Last Night ***

Temptation is the name of the game of The Jacket writer Massy Tadjedin’s quietly profound directorial debut, Last Night. The temptation of such an intriguingly sexy and good-looking cast of Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Eva Mendes and French actor Guillaume Canet is the film’s obvious draw, and what drives a story full of acute observations and exquisite nuances. But this slow burner, which increases in intensity and passionate purpose, really impacts after viewing, posing the thought-provoking debate of whether long-term adoration is worse than the physical act of a one-night stand?

Professional couple, Joanna (Knightley) and husband Michael Reed (Worthington) have an affluent middle-class existence and apparent marital bliss, when doubt creeps in after Joanna spots her betrothed having an intimate balcony meeting with a very attractive and flirtatious work colleague, Laura (Mendes), at a party. Suspicion fuels a marital quarrel back home, the night before Michael is due to fly out of town with Laura on business. While he is away in LA, Joanna bumps into an old flame – and seemingly the love of her prior life, Frenchman Alex who is visiting New York. Joanna is invited out to dinner with him. What seems innocent enough soon ignites her passion for Alex, and his for her. Meanwhile, with Laura around, Michael has temptation of another kind to deal.

At the start, Tadjedin fittingly captures the damaging goading and ugly atmosphere in a relationship when one partner accuses the other of wandering, and how a seemingly idyllic existence is ever ready to be threatened by outside forces at any given moment. Granted, Laura is a seductive sight, and one any attached woman can rightfully relate to in a social situation, but we never really know what Michael’s previous misdemeanours are – if any – as Tadjedin keeps her cards close to her chest.

The writer/director divides her film into a compelling double dose of intrigue that turns the viewer into a betting animal as to who will stray first, and the cagey characters add to the film’s teasing and infectious mystique. On the downside, certain situations raise blunt questioning from some supporting characters that seem a trifle erroneous at times, as does the often-wordy dialogue of either party, in an attempt to not lose control, when in real-life things would surely be different in the heat of the moment.

Nevertheless, the power of the film is in the prolonging of being proven right, and Knightley’s performance far outshines her ‘husband’ Worthington’s, in one of her finest since Antonement. Annoying ‘cat-that’s-got-the-cream’ girly giggle aside that spoils an accomplished delivery, Knightley simply oozes sexual chemistry with Canet, with Tadjedin resisting pointing out apparent signs of desire, instead keeping a tight framing on her characters, and like cinéma vérité, lets events play out. In fact, all the cast look amazing, as do the sumptuous locations Tadjedin sets each individual dilemma in, adding to the extravagant nature and allure of her first work that’s kind of reminiscent of a Woody Allen piece, but without the somber humour and philosophical nature.

Sadly, the weakest link in this provocative tale is Worthington who never really ignites the screen in quite the same way as Knightley – even opposite sexy Mendes who steals their scenes together and almost makes him appear like an incommunicative oaf, rather than an obvious intellectual equal. This is either deliberate to allow Worthington’s average ‘man-next-door’ appeal to shine through, and paint Michael as victim of female empowerment, or that the actor who excels in ‘robotic’ mode (Avatar, Terminator Salvation) just doesn’t portray enough of a spark or depth for such a part. Looking good is the first step in this film. Projecting inner emotional turmoil is the next and is vital for the two parts of the debate to be fully composed and sustained.

Apart from the tiff at the start, Tadjedin wisely makes sure there is never a dramatic, imploding climax of the relationship, allowing doubt to fester after each infidelity, even up until the very last moment and ‘cut-short’ ending, which is very apt when, again, we are challenged to wonder whether either tormented party tells the other.

Last Night has some inquisitive ingredients to make for a tantalising film. It’s just a shame that the pleasure is lessened by its impact being more unbalanced in favour of the Laura-Alex side of the equation, as one of the players on the other side is not strong enough for us to really care if he does stray or not. In fact, cut the Michael-Laura scenes out of the equation, and Tadjedin would still have a valid exploration of seduction, infidelity and guilt. The film-maker has the beginnings of a gifted directorial career which is as exciting a future prospect as a chance meeting with an old beau any day.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Watch the trailer HERE

Prom **

Every girl dreams of Prom and fantasises about the hunk they’ll go with. Who better to deliver the fairy tale than Disney with its credit sheet that includes the mighty Glee and High School Musical? Even though this is another ‘paint-by-numbers’ coming-of-age tale, Prom is sweet natured and likable enough with a band of vanilla characters to sigh over and get behind.

