Friday, 21 October 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of October 14-16, 2016:
1 (1) The Girl on the Train (15) *
2 (new) Inferno (12A) **
3 (new) Storks (U)
4 (new) Miss Saigon: 25th Anniversary Performance (15)
5 (2) Bridget Jones's Baby (15) *
6 (3) Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (12A)
7 (4) Deepwater Horizon (15)
8 (5) The Magnificent Seven (12A) **
9 (6) Finding Dory (U) ***
10 (new) American Honey (15) *** 


My top five:   
1. I, Daniel Blake [above]
2. Queen of Katwe
3. In Pursuit of Silence  
4. Tharlo
5. Under the Shadow 

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Captain America: Civil War (12)
2 (3) The Jungle Book (PG) **
3 (4) The Nice Guys (15) ****
4 (5) Alice Through the Looking Glass (PG)
5 (2) Mother's Day (12) 
6 (7) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (12)
7 (6) The Guv'nor (15)
8 (new) The Take (15)
9 (10) The Huntsman: Winter's War (12)
10 (new) Kung Fu Panda 3 (PG) ***

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Downfall (Sunday, BBC2, 11.20pm)
2. Rogue (Saturday, BBC1, 12.20am)
3. Notorious (Saturday, BBC2, 2pm)
4. The Great Beauty (Saturday, C4, 1.10am)
5. Renoir (Saturday, BBC2, 2.05am)

"Ouija: Origin of Evil" (Guardian 21/10/16)

Ouija: Origin of Evil ***
Dir: Mike Flanagan. With: Elizabeth Reaser, Henry Thomas, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson. 99 mins. Cert: 15

2014’s Ouija, a rapidly forgotten exercise in crash-bang-wallop horror, was chiefly of note as a business proposition, born of that deal struck between Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes outfit and boardgame nabobs Hasbro to convert the latter’s products into movies. Still, it was cheap enough to turn a profit on wide release – $103m on a $5m budget – and so, this Halloween, we’re offered a prequel that claims to fill in some of the devil board’s backstory. “The spirit world is unpredictable,” its phoney occultist heroine Madame Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) informs us. The movie business, as we know very well, is not.

For all that, Origin of Evil – directed by Mike Flanagan, the emergent talent behind 2011’s unsettling Absentia – does just enough to climb over the low bar of expectation. Granted, there’s nothing new about its premise – fake psychic learns a lesson about messing with the dark side – and Flanagan has to resort to a 1960s milieu, all kinky boots and intermittent “groovy”s, to distinguish his film from the 1970s-set Conjuring series. Single mom Zander seizes upon this new toy to jazz up her act; what she doesn’t expect is for her youngest Doris (Lulu Wilson) to become an altogether amenable host for passing spectres.

Flanagan’s been sent on the movieland equivalent of a coffee run here, so you can forgive him for amusing himself as he goes: dusting off the old Universal logo, reviving those cigarette burns used to alert projectionists to reel changes. If nothing quite matches Ti West’s retro exercises (House of the Dead, The Innkeepers), at least Flanagan’s trying. Yes, he works his soundtrack over, but with co-writer Jeff Howard he sets so much weird narrative running – mom’s thwarted relationship with priest Henry Thomas, unresolved paternity issues, Doris’s overnight grasp of Polish – that he doesn’t have to rely on loud noises to grab the attention.

Arguably he’s caught trying too hard. The final movement doesn’t tie matters up so much as spiral further outwards into schlocky incoherence. Still, that’s one way of upending formula: this time, the Ouija itself seems a minor player, less obligatory product-placement than a springboard for ideas, both wayward and workable. It’s still no scarier than any other branded content, and perhaps only the most lukewarm slumber party would truly need it. Yet if you were to ask whether Origin of Evil offers a better quality of timewaster than its predecessor, my finger would hover inexorably over the YES option.

Ouija: Origin of Evil opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Keeping Up with the Joneses" (Guardian 21/10/16)

Keeping Up with the Joneses **
Dir: Greg Mottola. With: Gal Gadot, Isla Fisher, Zach Galifianakis, Jon Hamm. 105 mins. Cert: 12A
The umpteenth runout for the old suburban-squares-versus-sexy-superspies plot unfolds in predictable fashion. Isla Fisher and a newly svelte Zach Galifianakis commence curtain-twitching with the arrival of glam neighbours Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot; covers are blown in modestly budgeted action setpieces; everyone exits feeling shortchanged in the laughter department. The shopworn conceit begs lampooning, yet director Greg Mottola – seeking a return to the studios’ better graces seven years on from Adventureland – plays matters blandly straight. The leads huff and puff accordingly, but Michael LeSieur’s dull-edged script squanders their timing, more concerned with reducing the actresses to their lingerie than with raising anything other than the very occasional snicker. 

