Damsels In Distress ***

Whit Stillman returns more with of a pop than a bang, after a 14-year absence with another take on neurotic, privileged, preppy middle-class existence with Damsels in Distress. It delivers a shining new star in Greta Gerwig as the film’s no-nonsense, self-appointed philanthropist, Violet, who tragically believes her college life mission is to better those social groups in need, uncannily masking her own troubles. This feels like a version of Heathers or Mean Girls, but with Stillman’s acute, dry wit in the continual chatter and the oddly outdated innocence to it, it is without the contemporary social ills of other teen stories, and has a genuinely caring and affectionate stance for its strange bunch of flawed characters.

Violet leads a trio of girls who set out to change the fraternity-centric, male-dominated environment of an East Coast college campus, Seven Oaks – with the help of new recruit Lily (Analeigh Tipton), as well as rescue their fellow students from depression, grunge and low standards of every kind. At the same time, Violet’s mission becomes a gradual self-awaking to her warped view of humility, only saved by a bar of soap and a new dance craze called Sambola.

Through the acerbic comments from Violet and co, with Lily acting as their inquisitor and mirror, there is still a sense of absurd sweetness and good will in all that the girls do, regardless of how twisted their words and actions first appear. It is as though reality truly bites when it’s laid bare, and as outrageous as the therapy of doughnuts and tap dancing for the depressed college minority seems, nothing is done without due attention and consideration. Whitman illustrates this with Violet’s matter-of-fact, if superior retorts at any number of Lily’s probing questions, as well as bathes his anti-heroine in a halo of sunlight like a guardian angel, walking off to her next crusade.

Gerwig outshines the rest of her female (and male cast) in this, possibly because Tipton is a tad too insipid to match her understated power performance, and the other girls in the group – Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) – are merely beautiful (if dopey) caricatures seen in many college films: Rose’s running joke about being British and every boy being ‘an operator’ wears a little thin after time, as does Heather’s dippy prom queen persona.

With the whole stage focused on Gerwig, the actress sensitively plays out a ‘little girl lost’, tragic, soulful quality to Violet that makes us want to see her succeed in her endeavours, however astounding her comments are. Whenever we condemn her reactions, Stillman’s satire soon reminds us of how needy some of her ‘subjects’ are, showing a range of frat boys with dubious intellect and limited life skills, such as one who breaks Violet’s heart, and another who was never taught names of colours as his rich parents had him skip kindergarten. Whatever her faults, Violet always comes across as the most genuine in the end, grounded by The OC’s Adam Brody’s character, Charlie’s curiosity and investment in her – mirroring our own sentiments.

Damsels in Distress is an intriguingly endearing kooky fest of witty dialogue that has no clear plan of where is wants to end up, short of a musical number to smooth over all grievances and differences. However, Gerwig is a revelation in this and a suitable pioneer of Stillman’s often socially skewed work for the uninitiated, and the necessary rudder for this particular offering.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Strippers Vs Werewolves ***

Director Jonathan Glendening of 13Hrs werewolf notoriety doesn’t move that far away from his furry feral fiends in his latest grizzly flick, Strippers Vs Werewolves. This exceptionally daft, tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the erotic slasher B-movie also taps into the comic-book filmmaking fascination of recent years with deviant glee, but all with the sole purpose of entertaining in the most blood spewing and badly acted way. And for those who never tire of Robert ‘Freddy’ Englund cameos, there’s a treat for fans too.

After werewolf Mickey (Martin Kemp) is accidentally killed in strip club Vixens, the girls who work there have until the next full moon to work out how to respond and defend themselves, before his bloodthirsty wolf pack, led by Jack Ferris (Billy Murray), work out who is responsible and seek murderous retribution.

It’s not the pulpy title or necessarily the opening title sequence to Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’ that pricks the interest, but the first doggy disposal that sets the stage for an indulgent retro farce, complete with a bit of healthy Essex ribbing, top 80s hits and some camp star turns. This film then takes its namesake by the balls and drags it forward, so much so, that there is little time for any real character evaluation, even though there is a vague attempt at introductions for such a low-budget film that’s primarily set on featuring carnage.