The story follows a group of high school teenagers from different social groups about to embark on their first prom. At the centre is Nova (Aimee Teegarden), a beautiful blonde who’s managing the prom preparations and is the perfect straight-A student. After the decorations go up in flames one night, Nova is forced to work with hunky, motorbiking school rebel Jesse (Thomas McDonell) to get proceedings back on track. Not seeing eye-to-eye initially, the pair begin to form feelings for each other. But will Nova get her unlikely Prince Charming to take her to Prom?

Even with the lack of song and dance, Prom is no Glee or HSM, and though we suspect it’s tween-targeted, hence a huge relief for parents not wanting adult issues explored, it’s almost too sanitized to the point of eye-rolling predictability. The fear is that with all its good intentions about gaining parental independence, even young teens may tire of it, up to the point of the inevitable prom dress trying-on session and that first kiss. Some of the sickly-sweet moments feel like being wrapped up and gagged in candyfloss, like a classic Disney animation played out in live action. Kids today know more about ‘adult themes’ for Disney to try and revert back to an age of innocence. But like its more successful shows, Disney doesn’t have to play that safe and could have push the boat out a bit more and made Prom a tad more realistic. Indeed, all the actors are/look much older than the parts they’re playing that it all feels a bit like we’re being short-changed. Even the poster promises something sassier and deeper in meaning – and hardly the U certificate it advertises.

That said you couldn’t loathe the experience, however vacuous it feels. Prom does have some hot new talent to watch, for example, Cameron Monaghan, Nicholas Braun and McDonell. Monaghan has a natural comic timing that needs more film opportunities to shine, other than just his TV work to date. Monaghan provides the one hilariously memorable moment near the end as the giant gooseberry friend, Corey, sat with his Mum in his Mum’s car, watching his best mate get the girl. Braun does keep the much-needed chuckles coming (for the adult audience, in particular) with his ‘Prom?’ question fiascos, reminiscent in personality and looks of a desperate John Cusack in Say Anything…, the gangly, geeky man-child who’s unlucky in love.

The biggest winner of all in this is heartthrob-in-the-making, Depp-lookalike McDonell who keeps things moody and appealing enough to see you through to the inevitable ending – echoed by a near continuous ‘cooing’ from a whole bunch of female teens in the row behind when he appeared on screen. Twilight makers must be kicking themselves that he’s not signed up as part of the Black pack – McDonell could give Lautner a run for his money any day in the swoon stakes, it seems. In fact, McDonell could go onto bigger and better things than the infamous vampire franchise, considering he’s playing a young Depp as bloodsucker Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows, out next year.

As for the girls, Teegarden is decidedly cute, fretting and spilling her hormonal angst for all to see, but like a sugary treat will be long forgotten until the next one comes along. Her ‘journey’ is an all too familiar one that started back in Grease in 1978 when Sandy decided being bad was good to get her man – we even have bikes involved here. The only other intriguing female is teen temptress Simone, played by another baby-faced dolly-lookalike, Danielle Campbell who was just busting to be naughtier and vampier in this but was restrained by the Disney virtues Prom tries to uphold. Campbell is yet another cast member, like Monaghan, who needs a meatier next project to sink her teeth into.

Prom relives in-offensive (minus the awkward teen issues), nostalgic memories for the older (jaded) bunch, and conjures up daydream fantasies for the younger audience. As its characters will be fondly remember after Prom, it could surprise the average reviewer and build up quite a loyal following – of the fresh-looking cast’s next ventures, rather than prompting a Prom sequel. This reviewer will choke on her candyfloss if it’s the latter.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Watch the trailer HERE

X-Men: First Class ****

This year we’re in danger of being swamped by comic-book adaptations, and if you’re not a dedicated Marvel fanboy/girl, they all seem to offer much the same thing. In fact, for the latter group, X-Men is defined by Wolverine and Storm, of which only one makes a fleeting appearance in this, X-Men: First Class. So what can a prequel directed by Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn bring to the table?

Apparently, a lot more than first thought… Set predominantly in the early 1960s around the height of the Cold War, the film first looks at the origins of Magneto, born Erik Lehnsherr, a Holocaust survivor metal-bent on getting revenge on those responsible for his parents’ death in the concentration camp; Head henchman is Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) who Lehnsherr vows to hunt down and kill after the war. Meanwhile, growing up in affluence in the United States is Charles Xavier who knows he has a special telepathic gift, and who meets another ‘mutant’, Raven, in his kitchen one night, masquerading as his mother after morphing into her figure. This is the start of a strong sibling-style bond. As the mutants from different walks of life develop, meet and bring others on board under the leadership of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), while Schmidt – now calling himself Sebastian Shaw, a wealthy US entrepreneur – is set on starting World War III and instilling mutant rule, another more personal battle of wills is at play between Charles and Erik (Michael Fassbender). Once friends, they find themselves drifting apart.

