, Crazy, Stupid, Love, The Ides Of March and (for UK audiences) Blue Valentine, 2011 was undoubtedly the Year Of The Gosling. Having made a moderate name for himself with earlier character pieces such as Half Nelson and Lars And The Real Girl, Gosling seared himself indelibly into the minds of film loving audiences with a year of high quality roles. 2013 sees him reunite with the directors of two of those works, Nicolas Winding Refn later this year and firstly Derek Cianfrance. Where Blue Valentine, Cianfrance’s previous collaboration with Gosling, was an almost claustrophobically intense two hander on the demise of a relationship, Pines sees Cianfrance set his sights more broadly, with a significantly wider range of characters and a much wider narrative scope. But the key differentiator to Gosling’s back catalogue is the introduction of another heartthrob alpha male in the finely chiselled shape of Bradley Cooper.
This isn’t a Scorcese or Mann style story of crime and families; while both relationships and criminal activity make a strong showing, the good and the bad interact in vastly different ways. The story of Gosling’s Luke is the initial focus, as his career as a motorcycle stunt rider for a local sideshow barely pays the bills. When he discovers he’s fathered a child by ex-girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes), his attempts to provide a stable financial future lead him to mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) as the two pull off some audacious bank robberies using Luke’s exceptional riding skills. Inevitably, their activities attract the attention of police officer Avery (Cooper), but his run-in with Luke creates its own set of problems. Romina finds herself being drawn into Avery’s world as well, and the two sets of lives become increasingly linked as time passes.
Once again, his collaboration with Cianfrance serves to extract another top-draw performance from Gosling, who’s got the smouldering thing absolutely nailed, but manages to find another variation on his Drive persona with a more flawed, fractured individual whose violent outbursts are significantly less controlled and productive than his scorpion jacket-wearing counterpart. The real revelation is Cooper, who after becoming stuck somewhat in a rut of big budget but empty comedies and action movies builds on the good work he put in for Silver Linings Playbook, allowing real shading in what could have been a simple role. There’s complex characters across the board, and as well as Cooper and Gosling Mendelsohn and Mendes also shine, and the supporting roles are also well filled by Ray Liotta, Harris Yulin and especially Dane De Haan as a more troubled youngster. That Cianfrance works so well with actors should come as no surprise, but his compositional skills also step up a level from Blue Valentine and from a magnificent establishing shot of Gosling walking through the park to ride his bike into the show, to almost any scene where Luke’s on the run on his bike, the first hour or so crackles with bursts of kinetic energy between the character moments.
It’s a shame that what comes later feels just a shade anticlimactic by comparison. Pines is episodic almost to the point of portmanteau, setting up three distinct chapters where characters take on vastly different perspectives in relation to the respective leads and with stories told in subtly different styles. The big problem is in the final chapter: as soon as the title card comes up for it there’s an inevitability to where the story’s headed, but it takes the two leads at that point so long to join the dots to what the audience already knows it verges on the painful, and by the time it has the narrative resolution of the thread that links the episodes is almost an “oh, is that it?” moment. You almost wish that Cianfrance and fellow scripters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder had avoided the attempt at the epic, sweeping scope and kept their focus tight on Gosling and Cooper, possibly even on just one or the other, as the first act had the makings of a classic but the whole isn’t quite the sum of its parts. It’s rare to see a film that clocks in at two hours and twenty minutes that you feel could have benefited from being longer, but another twenty minutes could have given Pines the room it needed to breathe and develop with the scope it set its sights on. But, once again, it’s most likely Gosling’s performance that will live longest in the memory.
Why see it at the cinema: The tight first hour alone is worth making the trip out for, especially any scene where Gosling is tearing it up on his bike.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong language, violence and drug use. There’s a lot of the first and a bit of the other two, and this would have been hacked to death to get anything lower.
