Tag Archives: 2010s

Filth (2013)

Filth (2013)

In a sarcastic reversal of Renton’s “it’s shite being Scottish” monologue in Danny Boyle‘s Trainspotting (1996), Filth (2013, 97 mins) begins with a Scottish hagiography from Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy). The passion may be there in the voiceover but the images belie the conviction. And that’s how things go through the film, with all appearances being deceiving and nothing quite as it would seem.

As cops go, Bruce Robertson is as corrupt as they come. A thread of hedonism runs through his life as he drinks excessively, takes hard drugs, and, when not indulging his hyperactive sex drive with someone, indulging it alone. If that’s not bad enough for a lawman he’s also partial to a spot of blackmail and intimidation. He knows there’s a promotion to Detective Inspector in the offing and aims to get it, whatever the costs, even if that means playing his colleagues (Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell, Emun Elliott, and Gary Lewis) off against each other in what he refers to as “the Games”. What may help him get that promotion is solving the murder we see in the opening scene.

Like Trainspotting, Filth is also adapted from a novel by Irvine Welsh, however it spends its time away from Edinburgh’s junky class and embeds itself within the establishment. The police, Freemasons, courts, and businessmen take the limelight but there’s nothing rose-tinted about this tier of society. Certainly, with DS Robertson as our guide, there’s no respect afforded it either. This, after all, is a guy pestering the wife of Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), his only friend, with obscene phone calls (in the guise of Frank Sidebottom!) while simultaneously leading the case to uncover the culprit. Situations like this drive the narrative, with Robertson having his nefarious schemes going to plan while at the same time letting them spiral out of control.

Despite the gravity of scenes peppering Filth — underage sex, prostitution, drug usage, amongst many others — it’s all served up with a thick slice of dark humour. It’s hard not to laugh at the casual disregard for everything voiced in McAvoy’s narration. In fact, as roles go, it can clearly be seen that McAvoy relishes the possibilities of DS Robertson’s sheer breadth of character. One minute he’s sneaking out a casual fart, the next he’s all Bad Lieutenant. If he’s not being nice to the boss (John Sessions), he’s furiously masturbating in a cubicle. A role that offers variety to an actor is a gift and McAvoy practically oozes enjoyment here. Making a psychotic, sex-addicted, drug-using, hallucinating alcoholic a likeable character is no mean feat but somehow McAvoy achieves it.

What is perhaps less successful is the occasional trip into DS Robertson’s psyche, personified by Jim Broadbent‘s bizarre psychiatrist with elongated forehead and exaggerated Australian accent. While Broadbent plays it comical, and isn’t to be faulted, these sections don’t quite have the payoff one would hope. What they are is an an attempt to portray an element of the original novel (substituting a tapeworm with a cartoonish psychiatrist) that deserves a high score for effort but something more middling for the result. Someone, somewhere, must have deemed it relevant rather than finding a more innovative way to portray this. A tapeworm does appear in the film, spinning around in the ever-muddled Robertson’s head but, in the film’s context, it’s apropos of nothing.

While the aforementioned cast — joined by the likes of Shirley HendersonKate Dickie, and, in one weird scene, David Soul — perform well, the movie is dominated by McAvoy shouting, laughing, snorting, and sneering his way from scene to scene. With a murder to solve and a promotion to gain, he ploughs on as his world disintegrates around him. All his vices have becomes the filth that covers the truth he would rather not face. The truth about who, under all the bluff and bluster, DS Bruce Robertson really is. And even this, as sad as it is, doesn’t escape the bleak humour that undercuts everything.

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Captain Phillips (2013)

Captain Phillips (2013)

The humble shipping container is arguably the most important invention of the 20th Century. Without it the world would be far less connected and international trade would be slower and less valuable than it is today. The container is therefore a facilitator for globalisation and a modern success story. However, while globalisation can be good — in widening trade,  breaking cultural barriers, and making the world connected — it is not without its externalities. And the conflict in Paul Greengrass‘s Captain Phillips (2013, 134 mins) sees both sides of the globalisation argument come face to face where else but on a container ship.