Even though the first X-Men film touched on Magneto’s background, the writers now grab the chance to not only flesh out the origins of the mutants, but also re-hook flagging interest in the franchise after the lukewarm reception of Wolverine in 2009. And there’s NO half-hearted attempt at 3D either, unlike recent comic-book offerings. The writers have also re-injected a youthful energy and strong feelings of hope into the story by gathering a collection of mutants from the X-Men comic series as backing for the main story: the rise and fall of Charles and Erik’s friendship, and the seeds of a long-seated vendetta.

This film is solely memorable for Vaughn’s skillful casting of McAvoy as enigmatic leader Professor Charles X and Fassbender as bitter and desperate Erik – aka Magneto, characters previously made famous by Patrick Stewart (Charles) and Ian McKellen (Erik). McAvoy is delightfully entertaining as ladies’ man Charles, oozing charm, wit and intelligence that make the forming of his mutant training school and crack team all the more credible. His mind games act as a sedative to anger-riddled, metal-bending Erik’s antics, that their chalk-and-cheese relationship is the momentum that drives this film forward, then leaves you longing for a sequel – which is bound to happen.

Fassbender brings a dangerous, ticking-time-bomb energy to Erik/Magento, the reasons for which we fully comprehend as we get to see the start of his pain. His mission brings instant empathy, up until his change of heart. At one point, his unpredictability seems to find a channel, which allows for a brilliant little sequence where both friends go on the hunt for others like them, creating a hilarious comedy duo in Fassbender and McAvoy.

In fact, rather than all the mutants merely being angry with the non-gifted human world, we get to fully understand how they feel ‘different’, especially highlighted by Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy/Beast’s (Skins star Nicholas Hoult) teen-like anxieties of wanting to fit in that add another genuinely heartfelt and interesting sub-plot to the mix. Both Lawrence and Hoult make an excellent addition to the new X-Men prequel line-up.

Nevertheless – good direction and casting aside, First Class has some niggles to it. Its moments of 1960s Bond-style backdrop, inter-cut with real newsreel reports of the time, feel slightly at odds with the more contemporary attitudes and styles of some of the younger mutants the film-makers have chosen to concentrate on, such as Angel (Zoë Kravitz) who as a firefly-like mutant brings very little to the battle table and is easily forgetful. However, two mutants will appease the fanboys; Havok (Lucas Till) and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) who get a lot of action sequences, as though being blatantly set up for the obvious sequel.

Some of the action set pieces are tamer than in previous films. Admittedly, this film is about telling the story of how it all begin, so it’s very much character-driven, and Bacon’s Shaw is a villainous caricature nicely in-keeping with a 60s’ Bond film, hence his antics are not too far-fetched – but how he becomes mutant-like is left unexplained and is open to suggestion. However, even the end missile standoff seems rather limp, and Magneto’s confrontation with Shaw is only memorable for the Watchmen-like coin finale. It’s as if Vaughn was told to hold back for the next film to really go to town.

Indeed, like 60s Bond’s beauties, the females in this film, namely Rose Byrne as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert and January Jones as diamond-crusted Emma Frost have whatever fight knocked out of them in favour of emphasising their feminine qualities, with both in their undies within a matter of minutes of their first screen time. It’s as though Vaughn is a wannabe Bond director. But it also doesn’t help that Jones gets very little to do in this film but look ‘shiny hot’, unfairly refuelling the debate about her acting abilities – or lack of. Even Agent MacTaggert is forgotten towards the end of the film, only to resurface as the catalyst for Prof X’s sudden disability and as his love interest, when she was going undercover at the very start in an exciting espionage scenario.

That said the nuclear threat of the 60s Cuban missile crisis brings a very real historical grounding to the whole story, and with the more in-depth character revelations than your average comic-book action flick, Vaughn has managed to add some substance. It would be great to see him on board for when things really heat up in the next saga, too. Just keep things 2D, unless the technology is really used to its full cinematographic effect.

First Class is a truly exciting and apt prequel to explain the X-Men phenomenon with some outstanding performances from McAvoy and Fassbender that go to fuel an even greater buzz for a post-prequel meeting of gifted minds.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

The Hangover Part II ***

The wolf pack is back in another pickle, having not learned their lesson last time, it seems. What is it with weddings that it brings out the worst in Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Doug (Justin Bartha), resorting them to drink themselves into oblivion and make amends afterwards in the most fantastical ways? The exact same formula is adopted in Part II as in the hit 2009 film, so much so, that the guys make constant (sometimes tiresome) references to the previous, epic Vegas stag do to emphasise this and fuel interest in the mayhem to follow. Indeed, film-makers Todd Phillips and co make no apologies for being creatures of habit and sticking to what worked for them before.

