The Watch *

The prospect of a comedy that sounds like a possible ‘contemporary Burbs’ remodelling, starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill is an intriguing one. With the addition of one of British filmmaking and comedy’s brightest stars in Richard Ayoade to add a little spice to the mix, battling alien neighbours, The Watch should be a sure thing at the box office this weekend. But those expecting a US Attack The Block will be sorely disappointed. The only winner out of this crude and lame excuse for a bromance is Costco – even Ayoade is a disappointing shadow of his usual witty self.

Good citizen Evan (Ben Stiller) is a likeable manager of a Costco store who returns to work the next day to discover one of his employees has been brutally murdered. Determined to get to the bottom of the cause of a possible neighbourhood killer on the prowl, he tries to get a Neighbourhood Watch group up and running. Unfortunately for him, the only willing attendees are big-mouthed, under-the-thumb Bob (Vaughn), weirdly disturbed and angry Police Academy reject Franklin (Hill) and eccentric Brit Jamarcus (Ayoade) – all more interested in forming a regular boy’s night in of beer, babes and bad jokes than keeping suburbia safe. But all four soon have they hands full with extraterrestrial invaders who are using Costco’s services to the fullest.

Indeed, there were such high hopes for a ‘2012 Burbs‘, a good-hearted suburban fiasco. However, these are knocked off the road map by OTT frat-boy idiocy and bodily-parts jokes that drown out any interesting relationship development and possible charming comedy rift between the four chalk-and-cheese characters. It’s as if relative writing newcomer Jared Stern and Pineapple Express and Superbad’s Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have been at the brewskies themselves while penning this, going overboard with the crass humour, without being at all clever about it. It’s a disappointing result that could have been highly entertaining. Even throwing in sub-plot issues with each member and the standard oafish cops does little to elevate the status quo.

All the leads play the same-old, tired characters we have seen them do countless times before, adding nothing new: Stiller is a nervy goody two-shoes; Vaughn is Detroit’s token shouty, motor-mouthed lad; Hill is the oddball with dark hidden secrets; and Ayoade is an off-colour Moss. If that’s your bag, take The Watch as it comes (and no more), with lots of run-of-the-mill, flash-bang effects while groaning at the blatant Costco’s advertising of ‘it’s all under one roof’. Quite so: it’s all predictable, off-the-production-line superstore comedy, marketed as a sci-fi fan-boy’s lighter bit of fluffy entertainment. And the aliens – seen them, zapped them all before. Which reminds me, must do a Costco’s run…

1/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Shadow Dancer ****

Man On Wire and Project Nim director James Marsh has aptly brought Tom Bradby’s chilling thriller to the big screen, with the help of the author who turns screenwriter. The combination of a documentary-based filmmaker and an author with the ability to convey the compelling nature of the Troubles in one intimate scenario is the power behind the film of the same name, Shadow Dancer. Marsh also casts his leads magnificently, calling on thriller stalwart Clive Owen and the ever-mesmerising Andrea Riseborough who is developing into one of Britain’s leading and most exciting actresses of her generation.

Set in 1990s Belfast, Shadow Dancer sees Riseborough as Colette McVeigh, a young woman who has lived the Republican cause all of her life and who is both a mother and an active member of the IRA. After an aborted operation on London’s Underground, McVeigh is apprehended and given an ultimatum: become an informant for MI5 and tell on a known IRA leader heavily tied to her family, in order to protect her son’s welfare, or spend the rest of her life behind bars. She chooses to betray her past to be with her son while being watched by her MI5 handler, David Ryan (Owen), who has never doubted where his loyalties lie – until now and this job.

After a nail-biting opener on the Tube that slowly escalates with momentum, the film’s deliberately arduous and ‘realistic’ pace squeezes out every fraught and painful decision each of its leads must make. Marsh creates an equally desolate cinematic palette, one of moody colouring to heighten the gravity and the threat of the situation, in turn directing focus on the mental anguish of his characters and their guarded expressions, rather than portraying the standard scenes of civil unrest in such a genre film. The result is a unique, intense and moving personal account of inter-generational prejudice exuded from within one family that holds a central knockout performance from Riseborough.

