The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ****

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The sequel to Marc Webb’s 2012 reboot was always going to be bigger, punchier and more stuffed with effects to satisfy the crowd. Thankfully, even though these qualities are abundant – in a bid to not lose out to Marvel’s Avengers, some might say – the second 3D film in the series does not forget the intriguing pairing of star Andrew Garfield opposite Emma Stone. In fact, it develops their nuanced relationship as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy further in this, still with a youthful tone that gives Peter a ‘Peter Pan’ vulnerability.

Juggling ruthless villains, saving bystanders, graduating, investigating his parents’ untimely disappearance and a sizzling relationship with his secret Spidey identity at the best of times, Peter Parker in his alter ego of The Amazing Spider-Man is unintentionally creating and collecting more enemies with a personal grudge. Enter Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), the latter once Peter’s old school friend Harry Osborn, but now heir to his recently departed father’s giant Osborn Corporation. Meanwhile, Peter still feels guilty about dragging Gwen into potential danger, after promising her dead father (a ghostly Denis Leary) to keep her safe and away from trouble.

Webb keeps things ticking along thrillingly in the opening scenes that are reminiscent of The Dark Knight in action-packed stunts to keep us breathless for more to come. It is a senses overload. The fate of the Parker parents is sewn up in this for those happy with some padded back-story to clear them of all abandonment charges of the crushingly sensitive Peter. But this is not the film’s sticking point.

What is, is the danger of it becoming like Spider-Man 3 (2007) with too many villains in play who are thrown into the arena but never fully developed so we understand their personal transformation. Indeed, Colm Feore’s scheming Donald Menken of the Osborn boardroom is thinly used just as a plot driver for the Goblin’s birth, for example, in a spurious sub-plot. Even Felicity Jones’s Felicia is squandered, another intriguing female character with an intriguing character arc that does not go anywhere in this.

That said Foxx’s neon-glowing baddie Electro may well get his finest hour against Spider-Man but even he is side-stepped in the interest stakes by DeHaan’s emerging Goblin that Electro’s electrifying head-to-head finale does not burn as brightly as you would expect, and is again used as a plot driver for Gwen.

Perhaps the problem for all these surplus villains, but ironically the best aspect of the film is the powerhouse trio of Garfield, Stone and DeHaan’s characters that are explored for all their faults, weaknesses and troubles that anyone else pales into insignificance. Webb does well to make the Peter-Gwen love affair more alive and tricky in this, cultivating some incredibly realistic squabbles and touchingly funny moments, as well as some harrowing ones that cements Gwen as a significant character in her own right.

It is DeHaan’s gig though, whenever he is on screen, re-emphasising the actor’s acting prowess, even opposite Garfield who is given ample space to take Peter on an even greater emotional ride this time. DeHaan commands the screen as the wounded and angry young heir, and his transformation into villainy is even more striking because like Electro – who gets a brief scene to ‘turn anti-Spidey’ in stereotypical fashion, he does not want to become a monster but is resigned to his fate. This is the crux of The Amazing Spider-Man series that all involved are ‘damaged goods’ trying to fit into a sense of normality, whatever that might be.

Webb fans will not be disappointed with his second film and spending 3D bucks on it, though perhaps a tad frustrated with the overload of undeveloped baddie leads. They will love the next saga in the Peter-Gwen story that reaches a crescendo and increases the Parker pain while revelling in a cocker, more agile Spider-Man this time. As a result of great casting, this franchise leaves you wanting more so the Spider-Man is still amazing and can easily hold its own against the Avengers clan.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: We Are The Best! *****

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There is an instant vitality and endearing quality to Swedish writer-director Lukas Moodysson’s new coming-of-age drama Vi är bäst! (We Are The Best!) that gradually warms from within. It’s not just the experimental buzz of youth and the promise of reliving your memories through the voice of punk music, but being placed in a privileged position as a viewer to re-experience those key moments when adulthood beckons. Moodysson’s colourful production offers just that, inviting us into the personal lives of three young girls growing up at an exciting and pivotal age, a clash of innocence and anarchy at play.