That said, and even swapping Vegas for Bangkok, which gives this film its colourful, seedy and far darker edge, the latest edition will divide the fan camp. Like Marmite, you’ll love it or hate it.

This time, it’s Stu’s turn to get hitched to stunning fiancée Lauren (Jamie Chung). Appalled by his cozy ‘bachelor breakfast’ suggestion, ringleader and ever-the-big-teen Phil decides Stu needs to be sent off in style. Reluctantly, Stu agrees to this and to inviting man-child and trouble-magnet Alan to come along to Thailand for the ceremony. However, Alan feels highly protective over his ‘wolf pack’ of friends, and doesn’t like another male – Lauren’s teen prodigy brother Teddy (Mason Lee) – joining the gang and spoiling the equilibrium. After a pre-wedding dinner and some awkward speeches in the stunning Thai beach resort, the friends and Teddy venture down to the beach for one last drink: Cue squalid, trashed Bangkok hotel room, missing friend, and a serious case of déjà vu… “It happened again?” says a bleary-eyed Phil – you bet.

Whereas the first film was somewhat a goofy but charming state of affairs, Part II goes all-out for boorish shock tactics (LOTS of male genitalia), coupled with an uneasy tragic sentiment – even in the first nightmare hotel scene that could just be because underground Bangkok is suitably ripe for the debauched taking.

The new setting also enhances Alan’s obvious mental health issues, which seemed more endearingly quirky than worrying in the last film, and which for the most part are still humorous in this, thanks to Galifianakis’s timing, but are also woefully uncomfortable to watch sometimes; it’s like mocking the mentally-challenged person when other laughs can’t be found elsewhere. It’s only Helms as Stu doing his usual OTT freak-out routine, reminiscent of a crazed tooth-baring horse, and pleasing-on-the-eye Cooper as pretty-boy Phil trying to use his brains to keep hold of the situation that refocus your attention on the urgency of the latest ‘missing persons’ puzzle facing them. Bartha was absent for most of the last film, but seems more deplorably wasted as a character here, merely present to field phone calls back at the resort.

But it’s Ken Jeong’s beefed-up return as Mr. Chow at the very start that will divide opinion from the word go. Admittedly, his offensive remarks provide some glory moments, and he gets a lot of the laughs in some of the crazy set pieces – such as a car chase. However, his is an increasingly arduous character, especially the appearance of his non-existent manhood – again – that was shocking in the first film (as how could anyone be that small), but prompts reactions of ‘put it away, please’ in this. In fact, like an excitable stag, Phillips goes overboard with the ‘spanking the monkey’ joke – who replaces the misplaced baby in the last film and gets many laughs of its own – that it feels like being on a stag do that’s wearily running out of steam.

Part II also throws up every Bangkok cliché you can possibly think of, so that the film-makers get the full value out of shooting in the place – which was harsh in itself with lots of cast and crew sickness about that’s evidently reproduced in the film. After all, the original film’s hook was discovering what was going to happen next, but as this film blatantly follows the same path, it’s just seeing how they’ll recreate the gags in Bangkok. Even Mike Tyson’s much-publicised second cameo takes away the wow factor at the very end. And Mel Gibson’s absence as the tattoo artist, Tattoo Joe, now played by Nick Cassavetes, proves brief and forgettable. Only the tour-de-acting-force that is Paul Giamatti as Kingsley (shalln’t give the game away by describing his character) is really only felt for a brief moment, then fizzles out into the ether.

To be honest, although newcomers to the franchise could watch this as a standalone, you really do have to have seen the first film to fully get the gags and the constant references – or it’s like being absent on the last stag do and missing all the in-jokes, but feeling you have to laugh anyway. However, as a weekend group outing, Part II serves its purpose and still has some memorable moments and the classic photomontage at the end, which is far more outrageous than the first.

