Our Brand Is Crisis  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     107 Min        15

Much maligned but actually delivering a very astute, interesting and accurate dissection of modern-day politics, possibly why it was shunned by the Oscars, in a way that’s very easy to follow, and within a story that’s interesting and moves everything along at a very decent pace – only really falling down when it tries to deal with its characters outwith the confines of its central arc, where it mostly feels a little cold and flat.

Sandra Bullock stars as ‘Calamity’ Jane Bodine, the political strategic ace, brought out of retirement to help flagging ex-general Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) try to become Bolivia’s next president, and who’s rival in the arena is being coached by Jane’s old archnemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton).

Fictional, but based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary about American campaign tactics in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election, the movie feels very real with, on the face of it, connections to British politics, as we hear one story of someone spreading a rumour about their rival having fucked pigs purely so they could hear them deny it – in Britain the former Prime Minister, David Cameron (who resigned after declaring ‘why should I do the hard stuff?’), apparently actually did fuck a dead pig, or at least he inserted his penis into it’s mouth (there is reputedly photographic evidence of this). The pig probably had a tag on it that read ‘Poor People’. Similarly, we watch as Jane’s team runs with the ‘crises’ dialogue, with their candidate the only one that can save the country – here the Tories used the word ‘chaos’ relentlessly when talking about what would happen if they lost the vote, effectively assuming the voting populace were of a combined intellect equivalent to that of a herd of cattle (or swine perhaps). Lo and behold, they won all the elections.

Bullock is immense in this film, utterly convincing in the moments when she has to appear commanding and equally convincing when displaying restrained emotion. I was dead against her Oscar nomination for ‘Gravity‘ but I don’t understand why she didn’t get a nod for this, especially given some of the performances that did sneak in that year. Directed by David Gordon Green (‘Stronger’ 2017) and with Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan and Scoot McNairy in support, this is a really clever and understated film that deserved more attention that it received – it only lasted a single week on release here, which really smacks of political intervention given even a crummy film with Sandra Bullock that gets universally slated and bombs at the box office will still last at least two weeks normally.

Ouija  (2014)    54/100

Rating :   54/100                                                                       89 Min        15

Very, very simple, and yet also very classical, horror film with a group of attractive young teens playing with a Ouija board and unwittingly summoning an evil spirit that can control their minds and turn them into lemmings. Olivia Cooke plays the main character Laine (pictured above), who isn’t convinced by the ruling of ‘suicide’ when one of her best friends hangs herself hours after she failed to convince her of the merits of going out for the evening. She had better things to do contacting the darker spirits of the netherworld through the board, and eventually Laine is bored enough to end up doing the same thing – this time with more buddies around the table so there is ample supply of canon fodder to be executed throughout the film. It’s not especially gory, nor scary and neither is there anything remotely original at any point, but it at least does the fundamentals relatively well, resulting in an inoffensive and somewhat bland horror film, but one that still delivers the basic kind of cheap thrills you would expect.

Oculus  (2013)    61/100

Rating :   61/100                                                                     104 Min        PG

Horror film featuring the supposed shenanigans of an EVIL MIRROR THAT CAN CONTROL MINDS, in this case the minds of Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) the surviving members of the Russell family, their parents having been brutalised in front of them when they were kids. Now in their early twenties, Tim is released from psychiatric care (where he has been ever since mirrorgate), convinced that his mind used the irrational to rationalised horrible instances of domestic violence – his sister’s first response to him being released is to cajole him into turning up at their old home again to immediately confront the mirror and try to tease out the evil within so she can record it and prove their parents weren’t completely mental. This will severely test the effectiveness of Tim’s therapy sessions, as well as his love for his older sister, who has effectively toughed it out by herself through the foster care system, intent on a danger fraught reckoning with the old heirloom of Balmoral castle (a nod, no doubt, to Gillan being Scottish but also an opportunity missed with no mention or link to any of the Royal Family that stayed there).

Gillan sports an understated and entirely convincing American accent and is herself the strongest element in the film, with Thwaites having the difficult, hackneyed and irritating role of conveying the ‘I don’t believe any of this’ trope across to the audience. Throughout the entire movie we have a dual narrative – what’s happening with the two main characters in the present, spliced with showing us what happened to them and their parents when they were kids and here the biggest difficulty arises, as one not only detracts from the other but they both eventually become deliberately intertwined, which is a pretty ambitious strategy and, well, the film doesn’t really pull it off. There are lots of silly moments, like Kaylie earnestly saying ‘OK, from now on we’ll stick together’ and then hotfooting it right out the door and leaving her brother to stare into space in growing stupefaction (he does this a lot). The enemy they are ostensibly up against seems too powerful as well, with the pair unable to tell what is real and what isn’t, especially when Kaylie has prepared the scenario already armed with this knowledge.

