Safety Not Guaranteed (2011)

Time travel movies generally belong to the geeks. Back To The Future, 12 Monkeys, Donnie Darko… With Safety Not Guaranteed, though, geeks are just going to have to accept it – time travel has been pinched by independent film. And thank goodness for that.

A unique, offbeat genre-splicer, SNG is entirely its own thing. That much is clear from the offset with the involvement of mumblecore kid Mark Duplass, the writer-director of improv dramedies Baghead and Cyrus. Here, Duplass swaps writing for acting as Kenneth Calloway, a loner who believes he’s discovered the secret to time-jumping. All he needs is a co-pilot, which is what prompts him to post an ad in the paper in search of one.

That ad is discovered by cocky magazine worker Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), who recruits two interns – mopey twentysomething Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and uber-nerd Arnau (Karan Soni) – to help him get his story. Except then Darius starts to get close to Kenneth, who may not be as crazy as he at first seemed.

Safety Not Guaranteed debuted at this year’s Sundance Festival to rave reviews, and it’s not hard to see why. Though the time travel aspect offers a zesty sci-fi twist, SNG is really an amiable, affecting character drama with bags of heart. Much of that comes courtesy of Darius and Kenneth’s unfurling relationship, which is sensitively navigated with all schmaltz thankfully trimmed.

Most impressive is Plaza, who’s been trading acerbic barbs on the big and small screen lately in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Damsels In Distress and TV show Parks And Recreation. Here, she shaves down the hard edges of her previous screen-carnations, emerging as a quirkily winsome and unconventional leading lady.

If all this sounds vaguely sombre and meandering, fear not: SNG is also laugh-out-loud funny. Whether it’s Jeff’s motor-mouthed insults or the ludicrous training activities Kenneth puts Darius through, there are more laughs in SNG than most comedies you’ll see this year. The final scene is also pure unadulterated joy, and ensures you’ll leave the cinema with a big grin on your face.

That Safety Not Guaranteed even works is, in itself, a miracle. With its mash of romance, comedy and sci-fi, not to mention big themes and many mysteries, it should really be a jumbled muddle. First-time director Colin Trevorrow makes it look easy, though, and his film is a peculiar, idiosyncratic vision that’s tender and refreshingly original. Welcome to the cult classic of tomorrow… 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Damsels In Distress (2011)

Sporadically laugh-out-loud funny and offering the occasional polished pearl of wisdom, Damsels In Distress is a whimsical breeze that never ruffles too many feathers. It’s the fourth film from director Whit Stillman, a filmmaker infatuated with upper-class US WASPs – a breed of person coined in his 1990 film Metropolitan as the ‘urban haute bourgeoisie’.

Stillman doesn’t stray far from familiar terrain with Damsels, a frothy comedy set on the Seven Oaks college campus. Here, new student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) falls in with a trio of uber-groomed girls who are single-handedly attempting to save the campus from dumb jocks and suicidal thoughts. Leading them is the buttoned-up Violet (Greta Gerwig), who is armed with her own singular world views. Together, this unusual quartet charters matters of the heart (and head) in their search for love and enlightenment.

Films like Legally Blonde have explored similar college-based comedy before, but Damsels is more interested in Woody Allen-style witticisms than frisky female empowerment. It’s an odd experiment in off-kilter characters and relaxed plotting. At first irritating – Gerwig talks in a monotone drawl that sometimes has one searching for subtitles, while pal Megalyn Echikunwoke trips over a truly horrendous British accent – Stillman’s film is a jumbled confectionary that will turn some off within minutes.

Get past the kooky performances, though and the super-dry screenplay packs in some sardonic nod-winks. Echikunwoke’s awful accent is, in the end, revealed as a joke, while Violet’s increasingly crackpot schemes to spread the love culminate in a gigglesome encounter with a bar of soap. Nothing’s off limits here, with a running gag about anal sex getting the biggest laughs, and a closing musical number that’s pure sunshine. A deadpan curio, then, Damsels exists in its own little bubble of weirdness – much like its lead quartet. 3/5

Headhunters (2011)

Not since the days of Ingmar Bergman (or, alright, Abba) has it been so cool to be Scandinavian. With the popularity of the Millennium novels/films at fever pitch, not to mention well-received genre flicks Rare Exports and Troll Hunter, Scandinavia is definitely making it big in the cinematic arena right now. Its latest offering is Headhunters, a stylish Norwegian mystery (based on the book by Jo Nesbø) that doesn’t exactly break any rules, but is bags of fun anyway.

