Runner Runner **

Some thrillers need more than a touch of style and an attractive cast; they need a substantial storyline. It’s not that Runner Runner doesn’t initially promise something meaty to bite on and the chance to watch it all play out in sunny Costa Rica, it’s just things fizzle out and become mediocre when we’ve soon had enough of the sun, sea and smart suits. The smart suits have been done before in Ocean’s films.

Co-lead Justin Timberlake desperately tries to get us hooked from the get go as aggrieved online gambler and Princeton post grad Richie Furst, robbed of his last pot of Wall Street cash on a compromised poker site he believes he has cracked. We do feel his pain (empathy even for a failed banker) and are ready and right behind him for the confrontation ahead with the site’s multi-millionaire owner, the illusive offshore entrepreneur Ivan Block.

However, one of the main reasons for the gradual waning interest in Runner Runner – part-incomprehensible gambling lingo aside – is the casting of another genuinely ‘nice guy’ of cinema, Ben Affleck as super thief Block. Affleck should stick to the directing day job or the honest/good guy roles because the leap of faith needed to believe he could be a sly, manipulative criminal mastermind is too massive, however approachable he paints Block to start with.

The Lincoln Lawyer director Brad Furman and producer Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘dramatic thriller’ goes all Jason Bourne on us when things heat up, just to keep the thrill factor intact. In all fairness, Timberlake tries his hand at the action shots and makes for a commendable action-hero-on-the-run. Nevertheless, Furst needs more than a hand full of corrupt officials and Block henchmen to get past to keep things stimulating. Even the chance to wind things down for a second and bond with his hopeless gambling addict dad (played by a very puffy-looking and near unrecognisable John Heard) fails to produce anything memorable. Our attention falls on the balcony view Richie’s dad is so desperate to show off to him – and us. Again, this is when the writing/plot is clearly called into question.

Other nice factors – aside from sun, suits and glamour – include a sexy, sun-kissed Gemma Arterton as Block’s right-hand woman/’sex slave’ Rebecca Shafran. The character has the usual dose of sardonic wit and life experience to lure her man – like a Bond girl on heat – but is either too dumb or too greedy for the lifestyle to get out when she knows it’s all turning sour. Hence we feel very little for her when the chips are down. Indeed, she seems to need little convincing by Furst when the time comes to help him put his plan in action to bring down Block, being more than ready to deceive her ‘captor’ and curiously resisting taking both chumps to the cleaners.

To be kind, Runner Runner ticks all the boxes you’d expect for the genre, it’s just other dramatic thrillers with a gambling theme have been done before – and better. Remember 21 back in 2008? Trying to spin an intellectual side to it via the Princeton angle and yet another high-tech wall bank of computers cracking code with the resident geek/s is also becoming old hat. This film seems to be lazily relying on bringing in the box office cash solely on the cast and their image. It’s just a pity it doesn’t have more substance to win the house too.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Austenland ***

Remember the butterfly feelings you got the first time you saw Mr Darcy – aka Colin Firth – dive into the lake at Pemberley and emerge on the other side, all wet and troubled in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice? If no goofy smile creeps over your face, this crazy comedy will have no bearing on you whatsoever – or, you’re a straight male who had to endure the sighs of another while watching this iconic moment of dreaminess in the 1995 TV mini-series.

Austenland tenderly mocks the avid Austen fan in a harmless, frivolous and screwball manner. It’s adapted by Gentlemen Broncos and Nacho Libre writer Jerusha Hess and Austenland author Shannon Hale, thanks to funding by Twilight author-turned-film-producer Stephenie Meyer’s Fickle Fish Films; the company’s aim being to translate authors’ works for the big screen. With Hess’s quirky comedic background and Meyer’s knowledge of what makes a girl tick, Austenland has that dubious label of ‘chick flick’ (just look at the pink and heart-adorned poster), with ‘chick’ being any female with a pulse who appreciates a gentlemanly hero and a good giggle at the same time.

Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is an American girl obsessed with everything Pride and Prejudice, so much so, she books her life savings on a trip to the UK to take part in a Jane Austen theme park that’s run by the ever-so-slightly delusional Mrs Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). Accompanied by two other life-long Austen fans, fellow American ‘Miss Elizabeth Charming’ (Jennifer Coolidge) and ‘Lady Amelia Heartwright’ (Georgia King), Jane gets to live her dream period, Regency time, knowing that a promised suitor is waiting at the end of the package. However, Jane soon realises fantasy and living in the past is not all it’s cracked up to be, and living for now has far better prospects.