Despite never really hooking the audience it does have its moments, and it’s still better than the majority of horror films churned out nowadays because it at least attempts to have a story, even if that story does, at times, become a convoluted mess.

Only Lovers Left Alive  (2013)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     123 Min        15

Another journey into the mindscape of Jim Jarmusch travelling along the familiar pathways of his love for music and physics, but this time delivered via the unexpectedly ethereal, and at times amusing, blackened world of vampires. Tom Hiddleston (Adam) and Tilda Swinton (Eve) are the lead vamps and have been lovers for countless decades, with John Hurt and Mia Wasikowska in support, aided by Anton Yelchin and Jeffrey Wright as two of the few mortals in the film. The performances are great, especially from the leads, but the use of music throughout the film is very well balanced creating not only a sombre tone for the shadowlands of their lives, but also a unique ambience for long reflective moments, as we spend most of the film in Adam’s home musing along with his lugubrious melancholy at the state of the world.

His home is in a rundown area of Detroit, where he lives as a mysterious and reclusive musician lamenting on the fact that his distancing himself from commercial interests only seems to make his music even more popular, which is the perfect setting, subtly adding to the not so cheery vein running through the film after Detroit last year was forced to declare itself bankrupt, the largest scale event of its kind in US history, with her population considerably under half of what it was in the 1950s. The vampirism is part anchor and delivery mechanism for the philosophy, but it could also easily be read as a thinly veiled metaphor for drug use and dependence, especially when they speak of contamination of the blood supply, in today’s HIV conscious world.

Continuing the protagonists commentary on the general malaise of mankind, comparing his centuries of scientific learning and cultural experiences to the modern world, we find mention of the work and theories of nineteenth century electronics pioneer Nikola Tesla, just as in Jarmusch’s ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’ (David Bowie gives a nice turn playing him in ‘The Prestige’ (06) as well, incidentally), and when Adam points to the mess of cables and wires around the place that pass for a supply of power and waves it off as woefully rudimentary and wasteful, he is absolutely right. In today’s world, the technology and know how exist to completely transform the way we live, making it a hundred times more economically viable as well as environmentally friendly – for those with a Facebook account take a look at this clip from Physicist TV to see what I mean, or watch the excellent documentary ‘Who Killed the Electric Car’ (06) to see how big business stamps its regressive boot down on technology that threatens its profits.

For fans of Jarmusch this is a must see, and for everyone else it’s worth delving into for the shades of legitimate grey contrasted with the unhurried, yet enduring and passionate romance of the two main characters.

Out of the Furnace  (2013)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     116 Min        15

A dark, perhaps a little too dark, tale focusing on two brothers in a small American town dominated by the steel works that one of them works in. Life is tough, and for the other brother who has returned from several tours of duty in the Middle East full of bile and hatred, the only thing he feels he can do now is fight for money. Cue the ‘just one last fight’ line and we know bad things are going to happen. It’s a brutal tale of violence, desperation, regret and revenge, very well acted by Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana and Forest Whitaker (Casey Affleck also appears but he really needs to take some diction lessons) and it’s a film that, although it hides nothing, it does throw an uneasiness at the audience, forcing them to ponder and consider it.

August : Osage County  (2013)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     121 Min        15

Situated where the viewer is in the photo above, at the head of the Weston family table in Osage County Oklahoma, sits the acting powerhouse that is Meryl Streep – here embodying the pill popping, anarchic, virago matriarch of the family, who have all gathered to mourn the passing of her husband, and who all probably harbour secret suspicions that he committed suicide just to get away from his harpy of a wife. It’s from the Pulitzer winning play by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay, and despite the wealth of other acting talent present it is another film driven home by the sheer force and power of Streep, who torments everyone around her and drags all of their dirty laundry out into the open for debate, with the vast majority of the film taking place over a few days in her isolated and slightly decrepit home.

It’s depressing, but also compelling, with strong support all round and especially good turns from Julia Roberts and Benedict Cumberbatch. The film also sees Streep and Roberts up for best actress and best supporting actress respectively at the Oscars later this year.

Outlander  (2008)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     115 Min        15

Sci-fi that sees Jim Caviezel’s soldier from another humanoid race (who seem to be exactly the same as us, something never touched on – nor is their relationship with Earth explained) crash land in Norway in the year 709 AD, releasing his deadly cargo onto the harsh and beautiful Norwegian landscape (although it was mostly filmed in Canada). Encountering a local tribe led by John Hurt, he must help the natives defend themselves against the extra terrestrial beastie he has forced upon them, and will inadvertently garner the lusty attentions of the king’s daughter, played by Sophia Myles (who is essentially recreating her character from ‘Tristan + Isolde’ 06), but how will the local churls react to potentially losing one of the two attractive women we see in the village? Well, they are about to get eaten anyway, markedly improving our hero’s chances.

