Boyhood *****

boyhood

Gone is the usual 24-hour period that most of his films are set in, as filmmaker Richard Linklater achieves his finest work yet with Boyhood, a deeply affecting chronicle of one boy’s life, filmed over a decade using the same actor. It will naturally resonate most with parents who are changing nappies one minute to waving goodbye to their college offspring the next – where does the time go, you might ask? That said anyone will appreciate the passing of time too quickly when it matters most – indeed, we’ve all been guilty of sounding like mum/dad at times, addressing the younger generation, saying “gosh, I can’t believe how big you are now!” Boyhood encapsulates this poignant observation over two hours and 44 minutes, but does so, so gradually and with such a natural flare that it’s hard to imagine you are watching fiction while witnessing the actors grow up on screen at the same time.

Mason is a Texan boy, aged 5, played by Ellar Coltrane – watch out for this actor. We follow his rather unremarkable (it’s so remarkable to watch) life story until he reaches the age of 18. He has an older sister, Samantha (played by Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, who nearly pulled out of the project mid-way through). Their single mother (Patricia Arquette) who makes very bad partner choices in men and is a perpetual student at heart raises them both, and times are often tough. Dad (Ethan Hawke) is on the scene, seeing them weekends and trying to engage with his kids as much as possible. We witness (like a fly on the wall) Mason’s ups and downs of growing up in an ever-changing environment.

There’s a sort of ‘Big Brother’ aspect to this film in that nothing of any dramatic consequence happens but it’s mesmerising to watch – perhaps we need to connect with any fragment of experience of this boy and his family have to subconsciously commit. At the same time, there are emotional moments, like a car crash waiting to happen that don’t abruptly punctuate the plot but happen as a matter of course – we are just proven right, sometimes tragically. It’s this natural progression that Linklater has developed and nailed that is the film’s seminal triumph.

Acting-wise, Coltrane is fascinating to watch, laid back and genuinely easy-going but expertly brewing some pockets of anger at times as Mason. We feel a natural affinity towards him and crave a good ending for him as we feel we have been privy to his upbringing – both actor and character. It will be interesting to see Coltrane outside of this project, in terms of acting ability. Linklater’s daughter as Samantha adds the feisty angle, our challenger in the situation (our voice, in some respects), following an intriguing character arc into a grounded adult. However, Arquette and Hawke add the backbone and gravitas that allow the younger actors to thrive, both giving equally splendid performances without becoming too clichéd, as is always the concern with such a tale.

Boyhood allows you to go with the tide, to relish events before you while being judgemental at the same time (to be proven right or wrong). Its characters are flawed and very real, a credit to Linklater’s painstaking film-making in keeping a fluidity and authenticity throughout the 12-year period, while asking us to be patient in the outcome. It’s quite masterful movie-making and a must-see – parent or no parent, you can’t help but be moved and impressed.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Begin Again ****

begin-again

Once writer-director John Carney’s latest soul-searching drama set in New York initially sounds clichéd and egocentric, a sort of smug music set pandering to a trendy elite of snobbish music aficionados. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth, and the soundtrack grows on you as the characters’ and their search for acceptance do. This mish-mash of personalities really does compliment each other on their musical journey, making you back them on their endeavours.

Drunk and disgraced music exec Dan (Mark Ruffalo) stumbles upon a bar after one of the worst days of his life to find British songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley) singing her song to a less than enthusiastic crowd. Her best friend Steve (James Corden) decides it’s the right thing for her to do following a break-up with rising star and now ex Dave (Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine). Dan is won over, and tries to win Gretta around to the idea that he can produce her, but Gretta’s not into being commercial – the route Dave has taken. The pair come up with the idea of recording an album on the streets of New York, a project that helps them both get back on their feet, professionally and personally.

Carney gets his casting pitch perfect, with Ruffalo giving one of his finest and most absorbing performances of his career yet as a broken Dan, a contradiction of emotions but passionate about bringing good music to the masses. Tinged with warmth, spirit and good humour, as the story progresses, Knightley’s rather guarded Gretta blossoms, with each character bringing out the best in each other through music. Knightley doesn’t give anything remarkably different from her usual prissy self in such a role but there is a noticeable change in maturity of character here that better suits her in this genre. Even Levine is highly commendable in his debut role opposite Knightley in some emotional scenes, while Corden tones down the cheeky chappie bit, again, finding thoughtfulness to his character rather than ploughing ahead in full comedic throttle.

