thriller

Review: Haywire

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The Pitch: Of Woman Bourne.

The Review: Steven Soderbergh films are like buses; you wait ages, then two come along at once. In some ways they’re actually better than buses, as if there’s one you don’t like the next one will probably be completely different. So it should be no surprise that after last year’s taut but slightly underwhelming Outbreak-remake Contagion Soderbergh has arrived on an entirely different bus, but actually one that left the depot two years ago. (I think I’d better park this bus metaphor now.) The difference between Contagion and Haywire is a prime  example of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental and varied nature, but it also means that you can’t guarantee that you’re actually going to like every Soderbergh film. This time, the Soderbergh experiment is to take a female mixed martial arts star and to attempt to make her a movie star; but does this attempt to put the fair fight in My Fair Lady actually work?

A lot of that rests on Carano’s broad but still delicate shoulders. Coming off somewhere between Jet from Gladiators and Cynthia Rothrock, what she lacks in personality and acting ability and more personality she makes up for with a steely glare,  a slight grumpiness when asked to wear a dress and an unerring ability to beat the senses out of men twice her size. Sensibly, the story constructed is very much designed to show off the sense-beating, grumpiness and steely glares and minimise the need for personality and acting ability. It’s pretty much a Bourne clone; there’s running, fighting, driving, all in the name of Carano finding something about about the people who she’s fighting, driving past or running away from. The fights themselves have a real physicality and heft about them, and when Carano and Michael Fassbender start laying into each other, it’s verging on cartoon violence and quite satisfying, if you like that kind of thing.

In order to draw attention away from any perceived lack of abilities on Gina Carano’s part, Soderbergh has surrounded her with some of the finest acting and action movie talent known to man. Ewan McGregor sports a dodgy haircut and his usual unlikely American accent and does most of the exposition, and the likes of Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Bill Paxton also pop up in supporting roles. Here lies the first of two major problems with Haywire: the bits in between the running and the fighting are deathly dull, written as if the Enigma machine had turned its hand to screenplays. There’s lots of obtuse references to lots of things which aren’t stated explicitly, and then in the last ten minutes reams of further exposition turn up to make sense of it all. By that point, if you didn’t enjoy the fighting and the running, you may have also stopped caring.

The other drawback of Haywire is that, for all of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental nature, it actually feels about as fresh as a three day old nappy at times. There’s a little Ocean’s meets Bourne feel going on, thanks to David Holmes’ unmistakably trendy, januty score which creates a familiar ambience, but Soderbergh has been experimental so many times, and often much more so than here, that actually the familiarity of the material can breed contempt in the quieter stretches. There’s a great stretch in the middle of the film where Carano goes on the run across Dublin, beating up security guards and running over rooftops, and somehow an extended version of this sequence, stripped of the babbling exposition and filling the short but overstretched run time, might have actually been an improvement. Soderbergh’s talking about taking a sabbatical after his next two films and on this evidence he might need to recharge his batteries, as Haywire’s a lot of fun when its star is handing out violence like it’s going out of fashion, but the rest of the time you’ll wish you had Jason Bourne’s Swiss-cheesed memory, as the non-violent scenes deserve to be forgotten.

Why see it at the cinema: Yay fighty bits! Yay running about on rooftops! The rest might be a little scrambled, but whenever Carano’s kicking butt or running about in pursuit of some other low-life, then you’ll thank yourself that you saw it on a screen that did it justice.

The Score: 6/10

Review: The Ides Of March

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The Pitch: Et tu, Goslé?

The Review: Somewhere along the line, George Clooney became an American institution, but I’m still struggling to pinpoint the exact moment that it happened. It must have been after he was in ER (the second one; he was actually in two different series called ER, fact fans, one of which was a comedy), and definitely after he was in that Batman film. Admittedly he probably got into that because everyone was convinced he was a movie star; somewhere between Out Of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven it actually came true, but actually his screen career’s been patchy at best. His directorial efforts haven’t really been any different, and from the highs of Good Night, And Good Luck to The Leatherheads sinking without trace, a Clooney film is far from a sure thing. So it’s a great relief to report that The Ides Of March is actually a cracking thriller, but one of a very particular type.

But just as Clooney’s character seems practically perfect in every possible way, much of the success of Ides isn’t just Clooney’s skill in front of and behind the camera, it’s actually his leading man. For Clooney is almost a support player in his own movie, but his leading man seems physically incapable of appearing in a bad film these days, on a hot streak this year including Blue Valentine, Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Ryan Gosling is rapidly turning into the George Clooney of his generation, the next matinee idol and on a similar trajectory. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the film follows similar threads, Gosling’s idealistic campaigner working keenly in the shadow of Clooney’s virtuous liberal Senator. When Gosling gets a call from a rival campaigner (Paul Giamatti), curiosity gets the better of him and it sets in motion a chain of events that threaten to not only upturn his life, but also that of the fresh-faced intern (Evan Rachel Wood) who’s keen to get in his, erm, briefs.