A reasonably interesting story with convincing sets and average-decent swordplay, but one that is sadly let down by having an all too traditional resolution and increasingly improbable action sequences.

Oldboy  (2013)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     104 Min        18

This is director Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-Wook’s South Korean film ‘Old Boy’. Given the original only came out in 2003, and if you are into film then you have almost certainly heard of it and probably at least thought about trying to watch it at some point, the question has to be asked, why remake it now? Especially since it’s a mystery, one who’s story has not been changed very much here, so if you know the outcome there is precious little reason to watch this version, and given that it’s a pretty flimsy attempt at a remake there is then no reason whatsoever to do so. So it seems this was either made for people who don’t like to watch films with subtitles, or was simply the inflection of Lee’s own ego – although to be fair, reportedly the producers did somewhat take the project away from Lee when it came to the final cut, much to the chagrin of director and leading man Josh Brolin alike.

The story revolves around Joe Doucett (Brolin) who is, for reasons unknown, locked up in a room for twenty years and then one random day released, and is then left to find out what on Earth happened to him and why. One of the first problems is that Joe does not look a day older when this two decade period elapses – initially we are shown his overweight gut and then a montage of him working out whilst interred, suggesting a level of commitment from Brolin, but still hardly accounting for the physical changes twenty years would bring. The all important story elements around the time of his release are simply delivered in a very weak way – in fact, judging by the random fight he gets into with some jocks immediately upon release, for no real reason, and his ability to contort their limbs at will, it seems twenty years of constant body building is enough to also grant one super powers to boot.

Elizabeth Olson turns up in what for her is not the first bad and unnecessary remake she’s appeared in (see 2011’s ‘Silent House’), Samuel L. Jackson has a brief role, and Sharlto Copley has another good turn after his memorable performance in ‘Elysium’. One of the biggest set pieces and most iconic scenes from the original is recreated – and from the point of view of the crew it’s a difficult scene all filmed in one continuous shot over multiple levels of the same building. Unfortunately, it looks completely ridiculous with stunt men throwing themselves all over the place willy-nilly, looking more like the WWE Royal Rumble on a bad year than a well rehearsed big budget action scene. That kind of sums up the whole thing – I did begin to get into the story again toward the final third, but overall it just feels like an ill conceived attempt to steal someone else’s thunder – the production team should really have just orchestrated the wider rerelease of the original if they were so taken with it. DEFINITELY watch the South Korean version, not this.

One Chance  (2013)    35/100

Rating :   35/100                                                                     103 Min        12A

I’m very tempted to say James Corden has already had his one chance with ‘Lesbian Vampire Killers’ (09) which was one of the direst films I have ever seen in my life – no hyperbole, but he at least has the saving grace of not having been involved with its screenplay. Here, he embodies the opera singer Paul Potts who rose to international prominence by winning the first ever ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ TV competition in 2007. Now, given that it is painfully (perhaps even disturbingly) obvious here that it is not him singing and that he equally cannot do the accent required (all the more emphasized by the fact he is surrounded by actors who either can or for whom it is their natural accent anyway. Bizarrely Potts is depicted as growing up in Port Talbot in Wales here and Corden’s lack of anything approaching a decent Welsh accent is astounding – and yet Potts is actually a Bristolian and not only didn’t move to Wales until later on in life, but also does not have a Welsh accent, so if they hadn’t butchered his real life story Corden’s accent would have been fine. Crazy) the reasons for his casting would seem to be whittled down to naught more than the extra layer of insulation he has lovingly nurtured (notwithstanding the Tony award he won in the States last year, minor detail). Something which we are visually treated to in all its fleshy glory on more than one occasion.

Was it not possible to find a vocally gifted actor that could just shove a pillow up his jumper? Or a young opera talent who could passably pull off the dialogue? Actually, just the pillow singing by itself would be more believable – unfortunately the leading man leads this film straight down the pan, and it is only due to the supporting cast that it manages to deliver any sort of reward or emotional engagement whatsoever, with most of the first half just cringe worthy. Alexandra Roach (pictured above) is wonderful, and it is her that’s largely responsible for saving the movie from complete incineration, together with a bit of help from Colm Meaney, Julie Walters and Mackenzie Crook. The fact that the film also takes enormous liberties with the actual life of Potts, including not mentioning previous employment with local government in Bristol for seven years and multiple opera tours before appearing on television, together with the knowledge that the movie is partly produced by the man behind the talent show Mr Simon Cowell himself, just drives the final nails into its coffin.