It’s perhaps the film’s adoration of authentic ‘street music’ and the enthusiastic and enjoyable performances – Keira does sing in this – that will stick with you. This passionate drama has a cracking soundtrack worth catching. Ironic, considering the rest of the story is a well-worn one from the Big Apple about a hotchpotch of people trying to ‘find their way’. Carney does well to keep the focus on the music and not on the usual romance. In this sense there is something slightly unique to Begin Again for those wanting a little zest injected into the genre and some musical numbers that get you in the street party mood.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Transformers: Age of Extinction ***

transformers4

It’s another Michael Bay robot-carnage fest in the fourth instalment, Age Of Extinction that only feels strangely different because of a more intriguing cast this time around. Gone are bland, boyish LaBeouf and the wisecracking US marines. In comes proven screen action hero, Mark Walhberg, Stanley Tucci as a megalomaniac corporate man and Kelsey Grammer as the rogue government spook – all posing an interesting choice for such a franchise.

Prepubescent boys need not sulk though, as the leggy hottie is still there in blonde Nicola Peltz playing Tessa, Wahlberg’s sultry teen daughter in the prerequisite crotch-skimming denim hot pants (first introduced by a Bay upwards ‘pins’ pan for full, lingering effect) – bet Wahlberg is feeling the days of playing the hot young interest are gone. Oh, and the cheesy script’s even whiffier. BUT the unbelievable truth, folks, is Transformers 4 does entertain, however much the naysayers want to knock it, and that’s because the cast redeem the whole alien-human affair.

Wahlberg is down-on-his-luck Cade Yeager, widower, father to pouty 17-year-old Tessa and inventor (regurgitator of metal cr*p, basically). A chance find at an old cinema, left derelict after the previous robot war in Chicago (nod to Transformers 3), turns out to be more than just a rusty old truck. Unfortunately, this puts Yeager and his family on the government fugitive list as Autobot sympathisers – since the war, we learn no bots are to be trusted again and nobody should be harbouring them either. Father and daughter, along with the latter’s racing-driver boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) go on the run and eventually help save Transformer and humankind (again) with the help of the Autobots-in-hiding from an intergalactic bounty hunter, among other foes, all set in Hong Kong.

Bay’s saving grace is Wahlberg because he automatically instils credibility as a solid action figure, combined with reliable Tucci who has the devilish time of his life as Joshua Joyce, a Steve Jobs-styled power figure – even Grammer relishes his villainous part. As a result of the father-daughter insight – however comically wooden and clichéd the script maybe (deliberate tongue-in-cheek references at times), there feels like a bit more heart and soul invested: You even feel sorry for the premature ‘death’ of an Autobot ‘in the name of science’ too.

The unfortunate fact is Bay overcooks his climax battle scenes to the point that the tangled mesh of robot and crumbling building just become tediously samey and too drawn out (165 minutes to be precise). Indeed, it’s a bit of a novelty seeing downtown Hong Kong getting a trashing, instead of yet another US city, complete with a Bourne/Bond-styled high-rise-flats chase involving Wahlberg doing his best Spidey impression. However, what could have been an interesting bounty-hunting sub-plot giving hints to Optimus Prime’s (voiced again by Peter Cullen) origins gets submerged by crashing and bashing metal. That said there is usually an impressive action sequence to be had, such as the Autobots verses Joyce’s replicas on a highway. This looks great on an IMAX screen too. Oh, and the ending sets us up for another Autobot offensive – you even wish Optimus Prime would growl “I’ll be back…”

Bay delivers spades more of what Transformers fans want from previous films – those not yet fatigued by incomprehensible robotic lumps colliding, and gives us a cast to care about. Age Of Extinction will not turn the tide of cynicism surrounding the franchise but it may prick interest with Wahlberg and co at the helm, not to mention how Bay plans to get Autobot revenge, like some robo-Star Wars episode perhaps? There is still a tingle of excitement to be had.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Goddess **

goddess

“Odd” does not begin to describe this film from Babe: Pig in the City writer Mark Lamprell. It’s not he story, per se, which seems remotely tangible and will initially strike a chord with many a former-career-woman-cum-stay-at-home-mum. But just who it’s targeting exactly remains a mystery, as it seems to suggest us women can’t expect to have it all, so be content with rearing the sprogs you’ve chosen to bring into the world.

