Review: The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)

Directors: Damon Beesley, Iain Morris

***

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

The hit TV show The Inbetweeners set out its stall right from the start. It was purely about four awkward teenage boys who were socially inept, boasted various degrees of intelligence and self-delusion, and were forever looking for a chance with the nearest pretty girl who paid them even a smidgen of attention. With this no-more-no-less attitude, the show pitched itself at a barely-heightened reality and thus guaranteed itself a broad audience. Their awkwardness was our awkwardness, only theirs was more intense. As you cringe at their exploits, you’re also thanking your deity of choice that your teen years were somewhat more straightforward.

So, when the inevitable leap to the big screen came along, our central quartet headed for a sun holiday full of sex, sangria and more sex. The phenomenon of leaping to the big screen just to go on holiday is nothing new amongst British sitcoms (Read Donald Clarke’s fine article on this distinctly 1970s phenomenon here). The Inbetweeners Movie adhered to that formula and made a mint. Old cast + new locations = win. Can we assume Number 2 will do something different?

Not bloody likely.

There is no incentive for series creators Damon Beesley and Iain Morris (taking over directing duties from Ben Palmer this time around) to try something new. The first film, overstretched as its conceit may be, proved too successful for them to rock the boat. Will (Simon Bird) is still a talkative specky-no-mates, and Neil (Blake Harrison) is still stupid beyond comprehension. Meanwhile, Simon (Joe Thomas) is still such a sucker for love that he’s caught in a relationship with borderline psychotic Lucy (Tamla Kari). Desperate for an escape, they decide to venture to Australia to see the perma-horny Jay (James Buckley) on his gap year. He’s sold them a cock-and-bull story of success as a DJ’ing lothario, and these boys clearly never learn. Imagine their surprise when they arrive in Aussieland to find no pimped-out mansion. Oh, boys.

Jay’s delusions about his success, sexual and otherwise, are but one element of Inbetweeners lore bolted firmly in place here. The four leads still rib each other over their sexual prowess, they still set themselves up for horrendous embarrassment, and they still share great chemistry. Despite all four leads now verging on their third decade, their charm has kept us on side thus far, whether in the form of Will’s wry self-admonishing voiceover or their constant sarcastic use of the word ‘brilliant’. The fact that these guys don’t seem to have matured much since secondary school is both pathetic and ripe for laughs. Maybe if they weren’t so self-obsessed, they mightn’t get into so much trouble? Then again, if you’re asking that question, you’re not the audience for The Inbetweeners 2. It’s unapologetic in its fan-pandering, but it’s a big audience so who wouldn’t pander? It’s everything an Inbetweeners fan could want.

The aforementioned charm helps The Inbetweeners 2 get over some pretty basic problems in transferring to the big screen. As with the first film, the change in locale doesn’t bring anything new to the table. After getting mixed up with a self-important group of gap-year students, the boys generally get into hijinks resulting in some bodily fluid or other getting slathered on someone. That’s the stock in trade here, and The Inbetweeners 2 delivers. Urine, faecal matter and innuendo are in plentiful supply. What is lacking is any kind of character development outside the central foursome. Will’s object of affection, Katie (Emily Berrington), isn’t much more than a pretty face, though she and her clique offer a chance to poke fun at the ‘gap-yah’ phenomenon, which the film rips into in fine style.

The film flits between Sydney, a water park, the Gold Coast and the Outback, with each scenario offering up ample opportunity for yuk-yuks (or just ‘yuk!’). Still, it’s hardly worth travelling halfway around the world when the boys could have got caught in similar situations closer to home. Agnes Brown didn’t have to leave Dublin to be stupid and successful; maybe The Inbetweeners could take a leaf from her book? (Presumably before one of them has to wipe themselves with it). At a little over 90 minutes, the film isn’t interested in being much more than an extended episode of the show, but since the show has ended that may be all the fans need. Buy ticket, laugh out loud, get turn on stomach, leave, forget.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Director: James Gunn

**

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com.

