No Strings Attached – 3*

After playing such an intense and psychologically disturbed young woman in Black Swan, Oscar nominee Natalie Portman deserves a bit of light relief, and Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached offers just that – for both actor and viewer alike. Instantly, it has critics convulsing at the very thought of ‘yet another romcom’, and even more so with notorious ‘film-jinxer’ Ashton Kutcher at the helm. Although it falls into the many clichéd traps of the genre (for example, girl and boy denying the flaming obvious), it actually has some amicable and candid qualities that make it more appealing than the usual run-of-the-mill offerings of recent months.

It takes the ago-old premise of the iconic When Harry Met Sally’s ‘friends with benefits’, and ramps up the ‘sex only’ part. Only this time, it’s the woman who’s more sexually active and nonchalant about the relationship, with the man wanting more. But the female’s guard must come down for the ‘rom’ to work its magic. Therefore, that’s were it plays to the genre’s predictability, which is why some are having an unsurprising pop at it. The fact is, No Strings Attached does keep you pleasantly entertained because you can’t help but like all the characters involved, the majority of which have a realistic stance on relationships. It also serves up how most of the genre’s fans want their romcom to play out – obviously, but with more credible beings that don’t live in an idyllic microcosm of affluent smugness.

Kutcher plays Adam, an aspiring writer who’s still stuck in rut in a PA job for a Glee-style TV show. Portman is Emma, the girl he tried to indecently proposition years earlier at summer camp. Emma has since grown up into a stunning commitment-phobe and workaholic doctor. After discovering that his successful screenwriter Dad (played by Kevin Kline) has been banging his ex, a drunken Adam grabs his phone and goes through his address book, until he finds ‘no strings attached’ sex for the night. Emma is the lucky lady – although the deed happens the next morning as Adam was in an intoxicated haze. After a heated bed session before brunch, she and Adam decide to be ‘f*ckbuddies’ (the original title of Elizabeth Meriwether’s screenplay that was wisely changed). But love seeps in and spoils everything. On paper, it sounds totally predictable, but that’s the point, isn’t it?

What is a shock is Kutcher is a welcome surprise in this film, in a part that many of us would expect him to annihilate, especially since the release of the nauseating Valentine’s Day. He combines his ‘cute’ and fun-loving aspects and good looks (he’s obviously been working on his upper body tone with image-conscious wife Demi) with an altogether pathetic, self-depreciating side that allow us to sympathise and openly mock him in equal measure. It’s the first time this critic has ‘got him’ in any role as he plays to his strengths. Admittedly, he has some fine, albeit under-used talent assisting him, with a supporting cast of Klein, Ludacris, Jake Johnson and Lake Bell.

Portman who has been emotionally stiff in past roles, unless she’s playing fragile and tormented, turns on a hidden charm offensive that ultimately dissolves her ballsy independent façade as Emma. She comes across as sharply witty, divinely adorable and decidedly un-clingy – every man’s dream, surely? Kutcher and Portman seem like an unlikely screen combination, especially with the height difference, but produce an incandescent coupling full of cynical but amusing banter, even though their characters suffer that one-dimensionality associated with the genre. There is a wonderful ‘time of the month’ moment, where Adam makes a period tape and delivers it and a box of donuts to a suffering Emma and her roomies to enjoy, which is actually quite touching.

Reitman has got his casting right in this, even if he doesn’t fully deploy all their talents, sparingly using those of comedy genius Klein and Cary Elwes as priggish dreamboat Dr. Metzner who believes he’s the best catch for Emma. However, the first issue is the beginning of the film, which is stilted and unconvincing as to how Adam and Emma become friends at all, let alone ‘friends with benefits’. Aside from their school meeting, they seem more like distant acquaintances that happen to keep bumping into each other. Would Emma even entertain allowing Adam into her life, if he called up drunk and asking for a bit of action out of the blue, or put him down as a freak? Still, Adam could have Emma’s number after all these years, especially as she was a teen crush…

Secondly, the writing isn’t quite as snappy and on a par with the likes of Apatow’s or Reitman Jr’s work, sloppily falling back on well-worn material and the odd inject of tired schoolboy humour (fingering jokes aside) – even if the latter is done with the biggest of hearts and winks. There is a teeth-jangling one-liner at the end that ends up destroying all respect the sassy leads had subsequently built up. But love is blind and soppy in the heat of the moment when someone wears their heart on their sleeve, so we can’t be too critical, can we?