My cinema experience: A sparse crowd, somewhat understandably as this was a Saturday morning show at Cambridge Cineworld. No noticeable issues with projection, sound or audience.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: The captive Saturday morning audience were treated to an extended roster of trailers, including one for the Event Cinema Association for events which have all happened already. That resulted in a gap of 29 minutes before the film started, not ideal for a film running to 141 minutes itself.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: If you visit my Twitter profile, you’ll find this at the top of the page, my vaguely self-deprecating description:
Now, for anyone that’s read any amount of this blog, you’ll be aware that I have a somewhat addictive personality. When I invest in a subject, I tend to invest hard, having seen 635 films in the cinema in the last five years and 447 of those since I started writing this blog. But if you think that’s an actual OCD, then you’re very wrong; obsessive, clearly, but it lacks the physical compulsions which can debilitate its sufferers and in the most severe cases ruin their lives. I’ve always known that the day I start a family is the day that my cinema dwelling will dwindle to nothing for a while, and I’m ready for when that day comes. But from schizophrenia to psychosis, mental illness is generally misunderstood in our society, so any film looking to imbue its characters with such afflictions would be advised to tread carefully.
Silver Linings Playbook features a number of characters who have an array of mental difficulties: Pat (Bradley Cooper) is discharged from a mental hospital after his mother (Jacki Weaver) intervenes, but struggles to come to terms with both his home life and the absence of his wife, estranged after Pat’s bipolar disorder came to the fore when he catches her cheating. His only real friend (Chris Tucker) is still struggling with his own mental health issues and regularly attempts to escape from the same hospital, but even he can see that the more classically depressed Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) has an interest in Pat, but both Pat and Tiffany have their own deeper motivations for wanting to spend time with the other. Meanwhile Pat also struggles to reform a bond with his father (Robert De Niro), who shows his own signs of both obsessive behaviour and addiction and which start to come to the fore when Pat struggles.
In terms of the film itself, it’s worthwhile trying to separate the characters from their afflictions for the depictions of mental illness are shaky at best. Oddly, Chris Tucker fares best in that respect, as he appears outwardly normal and little attempt is made to characterise his illness, which actually makes his the best description. For the others (Pat / Pat Sr. / Tiffany) the seeds of their illnesses can be seen, but the characteristics are poorly sown by David O. Russell’s script (based on Matthew Quick’s novel) and somehow the Asperger’s syndrome of Pat’s literary counterpart attempts to become bipolar disorder here. It wouldn’t matter so much if the characters were more generally well written, but the script gives them little else to feed off for most of the time and when it does, the contrast is sharp; Jennifer Lawrence fares best in that respect, again getting the chance to show off the skills that got her recognised for Winter’s Bone and in one pivotal scene, waltzing in and acting everyone else, De Niro included, off the screen. Cooper, De Niro, Weaver and even Tucker put in good work but this turns out to be Jennifer Lawrence’s show.
Successfully portraying mental illness on screen is one challenge that Silver Linings meets only with partial success; the other half hearted attempt is to put a new wrinkle on the romantic comedy. For a film so serious for much of its running time, the occasional laughs sit uncomfortably, although thankfully they are driven out of the situations and never at the expense of the characters themselves. But the third act turns into the kind of romantic comedy plot that’s hamstrung the careers of the likes of Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, and it’s only the likeability of Lawrence and Cooper that helps to see it through. It is predictable in the extreme, and once the pieces are laid out the last act plays out with a total lack of surprise and not much more suspense. It’s a totally mixed bag directorially from Russell as well, shepherding his characters through to the resolution with only occasional flashes of the touch which he’s shown in his best films. A mixed bag all round then, worth seeing for the performances but not doing very much to advance just about anything else.
Why see it at the cinema: The drama of the last act comes across well in the cinema, even if it is lacking in surprise, but it’s not enough of a comedy to benefit from the audience buzz and there’s nothing remarkable in direction or cinematography. If you’re keen, worth catching in the cinema, but otherwise wait for the DVD.
The Score: 6/10
The Review: I’m sure you recognise the pitch – John McClane expressing an almost fourth-wall breaking level of surprise at his predicament in Die Hard 2. The biggest curse that sequel found itself under was attempting to remain too many elements of its wildly successful predecessor, and the script felt the need to acknowledge the unlikeliness of a New York cop single-handedly taking down terrorists and saving his wife while battling police incompetence on Christmas Eve. Twice. But you know what? While you might only go on your own stag do once, or maybe twice these days, the possibility of everyone getting steaming drunk and getting into larks every time they go on one isn’t actually all that small. So the main surprise in The Hangover, Part II is not that Phil, Stu and Alan end up on another disastrous stag night, it’s that the events of the second stick quite so closely to the events of the orginal, with the main difference being that they’re in Thailand.
