Unbroken ***


This may well have Oscar baiting stamped all over it, but no one can deny the life story of Louis Zamperini is not made for the big screen. If it weren’t a true story, the screenwriters would be accused of ‘over egging the war hero’ pudding. It’s also clear why director Angelina Jolie fought to direct it. Unbroken aptly describes the gutsy nature of its protagonist, Zamperini, first depicted as a troublesome boy with no prospects. The problems with Unbroken lie not with the richness of the plot, but its director’s need to wring out every last torturous scene – as if the first few times don’t illustrate this enough.

’71 and Starred Up actor Jack O’Connell plays Zamperini, who first discovers he has a knack for running when sprinting away from the law as a wayward Italian boy growing up in 1920s America. Coached by his older brother, he becomes an Olympic athlete for the US team who competes in Hitler’s 1936 Olympic games. War breaks out and Zamperini is drafted as a bombardier in the air force, and stationed out in the Pacific.

On a search and rescue flight, he and his crew crash into the ocean, leaving only him and two others alive. He survives for forty-seven days at sea in a life raft, only for the Japanese to pick him up and take him back to a jungle camp as a prisoner of war. For the next three years he is sent to various Japanese prison camps, where he is subjected to torture regularly, mainly under the evil eye of camp commander Watanabe (Japanese singer-songwriter Miyavi).

O’Connell delivers yet another highly impressive performance as Zamperini and takes on his most physically gruelling role ever, reducing a toned physic to a bag of bones as a PoW. The actor certainly deserves a nod come Awards night. Miyavi in his second screen outing is quite remarkable too. Indeed, he acting is one of the film’s fortes.

Unbroken is very much like two different types of survival film, with adrift at sea, beating off predators as harrowing to watch as life as a PoW. The former shows Mother Nature’s toll on the physical and mental state, with drawn out scenes necessary to demonstrate the torture of dying slowly in extreme temperatures. The same can’t be said of the latter part of the film.

There is a bit too much PoW camp brutality with little repercussion. It just seems to serve as emphasis of the title of one man’s unbroken spirit – which we’re already more than respectful of. One such example is watching an entire PoW camp punch Zamperini in the face as punishment for a lack of respect. It just runs too long, its power lost after the first two punches are dealt. Sometimes, what’s left to the imagination is far more powerful.

The Zamperini verses Watanabe battle of wills gets lost in the last stand off too, and lessens in effect the longer the sequence runs. There is a whole richness of their odd ‘relationship’ that seems lacking, considering the real Zamperini sought out to make peace with the man after the war, only for Watanabe to refuse to see him. It’s not fully explained what Watanabe’s reasons were for singling out Zamperini, and this aspect gets diluted more as the pair eyeball each other for long periods. This was the strength of last year’s The Railway Man. It had consequences and different tonal shifts to it, rather than powering on full throttle with scenes of brutal endurance. This is not to say Unbroken isn’t affecting – it certainly is, but it would have far greater impact with changes in pace and intensity.

Unbroken is another utterly remarkable human being story brought to life with outstanding performances, especially from ever solid O’Connell. It is also an endurance test in itself for the viewer, both exhilarating and extraordinary as well as bloated and indulgent. The post-war story is even more fascinating, but added as the usual series of slates before the end credits roll, like a sobering after thought. Zamperini’s story needed to be told as a mark of respect. Jolie does it justice but needs to put in the detail and tonal elements in her next project as she did in directing debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, to really stamp her authority in the epic directing arena.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Annie ***


Beasts of the Southern Wild child star Quvenzhané Wallis drags the character of Annie kicking and screaming into the 21st Century in the 2014 remake. For starters, she often reminds us she’s “not an orphan” but a “foster kid” – a term more commonly recognised these days with unconventional families the norm. She’s still singing and dancing, albeit to more current, ‘street-vamped’ versions of the classic songs but the bare bones are still there for fans.

There is also a heavy use of social media throughout the film – just so you get the point that it’s set in present day. This makes you think, surely, the search for her parents would have been over a lot sooner with all the social platforms at work? Or maybe Annie’s parents aren’t as tech savvy?

The story follows Annie, a foster kid living with washed-up foster mum Miss Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) and fellow female foster kids in a run-down apartment in Harlem, New York. Each Friday Annie visits an Italian restaurant – the place her parents left her along with a note and half a locket, in the hope they will return to collect her.

Events take a turn for the worse, leading Annie straight into the path of neurotic billionaire businessman Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) who is on the election trail to become New York’s next mayor. What starts out as a press ‘photo opportunity’ to get higher poll ratings, with Stacks spending time with Annie, turns into a father-daughter relationship.

