Wednesday 31 March 2010

Kick-Ass (

For once, the title is spot on. Matthew Vaughn’s comic-book adaptation really does kick the asses of all recent attempts to bring something fresh to this genre. With a similar premise to last year’s Watchmen – superheroes with no powers – but none of the self-importance and a whole heap more humour, this is a film that could easily still be bobbing around the public consciousness when the best of 2010 lists are compiled in December. It’s not for everyone, containing a dark streak a mile wide and enough child-related swearing and violence to keep it from troubling Iron Man 2’s box office, but for adults with sufficiently skewed sensibilities, it’s a must-see.

First and foremost, Kick-Ass is really, really funny, and for the best experience it should be enjoyed with as packed and up-for-it an audience as possible. To his great credit, Vaughn is never afraid to slip in a joke, even in the film’s most intensely action-packed moments, but never at the expense of good characterisation; the humour is always rooted in the characters. Aaron Johnson is one of the film’s biggest assets in this respect, his uninhibited performance as Dave Lizewski, the kid who decides to put on a wetsuit and fight crime, is perfectly balanced between naivety, stupidity and good ol’ fashioned movie heroism; crucially, he ensures we’re laughing with him or at him at all the right moments. He also handles the witty narration very well, and is blessed by Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman with all the best lines, from a hilarious reference to Lost to a great aside about serial killers.

Vaughn and Goldman stick closely to the main premise of Mark Millar’s comic, going to great pains to explain that, unlike other superhero stories, Kick-Ass takes place in our reality. In the first conversation we hear between Dave and his two best friends, they list various superheroes then one-by-one dismiss their real-world credentials. This is a bold step from the writers, as it could easily have led them into credibility-holes of their own making, but it pays off, allowing the film to occasionally jolt the audience out of the comic-book comfort-zone, as when a key character is stabbed with gut-churning results.  On the downside, a few moments of unnecessarily convenient plotting stick out somewhat, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s sidekick character Red Mist isn’t very convincingly developed; disappointing blips in an otherwise tightly written script.

But the film belongs to Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz, the deadly and very un-PC father/daughter crime-fighting team known as Big Daddy and Hit Girl. Cage’s performance - unhinged but somehow endearing - is not only the comedy highlight of the film, but also has an effective dark undercurrent; Big Daddy is a believable depiction of righteous anger taken to a psychotic extreme, and a kindred spirit to Watchmen’s Rorschach. Moretz is equally good, making Hit Girl both sweet and sadistic, and hinting at the messed-up girl behind the explosively profane dialogue. Her devotion to her dad is at once hilarious and deeply distressing, and Vaughn handles their relationship’s journey beautifully, paying it off with an unexpectedly moving moment amongst the flying bullets. The pair also provide most of Kick-Ass’s thrilling action sequences, in which Vaughn displays the same flair for visual invention that gave his debut Layer Cake such energy. One stand-out scene involves Big Daddy on a brutal rampage taking down one goon after another, and it’s masterfully done, precisely constructed and awesome in its intensity. Just one more reason, like you needed one, to get to the cinema and see Kick-Ass for yourself.


Kick-Ass is out now. This review first published on

Thursday 25 March 2010

Cracks - DVD review (

A remote girls boarding school in 1930s Ireland (though you wouldn’t know it from the RP accents) is the idyllic setting for this lush adaptation of Sheila Kohler’s 2003 novel. Di Radfield (Juno Temple) is the leader of the school’s elite clique, who conduct themselves in near-worshipful admiration of Miss G (Eva Green), a sophisticated and beautiful teacher who seems oddly out-of-place among the aged staff. Di enjoys the enviable position and power of being Miss G’s favourite, until the arrival of Spanish student Fiamma (Maria Valverde) knocks this little commune out of balance. The exotic newcomer becomes the sole object of Miss G’s attention, but when she fails to behave with the same fawning admiration as the other girls, the teacher’s perfect appearance begins to crumble, revealing an obsessive nature underneath.

Miss G is a fascinating character, and it’s not hard to see why this story appealed to the cast and filmmakers; there’s plenty of room for dramatic investigation with this seemingly in-control and inspirational teacher who is slowly revealed to be even more needy and broken than her pubescent charges. But debuting director Jordan (daughter of Ridley) Scott fails to reach those interesting character depths, instead guiding the film from an evocative set-up into silly and overblown territory. She’s not helped by lead actress Eva Green, who chalks up another post-Casino Royale disappointment with her unconvincing central performance.