That last reference would have worked better if Ides were a courtroom or legal thriller, but tonally it actually has a lot in common with some of the better examples of that genre from recent years, such as A Few Good Men or The Firm. (This might also suggest Gosling could be the next Tom Cruise rather than George Clooney, which should certainly be within his reach if he wants it.) It’s also a sign that The Ides Of March isn’t actually as deep as it thinks it is; it’s not quite paddling pool shallow, but the politics itself is an extreme form of liberal idealism that wouldn’t hold water in the real world, and the actual debate never really gets a look in, as it’s all about the Clooney campaign. But Clooney the director makes the greater contribution of the two Clooneys here, with heavy use of close-ups getting heavily into the drama and the pacing kept just right for the material.

It’s not to diminish Clooney the actor’s contribution; whenever he or Gosling is on screen, the effect is magnetic, and when the two are together the screen positively burns with charisma. It’s very much an actor’s movie, and there’s sterling support from the likes of Giamatti, Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei. Those expecting an intricate political dissection of the current state of the Union will be disappointed; an early reference to Neville Chamberlain gives a feel of the more timeless themes of personal integrity and power that Clooney the writer and his partner Grant Heslov are keen to explore. A slightly muted reception in the US might be down to the two party system, and the fact that The Ides Of March wears its Democrat badge with pride (even if it does evoke some of the most well known Democrats of recent years for many of the wrong reasons), but if you’re looking for entertainment then there’s no need to beware this Ides Of March.

Why see it at the cinema: Flirting in tight close up, when the camera is fully in the faces of Ryan Gosling and Evan Rachel Wood, there’s something for everyone.

The Score: 8/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Contagion

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The Pitch: Outbreak 2: Infectious Boogaloo.

The Review: Fear of infections is a fairly modern phenomena. While great crime dramas or romantic comedies have been the subject of movies for decades, our fear of disease in our anti-bacterial, post-MRSA world is only now really starting to provide fodder for the great and the good of Hollywood. (Maybe that great unmade Black Death movie is still out there somewhere). But after three decades of disaster movies laying waste to everything in sight, audiences expect certain things from their movies, and in those respects Steven Soderbergh’s latest delivers – up to a point.

In any disaster movie, the first thing you want to see is a high class array of talent being put in jeopardy. If there’s one thing Soderbergh does well, it’s put a cast together, and he’s obviously given the Filofax a good thumbing before the cameras rolled. As soon as the credits roll, Gwynneth Paltrow appears on screen and she’s the first in a long succession of famous and familiar faces who appear, then start coughing and looking a bit pasty and sweaty. It would take most of this review to list the ones who do well, although Paltrow does get killed off before she has chance to do any damage, but by and large the acting falls into two categories: being asked to cough and splutter before an inevitable bout of death (or, in the case of Matt Damon, standing around while other people do that), or to stand in a room looking at computer screens or a conference table surrounded by stern looking, smartly dressed men while delivering reams of medical exposition about infection rates and worst case scenarios, and everyone does that as well as you’d expect.

The alternating between coughing and general sternness is edited together at a fair lick. Regular Soderbergh contributor and Oscar winner Stephen Mirrione never lets the pace flag, with scenes finely trimmed and the scenario and the constant threat being used to generate mood. The mood itself is very tense, starting uneasily and steadily building as events escalate and the authorities struggle to keep pace with the spread of the infection. If anything, it feels a little too trimmed, and occasionally scenes that need time to breathe or resonate get lost a little as the general pace sweeps along everything in its path. The other obstacle that Contagion has to overcome is Jude Law, who appears to have been taking lessons at the “Physical Impairment and Dodgy Accent” school of acting, his performance consisting of a dodgy tooth and a dodgier accent. If you manage to work out whether his accent is Australian or Cockney, please do let me know.

Contagion has a lot it’s trying to say, about the potential of such a situation, and of how everyone from governments to pharmaceutical companies would react in such a scenario. Consequently it’s not surprise that the pacy editing and the huge number of different narrative threads mean that a few ideas feel a little underdeveloped; some characters disappear for long stretches, and their reappearance often leaves you wondering what they’ve been up to in the interim. The overriding feeling is one of frustration, as while what’s here is great, and will give you chills every time the person next to you starts scratching their head, Contagion feels as if it would have been more effective as a six hour miniseries than the hour and forty-five minutes that is actually presented. The final disappointment comes in the ending, as it feels as if a few punches have been pulled and we get to see an ending that’s already been spelled out in the exposition earlier, like a whodunnit where a signed confession is found halfway through but everyone keeps investigating, just in case. Still, Contagion will get under your skin, even if it won’t leave a lasting impression.