A surprise Sundance 2013 entry, Austenland is absolutely not to be taken seriously, nor will it win any awards. However, it perfectly taps into a daydream that rings true for many while borrowing elements from any Carry On film (see the preening footmen). It’s daft and revels in that fact. Let’s face it, any film starring Coolidge busting out of a period bustier and talking like Dick van Dyke on a bad day is as superficial as it’s going to get. The rom-com roadmap for Jane – who’s like a Cinderella figure in this – is clearly planned out, and the dashing hero she ends up with is not entirely obvious at first.

Both Russell and Coolidge have a ball (literally), playing to type in the process and both enjoyable to watch. However, it’s Brit King who steals many scenes for utter lunacy, helped in part by James Callis as the camp Colonel Andrews and former footie player Ricky Whittle as the abs-obsessed Captain George East. The ‘Mr Darcy’ is JJ Field’s pompous interpretation of a ‘Mr Henry Nobley’ who must fight for Jane’s affections opposite ‘the help’, Martin (Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame). It’s just a shame that Seymour is underused, as she could have been a Mrs Bennet off the scale.

All in all, this pantomime farce is in good, hearty spirits and far removed from anything else at the box office at present. Austenland promises romance but is not ‘rom-com slushy’ getting to the point – it knowingly pokes fun at itself. There is a little indulgent musical medley during the credits too. If there was such a theme park, it would have visitors in their droves, hoping to capture a slice of Regency spice and saucy silliness like in the film. Those who like their period drama serious can enjoy the return of Downton Abbey. The rest can get a kick out of Austenland and simply enjoy the outrageous buffoonery.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Prisoners *****

Coming third in the People’s Choice Award at Toronto International Film Festival this year, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and Contraband writer Aaron Guzikowski’s dark thriller Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, packs a blood-chilling and sickening punch for any parent. It also questions just how far you would go to find a missing loved one, igniting a vigilante side. Its controversial element is further emphasised by an equally controversial performance by Jackman who gets far more bestial than Wolverine could ever dream of.

When Keller Dover’s (Jackman) young daughter and her friend go missing after a Thanksgiving meal with close friends, the Birches (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), he takes matters into his own hands, as he believes local detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is pursuing the wrong leads. As the pressure mounts and time is running out, how far will this desperate father go to reunite his family?

It could be argued just how ‘realistic’ is the father’s response in this story, acting merely as a convenient excuse to suggest some titillating, barbaric torture methods for kiddie abductors. This could affect how the rest of the film is received for some. That said the blind panic and subsequent frustration are a powerful and heady cocktail that fuels sentiment as the film’s eerie momentum moves in stops and starts.

Guzikowski’s story satisfyingly balances Dover’s actions with Loki’s reactions, throwing open debate about who is right or wrong in the escalating situation. Like Contraband, family is the key motivator so it’s easy to go along for the grim ride and pin it on the obvious bogeyman. There are some satisfying twists and action set-pieces too, keeping things stimulating enough throughout the two-hours-plus run-time.

Jackman is a compelling ‘man possessed’ in this, obviously tapping into his own paternal feelings to bring a wounded Dover alive. Fans may be shocked at just how aggressive the likeable actor gets and what inner demons he evokes. However, his character’s trump card is his missing daughter and the ‘unknown’ factor of being in such a dilemma that most of us will thankfully never find ourselves in – think Liam Neeson’s Taken, only more raw and graphic. For this reason, however bizarre and skewed events get, you are still behind Dover, flaws and all. His domineering presence also challenges Howard’s convincingly played, moralistic but guilt-ridden Birch and the futility of the law – as the fathers see it.

Actually, Gyllenhaal as Loki is the dark horse, who operates from behind a badge but has a mysterious, undisclosed background. We can guess Dover’s actions, and to an extent, Loki’s on the job, but Gyllenhaal’s easy and accommodating stance is punctuated by volatile self-loathing outbursts as Loki, even though the detective does play to type (the jaded wild card who always gets his man). Gyllenhaal and Jackman’s verbal confrontations bristle with controlled menace as we watch both pushed to their limits. Their conclusion will both thrill and divide opinion too, and the core reason for the abductions are not wholly clear, initially.

Nevertheless, Villeneuve’s taut directing, coupled with a strong story, gritty cinematography and captivating performances (including Little Miss Sunshine’s Paul Dano and Melissa Leo) make Prisoners a tantalising watch that will solicit and repulse in equal measure, like a gladiatorial show on display in a barren environment.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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White House Down ***

If you were a tad disappointed with John McClane’s escapades in the latest Die Hard film (A Good Day To Die, 2013), fear not, Independence Day director Roland Emmerich gives you a younger version of Willis in Channing Tatum as white-vest-wearing, gun-totting John Cale (even the name sounds similar) in White House Down. This is a less serious affair than the recent, brutal Olympus Has Fallen, as the famous address of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave gets another pounding by unfriendly visitors after the President of the Free World.

