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Film review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 13 December 2014 13:04
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
Certificate: 12A

"Why does it hurt so much?" cries Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), her face cut on the battlefield. "Because it's real," her father, Thranduil (Lee Pace), replies. That is one thing Peter Jackson has always managed throughout his epic 13-year saga: he has successfully made Tolkein's Middle-earth real. Until now.

Ever since the announcement was made that The Hobbit would be divided into three films, this second trilogy's problem has been justifying its padded nature. It's become increasingly clear that the extended adaptation is born less out of financial profiteering and more fanboy passion to include as much as possible. While that urge turned The Unexpected Journey into an over-stuffed turkey, though, The Desolation of Smaug saw Jackson's idea crystallise into a thrillingly big romp, sacrificing its child-friendly origins for an even, if dark, tone.

The mood remains consistent, as we start with the climax of part two: Smaug (a menacing Benedict Cumberbatch) taking down Laketown with an onslaught of fire. But that blaze reveals a different inconsistency in the film's underbelly: the visuals. The CGI deployed liberally throughout The Battle of Five Armies is more than a few Hobbits short of a Shire. Even in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Weta's technology was only just coming into its own, the effects were more convincing; not because they were better but because they were used sparingly. Here, almost everything feels digitised, from Smaug's flames to the bland orcs storming the mountain of Erebor for its gold.

Wonky effects wouldn't be an issue if the action sequences were just that - action sequences. But here, they are the pay-off for nine hours of storytelling: because the narrative has been so stretched out, they are part of the film's character development. So when dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) stands on a cliff and overlooks the fray, he merely appears to be looking at a giant green screen.

That whiff if artificiality undercuts the emotional impact of the climax, with crucial moments of carnage turned into cut scenes from video games. Even Legolas - the king of bad-ass battle moves - cannot convince, with his most ostentatious stunt rendered gigglesome.

The cast are more at home in their parts than ever, though, each dwarf convincing, even if they only have one line of dialogue. Evangeline Lilly and Aidan Turner especially impress, as the star-crossed elf and dwarf lovers, adding much needed emotional weight to the chaos, but it is Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage who walk away with the biggest chunks of treasure. Freeman's courageous and honest Bilbo is more likeable than ever, never performing feats too big for his diminutive frame, while Armitage's Thorin does a royal job of going crazy under the gold's influence, his panicking eyes earning our sympathy despite his selfish origins.

Even here, though, he is not safe from the shonky effects, with one laughable scene leaving him drowning - quite literally - in CGI. The more distracted by the pictures you become, the more you notice the other uneven lurches made by the script, from the out-of-place swearing by Billy Connolly (as Thorin's raucous cousin) to a timely cameo from the eagles that a spoof film could have predicted. The result is an action-packed epic that, despite its nippy pace, is curiously un-exciting. There are pleasures to be found in the virtual block-busting, such as Saruman kicking butt - which Christopher Lee could only achieve with a bank of computers and a stunt double - but it's telling that the most rewarding resolution comes in a well-judged moment of calm, when Bilbo and Gandalf sit among the aftermath and simply say nothing. It's a shame, then, that after finding the courage of its convictions, The Hobbit should fall so spectacularly at the final hurdle. It's a fun, but painful sight. Why does it hurt so much? Because the rest of it was real.

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Film review: Black Sea Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 05 December 2014 14:48
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn
Certificate: 15

Earlier this year, it was announced that Dennis Kelly's TV series, Utopia, had been dropped by Channel 4. It was tragic news for fans of the show, and TV in general, as the British thriller was brutal, important viewing; not because of its nasty violence, but because it never shied away from dark social truths. It's a pleasure, then, to see his name on the script for Black Sea.

The film follows a disgruntled submarine captain (Jude Law), who takes drastic action after being fired. The plan? Round up the gang, track down an old, abandoned Soviet sub and seize the Nazi bullion left there in WWII.

Nazis? Submarines? Hidden treasure? If your mind is floating back to the days of 40s adventures, you're definitely on the right ship: Kevin Macdonald helms this with the kind of zip you'd expect from an Indiana Jones romp, not letting the pace slow below 35 knots.

But this is Indiana filtered through the dark mind of Dennis Kelly; a dystopian take on a matinee flick. That gives Black Sea its own anaerobic vibe, one that sucks out the breath of adventure with a long, wheezing dive.

