Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie – Review

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Brendan O’Carroll’s inexplicably successful TV series gets a “D’Movie” of equally baffling prosperity, grossing a ludicrous £14.3 million at the box office, almost quadrupling its budget in the process. This and the inevitable sequel to follow, British and Irish viewing public, are all your fault.

Irish market trader Agnes Brown (O’Carroll) finds herself facing the closure of her stall after politician P.R. Irwin (Dermot Crowley) plots with a Russian businessman to put Moore Street’s markets out of business in order to build a shopping center there. Faced with a gigantic unpaid tax bill to boot, Agnes must prove that her grandmother in fact paid the bill years ago in order to maintain her trade front.

It’s safe to say that if you’re a fan of O’Caroll’s hit TV show, then you’ll likely find plenty hilarious here. If not, it’ll do little to change your mind, going downhill from a barely-tolerable opening dance number and never recovering. The remaining 88-or-so-minutes consist of cringe-inducingly “naughty” gags, humour that can only really be described as aggressively racist, and of course, that nails-on-a-chalkboard laugh. O’Carroll’s answer for wit is to have a lawyer character named “Tom Crews”, and things hit an indisputable nadir of taste and quality once O’Carroll introduces a Chinese man called Mr. Wang (played by himself), bringing back decades-old memories of Mickey Rooney’s embarrassing “yellow face” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Though it might not bother fans of the series too much, the hilariously low stakes make maintaining interest in the narrative a real challenge, and though O’Carroll clearly fashions his story as a tribute to the tired old dogs that make Dublin what it is, he conveys this through the most cornball of means, clashing somewhat with the decidedly less-earnest toilet humour and aforementioned racism.

Perhaps the only interesting aspect for non-fans will be the fourth wall-breaking flubs, a number of which are left in the final movie, even if they ultimately feel forced (as though on purpose and very much rehearsed), and more to the point, totally needless.

It doesn’t feel as much of a non-film as, say, Keith Lemon The Film, yet Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie is shamelessly lower-common denominator humour unlikely to win O’Carroll any new converts. Furthermore, with the certainty of a sequel and O’Carroll shopping around a possible Mr. Wang spin-off film, it appears that the flagellation is far from over.

* 1/2

Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie is available on DVD and Blu-ray October 27th

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The Book of Life – Review

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In a year of animation that has produced several crushing disappointments so far, Jorge R. Gutierrez’s visually sumptuous, Guillermo del Toro-produced directorial debut quietly emerges amid little hype, delivering one of the most stylistically unique and thematically ambitious Hollywood animations of the last few years.

In the Mexican town of San Angel, two gods, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), bet over the love life of Maria (Zoe Saldana), whose affections are sought by both kindly guitarist Minolo (Diego Luna) and the gung-ho, muscle-bound Joaquin (Channing Tatum). Whoever wins the bet will preside over the Land of the Remembered, the realm in which the dead live on through the memories of those who remember them. Back on Earth, the trio finds themselves facing unexpected challenges and exploring new-found plains of existence.

It wouldn’t be unfair to call The Book of Life an effort in style over substance, given the clear deference paid to the Day of the Dead-inspired art style over the more pared-down, simplistic narrative. Still, given that Gutierrez and co. are inundating young audiences with an entire cultural subset they may have no prior inkling about, the dialed-back approach seems appropriate, and if any animation has ever made its world and its visuals a character in of themselves, it is this one.

Even so, there’s plenty of thoughtful meat on its beautifully-constructed skeleton; particularly diverting is how Gutierrez has managed to deal with death in a manner appropriate and informative to children, while steering away from any strong religious overtones or overt morbidity. Though in this world characters continue to exist as long as their memory does, this is far from the sugar-coated cop-out it could have been, for though death here doesn’t have the same finality as in, say, How to Train Your Dragon 2, it provides yet another vessel through which to channel more of that superb design work.

Steering away from the relentless toilet humour, slapstick and pop-culture references that infuse so many contemporary Hollywood animations, The Book of Life is instead propelled forward by its quiet wit, inventive characters – cute pig Chuy is a frequent scene-stealer – and immaculate presentation, even if, like so many other animated films, the 3D presentation quickly loses its luster as the brain adjusts to it.