Casting an actress as striking as Green to play this character would seem to make sense, but she is too much a cinematic beauty and not enough a skilled actress to make this character’s unravelling believable. Her performance is too self-conscious, and while this serves the character in the earlier stages of the film - as Miss G is herself playing a role for the girls – it becomes a problem as her façade unravels. We are supposed to be seeing the real person, with all her insecurities and obsessions, coming to the fore, but as Green enacts the script’s increasingly ridiculous developments, there is no depth to her portrayal. Ultimately it’s just another ‘crazy’ movie performance that bears little resemblance to real life.

The writers’ development of Di is much more successful, and despite her perceived cruelty she gives the film its heart. At times she is nasty, but even in her manipulative moments there’s innocence to her, as she is living the only way she knows. Juno Temple makes a strong impression in the part, balancing a necessary streak of nastiness with a clear deep need for approval, and when the film ends it is Di’s story that lingers in the memory.

Juno Temple was previously in Atonement, which is a film that this film brings to mind, but Cracks is much slighter in comparison. The recreation of a secluded part of historic Britain is done with similar craft and precision, with excellent work from production designer Ben Scott, and beautiful cinematography from Scott senior’s regular collaborator John Mathieson. But unlike Atonement, in which Joe Wright used that traditional TV-drama context as a launch-pad to tell a unique and powerful story, Jordan Scott’s film doesn’t do anything particularly surprising with this scenario or the characters that inhabit it.

Extras: Three brief interviews with Jordan Scott, Eva Green and Temple & Valverde, plus the trailer. Not exactly inspiring stuff.


Released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 29th March. This review first published on

Sunday 21 March 2010

Trucker (The List, Issue 652)

Michelle Monaghan in TruckerAn interesting little drama that’s light on incident but big on character, Trucker is a welcome showcase for the acting talents of Michelle Monaghan. Having been a solid support player in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Gone Baby Gone, here Monaghan takes centre stage as Diane, the eponymous long distance big-rig driver who, much like Clooney’s Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, is a professional loner, wanting nothing more than to live life her own way, doing whatever with whomever she chooses. Diane is considerably lower on the pay scale than Bingham though, and when the son that she openly walked out on 10 years earlier is forced back into her life, her independent existence is completely shaken.

Even given the unlikelihood of there ever being a real-life trucker anywhere near as gorgeous as her, Monaghan is utterly convincing in the part. First time filmmaker James Mottern also deserves praise for so successfully inverting Hollywood gender norms. While Diane is the film’s foul-mouthed, foul-tempered centre, it is the men in the story who bring the traditionally ‘feminine’ warmth and concern, with Serenity’s Nathan Fillion particularly good as the drinking buddy who longs to get closer.


Playing at GFT 21-24th March. This review first published in The List magazine.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

The Bounty Hunter (

Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler have an interesting track record between them. They’ve both excelled in their respective fields – she as a brilliant TV comedy actress, he as a powerfully manly leading man – and swiftly descended to churning out awful romantic comedies. Neither has been in a great movie for a good few years; is The Bounty Hunter the one to break that downward trend? You probably won’t be surprised to read that no, it most certainly is not.

The story begins with Jennifer Aniston’s ace reporter Nicole getting a whiff of a possible story from a reported suicide case. In her haste to follow up a lead she skips a bail hearing for a petty automobile incident and ends up, unbeknownst to her, on the wrong side of the law. As chance would have it, Nicole’s ex-husband Milo (Gerard Butler), drunken former cop and bounty hunter for hire, is assigned to apprehend her. Milo jumps at the chance to escape his substantial gambling debts and simultaneously get one up on Nicole, but his simple plan for an easy payday is scuppered as soon as he finds her.

Nicole has no intention of going to prison, and soon convinces Milo that they could make more money by going gambling together, but neither of them have yet realised the more pressing issue, that Nicole’s investigations have made her the target of several shady criminals. If this wasn’t bad enough, Milo’s creditors are equally intent on doing him some damage for non-payment. Is it possible that in the middle of all this craziness the bitterly feuding ex-couple could find themselves back in the arms of love once more? Well, you already know the answer to that one.