Jude Law's Scottish accent may be more Shrek than Sean Connery, but he's a great fit for the obsessed captain, his receding hairline only adding to the air of failed ambition. He's supported by a fantastic crew, from Michael Smiley's typically twisted comic relief to Scoot McNairy's slippery man in a suit, whose there to bankroll the operation but doesn't have the stomach for small spaces.

That's where Kelly strikes home, in the claustrophobic contrast between the rich and the poor; the employers and the (ex-)workers. With everyone promised an equal share of the booty, that communal ideal is corrupted by individual greed, as people realise that you don't have to be a banker to be a bastard. As the tensions rub the characters the wrong way, Ben Mendelsohn emerges to steal the show. Ever since Animal Kingdom, he's perfected a certain type of unbalanced male man, but put among an emsemble of equally aggressive people, he torpedoes the lot with eye-boggling intensity.

It could descend into dumb cliche or heavy-handed Ken Loach commentary, but it's testament to Macdonald that he reins everything in, keeping things entertaining and (just) believable, even as the mildly daft final act - complete with forced familial sentiment - arrives. The result is a enjoyably old-fashioned thriller that relies on people rather than pyrotechnics. In an age of loud, bombastic blockbusters, Black Sea admirably sinks to explore the depths of humanity. Not everything it finds may be solid gold, but this is highly pressurised stuff.

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Film review: What We Do in the Shadows Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 22 November 2014 09:14

Viago, Deacon and Vladislav are three flatmates in Wellington. They wake each other up for flat meetings. They go out on the town. They get annoyed at each other for not doing the dishes. And they try not to disturb Petyr downstairs. They're just normal, typical blokes. Who happen to be vampires.

It's a simple idea behind What We Do in the Shadows - a mockumentary from New Zealand - but that simplicity makes the humour delightfully complex.

From the moment the desperately eager Viago (Taika Waititi) rouses Vladislav upstairs, only to find a hairy Jemaine Clement surrounded by naked ladies halfway up the wall, it's clear that this Kiwi comedy is taking its vampiric lore seriously. "Meeting in 10 minutes," calls Viago, after hurriedly closing the door. Vladislav apparates by the door and opens it quickly. "20."

That respect for traditions is evident at every level of the silliness, from nightclubs where they can't go in unless the bouncers invite them to the fearful opening of curtains at 6pm in case sunlight might still shine through. The result is a creative mix of old tropes and new ideas; a reviving bite to the neck for a genre that has become all too familiar in recent years. One hysterical scene featuring Viago's "Basgetti" mind control trick is worth the price of admission alone.

The cast throw themselves into it, donning over-the-top costumes and covering themselves in fake blood, but they never lose sight of the naively friendly New Zealander quality that made Flight of the Conchords so endearing. Reunited with Clement after Eagle and Shark, Waititi and his co-director/co-star clearly know their comedy games, repeatedly setting up the right buttons for the other to push. Rhys Darby, meanwhile, steals the few scenes he appears in as a highly amenable werewolf struggling to keep control of his pack. "That's a good pair of trousers ruined there," he laments, as one of them puts on jeans instead of jogging bottoms ahead of a full moon.

But what elevates What We Do in the Shadows above a scattershot spoof is the way it uses all of these elements to develop its characters. Viago, it turns out, is longing for his lost love, but in turn is the subject of unrequited feelings from his slave, who irons his frilly shirts in the hope that one day she will become immortal too. Insert a new convert who keeps bringing his human best friend round for tea and you have an awkward web of dead and undead loyalties. Into that surprisingly tender set-up flies Ben Fransham's Petyr, a Nosferatu-like monster (complete with full make-up) who sends the sentimental moments spinning down into genuinely jumpy shocks. Edited and re-edited until its scarily tight, this is a sharply tailored vampire flick that upholds tradition yet sinks its teeth into it with flair. It's moving, it's clever, it's mercilessly quick, but most of all, it's bloody funny.

Film review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Monday, 17 November 2014 08:01

Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland
Certificate: 12A

"When has Katniss ever genuinely moved you?" asks Haymitch (Harrelson) near the start of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1. It's a fair question: the symbol of the rebellion she may be, but she's hardly a people person. After the events of Catching Fire, though, which saw her destroy the Hunger Games arena and unwittingly lead a coup against the oppressive Capitol, she has become the most valuable weapon in the fight for freedom: a face to rally the troops.

