Sinister ***

Its blood-splattered poster, complete with promises of ‘genuinely scaring the hell out of you’ depends on your previous encounters with spooky goings-on in condemned houses. Sinister by The Exorcism of Emily Rose creator Scott Derrickson, in summary, certainly puts the ‘creepy’ back into four domestic walls, but the horror tick boxes of bumps in the night, leaving lights off to investigate, and decaying faces of those damned have been done to death before that it initially feels rather ‘same-y’. In fact, there is more to it than first meets the eye, and the exploration of curiosity that certainly kills the cat.

In Sinister, true-crime novelist Ellison (Ethan Hawke) again moves his family to another gruesome location to start writing on his next book, much to the distaste of a local law enforcement chief. Unbeknown to his loved ones, they have moved to Spooks Central, cursed by a strange demon that feeds off young souls through interacting through image. After finding a box full of supposed home movies left in the attic, Ellison’s very own nightmare begins…

Sinister is certainly well shot in style and design for a film centred on moving image technology. However, it relies heavily on loud punctuating effects and musical moments, partly unnecessary to guide us through, when heightened creepiness could have been achieved with far lesser effort. That said there is a good pace to the film as the mystery of the family deaths is given the space to unfold. The film continuously questions reality from fiction, as well as the protagonist’s state of mind, throwing in a couple of interesting twists to the paranormal norm. It may also take another viewing to decipher all the visual pointers throughout as the key to what is happening.

Part of Sinister’s success is down to a strong lead from Hawke whose mental torment and pressure to perform (plus all-day boozing) as Ellison mirror that of The Shining’s Jack Torrance: Ellison is eventually portrayed as more of an initial threat to his family than any supernatural presence. Indeed, there are moments where you wonder what are figments of the writer’s imagination that keep the whole thing fresh; what are consequences of his insomnia and obsessive work ethic? In this sense, it’s not so linear just about the grizzly mystery but also about the effects on a character’s being. However, Derrickson is wise to keep us empathetic too, painting Ellison as a flawed, sometimes helpless individual while moving the mystery along to conclusion with added tension.

Sinister works as your average Paranormal Activity-styled flick (produced by the very same producer), coupled with an interesting, if surface-level psychological study of what is deemed supernatural and what is actually the mind working overtime. It has all the tension, shocks and gory detail of the genre with lots of horrific visuals, but does not forget to explore these effects on its main character, which makes it an intelligent horror watch for fans.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Taken 2 **

There is a real sense with the second round in Luc Besson’s father-marauding saga that both writer and cast signed up to a totally different project at the start, only for a daft decision from above to make it accessible to a wider (and younger) audience to ruin things, and hence, kill of what made Taken so successful: its uncompromising violence with very good intentions.

Retired CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is back for one more security job, this time in Istanbul. Reunited with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and naïve daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) in the Turkish capital, unbeknown to him, his and their cards are numbered by the surviving Albanian relatives of those he slaughtered on his last quest to save his daughter from the sex trade. They want revenge and will stop at nothing to avenge the deaths of their loved ones. This time it’s Mills’s turn to be ‘taken’.

Although Taken 2 picks up at a natural and logical point with full potential of another Neeson onslaught on another Albanian menace, there is not the same drive and brutality of the first that made it such a crowd pleaser – and Neeson the ultimate justice slayer. It feels frustratingly like a sanitised version of a hidden 18-cert cut. Shame, really, as Neeson in the avenging father role is a great character you truly want to get behind.

Another ridiculous factor is the absurd methods Mills incorporates to get his daughter to trace where they have been taken which seem to have absolutely no real consequence in modern-day Turkey and are rendered laughable in the extreme. Even another rooftop escape or narrow-street car chase does little to pull things back on track as it’s all very Bourne once again and unoriginal. A result of a car chase that ends up in the grounds of the American Embassy does little to rattle the present authorities either.

Apart from trying to stay alive this time, there is no real incentive to Mills’s ‘tamed’ spree of destruction in this when he does get free. The supposed ‘baddies’ spend little time cultivating our sheer distain on screen – through no fault of their own – and any deaths come with no visible damage or blood that it all feels rather pointless. Even the expected final confrontation fizzles out rather unspectacularly. The only satisfaction Taken 2 has to offer is seeing Neeson as Mills again because we had so much respect for his deadly methods in the last that you end up ‘filling in the blanks’ as to what just happened, when you shouldn’t need to use your imagination.