Reitman makes sure all the loose ends are satisfactorily sown up in No Strings Attached. The Kutcher-Portman chemistry is left to react naturally in an almost loosely improv’d way, and fizzes away nicely in this amicable ‘buddy’ tale of the sexes, without bringing any unnecessary blushes to the cast with vulgar, cheap jokes that could creep into such a sexually-confident storyline. And even though the poster would have you think otherwise, the nudity and sex scenes are prudently done to enhance its ‘nookie-only’ subject matter, rather than turning it into a titillating smut fest. Portman fans traumatised by her sexually aggressive antics in Black Swan can be reassured that she reverts back to her exquisite self, albeit with a newfound sexual confidence and maturity. And Kutcher can finally be comfortable with a performance, too.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

I Am Number Four – 3*

It’s absolutely true that you need to be of the Twilight teen generation to engage with Gough and co’s screen adaptation of ‘Pittacus Lore’s youth sci-fi novel of the same name. It’s also true that you need to appreciate the ‘crash-bang-wallop’ nature of producer Michael Bay’s films – as in carnage of the metallic kind, here, like Transformers’ sight-depilating action collages – but read what you want into the former statement. What’s true, too, is I Am Number Four does fall prey to a bit of car/alien carnage, which is not all Bay’s doing as this is directed by D.J. Caruso who’s also partial to scenes of mangled metal. And watching this sci-fi romance on an IMAX screen makes quite an impression on the visionary senses.

What I Am Number Four does do is put a new Brit teen heartthrob on the radar, so it’s pointless what any adult critic might have to say on the subject of the wooden acting and lack of chase scenes. Still, it’s more of a ‘character establishing’ film for the next. But move over Rpatz: Alex Pettyfer has talents of all different kinds, playing alien ‘Number Four’, aka beached-blonde hunk ‘John Smith’ to Earthlings, one of the last of his kind from the Planet Lorien. Basically, if you’re thinking Smallville, you are not far off, as ‘John’, like Superman, is sent to Earth – albeit with an equally good-looking minder in tow called ‘Henri’, a warrior from the same planet, played in a capricious fashion by Timothy Olyphant. Grown-ups: look out for The Terminator nods. John’s biggest threat is a bunch of ‘Mogs’, or ‘Mogadorians’ who are like extraterrestrial parasites dressed as tattooed Goth freaks and want to kill off Numbers 4 to 9 (still not a hundred per cent sure why?) – and John is next on the list.

The Mogs are the least of Dear John’s teen hormonal problems. What he doesn’t vouch for is falling – and only once and hard – in love with airy-fairy, but talented photographer babe Sarah, the school jock’s hot property, played by Glee’s resident bitch Dianna Agron. John also has to contend with ‘coming out’ – in the alien sense – to school nerd and UFO enthusiast Sam, played Callan McAuliffe, whose father went missing looking for signs of E.T. years before.

You instantly guess where the love story is heading, as well as John’s inevitable ‘meeting of might’ with the Mogs. There’s also some subtextual, smutty thrill to be had when John rudely discovers what ‘greater power’ can be had with his hands, than the usual teen awakening. Plus Pettyfer reels you into his folly, far away from home, and wins you over with his dopey, love-struck persona. Thanks be to the Aliens for the arrival of ass-kicking hottie Number 6, played by Teresa Palmer, complete with a throbbing tank of gas on two wheels between her toned thighs for all the dads in the audience to lust over – without feeling guilty about having had a moment for underage Sarah. This is definitely family entertainment.

I Am Number Four seems to press all the same fantasy buttons as the Twilight series, not necessarily making this affair wholly acceptable, but willing you to find out what happens next, after a bleedin’ obvious sequel set-up. But there lies one of the film’s main issues; has the slap-dash inject of, at times, poorly CGI-ed alien battlement captured enough of the imagination to find out what Number Four/John does next with his hands? We liked to think so.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

LFF: West Is West – 3*

East Is East (1999) was a breath of British comedy fresh air, a playful and broad-minded but poignantly comical look at the issues of integrating Pakistani culture in 1970s’ Britain, as portrayed through the lives of one Anglo-Pakistani family based in Salford, Greater Manchester. It had tears, laughter and frustrations, triggered through a series of everyday clashes and compromises, as experienced by the different generations of the Khan family. Over 10 years on, the same talented writer, Ayub Khan-Din, gives us the sequel, West Is West, that begins a heartfelt ‘coming-of-age’ journey in Salford, ending in the homelands of an ‘idyllic’, almost nostalgic, latter-day Pakistan for the Khan family.