Keeping Up with the Joneses opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

From the archive: "Jack Reacher"

Having been cast out of the profitable summer season after 2010’s costly flop Knight and Day, Tom Cruise has since been busy imposing himself upon the Boxing Day slot with films that bear the credit “Tom Cruise in a Tom Cruise production”. Last year’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol just passed muster, but 26/12/12 brings us the trickier proposition of Jack Reacher, based on the Lee Child bestseller One Shot. Cruise may very well have presented the project to Paramount as their opportunity to match Fox’s inexplicably successful Taken franchise – and you can’t help but think that series’ towering lynchpin Liam Neeson would be more immediately convincing as Child’s six-foot-five ex-Special Forces op than the still-boyish, smirking, unavoidably tiny Cruiser.

The change of title necessitates a full twenty minutes of exposition, in response to the early question “who is Jack Reacher?” Some familiar answers come in. He’s a maverick, by all accounts, who doesn’t trust authority and simply refuses to play by the rules; he’s apparently built like the proverbial outhouse, and harder than Sean Bean on steroids wielding a titanium mace. Then on walks Top Gun, sniffing around a sniper attack in downtown Pittsburgh that has left five unrelated people dead, and rather undermining the build-up.

Christopher McQuarrie, making a comeback of sorts sixteen years on from writing The Usual Suspects and twelve years after directing The Way of the Gun, makes something queasily compelling out of the initial attack, viewed through the sniper’s crosshairs, before cutting around the death of a mother who dies shielding her child, either to secure the 12A rating or appease viewer sensibilities in the wake of Sandy Hook. Still, this is very much a Tom Cruise production, and the level of control being exercised is often unintentionally hilarious. 

Reacher’s introduction involves a lady emerging from his rumpled bedsheets and redressing herself – that’s right, folks: he’s a lover and a fighter – while every other scene features a bevy of young women batting their eyelashes at him, from casual bar pick-ups to Rosamund Pike, reduced to wide-eyed breathiness as the D.A.’s daughter-turned-damsel-in-distress. One of her encounters with Cruise showcases the most gratuitous display of male toplessness outside of a Twilight movie – though this show of star muscle gets objectionable whenever it asks the girls to stand round cooing at Reacher beating another of his foes to a pulp.

Just when you think the movie can’t get any campier, out of the shadows steps a one-eyed Werner Herzog as chief villain The Zec, who apparently chewed off three of his own fingers in a Siberian prison camp to avoid losing them to gangrene. A weirdly passive antagonist, sitting around in the background while his minions get on with the real dirty work, Herzog has no business being here save to make the cinephiles slumming it in the back rows of the Odeon chuckle; still, maybe the paycheque will help fund his next expedition, and future Jack Reacher sequels will see Cruise facing off against Bela Tarr or Michael Haneke.

Like so much about the Cruise career, everything is played insistently straight, yet the star’s steely determination to reassert his own stardom, his own overpowering masculinity, leaves us with an invulnerable hero who’s just impossible to root for, and whose relentless, sub-Arnie wisecracks get very tiresome very quickly. It doesn’t help that all the eye-gouging, woman-beating and incidental racism makes it an uncomfortable 12A, at best – even before you factor in the gun fetish that leaves the film looking dodgy indeed in the light of recent events. Maybe the Boxing Day crowd will indulge Tom one more time – but I’d seen enough of Jack Reacher long before the utterly generic final shootout, which isn’t a terribly good sign for a putative franchise-builder. In Cruise’s iron fist, Child’s filling pulp has been reduced only further: to over-extended nonsense.

(December 2012)

Jack Reacher is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment; a sequel, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

From the archive: "Ouija"

Ouija **
Dir: Stiles White. With: Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff. 89 mins. Cert: 15

Because nothing says Halloween more than gathering in the dark to experience a carefully strategised branding opportunity. The latest product of the unholy synergy between Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes and toymakers Hasbro is a rudimentary horror in which bland Everyteens are slain while communing with their late friend via the sinister Ouija – an item currently mass-produced by Hasbro Inc. While increasingly tired thousand-decibel prods counteract the absence of dynamism in watching kids spelling with a polyurethane planchette, matters become comically venal. “I don’t want to touch it,” shirks one player. “C’mon – they’re sold in toy stores,” is the response. Everybody’s pocket money deserves better. 
(October 2014)
Ouija is available on DVD through Universal Pictures. A sequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil, opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of October 7-9, 2016:
1 (new) The Girl on the Train (15) *
2 (1) Bridget Jones's Baby (15) *
3 (2) Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (12A)
4 (3) Deepwater Horizon (15)
5 (4) The Magnificent Seven (12A) **
6 (6) Finding Dory (U) ***
7 (new) War on Everyone (15) * 
8 (new) Tristan und Isolde - Met Opera 2016 (12A)
9 (7) Kubo and the Two Strings (PG) ****
10 (8) Don't Breathe (15) ****  


My top five:   
1. Driving with Selvi
2. Tharlo
3. Under the Shadow 
4. Kate Plays Christine
5. American Honey

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Captain America: Civil War (12)
2 (10) Mother's Day (12) 
3 (3) The Jungle Book (PG) **
4 (2) The Nice Guys (15) ****
5 (4) Alice Through the Looking Glass (PG)
6 (new) The Guv'nor (15)
7 (7) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (12)
8 (8) Eye in the Sky (15) ***
9 (6) Love & Friendship (U) ***
10 (re) The Huntsman: Winter's War (12)    