The impressive cast – that also includes turns from Steven Berkoff and Sarah Douglas – does the best of a B-movie situation, poking fun at the stereotypical roles they’ve been cast in, which increases the viewing pleasure. In fact, the dodgiest acting is the girls’ bad pole dancing on display, rather than Englund’s eternally corny bad guy snarl. Murray can always comfortably sneer for England, having played his fair share of bad guys too, so pulling it off as a deranged werewolf is no tall feat for the seasoned actor, matching Englund in their scenes.

However, the unexpected ‘star’ of the bloodbath is actually Simon ‘Jack’ Phillips in Pegg ‘Shaun of Dead‘ deadpan mode. As the token comic-book geek, he provides the biggest laughs of the lot while battling his own demons while on a phone, and saves the film’s ending from the doggy mire.

Strippers Vs Werewolves is out to get outrageous cheap thrills – as silly as they are and propped up by great one-liners rather than a good scriptwriting at the irony of the idiotic situations. This enjoyable film makes no concessions for its lack of polish but is aided by a great cast who simply fit snugly into roles we’ve seen them in before, but shape shift for our pleasure. Plus the promise of eventually seeing these two groups battling it out in a strip joint is as titillating and ridiculous as it sounds, however over-edited the killing spree is.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Avengers Assemble (3D) ****

The wait is over, and it’s been well worth it to see the likes of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) join forces with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in a superb superhero finale to save the planet. And opposite every hero should be a worthy component to do battle with – in this case, Thor’s ego-bruised stepbrother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Director Joss Whedon’s offering allows each Marvel member a chance to shine and retain their mighty personality, hence, going to satisfy fans of each character in the first of the big three comic-book films of this year.

Picking up from where each superhero let off, and merging the loose ends of the individual action films, Mick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Samuel L. Jackson) is spurred into action to form a team of super humans called The Avengers to help save our planet from Loki. Thor’s adopted brother and arch nemesis has stolen the mysterious energy cube source previously located by Rogers – aka Captain America – called the Tesseract to use it to open the gates to his Underworld army of destruction. In a human world lacking any real fighting power, it is up to old-fashioned superhero tactics to get the job done.

Whedon’s story not only reconnects us with each character but also finds the time to flesh out their strengths and weaknesses, with some wonderful paranoid moments of self-doubt that any average human feels among their peers when the pressure to perform is nigh. The co-writer/director – as with his Buffy the Vampire Slayer character – takes Russian spy Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) out of the shadows of Iron Man 2, and transforms her into her own rounded character while injecting the feminine glam.

However, the stage is ever dominated by the charismatic, cheeky banter of Downey Jr. as arrogant but brilliant entrepreneur Tony Stark who playfully provokes each superhero colleague, usually for some greater purpose, while delivering the rapid-fire gags. His wrangling with Rogers is a childish schoolboy delight, but it’s opposite Ruffalo as Bruce Banner attempting to control is larger, greener side that Stark’s personality is fully tested. Some fans may take issue with the more communicative ball of green rage at the end of the urban battle, but it pays a certain respect to the great scientific mind within it.

Indeed, Whedon borrows his battle-torn city vista and flying, serpent-like alien fighting machines straight out of a Transformers film with a touch of Ghostbusters to it, with many moments feeling like déjà vu ones. However, with less visual clutter and more appealing action heroes to root for, and with some hilarious one-liners in the midst of total bedlam, there is far more to relish and savour, especially when The Hulk kicks into full swing.

Hiddleston stands his ground as vengeful Loki in the campest horned attire as one of the best and more multi-dimensional film super villains of recent comic-adapted flicks, so much so, that his part in this purely goes to re-emphasise just how disappointing Thor and his film’s namesake was once more. Hemsworth may pack a hammer punch in his defence but he does little to rouse any more attention – upstaged by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), a likeable Marvel geek who merely replicates the fan boy/girl wanting to meet his hero (Captain America).