Thankfully, for Khan-Din to rework his magic, the majority of the Khan clan has returned to give the same memorable performances as before, including Om Puri as ‘bloody’ foul-mouthed Pakistani patriarch George, and Linda Bassett as his strong and opinionated but fiercely loyal English wife Ella. The latter is sorely missed throughout most of this film, though, until she appears in Pakistan, sticking out like a sore thumb with uncouth Auntie Annie (Lesley Nicol) in their unsuitable Western attire, to confront a long-absent George. And ‘Khan sons’, actors Emil Marwa and Jimi Mistry make appearances – if only for a brief moment in Mistry’s case to establish Tariq’s running a shop in Manchester, having escaped the clutches of his father’s cultural impositions. Meanwhile, Marwa as traditional and obedient Maneer who plays a bigger part this time attempts to find (preferably) a Nana Mouskouri-lookalike bride in Pakistan but comes up against new prejudices that even George didn’t envisage for.

The newest member of the cast is acting novice and surprise emerging talent Aqib Khan as Parker-less Sajid, George’s youngest, now teenage son. Khan and Puri have an incredibly genuine father-son relationship at play, which helps drive the latest film and keeps the fantasy moments grounded. It’s Sajid’s racial bullying troubles as school, and his subsequent dallying in shoplifting that kick-start the trip to Pakistan. A worried George plans to instil a sense of heritage and good morals in the boy. What occurs is nothing short of enlightenment for George and Sajid – even if it does take a helping hand from a wise old crone who acts like a surrogate father to the kid. This change suggests that a spot of escaping the Western rat race will solve all personal problems is like looking through rose-tinted spectacles, and smacks of a Khan-Din chimera played out on screen, when we all know some of the serious problems the nation faces in reality.

Andy DeEmmony who succeeds Damien O’Donnell as the director on the latest film does a commendable job of recreating the same entertaining scenarios and challenging relationship encounters. Although this film injects a colourful life of its own that’s in dramatic contrast to the grey locations of the first, it does verge on the farcical, like Carry On Laughing Up The Punjab at times, plus it lacks the uniqueness of the first. Unsurprisingly, there’s a prime excuse for more gaiety and Asian caricatures, too, with the inevitable wedding and Bhangra dancing beats.

That said one of the most memorable moments of the film is when Ella meets and bonds in a moment of despair with the first Mrs Khan, Basheera, played by the infamous Ila Arun, in what transpires as a deeply personal reveal. The all-consuming presence and talents of both actresses is highly apparent, especially as in that scene, neither one speaks the other one’s language.

West Is West will be more of a culture shock for those with fond memories of the first film, as those of non-Asian ethnicity are taken back to the Khan’s homestead, and attempt to understand values that George holds dear to his heart. It certainly explains his pride and the turmoil such an inter-racial family faces. Primarily, it raises and addresses that deep-seated desire engrained in of us all: the sense of belonging and need for identity, without which we fail to really understand ourselves.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never – 3*

How do you review a Justin Bieber film? If you’re a fan, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference what critics write – you’ve got the screening time, the date and the cinema ticket already. So, this is aimed at the non-fan, the curious, and those yet unaffected by ‘Bieber fever’. Is it worth seeing? It certainly builds a better picture of this social media phenomenon, even if feels a little tightly edited and controlled by Bieber’s machine (hardly surprising), namely overbearing mentor/producer Scooter Braun, a failed child star, if ever there was one, we suspect.

It basically follows the days leading up to Bieber’s sell-out concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena, and the ultimate gig by any artist’s standards, having hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. In the run-up, we’re given an insight into where Bieber materialised from, including a smattering of cute baby photos and video clips of little Biebs in his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, Canada. It’s very much textbook stuff – plus free advertising for the town and Google’s YouTube.

