Simon Killer (2012)

simon_killerIn many films, music provides an escape. We’re talking about that wedding party scene in End of Watch, or Pulp Fiction’s Travolta-Thurman dance-off, both of which offered a reprieve from the darkness festering elsewhere in the narrative. Not so in Simon Killer. Despite its throbbing, indie-cool soundtrack, music in this Sundance hit is used to keep us continually off-balance, uneasy, trapped. There’s no escaping the darkness in Simon (Brady Corbet).

As abrasive and frustrating as the music cues are in Simon Killer– electro-pop tracks build to a crescendo before being abruptly silenced – it’s entirely fitting for Simon’s story. He’s a young man doing the tourist thing in Paris. Except he’s finding it a lonely experience, roaming the streets and bars in search of a connection and, in one moment of spot on comic tragedy, even has an awkward webcam rendezvous.

Things seem to pick up when Simon meets prostitute Victoria (Mati Diop), a fragile young woman who takes pity on him and lets him crash at her flat. It’s this relationship that begins to unravel Simon’s personality, and in the harshest, cruellest of situations, he’s revealed to be a little more than the naïve, backpacker boy-next-door we’ve been led to believe he is. Like the music, he’s fractured and conflicted.

An ambitious second feature from Afterschool director Antonio CamposSimon Killer marks a definite evolution for the filmmaker. Stylistically, there are a lot of similar visual cues – elegant, slow pans, restrained framing – but Campos attempts to fuse his keen eye with an exploration of what is, essentially, a potentially dangerous sociopath.

Far from putting Simon under a microscope and dissecting him, though, Campos sets up a series of mysteries that may or may not hold the clues to his warped mind. Presented in snippets of dialogue, visual motifs and encounters with other characters, we’re left to come up with our own answers. Is Simon a predator? Or just slightly messed up? Most importantly, does he have the capacity to murder?

This emphasis on set-up with few answers is both Simon Killer’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s a beautifully-realised enigma, aesthetically faultless (the film was shot entirely on location in Paris using only natural light) and unashamedly provocative. Even the title is a puzzle, inviting certain expectations but then not entirely delivering on them.

“Can I just look at you?” breathes Simon whenever he gets within a few feet of a naked woman. Simon Killer invites us to do the same. It’s obsessed with perception, the power of looking (Laura Mulvey would have a field day), what it means to objectify and be objectified.

It should come as no surprise that Martha Marcy May Marlenedirector Sean Durkin produced Killer (Campos himself produced MMMM). The two films are like twin sides of the same scuzzed coin – one a portrait of a victim, the other of a victimiser. Both are haunting cinematic experiences and, at Killer’s centre, Corbet plays a wily game, slowly chipping away Simon’s veneer until we’re left with something genuinely disturbing. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Mud (2013)

Mud filmA coming-of-age drama that dirties up genre conventions with surprisingly adult concerns, Mud is the third feature from Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols. It also contains the latest in a string of increasingly solid turns from Matthew McConaughey, who emerged from his rom-coma around 2011 and is finally fulfilling the promise of 1996’s A Time To Kill.

Though Mud is named after McConaughey’s character, a grubby loner living in self-imposed exile on a remote Arkansas island, it’s the fuse that Mud lights in 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) that gives the film its impetus. The pair meet when Ellis and best bud Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) head to the island in search of a boat left in a tree by the last flood.

There, they find Mud. Superstitious, romantic, a teller of tall tales, he’s in the middle of hatching a desperate plan to get back his love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), while evading the targets of vengeful bounty hunters. Resolving to help Mud out, Ellis and Neck become his willing aids. But could Mud be more dangerous than he’s letting on?

Told almost exclusively from Ellis’ point of view (there are only a handful of times that the audience is granted access to conversations that Ellis isn’t), Nichols’ take on the traditional coming-of-ager is an affecting, poetically-lensed exploration of how a teenager’s ideals don’t match those of a complex, contradictory adult world.