As McVeigh, the W.E. actress is both achingly fragile to watch as a small pawn in the wider political game and an incredible tower of strength within her own domestic environment as her haunted presence engrosses you, giving away little of her thought-process – another of the thriller’s cleverly subtle tools. This prudent nature emphasises the many untold secrets and strength of familiar bonds that are being tested to the fullest, resulting in Owen as Ryan as the most outwardly ‘volatile’ of the characters in most cases, as he tries to gain personal control. Both actors are faultless in their deliveries, as they play a cat-and-mouse game with time fast running out.

Another intriguing aspect to this story is watching how loyalty morphs, without any theatrics, in order to survive: McVeigh’s a mental and physical necessity while Ryan’s is purely mental as he attempts to make sense of the shreds of his professional integrity when Top Brass – coolily played by X Files star Gillian Anderson – is blasé and detached about McVeigh’s sacrifices. There is a fascinating, unspoken prop of support that each unconsciously holds out to the other; the burning question is how long can this tentative ‘bond’ remain intact, which is the film’s true intensity – not necessarily the imminent and obvious danger of being in the IRA’s clutches. This story relays the latter as a ‘natural’ existence, so it’s curious to see how someone’s ‘norm’ is invaded and turned upside down, and how they come out the other side – in both McVeigh’s and Ryan’s cases.

Marsh’s Shadow Dancer is a complex and beautifully realised Irish Troubles thriller of cerebral and psychological proportions. It solely relies on the deep mystery of family bonds to build the intensity and direct the shots, rather than resorting to grim scenes of conflict and torture as in the past – though it does portray the odd scene. If nothing else, fans of Riseborough and Owen can expect the highest calibre of acting from their idols in this while being thrilled by the discerning power play that dominates the plot.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Wedding Video ***

Four Weddings and a Funeral has set the precedent for the romantic comedy of wedding bell errors. Unfortunately, all other wedding-themed films are often judged critically by comparison.

As much as Made In Dagenham director Nigel Cole’s The Wedding Video is different in its ‘caught on camera’, fly-on-the-wall approach, the end result should be a same with the ‘rom’ and the ‘com’ in equal abundance. The comedy is there – and side-splittingly funny in a unique British sense at times, but the romance is a little lacking, like a dafter episode of Peep Show for the immature keeping nuptials at bay.

Raif (Rufus Hound) is back from travelling to attend his older brother Tim’s (Robert Webb) wedding, but not before he carries out his Best Man duties. Armed with a camera, eternal prankster Raif decides to make a ‘warts-and-all’ wedding video for the happy couple, soon discovering that the bride-to-be is none other than school rebel Saskia (Lucy Punch) who he used to have the hots for and admire. As one wedding stress is followed by another wedding disaster, the big day is looking to be anyone’s guess.

Thanks to the Best Man narration at the start, the course of the film is set and fairly obvious, so as long as you are happy to witness how the journey gets from A to B, The Wedding Video can be enjoyed as such as it snowballs out of control with the best of British eccentricity, picking up casualties along the way. Its saving grace is its ‘camera-never-lies’ honesty, delivered with dopey, big-hearted sentiment that is partly due to its impressive improv nature from a great cast.

Hound may get a little over-excitable at times as Raif, falling into his lone stand-up groove, but for a feature-film debut, he delivers on the whole, part in thanks to him rifting off the naturally funny and boisterous Punch and Webb’s standard blasé, deadpan stance. Punch steals a lot of the scenes from both, including the funniest of the lot that involves rehearsing for the first dance and her fooling around on camera at a stately home. Without her, the film would be seriously wanting.