Admittedly, the first time you are seriously impressed by Bieber’s talent in the film is when you witness his amazing drumming skills and rhythm, as ‘Baby Biebs’ drums away a tune on a chair seat. Whatever your reservations of how the Bieber brand has been developed, with help from the likes of rapper Usher and Island Def Jam’s L.A. Reid – much as Scooter tries for a chunk of that glory in the film, the boy can sing, dance and charm the pants off the locals. A young Bieber is shown singing and playing guitar for his supper, busking outside the local Stratford theatre. On a trip back home, where Biebs is told to tidy his room in front of his mates (priceless), the now mega star shows kindness to a young girl playing violin on the very same steps, spreading his brand of encouragement to her to ‘follow her dream’. It twangs the heartstrings, and gets you firmly onboard the ride to the Garden showdown.

To be honest, as much as you may kick against it, you can’t help liking the wide-eyed and bushy-haired teen as he goofs around and then becomes sick. But being cynical for a moment; it could be because we hear very little personal feelings directly uttered from Bieber’s mouth to camera, so he can retain this ‘ethereal presence’, as others around him ‘speak for him’, including Usher, Miley Cyrus etc – and even though his team try to convince us that he’s just a ‘normal kid’. Amusingly, and somewhat unfortunately for Karate Kid’s Jaden Smith, who performs at Bieber’s Garden show, is that the son of Will Smith comes off as a product of celebrity parent upbringing, swaggering and basking the Bieber limelight, when he’s really a nice kid.

The film has some hilarious sound bites from fans to enjoy, as they fall in hysterics outside the many venues Bieber is appearing at, dressed head to foot in Bieber’s favourite colour, purple. It’s like The Beatles all over again with kids and grown females (who ought to know better) cooing, drooling and fainting in corners at the thought, let alone the sight of their idol. Then Scooter and management arrive on the scene to whip the fanatics into frenzy with an offer of free tickets to one of Bieber’s gigs. It becomes quite bile-inducing, actually, as the ever tedious Mr Prawn, sorry ‘Braun’ tries to get even more screen time in the film, convincing us he has Bieber’s best interests at heart. It’s an unavoidable thing in such a film, where touring means meeting the ‘family’. That said Bieber’s family come off as normal, with even Ma Bieber stepping back from centre-stage, affectionately shown when everyone congratulations the star after the Garden gig, and Bieber goes to hug her.

As for seeing Bieber in 3D, there are some effective moments, where Biebs reaches out to the crowd on stage, or flicks his hair like in a slow-mo shampoo ad. The 3D merely enhances the stage performance’s depth, with the odd 3D camera at the bottom of screen popping out from time to time. Apart from that, it’s very much a case of ‘3D titling’ and a couple of ‘flying’ baby pictures during the performance, so the use of 3D is, once again on anything that’s not an animation, highly questionable, and kids are going to have to fork out more to see their idol.

Have we got the Bieber fever? We certainly don’t have a rash from watching this film – more a warm glow of enlightenment. If someone else wants to pay out for the 3D ticket price, as a non-fan, you could sit through worse music offerings. In the end, you really do wish Bieber the best of luck, so you could argue the film has done its job.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

LFF: Inside Job – 4*

With recent news of 200 RBS bankers possibly getting £1 million pound bonuses each, surely the last thing you’d want to see is a film about these smug fat cats and the global financial meltdown they helped cause. There will be popcorn directed at the screens for sure. But like a taunt fictional thriller – and Hollywood couldn’t have made this stuff up, if it hadn’t been real, Charles Ferguson‘s documentary, Inside Job, develops into engaging and probing car-crash viewing because it places those responsible on camera, so we see their mug shots, and watch them squirm for our pleasure, much like a public execution. Let’s face it; it’s the closest we will get to one. Sadly, the big fish that need frying escape Ferguson’s net, for example, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan and former US Treasury Secretary Paulson who declined to be interviewed, protected by the fortress institutions they helped build, no doubt.

The dramatic start of Iceland being the first domino to fall sets the scene in a film divided into five parts, each one steadily mounting the tension. Like Al Gore’s 2006 environmental film, An Inconvenient Truth, Inside Job breaks down the crisis into layman’s terms for the ‘hard-of-economics-hearing’ – this reviewer included. If you’ve ever wondered/switched off to what a subprime loan, derivative or AAA rating is, the simple graphics combined with file footage and on-camera explanation actually make for an exhilarating lesson, like you’re reliving the meltdown once more. It’s emotively edited, including some victims’ stories, predominantly US-slanted, and narrated in an incriminating manner by actor Matt Damon, but it gets the message across.