The Maersk Alabama, an American-flagged feeder vessel routinely sailing between Oman and Kenya, made the news in 2009 when it was hijacked off the Somalian coast. While it’s well known that piracy is rife in the region this particular hijacking was notable for the size of the ship targeted. Her captain at the time was Richard Phillips and it’s his account of the incident, as told in his 2010 book A Captain’s Duty, that sees Tom Hanks step into his shoes.

Despite its maritime setting, the film sets two stories in motion. The first is the eponymous captain’s as he gets his briefing and packs his bags for the trip ahead. En route to the airport he references the current global downturn noting to his wife (Catherine Keener) that, back in his day you could walk into a job and work your way up the ladder. Not so now, with myriad applicants chasing every job, and, on the other side of the world, we see this first hand, as Somalian gang leaders demand a ship be captured. Those willing outweigh the eventual pirates.

When both parties finally meet we get a drawn out stalemate between crew and pirates, although the latter always have something of an upper hand…and guns. Chief among them is Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a skinny wretch who, perhaps because of his scrawniness, has something more to prove and therefore doesn’t need to think twice about violence to make himself understood. The performance is both engrossing and extremely intense; a real achievement for a first time actor. The much trailered moment when he commands Captain Phillips to “look at me” a perfect encapsulation of the portrayal overall. Also debuts, the remaining pirates (Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali) show themselves as more than capable too, both in capturing the ship and in the infighting that follows.

Hanks, as Captain Phillips, is superb in so much that it’s easy to forget that the man on screen is a character being acted. His performance feels natural, embodying as he does a man who is calm under pressure at all times. How heroic one takes him in the context of a true story is a personal choice —  while the movie is based on Phillips’s account, it’s something that others involved have questioned — it works within the film because it needs to be a single hero facing off against the pirates rather than a concerted crew effort. The latter is simply not Hollywood. While support does come via the US Navy, the focus is all on the captain. Come the final few minutes, Hanks dials up his acting a further few notches, all that stoicism converted into something deeply raw, emotional, and affecting.

What really brings the movie together is the style in which it is delivered. Greengrass’s camera is restless, swinging this way and that as it hunts the action. It’s like being inside a documentary as it happens, such is its immediacy. Thankfully, away from the claustrophobic closeness to the action, he also gives us moments of air in which we can see the larger picture, of ships at sea. But even here, with a container ship’s relatively slow manoeuvring speed, we get a sense of high octane action. Days become nights and become days again, hinting at a longer duration for the story, but with no mention of days passing, time becomes compressed to ensure we remain on the edge of our seats.

Despite the veracity of his account, Captain Richard Phillips will certainly heed the old captain’s duty that he will go down with his ship. In history, at least. But it’s not who did what that should lead the debate around Captain Phillips. Instead the effects of globalisation as discussed in the movie are where the real debate should lie. Is the west, in all its capitalist glory, responsible for the poverty elsewhere that drives people to become criminals against their nature? If so, what can be done about it? While there’s no answers, the questions are posed. All a movie like this can do is educate others on how the comfortable western lifestyle as typified by Captain Phillips is not without its victims who will bite back.

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Sunshine On Leith (2013)

Sunshine On Leith (2013)

Taking a popular band and making a musical of their most popular songs appears to be a trend now. It’s worked for Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You, their popularity on stage now surpassing ten years. However, the less said about the seven month run of Viva Forever! the better. Brothers Craig and Charlie Reid, better known as The Proclaimers, may not have enjoyed the international fame that ABBA, Queen or even the Spice Girls had, but their back catalogue contains songs that have ingrained themselves in the Scottish consciousness and, more crucially, is large enough to allow the creation of a jukebox musical. In Sunshine On Leith (2013, 90 mins) Stephen Greenhorn adapted his original 2007 stage musical for the screen and the result, under Dexter Fletcher‘s direction, is a jubilant celebration of a movie with just enough underlying drama to lift it above typical musical fare.

Three relationships are at the heart of the movie, capturing the challenges of love at varying stages (hooking up, potential engagement, and silver anniversary) portrayed within a single family. Hooking up are Davy (George MacKay) and Yvonne (Antonia Thomas); he recently discharged from the army and she working at the hospital. Also fresh out the military is Ally (Kevin Guthrie) who has been dating Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor) and is considering the next steps. Then there’s Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Jane Horrocks), the siblings’ parents, their twenty-five year marriage testament to the duration of love but not without their own problems.