As a calling card for Jorge R. Gutierrez and a left-of-center choice for more patient and discerning youngsters, The Book of Life is a vibrant, charming surprise.

*** 1/2

The Book of Life is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas this Friday.

The Judge – Review

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Unavoidably saddled with sky-high expectations due to its awards-friendly premise and excellent cast, The Judge is by those measures a sure disappointment, though the entertaining lead performances elevate this conventional and overlong legal drama above its glaring flaws.

Hotshot lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) returns to his childhood home after his elderly father, respected judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) is suspected of murdering a local man with his car. As Hank attempts to uncover the truth and allow his father to live out his remaining years outside of a jail cell, he finds himself reconnecting with both his family and friends who never left the town.

Though appointing comedy filmmaker David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up) to helm an apparently serious drama is an instant red flag, Dobkin is absolutely not what holds The Judge back from greatness; the problems are 100% with Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque’s overstuffed, meandering script.

This is a film that wants to be many things for many audiences; it wants to be a searing legal thriller, an emotional family drama and a comedy all at once, yet in attempting to do so presents only intermittently effective renditions of each. The former at least presents a unique perspective of the legal system, where results produced don’t so much reflect truth and justice as much as who argues their case with the most swagger (which, more often than not, is Downey’s suave lawyer).

As a family drama, meanwhile, it produces a number of effective moments – an undignified scene involving Duvall in a bathroom is particularly unforgettable – though is undermined by its abundance of cliches and the half-hour of fatty sentimental subplots which could easily be excised without affecting the central narrative. Though Vera Farmiga does her absolute finest to breathe life into Samantha, Hank’s lover from decades ago, her character is wildly unnecessary and reflects a clear effort to imbue the movie with more human interest, as if the humanity of the core issue wasn’t plenty already.

Though its indulgences cause it to massively overstay its welcome at 141 minutes in length, audiences are at least blessed with the presence of two fantastic leads; Downey is cannily cast as the smooth-talking, seemingly unflappable defense attorney, and during those moments in which he eventually becomes very much flapped, the actor reminds us that he’s capable of much more than just the scatter-gun flippancy he’s mastered in his Tony Stark role. Duvall, meanwhile, is surely the best of show, giving one of his more compelling late-career performances to date, playing a physically and mentally withered man and commanding the screen as he does so.

On one hand, The Judge dares to dream differently by presenting viewers with two central characters who aren’t easy to like, but on the other, the dead-obvious emotional beats and saccharine musical choices result in a film not quite brave enough to operate entirely outside the box. Go in expecting a future Oscar winner and disappointment is inevitable, but outside of the hype bubble, it does enough to pacify, even though that’s more down to the cast than what they’re working with.

***

The Judge is in cinemas now

’71 – Review

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Few feature debuts are as assured as Yann Demange’s ’71, an exceptionally visceral war picture that, while perhaps too tough for some audiences to stomach, will no doubt assist the fast-rising fame of star Jack O’Connell.

Wet-around-the-ears British soldier Gary Hook (O’Connell) is deployed to Belfast at the height of The Troubles, and after a riot breaks out shortly following his squad’s arrival, Gary finds himself separated from his unit, badly beaten by some locals, and on the run from members of the IRA keen to put a bullet in his head.

Though its political context is unmistakable, ’71 is in fact surprisingly disinterested in delving into the machinations behind the conflict, focused rather bravely as a straight-up chase thriller that refuses to relent until the credits roll. In lesser hands, the lean simplicity of Gary’s night of hell could easily seem inadequate for depicting such a vital period of British history, yet Demange’s blisteringly intense direction, painting Belfast as a fiery, nightmarish hellhole, creates a stirring, potent image of the time that’s difficult to shake.

