DVD Review: Welcome To the Punch

Welcome-To-The-Punch-02(dir. Eran Creevy, 2013)

(Originally posted at CineVue)

After helming the ultra low budget and critically praised urban thriller Shifty (2008), BAFTA nominated director Eran Creevy returns with Welcome To the Punch (2013), an explosive action film that sees Creevy depicting London in altogether more sleek and slick parameters than his directorial predecessor. Armed with a bigger budget and the clout of executive producer Ridley Scott, Welcome To the Punch stems from, and indeed owes a debt to, a particularly stylised brand of American action cinema governed by the likes of Michael Mann and Tony Scott, though its bracing and serviceable energy fails to mask a decidedly limp and uninvolving plot.

The film opens with James McAvoy’s  police detective Max Lewinsky desperately pursuing successful career criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) mid-heist across London, a chase that culminates in Max getting shot in the leg. Cut to three years later and Max is haunted by his previous inability to catch Sternwood whilst harbouring a deep obsession with finally tracking him down. Meanwhile, Sternwood – hiding out in a secluded Icelandic cottage – is forced to return to London when his son is fatally wounded in a heist gone wrong.

Padding out the monotony of everyday detective work at the side of Sarah (Andrea Riseborough), Max sees the opportunity to catch and bring to justice his arch nemesis, the phantom whose been looming large over his inability to move on. As events conspire to pit the two adversaries against each other, they begin to uncover a deep conspiracy that both will need to solve together in order to survive.

Shot through the lens of cinematographer Ed Wild, who bathes London in a glossy, steely and foreboding sheen (especially in the numerous sequences set at night, the lights of tower blocks flooding the screen with light), Welcome To the Punch is a good looking and perfectly accessible British crime thriller that is unfortunately lumbered with an unexciting narrative. Though McAvoy, Strong and Riseborough – as well as an impressive cast rounded out by Peter Mullan and David Morrissey – are excellent in their variously complexly rendered roles, the film is rarely as thrilling or particularly engaging as the central cat-and-mouse angle would suggest.

As a cops and robbers tale painted on the glacial canvas that is London, Creevy has an adroit and impressively snappy way of mapping his characters against such an effective backdrop, yet his screenplay fails at making such ingredients successfully coalesce. In an interview that can be found on the disc, Creevy alludes to a wealth of material regarding Strong’s underwritten character and the story as a whole that was cut out in pre-production, material that would have made the finished product ultimately more distinctive and punchy.

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Review: Identity Thief

identity-thief-melissa-mccarthy-600x400(dir. Seth Gordon, 2013)

(Originally posted at CineVue)

Collaborating once again after the commercial success of the relatively dreadful Horrible Bosses (2011), Jason Bateman and director Seth Gordon return to the big screen with Identity Thief (2013), a film which is as thin on plot as it is on remotely humorous gags. Also starring Melissa McCarthy – whose ballsy comedic shtick was already spread thin with her breakthrough role in Bridesmaids (2011) – the film is a crime comedy that riffs on such established, definitive buddy moves as John Hughes’ Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) but doesn’t have the emotional complexity or funny bone to bring anything new to an already crowded table.

Bateman plays Sandy Bigelow Patterson, an ordinary American everyman who excels at his job in accountancy despite, frustratingly, being continually passed over for promotion. Outside of work, Sandy is a devoted husband to wife Trish (Amanda Peet) and father to two children with a third on the way. His serene life and financial diligence are ruptured, however, when he learns he is the victim of identity fraud at the hands of Diana (McCarthy), a lonely misfit who feeds her emptiness with an extravagant lifestyle funded by credit card fraud.

Learning of her whereabouts, Sandy travels across the country to Florida to confront and bring his economic doppelganger to justice, only to discover that Diana’s lavish life as a con artist is swiftly catching up to her. She is the target of several criminals and a ruthless bounty hunter (Robert Patrick), and Sandy has to decide whether or not to help the orchestrator of his misfortune whilst attempting to clear his chequered name in the process. A hectic game of cross-country cat-and-mouse ensues, with Sandy and Diana working together to ensure their vastly dissimilar lives remain intact.

