Review: Cake

Director: Daniel Barnz (Won’t Back Down)
Writer: Patrick Tobin
Producers: Ben Barnz, Mark Canton, Kristin Hahn, Courtney Solomon
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 102 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found HERE

 


Over ten years ago, Jennifer Aniston gave a performance that demonstrated a depth and rawness in her work that we hadn’t seen before. The movie was The Good Girl, and until now it had been a pure oddity on her resume. It was released near the tail end of the run of “Friends,” one of the most popular American television programs of all-time and the launching pad for Aniston’s position as one of those “nation’s sweetheart” type of actresses who was able to hit a broad demographic thanks to her vanilla likability. Once the show ended, Aniston stuck squarely to that path, with the few early diversions (dark thriller Derailed and indie Friends with Money) not showing the kind of talent that we had seen her quietly unearth in Good Girl. Things kept in line from then on, with Aniston showing up time and again in lame, derivative romantic comedies that provided nothing but diminishing returns.

Thankfully, a few years ago some kind of switch turned in her creative decision making. While she still found herself in the comedic realm, Aniston began to take on slightly more daring projects like the black-humored Horrible Bosses, which allowed her to go against-type as a sex-crazed dentist, and Wanderlust, a bizarre bit of highly-exaggerated farce from the mind of David Wain. Neither film did much to shape the fully-formed public opinion of Aniston, but they showed a willingness to stretch herself that we hadn’t seen in a long time. That desire for growth has reached its crowning point with her newest venture, Daniel Barnz’s Cake, a drama with a capital D. Cake premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but it feels so much more like a Sundance staple. It’s got all the trademarks: comedic actor going into heavy drama, swimming pools as a metaphor, main character with suicidal thoughts, a dead kid, Anna Kendrick. Cake has so much of the stereotypical indie movie cliches going on, in fact, that it never allows itself to become about more than the stretched-out tropes it uses to fill up its narrative beats.
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Review: The Devil’s Violinist

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Director: Bernard Rose (Immortal Beloved, Ivansxtc, The Kreutzer Sonata, Two Jacks)
Writer: Bernard Rose
Producers: Christian Angermayer, Gabriela Bacher, Rosilyn Heller, Danny Krausz
Starring: David Garrett, Jared Harris, Joely Richardson, Christian McKay, Veronica Ferres, Andrea Deck
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 122 min.


Coming into The Devil’s Violinist, I had little knowledge about the project besides the fact that it was biopic of Niccolò Paganini, a violinist and composer I knew nearly nothing about. I didn’t recognize the handsome dark haired actor portraying Paganini but Jared Harris is certainly a great talent and let’s be frank, when have I ever been known to pass up a costume drama? Never, that’s when.

The Devil’s Violinist isn’t so much a biography as it is a drama about a musician who we know for a fact was a talented violinist and composer, a man who lived a lavish lifestyle and who was rumoured to be associated with the devil. Writer/director Bernard Rose takes a very short list of facts and weaves a story of mystery, intrigue and of a tortured artist who sells his soul to the devil, enjoys everything the world has to offer – from women to drugs – and eventually suffers for it.

If you’re looking for a biography on Paganini, you had best look elsewhere. Rose’s take on the maestro is so frivolously extrapolated that The Devil’s Violinist is far more fiction than anything else. I went reading about Paganini after seeing the movie only to discover that, among other inconsistencies, he suffered from syphilis and was later treated for tuberculosis neither of which was mentioned in the movie. As for his involvement with the devil… the movie does seem to get that part right. One can’t call this any sort of biography which leads to the question: why use Paganini’s name at all? My thought is that it adds intrigue and frankly, it’s a great excuse to fill the movie with spectacular music.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Director: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, Alexander Korda (uncredited), Zoltan Korda (uncredited), William Cameron Menzies (uncredited)
Screenplay: Miles Malleson, Lajos Biró, Miklós Rózsa
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, June Duprez, John Justin, Rex Ingram
Producer: Alexander Korda
Country: UK
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 1940
BBFC Certificate: U


Just a couple of months ago I reviewed Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad, which blew me away. It was the most spectacular silent movie I’d ever seen which was as fun as it was awe inspiring. Having heard good things about Alexander Korda’s 1940 version, I was keen to compare the two films, so jumped at the chance of reviewing Network’s new Blu-Ray release of the film. Because of this, my review will largely be matching the later film against the earlier one, so forgive me if you’re more interested in how it stands alone, but I saw the first so recently it’s difficult not to compare and contrast.