Wallis is a little ray of sunshine in this, instantly loveable as Annie, while sometimes too ‘cookie’ sweet to stomach. However, the latter just goes to annoy the more uptight characters around her in a gleeful way, causing your smile to linger longer than you imagine on more than one occasion.

Initially, Diaz seems like an unlikely (miscast) Hannigan but soon wins you over – she’s as much of a big kid as her charges, and has more of an apparent reason for turning to booze than the original Hannigan. It seems ‘must-have solo gags’ have been added into Diaz’s contract, maybe for the film’s producers, including Jay-Z and the Smiths, Will and Jada, to get their full money’s worth out of the comic star, but these Diaz quips can grate.

Foxx has a lot of fun – and is value for money – as the germophobe Stacks. He also has one of the campiest scenes ever in recent cinematic history, with a singing number performed to Annie high above Manhattan in a helicopter that is beyond cringe – it’s just pain hilarious. Rose Byrne plays smart sidekick Grace, Stack’s long-suffering PA (and love interest), while Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is chauffeur/bodyguard Nash, the modern-day Punjab; the more eagle-eyed of you will spot the homage in the name of the place across the street where Stacks first meets Annie.

There are some interesting socio-economic factors that don’t go a miss; Annie is an African America in deprived inner city area, and although a bright kid, has fallen through the educational cracks and not been taught to read. This point is further highlighted in a charity dance mob scene at the end. Let’s face it, Annie as a story was always a moral consciousness prod.

In the meantime, this film is full of gadgetry (and product placement), from phones to the latest high-tech living arrangements – in case the adult audience members’ interest in the basic story starts to wane. And no current kid’s film would be complete without a saturation of mobile/app/social usage, (lazily) marking out the tension points in the film.

Annie 2014 is almost a mild spoof of the original film. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, though the serious issues simmer below the surface. With running gags – like Stack’s pollen problem to the kleptomaniac social services lady (a crazy turn from Stephanie Kurtzuba), it is meant to be a fun panto time with songs you recognise. It’s a cold-stone heart that doesn’t come out of the cinema with as much as a smile.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Dumb and Dumber To ***


It’s been 20 years since Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels gave us the most idiotic but loveable characters Lloyd and Harry. If you didn’t take to them in 1994, you aren’t going to suddenly fall enamoured with they now. The second film is just two ‘grown up’ versions – in the physical not mental sense.

This time Harry discovers he has a grown-up daughter after picking up long-lost mail. He and best pal Lloyd go on a road trip to find her, especially as Harry needs a kidney donor match.

The original film’s directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, have done nothing different this time around. Their characters still say the most stupid things, with Carrey and Daniels still gurning and pulling childish faces throughout. Far from it being described as ‘misogynistic’ , the boys merely ‘engage brain before mouth’, showing their immaturity, which is the whole purpose of the characters.

There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, such as the hapless pair tracking down Harry’s offspring using a return address with hilarious results. Kathleen Turner is onboard as no-nonsense Fraida Felcher, a fling from the lads’ youth, adding some sharp, gravely (sexy) retorts to compliment the pair’s idiotic ones.

The format is very similar to the first film, with each (naturally) going on a coming-of-age journey. This time it’s an interesting prospect just how either will change, if at all, knowing parental responsibility beckons. That gives the plot a little more edge.

For fans, blind, wheelchair-bound Billy (Brady Bluhm) adds a touch nostalgia, as does the trusty doggy mobile – though not featuring as centre-stage as before. Harry and Lloyd have their usual ‘unfunny’ personal in-jokes, which is part of their juvenile appeal.

Dumb and Dumber To knowingly is an out-of-date comedy to the latter-day layperson. For those who loved the first film, the humour has frozen in time. This is quite endearing rather than grating, and very apparent when the pair gatecrashes a future-thinking TED convention and gives a simplistic opinion on what they find. This film is for the Beavis and Butt-head or Bill and Ted generation, or just those partial to a goofy Carrey character. With that in mind, there is nothing to do but be suitably entertained.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies (3D) ****


It’s the end of an era – and an adventure for a Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman – who has long dumped his The Office persona) that started in 2012. What better way to conclude it than an almighty battle to define all battles. This episode is much like writer-director Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) in grandeur – a right royal punch-up that delivers what its title suggests. It starts and ends with iconic scenes, very different in temperament, but both equally memorable, picking up from last time when the fearsome dragon, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), is about to attack the village at the foot of the hills holding the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor.

Fans will know what to expect next in this finale, that of the dwarves, men of the dale, elves, orcs and shape-shifters having it out near the Lonely Mountain. This film does not disappoint with the character tension gradually building up to that point, but serving bursts of indifference to get you in the mood as sides fall out – and even allies.