With jokes that span, presciently, from McCarthy’s weight to Sandy’s asexual name (“It’s not a female name, it’s unisex!”, he reminds people), Identity Thief excels at packing in as much tawdry and humourless jokes into its overlong runtime as possible, playing on – but rarely augmenting – its two leading star’s comedic abilities. As Diana, a frenzied oddball with an impressive bouffant and penchant for striking men in the throat, McCarthy does little to challenge the image of the potty-mouthed, sex-mad characters to which she is now accustomed, however much sentiment she brings to the trite, inevitable softening of her unlikable character. Bateman, similarly, brings little to a very straight role, the type of which he has become synonymous with sleepwalking through, and far removed from the instant comedic likability of his role in the revived Arrested Development.

In attempting to offer a reversed version of the odd-couple road-trip movie, screenwriter Craig Mazin’s finished product fails to live up to the nifty technique of switching the gender roles, which is something that should have warranted some interesting foundations for comedy whilst signalling a new direction for the subgenre. However, coupled with Gordon’s insipid directorial approach, Identity Thief’s frequent dips into noxious violence and out of place action thriller territories ultimately render it a disastrous comedy with a flummoxed identity crisis.

Best Films of 2013 (so far)

3 Frances3

1. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)
2. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
3. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
4. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
5. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
6. Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon)
7. Cloud Atlas (Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer)
8. The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)
9. This Is the End (Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen)
10. Elysium (Neill Blompkamp)

Review: Renoir

RENOIR - FILM REVIEW(Gilles Bourdos, 2012)

(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)

Cinema has something of a challenged relationship with the way filmmaker’s use the machinery of the biopic subgenre to explore the lives and works of established, renowned artists. Where films such as Séraphine (2008) and Frida (2002) – which chart the lives of Séraphine de Senlis and Frida Kahlo respectively – took on intimate biographical angles, expressing these historical figures as embodiments of their work, others become mired by the simple way of expecting audiences to approach them with already highly attuned awareness. The same can be said for Gilles Bourdos’ latest, Renoir (2012), a mostly static peek into elderly painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s latter-stage career and, simultaneously, his son Jean’s burgeoning occupation as a filmmaker, bewitched as they both were by the presence of a flame-haired muse.

Christa Theret plays Andrée Heuschling, a teenager who, upon arrival at the house of Pierre-Auguste in the summer of 1915, quickly becomes a source of inspiration for the ageing painter, who is becoming increasingly crippled by arthritis. Although falling prey to the physical challenges of old age, Pierre-Auguste is rejuvenated and captivated by Andrée, and becomes motivated to resume painting his famous nude portraits when she volunteers to become his life model.

As Andrée establishes an idyll at the Cote d’Azur setting, the realities of the First World War swiftly begin to impose, as Pierre-Auguste’s son Jean – an officer in the French army – returns to convalesce after being wounded in battle. Whilst assisting his father, Jean becomes infatuated by Andrée, who reinvigorates his weary attitude to the war as he begins to form a budding interest in motion pictures.

Although Bourdos competently mimics Pierre-Auguste’s ravishing artistry, ensuring each frame is filled with thoughtful and appealing visual construction, his film is a staid and rather lifeless perusal through two iconic French artists, one that chooses not to explore its subjects and their chequered relationship in any particular depth. The depiction of the film’s senior hero is a taken as read interpretation that neither challenges or alters the already recognised facts (his brilliance; his arthritis; his polygamous living conditions), instead drawing little conclusions about how and why he channels his inspiration into his art. Similarly with Jean – who went on to helm such paradigmatic French films as La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Regle du Jeu (1939) – Bourdos’ screenplay does little to fully make understandable the foundations of his burgeoning career shift, delving into a vague and simplistic story of how his love for Andrée captures his imagination.

 Conservatively directed with an unquestioning approach, Renoir is vigilant and beautifully placid rumination that attempts to deify two emblems of French artistic history but rarely focuses on either.

Review: Song For Marion

Screen shot 2013-06-27 at 15.39.21(Dir. Paul Andrew Williams, 2012)

(Originally posted at CineVue)

Cashing in on the current craze for ‘Grey pound’-targeted filmmaking – heralded by the success of The King’s Speech (2010) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) – Song For Marion (2012) arrives boasting a robust cast and a supposedly heart-warming story about the celebration of life and the joys of spontaneity. Directed by Paul Andrew Williams, who here veers away from the darker, moodier qualities of previous films such as London to Brighton (2006), the film is an admirable attempt at bringing insight into the simultaneously tranquil and devastating effects of old age, but it unfortunately becomes congested by overt sentimentality.

