Monday, 26 April 2010

Cemetery Junction (2010)


Plot Summary: In 1970s England, the lives of three friends are forever changed when one of them bumps into his old school sweetheart.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant first made names for themselves with TV shows The Office and Extras, and rightly so. Both were cringe-inducing but hilarious and heartbreaking pieces of television that deserved all the attention they garnered. Putting aside Gervais’s State-side directing gig, The Invention of Lying (Merchant wasn’t creatively involved and it was a pretty poor film), Cemetery Junction sees both making the big move onto cinema screens. Cemetery Junction isn’t quite what you’d expect from the people that brought you characters like David Brent or Andy Millman, but instead sees Gervais and Merchant shifting gears somewhat and delivering a heart warming coming-of-age story set in the 70s. With Cemetery Junction both directors have crafted an astute and beautifully presented début that, despite being slightly too melodramatic and predictable, is as funny as it is moving.

Cemetery Junction creates a believable 1970s without relying too heavily on stereotypes, name-dropping or cultural iconography. Instead the film services its period details on a subtler level; snippets of overheard news reports, trends in fashion and a brilliant soundtrack all give you a sense of the times without shoving it in your face. The film is also beautifully shot; Gervais and Merchant paint a picturesque vision of the British summertime that creates an uplifting tone rarely seen in domestic films dealing with suburban life. Not content in just bringing a beautiful vision of Reading to the screen, the film-makers also leave room for some astute experimentalism with sound and image. A scene later on in the film in which a night out on the town goes horribly wrong features a nicely stylised piece of slow motion as images distort and sound deteriorates piece by piece.

Gervais and Merchant show no signs of losing their eye for character based comedy either. The inter-play between Freddie’s father and grandmother is priceless and the railway cafe owner is hilariously crude in a way only the British can truly appreciate. The laughs on offer here come thick and fast and come in a variety of forms (ranging from broad to contextual humour), but never threaten to overcome the dramatic tone of the film. The central plot of the film, Freddie’s attempt to find meaning in life and escape from his home town, is thoroughly moving and delivers an important, positive and up-lifting message. It’s when Cemetery Junction spends more time on its other characters, however, that it really carries some dramatic weight. Sub-plots focusing on Freddie’s best friend Bruce or his boss’s loveless marriage are handled with grace and are truly heartbreaking. It’s in these moments that the film transcends its funny coming-of-age genre template and becomes something far more emotionally rewarding.

All of this would of course mean nothing if it were not backed up with credible performances. Thankfully both Gervais and Merchant have assembled a brilliant cast which utilises a great combination of both new and old talent alike. Out of the three younger leads it’s Tom Hughes’s Bruce that stands out; his simmering rage and cocky stride hide a wealth of demons which are perfectly portrayed by the young actor. Elsewhere Gervais does well to cast himself in a small, comedic supporting role (not to mention Merchant’s brief but brilliant cameo) and veteran actor Ralph Fiennes does a terrific job with his self-centred and ruthless corporate boss, Mr. Kendrick. The true stand out performance here though is Emily Watson, playing Mrs. Kendrick. She has few scenes and says and does very little in them but Watson manages to provide the strongest emotional punch just by using her body language to convey a tragic world of isolation and regret.

Even though Cemetery Junction is an assured début, it’s by no means a perfect film. Gervais and Merchant do the best they can to prevent the film from being overly sentimental but a few cheesy moments still slip through. No matter how Felicity Jones delivers lines like, “Throw your heart out in front of you and run ahead to catch it” or “I think I might be in love with you too” (and Freddie’s annoying habit of repeating everything she has to say) they’re still going to sound melodramatic. Cemetery Junction is also extremely predictable as many moments in the film (including the films conclusion) will come as no surprise to anyone watching. All the loose narratives threads are tied up and everyone lives happily ever after. This, of course, comes with the territory but a couple of surprises along the way wouldn’t have hurt. Nevertheless, Cemetery Junction is a fine film from Gervais and Merchant and I wholeheartedly look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Final Verdict: 8/10

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Cop Out (2010)


Plot Summary: A comedy about a veteran NYPD cop whose rare baseball card is stolen. Since it's his only hope to pay for his daughter's upcoming wedding, he recruits his partner to track down the thief, a memorabilia-obsessed gangster.

Let me start my explaining that I’m fully aware Cop Out isn’t released in the UK for another month but I’ve had the pleasure (and I use that term loosely) of catching it early, so consider this an advance review (read: warning). Director of Cop Out, Kevin Smith, has made his name and career by combining crude comedy with heart-felt relationship drama and has had a run of two particularly good films of late (Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno). When Zack and Miri made far less money than expected, however, Smith opted to shoot someone else’s script for the first time and hopefully regain his loses. The resulting film is Cop Out, an almost unforgivably bad comedy/action hybrid starring Tracey Morgan and Bruce Willis.