As well as revelations of ‘anti-family’, after-hours ‘entertainment’ (basically, hookers and coke) that sounds like a prerequisite for any key moneyman in the city, the sheer extent of their inconceivable markets gambling hits home. As Citigroup’s Chief Economist Willem Buiter states, banking became a ‘p***ing contest’ – and it probably still is. There is a growing feeling of resentment as you watch, followed by despair, as each successive US President tries to curb the borrowing practices and regulate the money giants, but with sinister consequences. If the financial heavyweight isn’t part of the government, they control the bank that funds it – and move between the two, effortlessly. Ferguson and his willing interviewees suggest one of the world’s most powerful leaders is merely the bankers’ puppet.

There is some ‘light relief’, though, when the film-maker goes after former key financial insiders who often, disturbingly, sit on the boards of the US’s top universities, and preach the ‘bad practice’ of deregulation stunting growth to the next generation, whilst taking extortionate fees from whoever pays top dollar. There is a priceless and gleeful moment, when former member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Frederic Mishkin, who is also a full professor at Columbia Business School since 1983, inarticulately claims there has been a ‘typo’ in his original CV, after one of his papers listed, written for the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce, mysteriously changes title from ‘Financial Stability in Iceland’ to ‘Financial Instability in Iceland’. It’s all very juvenile but somewhat satisfying to see these financial ‘gurus’ getting a little hot under the collar.

What sounds like a rather dry box office offering actually turns out to be a frightening, hilarious and ultimately rousing experience – exactly what a good investigative documentary about the world’s biggest account of (ongoing) White Collar crime should be. At the same time, Inside Job is guilty of fanning the flames of controversy for entertainment’s sake, being Right-Wing-slanted, and outrageously depicting the UK’s involvement as almost squeaky-clean. However, each US President gets a personal dig, including Obama, and as an informative analysis for the average Joe on the global financial collapse, Inside Job ultimately leaves you exacerbated at how blurred politics and banking are. As quoted in the film: “It’s a Wall Street Government”.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son – 1*

You need to pity Martin Lawrence, you really do. Imagine knowing after the second, no, the first film that the franchise you’ve signed up to is a right stinker, and you have to make a third to keep the money men happy. But hey, let’s change the title of the third to fool those who were less than enamoured with the second by dropping any reference to it being ‘Number 3’. Still, third time lucky, as they say?

Well, sadly, no. Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son (as there are two ‘nicely covered’ ladies in it this time) is still moronic, chauvinistic, clichéd, and just not funny – and staggeringly less so than the first two. Lawrence still plays FBI agent Malcolm Turner who continues to run around in a fat suit impersonating a morbidly obese granny, in order to catch criminals. Questions spring to mind: Have the criminal masterminds not cottoned onto the fact that Big Momma is Turner’s alter ego by now, especially when, as in this story, there’s a leak in the Federal building? Do they not wonder how this hefty dame manages to pole-vault over furniture at record speed?

We are saved from one thing, though; Lawrence as Big Momma has stopped salivating over beautiful young women in their panties, but has past on the defective gene to his equally horny (and somewhat corny) son called Trent, played by super fly Brandon T. Jackson of Percy Jackson fame. There is an amusing repertoire going on between them, perhaps, but unless you’re a ‘street’ teen down with the urban vibe, you’ll need subtitles to work out what the devil’s being said first. Maybe it’s the not ‘dope’ Brit in me, and as the film-makers claim, they’re after the teen market this time.

Turner and Trent  – aka Big Momma and great niece Charmaine – find themselves hiding out in a performing arts school for girls, after witnessing a snitch’s murder carried out by some Russian mobsters. With Big Momma as the girls’ ‘House Momma’, the boys’ key to freedom is finding a USB drive in a musical box in the school’s library that holds the evidence to put the baddies away for life. Trouble is, the performing brats have nicked the box, and unless Big Momma can crack petulant and emaciated prima ballerina Jasmine, the girls’ ringleader, played by Portia Doubleday, it’s going to stay hidden.