Whether “Bangkok has you” depends on your mindset at the start of the journey. If you’re with the boys and fully onboard for another manic adventure, this film hits a weak spot that craves for more of the same – especially as it constantly promises you such. And there are lots of crazier moments to feast on and giggle at – the funniest being right at the end and totally subliminal, involving Alan and a speedboat in the background. If you feel cheated by the lazy formula of copying the old, it’s a long, sweaty, dirty road to being proven right about the inevitable outcome. After all, it has to have a happy ending – even in the darkest hours of Bangkok.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules ****

Kids films come and go, and some (shamelessly) rely on big 3D promises to get the younger audience into cinema seats. So, it’s nice to see a good old-fashioned kids film – minus 3D – with bundles of straightforward, playful fun that all generations can enjoy. Sequels are tricky nuts to crack, especially with so much expectation involved, but with an army of young fans in tow, things should prove easier. This is definitely the case with Part 2 of the Wimpy Kid called Rodrick Rules that’s a mix of various moments in the book series, and feels more heartfelt, funnier, and a little less gross than the first film last year.

The book/film series follows Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), a kid who’s ‘wimpy’ cool, and his misfit band of friends. In this film, Greg’s a year older and begins seventh grade at middle school. He and his rocker-wannabe older brother – and chief tormentor – Rodrick (Devon Bostick) must deal with their parents’ (played by Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn) misguided attempts to get them to bond. In the meantime, Greg starts having feelings for girls – well, one in particular called Holly (the dolly-like Peyton List), and must deal with growing up while fending off his brothers’ attempts to ruin his life.

Set up like a US TV sitcom, minus the canned laughter, Wimpy Kid 2 does well to paint a brief picture of who all the characters are, and doesn’t just annoyingly presume that you know the background story, hence leaving out the newcomer. For those fond of the book’s cartoon style, the film-makers still blend animation and live-action to satisfy all tastes. The story may well be for kids but it still targets adult nostalgia for school-day issues, fear of social exclusion, and first crushes in a quirky, snappy and witty fashion.

Watching Greg grow up feels like watching a little brother of your own, and the characters are some of the most fleshed out and appealing of many family films of late. Gordon has developed Greg further, making him a little wiser and adding more depth in this film, as well as upped his comic timing for such a young actor. In fact, he and Robert Capron as his crazy, loyal friend, Rowley, make quite an accomplished comedic pairing in this, where Rowley is a strong right-hand gag man – much like tame, child-friendly Superbad, where the friendship strengthens as time goes on.

Bostick returns as frustrated teen Rodrick, and shares a lot more screen-time with Greg – as the title suggests. Both actors convincingly portray that fine balance between brotherly love-hate with great humour, sentimentality and unspoken understanding. It’s a bond that anyone with siblings can relate to, and it’s a tonic to watch the maturing transformation of both brothers, without them losing all their innocence. And it’s childhood innocence that this series emphasises and embraces that makes it so memorable and enjoyable.

Harris and Zahn are the chalk-and-cheese parents and excellent as the elder Heffleys, delightfully recreating all the childhood embarrassments you can possibly imagine – especially when trying to impress the opposite sex (cue Mom dance). As with the younger members of the cast, Harris and Zahn have perfect comedy timing and rapport that keeps things authentic and sparky, making the family unit a complete one worth spending 101 minutes in the company with. This is ironic considering its ‘warring factions’.

The immature element would not be complete without touches of smut (Rodrick’s Löded Diper band) and bodily-function jokes (Greg’s ‘holy’ embarrassment), but none of it’s done to excess at the expense of the storyline, with the visual gags never dwelled on but nicely edited to enhance what a character is going through at any one moment. There’s a mixture of quick-fire gags and longer-running verbal quips (the Mom Buck exchange for spending time together) that keep the pace interesting and non-complacent, too.

We bet a Mom Buck you’ll have a fun time in the company of the Heffleys, a family like any other dealing with highs and lows, tears and tantrums that will have you rolling your eyes and nodding in recognition. Being able to relate is central to the series’ success, and with the help of a cracking sense of humour and credible family flaws, Jeff Kinney‘s illustrated novel Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2 has been carefully adapted and cannot help but resonate with anyone, regardless of being a fan or not.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Win Win *****

At the start of the Win Win trailer, the young daughter asks: what’s Daddy running away from? It’s this kind of probing question that many of us have asked from time to time, and this is writer/director Thomas McCarthy‘s great talent: observing reality and picking up on daily human reaction and resilience, without resorting to sarcasm or theatrics, as such.

After the successful Oscar-nominated Barney’s Version, acclaimed actor Paul Giamatti strikes gold yet again, in another unassuming, self-depreciating powerhouse performance full of brilliantly acted nuances, in a story brimming with bittersweet moments.