Disguising this alarming ‘moral’ behind some music and the promise of Ronan Keating half-undressed (throughout over half of his scenes) in his debut screen role just doesn’t cut the mustard, frankly. Goddess initially conjures fantasies of another quirky, camp Australian smash hit like Strictly Ballroom, pre-viewing, but it just isn’t in the same league, however comical and entertaining some moments are.

Elspeth Davies (musical stage star Laura Michelle Kelly) is an English mum-of-two married to whale marine biologist James (Keating), now living the isolated country life in Tasmania, Australia. The other local mums aren’t that friendly and don’t involve her in their social activities, and James is always away. She often goes into daydream mode about her former life as a singer, recreating scenarios to keep her sane. Then James buys Elspeth a webcam so they can chat while he’s away at sea.

However, Elspeth soon finds James is not around much, so turns the camera on her, sending her ‘kitchen sink’ song-and-dance performances out there online. Her following grows and her routines are discovered by a city ad agency run by the dominant Cassandra Wolfe (Magda Szubanski) who wants her to be the ‘Goddess’ face of a new laptop range for women. However, Elspeth needs to be present and fully committed, requiring her to come to the city. In a quandary, though suddenly finding her voice, Elspeth realises there is a price to pay for ‘wanting it all’.

It’s the lingering moral that knocks this film’s rating, sadly. Kelly is (reluctantly) very likeable, however irritatingly bouncy and sickly sweet Elspeth is most of the time – there is a dark side though, thankfully. The scenes with the other mums are very familiar, adding that ‘ugly sisters’ element to what is effectively a present-day Cinderella tale where the fairy-tale goal is not love but the career. Whether Kelly can act is still debatable, but her singing and dancing can’t be faulted. Keating doesn’t have to ‘act’ as such, getting away with a lot in a debut role by merely showing some buffed flesh then doing a lone ‘Titanic’ number on the bow of a ship in one of the cheesiest scenarios this film has to offer.

Wolfe comes into her own as a larger-than-life caricature of fairy-tale proportions but again, surprisingly, is not as two-dimensional as you first think. That said her character, allowed to lazily perpetuate the myth that female success equals showing flesh in the ad world, is a little disappointing (however true the situation). It’s perhaps the fact that the film does not offer up a savoury solution to the ultimate female dilemma of ‘kids vs career’ that can’t redeem the whole thing and mars the enjoyment factor.

In this respect, the promise of a fun musical story of modern-day pressures of motherhood gets lost in latter-day sexist thinking. If Lamprell is being tongue-in-cheek about the latter, it doesn’t translate well enough to bring out the true ‘inner goddess’ of this film.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Cold In July ****

cold-in-july

Horror director Jim Mickle (We Are What We Are) has done the near impossible with his latest flick, Cold In July, and turned the usual home-violation thriller into a fresh revenge movie with tangible emotion. No one is prepared for where the plot veers, even though one of its stars, Dexter actor Michael C. Hall is expected to employ those TV serial killer skills against the guilty when his young family is under threat.

This alone would have made a half decent thriller with Hall cast in the lead, but Mickle goes one stage further. In addition to all the menace hanging in the air like a thick fog, the film has the most catchy 80s soundtrack heard in a long time and is full of humorous 80s gimmicks that seem to settle events like a light-hearted breather before the characters deal with the next evil in their path to justice.