Besson and Neeson must be frustrated with the outcome especially given the unexpected success of the first that you do feel for them both, and that someone has tampered with their true talent for the sake of trying to make more box office bucks. It’s backfired. Worth seeing: only as a follow-up on a character on DVD/Blu-ray when released later on.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Campaign ***

Jay Roach’s new comedy is more in the vein of his slapstick work of Meet The Parents/Fockers and Austin Powers, so those expecting a clever political satire ridiculing the recent Romney and Ryan shenanigans, say, of current US politics will be mildly disappointed. However, there are enough subtle undertones to admire and to suggest writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell and leads/producers Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis have more than studied the absurdity of being in a political spotlight, spilling over into personal life. And there are some immensely funny gags too, within a constantly funny premise.

Ferrell plays the sleazy, bed-hopping Cam Brady, a long-term congressman and family man of the North Carolina district. After an unfortunate evening phone to the wrong party, his popularity takes a nosedive. Two nefarious and filthy rich CEOs, the Notch Brothers – played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, see their chance to gain influence over the district and expand their empire under dubious means by putting up a rival candidate in the effeminate buffoon and local director of the local Tourism Centre, Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), in order to oust Brady. What begins as an easy road to victory for the congressman becomes a political battle of wills and dirty politics.

Ferrell and Galifianakis are guilty of playing to type in this, so nothing new there. However, there is still a lot of enjoyment to be had, and the comedy pair really act out the two primary gags – one involving a baby and a dog and the other a cow – exceptionally well with expert timing. Their choice of over-milking the acting pudding is perfect in such an farcical political environment, highlighted by a battle of muck throwing over a child’s publication, right down to the obvious sex scandal moments, which some may see as producing easy frat-boy laughs, but are still all very relevant in such an hotbed arena.

Perhaps the film’s main weak spot is trying to make both opponents agreeable, regardless of the outrageous antics. Although the film sticks to safe territory, never painting anybody in politics as a purely black or white in character, this does result in a tame, cosy ending. Part of the problem is the under-use of Aykroyd and Lithgow as the true ‘villains’ in the piece who never get enough screen time for us to truly realise their dastardly, scheming plans and cutthroat tactics, so when the chips are down in the end, it all feels a little flat.

That said the comic pace and timing is never tiresome, and there is still much ludicracy to revel in, seeing Ferrell and Galifianakis mock another class of folk who more than deserve it. In summary, The Campaign has not got enough of a political bite but it more than makes up for this with its ridicule of the insignificant elements of the political campaign trail.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Now Is Good ***

Ol Parker – he of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel notoriety – is fast becoming the director of choice for sanitising death for those who fear its onset most. As with his last film about a bunch of OAPs on a latter-years, lifetime’s trip to India, he takes the subject and makes it not only palatable for a wider audience, but also amusingly ironic. In this respect, his latest film, Now Is Good, based on a youth novel by Jenny Downham, is a celebration of a young human being’s will to live as Death calls, and is both upbeat and uplifting to watch, as it is tragic in consequence.

American star Dakota Fanning plays 17-year-old Brit Tessa who, like most adolescents, is full of life and lip. Diagnosed with a terminal cancer, she is determined to live every last second to the full, working her way through her ‘bucket list’ – losing her virginity, taking drugs etc – while her parents (well played by Paddy Considine and Olivia Williams) struggle to cope with their grief and her ‘rebellious’ nature to her plight. What Tessa doesn’t count for is falling for the handsome boy next door, Adam (War Horse’s Jeremy Irvine), before shuffling off her mortal coil. Falling in love is a whole new aspect that she’s not ready to finish experiencing just yet.

Fanning gives a truly impressive and memorable performance in this, pronouncing a South-Coast accent perfectly as a free-spirited girl from Brighton. Parker claims she was chosen, simply because she pressed for the part, and it’s clearly not only a bold choice but also the right one. She also pulls of Brit mannerisms so well that it’s hard to think of Fanning as anything other than from these shores. She is feisty, petulant and often cutting, but also physically fragile as Tessa, a winning formula for a lead heroine.

There is also a wonderful ease with which Fanning portrays her headstrong character that soothes the pathway to the inevitable. She remembers to make Tessa’s pain seep through at just the right amount so that there is always a constant sub-conscience reminder, without resorting to tear-jerking theatrics. It’s only at the end that the emotion truly catches up with you, which is when Parker goes to town and gives a montage of ‘what could have been’ in a healthier world.