This is premium-grade convoluted Hollywood rubbish, but it had the potential, in the right hands - I’m thinking Soderbergh or Spielberg - to make for a great movie caper. Unfortunately the right hands weren’t available, and Hitch director Andy Tennant makes an absolute pig’s ear of the whole thing. This type of multi-stranded narrative requires deft pacing and editing to ensure it is balanced and running smoothly, but here every scene feels as if it’s been thrown on to the screen with no attempt at all to integrate it into a coherent story.

Aniston’s comic talents are thoroughly wasted in Nicole, a character without one notable feature and zero lines of memorable dialogue. The ‘jokes’ that centre on her character mostly focus on the fact that she has breasts (shocker!), and there is one stupidly misjudged moment when a rather average looking woman turns her nose up at the suggestion that Aniston’s character used to be a model. Butler fares marginally better, getting a few funny lines and releasing an endearingly gutteral growlish chuckle every now and then. They don’t fit together onscreen though, and never convince as a couple who have been married. When they finally kiss the moment has all the fizz of three-week old Coke.

The overwhelming impression is that this must be a severely compromised and recut version of writer Sarah Thorp’s original script (at least I hope so, for her sake). Support characters pop up and then disappear unannounced, plot threads are left hanging and the main characters behave schizophrenically, their motivations and affections shifting inexplicably from one scene to the next. The police corruption plot-strand is so badly chopped up that at the end we get a hilarious Scooby Doo-style exposition scene shoehorned in to tie things up. It’s as if Tennant was in the editing room and suddenly noticed that even attentive viewers would be a little puzzled as to how events were resolved.

If you want to see this kind of story done with all the tension, humour and sizzling-hot chemistry it deserves, watch Out of Sight featuring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez at their best. If you’re happy to settle for whatever half-hearted guff Hollywood decides to push your way, go and see The Bounty Hunter.


On general release now. This review first published on

The Scouting Book For Boys (The List, Issue 652)

One hazy summer in a sleepy Norfolk holiday park, David (This is England’s Thomas Turgoose) and Emily (Holliday Grainger), constant companions by default of being the only teenagers there, spend the days mucking about under the permissive gaze of site security guard Steve (Rafe Spall), who is Emily’s mum’s boyfriend and the only adult who pays them much attention. This relative idyll is punctured by the news that Emily must move away and live with her dad. Besotted, David goes along with Emily’s suggestion to hide her in one of the beach’s many caves, and plays innocent as the police get involved and her disappearance becomes a local media story. David believes he is Emily’s only friend and confidant, but soon learns that there is more than their friendship behind her plan.

British TV director Tom Harper (Misfits, Demons) makes a confident feature debut with this engaging story that slowly twists from a light-hearted evocation of teenage friendship into a dark tale of adolescent envy. Harper directs Jack Horne’s fine script with just the right amount of ambiguity, creating very believable characters in the process. David doesn’t sit easily in a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ category, and Turgoose makes the most of his sparse dialogue to construct a complex character through small but significant actions and reactions. It’s an excellent performance, and Grainger and Spall add strong support.

The film is not perfect; there are some jarring shifts in tone and the story’s ultimate destination stretches credibility, but as a dramatisation of the peril and confusion of adolescence it’s worth checking out.


On selected release from Fri 19 Mar, cert. 15.
This review first published in The List magazine.

Monday 8 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland (

In the words of The Big Lebowski, “sometimes, there’s a man”. And if there was ever a director well-matched to a film project it’s Tim Burton with this new version of Alice in Wonderland. Sure enough, Burton’s trip down the rabbit-hole looks amazing, overflowing with inventive details in its characters and imagined locations, and pushing CGI possibilities to bring Lewis Carroll’s stories to the screen in a whole new way. Curiously though, this Wonderland lacks drama, and Burton’s seemingly inexhaustible visual imaginings can’t quite hide the film’s narrative shortcomings.

In this version of the story, written by Linda Woolverton, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is in her early 20s and has forgotten Wonderland; the only evidence of her visit there as a young girl is a dream that troubles her every night. After informing us through a little scene-setting preamble that Alice is about to be forced into marriage with an insufferable bore, Burton brings in the more familiar story elements; the white rabbit, Alice’s tumble down the hole, ‘drink me’, ‘eat me’ and then Wonderland itself. Or more accurately, Underland; “wonderland”, we learn, was a mis-hearing by the 8-year old Alice – this world is more clearly geographically defined, in relation to ours, than we had previously known.