As Whedon shows due care and attention to all his players in this, there is another additional treat in the end credits that points to darker things to come and sparks whoops of joy from those in the know. Still, this film is more than enough and gives us a damn good comic-book fight as its superheroes battle their inner demons, making them as accessible and real as ever.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Delicacy ***

Audrey Tautou has come a long way since her touching, doe-eyed international debut in Amelie. The actress is typecast in such feisty, cutesy roles that it’s hard to determine whether she’s good or just a natural charmer – a bit of both perhaps. In debut directors David Foenkinos and Stéphane Foenkinos’ new romance, Delicacy, we find a more determined Tautou at play – who still commands the screen in a delightfully challenging role about life, love and death.

Nathalie (Tautou) is a beautiful, happy and successful Parisian business executive who finds herself suddenly widowed after a three-year marriage to her soul mate. Struggling to cope with her loss, she buries herself and her emotions in her work to the dismay of her friends, family and co-workers.

After being pursued by her boss (Bruno Todeschini), Nathalie finds love and a rekindled zest for life in an unlikely source, her seemingly unexceptional, gauche, and average looking office subordinate, sensitive Swede Markus (comic star François Damiens). They face obstacles to their growing affections but also self-doubts.

Delicacy has an oddly melancholic feel to it throughout, but is sprinkled with hope, and coupled with tender awkwardness that sets the scene for the bizarre pairing of Nathalie and Markus to develop. There is a wonderful defiance to this that is beautifully nuanced, but still resorts to the classic ‘beauty and the beast’ scenario of opposites attracting, set in a detached office environment for some sort of quirky effect.

Admittedly, we are so captivated by Tautou – and her ever shrinking frame and chic style – that it’s easy to overlook how incredulous their union actually is, all stemming from a compromising office kiss. In fact, these moments of apparent fairy tale have you guessing initially as to what is imagined and what is real, adding a further touch of Tautou magic that is irresistible. There is even an enigma as to Markus’s being; is he a figment of grieving Nathalie’s imagination to help her cope, like a defence mechanism that is a somewhat intriguing mystery to decipher.

In addition, Tautou has such a spirited, old school screen femininity that swings between austere and verging on judgemental one minute to enchantingly naïve the next as the situation presents itself. Damiens compliments this nicely, like some gentle giant and protector beside her, reflecting the awe that we all feel when exposed to her beguiling presence. As an unlikely pair from the start, the plot is all in favour of keeping them and their activities as believable as possible that it’s hard not to champion their cause.

Delicacy is another Tautou charm offensive for fans that sees the star in a testier role of emotions and reactions. And the alluring French stubbornness is predictable but always a sure hit. Whether the subject matter is kept too light and kookily frothy by the filmmakers is another thing, with its whimsical daydream sequences that have you longing for hazy, continental summer evenings ahead. Perhaps the film could have been bolder and more challenging with the subjects of a deep love lost and survival mechanisms kicking in. Still, with Tautou at the helm, there is never likely to be too many morose scenarios to endure as her perceptive and impish disposition always finds a way to shine through.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Battleship ***

Love it or hate it; John Carter star Taylor Kitsch is here to stay, and even though his latest movie, Battleship, is monumentally moronic, there is still a huge amount of over-the-top, double entendre theatrics and bombastic action to giggle gleefully at. The added draw for some of director Peter Berg’s (hopefully) satirical ode to all recent sci-fi action movies will be pop star Rihanna or perhaps True Blood’s man mountain Alexander Skarsgård? Either way, Battleship goes forth with all guns blazin’ to bring down an alien enemy and any shred of credibility.