Why see it at the cinema: The crisp digital visuals are definitely best suited to the cinema, but the USP of Contagion is that your paranoia will increase markedly as soon as someone on the other side of the cinema starts coughing. You just don’t get that at home.

The Score: 7/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: The Debt

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The Pitch: Some debts take longer to pay off than others.

The Review: Sam Worthington could very well be the Kevin Costner of his generation. Kevin had a knack for the dramatic equivalent of being the straight man in a comedy show, a stoic pivot at the centre of a film where those around him would do all the heavy lifting in the acting department. From JFK to The Untouchables, from Field Of Dreams to Robin Hood, Costner assembled a diverse body of work, most of which is excellent and most of which he’s doing less acting than his colleagues in. Worthington has already secured a number of lead roles, and has now been inexplicably cast in an ensemble drama where he’s required to act at the same level as both his contemporaries and some great actors of earlier generations.

I would love to say that Sam steps up and knocks it out of the park, but consider the acting talent he’s been recruited with. At the older end, you’ve got Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds portraying the Nineties versions of the lead trio, retired Mossad agents who achieved glory in their younger days. In the contemporary category, Martin Csokas and Jessica Chastain, with Chastain especially marked out for great things after her last lead role opposite Brad Pitt in The Tree Of Life. Against that kind of competition, Worthington never stood a chance, but if the film had used him to his best effect, rather than putting him through the harrowing experience of asking him to act (you can almost see the acting gears churning behind his concentrated face), then it need never have been a problem.

You see, there’s two competing films in here, and The Debt is never quite sure which one it wants to be. There’s the exploits of Worthington’s trio in Sixties Berlin, attempting to track down a Nazi war criminal (the excellent Jesper Christensen) and to bring him to justice, and the human drama of their conflict both in the Sixties and in the Nineties. Scenes between Chastain and Christensen are excellent, and the drama is exploited for all of its meaty possibilities; the thriller elements, involving the capture and fate of the team’s quarry, are also tense and keep the attention throughout. It’s just the use of personnel at certain points that allows the film to flag a little, which isn’t the fault of the actors but could have been remedied either by writers Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughn or by director John Madden with a little more care.

The other failing of the film also has to be placed with writers and director. While I’ve never attempted to act myself, I did once study the piano, and my teacher told me that if I looked after the start and end of the piece, the middle would take care if itself. If only Madden and co had been able to heed this advice; the start is flabby, and consists of over twenty minutes of flashbacks and forwards and sideways glances and the characters not stating their true purpose, all of which mean that The Debt takes much longer than it should to gain momentum. The ending is also problematic, not least when a film that recasts its core roles between generations suddenly has one actor turn up in very poor old age make-up, and also when the final twists and turns descend into silliness and stifle the dramatic resolution. The Debt has brilliant parts, but is less satisfying as a whole and someone needs to work out quickly how to use Sam Worthington – for both his sake and ours.

Why see it at the cinema: If you can get past the choppiness of the opening then there’s a large chunk of a good film here, and seeing it in a cinema will fully allow the tension to grab you and draw you in. On the way out, you can see how many people kept a straight face all the way to the end…

The Score: 7/10

Review: Julia’s Eyes

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The Pitch: In the kingdom of the blind, how do you know who the king is? You can’t even see him.

The Review: If you see any advertising material for a new movie, then chances are the first names you’re looking for are either the lead actors or the director, as often those names can be a mark of quality, or an indicator of a lack of it. Directors wield a huge amount of influence in the movies these days, but go back half a decade and that wasn’t always the case; originally the Hollywood system was run by the producers and the director was little more than an afterthought. But the name of a producer can still be used today to sell an audience on a product, from Steven Spielberg’s name plastered all over the Transformers movies to Peter Jackson’s District 9. Ideally the producer credit will still give the audience a good guide as to what to expect – if Emma Thompson gave up the Nanny McPhee movies and produced a slasher horror, we’d get more than a few traumatised seven year olds, but in this case the familiar name of Guillermo Del Toro is also an indicator of a familiar product.