Despite an opening fraught with nervous uncertainty as Davy, Ally, and their crew are transported across a war zone, the happiness soon starts to infect the movie as, back in Edinburgh, we see the friends walking along the street singing their way through I’m On My Way. It’s not so much the camaraderie of these two friends or that musical thing where people spontaneously burst into song, but the reactions of the others caught on camera. A man on his phone stares at them as if they are mad. Women walking their way smile; men passing look back bemused. Only the Proclaimers themselves, in a cameo, seem not to notice. What this opening does is let us know this is a world where breaking into song is something natural.

And so it continues, moments of drama segueing into song. Jane Horrocks already has a track record apropos singing (cf Little Voice (1998)) and with the rest of the cast providing capable delivery of their vocals the songs are well-served in this regard, although they do miss the somewhat comic emphasis that the Proclaimers bring to the songs in their originals. It’s worth mentionning that Peter Mullan’s gravel tones offer up something of a surprise as he tackles Oh Jean while  a crowd dances around him.

One of the problems with such films, as opposed to a musical with original songs, is that the storyline is partly dictated by the lyrics. Letter To America, a song about the Scottish diaspora, seems an obvious candidate for driving elements of the narrative and that is indeed how it’s used. But it’s the way the lyrics are portioned off to the characters that bring a new level of meaning so as to justify the song’s inclusion in the story. There are literal interpretations juxtaposed with others more figurative, and this is true for all those songs delivered by more than one cast member. To this end it’s a pleasure to see songs used in a meaningful context and not just there as a karaoke checklist. Plus, there are moments of subverted expectations (Let’s Get Married, for example) where the songs are used in a new context.

While it’s not the sort of movie that’s going to change the world Sunshine On Leith is at least going to light it up. It would be a cold heart that sits through it unsmiling and arms crossed as there’s enough toe-tapping goodness in the songs as well as decent enough coverage of relationships’ ups, downs, and ups again. As the final shot leaves Edinburgh behind (mirroring the opening journey in) we see the movie for what it is — a slice of life, entertaining and uplifting.

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Drinking Buddies (2013)

Drinking Buddies (2013)

Romance on screen usually ends with two mismatched people discovering how made for each other they truly are. They’ll meet, hate each other from the get-go, but their paths are destined to overlap across various set pieces until the inevitable romance blossoms. The central relationship in Drinking Buddies (2013, 90 mins) flies in the face of convention and introduces us to two friends — one male, one female — who are attracted to each other from the start although see themselves as just being friends.

Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) both work in a Chicago microbrewery. Their working day — apart from work — consists of joking, chatting, and drinking beer. When the working day is over the brewers head on a busman’s holiday to the pub where they play pool and down beers. The chat and jokes go on and it seems obvious, as Kate and Luke gravitate to each other, that the stars have their future all sewn up.

The problem is that both are in separate relationships. It’s early days for Kate and Chris (Ron Livingston), who seem slightly mismatched, his serious nature uncomfortable against her free spirit. Luke and Jill (Anna Kendrick) also appear wrong for each other as their wedding plans are in the process of becoming more concrete. During one weekend they stay at a beach house where these different personalities align themselves. Platonically, of course. But it sets in motion the impetus that buzzes along in the background of this film.

There’s little cinematic about Drinking Buddies. No big explosions. No thrilling twists. Instead it feels an intimate invitation into its characters’ world where we observe their minutiae. It’s a realistic take on relationships, the conversations between friends, colleagues, and partners delving into their thoughts and worries. Throw alcohol into the mix — and barely a chat goes by without a beer in hand —  and we get a loosening of tongues that allow the conversations to go beyond where they would sober. The beer may bring crazy impulses or thoughts to the forefront of minds, but the characters are never too drunk to overstep boundaries. The silences that pepper conversations as they hold back are both reflective,  real, and weighed down with truth.