The plot is a simple one: based on Hasbro’s board game of the same name, Battleship sees US Navy brothers Stone (Skarsgård) and Alex (Kitsch) Hopper on exercise off the coast of Hawaii when a bunch of alien invaders fall to Earth – and into the ocean in front of them, causing an almighty battle of wits to commence. Meanwhile, hothead Alex’s girlfriend Sam (former model Brooklyn Decker) – who happens to be the Admiral’s (played by Liam Neeson) drop-dead gorgeous daughter – is helping a US Navy paraplegic physio patient climb a mountain that happens to hold the satellite dishes the aliens need to make contact with their planet to send reinforcements. Oh, and Pearl Harbour comes into the picture at some point, as does the USS Missouri…

Berg makes no apologies for the hilariously clichéd script and sci-fi rip-offs – and the Hasbro Toys brand benefits from more mileage out of the Transformers’ replication. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve stumbled on Michael Bay’s next robots film – minus Optimus Prime and Megatron – as there are some nifty metal carvers that make metal mincemeat out of anything that stands in their way. The same frenetic balls of edited colour and metal body parts litter the frame, and some of the near-death misses are utterly preposterous. But, this is full-throttle thrill-seeking destruction to gloriously behold, as well as a heavy dose of macho phallic symbolism and camp admiration for military might. It’s all seriously daft fun.

The ‘acting’ in the loosest terms merely pays lip service to remind us that there are in fact humans involved among the carnage, and to clearly define the good guys verses ‘the bad guys’ (the aliens – who are out to rape our resources). One scene in particular that is the only true tension mounter is an actual game of Battleships between the Navy and the aliens. This allows us pause for breath to rally behind our odd collection of screen heroes that include Kitsch, Tadanobu Asano as a Japanese commander and RiRi as ball-busting Petty Officer Raikes – a mumbled feature debut, but one that has the singer looking mean in the firing hot seat. Kitsch demonstrates once more that he has got more than it takes to lead the folly in such a film and is a likeable action hero who ticks all the boxes.

Expect to be blindly entertained and thrown from pillar to post – thankfully, not while wearing 3D specs, plus don’t take anything too literally. If you can suspend disbelief, you’ll find Battleship simply tongue-in-cheek dumb, booming fun full of cum with some of the worst lines in recent screen history to relish that will have you cry, “no, seriously?”

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Watch the trailer HERE

This Must Be The Place ***

Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s new film This Must Be The Place is a far cry from the tense political drama Il divo (2008) – in fact it’s the complete reverse; a soothing journey with a dark purpose that awakens its curious lead from his hypnotic slumber. It’s a strangely alluring piece of filmmaking as its not clear how things will pan out, and actor Sean Penn plays one of the most sedate characters to date but who has a capacity to rupture into something altogether different.

Bored, retired rock star called Cheyenne (Penn), who is married to Irish fight fighter Jane (Frances McDormand) and lives a quiet life in Dublin, receives a phone call that his Jewish father is ill. He sets out to find his father’s executioner, an ex-Nazi war criminal who is a refugee in the US, and so starts a self-reflective journey.

Apart from Penn’s fascinating transformation into a haunting cross between The Cure’s Robert Smith and Edward Scissorhands, it’s the film’s striking cinematography by Luca Bigazzi that captures the dramatic mood, palette and landscape scenes, including the crystal blue of Penn’s eyes, implying a soul still very much alive in the rocker’s shell.

Cheyenne is the kind of character you will either be instantly drawn to or not – there is no middle ground. Thankfully, it was the former – or the rest of the film doesn’t work and will feel like a drag. Penn’s sensitive, childlike portrayal is both crushingly touching and tragic; you want to first dismiss Cheyenne’s disinterest as petulant teen behaviour and conveniently pigeon hole him as the spoilt ex star, bored by his trappings of fame. However, it becomes very clear through his whimpering limited responses that he has not given up on life, but that he is mature enough to carefully choose his words, as he’s fully aware of their impact – and he is trying to find purpose in his solitude.