What is most frustrating about Cop Out is that in parts, it’s actually hilarious. The opening scene in which Morgan’s character interrogates a petty drug dealer only using film quotes is brilliant stuff. Later moments including a ten year-old car thief and banter with another pair of police detectives had me laughing out loud. Both Willis and Morgan are capable comedians and they work well here but it’s Seann William Scott who steals the show. His ecstasy addled, parkour loving house thief only appears in a handful of scenes but Scott brings more enthusiasm to his role than Smith probably did to directing the entire film. The use of licensed tracks from artists such as The Beastie Boys, Run DMC and Cypress Hill in the soundtrack also demonstrates a great taste in rap music which fits the tone of the film well.

The main problem with Cop Out is that the laughs are extremely inconsistent. As stated, there are some standout comedic moments but overall the jokes are usually embarrassingly bad. They either feel stale and outdated or just fall flat on their face and it’s largely down the script. This is, put simply, a badly written film and why Smith didn’t at least rewrite some of it is anyone’s guess. Not only are most of the jokes terrible but there are even characters who are clearly meant to be funny (such as the opposing pair of detectives or the stereotypical Mexican drug dealer) but in reality just aren’t in the slightest. Cop Out is also meant to be an action film but even fails in that department. Smith hasn’t dealt with action scenes on this scale before and it shows like a skid-mark on a pair of bright white undies. The action scenes in Cop Out are so terribly edited together, boring and uninspired that by the final scene I switched off entirely until people started talking to each other again.

Another issue with the film is with the central casting. Morgan and Willis can do comedy but together are an unconvincing pair of lifelong police partners. They don’t have the chemistry of so many great odd-matched actors in the past and it shows. Every time Cop Out gets ‘serious’ and wants us to feel sorry for Willis as he struggles to pay for his daughter’s wedding or Morgan and his marital doubts we don’t care. The casting and writing prevents us from having any sort of empathy for these two men as they’re not convincing enough and the drama isn’t meshed well with the rest of the film. The awkward original soundtrack and the predictable and meandering plot also work against Cop Out.

Apparently, Smith sought to make a film in the 80’s ‘buddy cop’ tradition which is why the plot seems so utterly pointless and the original soundtrack so horribly outdated. The more likely scenario is that Smith was asked to direct a modern comedy/action and then tried to crow-bar in the aforementioned homage and it fails spectacularly. Consequently, and as a lifelong fan of Kevin Smith, it’s sad to say that perhaps he really can only pull off the indie dramedies he’s best known for as Cop Out is all too fitting a title.

Final Verdict: 3/10

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Whip It (2010)


Plot Summary: In Bodeen, Texas, an indie-rock loving misfit finds a way of dealing with her small-town misery after she discovers a roller derby league in nearby Austin.

You may be asking yourself why a twenty two year-old male would be interested in a film like Whip It, a coming-of-age story for teenage girls, but I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film for months. Three things in particular stood out for me, first of all being that it stars Ellen Page (who is clearly one of the most attractive actresses around at the moment). It’s also directed by veteran actress Drew Barrymore getting behind the lens for the first time and the trailer and subject matter gave off a really interesting alternative, punk vibe. Both Page and Barrymore are impressive here, and it’s certainly a good film, but what Whip It lacks is anything to truly set it apart from the millions of other coming-of-age films available.

One thing that Whip It cannot be faulted for is its soundtrack which is pitch-perfect from start to finish. Barrymore has chosen an eclectic selection of rock, punk and indie songs from artists such as The Strokes, Radiohead, Peaches and The Ramones which all compliment the ‘alternative’ and energetic atmosphere of the film well. In addition to these licensed tracks The Section Quartet (best known for doing orchestral versions of popular rock songs) provides a fitting original soundtrack which never overdramatizes what’s on screen. The film is also very funny in parts. Whether it be Ellen Page’s Bliss turning up to a beauty pageant with blue hair, or the roller derby celebrating their reputation as losers with the utmost passion, there are some really good lines and comedic moments throughout. The narrative set-up and basic storyline are also fairly unique, I couldn’t name you another film about a teenage girl who joins a roller derby team, and is well portrayed for audiences unfamiliar with the sport.

Scenes of the roller derby matches are exciting , well shot and depicted with a real sense of enthusiasm. In fact Barrymore does a very good job at her first directing gig and rarely makes any of the usual amateur mistakes or awkward directorial missteps. It seems as if all her time around film-makers has paid off because, other than the small scale of the film, nothing about Whip It would lead you to believe that this was someone’s first film. She’s also managed to assemble a highly credible cast for her cinematic début. Ellen Page isn’t exactly stretching herself here but she doesn’t phone it in either and Juliette Lewis looks as if she’s as happy to be acting again as we are to see her doing so. It’s Marcia Gay Harden who gets the stand out role though, her performance as the controlling mum whom slowly grows to understand Bliss’s adolescent angst is portrayed with the perfect combination of wisdom and anxiety.