Fans will be in for a shock with Irvine who has transformed, physically, to play the ‘boy-band-looking’ hunk, Adam, in this who also mourns the recent passing of his father. As another ‘hurting soul’, Adam’s rebellious nature compliments Tessa’s in a battle of wills, each trying to find purpose in life throughout with amusing consequences. Irvine is commendable enough in the role, and has a wonderful confrontational scene (not in the book) with Tessa’s father, brilliantly acted by Considine.

Now Is Good may have the Brighton trendy factor to it in design and attitude, but it will remain to be seen how youth and death whet younger appetites at the box office. That said the main plot is a young, developing love story between two very determined characters, played by two very appealing actors, which will give Parker another dark horse in the running.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Killing Them Softly ****

Brad Pitt reunites again with writer-director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) to adapt George V. Higgins’s novel, Cogan’s Trade for the big screen. It’s another successful outcome, entitled Killing Them Softly – referring to hits by strangers on strangers in the underworld. As Cogan, Pitt embodies his standard cool and articulate criminal stance once more, a character type that snugly fits him like a glove, trying to negotiate the present situation with an alluring presence of menace. He also has a highly impressive and engrossing ensemble cast to work opposite in James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, Vincent Curatola and Scoot McNairy.

In hard economic times, even the criminal world is struggling to make decent money. Johnny Amato (Curatola) tasks petty criminal Frankie (McNairy) to find a partner to do over a high-stakes card game run by Markie Trattman (Liotta), protected by the Mob. Frankie turns to erratic, ‘entrepreneurial’ addict Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to help out, and surprisingly, the job goes well. With Trattman already on thin ice with the bosses for another raid, the finger is automatically pointed at him for causing the local criminal economy to collapse. Jackie Cogan (Pitt), an enforcer, is hired by the mysterious Driver (Jenkins) to track down who is to blame and restore order, calling on old-school hit men like Mickey (Gandolfini) to help out.

Killing Them Softly is a totally enthralling verbal conquest from the word go, complete with some very fine acting from all involved. There is a calculated calmness and tension to every heavily dialogued scene; every word is absorbed, even though the sense of urgency and immediate threat looms, and at times, brilliantly intercepted by historical newsreel moments of financial gloom and political lobbying. This gives the whole piece a unique feel to the run-of-the-mill crime drama, as each character plays the money game as best as they can within a timely framework.

Mob-genre stalwarts Gandolfini and Liotta take the infamous images that have personified their individual careers to play pitiful shadows of their former glory days in parts that feel like ‘end of era’ roles. Gandolfini is magnificent as incompetent, hard-drinking and womanising Mickey in all his scenes opposite charismatic Pitt as Cogan. There is a surprising sense of empathy felt for the old dog, even though his character is despicable in every way. Liotta as Trattman is the fall guy, trying to earn a dishonest living but choosing the wrong profession for a quiet life. Again, he is a miserable husk of a gangster in this, which casts a commiserative gloom over their parts of the tale, as well as reflecting the miserable demise of dead old wood in the criminal fraternity.

As the ‘newcomers’ cutting their teeth, McNairy as Frankie and Mendelsohn as Russell display a wonderful double act in this, certainly making their mark, with Mendelsohn stealing the scene each time. They portray the naivety and ‘innocence’ of the bottom-rung of the industry, living on borrowed time but grabbing as much profit from the moment in the hope that they survive and prosper. As with each character, Cogan is the judge and jury as to their fate, and it’s intoxicating viewing watching the experienced player toy with his inexperienced prey, especially opposite Frankie. Again, the waiting game is a very big part of Dominik’s film, favouring word power over action until completely necessary.

This cerebral crime offering portrays victims not winners, as in other films in the genre. The only winner is capitalism, which gleefully presides over the lot. Dominik’s film with its strong cast is very topical indeed, almost depressing, as it is highly entertaining to watch. Pitt is at his very best too. Although each scene’s intention is set up by Cogan as the adjudicator, the character opposite him is given the space to hang himself in a fascinating way that by the time any violence rears its ugly head, the main damage is done. For fans of the crime-gangster genres, it’s a must-see in acting prowess.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Savages ***

Producer-Director Oliver Stone, best known for his political thrillers, war films and a recently completed Castro documentary, reverts back to Natural Born Killers/U-Turn type for his latest film, Savages, appealing to a wider commercial market wanting pulpy, consumable, popcorn action thrillers without any political intensity. In a way, Savages is a satisfying all-action trip with glamorous players, overindulgent settings and panoramic vistas because Stone can command that kind of glossy budget.