In fact, Calendar Girls Cole celebrates women of all ages once more, placing the females in the driving seat, with Harriet Walter as the controlling mother-of-the-bride using the happy event as a hideous nouveau riche display of wealth in front of Chester’s elite, and Miriam Margolyes as her ever-critical mother, Patricia – the former giving a hilarious rare performance in a comedy role and the latter being as eccentric as we love to see her play.

Piled on top of the ridiculous comes wedding planner Jenna, brilliantly enacted by Green Wing’s kooky Michelle Gomez. Each female gets their chance to shine alongside the bride, all aware of the camera/our eye on them and their every move that naturally accentuates the comedy value. Coupled with which, Cole and writer Tim Firth have captured how crazy the ‘W’ word makes some people – a cringe-inducing reminder to those who are hitched of the wedding ‘fayre’ fiasco.

It may not have a unique freshness to it, and loses the balance of blossoming romance through trying to be off-the-wall crazy all the time or too contemplative at others, but The Wedding Video still has lots of very funny moments and a realistic interpretation of the lengths some people go to when confronted by a camera lens and under increasing (often self-inflicted) pressure to perform.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Take This Waltz ***

Michelle Williams always brings fresh intrigue and a subsequent realistic and nuanced performance to her roles, blossoming more in indie/art-house films where her character is given the space to explore than any other actress of her generation. Therefore, a film about adultery effects on a marriage starring Williams from actress-turned-writer/director Sarah Polley – who brought us the wonderfully touching tale, Away From Her, about a woman with Alzheimer’s and its effect on a long-term relationship – was always going to be a fascinating concept on screen to watch the actress develop.

Indeed, this film’s saving grace is Williams whose character follows another tormented path of self-discovery/preservation, although the super cool setting of Toronto’s bohemian suburbia will serve as another idyllic attraction for some. However, where it becomes a little too self-conscious of its own vanity and has some questionable and muddled moments of credibility is also where Take This Waltz trips up on its own ingenuity, however unique Polley’s angle on adultery might be.

Take This Waltz sees young, happily married, professional couple Margot (Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) living the perfect domestic life in Toronto, surrounded by extended family and lots of friends. When Margot goes away on a work trip, she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), and strikes up a friendship that triggers a spark of interest. After the pair shares an airport taxi ride home, much to Margot’s surprise, she discovers that they have been living across the street from one another. As placid and humdrum as home life gets with chicken-cooking food writer Lou, and however idyllic them may think they have it, Margot begins finding flaws and wondering what life could be like with artist Daniel.

Take This Waltz starts with a comfortable and thoughtful enough momentum, setting the scene and seeds of doubt that soon turn a little too wistful, bordering on meandering at times to retain intensity fully throughout. Indeed, Williams’s charm does work to pull things back on track, especially one beautifully realised scene of Margot and Daniel at her favourite fairground ride, loosing themselves in the moment – like the feeling of being in love should always be. This contrasts with the routine she shares with Lou that is still full of respect and passion with their baby speak, but there are hurdles associated with living with each other’s foibles and neuroses 24-7 that form cracks in their existence and make for a nice sub-plot character study of long-term relationships here.

Another less comfortable casting as the story transpires is that of Rogen who dabbled in serious subject matter with 50/50 but faired better because that film was laced with comedy that he is good at injecting in the right dosages. In this, he feels a little out of his depth opposite Williams, moving from bland (as his chicken dishes) one moment to foolish the next, however sweet and generous he tries to make his character. It’s also undecided whether Kirby’s subtly at seduction is deliberate or if his character is just eerily creepy following Margot around, which makes any designs on her a trifle unsettling to find genuinely romantic. There is also a strange, a-sexual montage of a possible alter-existence near the end that is up for debate as to whether it’s for real or purely daydream, but does little to convince us next of who comes out best in the situation – Margot or Lou?