Perhaps much of the real feel comes from its lack of script. While director Joe Swanberg knew where he was going with his story (scenes, development, etc) the dialogue was left to the actors to improvise. Wilde and Johnson have an obvious chemistry as they improvise and it helps with warming to their characters. Best of all is how we gradually see the disintegration of our expectations. While we expect Kate and Luke to shake off their complications and come together what we are instead given is more information that helps us see how unsuited they actually are (Luke’s life is structured while Kate seizes the day) even if they don’t see it themselves.

While Drinking Buddies may be boring to some, it has enough happening in its story to hold interest. Although billed as a romantic comedy it plays as nothing of the sort, instead coming across as a slice of life (well, lives) at crossroads and the decisions that need to be taken, be they grasped by the characters themselves or forced by circumstance. Its focus on relationships forces us to consider whether men and woman can truly just be friends without the sexual attraction that inevitably bubbles under. That line is definitely blurred but there’s an ironic twist in that, through alcohol, things come to seem much clearer.

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Escape Plan (2013)

Escape Plan (2013)

When The Expendables (2010) was released, there was much trumpeting of how both Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, stalwarts of 1980s action movies, would come together on screen. It was going to be big; it was going to be iconic. The result, however, was a single scene in a very disappointing film. They appeared together once more in The Expendables 2 (2012), garnering plenty of screen time, but Schwarzenegger was still mostly incidental. Now, in Escape Plan (2003, 115 mins) the double billing actually sees the two both play main characters in an action movie. This could have been that iconic meeting that The Expendables promised. Alas, it’s just another meeting.

Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a man who, for his own hokey reasons, makes his money by being imprisoned and then escaping in order to point out security flaws. He has literally written the book on the subject. When the movie opens we see his skill in this domain, first breaking out from a high security prison and then recounting his escape (for the audience’s benefit) to the prison’s warden in all its convoluted, improbable glory. After that, an offer comes in that would see him enter another prison, this one off the grid, and in an unknown location. His fee is double the going rate, and he accepts.

Of course, this is a trap. Someone somewhere actually wants Breslin imprisoned. And the prison, we learn, has its design (all glass cells and no natural light) in the flaws pointed out by Breslin’s book; it should therefore be impossible to escape from. Thus Escape Plan has its premise, and Stallone quickly finds an ally in Schwarzenegger’s Emil Rottmayer. If these two are aligned, antagonism comes by way of Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel) and sadistic prison guard Drake (Vinnie Jones). What follows is a series of prison riots and reconnaissance missions as Breslin gets the measure of his new prison and works out how to escape, making use of the objects, skills, and flaws in the system that he uncovers.

With names like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Jones attached, expectations aren’t high but the movie is paced well enough and the majority of scenes come across as functional. Certainly, for all the hyperbole on the film’s two stars, the direction isn’t in awe of them. While this can be good, as story should ultimately go before the cast, it somehow feels as if more could have been made of the pairing. Not so much in the characterisation (that was always going to be thin) but in the imagination around how they are filmed. What action there was felt unmemorable. Certainly Schwarzenegger’s most memorable moment would be a scene where he rants, insanely, in his native language. Beyond that, it’s a string of limp one-liners and crazy smiles.

For all the plot and action it would at least appear as if the film has its basis in matters more philosophical. The notion of the panopticon, a prison where all captives are under permanent supervision (or at least have no way of knowing if Big Brother’s eye is on them) is a direct lift from the work of Jeremy Bentham, albeit modernised to suit contemporary technology. But a warden called Hobbes brings to mind Thomas Hobbes, who in his Leviathan wrote of the social contract. Breslin, in Escape Plan, willingly secedes from civil society and therefore finds himself in a prison that bears much in relation to a world outside the Hobbesian notion of civilised society:

…no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

But, given the content of the movie, it’s probably best not to read too deep into any message it may wish to deliver. It’s a foregone conclusion that Breslin is going to escape this inescapable prison and therefore consideration need only be given to how he plans to do it. Some elements are logical, based on observation and timings; while others, although not stretching credulity, are convenient. Sometimes, instead of knowledge, escape can be about relationships and, in that respect, crucial support comes from Dr. Kyrie (Sam Neill) and some of the inmates who riot to create distractions or take on particular favours.