On the other hand, with Benicio Del Toro in this as a shady character on the other side of the law from his Traffic days, you regret the fact that there is not more meaningful substance to the whole affair, especially as Stone’s film is based on established crime writer Don Winslow’s book, who spent years researching the DEA and drug cartels for The Power Of The Dog. But it still has its ‘Saturday night at the movies’ enjoyment factor with a buff young cast and crime-thriller old-timers to boot.

Harvard-educated weed cultivators Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) – sounding like a play on the iconic Cheech and Chong – have the good life: a thriving, manageable business off the glorious, beach-centric Californian coast, pots of money and (well) pot, as well as a shared, beautiful all-Californian girlfriend in O (Blake Lively). Life is running too sweetly it seems, until the bigger drug barons come to town and want a share of their profits, run by the illusive Elena (Salma Hayek), Mexican drug kingpin who has brains (Alex the lawyer, played by Demián Bichir) and the twisted, sick brawn (Lado, played by Del Toro) backing her. Local DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) who is on the boys’ payroll is powerless to help – and unwilling. It’s only after the boys’ ‘weak spot’ (O) is kidnapped by Elena and crew that the real fight for business survival begins.

The opener sets the scene for the film ahead: bodies beautiful and lots of decadence, in terms of wealth and firepower. Fans of Kitsch and Johnson will find them watchable with a screen ease of long-time buddies – and it’s the first film Johnson is actually amenable in. Kitsch resorts to pumped hunk action tactics from his Battleship time, although supposedly meant to be more ‘damaged’ as a war veteran, but not nearly as dark or disturbing as a Mickey Knox, which might have made things more interesting. Stone’s downfall is the writing of O as the film’s bland (smug) stoner narrator, who is as vacuous as she is annoying after a while, however good to look at. In fact, you lose all interest in her rescue and hope that her mention at the start that she ‘might be dead’ bodes true.

The true scene-stealers are Del Toro, Travolta and Hayek who are left to add some much-needed character to proceedings in their own, rather bizarrely coiffured way (check out the hairstyles). Del Torro does menace like no other, even in the throes of humorous dealings, and Travolta is as slimy as they come. However, Hayek as a woman cartel boss (for a change) is rather convincing as a very real threat to her unruly Latino mob, mixing both beauty and matriarchal menace in one, with a wonderfully amusing scene where she puts ‘her boys’ in place for overstepping the mark. Stone tries to keep her human and less caricature by injecting a softer side as an actual mother to her back story, which changes the pace at times but does little for us relating more to O’s entrapped dilemma. In fact, O comes off worse as a character and even more expendable after dinner with the lady boss.

As expected, Stone has some war scenes and bloody fighting to keep us happily entertained too, when the posturing gets a little too much and lacks that carefree, beach-bum coolness of Point Break, say. In fact, think pot-angled Fast and The Furious for a banal action fix, complete with good-looking males at the helm, though without nearly enough thrills added to the mix. It’s untaxing, extravagant filmmaking that at least shows off Del Toro, Travolta and Hayek’s winning screen attributes, even if the narrative is as flaky and dopey as some of its pot partakers.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Sweeney ****

Fans of the hit 70s TV series have no fear: Director-writer Nick Love has taken the heart and soul of the iconic characters, Regan and Carter, and given them a cosmetic 2012 facelift, thrusting the chauvinistic, hard-nosed coppers into a contemporary, clinical crime-fighting environment, complete with latter-day baddies. In fact, Love is wise not to try and replicate what made the TV series so popular in any way (as others have unsuccessfully done), instead putting his own unique and ever-comical deadpan ‘hard boys’ stamp on this project, but with subtler effect.

For those unfamiliar with ‘the lads’, this film version centres on the jaded older character Regan, played by Brit pit-bull Ray Winstone. Detective Regan and his team of hardened Flying Squad coppers of London’s Met police force are set up to take a fall with tragic consequences. Pursued by Internal Affairs at the same time, Regan makes it his personal mission to put wrongs rights, by any means possible.

Four words aptly describe The Sweeney 2012: big, brash, ballsy fun. It’s a Winstone mecca for fans to witness their idol in all his former hard-man glory – complete with a damaged and sinister edge to his Regan that keeps things nice and spicy. Winstone is utterly brilliant, shockingly hilarious and totally in his element, like a warm, welcome déjà vu rush return to his Sexy Beast days. He plays Regan, warts and all, making you empathise immediately with this crime-fighting ‘dinosaur’ as he stomps around trying to defend his territory in an ever-changing underworld.