Featuring everything from grisly car wrecks to speared mutts, Headhunters is as frequently grim as that multi-meaning title suggests. Not that you’d guess as much from the film’s spritely opening scenes. We’re introduced to anti-hero Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a status-hungry, anxiety-riddled suit who exploits his role as a corporate headhunter to gain important information that’ll help him in his on-the-side hobby of art-thievery. Except then he rips off the wrong guy in Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game Of Thrones), an ex-military bloodhound who turns Roger from hunter to huntee.

After a fleet-footed and funny opening, Headhunters quickly transforms into a breakneck chase movie. The film’s location-dashing mid-section is often wordless and viscerally involving, mostly thanks to Hennie’s committed turn. It also includes a comically horrible scene where Roger, shall we say, ‘pulls a Slumdog’.

The main problem here, though, is that Headhunters’ mystery is too unwieldy to truly rivet. It’s so bogged down in boring corporate politics that it’s unable to function as the glorified action movie it has every right to be. As a study of a man brought down by his own insecurities, though, it’s often tongue-in-cheek funny, even if tonally director Morten Tyldum seems torn between two different movies. Still, despite its flaws, Headhunters is pacy and engaging. The Scando invasion continues… 3/5

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Surviving on red wine, pills and perpetual self-loathing, Tilda Swinton’s haunted mother is a broken figure whose splintered edges slice right through the heart of this confident book adaptation. We get to know her through flashbacks and snap-forwards. The fragmented framework constantly wrong-foots but rivets for that very reason. Something happened to this woman, and it’s not going to be easy finding out what.

It starts when Eva (Swinton) gives birth to Kevin. At first bearing the necessary frustrations of a newborn (the constant crying) with stony grimaces, Eva’s ambivalence toward her offspring only grows as he does. She tries to get him to talk. To play. To do anything aside from stare unfeelingly into her etched, weary face. By the time he’s a young boy, he’s still wearing nappies, refusing to grow up with a mother who, we discover, is entirely indifferent to his growing. Later, when he’s almost 16, Kevin will murder swathes of his classmates in a bloody high school massacre. Who’s to blame for such behaviour?

Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s troubling tome is a wonder. Hiccupping through a jumbled timeline with drunken aplomb, it’s a film that feels like a collection of memories. Through an ever-growing patchwork of scenes, we see the world through Eva’s eyes, her memories, and attempt to find some sort of truth. The truth, though, is as ephemeral as Eva’s grip on reality. “I want you to tell me why,” she demands of her son in Kevin’s closing moments. His reply is both chilling and poignant.

As unsettling as its source material, Kevin was never going to be an easy film to digest. In Ramsay’s hands, it is a queasy, exquisite nightmare. Who’s to blame for Kevin’s behaviour? Ramsay leaves the answer in your hands. 5/5

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Just what is Crazy, Stupid, Love? A romantic comedy? A family drama? Or a (shudder) well-dressed bromance? Well, like its unorthodox title, Crazy, Stupid, Love is an eccentric mish-mash of all those things, and all the better for being almost completely indefinable.

Steve Carell plays Cal Weaver, whose wife (Julianne Moore) has just demanded a divorce after sleeping with workmate David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon). Drowning his sorrows in a bar, Cal meets smooth operator Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who decides to help the middle-aged divorcee get his life back together.

Criss-crossing that storyline with that of Hannah (Emma Stone), who’s settling for a guy out of convenience, Crazy, Stupid, Love is a busy, polished comedy that manages to keep the laugh-out-loud zingers firing mostly into the closing credits.

Where it hiccups is in its final act. Whereas the makeover montage, Cal’s complex relationship with his wife, and Jacob’s burgeoning feelings for Hannah all feel sharp where other films might play them soft, Crazy, Stupid, Love lets itself down in the last 20 minutes when it struggles to wrap things up inside of two hours.

Not that the resultant film as a whole is by any means a disaster. The way Tangled writer Dan Fogelman builds up a complex ‘love network’ (rather than a love triangle) is both smart and full of truthful observations, while that sexy cast never looks anything less than a million bucks. Gosling and Stone in particular are blinding with their faultless comic timing and sizzling chemistry.

In the same class as other romantic comedy dramas The Kids Are All Right and As Good As It Gets, Crazy, Stupid, Love only slightly outstays its welcome in its final minutes. Before that, it’s a stylish, pin-sharp chuckler with bags of heart. 3/5

Man On A Ledge (2012)

New York. The Roosevelt Hotel’s twenty-first floor. Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) has some breakfast. Wipes the room of prints. Writes a suicide note. Opens the window. And steps out onto a ledge… When it comes to grabbing an audience’s attention, nothing does it quite like a bloke threatening to throw himself off the top of a Manhattan high-rise. It was true in Henry Hathaway’s 1951 drama Fourteen Hours, and it’s true for Man on a Ledge.