"We need a lightning rod," points out former Gamesmaker Plutarch (Hoffman). "People will follow her." It may not sound like scintillating conversation for an action blockbuster, but that is precisely Mockingjay - Part 1's achievement: it turns a political struggle into something grippingly potent - and thrillingly personal.

The Hunger Games has always managed to weave the two closely together, ever since Katniss first pretended to be in love with Peeta (Hutcherson) for TV audiences to protect her off-screen love, Gale (Hemsworth), and family. Here, she is torn once more between the two fellas, but the stakes are higher. Waking up in the underground (and long thought destroyed) District 13 with loyal soldier Gale, she discovers Peeta is held prisoner by President Snow - Donald Sutherland, grinning like an evil Cheshire Cat - who uses him as a puppet in a series of broadcasts that leave her again caught between a screen and a horde of angry disbelievers.

The political themes of Suzanne Collins' trilogy were always destined to erupt in a blazing climax, but the final book struggled with that scale. On the page, Mockingjay was uneven, slow, missing the claustrophobic structure of the titular tournament. Chopping the novel up for the cinema might have seemed like a bad idea, but turns out to be the franchise's saving grace.

Writers Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (Danny in Mad Men) rework the story with the lightest of touches, ignoring the text's interval to find their own pace. They rely on Jennifer Lawrence to convey her character's emotional conflict while they explore this new, murky world of propaganda. And what a world it is: the new set is massive, but Collins' universe continues to be built with superb realism, from the concrete walls to the shiny attack ships.

Fittingly for a movement that prioritises people over power, every character matters, from Elizabeth Banks as Effie (who, along with Woody's rude Haymitch, lightens the mood with her attempts to sass up District 13's uniform jumpsuits) to Jeffrey Wright's tech wizard, Beetee. Julianne Moore slots right in as President Coin, ruthlessly fair, almost to a fault, her hair as straight as her blunt gaze. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman really stands out just by not standing out at all; as generous as ever, he murmurs political machinations in the background with a calculated grin before letting out a weary sigh. You could watch an hour of him debating how to make a sandwich look good and it would be fascinating.

The team resolve to send her out into the field for real to capture footage of the Mockingjay in action; footage that won't seem awkwardly scripted (what they call "propos"). And so we travel with them - and Natalie Dormer's badass camerawoman, Cressida - as their rounds descend into gun-toting skirmishes. We see planes taken down in real time; then again, edited with music and voiceover for the revolting masses. What was once a short burst of action in an uneasy novel becomes a sharp deconstruction of storytelling that takes the series right back to its reality TV roots. Francis Lawrence shoots everything with that backdrop visible; skulls and skeletons of obliterated civilians creep into the edge of the frame, while a beautiful off-the-cuff rendition of The Hanging Tree (by Katniss, with a hint of Lawrence's Winters Bone) is swiftly packaged up by the propaganda machine and turned into an earworm calling people to action. Set against brutal uprisings and even more brutal takedowns, it amplifies the importance of every single action, be it private or public, romantic or rebellious.

That savvy presentation is evident throughout, but most of all in the central set piece: an assault on the Capitol. In the books, we hear about it after the fact, but the director takes us into the heat of the moment - chopping it up, propo-style with a monologue from Hunger Games veteran Finnick. The excellent Sam Claflin laces his words against President Snow with conflict and anger, but also a knowing element of foreshadowing that ramps up the tension. And, for that moment, the boundary between the filmmakers in front of the camera and behind the camera disappears entirely - and, lit up by the lightning rod that is Jennifer Lawrence, everything feels real. A post-modern, dark, intelligent film that tackles civil unrest and propaganda wrapped up in a romantic blockbuster aimed at young adults? Mockingjay Part 1 is an exciting, emotional spectacle that isn't afraid to treat its audience like grown ups. When has Katniss ever genuinely moved you? Every second she's on screen.

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The Imitation Game - a crossword film review Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 14 November 2014 13:51

The Imitation Game is out in UK cinemas today. To find out what we thought of the film, solve this simple word puzzle... then use the answers to fill in the blanks below.

Or, for a quick verdict, the highlighted letters can be re-arranged to form this one-word verdict:

_ _ _ _ K _ _ _!