It turns out that Alice’s return has been foretold, and there is hope amongst the citizens of Underland that she could be the one to slay the dreaded Jabberwock, and return the power of rule from the decapitation-obsessed Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) to her floaty, peace-loving sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). This being a Disney story, there’s never any doubt as to whether Alice will take up the sword and ultimately prevail, but would it have been too much for Burton to have added some suspense, some danger with a little edge? The climax, when it comes, is an epic battle that’s become a too familiar sight in many recent blockbusters, and it feels particularly out of place in this hitherto quirky world.

Thankfully though, drama, or lack of it, is not the make-or-break factor of Burton’s film. Burton’s visual creativity has always been most evident in macabre settings, and Carroll’s stories’ dark undertones - the awful reign of the Red Queen, the air of madness that pervades everything in Wonderland - prove fertile ground for his unique imagination. The look of the film is assuredly fantastical, with very effective CGI sets making Underland something halfway between photo-real and cartoon. This works well, and is particularly impressive in IMAX 3D, but it is the reinvention of the story’s familiar characters that is the most impressive of Burton’s achievements.

The Red Queen with her oversized head, played brilliantly by Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp’s sadly self-aware Mad Hatter and the creepily endearing Cheshire Cat - perfectly voiced by Stephen Fry - are all true to their literary roots, but given a fresh twist that means meeting them here again is hugely enjoyable. Through a combination of excellent casting and carefully highlighted details of behaviour, even characters making very brief appearances make a strong impression. If Burton had given that same attention to detail to the telling of the tale, this would have been a sure-fire classic. He treats the eyes and tickles the funny bone, no doubt, but the heart and mind are left wanting.


Alice in Wonderland is out now. This review first published on

Green Zone (

Iraq, 2003: Chief Warrant Officer Miller (Matt Damon) is smelling something fishy about intelligence that is continually leading him and his team to WMD hotspots with a distinct lack of WMD in evidence. His concern that “something’s not right here” is firmly suppressed by superiors when he voices it, but a CIA agent on the ground named Brown (Brendan Gleeson), urges him to follow his nose. After discovering an American journalist (Amy Ryan) who seems a little too informed about US intelligence, Miller becomes aware of Pentagon chief Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), who is none too pleased about the direction of Miller’s enquiries. As Miller starts to see that there may be more than one side to the side he thought he was on, his pursuit of the truth becomes increasingly dangerous.

Directed by Paul Greengrass and starring his Bourne Ultimatum leading man, it’s not hard to see why Green Zone has been dubbed ‘Bourne in Iraq’ – a tag that the film company are notably milking for all its promotional worth – but such shorthand is misleading. There is only one proper action sequence in Green Zone – albeit a thrillingly intense one – and it comes late in the film; for the most part Greengrass is doing something closer in spirit to a 70s conspiracy thriller. It’s like All The President’s Men but with more tanks and shaky camerawork.

Correspondingly, Green Zone is a more complicated and ultimately less successful proposition than the Bourne movies; audiences will need to do some work to stay engaged. Greengrass and writer Brian Helgeland, adapting the script from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in The Emerald City, do a brilliant job of recreating the confused American presence in Iraq, with all its disconnected and conflicting levels of authority. They are less successful at bringing a story into focus though, and the first half of the film lacks a clear direction. It’s also dissatisfying that the conclusion of the plot hinges on a very predictable action by a character clearly slotted into the story to fulfil that particular purpose; all the more disappointing a cliché considering that Greengrass achieves such authenticity in the film’s setting.

But while his storytelling lets the film down, Greengrass constructs many individual scenes that have a powerful impact: in his first appearance, Jason Isaacs’ moustachioed general Briggs foregoes discussion and punches Miller square in the face, effectively summing up the impossibility of dialogue in this situation; Greengrass portrays the Green Zone itself as a virtual holiday resort, where Americans luxuriate by a pool mere miles from the ongoing conflict, again concisely presenting the problems at the heart of this occupation. To see such a pointed critique of recent history in mainstream cinema is a strong enough reason to recommend Green Zone, even if it isn’t the satisfying movie experience Greengrass has proven himself able to provide in the past.


Green Zone is released on 12 March. This review first published on