Indeed, Demange pulls no punches whatsoever, littering the screen with graphic, frequently shocking violence which does an outstanding job of keeping viewers on their toes throughout.   This stomach-knotting quality is accentuated by the director’s penchant for long takes and immersive, handheld camerawork, as well as O’Connell’s riveting central performance, giving audiences an easy-to-root-for protagonist, while the unpredictable, harsh violence keeps them constantly concerned for him.

Smartly avoiding many of the cliches associated with survival pics such as this – Gary has a son we briefly meet early on, though the film doesn’t make pains to remind us of this fact amid the turmoil – ’71 plays out more like an urban Predator or Apocalypto, with both protagonist and viewer barely able to take a breath. Still, Gary and the movie’s other characters – both the IRA members hunting him down and his own men desperately attempting to locate him – are well-drawn enough, with the various double-crossings and bizarre side-shifts creating an even more miasmic atmosphere of unease; who, really, can Gary trust in the end?

Politically balanced yet decidedly unpolitical, ’71 is an outstanding, white-knuckle thrill-ride, a reminder that war pictures can exhilarate without exploiting, while providing more nourishment for the fertile career of star O’Connell.

****

’71 is in UK cinemas now

Young Ones – Review

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This sophomore feature from Gwyneth Paltrow’s brother Jake (The Good Night) may borrow liberally from a glut of westerns and post-apocalyptic thrillers, yet it nevertheless presents a suitably bleak, violent vision of the future, bolstered by a collective of game performances.

In an unspecified period in an unspecified region of the U.S., water has become immensely scarce, leading those who choose to remain in the area desperately seeking it out by any means necessary. One such individual is Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon), a recovering alcoholic who attempts to provide for his daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) and son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) against enormous odds, relying on a robot to help him deliver supplies to nearby camps. However, this brings him into contention with Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), who will go to any means necessary to ensure his own survival, and that of Mary, who he is secretly dating.

For all of the film’s derivations from superior fare, it does a splendid job at world-building; the harsh, unforgiving landscape is so dry you can practically taste the dirt, and the moral abandon that has taken precedent since the drought is heavily ingrained in almost every action the movie’s characters take. What audiences won’t be expecting, though, is a plot twist at the 40-minute mark which changes the game significantly, pulling the tension ever tighter all the way to the violent climax audiences will be anticipating.

The pic weathers this expectation-confounding event well, sustained by some stomach-knotting suspense, driven by plenty of agreeably hard boiled, noir-esque dialogue and abetted by both Giles Nuttgens’ superb cinematography and the great cast. Shannon is as reliable as ever playing the no-nonsense tough guy, though the real star of the show is Hoult, whose savagely violent acts and Machiavellian scheming only blankets the already grim scenario in another layer of hopelessness. In addition, young rising star Smit-McPhee once again brings plenty of nervous energy to a part, and Elle Fanning, though given easily the least of the four main roles, does as much with it as anyone could expect.

With its beautiful, barren visuals, pulpy, nihilistic tone and fine performances, Young Ones is a steady step up for writer-director Paltrow, even if it hardly reinvents the wheel.

***

Young Ones is available now on VOD

Camp X-Ray – Review

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Camp X-Ray

Better known for his graphic design work on numerous high-profile film projects (Walk the Line, Star Trek), Peter Sattler makes his inauspicious debut as writer-director with this searing, delicately balanced political drama that falls ever so slightly short of greatness, yet boasts excellent performances from its two leads.

Wet-around-the-ears Army PFC Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart) arrives at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Delta to begin her guard duty, and soon enough, one of the camp’s long-held detainees, Amir Ali (Peyman Moaadi), begins to break down her personal barrier, forming a friendship which has Cole questioning her beliefs while her more straight-laced colleagues begin to express bemusement at her sympathetic approach.

There’s absolutely a version of this film which could have played as overly simplistic, politically-skewed propaganda, yet Sattler’s more even-handed approach is more focused on merely creating a dialogue rather than shouting from the lectern. To the final frame, we’re never sure whether Amir was guilty of any terrorism-related offences, while Cole’s colleagues are painted far away from the black-and-white, single-minded grunt caricatures audiences may be expecting.