Giamatti plays struggling, small-town lawyer Mike Flaherty whose real passion is wrestling – and one you fear he was never very good at to take it up seriously. Flaherty volunteers as the local high-school wrestling coach for the Pioneers, but like his work, his team just don’t seem to amount to much. Things begin to change when Flaherty dishonestly takes on the full guardianship of a wealthy, elderly client, and just after putting him in a home and pocketing the monthly maintenance fee, a troubled teen grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), materializes from nowhere needing a place to stay. Guilt propels Flaherty to take him in, but far from being a burden, Kyle turns around Flaherty’s fortunes – and his and his family’s life.

McCarthy’s film picks up on real truths that people ask themselves all the time, whilst challenging the audience as to their own reactions to events in an illusive and entertaining fashion. Win Win is very much about the winners and the losers who don’t seem all that apparent at first – even though we all pass initial judgement, and without resorting to neat little clichés and patronage, it almost lets events play out naturally.

Like McCarthy, we actually care about all the characters, and how they will end up – even the supporting ones. Each has been brilliantly developed and carried throughout the story, and all have a purpose, rather than just supporting the leads. Aside from Giamatti’s faultless performance, Amy Ryan is fantastic as Jackie Flaherty, Mike’s no-nonsense, straight-talking, Brooklyn-born wife, who shares many of the film’s great comedy lines with Bobby Cannavale playing Mike’s hot-headed, overly enthusiastic friend, Terry Delfino, who’s trying (unsuccessfully) to get over his wife’s affair. Cannavale is set up to be the film’s lovable fool, but even Terry has more depth than first depicted. McCarthy gives us a bunch of chalk-and-cheese personalities that simply click together in the bigger picture, without over-egging their differences. Win Win is more about subtle humour, rather than forced and contrived situations, even though Terry’s antics do lean towards the latter.

What could have turned the film’s fortunes for the worse is a schmaltzy happy ending, with disadvantaged kid, Kyle, turning into a Blind Side Michael Oher. Instead, McCarthy places all the cards on the table, warts and all, and refrains from painting an idyllic picture of suburban bliss and monetary success, once the dust settles. There are still unresolved issues at play, which are what make the film so authentic. Shaffer seems to match Giamatti’s talents in this, with deadpan meets self-depreciating, but without becoming static or vying for pity. The overall feeling each character radiates is one of hope of better things, projected in their own special way, which is what gives Win Win its buoyancy, vitality and charm.

As its namesake, this is another ‘Win Win’ for Giamatti and McCarthy, and a must-see if you’re just waking up to Giamatti’s phenomenal but modest comedic talents. Like a lot of his previous work, Win Win may well be indie-rooted too, but it will hopefully open up this accomplished actor to the mainstream adulation he rightfully and belatedly deserves.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Julia’s Eyes ****

Writer/director director Guillem Morales has a great talent for horror that fantasy-horror maestro and co-producer of this film, Guillermo del Toro has recognised. Morales is certainly welcomed into the del Toro fold, here, as he comes on board to direct del Toro’s The Orphanage leading lady, the mesmerising Belén Rueda, in this richly layered, beautifully-shot, and terrifyingly effective psychological thriller.

One of the many films that premiered at 2010’s Toronto International Film Festival, Julia’s Eyes tells the story of a woman, Julia (Rueda), with a degenerative optical illness who believes her dead twin sister – who suffered from the same condition – met an untimely end. Against her worried husband, Isaac’s (Lluís Homar) wishes, she continues to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding her sister’s death, having to deal with some ugly truths and her own grief and failing health at the same time.

Morales keeps his framing tight, heavily shadow-laden and claustrophobic to escalate the fear of what’s in the dark and losing your sight. Óscar Faura’s stunning cinematography – with its blue palette for the scarier scenes that looks like a del Toro signature – almost plays with your own vision at times, and serves as a visual double entendre in terms of Julia’s failing eyesight, but also her failing clarity over what really happened to her sister.

Morales keeps a sinister, otherworldly presence flowing for the first part of the film, as though the sister was killed by something supernatural, lurking in the shadows. It’s a powerful concept that increases the tension, and gives you an understanding of the madness that Julia is spiralling into. The end of the film plays out like any other creepy thriller, but still, when the identity of the real killer is revealed, Morales still keeps him ‘decapitated’, until the very end. There’s also a terrifying knife scene, vaguely reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, and equally gasp inducing – even if you didn’t know the sequence was filmed for real with no post-production effects in play.

Rueda is always a sheer joy to watch, a pure Hitchcockian heroine in this, an enticing combination of beauty (including eye-popping bosom), determination, strength and fragility. As Julia is our eyes on this frightening journey, Rueda expertly translates her inquisitiveness, fear and madness, and her survival instincts, when faced with a ‘fight or flight’ situation. We are never quite sure how well Julia can see at any given moment, too, which adds to the film’s whole disorientation. The pacing of the film is brilliantly established to allow for a teasing slow burn of revelations that’s emphasised by the patience with which Morales maps out proceedings.