There is a delightful contradictory character to compliment Cheyenne’s despondent mood, his rock, Jane, played by McDormand. Sorrentino said he only saw the actress in the role, and it’s clear that this small but crucially significant maternal part was made for McDormand. Through her responses we are given a sense that there is more to invest in Cheyenne and his curious behaviour, so we are drawn in to discover more. It’s actually her presence that injects a playful quirkiness into the whole affair, and the idea that a rock star falls for a fire fighter is also an analogy for Jane being Cheyenne’s protector from the outside world. In fact, Cheyenne’s closeted, immature existence is highlighted by his trips to the local shopping centre to hang out with young Goth fan, Mary (Eve Hewson), and discuss teen issues like her love life over a café drink.

The phone call then exposes Cheyenne to the outside world, and like a man coming of age again, he leaves his solitude and experiences real life and its bumpy road, but always at his own beguiling pace of action. It’s this pace that you need to commit to, to fully appreciate the visuals and atmosphere at work – bizarrely, annoyingly punctuated by the wheels on Cheyenne’s suitcase. It is here that the film feels a little lost when it has its most plot-worthy purpose, mimicking elements of other road movies, motel scenes and poignant music scores, and feels like an excuse to do so by Sorrentino to make his very own homage to the genre with an eccentric, out-of-place lead.

The final confrontational scene is sensitively realised and poetically handled – especially as the use of the Holocaust to incite emotion in such a melancholy character could have been mistreated. It still feels like a curious, if uneasy premise for a road movie though, but Sorrentino’s flawed and seemingly innocent characters’ self-reflective take goes to render this more palatable. Penn’s performance may be understated in this, unlike his previous outspoken roles, but as Cheyenne he is just as stirring and memorable.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Titanic (3D) ***

Our fascination with the last few hours onboard the doomed 1912 passenger liner Titanic and its now eerie, watery grave – to quote Celine Dion – “will go on and on and on”. James Cameron took this then moulded it into a classic love story for the big screen back in 1997, and the film and its young stars, Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio, encapsulated the emotions of hope, fear and determination. The story itself is still as powerful and goose-pimply as the first time and simply made for big-screen viewing.

Everyone knows the ending – Titanic sinks, but for the uninitiated, this is actually a story of love crossing the class divide as the urge to live outweighs any social boundaries. In this sense, the success of Downtown Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs and the latest Titanic TV series by Downtown Abbey creator Julian Fellowes follow a similar pattern; exploring class distinctions within one environment. And in every social circle there are the good characters and the bad ones – the latter we revel in seeing them get their comeuppance. Cameron’s timeless love story is no exception. It does paint a rather near-perfect and rose-tinted picture in its path, but its daydream potential should never be underestimated.

The 2D film was shot for its wow factor wides to show the enormity and scale of the disaster, so the addition of 3D does little more than create some depth at times, but hardly adds anything dynamic to the frame where you most expect it. There would be a sinking feeling, if the tragedy unfolding wasn’t captivating you. Still, first-timers will get a greater sense of the grand scale of the event and Titanic herself, which isn’t a bad thing. Bizarrely, watching this time around didn’t seem as much of a marathon – possibly as this reviewer is older (and wiser, hopefully) so has more stamina to endure the 194 minutes. It was also rather nostalgic viewing and targeted the old romantic inside.

Regardless of mixed views on feeding the Cameron 3D crusade by paying more to see something old a second time around, Titanic is simply one of 20th century cinema’s greatest, old-fashioned love stories, full of still impressive effects (pre 3D) and decent, if theatrical acting – with fashion crimes committed by Bill Paxton. But is that a bad thing to reinvest in?

3/5 stars

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La Grande Illusion ****

La Grande Illusion is Jean Renoir’s poetic 1937 anti-war masterpiece that triumphs international unity while poignantly and good-heartedly mocks man’s egotistical obsession with gaining power. It has some genre-defining performances from Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay that surely influenced later, like-minded films, such as those of The Great Escape, Catch 22 etc. It also quirkily explores war as the ultimate class leveller, doing away with conventional social barriers and creating newer, temporary (if irrelevant) ones, making for a fascinating and witty dynamic filled with contemporary value.