Except where Hathaway’s film earned plaudits for its portrayal of a man (Richard Basehart) grappling with his own inner-demons, Ledge has its sights set on less torturous thrills. Released a whole six months before the summer blockbuster season kicks off, it’s the first popcorn thriller of 2012. Worthington’s not even given a chance to scream ‘I’m gonna do it!’ before we’re treated to shaky-cam car chases, explosions, jail breaks and Ed Harris sneering away as a slithery scoundrel.

In an age when blockbusters are often suffocated by their bloated storylines, though, the plot of Danish director Asger Leth’s thriller is refreshingly straightforward. Stirring in the biggest of big movie themes – redemption and revenge – we discover that Cassidy is an ex-cop wrongly convicted of a crime (aren’t they all?). But his gamble with gravity is merely a diversionary tactic as his brother Joey (Jamie Bell) embarks on a diamond heist nearby.

Thrown into that mix is Elizabeth Banks as a police negotiator attempting to talk Cassidy down, while on the ground is Kyra Sedgwick as a Gale Weathers-like reporter whose final line is the film’s most gloriously ridiculous. Because, yes, Man on a Ledge is ridiculous, but the fact that it’s so acutely aware of that is what just about saves it.

This is pure bubblegum entertainment. Winking and nodding in almost all the right places, Leth coaxes out moments of genuine hilarity – in particular a snapshot in which desperate women brandish ‘Jump into my arms!’ placards. Sure, the film’s impractical heist logic doesn’t hold a crowbar to Ocean’s Eleven (air vents in air-tight vaults? Thieves who don’t wear gloves?), but the combined magnetism of its spot-on cast – not to mention Leth’s impressive, soaring cityscapes – gives Ledge a winsome kind of charm.

There are certain inexcusable shortcomings, of course. Though it’s nice to have a low-budget thriller come out of Hollywood, the flick occasionally suffers from those slight production values, and poor Elizabeth Banks struggles to escape the restrictions of her underdeveloped soap opera character.

Ledge also oversteps the mark in its final act, and the closing scenes are soppy to the point of embarrassment. Only Ed Harris’ viper-like caricature retains bite. His view on so-called ‘jumpers’? “Why don’t these people just shoot themselves in the head?”

Anticipation: Has Sam Worthington finally watched Clash of the Titans, then? 2

Enjoyment: Daft as an old brush but oddly, endearingly entertaining. 3

In Retrospect: A joyfully silly thriller that won’t win any awards for subtlety, but it already knows that. 3

A Lonely Place To Die (2011)

Eat your heart out Tom Cruise. So what if you scaled the world’s tallest building for M:I-4? Melissa George’s gutsy mountaineer shows just as much derring-do as she leaps from crag to cranny in this breathless thriller.

Along with Ed Speleers (Eragon), she’s chased by sniper kidnappers in the Scottish Highlands, which leads to all manner of impressive, gravity-defying scraps.

Equally impressive are this disc’s numerous extras, including a 70-minute Making Of and a look at director Julian Gilbey attempting to conquer alps The Matterhorn and The Eiger. Daring stuff. 3/5

Via Total Film

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Immersed in a chilly gloom, this impressive first film from newbie director Sean Durkin has a mood that steals into every pore until you’re completely immersed in it. Small wonder Durkin nabbed a best director trophy at Sundance 2011.

He’s not the only one taking a notable first curtsy, though. Much has already been made of Elizabeth Olsen’s shivery central turn as Martha – a performance so intelligently crafted that nobody could ever have expected it from the girl whose siblings are the doll-like Olsen twins.

All the great buzz words apply to Olsen’s portrayal of a troubled young woman who escapes the clutches of an isolated cult – fearless, mesmerising, determined. It’s the kind of multi-faceted display you’d expect from a long-established awards-grabber, not a fresh-on-the-scene first-timer, and Olsen easily marks herself out as somebody to keep a steady eye on.

Helping her out with the heavy lifting is the more experienced but by no means less impressive John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), who chills right to the core as a cult leader who exploits his power to insidious ends. Hard to believe that just a decade ago he was bit playing in dross like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.

As sparse and internal as MMMM is, there’s a maelstrom of hot issues bubbling under its deceptively still surface. What is normality? Who controls whom? How are the demands and rotes of society any different to the rituals of a cult? Weaving between Martha’s past in the cult (where she was known as May) and her present holing up with her sister (Sarah Paulson), Durkin expertly blurs the temporal boundaries until we tumble headfirst into the claustrophobic, foreboding climax.