Keeping the proceedings contemporary and attractive for younger viewers – and potentially growing a new fan base for the franchise, Love pairs up Winstone with multi-talented Ben Drew (aka rapper Plan-B) who made his directorial film debut with Ill Manors this year. Winstone’s hothead antics in the film rifts off Drew’s composed Carter, making a convincing on-screen double act. However, those expecting the blunt charm of the former TV duo may come away a tad disappoint, as Regan’s more of a one-man demolition derby in this, until he needs help from his sidekick, accumulating in the nail-biting action scene through a caravan site to top all the others.

No words are frittered in the script from co-writers Love and John Hodge who take the essence of the Ian Kennedy Martin source material to deliver the hilarious one-liners, telling it how it is in the most crass language in parts that brings a wicked smile to the face and a good belly laugh: Take the private bank scene where Regan and Carter come across a pompous bank manager, or the fabulous comment from informer ‘Arry (Alan Ford) at certain ladies’ lack of class. It’s these gems that will keep fans amused and appeased, though you could do with more.

This is an all-guns-blazing crime romp that tears up the capital – and neighbouring counties, complete with action, danger and glamour (supplied by Hayley Atwell as smart-talking copper Nancy). With its highly convincing turn by the ever-chilling and captivating Paul Anderson as lead gangster Allen, who toys with Regan more than any other perp ever managed to in the TV version, Love smoothly blends what fans love about modern-day action crime dramas with the old-fashioned Sweeney charm. The result is a pure tonic.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Anna Karenina ****

Director Joe Wright’s take on Tolstoy’s tragic love story, Anna Karenina, is bound to divide opinion, particularly after watching the initially distracting theatrical element of a film set within theatre set changes. Those who favour classic Russian epics, like the days of Doctor Zhivago, may well have envisaged this in grander, more realistic settings. Admittedly, it does take a moment to settle at the very beginning and to accept the hustle and bustle going on in almost ‘claustrophobic’ and twee surroundings. However, this merely further establishes the growing psychological effect on its lead character.

Adapted by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard, Tolstoy’s story is an exploration of the power of love and how it affects a supposedly happily married woman, Anna (Keira Knightley), when she encounters the full effects of raw lust then emotion on her happiness and her marriage, rocking her world in late-19th-century Russian high society.

Wright’s film is undeniably a bold, visually genius and powerfully emotional take that needs investment from the start to accept its unusual format. However, the period drama and exquisite costume beautifully compliment the entertaining blend of imagination, frank wit and highbrow theatrics delivered by an intriguing ensemble cast.

This film is the third time Wright has turned to his ‘muse’, Knightley to deliver a dichotomy of the strong and fragile female who is exposed in a man’s world of rules and etiquette. Like or loathe the actress, this kind of role is absolutely made for Knightley: she shines on screen, even in the most torrid moments of the story, changing from porcelain doll radiance one minute to demonic creature the next, all as her character’s hormones rage.

The only time the British actress might be held back in her endeavours is as a result of her pairing with Nowhere Boy actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson who plays her love interest, Count Vronsky. However, ‘pained’ and doe-eyed he tries to be, there is more than the odd stale moment in his delivery opposite the illuminating Knightley, when you wish he would just let forth in the passionate role, making you question his suitability.

In fact, some of the most powerful scenes are between Knightley and an almost unrecognisable Jude Law, playing Anna’s stiff bureaucratic husband Alexei Karenin. Law is a delight to watch in this reserved mode as he still manages to channel some pent-up emotion into the situation, making his casting one of the most intriguing. Another gem is Knightley’s Pride & Prejudice co-star Matthew Macfadyen, camping it up and having a ball as Anna’s philandering brother, Oblonsky, and bringing a lively spirit to the behind-the-scenes setting.

Wright’s lavish theatrical interpretation punctuated with stark wit could be accused of distancing the viewer from Tolstoy’s stoic written word. But at the same time as the sets are rapidly moved around, it could be argued that the director’s Anna Karenina is a vibrant, modern, fast-paced version that does not dwell on on-location settings as in the past, but ironically, within all the momentum, directly focuses our attention on the characters front of stage so we feel their emotion raging forth. It’s certainly a unique blend of theatre and film with that necessary ingredient for period drama fans of unashamed melodrama in spades, making it gripping cinema in its entirety.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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