The remarkable Vanessa Redgrave stars as the titular Marion, a vivacious, spunky older woman whose terminal cancer doesn’t stop her from attending and remaining a treasured member of her local choir, who – under the guidance of Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton) – go by the name ‘The O.A.P’z’. Marion’s husband Arthur (Terrence Stamp) is a curmudgeonly and irritable man plagued by the prospect of inevitably losing his beloved wife, on whom he dotes incessantly.

Though Arthur continues to discourage Marion from her singing and remains imprisoned by his own inability for self-expression (not to mention an ailing memory), events conspire to put him on a road to redemption as he challenges himself to find his voice, make amends with his estranged son (played by Christopher Eccleston) and learn to truly live in the moment.

Despite momentary flashes of perception, where Redgrave and Stamp – who share an effortless chemistry – fully exemplify a couple both battling an overwhelming evil and living constantly on the verge of separation, Song For Marion is a limply assembled and hectic perusal through the trials and tribulations of old age. Where a simple depiction of Marion and Arthur’s dwindling time together would have built upon the various intimacies already on show here, Williams’ screenplay overstuffs the narrative. Is it a story about a marriage beset by disease, or the tale of a man unthawing and reaching out to humanity at a time of sorrow? The film isn’t really sure, and ends up being an amiable concoction stifled by shameless tear jerking (see a sequence where Marion gingerly sings Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colours’).

Instead of serving as a backdrop to the overarching story, the subplot concerning the choir distracts and waylays the film, particularly in its generically plotted third act that shares far too many similarities with Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993). The tenderness of the first half of the film gives way to the trivial hypothesis that reckons having old people rapping, doing the robot and singing Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ equates to endearing humour. Much like Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet (2012), to which this is comparable, Williams feels the need to capture old timers swearing and being generally childish, sitting awkwardly within a film that ultimately is about growing old gracefully.

Review: Summer in February

20120808_summerinfebruary_promo1-1-4309220(Dir. Christopher Menaul, 2013)

(Originally posted at Take One)

Twigging the success and popularity both fictional and factual tales of the upper classes amidst pre-WW1 equanimity have been on British television of late, writer Jonathan Smith adapts for the screen and presents Summer in February, based on his own original novel. Directed by Christopher Menaul, who, tellingly, comes from a lengthy career in made-for-television productions, the film is a rigid glance into the fraught emotions and relationship antics that ran amuck in the Newlyn School artist’s colony in Cornwall, 1911. Steering away from the socio-political contexts of a Britain on the brink of a major war, Smith’s screenplay instead focuses on a bland love triangle based on actual events, yet the film desperately lacks the turbulence necessary to make this romantic quandary remotely engrossing; the type of turbulence expressed by the crashing waves that surround these vapid character’s picturesque locale.

Not an actor of particular subtlety, Dominic Cooper plays the painter, poet and self-confessed womaniser A.J. Munnings, whose vernacular is as eloquent and sharp as his brush strokes. Alongside his good friend Gilbert Evans, a local land agent (played by the stuffy Dan Stevens, who also acts as producer), Munnings enjoys a carefree life amongst the bucolic shores and shapely maidens of the Cornish coast, enjoying the fruits of his arrogant travails uninterrupted by responsibility or artistic interference. A simple existence of painting and poetry is scuppered, however, with the arrival of Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning), an aspiring artist who joins the group and immediately charms both Munnings – who initially schools her in painting – and Gilbert, whose unrequited passion grows. As the three friends embark on a cautious and discrete love triangle, events conspire to take a toll as their individual futures become darker and altogether more unwelcoming.

Taking its various dramatic cues from heated tea parties and characters gazing, woefully, into the beautifully captured middle distance, Summer in February is a triumph of antiquated posturing and quite unimaginative storytelling, marrying Smith’s stilted and mostly limply spouted dialogue with Menaul’s elementary directing style. Marking his first post-Downton Abbey role – a soapy perusal through post-Edwardian aristocracy that, despite being not dissimilar to the contexts of Smith’s story, is largely more guiltily enjoyable – Stevens effectively channels his past role as fusty Matthew Crawley into his portrayal of Gilbert, a man defined by pent-up emotion. Though it isn’t that much of a stretch, Stevens – whose time on set was split with the filming of ITV’s televisual behemoth – brings relatively little to a part that is already thinly sketched. All Gilbert is is an opposition to Munnings’ seething egotism, an everyman who audiences are meant to root for when Florence’s indecision begins to semi-drastically unravel.