In terms of plot, although a number of core aspects and some key scenes are the same (coming from stories from the Arabian Nights), much of what and how it happens is quite different. The big change is in basically splitting the thief character from the 1924 film into two. The titular thief in Korda’s version is young Abu (Sabu), who pinches food to survive as well as to cause mischief, but the love story driving things forward is instead given to Ahmad (John Justin). Ahmad is the rightful king of Bagdad, but the evil Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) tricks him into being captured as a thief and throws him in jail. Here he meets Abu who also got arrested and sentenced to death. The two escape together and set off for a life of adventure. However, not long into this new life, Ahmad sets eyes on the Princess of Basra and instantly falls in love. This begins a quest to win her hand (he wins her heart straight away), which is made very difficult as Jaffar is also besotted with the princess and has the magical power and resources to keep Ahmad at bay. Thus begins an adventure which involves a mechanical flying horse, a giant genie and Abu being turned into a dog.

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Weekend of Trash XV

We tried to squeeze one more video weekend into 2014, but ill health and busy schedules prevented it happening. So instead we kicked off 2015 with the 15th (recorded) Weekend of Trash (previous write-ups can be found in the category archive).

So as usual, here are the reviews of everything we watched over a weekend of sleaze, violence and downright nonsense. The reviews are only brief (I’m not about to start writing notes whilst watching movies featuring time travelling dinosaurs) and ratings are largely based on entertainment value rather than quality, so take them with a pinch of salt. I’ve included clips and trailers when possible too.

* Apologies for the crap image above – my phone camera didn’t like the lighting in the room so it came out a funny colour.

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Review: American Sniper

Director: Clint Eastwood (The Rookie, Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, A Perfect World, Flags of our Fathers)
Writer: Jason Hall
Producers: Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Andrew Lazar, Robert Lorenz, Peter Morgan
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller,
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 132 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found HERE

 


If there are two things you can’t fault Clint Eastwood with it would be his ability to get films out fast and his willingness to stretch himself into a myriad of genres. He’s delivered seven films in as many years and they’ve covered areas as wide as a biographical rugby drama with Nelson Mandela as one of the leads to a supernatural fantasy about the afterlife which featured a stunning tsunami sequence. Of course the caveat would be that not all of these films are good, and in recent years it’s been true that he’s had more misses than hits, but 2014 saw him deliver two films in the same year for the third time this century and one of them is the best he’s given us in over half a decade. Staying true to his surprising ability to upend expectations, the first of the two was the summer musical Jersey Boys, based on the hit stage show. That was the not-so-good one. The better of the two sees him in an entirely different genre with American Sniper — another true story, this one of Texas boy Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper who has been credited with the most kills in U.S. military history.

Based on Kyle’s own autobiography, American Sniper charts the man’s devoted service to his country over four tours on the battlefield in the Middle East, while at home his wife Taya longs for the day when he hangs up his rifle and doesn’t leave her and their children again. But after taking so many lives and spending so much time sheltered in blood and war, how much of Chris is actually going to be left by the time he calls it quits? That’s the running theme of American Sniper, and if it sounds like a familiar one that’s because it is. In truth, there’s not a lot to Eastwood’s film that is particularly new or groundbreaking in terms of how the effects of war have been portrayed on film many times over the decades, but there’s still enough here to make it a worthwhile entry in the crowded herd. Chief among the film’s noteworthy attributes is star Bradley Cooper, whose passion and care for Kyle’s story has seen him ride this film through several different directors on its way to the screen but his commitment has been the one constant and it’s no surprise that he shines the brightest now that it’s finally been brought to life.