2. Nobody
7. Not an insider
8. Intimate
9. Rebels against
11. The ___ - a 1963 horror film
12. Male
13. To do with the government
14. Causing astonishment
17. Hero
19. By-the-numbers
22. Jogging


1. Rhymes with "toasts"
3. Not nothing
4. PowerPoint
5. Emotional
6. Algebra
10. Last
15. A John Lennon song
16. Computer
17. Actors go behind these
18. ___Station - a games console
20. Tale
21. One of a kind

Fill in the gaps:

Aptly 19 ACROSS, the film 9 ACROSS its conventional 4 DOWN to become a rousing 20 DOWN of a 21 DOWN 12 ACROSS who did 3 DOWN 2 ACROSS could 15 DOWN. Keira Knightley is 17 ACROSS. Benedict Cumberbatch is 14 ACROSS. More about the 12 ACROSS than 6 DOWN, the 10 DOWN 17 DOWN neatly weave the 8 ACROSS and the 13 ACROSS, turning The Imitation Game into an exploration of whether a calculating 7 ACROSS can 18 DOWN at being human. There are 1 DOWN in his 16 DOWN - and they are both 5 DOWN and 11 ACROSS. Oh, and there's a lot of 22 ACROSS.

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Film review: Interstellar Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 06 November 2014 18:14

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine
Certificate: 12A

Note: This contains very mild spoilers. For example, two lines of dialogue. And the description of a planet. If you want to go into this film cold, do not read this review. Or any other review, for that matter.

Imagine, if you will, that you're trapped behind a bookcase. Now imagine that you've been there for an infinite amount of time and you're frantically trying to tell the person on the other site that you need to get some air. Then imagine that a tiny crack suddenly appears between the books, just wide enough for a sliver of paper. So you grab the nearest notepad and start writing. Not just one thing, but everything. Life, family, mortality. It all comes pouring out, an endless scribble of ideas, somehow squeezed into a single ambitious, impossible, wildly uneven message.

That's what Interstellar boils down to.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an engineer turned farmer in a future where the dust-stormed Earth needs crops, not clever starship pilots. His kids, Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Casey Affleck), are taught the moon landing was faked and that harvesting corn is the key to humanity's future. Only when they stumble across a NASA base do they learn from Professor Brand (Michael Caine) that the real answer to mankind's survival is in the stars. The plan? Pop into a worm hole and out the other side to find a hospitable planet.

It's a bold leap, driven by a most desperate human urge - but Interstellar struggles to make that jump between the divine and the domestic.

Christopher Nolan has always been a rational storyteller, who believes in manmade miracles rather than mystical fate. After all, he chose Batman as his superhero: a guy with no powers at all. The Prestige, the closest he has come to a film about magic, is more about the deception and guilt of murder than making tiny birds disappear. His work is at its best when communicating emotion through logic or character through structure; Memento's fragmented struggle to move on from something that cannot be pieced together; the haunting grief of Inception's memory permeating the subsconscious.

Interstellar attempts the same thing, stretching the bond between father and daughter across galaxies - hell, even dimensions. When Cooper and his crew - Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley, whose ongoing cinematic comeback remains a delight) - touch down on one water-logged planet, its heightened gravitational force is nothing compared to the emotional blow of realising that one hour on the surface is worth seven years back home; relativity has never seemed more relative.

If that's the movie's biggest achievement, it's one heck of a feat. But it also means it peaks a third into its runtime - because Interstellar reaches out for such greatness, then keeps on reaching. More worlds, more holes, more theoretical physics. Inception's complex structure had a strictly defined limit that sent the film in on itself. Interstellar does the opposite, expanding to galactic proportions.

"We got this far, further than any human in history," declares Brand. "Not far enough!" retorts Cooper. And so they keep venturing into the darkness for 169 minutes, clutching at distant stars.

"Do not go gentle into that good night," Brand is keen on reciting, over and over, to his team; an unsubtle mission statement that feels more syrupy than scientific. It's no surprise that the project began as a Spielberg project based on Kip Thorne's theories, which Nolan later converted.

That wide-eyed streak, so unlike the director's previous work, easily makes Interstellar his most emotional movie to date. It's no coincidence that it also has, in a way, the first happy(ish) ending he has ever written. And the script, co- created with his brother, Jonah, can't quite reconcile that loved-up tone with the rest of film's approach.

And so we have lofty ideas that soar until they reach critical mass, then implode and suck things down to Earth with a bump. It's a strange sensation, which gives rise to awkward ripples in the movie's continuum of earnestness; blips of exposition where the admirable becomes laughably bad.