That isn’t to say any of the characters are particularly well rendered. Quite the contrary in fact; Smith’s story languishes in stock characters trapped in a conventional portrait of adultery and conflicted emotions: Munnings the deceptively charming man governed by his art; Gilbert the lovable dote, and Florence an artistic novice with a vulnerable disposition. Each actor brings little to their parts or even challenges their stilted characteristics, instead collectively settling for evocatively dressed blobs of colour sat on a palette, refusing to comingle.

As a depiction of bourgeois artistry in a pre-war period, Summer in February has some interesting angles. Yet Menaul does nothing with already staid material, and the result is almost unbearably dull.

Review: Before Midnight

before-midnight

(Dir. Richard Linklater)

(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)

Nine years after sating the impassioned fans of modest 1994 indie darling Before Sunrise with its more heart-breaking counterpart Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke return to the franchise with Before Midnight, a natural, inevitable progression for this most magnificent of cinematic series. Set, just as the narrative spine, eighteen years since Sunrise, Midnight revisits the characters of Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke) for another excursion in walk-and-talk existential intimacy, as these now-fully recognisable people muse about life, love and togetherness under the scrutiny of the pervading Greek sun.

 After having witnessed the pair meeting – and quickly falling in love – as young adults wandering the streets of Vienna in 1995, and again seeing their belated reunion in Paris, 2004, where the spark of their initial encounter still rigorously lingered, Linklater (who once again co-writes the screenplay with his leading compadres) here confirms their union. Since Sunset left on an elegant cliffhanger, with Jesse anxiously twiddling his wedding ring as Celine bashfully, seductively mimicked Nina Simone in her apartment (“Baby, you are gonna miss that plane”), this third instalment finds the pair married and parents to two young girls, holidaying in Greece and at something of an impasse.

 Jesse, who enjoys the fruits of his worldwide acclaim as a successful writer (his two previous novels fictionalised the events of the two preceding films), finds it increasingly difficult to maintain a long-distance relationship with his teenage son, and ruminates about a possible relocation for his new family to Chicago to be closer to him. Celine, on the other hand, finds herself struggling both with Jesse’s narrativised treatment of their longstanding relationship and the expectations of her as a woman and depended-on mother, all the while considering a major career change. Whilst the beatific surface of their relationship remains intact, its beating heart grows weary and cracks start to materialise, and the couple find themselves contemplating their marriage and its rickety, unknowable future.

 Where Sunrise was a more formalist excursion within the romance genre – though its inventiveness and enclosed, one-day progression stopped it from being too conventional, and Sunset took on a real-time approach to the depiction of Jesse and Celine’s meeting, Before Midnight is its own beast; its effectively five long, glorious scenes of the protagonists breaking down their life together and considering its numerous ups and downs. One of many jewels in the series’ crown is the searing, incredibly attuned and humanistic writing and delineation of its characters, and Midnight upholds this and remains as true to its own canon as it is to life. Jesse is still the buzzingly sanguine writer constantly thinking of outlandish stories and concepts; Celine remains the slightly pessimistic intellectual, irritated by a constantly diminishing world. Yet, whereas the opening two chapters were entrenched in illusory romanticism, the tone here is faintly darker as the simmering themes and various contexts of Jesse and Celine’s conversations take on restless, even drastic edges. Mature topics such as sex, parenthood and careers are explored, as are the permutations that lay in between.

 There’s a reason why the film’s closing scenes – and, indeed, its title – are staged at the twilight of the day, where the sun gives way to darkness; its pivotal sequence, staged in a hotel room, charts the anger and frustrations of a prolonged argument. It is insular and claustrophobic, contrasting with the open-aired, flowing dialogue scenes before it, and building to an aching and beautifully organic climax that could lead to a fully justified fourth instalment. At a time where cinema is constantly being held up against television and accused of lacking the intricacies and intimacy of long-form storytelling, it’s invigorating to know that Linklater and co continue to break the mould by shaping and kneading their outstanding creation. Before Midnight is, of course, powerfully acted and extraordinarily well judged; a worthy successor to two perfect entries.