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Blu-Ray Review: Ganja & Hess

Director: Bill Gunn
Screenplay: Bill Gunn
Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn
Producer: Chiz Schultz
Country: USA
Running Time: 113 min
Year: 1973
BBFC Certificate: 18


Eureka released Blacula – The Complete Collection (http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2014/10/blacula-complete-collection/) in October and not long after are releasing another African-American take on the Dracula story, Ganja & Hess. There is little else connecting the two films though as Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess is a wholly different animal than the earlier campy, badass blaxploitation film.

Producers first approached Gunn to make something that would cash in on Blacula’s success, but the director had no desire to make a cheap bit of exploitation. He had wanted to make a film about addiction though, so decided to take this idea and infuse it into a vampire story. The result is a film with much more artistic and profound ambitions than Blacula and although it came at the height of the blaxploitation boom, it didn’t really fit the mold, eschewing the flares and kung fu for experimentation and symbolism. This didn’t impress the money men of course, who swiftly handed the print to ‘film doctor’ Fima Noveck, who chopped the near 2 hour film to 78 minutes and retitled Blood Couple (along several other names as it did the runs around the world), adding previously excised exposition to make something more closely resembling the exploitation flick they’d wanted. It bombed, although the furious Gunn took his original cut to the Cannes Film Festival where it screened in the Director’s Week. It was better received there, but still the film disappeared into obscurity until more recent years when Gunn’s version was restored for modern audiences. This is what is being released here by Eureka.

Ganja & Hess sees Dr. Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones) stabbed by an ancient ceremonial dagger by his unstable assistant George Meda (Gunn himself). This makes Hess immortal but also addicted to blood. After Meda commits suicide, his wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) appears at Hess’ mansion looking for him. She falls for Hess’ charms and after they marry and Hess passes his ‘gift’ on to her, the two form an unusual, bloody relationship.

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Blu-Ray Review: Young and Innocent

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Edwin Greenwood, Anthony Armstrong, Gerald Savory
Based on a Novel by: Josephine Tey
Starring: Nova Pilbeam, Derrick De Marney, Percy Marmont, Edward Rigby
Producer: Edward Black
Country: UK
Running Time: 83 min
Year: 1937
BBFC Certificate: U


I‘ve always been a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock, I even wrote my University dissertation on his collaborations with composer Bernard Herrmann, but there are still a number of gaps in his filmography that I need to fill. I’ve seen pretty much all of his most famous work, particularly his phenomenal run of films through the 50’s and 60’s, but there are a number of his early British films that I haven’t seen. This period in his career doesn’t always get the love and attention that it deserves. Granted, many of these older titles haven’t aged as well as classics like Rear Window or North by Northwest, but there is much to admire and enjoy in his early work. The 39 Steps remains one of my favourite Hitchcock films for instance and I was surprised by how much I liked what he himself considered his true directorial debut, The Lodger when I was sent it to review a couple of years ago.

This brings me to Young and Innocent (a.k.a. The Girl Was Young), a film which I hadn’t seen before now, even though I had a DVD copy on my shelf gathering dust over several years (this happens far too often than I care to admit – shopping addiction is a dangerous thing). Coming in 1937, this, his 22nd feature film as sole director, is actually almost mid-career for Hitchcock in terms of volume, although he’d only been directing features for little over a decade. Taking the ‘wrong man’ mistaken identity formula he’d had great success with on The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent sees Derrick De Marney star as Robert Tisdall, a young man accused of murdering an actress whose body washes up on a beach. He’s innocent of course and escapes from the law to prove it because they won’t listen to him. Along the way he enlists the help of a police constable’s daughter, Erica (Nova Pilbeam), who believes his story and falls for his charms.

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Review: [REC] 4 Apocalypse

Director: Jaume Balagueró (Darkness, [REC], [REC] 2)
Writers: Jaume Balagueró, Manu Díez
Producer: Julio Fernández
Starring: Manuela Velasco, Paco Manzanedo, Héctor Colomé, Ismael Fritschi, Críspulo Cabezas
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 95 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found at Film Pulse

 


[REC] 4: Apocalypse is supposedly the final entry in the popular Spanish zombie series originally created by writer-director team Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. For the final two films in this quadrilogy, the duo decided to direct one each, on his own, with Plaza tackling [REC] 3: Genesis, and Balagueró finishing off the series. Considering the original film was released in 2007 and contained two horror mechanics that have well worn out their welcome – zombies and found footage, some might wonder if the fourth and final chapter could live up to the rest. For the most part, yes it can.