Although necessary, as motive is always required in the end to tie up lose ends, the killer ventures into a tirade of society’s pitfalls and social issues that weaken our apprehension of him. But Morales does offer up a couple more twists straight-afterwards to have us doubting the killer’s rationale and his mortality.

Like del Toro, Morales is a fan of video games, claiming that he was influenced by Silent Hill when co-writing this film with Oriol Paulo. Indeed, less graphic and bloodthirsty, Julia’s Eyes has the same aesthetic look, fear of the dark (inky-black corridors and tunnels) and voyeuristic/fear-of-being-watched nature as the latter, with a relentless presence following its next prey. Julia’s goal is to survive the ‘invisible man’, like the game player’s, making Julia’s Eyes a worthy and sumptuous combination of contemporary gaming thrills and nostalgic classic horror to watch.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Interview with star Belén Rueda:

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Blitz ***

Ah, the gritty underbelly of South-East London, where every copper is as mean as Jason Statham, every traditional pub has a man with a dog (or two), and every corner has a loony lurking in its shadows. Nathan Parker’s (Moon) adaptation of Ken Bruen’s novel, Blitz, couldn’t get more clichéd if it was a Guy Ritchie crime caper. Thankfully, there’s no cringeworthy ‘apples and pears’ Mockney slang in this – apart from the odd Statham muttering, and the ‘good’ side of the law looks as much of a lost cause as the bad.

This time Statham stays on the ‘right’ side of the tracks, playing tough, alcohol-swigging, maverick copper and man’s man, Detective Sergeant Tom Brant, who (surprise, surprise) doesn’t play by the rules, but gets the job done – somehow. Losing the plot and having to deal with a colleague’s grief and a change of top brass in gay boss, acting Detective Inspector Porter Nash (Paddy Considine), Brant has another woe thrown at him: A serial cop killer called ‘the Blitz’ (Aidan Gillen) is making his killing spree personal. Can Brant get his man by any means necessary? Or will the press in the shape of tabloid hack Harold Dunphy (David Morrissey) get in the way?

Blitz is basically 90+ minutes of ‘bloody’ good, gritty fun masking a familiar storyline, with a pounding soundtrack that, at times, threatens to blast the eardrums. It’s Statham meets The Bill, meets Life on Mars, meets Death Wish, all cranked up with in-your-face attitude that makes no apologies for its content or dubious language. Statham provides the muscle and the non-nonsense set pieces he’s famed for, which seem ever so slightly mismatched in a UK crime drama, but thrill you, nevertheless, that a ‘Frank Martin’ Transporter character is dealing with London’s grubbier life. The clichéd parts seem to openly celebrate the chauvinistic, violence-loving, fast-car-driving shows and films of the 70s, even offering the obligatory, younger WPC ‘floozy’ with her shirt half unbuttoned, flirting outrageously with Brant in the office and calling him a technological dinosaur.

Statham growls and gets away with one un-PC line after another that has you smirking with glee, then thumps, jumps, pounds and crashes his way around London with all the grace of an angry rhinoceros; there is another Point Break-styled chase scene that’s a poorer and short-lived version. His ‘sidekick’ Nash, played by Considine, satisfactorily compliments Brand’s blunt personality, as the more thoughtful, cautious cop but equally as effective. It’s the intriguing Statham-Nash chemistry that provides some of the better dialogue and pause-for-thought scenes in an emotionally-charged film.

Gillen deliciously camps it up as unhinged nutter Barry Weiss, aka the self-proclaimed Blitz, making him dangerously enticing and rather amusing – note Weiss’s Facebook update request. Weiss ropes in porn-loving hack Dunphy, played by Morrissey who seems totally underused in this, and is merely the stereotypical, grubby hack, but in smarter clothing, that other characters get to bounce their best moments off. There’s also a rather pointless tangent that only goes to highlight a previous drugs problem experienced by WPC Elizabeth Falls (Zawe Ashton), and to state ‘nobody’s perfect’ – not even an officer of the law. Tell us something we don’t know… Whether this has more significance in the book, it’s hard to tell in Parker’s working.