Those not familiar with the novel but expecting more ‘back story’ after the last film, The Desolation of Smaug (2013), seeing the dwarves finally making it home might be disappointed as any jubilant homecoming is a bit thin on the ground. It’s not until gold-blinded legendary warrior and now appointed Dwarf King, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) charges out of his stronghold, Erebor to join his family member (hilariously voiced by Billy Connolly) that things get more interesting.

In the meantime, Jackson has something for every fan of each faction to delight in, seeing their heroes in action as greed takes grip (very topical in today’s consumer-led society) – or further evil unfolds in the orcs’ case. Among the fighting though, Jackson almost ‘pauses’ the mayhem to deliver key relationship nuggets of J.R.R. Tolkien’s infamous story that help break up proceedings.

The returning cast were never ‘away’ as such, having filmed their scenes concurrently, and all give splendid performances for the last time. Particularly praiseworthy is Luke Evans as Bard who gets an impressive opener. He then goes on to act as the definition of a mortal leader as the odds are against him and his townsfolk. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is like the ancient uncle that won’t go away, more worse for wear, and seems to pop up and act in his own parallel universe (even in the midst of battle), once freed from captivity.

Apart from an oddly ‘animated’ Orlando Bloom – like some creepy, plastic-skinned avatar – the effects are outstanding as Jackson reproduces his armies of hundreds, never failing on detail for the sake of the action. The most iconic action scene has the least number of players, that of the clash between Thorin and leader of the orcs, Azog (Manu Bennett), on the ice. It has a certain ballet-esque beauty to it, even with two ungraceful warriors involved. It’s another emotional high point of the film, more subdued and sombre in delivery, considering the dispensing of evil thus begins.

Jackson has done justice to Tolkien’s novel’s final saga, giving it more personality in the midst of war, and more action to feast on in a big-screen environment. Indeed, the 3D works to add depth to the battlefields, and particularly the impressive architecture and landscapes. At the end, we are reminded how it all started, as a sigh of acknowledgement accompanies a feeling of sadness that we have now witnessed all that Jackson’s take on Tolkien has to offer.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Penguins of Madagascar ****


If you ever thought the quartet of zoo penguins in Madagascar deserved their own film, this is it. Skipper (Tom McGrath), Rico (John DiMaggio), Kowalski (Jeff Bennett), and Private (James Patrick Stuart) regroup in a Bond-style adventure that starts off with a comical March of the Penguins spoof. This sets the sharp-witted tone ahead with many great puns while keeping the kids entertained by a new set of animated heroes.

Getting separated from their colony after finding an egg, the three flightless friends protect their new chick (Private), grow up together, then end up coming face to face with ‘Dave’, an octopus they shared zoo-time with who turns out to be super villain Dr Octavius Brine (voiced by John Malkovich) with a major grudge against them and their kind. He wants to destroy the world and all its ‘cute’ penguins. On his case are agents from a secret agency, North Wind, led by a suave wolf (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), also out to stop Dave.

The endearing quality these penguins have is their positive attitude to every obstacle in their path, wrapped up in some great one-liners and equally silly word plays. The writers have gone to town here, while adding lots of visual gags that will keep you suitably tickled throughout. Plus, to top it off, it’s a whirl of vibrant colour to brighten the mood.

Like every animated film out now, expect breakneck action scenes that veer towards overkill when the animated characters and what they are saying are entertainment enough. There is also another moment of déjà vu with another villain using a custom-made machine to alter the world, as we know it, so this part of the film is only saved from tedium (for adults) by the penguins and their quick retorts. This is yet another film that does not need to be watched in 3D to get the full effect, so save the pennies.

Penguins of Madagascar is definitely top-notch festive family fun and a collectively appealing film – this reviewer took her 22-month-old son along who sat still throughout (minus the 3D glasses so that tells you just how much of an ‘effect’ the 3D has). The penguins become big personalities in their own right and great role models so should expect another big-screen outing again.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Black Sea ***


“Brave the deep. Find the gold. Trust no one” is one of a couple of taglines that tells you all you need to know. It’s a submarine heist with the added pressure (literally) of several tonnes of water to make retrieving heavy gold bars all the more difficult. And with a suspension of reality – and the laws of physics – it’s agreeable enough viewing from The Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald. It won’t be remembered as his finest work to date, even if the concept is a curious one.

Submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law) is made redundant from maritime retrieval firm, a job that was his whole life after the Navy and being estranged from his wife and son. With no real prospects and little money, Robinson hears of a plan to recover millions of pounds of gold, rumoured to be lying in a former Nazi submarine in on the seabed of the Black Sea. Funded by a shadowy backer, he agrees to lead the salvage job and picks a team of twelve experienced men, both British and Russian, as well as a young man who knew is newly departed best friend. However, tensions between the crew grow as pressure to find the haul increases.