"Love is the one thing that transcends time and space," argues Annie during one especially earnest discussion. Anne Hathaway's straight face just makes it sound worse. During another decisive turning point, Caine's equally serious professor (only the robots deliver a welcome vein of humour) addresses our departing hero. "By the time you come back," he intones, "I'll have solved the problem of gravity."

Hans Zimmer's overbearing score, determined to conjure up All The Feels, is low on Inception-style BRRRMMMMS because it doesn't need them: the dialogue honks all on its own.

And yet. And yet. There are undeniable moments of wonder here: singularities painted on screen with a fiery brush and multi-coloured arrays of lights that flash across time-bending tunnels. The visuals are jaw-dropping, the kind of thing that makes you marvel at the potential of the universe. You might even start to consider your own mortality. Then Michael Caine pops up to recite poetry and you consider what you're having for dinner.

It wouldn't work at all, if it weren't for our lead couple: McConaughey is magnificent as the intrepid explorer who just wants to get home to his kids, while Chastain delivers real heart as the loyal Murphy, who can't bear to visit her childhood home, which she was convinced was haunted. Their relationship grounds the whole adventure, mostly thanks to a sterling turn from Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph, who gets almost an hour to shine in the first act before her pa takes off. (It's telling that the final third, on the other hand, leaves you gawping at famous actors rather than engaging with characters.)

Those hints of a spiritual world laid early on are, inevitably, dismissed for a a human tale, focusing instead on our race's drive to exist - the key to mindkind's survival, nay for its brilliance. Forget God or aliens, it seems to hint in its most reverent moments; we make ourselves in our children's image.

Of course, it's absurd to even attempt to present these kind of concepts on camera. Even writers who deal with this stuff day in and day out on Doctor Who invented the get-out-of-jail-free adjective "timey-wimey".

As heads spin round and round in the audience, gravity vaguely emerges as central to Interstellar's space-time paradox - but so does love. That balance works until the two collide, Higgs Boson-style, into one heavy-handed climax that carries more mass than the God particle. And after a journey that has taken us to Kubrick and beyond, Interstellar suddenly finds itself back behind that proverbial bookcase, feverishly trying to communicate too much in a ludicrously rudimentary fashion.

"We've always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible," says Cooper, early on. "And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements."

It's as much a motto for Nolan's career as humanity - just read the reactions to Interstellar from other directors in this excellent Guardian piece to get a sense of how rare this kind of filmmaking is. It's stunning, ambitious stuff. The result may not go down in history as one of cinema's proudest achivements, but it will be counted as a moment that dared to reach. If Interstellar is ultimately defined by its inability to overcome the impossible, there's no huge shame in that.

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The Beat Beneath My Feet - a toe-tapping BIFA nominee on its way to a cinema near you (maybe) Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Monday, 03 November 2014 18:49

Today, the British Independent Film Award nominations were announced and included one indie film in particular that deserves it: The Beat Beneath My Feet.

John Williams' brilliant drama premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in September, where it sold out the final weekend of the festival. With the capital's film world distracted almost immediately by the arrival of Raindance's bigger brother, the London Film Festival, though, I resisted writing about it then, when it would simply get lost in the noise. So listen up.

The Beat Beneath My Feet follows a teenage boy, Tom (Nicholas Galitzine), who discovers that his nightmare new neighbour, Steve (Luke Perry), is actually a former rock star in hiding after faking his death to avoid taxes. Wanting to become a musician himself, Tom begs Steve for secret lessons ahead of his school's battle of the bands.

Will Steve say yes? How will his single mum react when she finds out the man next door she dislikes is bonding with her son? Will Tom enter the battle of the bands? And what about that other musician girl in his school he has a crush on?

The narrative could easily follow the same tired beats, but the movie drums up a rhythm all of its own. And that stems directly from the soudntrack. Directed by a guy who knows his music videos, Tom's songs take over the whole screen with vibrant animation, backed up by Nicholas Galitzine's fantastic voice. When he's not singing, Nicholas is equally charming, his downbeat demeanour and awkward relationship with his mum (an understated Lisa Dillon) both immediately convincing.

Luke Perry will be the big draw for many, following his role as 90s heartthrob Dylan McKay in Beverly Hills 90210, and he doesn't disappoint, enjoying his role as the grouchy mentor while still finding time to show a sympathetic side. More importantly, though, he's a generous performer, bringing out the laughs in Michael Muller's script but still allowing Galitzine to shine in the lead.