For the record, this review of Guardians of the Galaxy is not from the pen/keyboard of a comic book fan. Then again, what should that matter? Most anyone can get on board any comic book movie done right, right? Yes, but then what constitutes ‘done right’ for a comic book movie? Pleasing the fans and broader audiences requires a nimble touch, one which doesn’t entirely seem within the reach of director/co-writer James Gunn (Slither, Super).

Guardians of the Galaxy is pitched at a sassy sibling to the existing Marvel universe, with a backchatting raccoon to make the kids feel more adult, and enough knowingly out-of-place ’80s hits to bring a smile to faces of accompanying adults. That’d be fine if we didn’t already have enough anarchic energy and daffy soundtrack choices in the form of Tony Stark blasting out AC/DC. Gunn has cited 2008’s Iron Man as a template for GOTG, but then that film’s scarcely as good as you remember. By setting up a singular hero full of personality only to waste him on a creaky plot, Favreau’s first outing was saved only by the force of energy that is Robert Downey Jr. He IS Tony Stark: rich, charming and steeped in egomania. GOTG has to do the same thing for a group of five nominal heroes, as well as establishing new intergalactic realms, before also feeling the need to inject some ill-fitting emotionality to proceedings. GOTG is overstuffed and underdeveloped, but was it not doomed to be so?

It may not have Robert Downey Jr., but GOTG does provide a charming leading man in the form of Chris Pratt, playing his second universe-saving schlub this year after the awesomeness of The Lego Movie. He’s Peter Quill, our leading man driven by a tragic past for the evening. The horribly manipulative opening scene takes place in 1988, in which a young Peter watches his mother succumb to cancer before he’s suddenly kidnapped by an interplanetary craft. Cut to a now-adult Peter landing on a planet named Morag, a location crying out for a Patricia Routledge cameo (“Where’d you put me parsnip baps, Morag?”). He still listens to the mixtape his mother gave him, he dances effortlessly to Redbone and he steals for a living. We’ve seen this guy before; Harrison Ford would have given him a clip round the ear and told him to stop prancing like a tit. Quill steals a heavily guarded MacGuffin before a fast-paced exit. Fear not, all you Indy-heads: GOTG will borrow from a lot more Spielberg and Lucas endeavours before the end.

The MacGuffin Quill steals is a weapon being sought by our big bad, Ronan (Lee Pace), a creature clothed in Darth Vader’s nightgown and painted black and blue like a giant walking bruise (The same colour scheme goes for his henchperson, Karen Gillan’s Nebula). Pace is given little to do beyond standing in an intimidating fashion, and has little motivation except rebelling against a peace treaty his people’s leadership recently signed. This rebellion, cut from the same cloth as The Phantom Menace’s tax disputes, gets up the nose of police chief/leader/Peter Mark model Glenn Close, an actress of such capability that she steals the film with just one word (A guaranteed guffaw-getter). Ronan’s machinations and fate end up throwing Quill together with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned ass-kicker out for revenge on Ronan. They’re both after the MacGuffin, and they in turn are being pursued by two would-be bounty hunters. Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is a walking tree, an Ent with greater mobility but a lot less to say. His vocabulary extends to the phrase “I am Groot”. He’s accompanied by Rocket, an anthropomorphised raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper. His schtick is a bad attitude and an occasional potty mouth. Considering it’s been the best part of twenty years since South Park made a turd talk, this is hardly a leap forward in the characterisation stakes.

The four are put in prison for being a general nuisance, and hatch an escape plan whilst getting acquainted with the newest member of their ragtag group. Drax (Dave Bautista) is a scarred, blue-skinned hulk of an inmate also thirsting for revenge on Ronan (There’s a trend here, see?). A potentially-involving backstory coupled with WWE alum Bautista’s physical bulk makes him arguably the most interesting of the five leads. The others do fine, but there’s ultimately nothing new to the characters. A leader, a woman, a sass mouth, a near-mute and muscle team up for hi-jinks: Star Wars by any other name smells less than sweet. When the action comes, it comes thick and fast. CGI thingy blasts CGI thingy and thrills aplenty come in fits and bursts. The gang’s escape from their interplanetary prison is a nifty set-piece, but it’s clear Gunn is not entirely comfortable shooting one-on-one combat. This might explain why the final act rout is composed primarily of CG overkill.