Thailand – sleazy land of ladyboys and seedy tattoo parlours, yes? Well no, I had my honeymoon in Thailand, four days in Bangkok and six days on an island, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. While that was six years ago, even Thailand during the recent unfortuate civil unrest looks more appealing than the one that director Todd Phillips and his crew have conjured up. Apart from the very nice looking hotel outside the city where the wedding is due to take place, this is a Bangkok that feels trapped in an alternate universe – one which is probably where the new versions of the characters have appeared from. Initially it’s hard to reconcile the bunch of unlikeable slackers that appear on screen with the people we know from the original, and it isn’t really until Alan appears that anything starts to be familiar.
Zack Galifianakis was one of the breakout stars of the original, and his brand of obsessive weirdness is back in force, giving the film a reassuringly familiar feel. After a while, though, you’ll be hoping for a little originality, as the beats of the original are played out in absolute strict succession. So begins a procession around Bangkok’s trashy underbelly, where the group steadily realise they’re in more and more trouble, and the stakes get raised that little bit higher. Of course, the humour as a consequence must get pushed that little bit further, and that’s when Part II hits real trouble – much of the humour relied on the surprise factor of the original, and the sheer predictability of the follow up means that even chuckles are now few and far between and the belly laughs are now non-existent.
The Hangover, Part II manages to be racist, homophobic, showcase a cruelty to animals and you feel it would be misogynistic if there were such a word that applied to ladyboys, and much of that might be excusable or at least watchable in a very dark comedy if it was in any way funny. Sadly the only real adjective that can be applied is lazy – there are a smattering of good Alan moments, most of which aren’t as good as the comparable moments from Part I and Stu does a great riff on a Billy Joel song while on a boat, and that’s really the sum total of what there is to enjoy here. When you see the Nick Cassavetes tattooist cameo and realise that the joke would have just been that it’s Mel Gibson / Liam Neeson in tattoos, then the complete lack of ambition becomes totally apparent. The Hangover, Part II takes a bunch of guys whose hijinks on their bachelor party gets out of hand in a good natured way, and pushes the concept past a tipping point where each of them becomes an unwatchably unpleasant reflection of the original and the good nature is replaced by a constant ill will. The abiding feeling is one of a dodgy Seventies TV sitcom that takes all of its characters on a package holiday and leaves the laughs at home in what must be the most ill-judged sequel since Babe 2: Pig In The City.
Why see it at the cinema: Apart from two or three tracking shots and the rooftop hotel restaurant scene, there’s very little to suggest that this couldn’t all have been filmed on a beach in Florida. There were a few people laughing at various intervals at my showing, but they were very much in the minority. If you’re really desperate to see this then do so with as large a crowd as possible as it will maximise your laughing potential, which otherwise will be very limited.
The Score: 3/10
The Review: Bradley Cooper really did seem to be the only possible choice to play Templeton Peck in last year’s A-Team remake. The dashing looks and grin that errs just on the right side of sleazy had already been put to good use in films such as The Hangover and Yes Men, and those rare qualities have now given him a big leading role of his own. But what if that potential lays within us all? To be smart, funny, to look effortlessly cool and to be one step ahead; and all it would take is a little clear pill. For normal Bradley Cooper it would take a lot of work to undo that, but here he’s rocking the grunge look and hitting deadlines with the accuracy of a blind man with no thumbs trying to pin a tail on a fast moving donkey. So when one clear pill comes his way, it doesn’t feel like there’s much to lose.
But by then we’ve already had a taste of what’s to come, and with every pill come choices and consequences. (That said, if I could take one pill and end up meeting Robert De Niro, I’d probably swallow now and ask questions later.) The consequences soon start piling up for Cooper’s Eddie Mora, from the side effects of the drug to the possibility of those who want the drug themselves coming knocking, and those risks come increasingly with the threat of violence. As parable for conventional drug use, it’s pretty effective in its clear demonstration of both the attraction and the risks, and indeed the lengths that Eddie, or any other addict for that matter, will go to in order to maintain their habit.