It may not exactly say anything new – Guantanamo Bay is a horrible place operating under extremely dubious legality, who knew? – but the unique dynamic between Amy and Amir is completely believable thanks to Sattler’s minimalist, slow-burn style, unfolding mostly over a series of conversations taking place between a cell door, and making Amy’s lowering defenses feel wholly organic. To a lesser extent, the director also conveys not merely the grim conditions under which the detainees live, but the psychological damage the system inflicts upon some of the soldiers who, when faced with a fortress of administrative self-approval should they question their line of work, may feel utterly powerless.

Stewart, often mocked online for her apparent lack of dramatic range and singular facial expression, is a revelation here, initially playing a relatively stern blank slate before progressively morphing into a more personable and likeable character, and hell, even smiling too. The anguish of Amy’s job is perfectly conveyed through Stewart’s various facial tics and a clear discomfort in her own skin, while A Separation star Moaadi is ferocious as the indignant detainee desperate to leave the hellhole. Also of mention is Lane Garrison, whose work as Amy’s devoted, difficult superior officer surrenders the hardy personality likely required to survive a lengthy tenure at Guantanamo, while steering clear of absolute cliche.

On the other hand, the landing isn’t stuck quite as well as what came before; a metaphor revolving around the final Harry Potter book (which Amir hasn’t yet been able to read) is telegraphed long in advance and pays off with an almost laughable predictability (given Sattler’s clear insistence that it be emotionally riveting), and Amy’s last remark doesn’t quite wash with the ambiguity of Amir’s guilt or innocence that was previously established.

Still, these minor hiccups aside, Camp X-Ray is a riveting reminder of the flagrant human rights violations that have taken place on the base and, given that President Obama still hasn’t closed Guantanamo, are still happening. Regardless of personal politics, though, it’s ultimately a marvelously intense and rewarding character-driven acting showcase.

*** 1/2

Camp X-Ray is available on VOD now

Wolves – Review

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Legendary video game voice actor (Metal Gear Solid) and screenwriter (X-Men 2, Watchmen) David Hayter makes a disappointing transition behind the camera with his patchy werewolf flick, which from its title through to its execution, is thoroughly lacking in imagination and thrills.

18-year-old Cayden Richards (Lucas Till) has been suffering from disturbing nightmares recently, and one night, he wakes up to find himself covered in blood and his parents murdered. Skipping town as a fugitive, Cayden heads to the seedy small town of Lupine Ridge to learn more about his lineage, though attracts the attention of the town’s de facto ruler, Connor (Jason Momoa), who threatens Cayden with death if he doesn’t move on. However, much like Connor, Cayden has a very special secret; he’s a werewolf, and he’s not going to go quietly.

It’s staggering to believe that a narrative as effortless as this could flow from the same pen that wrote the aforementioned comic book movies, what with its absurdly contrived narrative, complete with lazy exposition dumps and characters who simply aren’t worth becoming invested in. Production quality, meanwhile, never rises above TV-movie-grade, with a cheap-looking flashback slide-show sequence and naff transformation effects particularly sticking out, even if the wolf makeup itself is surprisingly decent.

Hayter unfortunately falls into plenty of first-time director pitfalls here, with the tone of his picture never really quite coming together; does it want to be a witty, Joss Whedon-esque horror comedy, or a more serious werewolf flick? One second it’s deathly serious, and the next, there’s a goofy wolf-on-wolf sex scene surely intended to elicit uproarious laughter.

More than all this, though, Wolves is just so unambitious and dull for the majority of its run-time. Things only really liven up during the third-act showdown, though even the well-staged action is derailed by a dumb plot twist that only compounds the narrative absurdity. Though Jason Momoa in particular hurls himself into his scarily intense part, nobody is given much to do, most of all excellent character actor Stephen McHattie, wasted in the sort of generic, grizzled mentor role he could play in his sleep by now.

Though fans of Hayter’s voice-over work might take a passing interest – keep an eye out for a cameo by Jennifer Hale, who voiced MGS’s Naomi Hunter, as Cayden’s mother – there’s really little here beyond a garden variety werewolf flick with occasional flecks of promise.

**

Wolves is available on VOD now