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Magdalene Sisters (Sunday, BBC2, 12midnight)
2. Starred Up (Saturday, C4, 12.05am)
3. Stoker (Sunday, C4, 12.10am)
4. Dil Dhadakne Do (Thursday, C4, 1.05am)
5. You Don't Mess with the Zohan (Saturday, five, 3.05am)

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

From the archive: "Angels & Demons"

Ron Howard and Tom Hanks have been nothing if not vocal, these past few weeks, about the manner in which Vatican officials were less than helpful during the filming of Angels & Demons, the sequel to 2006's The Da Vinci Code, blocking access to key locations and generally making an episcopal nuisance of themselves. The Catholic Church can and have been accused of many things, but having endured Angels & Demons, I can report that their judgement on this matter at least is all but unimpeachable. In the future, indeed, I would encourage them to go further still. The College of Bishops should be stationed on rooftops with rifles and prepared to take down anybody who even thinks of greenlighting another Dan Brown adaptation. Altar boys could be orchestrated into a network of saboteurs, and sent out to cut the power of any cinema showing the film. And could not Pope Benedict be persuaded to revive the rack, in order to make all those involved in the production of this series recant their myriad mortal sins?

Let's start with Brown himself, the source of so much that is wrong with the film. Angels & Demons' opening ten minutes offer, in no particular order, the following splurge of incident: the death of an incumbent Pope, the murder of a priest inside the Large Hadron Collider, followed by the theft of antimatter by a group calling themselves the Illuminati, who then announce their plans to set off an explosion in St. Peter's Square. The general air of turmoil is compounded by the kidnap of a further four priests who - lawksalordy - just so happen to be the leading candidates in the race for the papacy. I'd argue no man could make sense of this nonsense, but Tom Hanks's Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is back to give it a go. Hanks has, thankfully, been shorn of the footballer's mullet he sported in the first film; gone, too, is his erstwhile sidekick Audrey Tautou, and her charming way of mangling the English language. In comes the remarkably dull Ayelet Zurer as the - it says here - "beautiful and enigmatic Italian scientist" Dr. Vittoria Vetra.

Together, this pair run around between statues and murals in the fashion established by Jerry Bruckheimer's brainlessly enjoyable National Treasure franchise, yet second time out, it's the influence of another Bruckheimer franchise that appears to hold the greatest sway. The script is clogged with what I can only call CSI dialogue, in which supposedly intelligent, highly trained professionals have to explain in painstaking detail to one another (and thereby to us) technical terminology of which the other party would surely be well aware. (In reality, every line in the typical CSI episode would be greeted with an exasperated "yes, but I know that.") Yet the average hour of CSI would also make room for character development, mordant wit, pauses for thought, Government-sponsored crime-doesn't-pay propaganda, and - and here's where it differs most from the Browniverse - science that rings true. Angels & Demons, by contrast, dashes ever onwards in a relentless, diarrhoeic flow of exposition.

There's no stopping it - one priest gabbles about the crucifixion of the first Pope even as the mark of a branding iron sizzles on his chest - and no digesting it; what we're left with are actors wearing the facial expression of trapped wind sufferers, playing characters we're not given time to care about, solving puzzles we couldn't give a toss about. The first film at least allowed actors of the calibre of Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina and Paul Bettany to chew the scenery; maybe it's the recession, but this time, the cast stretches only to cheaper Europeans, attempting sinister in a variety of accents. Sweden's Stellan Skarsgard is the grumpy head of Vatican police; Dane Nikolaj Lie Kaas offers lightweight glowering as a criminal mastermind who apparently bases all his decisions on which direction 16th century statues are pointing. On the side of the angels, we find Armin Mueller-Stahl as the exceptionally non-committal Cardinal Strauss, sighing "if it's God's will, it may as well be done" - Brown can't even be bothered to write his men of faith with any conviction - and, wait for it folks, Ewan McGregor as the Camerlengo, Patrick McKenna, an Ulsterman whose accent thickens noticeably at moments of crisis ("Der's been a develoipment!").

For the most part, McGregor manages to cloak his now-standard look of a man desperate to collect his paycheque, fill up his motorbike, and ride the furthest imaginable distance from the film he's signed up to appear in; and yet there can be no preparing the viewer for his participation in a final reel so ludicrous, nay risible - it involves McKenna literally parachuting himself into the vacant papacy - it can only be interpreted as an unholy hoax, designed to expose the sheeplike gullibility of summer-season cinemagoers. Nothing else could explain Hanks's continued participation in a franchise so painfully po-faced and humourless, nor Howard's sudden desire, so soon after the considered Frost/Nixon, to churn out a film so essentially sloppy in its storytelling, so flat-out contemptuous of its audience. Are they just goofing off? If so, the joke's on us. For make no mistake: Angels & Demons isn't guilty-pleasure bad. It's not amusingly bad. It's not even so-bad-it's-good bad. It's worse-than-The-Da-Vinci-Code- bad. It's they're-taking-the-piss bad. It's don't-give-them-your-money bad. Altar boys of the world: you know what to do.

(May 2009)

Angels & Demons is available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; a further sequel, Inferno, opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday, and is reviewed here.