Perhaps that’s just it; just as Margot’s line to Daniel about her loathing of flight connections states: “I think I may get lost and may rot and die … I’m afraid of wondering if I’ll miss it. I don’t like being in between things. I’m afraid of being afraid.” Maybe Polley is also afraid of being afraid of showing us who benefits from the whole journey and ironically prefers leaving us in the middle of things? Thank goodness for the alcoholic episode from Lou’s sister Geraldine, brilliantly played by Sarah Silverman, that punctuates the over-indulgent façades and displays the most refreshing authenticity of the whole thing.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Expendables 2 ****

Brain-at-door. Big-dumb-entertainment-at-the-ready: you just can’t take this sequel seriously. If you do, shame on you as you miss out on one of this year’s silliest, pumped-up homage’s to 80s/90s action-hero flicks going. If we say there is one scene that sees former Terminator Schwarzenegger walking in defiant formation next to Die Hard Willis and Rambo Stallone, spraying bullets wilfully as they go into a barrage of baddies, just the description alone is cause for glee. As for the script, it stinks – but who really cares, when any reference (however corny) to the action heroes that made the stars household names makes you simultaneously groan with despair while inwardly being thrilled.

Barney Ross (Stallone) and his merry, muscular mercenaries for hire find themselves back from one bloody job and straight onto another, courtesy of Mr Church (Willis) that should be an easy paycheck. However, even with crack, new female team member Maggie (Nan Yu) in tow, life was never going to be a walk in the jungle when one of Ross’s guys gets murdered on the job. Ross and co makes it their quest to get revenge, placing them deep in enemy territory with some familiar faces on route.

The opener plays like a Rambo video game with no head-popping, claret explosion spared. It’s a bloody fantastic reminder of how serious the Ross boys are in getting the job done. In amongst the baddie exterminations are brief snippets of how each member ticks alongside the other for those new to the franchise – so don’t worry, as this film almost spoofs its original, which makes it even more enjoyable to watch and easy for newcomers to dive straight into.

The trump card is the cast members Stallone has drawn to his last escapade that include the above fore-mentioned, but also Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The latter pair steals most scenes they are in, the former with bizarre ‘lone wolf’ fighting comments related to his Garret and McCoy days, and the latter who has thawed from the Coors mountain ice to ‘evil up’ with chilling/hilariously camp effect. There are just a few action heroes who are missing like Segal and The Rock, perhaps petrol head Vin Diesel, but watch this space… Plenty of baddie blood yet to spill, and always some other dictatorial nut job wanting to rule the planet.

Without singling out each combat scene of varying fighting degrees for a variety of action tastes, does Version 2 quench the action thirst other recent action films with their OTT CGI fail to? The answer is simply yes. Stallone and action-directing aficionado Simon West have consciously made a no-brainer box office killer for this week’s cinemagoer to thoroughly enjoy as it stands, sweat, sores and all – the poster alone says it all.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Bourne Legacy ***

The Greengrass-Damon brigade was always on the ready to sniff at this latest film in the Bourne franchise and dismiss – as they see it – its dissemination of the personal path to self-preservation and discovery that Jason Bourne was determined to follow. The fact is Legacy is about the wider picture: just how wide the whole Treadstone project really went and its damaging effects, rather than the effects on one character per say. It’s about the beginning of an end and a pure survival tale to stop those who are left in its claws from being made extinct.

Coupled with a new face at the helm in the reassuring acting presence of Jeremy Renner as Outcome agent Aaron Cross, series writer Tony Gilroy who directs this film still makes sure there are tangible links to the previous films to tie in fans still willing to give it a shot. What it will not do is win any newcomers out there as there is a degree of back knowledge necessary to understand and keep up with what’s going on.

In this film, undercover Agent Cross is fast running out of programme medication to survive, and after checking in, in a remote frozen land, soon realises someone is out to eliminate him. He must find out why and locate someone he can trust and who can help him back on track. His quest brings him into contact with genetics expert, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) and onto a journey to the other side of the world with stakes that become ever higher as the Treadstone project cards come tumbling down.