Emmerich’s White House Down knows where it stands and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel of action sieges or make some tedious political statement (though can’t resist subtly banging the world peace drum either). In fact, even the baddies are homegrown, with not an illegal alien in sight. It concentrates on bursts of well-placed action while wisely turning down proceedings a few notches to give us fleshed-out characters that don’t avoid the genre stereotypes but prick our interest as they have great rapport in the leads of Cale (Tatum) and President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). Indeed, if films of a full-on, destructive nature are your bag, this double-ticks the box – hardly surprising, given its $150 million budget at action guru Emmerich’s disposal.

Ex-military-turned-US Capitol Cop Cale is on his way to the White House to interview for a plum job in the President’s Secret Service. Taking his White House-obsessed teen daughter, Emily (Joey King), along for a visit, the pair get separated and caught up in a siege by terrorists who shut down the infamous address to the outside world. Cale finds he’s the only one in the know of the whereabouts of President Sawyer, and must use his skills to keep him safe and out of the hands of the heavily armoured terrorists while trying to find and protect his daughter.

As clichéd and patriotic as the plot appears – like some Team America real-life action flick, Emmerich’s film has an undeniable, instant likeability to it, from the very first explosion. It’s highly self-aware in its ode to Die Hard and other such action movies – complete with an elevator shaft moment and saucy nod to the director’s Independence Day attack on the historic building. Emmerich simply molds a genre he knows well to pull out all the stops and deliver a satisfying watch for fans who never cease to be thrilled by his attacks on prominent landmarks either.

Central to White House Down’s success is not just the tongue-in-cheek, copycat style of like films, but also the successful casting of Tatum opposite Foxx. There can be no doubt now that this film will cement Tatum’s action-man status as he’s a amiable and energetic force to be reckoned with and not at all unattractive to look at either – the secret of Willis/McClane’s initial success.

Tatum plays the stereotypical flawed hero with nine lives very comfortably, trying to save the day and face (in his estranged screen daughter’s eyes). Foxx is the kind of imaginary President in Sawyer, the all-round good guy, all Americans would love to vote for – and some parallels to Obama are not lost, like Sawyer’s love of Air Jordans footwear, for example. Tatum and Foxx smoothly rift off one another from the get-go, wisely dispensing with the customary chalk-and-cheese observations at the start to merely come together as just two ordinary guys trying to get out of the firing line.

One of the dumbest but most brilliantly entertaining sequences involve the pair that charges around the White House grounds in the Beast, an armoured tank of a car that seems to withstand any rocket attack, until a swimming pool gets in its way. Even in the midst of chaos, the dialogue is hilarious and comically timed and delivered by Tatum and Foxx. Seeing the President with a rocket launcher is the highlight moment in the wake of a wanton path of destruction.

Supporting the comedy duo is an appealing A-list cast of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and James Woods who are naturally underused but simply supply some gravitas to proceedings while stamping experience and ‘authority’ – in Jenkins case – in the corridors of power. Admittedly, they don’t escape stereotyping – as usual, all suited and booted and making new allegiances in a secret underground military hub, while Gyllenhaal’s disposed senior security advisor Finnerty cracks her own investigation of who is behind the threat from within the very same impenetrable walls. It’s inevitable of such a cast as the film’s about rescuing the White House and one man’s reputation (Cale’s) as a sub-plot. Plus it already runs at over 2 hours so further character analysis isn’t top priority.

Emmerich’s White House Down thunders from one far-fetched scenario to another, but all set within a good pace that doesn’t allow attention to wander, or for us to not care about the characters either. As predictable as it comes, this film is probably one of the most enjoyable, big-action flicks of recent months, like some guilty pleasure that deserves more credit than just another elaborate Emmerich display. If nothing else, Tatum has hit jackpot here, finally fitting the action-man shoes that G.I. Joe’s Duke didn’t.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Rush ****

You don’t have to appreciate the world of motoring racing to enjoy Ron Howard’s latest adrenaline-fuelled film, Rush. It’s more about an intriguing character stand off, much like the director’s 2008 film, Frost/Nixon that pitted the recently departed British interviewer against an American President. In all fairness, there are the angry buzzing sounds of the early Formula One cars to contend with, but the actual drama is what makes these two men tick. Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan get the dialogue and casting spot on, so easily draw you in for the bumpy ride.