Hall plays mullet-wearing Richard Dane, a local businessman and father whose family experiences a break-in one night, resulting in the culprit being shot dead by Dane. However, it’s quickly discovered that the intruder was unarmed and is being written off to be someone else the police want to finger. Added to which, the supposed father of the dead man, Russel (Sam Shepard), begins to stalk the family, resulting in police protection at home. However, nothing is what it seems as Dane soon discovers mob links to the local police as they try to frame Russel, leading to a far more uglier truth being uncovered with the help of flamboyant investigator and Russel’s old acquaintance Jim Bow (Don Johnson).

It’s hard to do this film the justice it deserves without ruining the surprise twists and turns and curveballs it has to offer. Although there is an eerie malice at play, the company of the three unlikely compadres, Dane, Russel and Bow is somewhat appeasing as they bring justice to something far more sinister at play. In the downtime, we get an insight into what makes each man tick, resulting in the age-old saying of ‘never (ever) judge a book by its cover’, something that Mickle has toyed with in making this. This keeps the status quo sumptuously unique, sprinkled with a bit of humour and shock brutality.

Cold In July, like a retro western in mentality, challenges our rights from wrongs about what should/would be done in a similar situation, engaging us further. It’s like peeling back an onion – it pains you as each layer is exposed, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth but a tear in the eye as to how tragic things can get. There is also a sense of uneven ground as the usual authoritative avenues are not available, so the job lies in unfamiliar hands to deal with the fallout.

The casting is simply pitch-perfect, as is the acting, with Hall, Shepard and Johnson playing off each other, all very different screen characters but whose personalities just gel as they share a common purpose. For this reason alone, as well as a fresh plot and cracking soundtrack, Cold In July is well worth a view and will prove surprisingly memorable and very satisfying a long time afterwards.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Chef ***

chef

This is the kind of film that should come with a warning: not just “eat beforehand” but “writer-director vanity project alert”. If you’ve never fancied Jon Favreau films, this one isn’t setting out to change your mind either. Chef is easily consumable though, and Favreau does have another competitor to contend with in each scene – the food.

It’s the same-old ‘road journey’ metaphor at play, learning from one’s mistakes when it comes to those that matter around us, while not losing that individuality and spirit that makes the character (hopefully) appealing. Writer-director Favreau also stars as notorious celebrity chef Carl Casper who loses his job at Riva’s (Dustin Hoffman) restaurant following the consequences of a bad review by food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt).

Struggling to see his estranged kid, Percy (Emjay Anthony), at the best of times, Carl is at a loss as to what to do, even though he knows he’s got some great signature dishes to share and bundles of talent. A meeting with his ex-wife’s (Sofia Vergara) ex beau, businessman Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) starts a catalyst of life/career-changing events with former sous-chef and good friend Martin (John Leguizamo) and his son in tow as they take the US by storm in a food truck.

The film’s plot is mapped out from the start –- it’s just a matter of watching the car crash of events leading to the moment of revelation. There is nothing new in this respect. However, the journey taken is by all means still an entertaining one, and Favreau’s big personality certainly suits that of his character. But just when things get a little predictable, out comes the food prep/cooking to keep you truly distracted, so it’s hard to tell whether the feel-good factor is a genuine investment in the film, or you’re being wooed by the culinary delights and balmy heat of the kitchen/food truck. It’s basically food porn with morals stirred in, and it’s as though Favreau has made a film about his passions with no apologies, folks.

There are some nice performances from the ensemble cast, with Leguizamo playing to type – that of the dependable pal, while Platt oozes amused malevolence as the critic. It seems Vergara and Downey Jr. (and Scarlett Johansson btw who plays a sexy maître d’) are just around to look ‘good’ while Hoffman brings an A-list name to his A-list restaurant. All offer solid but forgettable turns in this. Again, the ‘kid’ in the film gets even greater screen exposure than past gigs: meet Emjay Anthony as the ever understandable son, doing what kids do which is control the world via social media like some super villain deciding our fate. Those not in the know about the power of social media will learn a thing or two here, so there’s some interesting marketing ideas to be had.

All in all, it’s hard to knock a film that offers up a little bit of life-lesson-learning, emotional drama, and loads of mouth-watering food – unless the thought of sitting through over two hours of Favreau turns your stomach. On the whole, Chef is a funny, poignant crowd-pleaser that won’t leave a bad taste in the mouth and will fill you up nicely.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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