The problem with Guardians of the Galaxy has little to do with its attitude or look. Technically, it’s a colourful little romp, with enough glassy nebulae and actors in face paint to engage fitfully (Michael Rooker playing a blue-skinned Southern-accented scavenger is a long, long, looooooooong way from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). GOTG’s weakness is that it’s ultimately a Marvel movie. It has characters to establish and a universe to define, and when you have five leading heroes and that universe is the Universe, any film will have its work cut out not to bury itself in explanations. There’s far too much exposition, with each character given about two lines of dialogue each with which to justify their motivations. Murder, mistreatment and cruelty all get an airing before Ronan barrels in again to advance the plot.

The plot itself is an episodic cross-galaxy trek to stop Ronan from destroying the human settlement of Xandar. Our heroes flit from Xandar to prison to a pointless cameo from Benicio del Toro sporting Jim Jarmusch’s hair and lips. There’s so much narrative to get through that GOTG can’t but move at a fair speed, but it’s a standard hop from set piece to set piece before a big showdown with the big bad. We’ve got this formula before from Marvel, but when it’s married to material that purports to be an anarchic sibling to the other Marvel flicks (‘80s tunes in space! Middle fingers! Swearing rodents!), it can’t but disappoint.
 
Guardians of the Galaxy boasts no shortage of winks at the audience (Groot literally does so at one point), but what is there to wink about? It might get the kids listening to the Runaways and Blue Swede, but when Tarantino already gave Hooked On A Feeling a new lease of life back in 1992, Guardians of the Galaxy’s anachronisms can’t help but seem old-fashioned.

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Director: Matt Reeves

***

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film powered by anger. In every frame lurks a grimace, either human or simian, as a hint of danger to come. Director Matt Reeves delivers the danger and the fizz-boom-bah that comes with it; it shouldn’t be a problem for the director of Cloverfield. Whether he or his film delivers anything more than that is another  matter.

By now, we have all but consigned Tim Burton’s visit to the Planet of the Apes to the dustbin of cinematic history, though the ending with Ape-raham Lincoln notably simultaneously insulted and mind-screwed the audience; a rare feat. Rupert Wyatt gave the dormant franchise the restart it deserved with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, at least if you can forgive the cardboard human characters and piss-poor dialogue. The coup was introducing us to Caesar, a triumphant blend of CGI and Andy Serkis’ remarkable animalistic performance. The ape became more human than the humans themselves. If Caesar didn’t work, the Planet would never have come to eloquently sonorous life. Following the success with Caesar, Dawn… builds on the foundations of Rise… This time we get more apes, more guns and more complex humans. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

The darkening of tone is set out in the opening, which charts the spread of the Simian Flu from the conclusion of Rise… From above the Earth we view the virus spreading and the lights of the human world slowly fade out. So far, so zombie-movie. As mankind is crippled, the apes are making leaps and bounds of all kinds: physical, governmental, grammatical. Indeed, most scenes of apes interacting come with subtitles as they communicate via sign language. This grounding of the apes and their society elevated Rise… above simian schlock, and it will do the same for Dawn…

From James Franco’s benevolent scientist in the first installment, we jump ten years ahead to Jason Clarke’s benevolent… well, benevolence. Evidently the residents of the overgrown commune that used to be San Francisco pre-Simian Flu are less defined by their occupations than by their star power. Of the humans, Gary Oldman is most memorable as Dreyfus, the leader of this new order of Franciscans. He can bellow out a speech with the best of them, but the calm charisma of Caesar cannot be beat. He leads his own troop of intelligent apes, now resident in the Muir Woods beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. The realisation of the apes is truly special. Their faces carry so much; the samey nature of Roddy McDowall’s stiff make-up is replaced by identifiable emotion, courtesy of the wizards at Weta. Serkis commands the screen from behind the pixels, though he does have plenty of support in his fellow chimps. Not least of these is Toby Kebbell as Koba, the snarling former lab monkey who virulently distrusts homo sapiens. His raging yang to Serkis’ dignified yin makes for a formidable power play, and is easily the most interesting relationship in the film. Clarke’s Malcolm is gifted a wife (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but stinky humans are no match for mighty ape in this script. With the exception of Kirk Acevedo’s Carver, who is just an ape-hating grunt, the humans here aren’t all stereotypes. They’re just a bit boring. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Clarke, Russell et al. Reeves and the script are clearly more interested in the apes. Fair enough; after all, they are the ones on the cusp of becoming a civilisation.

As the humans become desperate for electricity, a hydroelectric dam in ape territory is the MacGuffin for the evening. Caesar wants to give the humans access to placate them; Koba wants them out. It sounds like a simplistic dichotomy of characters, but the humans fare little better. While Malcolm seeks access to the dam, Dreyfus is assembling weapons in case the apes cross the bridge. His fear is understandable. An early human excursion into the ape’s territory ends badly, and sees the apes assemble in San Fran en masse to warn the humans to stay put. There is something so simply off-putting about the image of an ape on horseback that you daren’t argue. Reeves boasts an eye for such riveting imagery, and it serves him particularly well in the action scenes. The highlight is a street battle between Dreyfus’ men and Koba’s newly-armed simian soldiers attempting to seize the city with all guns blazing. The whole rout looks like Charlton Heston’s Kafka dream, with Kebbel’s snarling, scarred Koba lit up by incendiaries and blood thirst. He’s frankly terrifying.

After the apes gain the upper hand, the plot mechanics become all too visible. The tower block where the humans reside becomes a fitting setting for an ape-on-ape showdown in the final act. Not surprising, but then the scripts were never the stars of the Apes franchise. The effects seal the deal, and even since Rise… they’ve noticeably improved. There’s scope for this franchise to continue, though on this evidence the final gut-punch of 1968’s original will never be eclipsed. Revel in the above-average summer fare that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes clearly is, and just hope for more.

Review: Camille Claudel 1915 (2013)

Director: Bruno Dumont

****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

How many true stories in film feel ‘true’? Did The Four Seasons continuously narrate their lives and break into song? Often, a biopic’s scope denies it insouciance. The best biopics focus on a (relatively) short period of time, or a few key events. A biopic screenwriter must do their research and find the real meat of the story beyond the predictable key tragedies and formative moments. For example, in Camille Claudel 1915, we never once see the famed sculptor (Juliette Binoche) put chisel to stone. We never see her in a Kiss-inspiring tryst with Rodin. We meet her in Montdevergues Asylum, downtrodden and paranoid. In filmic terms, Claudel’s tale is closer to the tragedy of Corbijn’s Control. It isn’t uplifting, but it is true.

Anyone who’s seen Bruno Nuytten’s handsome 1988 biopic Camille Claudel would be forgiven for thinking another film moot. It’s a big, bold interpretation, with Isabelle Adjani on intense form (though perhaps a step or two down from the impressive histrionics of Possession). CC1915 starts where Nuytten’s film ended. Admitted to Montdevergues in the depths of paranoia, Claudel is a broken woman. She yearns for release, and attempts to convince her doctor (Robert Leroy) of her sanity. Initially, Binoche invests Claudel with a fussy energy that makes her stand out from the placid gallery of unfortunates around her. Her disdain for her surroundings and fellow inmates is matched by her paranoia. She insists on cooking her own food, and can’t bear to be in the company of the other patients. Montdevergues seems haunted, silent and crumbling. War rages a few hundred miles away, and within the heads of the inmates.

All Camile’s hopes are pinned on an impending visit by her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent). As the man who had her committed, he’s unlikely to change his mind, but Camille stubbornly clings to the prospect of freedom. The sibling’s meeting is the central scene, both chronologically and narratively, with Dumont crafting his dialogue from letters between the two; many exchanges are lifted verbatim. Dumont makes the most of the intimate knowledge with which history has left us, giving proceedings an weight and urgency lacking in so many other biopics. Claudel’s mental state is not a hurdle to be crossed on the path to success; it is a true burden to doom her for life. Binoche’s tearstained face retains its nigh-unmatched capacity to break hearts. Dumont aids Binoche in grounding her vexations by making the asylum both handsome and decrepit. Whitewashed walls look ready to crumble, and most of the patients spend their days in silence, not least because some of them can barely speak at all. The lack of a score and the oppressive naturalism of DP Guillaume Deffontaines (dazzling sunshine, foggy nights) only adds to the claustrophobia.

Claudel’s stubborn One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest-alike reticence is slowly but gradually replaced by increasing acceptance, resignation and even bouts of succumbing to her predicament (A scene in which Claudel dances her hallelujahs down the aisle of a church walks the line between joyful and disturbed). CC1915 suggests at Claudel’s hospitalisation being more hindrance than help to her. It hints at lurches into Titicut Follies territory, but the primary impetus of Camille Claudel 1915 is truth rather than scandal. It’s a heady, heavy reminder that great artists will suffer for, and perhaps because of, their chosen medium.

Review: Night Moves (2013)

Director: Kelly Reichardt

****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

Hands up all of those who think Jesse Eisenberg is a one-trick pony.

Aha! We saw those hesitant limbs. Deny it not: it has been a common accusation (and indeed, misconception) that Eisenberg doles out the same Jew-fro’ed, nervy geek in every film in which he stars. Playing similar characters in quick succession is a risk for any actor; in Eisenberg’s case, it’s an additional misfortune that he played two nerds forced to come out of their shell in two films concerned with Lands in quick succession. Aside from pursuing Adventure and the occasional Zombie, check his back catalogue. He can be withdrawn (Roger Dodger), confident (The Social Network), all-out charming (Now You See Me) or gratingly motormouthed (30 Minutes Or Less, which was about 60 minutes too long). He proved his mettle most pointedly this year in The Double, in which he played two characters with the same face and body but distinct personalities. It’s no Dead Ringers, but Eisenberg (both of them) held the rest of the self-important Gilliam rip-off in place. Even if the claims of Eisenberg’s samey performances have died down, his discomforting turn in Kelly Reichardt’s masterful Night Moves ought to put the kibosh on them for good.

Unlike Eisenberg, most people know what they get with Reichardt, namely character and turmoil. Her two previous works exemplify her approach. As unlikely as it seems, she deals in danger. Threat comes from real life, be it economic (Wendy and Lucy) or purely survivalist (Meek’s Cutoff). For all the hardship, the pace is calm, almost distantly so. Danger usually entails urgency, but it can be just as powerful when far-off and unseen; the perception of danger is all that is required. With Night Moves, Reichardt ups the immediacy and the paranoia, to show that even the best laid plans of mice and eco-terrorists go oft astray. Within the confines of a solid three-act structure is a canvas for drip-feed excitement and intelligent thrills.

Based on/ripped off from Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’ (The argument progresses through the courts, but we have the film regardless), our focus is on Josh (Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning, leaving behind the thankless roles of her younger years for something with a bit more thought put in to it), two members of an Oregon environmentalist commune specializing in growing organic produce. All well and good, except they’re cooking something up besides puy lentil broth. From early on, Eisenberg’s brooding stillness and Fanning’s distant intelligence suggest malicious intent. The first act establishes the plan; with the help of veteran Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, bringing that smile to new heights of superciliousness), they aim to bring down the Green Peter hydroelectric dam with the help of several hundred pounds of homemade explosive. Supplies are sought. Explosives are constructed. A boat is bought. Confidence is aplenty. There is never any doubt in this trio’s minds that they are doing the right thing, with Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond’s script giving them enough rope with which to hang themselves later on. The homemade nature of their endeavour doesn’t inject an overbearing realism to proceeding, just enough believability to suggest this could happen. For a thriller, that suggestion is plenty.

Act Two is all in the execution. Classic character building leads to a date with destiny, as our Oregon Three take the boat, the ominously-named Night Moves, on to the Santiam river with its dangerous cargo. There is no established guarantee; the fear on all three faces is justified, and we are right there with them. All movie plans are foolproof, but Reichardt milks the tension. Is everything in place? Have they forgotten something? This is the high point; at its best Night Moves is stupendously riveting. Reichardt puts her protagonists through the ringer with ease; the segue from characterisation to no-frills tension is the work of someone operating at peak powers. It’s a scenario in which Eisenberg could have gone twitchy and Fanning could have become shrill. They are still, calmly quaking. Whether the bomb goes off or not, you will be on edge to find out.

All this leads to a third act that pales in comparison with the second, if only because the execution of the plan is just so tense. The fallout of the SS Night Moves’ final journey slowly but surely takes its toll on Josh. Harmon and Dena manage to keep their heads down, but Eisenberg puts a human face to their actions. Try as he might, cracks slowly appear in Josh’s façade, and the stresses will only lead to yet more extreme measures. If the lesson of the cost of idealism is nothing new, Night Moves at least puts a price tag on that cost. Cash in all comfort and prospect of happiness, and you’ll come out with change. The final shot of Eisenberg’s face shows a man who has paid said cost, although whether it was paid gladly remains up for debate. The efficiency and class of Night Moves, on the other hand, is undeniable.

Review: Heli (2013)

Director: Amat Escalante

***

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

After a successful festival tour, including winning Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Heli arrives with relatively little fanfare. The film has got a cooler reception from critics than festival juries, which at least goes to disprove any idea that critics favour for prestigious films just because they’re miserable. Usually, that’s pure coincidence.

Is Heli just misery porn? Tackling the issue of drug cartels will be necessarily grim; told from a Mexican viewpoint, Heli doesn’t have the self-aware style of Breaking Bad or Soderbergh’s Traffic. What it does have is grit, violence and more grit. It centres on Heli (Armando Espitia), a young factory worker who lives with his wife, young son, sister and father in rural Mexico. Their lives primarily consists of keeping their heads down to avoid cartel activity forever haunting the frame from the sidelines. Heli’s sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) disturbs this fragile balance when she and her army cadet boyfriend Alberto (Juan Eduardo Palacios) procure heroin seized from the cartel and plan to sell it. Heli finds out and tries to hide the drugs, but right from the start this obviously cannot end well. This is clear when, in  one of the first scenes when Estela adopts a stray puppy. Any film fan worth their salt knows Fido’s done for, and so it goes when the cartel come looking for their misappropriated stash at Heli’s house.

Heli paints a portrait of rural Mexico as a hellish desert ruled by the lawbreakers, rife with corruption and torture. After the raid on Heli’s house, Heli and Alberto are taken by the cartel for some enhanced interrogation involving humiliation and the use of lighter fluid in conjunction with certain body parts. Escalante serves up a grim film, with shocking moments (violent and otherwise) and an unrepentantly dour tone. All this would be fine if Heli had something new to say about life in the shadow of the drug dealers. Escalante’s script hints at themes of guilt, revenge and redemption, but the themes risk being sacrificed to shock value. Admittedly, the portrait of the close family ties of Heli and his family are well established. The performances are strong from all concerned, while Escalante and his cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman’s no-frills approach adds heft to the drama and the violence.

As a story, Heli works even though the characters struggle to crawl out from underneath the remorseless grim tone weighing the film down. Escalante must presume the travails of this family are enough to carry the film through, but it could have used more satirical bite. With this material, the scope for commentary is vast, but it’s scarcely explored. Heli has to ensure its memorability with shock, because it’s just not as smart as the filmmakers seem to think.