Where Whip It fails, however, is in terms of the core storytelling. Strip away the ‘alternative’ focus and the roller derby theme and it’s pretty much your cardboard cut-out coming of age story. Bliss is forced into an activity she hates by her mother, rebels and finds a somewhat dangerous new hobby (not to mention boys and alcohol etc.) and grows as person because of it. Shauna Cross, writer of the source novel and screenplay, doesn’t really try and break new ground with the genre and you’re left feeling a little short changed at the end of the day. Additionally, Barrymore and Cross don’t attempt to experiment with form in any context whatsoever which leaves the film feeling a little pedestrian. I’m not asking for Lynchian levels of experimentation here but a little use of style would have gone a long way. Nevertheless, Whip It is a decent rights-of-passage film with an indie twist that will please likeminded audiences who are going through, or have already gone through, this particular moment in their lives.

Final Verdict: 7/10

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Blind Side (2010)



Plot Summary: The story of Michael Oher, a homeless and traumatized boy who became an All American football player and first round NFL draft pick with the help of a caring woman and her family.

Anyone that regularly reads this blog will probably be aware that I’m not a huge fan of feel good movies. Neither am I particularly interested in sports, or sport movies. Then why did I choose to review The Blind Side, a feel good movie about American football? The truth is I love a feel good film as much as the next person; I just hate the extremely cheesy and formulaic ones. As for sport films, as long as the sport in question doesn’t completely dominate the narrative then I’m fine with it. For example I love films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Raging Bull, Amélie and The Wrestler. The Blind Side, directed by John Lee Hancock, was a massive success in the US and Sandra Bullock even managed to bag an Oscar for best actress from it so I decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, after having seen the film, almost all my suspicions about the film were proven right; it’s a boring, sugar coated and thoroughly predicable cinematic affair.

However, The Blind Side is by no means a terrible film and it’d be an unfair statement to suggest so. The acting is good, if not quite Oscar worthy, throughout. Sandra Bullock (playing Leigh Anne Tuohy) does a really good job at portraying a headstrong, wealthy Southern woman who has managed to find a healthy balance between work and family. Likewise Quinton Aaron delivers a solid performance as the introverted and troubled Michael and Tim McGraw (playing Leigh’s husband) plays his part with truth and honesty. The aforementioned balance between sport and drama is also handled really well.

The perfect amount of screen time is spent watching the football training and matches while the majority of the film focuses on the main characters’ lives. The story itself, which is based on true events, is also rather uplifting and positive; we want to see Michael succeed and when he does it’s undeniably satisfying. The look of the film may be rather bland but The Blind Side has clearly been shot by people who know what they’re doing and there a couple of standout moments to relish (the opening scene which utilises still images is well put together and later a muted, slow motion calm-before-the-storm moment is also quite effective).

This is all and well but The Blind Side is ultimately let-down by its refusal to challenge the audience; it’s altogether far too safe. For a film dealing with such heavy issues (homeless teenagers, drug addicted parents etc.) it shies away from the heavy stuff far too much. Instead it’s content to spend most of the film showing how great Michael’s new white, wealthy life is and lacks the courage of its convictions. There are flashbacks to Michael’s unsettling past but they’re extremely short and rare and whenever he or Leigh visits his old neighbourhood it’s portrayed with a lack of menace typical of a Disney movie. There’s also a severe lack of dramatic threat or tension within the film. There a couple of difficulties for characters to face, Michael’s past life and a law suit suggesting that Leigh’s family have groomed Michael to join a particular college, but they never really pose any real danger as they’re dealt with easily and soon resolved.

The film is also rather cheesy and predictable. Michael of course goes from strength to strength throughout the film and achieves everything he sets out to do, no matter how difficult or unlikely these ambitions may be. We’re treated to training montages, over-the-top displays of family affection and the triumph against all odds conclusion; there’s no narrative surprises in store for audiences whatsoever and it’s all been done countless times before. The Blind Side is also extremely formulaic in how it’s shot and presented, there are almost no interesting visual choices made whatever. The two tackiest moments in the film have to be when the family pose for a Christmas card and when Michael takes a picture of himself for a driver’s license; they both magically transform into the actual photos, while exhibiting the amount of finesse you’d expect from a children’s program.

Additionally, Sandra Bullock’s character Leigh is annoying perfect (not to mention her son, SJ, who is just plain annoying). She’s so confident, so controlling, that you want to see her slip up at least once and hopefully learn from it. Aside from a brief moment of reflection following the law suit she never does and it’s rather infuriating. However, this is not what the majority of people care about. Most people just want to be entertained and leave the cinema in a good mood. The Blind Side will most likely provide this experience for many but it’s not a film for anyone who has a low tolerance for sentimentality and is looking for originality, depth or realism.

Final Verdict: 5/10