Understandably, the beginning of the film spends a lot of time bringing you up to speed, jumping from location to location as it goes in some frenetic attempt at linking up the dots, before the real hunt can commence. However, rather than detract from your viewing pleasure, if you just think of it as general onscreen chaos unfolding, it does give the primary sense of the US spying machine being brought to its knees, trying everything in its power to regain control. Edward Norton’s character enshrines the latter as retired Col. Eric Byer, USAF, putting a stoic human face to the US bureaucratic machine.

In sharp contrast to the international travelogue favoured by the series, we’re introduced to new character Cross in what’s like a Bear Grylls wilderness survival video, allowing us to see the special training this character has received and get used to Renner in a role that he was born for. Indeed, the only thing stacked against him in this is the big Damon shoes he needed to fill, but if you take his character as a completely different personality – less interested in where he is going and more like a warhorse – you understand the new vision and direction Gilroy is taking. Renner is a remarkable actor in his own right who cut his teeth, military-style, in the acclaimed The Hurt Locker so is no stranger to this. There is also something quite personable about his screen presence that cultivates empathy for each disturbed individual he plays – a wise casting by the film-makers.

Weisz proves she has a staying power of a seasoned action thriller pro in this – as in her The Constant Gardener heyday. She is a source of power and knowledge, more so than the other women have been in previous Bourne films – another intriguing alteration to the Bourne plot norm. There is something quite captivating about her as Shearing, in turn making this film more about her journey of self-discovery than Renner as Cross.

Those expecting all-out action will find the first-half of the film more restrained and calculating in its offering, giving way to the compulsory on-foot pursuit and ultimate chase scene through busy Manila, Philippines traffic at rush hour that is still breathtaking to watch. There are the usual bone-crunching combat scenes too, more defining Cross as the trained killer he’s meant to be. Indeed, it is unclear whether Gilroy intended Cross to fret over his destiny in this like Bourne does, or just to survive extermination. If the latter, there is a no-nonsense rawness to Legacy that has to be admired.

The essence and momentum of Bourne is still very much apparent in Legacy, and if your past interest has been more in the mysterious, deep-rooted system that controlled Bourne, rather than just the character itself, Legacy has a lot to offer while still mentioning the series’ hero along the way. It’s also an interesting experiment in making a sequel without the lead star that actually works: Renner and Weisz make promising work of a difficult situation of appeasing fans while still entertaining.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Brave ****

As the tile suggests, this is a bold new animated concept from pioneering Pixar that moves away from the fantasy characters children and adults alike delight in, and more towards fabled ones that could come straight from the campfire stories of Scottish folklore. It’s also quite fitting with our women’s triumphant medal glory in 2012 that the lead character is a fiery, independent sportswoman of considerable talent herself, as handy with a bow and arrow in any archery competition as any Korean gold medalist. In fact, Merida our heroine (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) – who sadly bares a striking red barnet resemblance to shamed newspaper boss Rebekah Brooks – could give any of the Koreans a run for their gold in Rio in 2016.

Merida is a free-spirited princess who has the usual strained teen relationship with her parents, with the added pressure of having to be married off young to a suitor that will unite the clans. However, Merida who wants to make her own way in life has other ideas and doesn’t want to follow tradition. She suggests an archery competition to select the worthy male specimen from a very sorry trio. Even with duty calling, Merida still defies her mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), and flees into the forest, only to stumble upon a witch and her spell to that promises to ‘change’ her mother’s outlook. The result brings chaos to the kingdom and Merida must rely on her bravery and archery skills to end the curse and reunite her family and the clans.

As 3D effects should now be – subliminal and not the focal point of any film anymore, what Brave is left to do well is concentrate on the storytelling with some great characters to journey along with. However, the story is less fanciful and imaginative than the likes of Toy Story, which allows it a more ‘realistic’ quality. There is a lot of utterly charming humour and banter to enjoy with this tale that is naturally peppered with family values and morals that fit in nicely with its aim, rather than drum home the obvious in an eye-raising snooze fest.