MMMM won’t be for everyone. It’s ponderous and often slow (we’ll say ‘measured’). But as a dark and dreamy study of a whole mess of fascinating issues, not to mention a thrilling debut for Durkin and Olsen, it’s indie cinema at its bleak best. 4/5

The Muppets (2011)

Knocking the stuffing out of far flashier kiddie fare, the Muppets are back in this, their first big screen adventure since 1999’s Muppets From Space. It’s clear the rest has done them good. Confidently steered by Mighty Boosh director James Bobin and with music courtesy of Bret McKenzie (Flight Of The Conchords), The Muppets is a perky franchise freshen-up that proves the fuzzy critters have lost none of their appeal – bad jokes and all.

What’s happened in those intervening 12 years? Well, Kermit’s still the star, but he wouldn’t even be here without screenwriter/co-star Jason Segel. Having built a small empire out of his cuddly manchild routine (in films Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Knocked Up), Segel’s used his newfound powers for good in resurrecting Jim Henson’s fur and fuzz creations. Though initially an odd project for an actor best known for very adult humour and very full-frontal nudity, it’s a marriage made in heaven – not least because Segel knows exactly what makes the Muppets tick (no, it’s not just a hand up the derrière).

That much is clear even in the film’s opening moments, as we’re introduced to Segel’s Gary, one half of a Bert and Ernie-style duo. The other half is his brother Walter – who just happens to be a Muppet. A huge fan of Kermie and co, Walter crashes his brother’s romantic LA getaway with Mary (Amy Adams, perfectly cast), but is traumatised when he discovers that the Muppet Studios are being bought out by green-loving oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). How to save the studios? Duh, get the long-disbanded Muppets back together again!

As Walter and Kermit track down each of the froggy one’s former co-stars, we’re treated to the requisite cameos (including a crowd-pleasing appearance by a sitcom star) and numerous sparkly musical numbers we expect of anything bearing the Muppet name. It’s the latter that make the biggest impression, with just about everybody involved whetting their windpipes for leg-kicking show-stoppers that do exactly that – Cooper’s aisle-rocking rap ditty is a particularly batty highlight.

The big question is, are the Muppets still relevant in the 21st century, especially as the only people who probably remember them are now over 30? Well, Segel and Bobin’s film is the answer – a gratifyingly old school ode to a time when movie magic was, maybe not simpler, but somehow purer. Evoking misty-eyed nostaglia and gut-busting giggles, their Muppet movie is a colourful kaleidoscope that wants to do one thing and one thing only – make you laugh. It’s clearly doing something right – The Muppets is already the highest-grossing Muppet movie ever made. Not bad for a film about a frog. 4/5

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

You know the story by now. Boy meets girl. Boy rapes girl. Girl gets revenge by shoving a dildo up boy’s backside. They all live unhappily ever after. Yep, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is everywhere and has been for the past two years. It was a bestselling novel, a TV mini-series, and a Swedish movie sensation that took the world by storm. The end, right?

Not if Hollywood has anything to do with it. With remakes all the rage right now (and subtitles resolutely not), leave it to America to make the movie again, this time with English-speaking actors and a heavyweight director managing the megaphone. See, cynicism is director David Fincher’s first hurdle, and he knows it’s a tricky one. But he needn’t worry. He’s crafted a loving, brutal, darkly comic adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s original tome, as we knew he would. Problem is, there was already a loving, brutal and darkly comic adaptation of Larsson’s original tome. It came out two years ago, and Fincher’s film, though easily more stylish, is damn near a carbon copy.

Because of that, the surprises are few. Rooney Mara is clearly the deal breaker, snapping up the role made famous by Noomi Rapace. Happily, Mara is fantastic as the goth hacker, not content to rest in Rapace’s shadow and making her tattooed girl every bit as fierce, feisty and sporadically funny. Her dedication to the role (everything from the hair, to the body language and the accent is perfect) is admirable. She’s been Americanised only ever so slightly – Lisbeth now loves Happy Meals – but Fincher is clearly in love with his leading lady. So much so that he indulges the book’s pace-assassinating final scenes, in which Salander puts the world to rights and has her heart stomped on. It’s one of the film’s only real trips.

Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo is, by its own right, an extraordinary film positively creaking with the very best in Hollywood talent. It’s what it stands for that grates. It represents both the best and worst of Hollywood cinema. The aforementioned talent is clearly the best. But the pillaging of foreign cinema, not to mention the ‘we can do it better’ arrogance that remaking a perfectly workable film carries, can only ever be seen as utterly disdainful and something to condemn.

Still, there’s no denying Dragon Tattoo is a slickly shot, smartly edited thriller, as Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, the only one playing a Swede but not adopting a strange accent) attempts to solve the decades old case of a dead girl. Like other Americanised remake Let Me In, though, throughout Tattoo you just can’t shake the feeling of crushing over-familiarity. Maybe in a few years when the phenomenon has settled, we’ll be able to re-examine Fincher’s film more objectively. For now, it merely feels completely unnecessary, if not something to be ashamed of. 3/5