The film follows the much documented rivalry in the 70s between British racing driver James Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth), a showy playboy who liked to party as much as he did driving fast, and Austria’s Niki Lauda (portrayed by Daniel Brühl), a more serious and methodical driver on the Formula One circuit who went on to have a near fatal crash on the fabled German track, the Nürburgring, on August 1, 1976, that severely burnt the driver.

Aside from some nifty editing that keeps the pace in top gear, plus some race recreation highlights for fans of the motor sport, the real triumph for Howard is pulling off the casting of Hemsworth and Brühl. Although the former perfectly personifies ladies man Hunt who initially frowned on sponsorship and nearly lost out in the Formula One running – the actor showing off a torso left over from his Thor days that the late driver would envy, it’s the Spanish actor who captures the screen and spookily embodies all the idiosyncrasies of the young Lauda, right down to the fixed, glazed stare and pursed lip.

Both actors rise above merely re-portraying their iconic characters – the obvious task at hand for such a genre but often the Achilles heal that makes other such biographical films a tedious experience if not fully fleshed out. Hemsworth and Brühl get beneath their drivers’ skins to expose their weaknesses that were their downfalls and their strengths that surfaced when the going got tough. This consistently volatile momentum keeps us on our toes, even if the story is already known to some watching.

To the rest, it makes for a fascinating insight into the kind of character attracted to dicing with death on a weekly basis, sat on top of a powerful engine in a fragile metal container on wheels. It’s compelling to see how each driver secretly earned the professional respect of the other, eventually, however they reached their goal and expressed their distain for each other’s methods. As it’s so well acted, Hemsworth and Brühl rapidly earn our respect too, as the film progresses.

There is also an impressive foreboding, gritty production value to the whole affair – with the colour ebbing away to the cinematography. This reaches a crescendo at the race meeting before the 1976 German Grand Prix so that by the time we’re outside, the atmosphere is as menacing as the wrath of the Gods, brilliantly setting up the terrifying accident for Lauda’s Ferrari’s near-death explosion.

This probably one of Howard’s finest films to date since Frost/Nixon as he’s an expert in making a mountain out of a molehill – taking intriguing characters in their own right then creating high drama and scintillating tension from their circumstances that manages to translate exceptionally well on screen. Indeed, Hemsworth redefines his career in this more serious role, while Brühl has firmly stamped his mark on the Hollywood circuit.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Jadoo ***

Do not go into this film on an empty stomach, you will be distracted by the dishes on display. Go into it thinking part self-exposition story, part Indian cuisine lesson, on behalf of the writer-director Amit Gupta (who gave us wartime drama Resistance back in 2011). Gupta’s second feature, Jadoo has a little too many ingredients that spoil the overall product – in fact it’s a little overcooked, without going into caricature, and often undercooked when it comes to some basic story facts. That said it’s very hard not to enjoy the sweet centre it offers too.

Brilliant chefs but rival Indian brothers Raja (Harish Patel) and younger Jagi (Kulvinder Ghir) fell out years before when a family recipe was sold off, and have not spoken since, even though they each own identically named restaurants on opposite sides of the road in Leicester’s ‘Golden Mile’. The trouble is, Raja is great at starters but not mains, and Jagi, mains but not starters, so both find they are loosing business but blame each other.

With the arrival of newly engaged Shalini (Amara Karan), Raja’s lawyer daughter and Jagi’s beloved niece who has been away for a while the brothers’ dispute has to be addressed. Shalini announces that she wants both of them to cook her wedding meal or she will not have an Indian wedding to her White husband-to-be, surgeon Mark (Tom Mison) and will leave for good. The brothers must put their differences aside to make her dream come true, but can they bury the hatchet?

Gupta’s semi-biographical tale – in that it’s based on his family link of food, family and film – is agreeable enough as it does reflect a personal touch and a hearty celebration of food. There is even an appearance by Indian food guru Madhur Jaffrey herself, judging a competition that further makes it feel like a TV cookery programme at times, but without all the ingredients and steps explained.

Indeed, Patel and Ghir are perfectly cast, but just why the source of the brothers’ feud takes so long to be revealed is distracting. We never seem to know exactly why this particular Indian family holds such culinary geniuses either – maybe it’s best to leave the intrigue intact? Things get even more frustrating at the very end, and even though Gupta wisely doesn’t fall into stereotype with a Bhangra beat finale, it still would have been nice to have everything served up, instead of the ‘mysterious’ tasting session that still fails to mention why this family is best at cooking.