Once you get over Law’s struggle to find the right Scottish lilt, he strikes an impressive, embittered working-class hero. In fact it very much bangs the war drum for the little person out there being shafted by big corporations – very apt in continuing times of austerity. Law’s Robinson paints a solid leader to get behind from the start, with the actor proving he can beef up like a Tom Hardy and do menacing when needed. Gone are the slick, smooth-talking characters he usually portrays. Empathy for Robinson’s plight is ratcheted up right at the start, though his depth of character sometimes feels wanting, even with the ‘happier family times’ flashbacks there to back up where his determination to complete the dangerous job comes from.

Number one ‘problem’ in the aging sub is ex-lag Fraser, played by Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn who plays unhinged villains and criminals on tap, and has no problem convincing us of the former as the ugly, racist catalyst here. The rest is a true Macdonald dramatic character role-playing as each flexes his muscles and either gets his wings clipped or has another destiny in store. This is the real intrigue Black Sea holds, a thriller working out who will blow next, not whether the job gets done.

In this sense, Black Sea can’t simply be compared to other sub films like The Hunt for Red October or Das Boot because even though there is the Second World War angle, this film is really about the mix of the men on board and how they cope with being enclosed with so much paranoia at stake, not necessarily the end job. That said Macdonald fails some characters, though steers well clear of caricatures – still, we really don’t understand the Russians motivations, for example, so only ever get a one-sided reaction. Even then some of the Brits feel like manual sub fodder in this.

Robinson’s fate feels a little patchy and somewhat flat played out in his final scenes. Quite how he achieves his goal – with the mechanics of sub operation called into question – is anyone’s guess, especially as gold weighs a pretty bit. The ending feels like a Macdonald desire to see justice done and the little man triumph, understandable for the whole fairy tale of becoming an overnight millionaire to work. It just adds a whiff of disbelief and requires your commitment in what you’ve just witnessed – and co-endured with these men – to suitably end proceedings. If Macdonald loses you beforehand at any moment, the ending just feels clichéd and quite daft.

Black Sea is a competent enough maritime drama with pressure-cooker-styled tension to flex the sub’s walls. It holds the interest to get you through the (crew’s) ordeal and offers a game in ‘guess the survivor’ at the same time. Not to mention, it’s a creative alternative to the standard bank heist venue.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Horrible Bosses 2 ***


With late bosses long buried in the first 2011 film, it was anyone’s guess where the next comedy would go. Be sure, though, hapless trio Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) return to create more chaos and silliness. Oh, and Jen Aniston takes the joke a bit too far with her sex-addicted dentist character, bordering on plain tragic with bondage involved. Though this might get some to pay just to see that.

Fed up being ‘bossed around’, Dale, Kurt and Nick decide to start their own business marketing their concept, the ‘Shower Buddy’ on live TV. They get backing from calculating multi-millionaire businessman Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz), but he goes back on his word and tries to takeover their product, leaving them $500k in the red. The trio decide on a hair-brained kidnap scheme to recoup their money that naturally backfires with Hanson’s flash, bigmouth son, Rex (Chris Pine), in the mix. Meanwhile, Dale’s old nemesis Dr. Julia Harris (Aniston) is back on the scene…

It’s a path well worn, but if one of the comedy trio of Bateman, Sudeikis or Day doesn’t make you laugh there and then, one of the others brings up the rear to trigger some giggles. Fair to say the three have got things down to a fine art of covering each other’s backs for the second film, perhaps falling into a too comfortable and predictable rut. Things are definitely dafter than darker this time around, so if slapstick is your bag, there’s enough to enjoy here. Some might say it’s positively camp, what with Pine’s spoilt rich kid going into overkill in parts. It’s certainly nothing new but comforting, like an old jumper you slip into and smile at.

The cringe factor is Ms Aniston who looks like she’s been shot using 70 soft focus lenses in all her scenes. The men around her act like middle-aged frat boys only raising the cheese factor. It’s clear to see Aniston is becoming past her prime in such a ‘sex kitten’ role, however ‘tongue in cheek’ her current outing as Harris is. With bondage and even Somnophilia on the cards, there’s not much to do but sigh and wince her string of (unfunny) sex word retorts and actions.

Horrible Bosses 2 is a welcome edition for those who enjoy Bateman, Sudeikis and Day rifting off each other, using their play thing Pine for kicks – cue outtakes in final credits, folks. If Aniston the aging sex symbol floats your boat, there’s enough dirty talk to get you going (and black leather outfits). The plot is ridiculous – though intentionally so – and the outcome predictable, but Number Two film has enough entertainment value for a decent night out at the cinema. Maybe improved by a pre-viewing tipple?

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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