During the First World War, two French airmen – wealthy aristocratic officer De Boeldieu (Fresnay) and smart working-class Lt. Maréchal (Gabin) – are shot down and captured while taking photos in German territory and imprisoned in a German POW camp. Here, they meet and befriend other prisoners, including Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), all watched by eccentric commander Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), who takes an immediate liking to de Boeldieu as someone of his same social class in peace time. Several escape attempts followas the eclectic bunch digging their way out until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress.

Renoir allows each memorable and beautifully shot scene to unfold in front of his lens as his characters playfully dissect idiosyncrasies while avoiding any political angle. They created a social ideal within a time of strife, allowing pause for reflection on society’s ingrained cultural, religious and justice systems – as Maréchal and Rosenthal’s idyllic mountainside encounter with a young wife and child depict. To coin a political phrase, “back to basics”, Renoir inadvertently questions the structure we have created, ironically born out of war.

Indeed, the film’s sterling performances combined with the illuminating and searching cinematography allow the discussions to flow effortlessly, as well as the tone and pace of the film’s various parts. In a way, it is a directing masterpiece that encompasses the micro and macro issues affecting all, simultaneously relaying the emotions the individuals experience among the witty one-liners. And the characters are Renoir’s primary asset that manipulate the atmosphere they find themselves in and propel the narrative forward.

La Grande Illusion is a timeless classic of acting and filmmaking genius that uses the artificiality of war to explore the very construct of society, and is a classic must-see.

4/5 stars

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LFF 2011: Headhunters *****

Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie is the ultimate, contemporary cinematic scoundrel in director Morten Tyldum’s electric crime thriller Headhunters as Roger, the country’s most accomplished corporate headhunter. Like a young Christopher Walken in looks, temperament and acting prowess, Hennie is a truly exciting revelation to discover and took 2011’s London Film Festival by storm.

Roger has it all: luxurious lifestyle, stunning and smart wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) and a high-flying career. But it’s not enough, and he conceals a dark alter ego. When his art dealer wife introduces him to handsome businessman Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) – a former deadly mercenary – who is in possession of an extremely valuable painting, he decides to risk it all to get his hands on it, and in doing, discovers something which makes him a hunted man.

Writers Lars Gudmestad and Ulf RybergBased have beautifully lifted Jo Nesbø’s 2008 best-selling thriller off the page, and in conjunction with Tyldm’s concise directing style, created a stylish, smart and energising thriller that gathers momentum and never lags for a second. The clinical and confident action scenes give way to self-depreciating, subtle humour, making Roger a delightful contradiction of raw emotions at any one moment.

Set up to covet Roger’s glossy magazine existence while being equally appalled by his lack of morals and resounding greed, we grow to respect his survival tactics and Hennie’s talents. The actor gradually transforms Roger from despicable hunter to the vulnerable hunted, without ever fully revealing the character’s true motivation – except the obvious, money. Tyldum makes sure we never figure out exactly how Roger ticks either, hence keeps his lead fresh and enigmatic. The director also delivers many surprises along the way to further introduce tension and thrills, including the breath-stopping crash scene and Hannibal Lecter moment that follows.

In contrast to Roger’s somewhat quirky appearance, this Scandinavian affair isn’t without its standard beauties in newcomer Lund and chiselled Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones), reinforcing the cool, sophisticated Nordic appeal that fascinates us non-residents. Another charm of Scandinavian cinema is how unordered the apparent order is as we are given the opportunity to delve into the ‘organised chaos’ such a thriller enters into.

Tyldum’s highly accomplished and darkly comical thriller should be seen and savoured for its poise, pace and Hennie, as well as for its filmmaking techniques – even if its context feels a little déjà vu after the Girl With A Dragon Tattoo originals. Headhunters manages to fully engage for the full 100 minutes, which is a bold feat for any action thriller – let alone a subtitled one, probably because it also injects just the right level of humour to flesh out its lead character while following a frenetic path.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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