Example: Ellis’ certainty that Mud and Juniper belong together, which is both unquestioning and naive. “They love each other,” he tells neighbour Tom (Sam Shepard), and it’s no coincidence that Ellis’ own parents are on the brink of divorce. This idea of love and heartbreak beats through Mud, and it’s never more poignant than in Ellis’ puppy-dog affection for an older teen whose growing apathy he can’t understand.

For his part, Sheridan perfectly captures Ellis’ inner struggle, imbuing his thoroughly modern Huck Finn with pluck, warmth and not a little frailty. He’s as naturalistic as he was in The Tree of Life (Nichols himself shares that film’s love of gorgeous nature shots), and Sheridan’s relationship with Lofland’s comic-relief swear machine is just one of the many elements that keeps Mudrooted in a relatable reality.

As well as Huck Finn, there are also echoes of last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, another tale centred around a youngster’s attempts to understand a discombobulating world while living in ramshackle riverside humility. While Mud doesn’t stray into the same fantasy-hued terrain as Beasts, they’ll make for a fantastic double bill one day.

Really, there are few stumbles in Nichols’ film, which forgoes the all-out crazy of Take Shelter for something slower and more intimate. It’s a film about family and love; themes that McConaughey brilliantly encapsulates in his chip-toothed anti-hero. Baked hard by the sun, he’s as much of a kid as Ellis; the world’s chewed him up and spat him out again. He’s everything Ellis wants to be, and everything he shouldn’t be. It’s this clever gambit that Mud enjoys toying with, and the result is an immersive drama that skips ‘adult rite of passage’ cliché by striking a killer blow to the heart. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Byzantium (2013)

ByzantiumThe shadow of Twilight stretches inexorably over Byzantium, an otherwise handsome vampire drama that marks director Neil Jordan’s return to familiar bloody turf 17 years after he made Interview with the Vampire. Giving neck-chewers back a little bite, Byzantium’s seedy, moody, bloody opening salvo attempts to reclaim the fangified undead from the tween crowd. It just about succeeds.

In a neon-blasted strip club, Clara Webb (Gemma Arterton) performs a lap dance in fishnets and heels. Meanwhile, her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) encounters an old man on their estate and goes back to his house. Within minutes we’re treated to a thrilling foot chase, some frantic blood-sucking and a spectacularly-staged beheading as this mother and daughter are revealed to be vampires.

Ronan provides lyrical narration (“love confounded her”) while Arterton is engagingly forthright (she’s a vampire and a vamp, hoho). Their relationship is, unsurprisingly, somewhat fraught, especially given they look more like sisters. Things simmer down, though, when Clara and Eleanor head to a sleepy seaside town and take up residence in a rundown hotel. As Clara establishes a brothel to pay the bills, Eleanor struggles with their secret and drip-feeds us the duo’s centuries-spanning history.

More often than not, vampirism in movies is used to comment on everything except vampires – The Addiction used it as a metaphor for AIDS; Blade to tackle racism. Where Byzantiumtriumphs is in employing vampirism as a device that heightens a mother-daughter relationship. Much like the more cult-y Ginger SnapsByzantium’s script – by Moira Buffini, who adapts her play ‘A Vampire Story’ – uses neck-chewers to pick apart not only female sexuality, but also the power of the maternal bond and the effect that otherworldly forces have on human relationships.

Given this thematic richness, it comes as a surprise – and a disappointment – that Byzantium ultimately ends up favouring aTwilight-aping romance. While Clara and Eleanor’s fundamental differences are briefly investigated – Clara’s punishment of men who degrade women, Eleanor’s refusal to feed from anybody under 70 – a will-they-won’t-they dalliance between Eleanor and mortal boy Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) bleeds much of the narrative dry.

True, Ronan and Jones have great chemistry, and their romance does occasionally hit upon surprising poignancy, but Byzantiumoften zeroes in on this been-there-moped-that saga at the expensive of Clara and Eleanor’s story. Despite some intriguing early interplay, their scenes quickly devolve into snore-worthy slagging-off matches that belong in EastEnders.

With Jordan at the helm, though, Byzantium is frequently ravishing. Like Interview with the Vampire, this spiritual follow-up involves lush flashback sequences that have fun with vampire lore. And while the stroppy teenager angle is on the stale side,Byzantium is a resolutely adult horror story with interesting – if not revelatory – things to say. 3/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Populaire (2013)

populaire-romain-duris-deborah-francoisCan you imagine a musical without any show tunes? That’s pretty much what French director Régis Roinsard has created inPopulaire, a dazzling carousel of a film that, despite a noticeable lack of show-stoppers, will have you tapping your feet and clapping your hands nonetheless.

Why? Well, if you pop the cork on Populaire, you’ll find yourself pirouetting in bubbles. It’s impossible not to get swept up in its infectious satire, its swoonsome romance and its sepia-toned innocence. As 1950s village girl Rose (Déborah François) first lands a secretary job at a big city insurance firm, then becomes the pet project of boss Louis (Romain Duris), Populaire whisks along like a petal on a breeze – buoyant, bright, playful.

In the place of show tunes we get (wait for it) thrillingly-choreographed type-offs. See, Louis is coaching Rose to put her secretarial skills to the test in national (and later, international) competitions. If cut-throat type-offs sound like your idea of office-desk hell, it’s here that Roinsard impresses most, his singularly crafty eye transforming scenes that should be loud, clacking annoyances into the kind of visually-inventive sports-movie montages that get your temples resolutely thumping.

It’s part sitcom, part sports film, and Populaire is as immaculately groomed as its stars. The fifties setting is fastidiously, sumptuously recreated, though nothing looks even remotely lived in. The aesthetic is as artificial as a set of acrylic nails, but that’s part of Populaire‘s charm – this is one man’s dollhouse vision of a bygone era, glimpsed through gauzy window netting. Roinsard’s film is positively crammed with delicious sights – painted fingernails, haute couture and, in one risqué moment, a striking red-blue neon sex scene (mon dieu!).

Ensuring that there’s substance behind the style, François is an endearingly goofy lead. It’s no mistake that she has a picture of Audrey Hepburn tacked to her bedroom wall. Not only is François a likeable Hepburn double, her comedy timing is impeccable. Meanwhile, her chemistry with Duris crackles. Sure, the film follows the expected peaks and troughs of a screwball romance, but it’s difficult to complain when it’s played out this beautifully.

Consider Populaire the My Fair Lady of typing. It’s a poem to and pastiche of ’50s rom-coms, full of knowing sexism (“Your life! Everything a modern girl dreams of!”), head-spinning fashion and frothy, infectious fun. Like the prophetically-named typewriter that Rose first falls in love with, Populaire is a triumph. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works 

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

GI-Joe-RetaliationHarder. Faster. Um, realer. That’s the PR spiel supporting this delayed big screen follow-up.

It’s a sequel few were demanding, but fewer still can ignore, especially with The Rock plastered all over the posters, dangling there like a dumbbell-loving carrot for fanboys who scoffed at Stephen Sommers’ ludicrous G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra.

You don’t cast The Rock for his sentimentality, and sure enough Retaliation has all the emotional range of a lobotomized goldfish. Sweating and straining his way through a dizzying number of scuffles, The Rock mainlines adrenaline for Retaliation’s rat-a-tat set-pieces, all of them as absurd as those of its predecessor – and, in one city-levelling jaw-dropper, even more so.

Can’t remember much about the 2009 original? No worries; an opening set of Top Trumps deals out the heroes and villains for you. Because, yes, everything in Retaliation is calibrated to snare a 13-year-old’s attention span and the story, such as it is, acts as little more than a limp washing line on which to peg those incendiary set-pieces.

The basics: Channing Tatum-led super-soldiers the G.I. Joes are framed for the assassination of the Pakistani President and outlawed. While evil outfit Cobra is put in its place, the Joes – among them Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) – attempt to put the world to rights.

Naturally, that involves ridiculously-stylish undercover clobber, fist-fights with B-villains Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), and Lady Jaye going for the jug-ular with a cleavage that could cause a serious injury. Oh, and in a second act upswing, recruiting original G.I. Joe Colton, played by a Bruce Willis…

Retaliation is an apt subtitle for a franchise fighting to stay afloat despite overwhelming bad will. To his credit, director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets) turns in a 3D post-conversion (the official reason for his film’s nine month release bump) that genuinely elevates the material, not least during a heart-in-throat Himalaya scrap that steals the show.

Otherwise, the film’s flatter than a nuked London. The banter lands awkwardly and the action’s all blaze, no bruise. Back-stories are reduced to hurried back-sentences.

And The Rock? He’s easily outshone by this actioner’s surprise golden goose: Jonathan Pryce. As the compromised US President, he’s catty and compelling, playing Angry Birds during a nuclear strike and boasting about hanging out with Bono… 2/5

Verdict:
“Rock solid,” is Bruce Willis’ nod-wink appraisal of an attack strategy in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. The film’s nowhere near as sturdy, trundling out middling action and nonsensical plotting.

Via Total Film

A Good Day To Die Hard (2013)

A Good Day To Die HardCRASH! BANG! WALLOP! If you’re considering sitting down with A Good Day To Die Hard, you’ll want to get acquainted with those sounds first – this fifth entry in the franchise is loud, daft and in love with Big Movie Explosions™. But then, isn’t that what Die Hard has always been about?

“I’m on fucking vacation,” gripes John McClane (Bruce Willis) midway through AGDTDH. He’s just landed in Moscow in search of wayward son Jack (Jai Courtney), who’s become involved in some kind of political warfare. Before John has a chance to mumble one “yippee-ki-yay”, he’s pinched a jeep and chased Jack down a busy highway, leaving destruction in his wake.

That vacation quip’s a funny one, except it represents everything that’s wrong with AGDTDH. For a start, it’s factually inaccurate. John, of course, isn’t in Russia on holiday – we’re told right from the start that he’s there to rescue Jack from his mess (only to make things even messier). It’s the kind of small-detail cock-up that AGDTDH consistently fudges; it’s not a film interested in details – so much so that we’re barely given an explanation of the villain’s motivations before things start exploding again.

It’s also a gag that’s repeated ad nauseum throughout the film, like so many other repetitive beats (the exploding cars, the smashed windows, the weary one-liners). Still, it’s hard to hate a film so belligerently set to ‘thrill’. That central car chase is a doozy, and whatever you think of director John Moore, he ensures the film looks great – scuzzy, Bourne-like, beautifully lit. If ever there was an example of pure ‘check brain at door’ cinema, AGDTDH is it.

A journo friend called McClane’s latest outing a “rice cake” of a film – there’s absolutely nothing nourishing about it, but you gobble it up anyway. It’s true. AGDTDH isn’t a particularly good action film (though it’s leagues ahead of the woeful Jack Reacher), but this late in the game, McClane still commands such affection that you’ll forgive him his shortcomings. Besides, who wants details when you’ve got John McClane going up against an armed helicopter? 2.5/5

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Hansel And Gretel Witch HuntersIf you go down to the woods today… Well, don’t. You’re likely to find some wizened old hag living in a gingerbread house. That’s what happens to young Hansel and Gretel who, as the Brothers Grimm fairytale goes, incinerate the witch in her oven and live to fight another day. Literally, according to Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, as the ‘hero orphans’ grow up to roam the land in skin-tight bondage gear, kicking ass.

In the woods near Augsburg, Germany, something’s hunting children. These aren’t the rhapsodic woods of Terrence Malick’s imaginings – they’re positively stuffed with scabby-chinned witches.

Which is where strapping Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and whip-tongued Gretel (Gemma Arterton) come in, hired by the Mayor of Augsburg to take out Grand Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) before the Blood Moon rises. If only Janssen could stop over-acting long enough for them to lop off her head.

Complicating matters is swaggering Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare, barking every line), who doesn’t like the idea of the heroes swooping in to save his town, and sends his own murderous posse to get rid of them.

Cue blood-splattered skirmishes in which Dead Snow director Tommy Wirkola demonstrates he’s still unafraid of the red stuff, but has no clue how to stage an edgy stand-off.

That lack of tension hobbles the entire film, not least in a studio-bound climactic witch-fight that feels like a lost scene from Xena: Warrior Princess.
The world Wirkola creates doesn’t make a jot of sense – our not-so-terrific twosome trade in oddly futuristic weaponry and for all the gore and F-bombs, H&G:WH feels too simplistic to be anything other than a kids’ film.

Shame; as a concept, it’s airtight: with Will Ferrell producing and Wirkola keen to inject more blood into Hollywood horror, this seemed primed for a good old-fashioned B-horror bum-kicking.

Instead of delivering a fairytale Evil Dead, though, Wirkola’s film stakes out similar terrain to 2012’s po-faced Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, bleeding its premise into a husk that’s devoid of life or humour.

It’s disappointing considering the strength of Wirkola’s amusingly barmy Dead Snow. Sadly, the Norwegian joins a long line of European filmmakers who’ve upped sticks to Hollywood, only to lose their verve along the way. By the time Janssen hisses, “The end is nigh”, you’ll be praying she’s speaking the truth.

Verdict: Though it gives good splat and the scenery’s to die for, Hansel & Gretel gets just about everything wrong. Hammy, boring, chronically unfunny – there’ll be nightmares before bedtime. 2/5

Via Total Film

Movie 43 (2013)

movie 43Quite why A-listers Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman and Emma Stone (among others) aligned themselves with this excruciatingly moronic compilation of shorts is anybody’s guess.

Dealing in piss, poo and period gags that your little brother outgrew by 15, Movie 43 follows three kids as they scour the internet for the elusive (and very possibly made-up) flick of the title.

As their search vomits up one cringe-worthy skit after another, Movie 43 amounts to little more than filmic self-flagellation for all involved.

Winslet’s on a date with Jackman, only there’s something wrong with his neck. Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber home tutor their teenager, but get it all wrong. Anna Faris proposes to Chris Pratt, but not how he expected.

And in Movie 43’s maddest offering, Johnny Knoxville gives Seann William Scott a leprechaun (played by Gerard Butler) for his birthday.

As the fake tits, genitalia jokes and (literal) excrement pile up, the most shocking thing is that not once during Movie 43’s four year production did producer/director Peter Farrelly stop to consider that, just maybe, his film was about as funny as losing your virginity to your own mum. (Yes, this actually happens in Movie 43.)

Worst of all, Farrelly’s film just never knows when to give up, subjecting audiences not only to a never-ending credits sequence gag reel, but yet another post-credits short starring Elizabeth Banks. She gets pissed on by a cartoon cat.

Expect Movie 43’s only genuinely funny moments – two faux ads for Tampax and children enslaved to a life working inside cash machines – to end up on YouTube in the near future.

For everybody else, though, this is a great, huge stinker of an embarrassment on their CV. “It makes you shit out your intestines,” warns JJ (Adam Cagley) right at the beginning. He’s not far off.

Verdict:

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first turkey of 2013. Squandering a gold-star cast and as tasteless as a foam dog poo, Movie 43 deserves not one of your hard-earned pennies. Expect it to sweep next year’s Golden Raspberry awards – it deserves every single one of them. 1/5

Via Total Film

Piranha (1978)

PiranhaOf all the films released in the 1970s that retrospectively raged against the Vietnam War (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver), perhaps the least likely was Piranha.

Made for buttons (well, $770,000) over 30 days, its B-horror status didn’t stop it taking a swipe at that conflict.

That it did so by serving up fishy Brazilian carnivores, bred as finny weapons to infiltrate Vietnamese waters, is merely par for the course in a Roger Corman production.

In director Joe Dante’s own words, Piranha is a “semi-political, semi-spoof science-fiction movie”. In reality it’s a schlocky, low-budget cash-in greenlit to surf the Jaws wave. Exhibit A: the opening scare, in which a pair of backpackers take a midnight dip, only to be dragged under the reddening surface.

Exhibit B: a nutty team of hunters in bumbling insurance investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) and booze-loving Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who attempt to prevent a voracious school of piranhas from chowing down on summer camp kiddies and theme park revellers.

If Jaws was a rounded paternal drama dressed up as a monster movie, Piranha is pure, galumphing beast. Menzies and Dillman make a fun double act but most impressive is just how far Dante pushes that horror handle. Though the gore is mostly limited to foaming red water, Dante’s fishy fiends chomp on anyone and everyone (including the nippers).

The newbie director also pinched a few tricks from Spielberg’s film, namely the palpable tension whenever anybody dunks a toe in something wet. And there are glimmers of that distinctive Dante humour throughout: “What about the goddamn piranhas?” yells theme park owner Dick Miller. “They’re eating the guests, sir,” comes the reply.

Cheap-looking and predictable, Piranha’s premise remains irresistible. How else do you explain two remakes (one of them made for TV) in 30 years? Alexandre Aja’s 2010 reboot upped the camp, meaning Dante’s film feels quainter, its humour gentler.

It’s anything but dead in the water though. That chewy Vietnam subtext keeps things swimming, while at the film’s ominous close the corrupt Dr Mengers (Barbara Steele) attempts to reassure us “there’s nothing left to fear”.

Not until James Cameron’s angst-ridden Piranha II took flight, that is… 3/5

Via Total Film

The Last Stand (2013)

The Last StandArnold Schwarzenegger’s just hurtled through a café door and landed in a heap. “How are you, sheriff?” asks the owner, peering over the counter. “Old,” huffs Arnie as he creaks into frame. No kidding. Nigh on a decade after his last lead role (in Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines), the Austrian Oak’s finally lumbered back into cinemas. He’s older. He’s bigger. His hair’s somewhat thinner. But, really, it’s like he’s never been away.

Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) is whiling out his twilight years in sleepy farm town Sommerton Junction. As we meet him, sock-free and noticeably scruffy, he’s about to take a much-needed few days off. “Should be a quiet weekend,” Arnie muses, somehow unaware that he’s in a movie starring himself, which means quiet is the last thing on the menu.

Sure enough, Sommerton Junction turns out to be the meeting place of escaped con Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) and his gun-loving gang, which is headed by slithering mercenary Burrell (Peter Stormare). Cortez is roaring towards the Mexican border in a swish Corvette ZR1, and his gang are preparing safe passage for him through Owens’ town into Mexico. Meanwhile, FBI Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is on Cortez’s trail – but can he reach him in time?

This first hour of The Last Stand is easily its weakest. Short on laughs, low on Arnie, it’s too busy introducing characters we have no interest in to give us what we really want – Schwarzenegger. Any Schwarzenegger will do, especially after the teasing likes of the Expendables movies, which only featured him as a supporting player. But despite mildly diverting thrills in an impressive (if implausible) jail bust and numerous car-related action kicks, director Kim Jee-woon’s first English-language film feels as weary as Arnie often looks.

Thankfully, that all changes once our favourite Austrian is let off the leash, and around the hour mark, The Last Stand transforms on a dime into something unexpectedly, uproariously entertaining. When Burrell and his men storm Sommerton Junction, they’re surprised to find it’s not only ready for them, but armed to the hilt. The ensuing orgy of mayhem delivers hilariously gory deaths, bloodshed aplenty and just a few of those patented Arnie one-liners.

We’re not kidding ourselves, though. Arnie’s heyday came and went with the 1980s, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever reach the thrilling heights of that muscle-busting run again. After seven years playing California Governor, though, Arnie still knows how to deliver a good time (there’s even a moment of shiver-inducing acting from the guy as he mourns a dead colleague), and he looks thoroughly comfortable back up there on the big screen. “This is my home,” he says near The Last Stand’s close. Welcome home, Arnie. 3/5

Via Grolsch Film Works