It’s a beautiful irony; Trent desperately wants to convince all and sundry that he’s got talent, musically – as does Jackson with comedy – and leeches after falls for stunning Haley, played by Jessica Lucas, who quite obviously does. Lawrence and Jackson’s talent merely seems to be the tired and clown-like sort of falling down, or falling over and crushing humans and objects, followed by idiotic gurning. Even Lawrence in this film seems a tad bored and deflated in his fatness by it all, and even the Twister moment that should produce some laughs falls flat on the game mat.

The film has a bunch of B-listers involved, including The Hangover’s quirky Ken Jeong as a jobsworth mailman who is easily forgotten in this; Faizon Love as Big Momma’s equally roly-poly admirer, school caretaker Kurtis Kool; and Tony Curran as Russian mob boss Chirkoff (Get it? ‘Chirk-off’?). The funniest character is Michelle Ang as acting diva Mia who goes into meltdown regularly, and often steals the moment.

As far as men dressing as women and entertaining – pantos aside, Big Momma makes Mrs. Doubtfire look like classic comedy gold. With a film that should be generating at least the odd laugh or three, the theatre was eerily quiet. Too much Momma to handle, or like an annoying relative at a party peddling out the same old jokes, just plain ‘brutal’ who seriously needs to ‘bounce’?

1/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Paul – 4*

If the thought of yet another PeggFrost offering turns the stomach, click away now. Paul is the pair’s ultimate geek-worshipping buddy flick, with a little help from fellow US nerd Seth Rogen, voicing Paul. It all sounds distinctly ‘non-Valentine’, the decisive anti-date movie. But if a little bromance, escapism and a good consistency of chuckles will get your beloved in the mood, don’t dismiss this alternative Cupid’s arrow on face value.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost played two sci-fi fans, Graeme and Clive, who having visited the geek’s wet dream, the Comic-Con convention in San Diego, USA, set off in a rented Winnebago to explore the legendary route of UFO crash sites of Area 51. What they don’t vouch for is coming across their very own, real McCoy, dope-smoking alien Paul. Hence, begins a frantic and action-packed journey to reunite Paul with his kind in a woodland meeting place, not too dissimilar to the finale of E.T. – minus the BMX bikes.

Pegg and Frost simply geek out with references to a whole number of sci-fi classics, like one great big homage for the genre’s fans everywhere, but without going overboard and way over the heads of those just wanting a bit of light entertain. They even bring on board Alien Queen, Sigourney Weaver, as the Federal boss lady (a voice off-camera until the end), who sadly gives up her iconic line, “Get away from her, you bitch”, to another character in the film. That said the lads’ rapport is not quite on a par with their previous hits, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz that nicely bat the quips back and forth with a healthy doss of irony, and the result is watery imitation with this film. But the addition of Rogen as Paul certainly makes up for a comical and enjoyable threesome that deflects attention away from the pair’s less-than-risqué, better-keep-the-studio-happy gags.

Admittedly, there was a moment of scepticism when our two Brit nerds narrowly avoid a pile-up with an out-of-control car on a deserted mid-West road, and we all meet Paul for the first time. Initially, Rogen’s docile tones seem a tad unconvincing – as does Pegg’s eye-line with the CGI character. However, thanks to co-star Joe Lo Truglio – who plays equally geeky Special Agent O’Reilly in this – lending a hand, physically, as ‘Paul’ on set, things in the effects department do improve. Paul is outrageously outspoken, like an alien frat boy, but also acutely aware in any given situation that he finds his friends and himself in of what’s at stake, and looking like the stereotypical alien image we all know (parodied in the film), makes it very easy for us to fall for him as a Noughties-style E.T. Plus there’s a personal favourite Marmite gag.

Whatever Pegg and Frost say about the very premise of the film being about extraterrestrial life, therefore, instantly challenging the Creationist’s view point, this film has a distinctly anti-religious jibe to it that cannot be dismissed as an inevitable R-rated expectation with such a comedy. With the entrance of pro-Creationist Ruth Buggs, played by Kristen Wiig, the comedy treads a fine line, especially when Buggs goes into cursing overdrive, as though this will ‘free’ her from her faith-bound chains. It will thrill some, coupled with Paul’s ‘Evolve this’ t-shirt, and be deemed childish and lazy writing by others, use to a better calibre of script from Pegg and Frost. Still, Wiig delivers her comic timing with great aplomb, demonstrating she has star quality in the making.