So if you were thinking about Guillermo’s previous output, then you’d probably be thinking dark, twisted, unusual and Spanish, and you’d be right on all counts. Guillem Morales has co-written and directed, but you can see why Del Toro’s name is a good fit about the title. First off, the dark – if the title Julia’s Eyes isn’t already a give away, then eyes and vision are a consistent theme throughout the movie. Julia and Sara are twin sisters, and both suffer from a degenerative eye condition which is sending them both blind. Investigating Sara’s death, the police find nothing suspicious but Julia isn’t convinced and starts her own investigation. Working against her are her own condition, which worsens whenever she is under stress, and that fact that even her own husband is sceptical at first. As the clues mount and Julia’s condition worsens, the darkness creeps in both in terms of the light levels in the film itself and in the tone, which for the first half is an eerie mood piece centred around Julia’s investigations.

If anything, it’s that first half of the movie that lets down the whole, as the pace moves slowly and the creeping dread hasn’t yet been ratcheted up enough. But the second half allows the twisted aspects to unfold and the story twists and turns, increasing the atmosphere and throwing in a few more random scares for good measure. While you might think unusual with Del Toro, it’s the fascination with eyes that provides that, and what eventually reveals itself is a taut and effective thriller that quickens the pulse and entertains in equal measure, but while it’s a well made one the core story is nothing new in itself. The performances are strong, and Belén Rueda as Julia (or Sara) is in practically every scene and convinces on pretty much every level.

As with many of Del Toro’s other movies, it’s a universal tale that just happens to be in Spanish, and the washed out and grimy settings feel much more middle America than middle Spain. The other American feel comes from some of the later twists, which do have a feeling of daytime soap opera, admittedly one made in the style of a thriller. A word of warning, though – while the tension and the thrills increase in the second half, so does the level of visuals more commonly found in horror, and if like me you are squeamish about eyes then there’s at least one scene in the last reel that could leave you screaming or running for the exit. All in all it’s high marks for Del Toro the producer and for Morales the director, who makes excellent use of the visuals and uses both the light and the dark to great effect, it’s just a shame that Morales the writer lets the side down a bit – if the story hadn’t flagged early on and taken so long to get going, this could have been a feast for the eyes, rather than merely a good, solid watch.

Why see it at the cinema: There’s always something claustrophobic about seeing sequences set entirely in the dark in a large dark room, even if it is filled with other people, and Morales’ taut direction and the cinematography both make full use of the big screen.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Source Code

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The Pitch: Quantum Loop.

The Review: Two years ago, Duncan Jones announced his arrival as a film-maker of note with his debut feature, Moon. If you’ve not seen it, then (a) shame on you, and (b) it was a wonderful marriage of some hard sci-fi concepts with a very old school feel and story telling method, even eschewing masses of CGI for honest-to-goodness model making for the spaceship shots, for example. When crafting something so distinctive, there’s a risk that expectations increase unfairly for the follow-up, and that the audience is either expecting more of the same or a complete departure. What Jones has produced is a half-way house, still grounded in some chunky sci-fi concepts, but with a slightly bigger budget and a change in both tone and pacing. That change is just different, but it shows already that Jones is comfortable working in more than one style.

Two years ago, Duncan Jones announced his arrival as a film-maker of note… no, hang on, I seem to have gone back to the beginning. What did we learn first time? Duncan Jones has made a sci-fi mystery thriller, instead of a sci-fi mystery drama. Actually, that may be all you need to know going in, as part of the joy is discovering Source Code for yourself; half of the action is set in or around a train bound for Chicago, and while Moon was relatively fixed in its position, Source Code moves, quite literally, at a hundred miles an hour from the word go. Which is shortly followed by the words “my train just exploded.” You can almost feel the inevitable comparison with Inception, and this is another example of British guided invention with some big concepts on the big screen, but here instead of one world with many layers, all of which are built on self-defining principles, we have two worlds presented to us, and through the eyes of Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhall), we have to try to understand not only what’s actually taking place, but also how the train and the Source Code are connected.

Two years ago, Duncan Jones… right, film-maker of note. Change in style. Will get unfairly compared to Inception. Simultaneous mysteries. Comparisons have also been made to Groundhog Day, and those might be slightly fairer, but only in the sense of what that film did so well and what Source Code also achieves, in that repeating the same actions over and over sounds like it could be horribly repetitive, but actually it’s only the framework that repeats, and the central character takes a different route through it each time, while the plot continues to advance at a significant rate. No doubt helping that transition are Gyllenhall and Michelle Monaghan, neither a stranger to having to insert depth of character into the action movie or thriller, and both do excellent work here, Gyllenhall especially managing to invest both realities with sufficient variations to keep it interesting. Vera Farmiga is also noteworthy as the voice of authority, and brings emotion to a role that could have been clogged up with exposition. It’s just a shame that the film is set at breakfast time, as Jeffrey Wright appears to be tucking into his first meal of the day; sadly chewed scenery gets eaten each time we go through another scene with him. Thankfully it’s not enough to unbalance the film too much.