At the end of the day, a movie like Escape Plan is never going to be anything other than sheer escapism and its two hours whizz by without ever seeming to drag. It has its questionable moments (e.g. Hobbes shooting a prisoner when keeping him alive is the profitable option) but works well enough as a vehicle for two movie tough guys, once standalone action heroes, to work together under a double billing. Given their advancing years, it had to happen at some point, although it doesn’t quite carry the hype that, say, Heat (1995) did in pairing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro on screen for the first time. Perhaps because in Heat, the two stars worked against each other and the question was which would come out on top. Or perhaps because Stallone and Schwarzenegger  are no longer the draw they once were. Either way, while it’s fun to see them work together, it’s hard not to think a better movie could have packed more of a punch.

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The Expendables 2 (2012)

The Expendables 2 (2012)

If The Expendables (2010) left the burning question of why it even existed, what further reason is there for The Expendables 2 (2012, 103 mins) to exist? Well, apart from making studio shareholders enough cash to roll around in, the only possible reason (wishful thinking, here) must be to correct the wrongs of the first. The most notable difference is that Sylvester Stallone is no longer behind the camera (that duty now with Simon West, of 1997’s Con-Air) and this is immediately an improvement. Where Stallone’s The Expendables, in all its ridiculousness, still wanted to play itself straight this sequel is much more knowing in its sending up of the genre and is better for it.

Excepting Mickey Rourke, the old crew are reunited here. Stallone returns as Barney Ross with main banter buddy Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) by his side. Dolph Lundgren‘s crazy Gunner Jensen is as mad as ever and Jet Li‘s Yin Yang (making only a brief appearance before bailing out) is still the butt of jokes. Surplus to requirements, Randy Couture and Terry Crews both resume their minor roles to round out the original squad. But there’s more, this time, as we also meet Billy The Kid (Liam Hemsworth) and get some female representation from Maggie (Nan Yu).

Part of the problem with the The Expendables was that we never got to know much about the characters. They were muscular guys with guns; what else did you need to know? However, the lack of background plays to the detriment of this movie’s set-up, namely expecting the audience to care for a character that they have been introduced to only a few scenes before. What misfortune befalls this character leads to a revenge story being spun out of some nonsense about Soviet plutonium barrels buried in a Bulgarian mine, with Jean-Claude Van Damme (as Vilain) as villain.

The story drifts from one shoot-out to the next, but The Expendables 2 feels as if it’s less about the action than it is the cameos. Whereas in the first we got a brief scene between Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, here they rack up more screen time, happily trading each other’s catchphrases, no doubt to the delight of the action audience, and getting down and dirty with some weaponry. Charisma Carpenter returns briefly, providing some home life continuity. But the big appearance here — and given recent press releases about who has and hasn’t signed up for the third, big appearances are no doubt the reason that future films in the franchise will exist — is Chuck Norris‘s lone wolf, Booker.

Compared to the gravel-voiced meatheads that comprise the main team, Norris, softly spoken and with a thinner build, seems a far cry from the typical action hero, but he’s a dab hand with a gun and, if the Chuck Norris Facts internet meme is to be believed, the hardest badass in the universe. Therefore it’s fun to see the man himself acknowledge these in the movie’s world. The humour in seeing him deliver one of his own facts is arguably one of the highlights here, especially as much humour still comes from that age old action movie staple: the corny quip (i.e. “Rest in pieces!”).

While there’s not much for most of the cast to do (this is still very much about Stallone and Statham) the action scenes do come across better. Fight scenes no longer consist of the split second shots that marred the first, and therefore we see here actual physical endeavours being undertaken. Jet Li, whose martial arts were ridiculously underused previously are here given a chance to shine. But, think action movie, and it’s less about the action than it is the crazy weaponry, and that is bountiful too.

While guns, explosions, and prolonged fisticuffs are par for the course in such movies, there’s no reason why it should be presented at a cartoonish level. Yes, The Expendables 2 knows it’s aping its cinematic lineage, but in a world where serious things happen (Vilain enslaves a village to retrieve the plutonium from a mine) can’t there be any consequences (for anyone) other than the villain’s eventual death? Is the world at large blind to such goings on? Where has this Vilain guy appeared from or are we just expected to accept he’s bad and go with it? And, once the Expendables roll into town, who’s going to clean up their mess?