Pro-evolution debate aside for now, which is “kind of a buzz kill”, on the whole, Paul beams feel-good fun, cheekiness and carefree spirit. So, if Portman has scared you off watching her in her latest romcom, No Strings Attached, that’s also out on February 14th, after her turn as an unhinged ballerina, Paul offers a highly entertaining, albeit juvenile-humoured alternative to the usual loved-up pulp.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Just Go With It – 3*

If there’s a romcom on the horizon, chances are it stars romcom babe Jen Aniston playing her usual tart but loveably dizzy character – not far removed from her Rachel days in fact. So, without knowing much more, the film immediately sparks interest. But Aniston teamed up with manly hunk Gerry Butler in The Bounty Hunter last year, and that stank to high heaven. So, Aniston opposite ‘asexual’ Adam Sandler (sorry, Adam) seems a little far-fetched in the chemistry stakes. Sandler may always want to come across as your average man’s man, the likeable ‘guy next door’ – a comfortable stance to take, but setting the gorgeous Aniston’s heart a flutter in a film seems a long stretch.

Well, Aniston helps by dumbing it down for starters in this, playing Katherine, a single mom with two (irritating) kids who is not only Sandler as plastic surgeon Danny’s office manager/medical assistant, but his best friend, and the one who (surprise, surprise) knows him best. After keeping the ‘downtrodden married man’ routine going when an attempt at getting hitched turns sour, Danny finds the woman of his dreams in Palmer, a stunning blonde maths teacher (played by swimwear model Brooklyn Decker) at least 10 years his junior, and tries to convince her he’s the genuine article. Along comes Katherine as the ‘fake ex’ to save the day, and help spin one big fat lie after another. As you can guess, the Doc sees sense at the last minute, and the rest is history in glorious Hawaii.

Aniston attempting to look dowdy aside – greasy hair, specs and a pashmina is not going to convince anyone, there is a warmly witty banter going on between Aniston and Sandler to enjoy that seems effortless. Naturally, neither offers anything new to their history of romcom appearances – including their bog-standard attire, with Sandler still dressed in his trademark baggy jeans as a plastic surgeon (come on), and Aniston letting those famous tanned pins out for an airing in some of the best footwear of the season.

For us females who often scowl and covet for Aniston’s toned physique, there’s an added secret pleasure. It’s the biggest question of the lot: Who’s the fittest in the itsy, bitsy bikini? Aniston or Decker? There is a Bo Derek 10 moment when bikini babe Palmer comes out of the water like a lost Bond girl who’s just gone for a quick ocean swim, so even before you get to the ‘girl pissing contest’ by the Hawaiian waterfall, Decker’s in the lead for the gong for ‘top totty’. Move over, Jen. And to add to the fortysomething’s woes, Decker is a nice surprise – yes, the model can act, and actually gets to deliver some funny lines, albeit in a goofy manner. It’s no easy feat either, considering whom she plays opposite. The only bile-inducing moment is when they wheel in her real-life hubby, Andy Roddick, for a magical meeting cameo in the Mile High club.

The comedy show stealer by far, though, is Nicole Kidman as the ultra-competitive Devlin Adams, Katherine’s acidic-tongued and insensitive school nemesis who has ‘foot-in-mouth’ disease. Kidman in a part against type is utterly hilarious and has an obvious ball in the process, so this comes across well. Musician Dave Matthews is her equally nauseating husband, Ian Maxtone Jones, supposed iPad inventor, who’s in denial of a different sort. There’s a ‘coconut decider’ that involves Devlin, Ian, Katherine and Danny that’s a real hula howler.

The film also stars Nick Swardson as Danny’s egit cousin Eddie, who comes along for the paradise ride, and pretends to be a sheep exporter and Katherine’s new flame as part of the plan. His appearances turn the film back into a Sandler schoolboy farce, but they detract some of the idiocy away from Sandler who comes across as a wiser being in this.

There are the token kiddies meant to twang the heartstrings, with Bailee Madison as a little Cockney (in the very loosest terms) haggler and Griffin Gluck as her shy brother, Michael, who wants to swim with the dolphins – queue Hawaii. As young actors go, they irritate the hell out of you as they try to be as funny and quirky as their adult counterparts, but are a necessary evil in the plot. The film also has some highly bizarre injects of ‘humorous’ scenarios or set-up shots, like the kid getting Mom with a drink in the car park as Danny’s ‘family’ stride with purpose towards the camera in the background. It’s one of the many slow-mo moments for those who haven’t quite realised how stunning Katherine/Aniston is now she’s all scrubbed up. Plus Palmer does a proper slow-mo Bo moment for sheer titillating purposes, so something for the boys to enjoy.