It’s only after Blitz ends, and you’ve had your rough-and-ready Statham injection that the plot begins to appear a little flawed and incredulous. Granted, there are so many oddballs in London that pointing out distinctive characteristics of one could prove tricky, but surely someone must recognise Weiss? And topping a garish-shell-suit-wearing weirdo carrying £50,000 in a public toilet in a busy bar, taking the envelope of money, and having it submitted as a personal possession when brought in for questioning would be able to place Weiss at the scene of at least one murder – not necessarily the copper ones?

In fact, you get so engrossed by all the frills and hard-line antics that logic goes out the window, as you are kept thoroughly entertained. That said the film has some shockingly violent moments that, wisely, happen off camera (to get the imagination running in overdrive), such as the policeman hammer attack that changes the film’s tone for a brief second to something more serious, only for it to be dragged back into comedy mode. These bizarre comedy snippets include the ‘plus-sized’ female dancers at a local club – perhaps there’s a new fetish in town we didn’t know about? These weird inserts do serve to give Blitz its quirky Brit eccentricity – just think London Boulevard, another Bruen work.  However, the Americanisms are mixed in – probably to secure US interest in the release, like private meetings in US-style diners, and a police funeral that has obvious similarities to countless US TV/film-portrayed ones.

Overall, a strong body of Brit talent makes sure nothing gets stale in Blitz, as does Elliott Lester‘s tight direction, and keeps proceedings pumping along and interesting. Statham shows no sign of putting his good/bad-boy image to rest, and DS Brant might just become another easy-on-the-eye, money-spinning character in a Bruen-created franchise, like Transporter, for the UK’s leading muscle for hire.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ***

There’s an undeniable buzz of excitement at the thought of Captain Jack Sparrow returning for yet another swashbuckling adventure, simultaneously mixed with a feeling of intrepidation that the Sparrow charm might fail to translate this time around, especially after a four-year break.

Sparrow is still a character with a lot of mileage, and thankfully, Johnny Depp doesn’t divert from the original script. Disappointingly, though, the journey to yet another ‘eternal gift’ of some description still ends up in a cave – and a predictable swordfight that takes a long while getting there.

This time, Jack (Depp) is on the quest to find the elusive fountain of youth, only to discover that his old flame, Angelica (Penélope Cruz), her feared pirate father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and Jack’s old adversary Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) are all after the same prize. Who will get there first, though hindered by some dazzling but vicious mermaids? A clash of swords and a splash of magic will decide.

As is the case with many of the trumpeted ‘3D’ offerings of late, even this film shot using 3D cameras still falls short of providing the much-longed-for 3D wows and gasps. Admittedly, there’s the odd sword that threatens to pierce you between the eyes, but the rest is fairly vapid.

What the film-makers appear to have done in a way to divert your attention is pile set-piece onto set-piece, so the majority of the film is awash with optically-unforgiving action that doesn’t allow you the opportunity to seriously register everything that happens in a scene. Indeed, Rob Marshall’s love affair with action sequences begins with a chase through old London town, just so as to set up the return of Barbossa. It’s a shame about the lack of real 3D, especially with the palm-tree acrobatics that could have been more awe-inspiring, but were still fun, nevertheless – thanks to Sparrow’s big personality.

The fondness for the original characters has not lessened, with Depp and Rush firmly in control and as entertaining as the first time around. Cruz and McShane join the cast this time. Cruz sparks and fizzles, but never really sets the screen alight as anticipated; however annoying Keira Knightley was as the shrill Elizabeth Swan, she certainly will be more memorable than Cruz in this franchise. As for McShane, he fits his pirate boots brilliantly, with a mixture of playfulness and dangerous unpredictably as Blackbeard – a family-friendly version of his Sexy Beast days.

On Stranger Tides has some beautiful effects, especially with the mermaid sequences that sandwich one of the funniest, throwaway Sparrow comments of the film. These parts serve as the film’s love-story angle, what with the absence of Orlando Bloom as Will Turner, filled by the toned physique of Sam Claflin as clergyman Philip who is wooed and woos a mermaid called Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). But it’s a sub-, sub-plot that doesn’t have the dramatic passion of the Turner-Swan affair.

The running gags are still kept going, including who’s going to end up on the deserted island at the end, and like many films nowadays, stay a while, whilst the credits roll for an additional element. It’s still undecided whether this has any benefit to the following events, but it provides a devilish end chuckle.

As a guaranteed box office Top 5, Pirates 4 definitely sets itself up for another. We just can’t get enough of Sparrow himself, though there’s an immense sense of déjà vu and predictability to events throughout this latest film. Sparrow’s like a British institution now – bit like Sparrow Sr. (played by Keith Richards), an indulgent tradition we keep going, even though we can see what’s coming a mile off, without the aid of a compass. Savvy?

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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