Two years ago, Duncan Jones was the son of David Bowie. Now he’s a film maker in his own right, and he has two movies of equally high quality to show for it. There are obvious connections between the two, not least a few of the director’s trademarks, including the odd inclusion of Chesney Hawkes’ “The One And Only” and Jones’ excellent choices in voice casting, here the supremely self-referential voice of Stevens’ father, but otherwise there’s a complete difference in tone; yet in the same way that Rear Window and North By Northwest happily spring from the same hand, so Source Code is a worthy companion piece to Moon. While comparisons to the work of Nolan and Harold Ramis are the obvious ones on the surface, look deeper and you’ll see themes picked up by everyone from Paul Verhoeven to David Cronenberg, yet it still feels fresh. The plot isn’t by any means predictable, taking plenty of satisfying twists and turns but moving fast enough that you’ll have to consider the moral ramifications once you’ve left your seat and headed for the exit. That’s no bad thing, though, and Source Code is superior entertainment, working both as good sci-fi, top notch thriller and believable romantic drama, marshalling its resources expertly and leaving you keen to see what Duncan Jones has to offer next. Let’s just hope it’s another original – he’s one man who’s shown he doesn’t need to keep repeating himself to have success.

Why see it at the cinema: Duncan Jones has a fantastic sense of the visual, there’s plenty of audience-reaction-inducing good lines along the way and with this kind of mystery, half the fun is attempting to work out if you have sussed what’s going on before your neighbour.

The Score: 9/10

Review: The Mechanic

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The Pitch: Jason Statham is [Random Job Title Generator #63].

The Review: You might not thank me for reminding you of the Expendables, but I’m going to do it anyway. One thing was immediately noticeable in terms of the cast – there was a massive array of talent from ten, twenty and thirty years ago, but the only person really working at the same level from the current era of movie stars was Jason Statham. After coming to prominence in Guy Ritchie movies, Statham has become the closest thing we have to an A-list action star in the 21st century. The Transporter and Crank movies appeal to particular audiences, happy to accept The Stath knowing his limits on the acting front but getting by on his natural rough charisma and undoubted ability to knock out solid action scenes time after time.

The franchise model for the older action star required one series, such as a Rocky or a Die Hard, to make your name with, then a series of forgettable but often enjoyable lesser movies where you can get your lead to play the same role with a different name. Arthur Bishop doesn’t quite hold a candle to Chev Chelios or Lee Christmas, but it’s strange enough in context that it’s all Arthur and his date from a bar have to talk about (once they’ve had a highly over-stylised sex scene just after meeting, of course). But it’s not random sex scenes or unusual names that get Statham’s fans turning out time after time, it’s the generally solid quality of the action scenes that keep people coming back. And I’m pleased to report that the action here, while not quite being at Crank levels of insanity or intensity, are at least better than the back end of the Transporter series.

But before that, of course, there’s the relative necessity of plot to navigate. Thankfully, to make things easier, this is a remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson / Michael Winner collaboration, which was famed for its first quarter of an hour being entirely dialogue free. You might think that’s why it’s been selected as ideal remake material for The Stath, but that would be a little unfair, his gravelly stoicism not the stuff of awards but it’s still enough to make a sure foundation for the story to be built on. What this does have in the opening stretch instead is Donald Sutherland, popping up as one of the heads of the firm that keeps Bishop in business – when you see that the other head is Tony Goldwyn, a.k.a. smarmy bad guy from Ghost, there’s no prizes for guessing who’s good and who’s bad. Ben Foster takes the role filled by Jan-Michael Vincent in the original, here playing Sutherland’s son and the trainee mechanic who Bishop reluctantly takes under his wing.

This isn’t a film packed with staggering plot twists or intricate character drama, although it is well acted in comparison to its peers and it has the decency to throw us a variation on the ending of the original. But The Mechanic is like Statham himself; solid, undemanding, reliable and with enough satisfying moments to justify its presence. The majority of the action is in the last third and the set pieces are all well constructed. You’re going to struggle to remember too much about it a week after seeing it, but while you’re in front of it it does the job intended with as little fuss as possible. Director Simon West gave us Con Air over a decade ago, and nothing as memorable since – if he let himself loose a little more, there’s the potential for that level of fun next time around, but for now it’s just another day at the office for The Stath.

Why see it at the cinema: The action, the best and most prominent of which is in the last third of the movie, is exactly what popcorn and Saturday nights were designed for.

The Score: 7/10