These may just be the questions of a mind meandering, uninspired with death after death of unnamed goons. And that may be the issue here — that the movie is not interested in being more than it can be. Why would it, when the story is secondary to the cast and the audience is assured? But the questions keep on coming because the mind, in trying to disengage, needs something to do and The Expendables provides no viable food for thought. Mantras of must kill bad guys and must get revenge leave little to mentally chew on.

If there was a way of blocking sentient thoughts while watching this then maybe it could be enjoyable. There’s some laughs from the occasional meta-humour and it loves a big all-guns-blazing set-piece, but overall it feels like a revolving door where actors come and go based on other commitments, with the storyline dictated more by availability than coherence. If this continues into the next instalment (which is more than likely) then we have a franchise that maintains interest by increasing its stable of flat characters rather than developing what it already has.

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Blue Jasmine (2013)

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Now into six decades of making films, Woody Allen is showing no signs of slowing down. Some recent films have name checked and featured European cities — Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight In Paris (2011), and To Rome With Love (2012) — but Blue Jasmine (2013, mins) sees Allen return Stateside and delivering a story spanning both coasts.

Cate Blanchett plays the eponymous Jasmine (real name Jeanette Francis), a New York socialite who has never had to want for anything in life thanks to Hal (Alec Baldwin), her high-flying husband, more in the Bernie Madoff mould than genuine businessman. However, as the film opens we see her land in San Francisco, moving in with her sister (they were both adopted, although from different biological parents) in order to get her life in order. What has happened between this extravagant lifestyle, funded by the dreams of others, and an almost desperate need to start over is what gradually unravels throughout Blue Jasmine.

Jumping between two timelines (the New York backstory and the west coast present) Allen aligns them not just with Jasmine as uniting thread but through looking at the women’s relationships. While Jasmine had Hal, her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), has Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a loose-tempered mechanic who, were it not for Jasmine’s visit, would be moving in. As if this doesn’t cause tension enough, Jasmine’s class snobbiness comes to the fore, berating her sister for her choice in men, somewhat rich coming from a woman who’s own husband was a crook.

If money corrupted Hal, it has also corrupted Jasmine, albeit in a different way. As someone living a life of parties, designer brands, and never having to worry about anything the descent to Ginger’s level — of poor neighbourhood, hyperactive kids, and actually having a job — is difficult to comprehend and adjust to. Deep in debt, thanks to Hal’s fake companies in her name, she still flies first class without quite knowing how.

Regardless of adaptability to her new situation, she does try — a job as a dentist’s receptionist, with the dentist heavy handed in his amorous after-hours approach; a computer class at college to learn how to study interior design from home (rather than just study interior design at college). Life, when you have concerns, is difficult and, rather than be strong she opts instead to jump on the first chance she gets back into her old life when she meets diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) at a party who thinks her the ideal trophy wife for his senatorial aspirations.

Almost every scene in Blue Jasmine sees Blanchett’s anti-heroine play some part, and the superlative performance dominates the movie. She flits easily between her superficially smiling socialite, her claws-out disdain of the lower classes, and the broken, fragile woman whose world has spun out of control. Whether it has spun out of her control is one of the many ambiguities Allen provides throughout the movie as much is made of Jasmine’s ability to see only what she wants. Was she, therefore, complicit in Hal’s Ponzi schemes or, like so many others, an innocent victim?

What one can read, if anything, into the eastern-flavoured names of our San Francisco trio — Jasmine, Ginger, Chili — is perhaps open to debate, but what’s certain is that the result is a fragrant broth of light-hearted comedy with darker moments. Interestingly, the comedy comes not from the two stand-ups Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay that take supporting roles, but from its mocking of the superficial elite thrust into the real world and its alien nature. What this new world holds for Jasmine is uncertain, but it’s that way for us all.