It’s Stockholm in the 1980s and punk is not quite dead. 13-year-old punk music lovers Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) decide to form a band when a prank at a local youth centre escalates – the trouble is neither of them can play an instrument. They call upon the string-plucking talents of loner Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a good Christian girl who is befriended by them and asked to join the band. As their music develops, so too, do their relationships blossoming on the brink of adulthood, complete with the difficult choices of such a tender age that could threaten their tight bond and their band’s future.

Moodysson takes partner Coco Moodysson’s comic novel and really fleshes out the three characters, giving them real emotion, challenges and ‘normal’ complex family backgrounds. We get to know Bobo and Klara in particular, skulking around in overgrown woolly jumpers and each sporting individual statement hairdos, long before the real transformation is awakened by their music. Their enthusiasm and determination to be different in an androgynous fashion is infectious and ultimately fun to watch, then we are helpless to witness the harrowing ride when adulthood is less than kind.

All three young actresses excel in their roles, totally natural in front of the camera that it’s quite unbelievable they make their debut here. Grosin is like a smaller version of Rooney Mara in the making, an exciting firecracker of talent to watch burn brighter, and Barkhammar and LeMoyne have equally rosy futures, thanks to some great casting.

The story weaves in relevant social issues without being glaringly obvious or preachy, so complimenting the anti-system roots of punk. What’s further refreshing is how passionate these kids are about their music from the start, so the initial comical situation we find this budding musical enlightenment in – affluent, (but screw-up, as is always the case with Scandi dramas) suburban Sweden – soon feels very poignant and fitting. It’s the perfect setting for something exciting and fresh to emerge. The punk music in the film is background noise really, a brief lesson in Scandi punk, but it’s the ‘we hate sport’ song the girls pen from a local perspective that sticks for anyone who hated gym at school – or even school itself.

Rightfully so, We Are The Best! title aptly suits Moodysson’s charming and winning journey into adulthood, accompanied by a music style that encourages a venting of mixed emotions, as well as the chance to continuously strive for better, and seek fulfilment through musical change.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Quiet Ones ***

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Hammer Films attempts to recapture its glory days with new horror The Quiet Ones, designed to play mind games while gradually unsettling the viewer as to the ethics of what transpires. It all sounds like a solid, nostalgic premise with a touch of the demonic – though reliant on our faith in what we witnessing through the fallback words of ‘inspired by actual events’. In fact, rather than continue to question the colourful individuals’ mindsets to really set the cat amongst the pigeons, it reverts back to obvious horror-flick shock tactics as a safety net, without being confident of trying something new.

Set in the 1970s, and based on Dr. A.R.G. Owen’s real-life ‘Philip Experiment’ – the creation of ghosts through focused mind power, university professor Coupland (Jared Harris) leads a team of student researchers, Krissi (Erin Richards) and Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne), on an a controversial supernatural exploration of how ghosts are ‘invented’, involving experiments on a young and seemingly disturbed girl called Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke). Naïve, young cameraman Brian (Sam Claflin) catches events on film, growing increasingly troubled by what he is witnessing.

What sounds like something exciting and fresh on paper soon becomes the norm on film; the doe-eyed girl in white nightie with split personality locked in a room and having episodes that shake the foundations while her ‘captors’ try and avoid her demonic wrath. Indeed, Cooke does a superb job of the mediocre writing material in keeping us intrigued as to whether her current predicament is self-induced or otherwise, mixing fragility with a sinister, attention-seeking strength that plays nicely opposite Clafin’s protective and naïve nature as he is sucked in. The other actors also deliver reliable performances, none more so than Harris who is needed as the commanding figure in the fold, playing manipulative despot with a lethal charm, almost satanic in himself.