American filmmakers Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell really show an understanding of the Scottish ways of old, without sugar coating it for US audiences in some whimsical fashion. It’s easy to see how the Scottish tourist board will benefit from this film and its salt-of-the-earth characters and Highland landscapes – as well as a predominantly all-Scots cast. In true Pixar style, the colours are also as rich as is the scenery that adds to its enjoyment and our immersion into Merdia’s forested world.

There is a wonderfully unique touch to the whole affair that sees a mother-daughter relationship take the helm and restore equilibrium, rather than the usual male-dominated Pixar characters. The fact that the writers have also added a healthy dose of humour to female leads’ adventure too, along with lots of fun, gives Brave a strength of character to add to its characters’ appeal. It’s also great to see how Pixar handles a standard fairy-tale princess story in a modern way, giving little girls a heroine who can handle her own and deal with her own disappointments. As for adults, though the jokes and sequences may not be as fresh as expected in a Pixar vein, it’s the heart of Brave that keeps the story beating along nicely.

4/5 stars

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Ted ****

Those not a fan of Family Guy and Seth MacFarlane’s made-to-shock humour will find Ted a live-action/part-animated version of much the same crudity and unedited commentary from the writer-director-star. However, those who can happily tune into MacFarlane’s mockery of entrenched stereotypes will find a lot of idiotic bromance fun to Ted – plus the introduction of another unforgettable character that just says it how it is in a world so tied up in political correctness red tape it hurts.

Lonely kid John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) once wished for a companion then he got a teddy bear for Christmas. As luck would have it, wishing at the right time on a shooting star made his wish come true overnight. Now a grown man John must deal with his boozing, smoking, womanising best friend Ted the bear (voiced by MacFarlane). The trouble is John’s sweetheart Lori (Mila Kunis) has had enough of their bromance and wants John to chose: her or the bear?

It’s a simple fact something so cute and cuddly looking that could be so foul-mouthed and full of faux pas is naturally funny: This is the seal of appeal of Ted the bear – like when a small, cute child says a naughty word picked up from its elders. Ted is rather like a combination of Family Guy’s male characters rolled into one, but that’s as far as that analogy goes. The central theme to this film is the mundane life of two dope-smoking, beer-swilling wash-ups putting what they see as the ‘wrongs’ of the world and injustices of having to grow up to right – just substitute one human waster for a beastial one­.

Where Ted may disappoint MacFarlane fans is some of the jokes are not as clever or politically topical as in Family Guy: This time MacFarlane has gone for frat boy, smutty, banal stuff on the one hand, or ‘Bill and Ted’ dopey remarks on the other. Plus some of the ‘gags’ – like Ted’s visiting whore leaving a personal present in the living room – just make you pull a face if nothing else. There is also a rather weird and distracting subplot of a Ted-obsessed, white trash fanatic called Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) and his son that only seems to be there to re-emphasise John and Ted’s lifelong bond and highlight some 80s pop culture, even though underused Ribisi is suitably creepy once more. Indeed, the height of bromance would not be complete without the token idol appearance that defines the relationship: Flash Gordon – aka Sam J. Jones himself – being as like-minded as our anti-heroes while proving he’s worthy of their worship.

However, although a hand-full of the jokes are not up to par at times, Ted is still damn entertaining with some hilarious observational humour and throwaway lines interwoven among the ‘offensive’ stereotyping. It’s these that making John and Ted’s bromance so ‘real’ and ultimately endearing to watch, as they face the ups and downs of adult life that’s determined to throw spanners in the works of their relationship, resulting in the critical finale. Wahlberg also does your average ‘loser’ so effortlessly well, by playing it with a big generous heart that nicely compliments Kunis’s prissy, responsible Lori in the story as the ‘voice of reason’.

Much like Family Guy and Marmite, you’ll either love Ted or hate it – it certainly won’t convert the anti-MacFarlane brigade. This critic saw it minus the help of a few ‘Brewskies’ and would have straight-talking Ted over for a sofa slouch any night of the week to chew over life’s ironic imperfections – something MacFarlane merely flags and relays in in-your-face humour.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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