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The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables (2010)

Into a prolonged hostage situation in the Gulf of Aden come a team of mercenaries. While this opening hostage rescue in The Expendables (2010, 103 mins) appears tense, any expectation of gritty, thoughtful action is soon dispelled when a single shot comically cuts a Somali pirate in half. But that single shot isn’t enough to solve the problem at hand. Therefore, after a hail of bullets, knives, and kung fu kicks rains down on the remaining pirates, all that’s left are the hostages and the eponymous Expendables. As manifestos go, it certainly gives warning of what little to expect of the movie.

That preliminary shootout introduces us to the characters. There’s Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone, acting and directing), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), and Yin Yang (Jet Li). If they are the A Team, then the B Team support are Toll Road (Randy Couture), Hail Caesar (Terry Crews), and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren). None of these men has a back story, although there’s a plot strand following Christmas, his lover (Charisma Carpenter), and her other man that seeks to give viewers something different to focus on, but it’s dispensed in two scenes and impacts the story not a jot.

The movie’s main plot revolves around killing General Garza (David Zayas), the puppet dictator of a Latin American island state. The job comes in a scene whereby Stallone gets together with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Willis is Mr Church, the man with the job. Schwarzenegger is, like Stallone, a mercenary, only he knows the situation on Garza’s island and rejects outright the opportunity. A scene like this must be the action fan’s wet dream, putting together three action movie legends for the first time. In its short duration, we get sly knowing jibes at each other with some cute banter thrown in (“You guys aren’t gonna start sucking each other’s dicks, are ya?” asks Church).

With the exception of Tool (Mickey Rourke), one liners are the only dialogue the guys in this film trade. It’s macho-to-the-max, empty and with little substance. Although many of the cast made their name in eighties action flicks, and this movie is a tribute to those days, there is little to suggest in the serious delivery that much has moved on since. The movie overall may not be serious — explosions, gun porn, and hyperbolic fisticuffs — but the way it’s played certainly is, even if done in a knowing way. It’s a give-the-people-what-they-want sort of film, and in this Stallone comes up with the goods as regards pulling an action movie together from a range of men who would typically take the lead in their own vehicles.

But if Stallone is giving the people what they want in The Expendables, the question must surely be why do people want this? Pyromaniacs aside, who’s eyes light up at the thought of meaningless explosions? Who punches the air when a bad guy dies? Who cheers on the good guys? Who doesn’t demand more from a film? Because in a film like this it’s never a question of if the protagonists will survive an encounter, but purely when they will. The audience knows that, whatever the story, the outcome is assured. Who wants to go into a movie and know how it ends?

While a man can stand around firing an unlimited barrage of bullets all day, much of the actors here have seen better days. Most of the physical action is delivered in quick succession of cuts that are too frenzied and make it difficult to recognise any athleticism. In this, perhaps the eighties action hero has had his day and, with the likes of Jason Bourne and James Bond‘s continued appeal,  Stallone and contemporaries are a few brain cells short. There’s no emotional connection with any characters, nor any underpinning motivation. There’s no thrills in the big budget set pieces nor any real danger in anything that happens on screen.  Ultimately there’s no rhyme or reason for this movie to exist.

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We’re The Millers (2013)

We're The Millers (2013)

Take four disparate people, dress them up as a family unit, and send them off to Mexico for a spot of drug smuggling. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of We’re The Millers (2013, 110 mins), and for a comedy it need not be more complicated than that. However, in order to get around the simple story what a comedy does need is plenty of laughs to drive it along. There are laughs to be had here, but this ham-fisted tale of crime not paying (much) is more likely to split opinion than sides.

Jason Sudeikis plays David Clark, a small-time self-centred drug dealer. One day he gets involved in a street scuffle and sees both stash and cash stolen so when the local drugs tsar (Ed Helms) provides an opportunity to make far greater amounts if he does a drug run over the border he accepts. His only problem is how to make himself inconspicuous to border guards. When the eureka moment comes he is lucky to have three reluctant accomplices to hand. Neighbour Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a stripper struggling with money; the virginal and naïve teenager Kenny (Will Poulter), and runaway Casey (Emma Roberts), whose struggle with David’s muggers started the whole farce. Driving an RV and becoming the Millers (after their street) they set off for Mexico.