And this is where director John Pogue’s film could have elevated itself above the rest of the chiller thrillers: the quietly subconscious exposé of the people doing the experiment, which is of more disturbing and psychological interest here. Even Brian’s involvement does not go uncriticised as he is a willing party to an extent, and has questionable feelings for the ‘subject’. Coupland is rich for the picking, especially as some of his past is flagged near the end, as well as his growing sadistic nature. Instead, we get bizarre ectoplasm spewing, clawing moments and prompted jumps, all to the noisy soundtrack of rock band Slade. There is an attempt at character exploration but not enough – such as a brief dalliance between teacher and student that just comes off as an excuse for a dirty older man to paw a younger model. Other ‘paranormal’ occurrences are left hanging too, leading to a feeling of being short-changed.

There is also the head-scratching flaw of ‘found-footage’ films where the camera op becomes the front-of-camera subject – so who’s filming? The Quiet Ones does an excellent job of reproducing the soft-focused cinematography of the 70s in parts, accentuating the sexual hedonism of the times but then abruptly mixes this with more modern-styled horror production techniques that don’t quite marry together – better the former to recapture the full Hammer heyday effect.

In short, The Quiet Ones is a confused concept with great, star-quality performances that are its saving grace. It is chocked full of great ideas and could have been so much more. The studio should have had more faith in the intriguing psychology of its real-life and inspiring back-story rather than to cheapen it with the usual horror tropes, some of which are getting a tad tiring.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Motel Life ***

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The Polsky Brothers, Alan and Gabe’s directorial debut, The Motel Life, is a gradual and quietly moving, low-key affair. It’s an adaptation of Richmond Fontaine frontman Willy Vlautin’s 2007 novel of the same name, pivoting on the central character-driven performances from Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff – the latter of which, especially, re-emphasises the actor’s often forgotten talent here.

Frank (Hirsch) and Jerry Lee Flannigan (Dorff) are brothers and orphans, two of life’s perpetual losers but sharing a strong sibling bond. As boys, they make a promise to their dying mother to stick together, whatever. Their existence since has been living in motel rooms, with alcoholic Frank’s stories and one-legged Jerry Lee’s animations as their much-needed escapism. One night, Jerry Lee returns to their rented room to reveal he was involved in a hit and run, resulting in the death of a small boy. Panicked, the brothers decide to move on, but not before Jerry Lee winds up in hospital. Meanwhile, as Frank gathers what they need to go back on the road, he decides to make contact at their destination with his old love, Annie (fleeting appearance by Dakota Fanning), the daughter of a prostitute.

Starting on a low ebb, this story could have spiralled out of control into a glut of self-indulgent despair, but it’s tenderness and ironic ‘hope’ – stemming from the brothers’ will to survive and their obvious talents – keep things on an even keel as events around them unravel. Without the stimulating adult animation (buxom naked ladies and scenes of mutilation) and David Holmes’ score, it’s debatable whether this film offers anything new to the indie road movie genre, as the brothers’ predicament seems all too familiar.

That said Dorff effortlessly paints a miserable and tragic figure as Jerry Lee opposite Hirsch as Frank who is as unlucky as his brother, except for one enlightening moment where both Frank and you believe his luck is changing. This gives the otherwise hapless tale a little boost of inspiration.

The actors share a very intimate scene that is simple and beautifully enacted, both tender and heartfelt to highlight the unconditional sibling bond. Nevertheless, the low-key nature of the rest of The Polskys’ bleak plot means some of the nuances in the brothers’ very different characteristics are sometimes overshadowed by the sudden inject of the stark animation that chops up the scene as things get interesting with the characters themselves. Still, the ending manages to marry the uneven parts, tugging at the heartstrings as hope finally wins through.

The Motel Life will share a very special place in an indie fan’s heart, someone who appreciates a simple story about the strength of sibling unity when the chips are down. The real tragedy is The Polsky Brothers’ well-meaning tale may not have enough of the compelling characters of other such films or the edgy drama to travel the full distance at the box office.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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