[REC] 4 begins in the infamous apartment building from the first two films, with a team of soldiers planting bombs throughout the zombie-infested corridors in order to contain the outbreak. Before leaving, the men stumble upon Ángela (Manuela Velasco), the heroine from the first film, who is mysteriously not a flesh-hungry monster. She is then transported to a research ship in the middle of the ocean where she, along with several other survivors from both the apartment and the wedding outbreak from [REC] 3, are to be looked after while a vaccine is developed. Of course, things go horribly wrong after the virus begins to spread across the ship turning everyone into ravenous killers.

The first thing one notices about [REC] 4 is that Balagueró has smartly ditched the found-footage mechanic. Plaza did the same in [REC] 3, however he opted to make his something of a hybrid, which didn’t really work in the end. Other than the occasional security camera shot, this is a traditionally shot film, and it’s the best and most-polished-looking entry in the series.

Compared to the first two films, [REC] 4 carries a much different tone and atmosphere, relying more on the location to deliver the scares. The first two films were like a frantic amusement-park ride, moving at 100 MPH and never letting you catch your breath. This one is more like Alien with survivors trapped in a claustrophobic labyrinth of air ducts and steam pipes where something could pop out from anywhere at anytime.

By this point, the overall story of the series has become slightly convoluted and is one that I’m not sure even the directors can decide on. The religious aspect that was explored in the third installment is seemingly tossed aside, and a new culprit is revealed as the cause of the infection. Although it felt like Balagueró was throwing the events of the third film completely out the window, with a series like this, the action and the scares take precedent over the plot anyway.

While not as fast and crazy as the first two, the action and horror elements in [REC] 4 are top notch. Throwing infected monkeys into the mix a nice touch, and all the make-up and gore effects looked exceptional. While the majority of the film is played straight, with little comedic levity, there are some creative, over-the-top kills that lighten the mood a bit.

I still don’t think Balagueró recaptured the magic of the first two films – [REC] and [REC] 2 – but this is a satisfying sendoff to one of the best zombie series around. The filmmakers ostensibly pulled out all the stops for budget and effects, and it was great to see Manuela Velasco back for the finale. Even for those of you feeling the zombie movie malaise, [REC] 4 Apocalypse is worth checking out.

  

Review: Selma

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Director: Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, The Door)
Writer: Paul Webb
Producers: Cassandra Kulukundis, Todd J. Labarowski, Emanuel Michael
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 127 min.


Sometimes there’s a sense that a movie is succeeding because of its timeliness and little more. It’s why there are instances of multiple biopics vying to be first out the door after a subject’s death but sometimes, it’s a little more abstract than that. That certainly appears to be the case with Ava DuVernay’s Selma which was in production long before the events of Ferguson ever happened but in the wake of that national disaster, Selma is likely to become a rallying cry for change and it’s a damned fine one at that.

Written by newcomer Paul Webb, Selma picks up in early 1965. LBJ is in office and he has a pretty good relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.. In one particular meeting, King pushes for change, namely in the ability of African Americans to vote. Johnson argues there are more important issues to deal with; he has a different agenda. King pushes ahead with the argument and along with the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the group take action and their next fight to Selma, Alabama. A ripe territory for a showdown.

Du Vernay’s film isn’t simply a retelling of the events leading up to what happened in Selma. It’s also a portrait of a man who has been fighting for a long time. A man who is tired; a man who feels defeated; a man who leads but does not go on alone. Webb’s portrait of King gives the good with the bad. The film shows King to have been a great preacher, a man who could mobilise masses, but it also doesn’t shy away from King’s troubles; his infidelities, his indecision, his feeling of defeat and fighting an unwinnable fight. Mostly it creates the picture of a man who led a movement but who was only human. A man who relied on the supported by the people around him to succeed.

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