The duration of the film is not so much about the initial collection but getting an obscene amount of weed back to David’s paymaster. Along the way there’s all manner of obstacles such as corrupt cops, an over-friendly family, and the border itself. But sometimes the biggest issue is their own familial cohesion — they’ll bicker about anything. Not the image David wants to portray if he wants to deflect attention. If all these conflicts aren’t enough, the film also throws in another drug lord intent on catching them before they reach their destination.

The whole thing is horribly contrived. The characters are mostly two-dimensional cartoons given flesh although Poulter by far does the best with what he’s got by virtue of getting the greater percentage of jokes. Roberts chips in some glum teen posturing and Aniston never really convinces as a stripper. Their efforts are passable, however Sudeikis plays David as an all round wise-cracker, emotionally impervious to the threats around him. In something more serious it could be construed as a defence system, but not here. Real crimes to acting come as Ed Helms cranks the ham up to eleven as if he’s performing in some other film. His megalomaniac drug lord spoofs classic James Bond villainy, but comes up shorter than Nick Nack.

The majority of the humour in We’re The Millers can only be described as gross-out light. Body parts and sexual antics see the greater share, helped some way by comic performances, especially Nick Offerman‘s Don Fitzgerald, patriarch of another family coming home from Mexico. The saddest part is that the jokes, far from being laugh-out-loud funny, are barely groan-out-loud funny. Ultimately the film feels like a lazy patchwork of juvenile ideas that don’t quite work as a whole. A bit like its Millers

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Amour (2012)

Amour (2012)

In films dealing with love the norm typically sees two different characters collide and, after a number of episodes, realise how suited they are for each other. Michael Haneke‘s Amour (2012, 127 mins.) comes to love later, much later, in life as two (very suited) octogenarian’s face the end of their time together.

Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers living in a Parisian apartment who we first see together in a crowd at a musical concert before heading home on the bus to discover that there’s been an attempted break-in:

Georges: Why does anyone break in? To steal something.

Anne: From us?

Georges: Why not?

The seeming randomness of this burglary — the notion that it can happen to anyone — foreshadows the story’s driving event. At breakfast, as they talk with each other, Anne suffers silently a stroke. When she comes round, she has no recollection of the previous minutes. The family doctor investigates, and following tests and a failed operation,  new complications arise and the comfortable life the couple had together is lost as Anne experiences first paralysis and then dementia.

Apart from a few brief post-credit scenes, the film is set entirely within the Laurents’ apartment. The world outside passes at an unknown stretch. Maids and nurses come and go. A former pupil drops by unannounced, his talk of the past highlighting Anne’s fading memory. And their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), harps on at her father to put her mother into care, a well-intentioned suggestion at odds with her mother’s wishes and an indictment of the younger generation’s proclivity for sweeping things under the carpet. Georges, of his older generation, is invested in his situation to the end — till death do us part, if you will.

The suggestion of love in Amour‘s title steps away from what most other films perceive as love (which is arguably more like romance) and does its own investigation into what love means. Haneke’s take is a far remove from any romantic notions, picturing not only a woman’s physical and mental decline but her husband’s dogged determination to keep her with him to his own detriment.  The question of how one retains their dignity in the wake of everyone’s good intentions is asked, if not answered. The delivery is wholly unsentimental, the camera’s gaze unflinching; neither judging or assessing anything it sees. Visual and spoken clues are left to the viewer. The approach is never didactic. Instead, we watch scenes play out and apply our own meaning.

The performances in the film are superb. Trintignant’s initial lustre fades over the duration, his face always revealing unspoken concerns and hidden depths. He also displays some physical change, brought on by the stress of the situation. But it’s Riva’s role that demands the greater range as she moves through the stages of decline, which she expertly does. Her face is extremely expressive, even when Anne is at her most distant: during the initial stroke or asked to recall something during a conversation that she cannot. In all the pain that Anne experiences, you can believe Riva feels it too.

The conclusion of Amour is one foregone as the film opens with firemen breaking into the Laurents’ apartment and finding Anne’s corpse shrinelike in bed. How it comes to be thus is the thrust of the film. It’s a painful watch, especially with foreknowledge, and Haneke ensures tight storytelling so that, in its two hour running time, nothing feels excessive. It’s a tour-de-force of film making that lingers long on the mind.

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