The result is a toe-tapping indie that, thanks to its catchy soundtrack and sincere heart, is an infectious number with a tempo that sets it apart from the coming-of-age crowd. It is, quite simply, lovely.

After delighting audiences at Raindance, the movie has now been nominated for the BIFA's Raindance Award - ranking it alongside fellow feel-good flick Pride and the equally ear-worming Frank. But, even more excitingly, The Beat Beneath My Feet has secured a UK theatrical release at the Clapham Picture on the 9th, 16th and 23rd November (BOOK TICKETS NOW).

Want to see the film near you? You can back it on Crowdshed and help it to find wider distribution. Then follow the movie over on Twitter @BeatBeneathFilm and shout about it. This is one of those indie films that not only needs support to be seen, but also deserves it. Hopefully, today's BIFA nomination is just the start.

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Film review: Palo Alto Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 18 October 2014 23:13
Director: Gia Coppola
Cast: James Franco, Emma Roberts
Certificate: 15

Palo Alto is a film based on the novel by James Franco, starring James Franco as a teacher who gets to sleep with one of his students. If it sounds self-indulgent, don't worry: it is, but it's also more than that.

The movie is directed by Gia Coppola, the latest in the Copolla clan to pick up a movie camera. (With her arrival on screen, the family now have enough filmmakers to create their own cinematic version of the Von Trapp singers.) Like Franco, it would be all too easy to dismiss Gia, but Palo Alto cements them as voices worth listening to.

More importantly, though, it shines a spotlight on several other voices: rather than hog than spotlight, Coppola uses Franco's novel as a platform to showcase a young, talented cast. The mult-strand narrative delivers the usual array of coming-of-age cliches: there's April (Emma Roberts), the virgin who fancies her soccer coach; Teddy (Jack Kilmer), the quiet one who fancies April; Emily (Zoe Levin), the one who fancies not being known as the class slut; and Fred (Nat Wolff), the troublemaker who fancies getting off with Emily, not to mention anything else that moves.

The performers, though, infuse each of these stereotypes with an unexpected depth. Levin is tragically needy as Emily, while Kilmer is endearingly insecure, happy to cover for Teddy, even as he knows he's getting dragged down into a world of vandalism and community service. The exuberantly talented Wolff nails himself to the fence between annoying and amusing, hyperactively stealing every scene before chomping on any scenery left behind. But Roberts is the one who really engages; whether she's smooching Franco or looking stroppy at soccer, she embodies the movie's overwhelming sense of ennui even more than the directionless script.

There are unsubtle moments of superficial effort, from the electronic score to a scene that sees Teddy drive a car into a wall, just for the hell of it. But it's in the quiet exchanges in between that the cast work best, elevating Franco's short stories. In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola made The Outsiders. 16 years later, in 1999, Sofia Coppola made The Virgin Suicides. Released in 2014, Palo Alto may not quite hit the sweet 16, but this collage of Millennial youngsters frequently comes together to form something just as timeless and universal.

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Film review: The Maze Runner Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 10 October 2014 07:16

Director: Wes Ball
Cast: Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Sangster Certficate: 12A

In 1997, Vincenzo Natali's Cube was released. A dumb, trashy sci-fi that was high on concept but low on brains, it was a gloriously gory bit of B-movie fun. Today, in 2014, The Maze Runner is released. A dumb, trashy sci-fi that's high on concept but low on brains, it is also fun - but in a different way.

Based on the young adult novels, of which there are - inevitably - three, it tells the story of a group of kids who wake up to find themselves in a gigantic maze. Why? They don't know. Who are they? They can't remember. How to get out? That's anybody's guess.

But one day, that anybody arrives: Thomas (Dylan O'Brien). That's where our story begins. Thomas immediately starts breaking the rules by which the makeshift society operates. And, shortly afterwards, people start to die. Then, most shocking of all, a girl arrives - Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) - and she knows who Thomas is.

Director Wes Ball sets the fast pace by sending us up a supply elevator with Thomas to enter "The Glade", the green haven at the maze's middle. Unfortunately, the script (by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin) also sets the bar low with shonky dialogue and a horde of clichéd characters. There's the stoic leader who knows more than he lets on (Aml Ameen); the quiet but loyal second in command (the always likeable Thomas Sangster); the aggressive rival to the throne who doesn't like our hero (a very physical turn from Will Poulter); and the chubby, kind one who you expect to kick then bucket any minute. He's called Chuck.