As the title suggests: just go with it, and take it how you think it will be – you’ll be spot on, either way. You will find some sunshine laughs, though. This isn’t a Devlin by far – you need to see the film to understand this in context, but rest assured there will be plenty using this turn of phrase afterwards, so pity any real Devlins out there. There are far worse romcoms out there at present – not looking at anyone in particular, Kate Hudson

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

LFF: Never Let Me Go – 3*

Alex Garland’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, is what film festivals and awards ceremonies were made for. Even though the film of the same name gracefully opened the 2010 BFI London Film Festival in October, delivering an example of understated, ethereal British elegance in its style and cinematography, it has been somewhat oddly overlooked at the major film awards of recent months. Could it be that the subtle sci-fi aspect doesn’t fully capture the imagination, or that Garland’s screenplay is too ‘safe’ in its unquestioning nature of some of the rather disturbing elements of his friend Ishiguro’s book?

That said Garland has been restraint in capturing the delicate nuances of the novel, keeping the sinister mystery of the three main protagonists’ fate sealed as far as possible, to allow us to feel hope until the very end that one of them will escape their ultimate destiny, especially as we are ‘guided’ by Kathy’s (Carey Mulligan) reassuring narration. Coupled with Mark Romanek’s patient direction, each scene seems to reveal something painstakingly profound, like watching a child or a visiting alien discover new things along its path to enlightenment, so you are always waiting for the penny to drop.

Wise Kathy, overly curious Ruth (Keira Knightley) and shy Tommy (Andrew Garfield) are three pupils of the prestigious Hailsham School for ‘special’ children. Hailsham initially feels quintessentially like a 1950s boarding establishment with strict health rules and tagged but privileged ‘inmates’. However, it soon becomes apparent that this is an alternative contemporary England, where certain humans are expendable, after a shocking truth is relieved to a class of 11 year-olds. But what the immediate authorities have in store for the youngsters on maturity – which is akin to state-licenced homicide, and we are not given any more insight into how the rest of the population feels about the medical atrocities happening in their name, doesn’t seem to particularly faze the chosen youth one bit. This is where this sci-fi drama that is being peddled more as a love triangle story differs from anything else seen on screen in the latter category, and could be conceived as slightly frustrating to those not in the know of the quietly provocative novel.

Even though the three friends discover the truth, are given some form of freedom in a ‘half-way’ house to come and go as they please, and don’t appear to have any authority watching over them, it’s a powerful tale of propaganda and conditioning that sees them blindly walking towards their inevitable demise that has any sane person asking; why? It is this question that drives you slightly mad, even though the characters’ naivety is so endearing that to scold them would be like scolding a small child, plus there is a sweetly amusing scene when they venture into their first cafe. Perhaps we are fooled by Ruth’s sporadic bursts of passion for life and newfound frustrations to do with matters of the heart that we are kept perplexed by what they all truly want? We certainly want to see them get what they really deserve: freedom of choice. But ironically, this is what they have, so why do they not do as the rest of us would in the situation, and escape for a chance of happiness? It’s a fascinating and torturous debate.

There are simplistic ‘red herrings’, including the fact that showing a flare for art demonstrates a soul worth saving – a deeper explanation of which is glossed over in the film, and that only love can save them in the end. Cruelly, this is merely a carrot with which to lead us into believing something can be saved from this morose tale that is crushingly tragic and pointless, apart from showcasing some remarkable performances, including Knightley as a dying woman and Garfield as a tormented man-child. Taken from a sci-fi perspective, it goes against the grain, in that anything to do with science is questioned, and anything corrupt is challenged and defeated. Therefore, thinking of it as a love tragedy of Shakespearean proportions seems easier on the mind, but still leaves obvious queries unanswered.

As with the novel the film-makers offer no final reprieve for cast and audience alike, suggesting death will become us all as we drifted towards our time and date. Never Let Me Go is churlish and unforgiving in love and life, and one of the most discreetly disturbing films you will see as both actors and their characters are left to face their expiration without any contention.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer