Rise Of The Guardians (2012)

It sounds like the opening to a potentially offensive joke. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy walk into a bar…

DreamWorks Animation gets the last laugh with Rise Of The Guardians, though. Their latest CGI adventure is a glittering yuletide yarn that just about overcomes its gimmicky concept.

Following on from the successes of How To Train Your Dragon and the Kung Fu Pandas, ROTG warps traditional fairytales as childhood ‘Guardians’ North (ie Santa, voiced by Alec Baldwin), E. Aster Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman) and Tooth (Isla Fisher) unite against nightmare-spreading boogeyman Pitch (Jude Law).

Notions that this is basically a Christmas version of Avengers Assemble, though, prove unfounded.

With its watery opening shot of soon-to-be-Guardian Jack Frost (Chris Pine) drifting in icy purgatory, it’s more like a kiddies Bourne Identity.

As Frost battles his amnesia and becomes an action hero, all that’s missing is Matt Damon ramming pens into unfortunate places.

Also missing, sadly, is a script that really gets its larger-than-life characters interacting with each other. Despite all the rampant, twinkly magic, there are few sparks flying between our motley crew.

The best exchange comes when everybody clambers into Santa’s pimped-out sled. “I hope you like loop-the-loops,” the jolly fellow bellows. “I hope you like carrots,” mutters Bunny.

Visually, things are bright and crisp as Christmas morning. With Guillermo del Toro on producing duties, ROTG looks a million bucks.

The 3D jerks to life inside Santa’s toyshop, a banquet of background detail, while the sorcery-infused battle scenes swoop, sparkle and occasionally terrify.

The pacing also takes no prisoners – Guardians is like an OCD moppet hopped up on Haribos, which is both a positive and a negative thing.

From its mysterious opening gambit right up to its firecracker finale, there’s no fat to be found here. Even Santa’s now a brawny Russian with bricklayer’s forearms. At the midway point, big red stops to reveal what makes him tick: wonder.

He wants to be awed by things. Rise Of The Guardians takes that philosophy as gospel. It’s a film so desperate to have us gawping at its pretty visuals that it forgets to craft its story with the same amount of care.

Verdict: More “oooh… aaah” than “ho-ho-ho”, ROTG is so full of yuletide razzmatazz that only true Scrooges will have trouble stomaching it. If only Santa’s workshop had given the script more of a tinker… 3/5

Via Total Film

The Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

George Clooney once branded director David O. Russell “insane to the point of stupidity”, but there’s nothing stupid about the filmmaker’s (often literally) insane ninth feature film. Dealing with crazy-making matters of the heart and mind, it’s a rom-com with fangs that runs like the clappers and, yes, has serious bite.

Much of that comes in the form of buzzing interplay between stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. A bouncing ball of nervous energy, Cooper’s a million miles away from Hangover-land, turning in a career-making performance as recovering mental patient Pat – who’s just been jacked out of the clinic where he was recuperating after losing his shit over his wife’s cheating ways.

With not an overplayed twitch or sentimental spasm in sight, Cooper’s a revelation – raw, searing and impossible not to watch. Where the screen really fizzles, though, is when he’s trading no-nonsense insults with the similarly wacky Lawrence, whose Tiffany has her own shopping list of problems (she’s getting over the death of her husband). These are two people you should never put in a room together, which is of course why they make such riveting viewing when they are.

That Cooper manages to submerse himself so fully in Pat’s world is impressive enough, but even more remarkable is Lawrence’s ability to match and even surpass him. Sharp, brittle, seductive, it’s her most accomplished performance since Winter’s Bone – and not once do you mistake her for Katniss Everdeen.

None of this would work without Russell, whose script – based on Matthew Quick’s book – is as blunt as its two leads and often genuinely, unexpectedly moving. Visually, he keeps his framing loose, the lighting naturalistic (think The Fighter). As Cooper also clashes with pap Robert De Niro (fantastic) and mom Jacki Weaver (perpetually terrified), Russell gives the characters ample room to breathe. It’s an approach that really ramps up the tension – along with some killer song choices – and, yes, there’s even one of Russell’s trademark snapback camera moves, here as effective as ever.

Ignore the clunky title (it hasn’t got much to do with the movie). Though a third act dip prevents Silver Linings Playbook from delivering as a bona fide classic, it contains so many laugh-out-loud, disarmingly honest moments you can’t help but be swept along for the ride. Dizzying as a merry-go-round and about as over-sentimental as an IKEA catalogue, it’s a crowd-pleaser from top to bottom. And just on the right side of crazy. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

My Brother The Devil (2012)

Simultaneously burying and rejuvenating a dying genre, My Brother The Devil has done for languid London gangster films what Daniel Craig did for Bond. Measured, grubby, brutal as hell, Sally El Hosaini’s city-set drama knows that it’s playing in the same paddling pool as dross like Adulthood, and it isn’t afraid to stick up a finger as it strides off into tantalising new territory.

There’s a lot at stake in My Brother The Devil. Rashid (James Floyd) is a British Arab who’s spent his days prowling Hackney with a gang of equally direction-less youths. Just as Rashid decides he wants out, though, younger brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) is nosing his way into that same flick-knife world of drugs, cold cash and doomed trysts.

It sounds like exactly the kind of film that MBTD wants to distance itself from, and that’s what makes it pop. A firecracker of a mid-point twist sets up an unexpected number of challenges for audiences and characters. Meanwhile, the performances are riveting, intense but never earnest. Plan B may have created a blistering edict on London life with his film iLL Manors, but Hosaini (who won Best British Newcomer at the London Film Festival) has a more reliable voice. My Brother The Devil paints a portrait of London that’s as unforgiving and realistic as you’re ever likely to see. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Happy Happy (2010)

The hunt for happiness is miserable indeed, not least when it involves the seduction of your married neighbour.

Such is the predicament Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) faces in Anne Sewitsky’s dramedy debut when, weary of her chilly marriage, she cosies up to hunky Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen).

The ensuing drama is typically Scandinavian in the best way possible – the setting’s beautiful, the tensions slow-burning. Meanwhile, musical interludes courtesy of a barbershop quartet lend a playful undertone.

Sweet but never saccharine, Happy Happy is as delicate as Kaja and just as endearing. 4/5

Via Total Film

For A Good Time, Call (2012)

If Bridesmaids proved anything, it’s that the girls can be just as filthy/depraved/unsubtle (delete where applicable) as the boys.

Taking that insight and dialling up the dirty, Jamie Travis’ comedy sees ex-college frenemies Lauren (Lauren Miller) and Katie (Ari Graynor) launch their own amateur phone-sex line: 1-877-MMM-HMM.

All right, it’s not up there with Bridesmaids but, thanks to a game Graynor (here channelling a young Bette Midler), a revolving door of cameos and some gloriously smutty pillow talk, For A Good Time delivers, yes, exactly that.

Via Total Film

Chronicle (2012)

Following on from the likes of Kick-Ass and Christopher Nolan’s Bat trilogy, Chronicle not only made superheroes (and, pivotally, supervillains) thrillingly plausible, it also did so without any silly costumes, A-list stars or – most impressively – wheelbarrows of cash (its budget: just $12m). That alone should earn the film our respect. Chronicle is more than an ambitious indie super-film, though. With its likeable characters and measured approach, it’s a human drama that slogs you right where it hurts.

Which isn’t bad for a film that capitalises on a dying fad – found footage – and makes it feel as vital and immediate as it ever was. Because for all its impressive action scenes – and they are impressive, not least the blockbuster climax – Chronicle never loses sight of the three guys at its core, all of whom react differently to their newfound superpowers. Of them all, Dane DeHaan smirks then seethes admirably, both updating the Carrie formula for a new generation and creating an intriguingly complex lead.

Word is that a sequel’s already being fast-tracked, but Chronicle doesn’t need one. It’s a perfectly self-contained contemporary tragedy with mysteries that should be left unsolved, and one of the best superhero films out there. Which, in today’s crowded market, is really quite something. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)

One of the boldest and most original films to screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild picked up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Cinematography Award at the closing night ceremony after surfing a roaring wave of positive buzz. And we doubt it’s going to stop there – this most auspicious of enviro-fantasies is Oscar-bound, and when it lands it’s sure to cause as much wonton destruction as its impressive central storm scene.

A tantalising hybrid of rugged fantasy, character drama and disaster epic, Beasts is a an enchanting oddity that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. At its heart is six-year-old Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives in a Southern delta community called ‘The Bathtub’ (because floods are a daily threat). When her tough love father Wink (Dwight Henry) falls ill, Hushpuppy sets off in search of her mother on a quest to put the world to rights again.

All bristly impudence and pouty bottom lip, Wallis gives a blistering central performance that imbues Beasts with a crude and affecting mood. Raw talent like this is gold dust in the movie industry, and Wallis carries the film with ease, her whimsical narration both quirky and stirring. She’s a fiery heroine, and leads a phenomenal cast of unknowns who are all equally impressive.

After a dreamy introduction, things really get going as a hurricane threatens The Bathtub (Hurricane Katrina is used as both a vague reference point and a thematic device throughout). Meanwhile, melting icecaps unleash giant, long-dormant monsters that charge across the globe towards our little welly-wearing heroine.

Part Where The Wild Things Are, part something else, Beasts is a feral, joyfully atypical fairytale. Debut director Benh Zeitlin – who adapted Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious for the screen – creates a richly dilapidated world where you feel every creaking floorboard and every blast of wind.

True, it feels vaguely ostentatious at times, a consequence of its ambitious themes and dreamy language. “The entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” glowers Hushpuppy with wisdom beyond her years, just one of her remarkable if unrealistically mature observances.

Beasts, though, is the best kind of fantasy. Rooted in a believable, rough-and-tumble reality, its outlandish flourishes are grounded in stomach-flipping emotion. As told through the eyes of our young heroine, it makes a perfect kind of nonsense that defies explanation. It’s a draining, soaring, staggeringly original bit of storytelling that’s spellbinding from start to finish. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Ruby Sparks (2012)

As bright and likable as its titular lead, Ruby Sparks marks the triumphant return of Little Miss Sunshine co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who’ve not made a film in the six years since Sunshine nabbed two Oscars and a legion of fans. With its quirky narrative, Sparks recalls the very best of Woody Allen’s oeuvre (not least his recent Midnight In Paris), etching away at the inner workings of its romantic leads just as much as it observes their numerous trials and tribulations.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, an author who earned acclaim for his debut novel, but has been struggling for years to deliver his second work. Then he starts writing about a fictional girl called Ruby Sparks, who just so happens to be his ideal woman. Things take a turn for the weird, though, when Ruby (Zoe Kazan) appears in Calvin’s apartment one day, as if she’s always been there. Is he losing his mind? Or has he just managed to create an entire new person?

Like Little Miss Sunshine, Sparks is an indie comedy that’s as enamoured with making you laugh as it is getting under the skin of its lead characters. Inspired by the Greek Pygmalion myth – a sculptor falls in love with his sculptures – Sparks explores its nifty premise with intelligence and wit, examining the responsibility we have for those we love, and the danger of attempting to control them.

The cast is also a delight, with Kazan (who wrote the film’s script) delivering one of the freshest performances of the year. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas also offer show-stopping support as Calvin’s hippie parents. It’s the chemistry between Dano and Kazan that really pops, though, and Ruby Sparks is a magical delight that never succumbs to romcom cliché. More, please. 4/5

Via Out In The City

Premium Rush (2012)

David Koepp has been the brains behind some of Hollywood’s smartest action thrillers, having scripted everything from Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible to Spider-Man and Panic Room. Premium Rush is the scribe’s fifth directing gig and a departure from his brainiest tension-ekers – as the film’s title suggests, Rush is less about the grey matter and more about the intoxicating adrenaline kick.

Set entirely on the streets of New York, Rush follows bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he takes on a job delivering a package for Nima (Jamie Chung). When he’s accosted by Bobby (Michael Shannon), Wilee begins to suspect he’s carrying something very important – a suspicion that’s confirmed when Bobby turns out to be a crooked cop who’ll stop at nothing to get his hands on Wilee’s package (so to speak).

Zipping through the Big Apple on his two-wheeler, Gordon-Levitt is a likeably unconventional action hero. It’s not the kind of role JGL’s best known for, but the one-time Third Rock From The Sun actor has star quality to spare, and he turns the wattage up considerably for a role that’s as lean as the film itself.

Behind the camera, Koepp generally knows what he’s doing, too. The visuals are sleek and inventive, with tongue-in-cheek ‘hazard prediction’ sequences recalling Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. Taking its cue from other NY-lover /Spider-Man/, Rush looks gorgeous and its sun-soaked streets vibrate with a fist-pumping soundtrack that includes The Who and My Chemical Romance.

You’ll want to leave your brain at the door, though – Rush’s attempts at a city-wide conspiracy are ambitious at best, convoluted at worst. When it comes to humour and breathless action, though, it generally delivers the goods. Fittingly, Koepp’s film is not unlike a sugar rush – it’s fun while it lasts, but it’s pretty forgettable once it’s over.  3/5

Via Out In The City