Once we get into the maze proper, though, things step up a gear: the stony walls, metallic shafts and changing layout makes for enjoyably tense set pieces, while the grievers (strange, semi-mechanical monsters who patrol the maze) are genuinely creepy. The explanation for it all may lack the substance of great sci-fi, but The Maze Runner isn't about that: it's about putting you in the thick of a labyrinth and making you squirm. For older audiences, those attempts may appear laughable, but for younger adults, it achieves that same sensation Vincenzo Natali managed 17 years ago. A solid gateway to an adult genre, it's nice to see someone making trashy sci-fi B-movies for teens, even if the movie does get a little lost itself. Talk of chaos and disorder within a micro-civilisation doesn't skew as deep as The Maze Runner would like, but when it comes to mazes and running, it knows its stuff. Lord of the Flies? Not quite. Cube for kids? Go on then.

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Film review: Gone Girl Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 02 October 2014 11:16

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike
Certificate: 18

"All we do is cause each other pain." "That's marriage."

That's Amy Dunne (Pike) to her husband, Nick (Affleck), in Gone Girl. Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, it's a dark look at marriage, recasting the human relationship as a battle of control, perfection and perception.

Amy starts out as amazing, the ideal girl for the struggling writer, the kind of woman he can kiss in a sugar storm outside the local bakery, the kind of woman who knows his every move before he does, the kind of woman that the country would miss, if she were to go missing. So when she does, after years both for better and for worse, suspicion immediately falls upon Nick - because that's how the story normally goes.

So far, so potboiler. But Flynn is aiming higher than that; hers is a story about telling stories. Add a comment

Film review: Wish I Was Here Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 20 September 2014 06:52

Director: Zach Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin
Certificate: 15

It's hard to imagine a more Zach Braff-y film than Garden State. That is, unless you've seen Wish I Was Here.

The film, very much a follow-up to his previous quirky-immature-guy-comes-of-age-and-learns-life-lessons hit, is about a quirky, immature guy coming of age and learning life lessons. At least, that's what it says on the tin.

Braff plays Aidan, an actor who finds himself having to rethink his life when his wealthy dad, Gabe (Patinkin), becomes ill and decides to keep the bank funds to try and cure himself. What will his kids do without being to attend private school? What will his wife, Sarah, do, trying to support the kids while holding down a job? What about his brother, a "genius" child who spends his day making cosplay costumes to impress a girl? And, more importantly, when will Aidan get the lucky break he needs to become a famous actor?

The script, written by Zach and his brother, Adam, provides endless obstacles for Aidan navigate, mixed with typically surreal and offbeat humour - from awkward home-school lessons to a a joy ride in a sports car with Scrubs' Donald Faison. The well-juggled tone is as much expected from a Zach Braff film as the indie soundtrack, which mostly consists of recordings from artists Zach Braff likes. Made with the support of Zach Braff fans through Kickstarter, it's a movie for those people; the ones who like Zach Braff.

The problem is that Zach Braff's film is mostly interested in Zach Braff's character, the one written by and starring Zach Braff. He's earnest, dreams of artistic success and is prone to fantasise about being a spaceman. He's as Zach Braff-y as Zach Braff can get. But while the star's schtick can charm in its own twee way, Aidan's self-centred nature - and the belief that he deserves to have his dreams fulfilled - makes for a surprisingly unlikeable protagonist. The fact that Aidan seems to learn nothing from his hard-done-by rite of passage only exacerbates the issue; Garden State resonated beautifully through its sincere, 20-something appreciation of the wider world, but Wish I Was Here's 30-something limbo struggles to find a note to hold on.

Amid the recitals of Robert Frost and Coldplay, though, are beats that genuinely linger. Mandy Patinkin's gruff father - complete with Homeland beard - spends the runtime in bed dispatching disparaging comments about his sons. Kate Hudson's Sarah, meanwhile, has to deal with sexual harassment at her office. Their story lines in themselves may not ring true, but when Sarah and Gabe meet halfway through at the hospital, they have a conversation that could well bring you to tears; a moving discussion of flaws and feelings that sees Kate Hudson deliver one of the best turns of her career. It's proof that Braff is capable of finding tender, mature moments between his talented ensemble. Wish I Was Here? Wish it was about them instead. That life lesson, perhaps, will come with the director's next movie.

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