One of the other producers for the film – big Hollywood player Harvey Weinstein, aka ‘The Punisher’, was actually responsible for pitching the role to Corden, but then in rehearsals immediately called his main actor ‘tone deaf’ before hiring Potts himself to do the voice over (he should really have just played himself) and then, astoundingly, having this to say to the MailOnline about the final product – “James is definitely up for a Golden Globe or Oscar: it’s that kind of performance.” Is he deliberately trying to sabotage his career? Corden is actually due to appear in two upcoming big budget films where he will be singing, so this slight debacle will probably be forgotten about soon enough …

When I began writing this review, it became apparent whoever care takes the imdb page for the film was also not a fan of it, with any clicks around the top of the page directing to different lesbian films. Sadly, these links have been removed now – but to save the affront to your patience that watching this film would entail, you can find the clip below of the actual performance from Potts that got him his place in the ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ show (apparently it’s one of the most watched clips on YouTube) thus extracting the best bit from the movie, and another more recent clip from the same show which is also worth a gander …

James Corden is definitely up for a Golden Globe or Oscar it’s that kind of performance.”
Read more at http://www.entertainmentwise.com/photos/129884/1/James-Corden-Labelled-Tone-Deaf-By-Producer-On-Set-Of-One-Chance-Film-#6SuteRmTRPUS3Jyd.99

Only God Forgives  (2013)    61/100

Rating :   61/100                                                                       90 Min        18

Danish writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film comes exactly two years after his phenomenally successful ‘Drive’, and once again features Ryan Gosling in a central role, together with sharp ultra high resolution digital camera work (specifically, using the Arri Alexa), and more stylised and brutal violence. This is a lot more surrealist than Drive was, with the story set in Thailand and focusing on a pair of American brothers who run a boxing gym as their legitimate business enterprise, with all manner of things going on behind the scenes. When one of them commits a particularly heinous crime, it sets in motion a whirlwind of bloody acts, which also draws their mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, reluctantly from the States and into the fray.

It is the backstory of Gosling’s character Julian, one of the brothers, that really anchors the piece, and indeed the entire film could be viewed as the inevitable cosmic consequence of what he has done. Or, perhaps, what his psyche does to itself, as feeding into this, it is not always apparent whether what we are viewing is really happening, or is simply the visualisation of Julian’s thoughts, fears, and desires. With ‘Drive’, I really didn’t see what all the fuss was about, it was essentially a cinematic version of the video game ‘Grand Theft Auto : San Andreas’, and anyone familiar with the game would likely not find anything terribly original in the film. This time around, however, I am a fan of what I think the director was trying to achieve. He has certainly been successful with the stylisation of the local Thai police investigator Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who operates throughout like a nihilistic ninja, a personification of consequence enforcing the balance of nature via murder.

Unfortunately, the film does suffer from several over indulgences, and a heavy dose of gratuity when it comes to the violence – some of which is arguably necessary, but, as with several instances in Tarantino’s career (or, worse yet, Eli Roth), there will come moments that have you wonder whether their inclusion has more to do with childish bloodlust rather than story. The beginning suffers the most from that dreaded criticism of art house fare – laughability, as parts, in between the segments of gritty horror that this film depicts, just seem a bit silly. It reminds The Red Dragon of a version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters that he once seen onstage where the actors constantly stopped and stood still for ages in complete silence (this was supposed to be for reflection, but made the piece over three hours long, and when one is a dragon trapped in the centre of the Grand Circle for what seems like an eternity whilst absolutely nothing happens onstage at all, one very quickly gets HUNGRY, a state of being which my insatiable insides decided to announce to THE ENTIRE AUDITORIUM for the duration of the play. My stomach, in fact, became the narrator for Chekhov’s Three Sisters), something similar happens here – this is most definitely not a film to take lots of popcorn, or food in general, into.

These points aside, I am absolutely in love with the cameras they used, which show everything in pristine detail and manage to make what is probably otherwise an average grubby looking street, appear quite beautiful onscreen, a combined success of equipment and the strong and memorable choice of lighting used throughout. The acting is equally sharp, with Kristin Scott Thomas in particular giving a truly powerful and domineering performance, wielding her character with a crackling vehemence, one given extra gravitas and authority by a commanding American accent.

Worthy of note for what it attempts to do, though do be prepared for sanguine and despotic darkness from start to finish and it remains to be seen whether its misgivings will be bumps in the road for Nicolas Winding Refn, or will entrench themselves into stylistic trademarks. It also seems likely that the director may have delved into Thai cinema for research, certainly the feel of the editing and some of the shots used evoke memories of the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and his Palme d’Or winner ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ (10). Just like ‘Drive’ before it, the film is dedicated to the (still living) Chilean-French surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky, of whose work ‘El Topo’ (70) is absolutely recommended viewing.