With regards to cliché, the comedy value is naturally so – and perhaps unavoidable. Those of Indian heritage will probably find more personal touches to chuckle at, though this doesn’t spoil the general appetite for the rest. In fact, what Gupta has done is create a story that could be set within any culture where food is paramount, as is pride, so it translates very well.

It’s just a shame we get small morsels of subplot to chew on that lead nowhere, such as an excuse to have a colourful Holi celebration with some random best friends (whose significance is never explained but feature prominently in the end titling), a nightclub owner’s dirty tricks that never peak at anything, plus more importantly, why the groom-to-be being White is relevant at all to a story about two Indian brothers feuding and a daughter bringing them together, especially as Mison gives a very stiff, two-dimensional portrayal. In fact, Karan feels wooden at times too; annoyingly perky one minute then unconvincingly aggrieved the next.

Nevertheless, Gupta’s latest tale is a fond one that revels in the love of Indian cuisine so it gets our juices flowing in an altogether welcoming surrounding. It’s just that you do feel like you’re getting half a great feast for your price – like you’ve dined at Raja’s then at Jagi’s, but are still hungry for more facts.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Insidious: Chapter 2 ***

Meant to pick up where 2010’s Insidious left off, writer-director James Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell place us in the company of the unfortunate Lamberts again, only this time at grandma Lorraine’s (Barbara Hershey) residence. The first thing that springs to mind is just why Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) hasn’t run for the hills with kiddies in tow long before now, considering hubby Josh (Patrick Wilson) was outed as hosting the presence of a hideous old hag with bad Joker make-up at the end of the first film.

An emphasis on strong family bonds is needed to fight this demonic scourge, hence the filmmakers reunite the Lamberts, but things are far from rosy. Wan and Whannell do their best to answer questions from the first film in Chapter 2, while creating more confusion and convolution in the process at times. One thing Wan is top of his game at is keeping the tension tightly wound and still providing lots of jumpy moments in what is effectively horror panto.

The Lamberts – husband, wife and three young kids – are trying to rebuild their lives while staying with mother/grandma (in an equally scary house). However, they soon find they’re still dangerously connected to the spirit world as strange sounds are heard, inanimate objects move by themselves, and ghosts make themselves at home on the sofa.

This time they face the terrifying ordeal minus the services of murdered medium Elise (Lin Shaye) – killed at the hands of a possessed Josh in the first film. Desperate to find out why they’re being targeted and what mysterious childhood connection Josh has with the Further spirit no man’s land, the Lamberts call in ghost hunters Specs (Whannell himself) and Tucker (Angus Simpson) again, plus new spooks hunter Carl (Steve Coulter) who can make a connection with Elise and solve the mystery once and for all.

If astral projection wasn’t enough, there’s now time travel to contend with in the second episode: You have to hand it to Wan and Whannell, they like to make the average haunting affair more meatier by adding other supernatural topics to the mix. The time travel sounds a little over ambitious but it’s used to good effect to explain the current and previous film’s linked events. The trouble is things turn into a fairground attraction with comically painted ghouls who’ll only freak out those with a mannequin phobia.

The biggest thrill this time is watching a key family member’s sinister transformation, complete with nods to The Shining and Psycho. Fans of Wan’s recent hit horror The Conjuring will note elements of ‘the biggest threat coming from within’ in this too, though not as half effective.

In all fairness, Wan’s Insidious saga takes itself a little less seriously – cue Specs and Tucker at work that are not as idiotic this time around. Their banter is never as convincing in diffusing the tension though, as there’s so much going on and we already know what’s going to happen, like journeying to the Further. It’s fairly obvious whom to watch too, so that element of surprise is removed. All that’s at stake is timing of when things get uglier.

Wan can rely on the same cast as last time to take us along for the scary ride, all doing a serviceable job with the material. Hershey as Lorraine turns sleuth this time, while Wilson gets to be insidious – something quite refreshing, character-wise, for the actor, a flavour of which we got to see at the end of the 2010 film. It’s especially thrilling given Wilson always plays a ‘nice guy’ too. Byrne is the tour de force of the piece as tormented and emotionally battered Renai who convinces us of her plight to protect against all odds.

The question isn’t, is Insidious: Chapter 2 as scary as the first – it just further explains events while throwing up other queries. Naturally, The Conjuring was based on true events so it’s bound to be more effective in the chills factor. The real question here is, is there enough to drag out the ideas into a third film, however much the ending in Chapter 2 tries to whet the appetite for such? Still, who knows what subject matter Wan and Whannell will try to weave in next when we’ve had classic haunted house in the first and domestic thriller in the second, according to Wan. The fact will be the writer-director will do the best job he can, putting to use a good array of horror tools and production experience. That’s always a treat to watch.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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