Bradley Cooper does exactly what you’d expect of him in the role, but he earns his money because he does what he does very well indeed. He’s on screen almost constantly, and there are only two others that have any significant screen time. Abbie Cornish gets the girlfriend role, and is a little anonymous (unfortunately for her, Anna Friel gets much more to do in less screen time), but the big disappointment is Robert De Niro. At his best when either raging or quietly simmering, here he’s congenial but fails crucially to convey any weight to his acting, or indeed much interest in what he’s asked to do. So much of the work in keeping us interested falls to Cooper, and thankfully he’s up to the task.
The other people hard to keep us interested are screenwriter Leslie Dixon, whose script doesn’t always follow the predictable path (apart from a flash-forward opening on a high rooftop that feels a little clichéd), and director Neil Burger. Burger is best known for the Edward Norton starrer The Illusionist, which had a stately, period feel; in the more contemporary setting, he makes use of a variety of different visual tricks and creates a visceral thrill ride which keeps Limitless moving forward quickly enough that you can overlook the odd flaw or cheesy moment in the plotting. It’s only late on, when De Niro comes more to the fore and consequently the plot’s creaking becomes more apparent, that things sag, and it doesn’t help that the ending feels slightly like a cheat. Still, while not limitless, Bradley Cooper still has plenty of potential still to exploit, and on the strength of this should go further.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s a real Fight Club vibe in the use of the visuals early on, and Burger makes fantastic use of the screen. Just a shame he runs out of steam late on.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: I grew up in the Eighties, mainly on a diet of cheesy American TV series. They were two a penny for a while, and I watched them all: Manimal, Street Hawk, Automan and Airwolf, most of them with cheerfully interchangeable plots and a tenuous grip on reality, ideal for a ten year old looking for excitement. The one I replayed most myself was my out and out favourite, Knight Rider (the other one of the pitch above, in case you missed the Eighties for any reas0n); the one played out most on the playgrounds with my friends and I, and probably on most other playgrounds, was The A Team, with every kid fighting over which one they wanted to be. I often got to be Face, partly as he was my favourite at the time (Dirk Benedict was also in Battlestar Galactica, making him extra cool, and they then referred to this in the opening titles! How exciting!), and partly because my friends and I had a well developed sense of irony at an early age, so making Face the ugly one was a no-brainer.
What I was really hoping for was that this modern reboot of the franchise would capture, above all, that sense of playground fun that made you want to be these guys, running around shooting but never fatally wounding. Crucial to that would be the casting of the central foursome and their ability to inhabit the same characters, and this is only a partial success. The most successful is Sharlto Copley, who has huge amounts of fun with Murdock, throwing in random accents and never standing still. Bradley Cooper is a pretty, and pretty reasonable, Face, pulling off the swagger but never quite having the smooth charm of the original. Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson is easy enough to watch, but doesn’t have the gruff charisma of Mr T. Most disappointing is Liam Neeson, who never manages the American accent that well and doesn’t have the cocky authority of George Peppard.
However, the group as a whole do have fun, and come across as a unit you’d like to spend time with. The movie’s at its winning best when the four are planning their latest crazy stunt and the interplay is firing; there’s maybe not quite enough of this and maybe a little too much introspection at times, especially in B.A.’s ill advised non-violence sub-plot. The original series was a pure pleasure on its own terms, and at times almost slide-rule linear in terms of its plotting; every good episode consisted of the “team enter a situation, team get in trouble, team use unconventional means to win the day” through-line, and you were never required to engage the brain cells. The movie tries to be a little more involved, but only a little – any twists are all well telegraphed, so you get the same effect as the original, but it doesn’t feel quite as well constructed.
What stops this from being a great film, rather than a just above average one, are the action sequences. The concepts are by and large good, it’s the execution, and Joe Carnahan’s direction, that renders them often unclear and just as often unenjoyable. Apart from the team camaraderie, this should have been the core of the movie, and that’s where the biggest let down comes – if it was an attempt to disguise the shoddy CGI, then it was a mistake and the action shouldn’t have been sacrificed as a result. I love it when a plan comes together, but this one sadly never quite does. If someone’s willing to stump up for a sequel, though, then there’s enough here to think that Plan B might be the one.
Why see it at the cinema: The unclear action sequences do fill the whole frame, so seeing them on the big screen does at least give you the best possible chance of working out what’s going on. There are also just about enough laughs to want to share them.
The Score: 6/10