Blair Witch Review

People seem to forget it nowadays but when The Blair Witch Project came out, it was a cultural landmark. Nothing else like it had been created before, and it then ushered in the “found-footage” trope that has been prevalent in the early part of the 2000s. Some people loved it, some hated it. Myself, probably in the middle (although it has been a while since seeing it). Twenty years on, does the new Blair Witch carry on the legacy?

Blair Witch stars James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid and is directed by Adam Wingard. the film follows the brother of Heather from the first film (McCune) who collects a set of friends and a documentary filmmaker to venture into the woods to see if they can find his sister.

In the original, it’s widely known that the cast were just coming into their careers and were genuinely scared of their surroundings. The new cast feel like they are more acting rather that reacting to the things around them, making it feel a little more staged. It follows a more conventional style of filmmaking with stock characters (promiscuous girl, wacky black guy, weird locals), giving us tropes we recognise so we can focus more on the woods and action rather than them.

The film is set up like a found footage movie, but updated to modern times. Drones, little headpiece cameras and an all-matter of gizmos such as GPS and walkie-talkies are brought in, which is an interesting addition. These people are actually going into the forest to look for something, not messing about with a camera. Little bits of the equipment get used here and there, but to no great effect other than some new visuals. The first half of the film is all shaking cameras and no real coherency, which eventually started to give me a migraine. It does calm down in the second half, so it’s half redeemed. When the original was made, the marketing convinced so many people that the film was real, that we were watching the last known recording of the three filmmakers. Now that we know that it was all basically fabricated, the sequel was a bit of a non-starter. We know it’s fake, we know it’s made-up, and no amount of people holding cameras or devices is going to convince me otherwise. It is basically a beat-for-beat remake of the original, but without the clever marketing.

Sadly, the spectre of most horror films nowadays, the jump scare, it used to full effect. Most of the time it’s not even anything remotely frightening, just loud camera glitches or microphone pops, which really get irritating after a while. After getting jump-scared by two of her friends, the main female lead says “Can people please stop doing that!”, almost reading the audience members minds. Again, the second act brings it together, with an excellent mix of some Cronenberg-style body horror, a genuinely tense “hearing-monster-walk-around-you” set-piece, a little glimpse of what could be a witch and an ending with a reveal which is novel and interesting. Good horror should leave it open-ended, and the second half does deliver. We even see what those stickmen are eventually used for, and it’s clever and fun.

Looking back at the whole of the Blair Witch, you can almost see the twenty years of horror that it’s tried to keep up with. You obviously get the nods to the original, but also little flashes of things like the VHS series and The Descent. The new stuff it brings to the table is superb and lends a lot of richness to the lore of the Blair Witch, but the basic retread will put of people who didn’t like the first one. If you hated the original, you will hate this, but if like me you were impartial or liked the original, you might get a kick out of it.

Score: 5/10 An abysmal first act leads into a slightly stronger ending.

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Anthropoid Review

Thank the film reels that summer is over. I must be sounding like a stuck record, but I’m genuinely happy that I don’t have to sit through any rubbish blockbusters or jokeless comedies for a while. Now the films will be Oscarbait, so even if some will be asinine art installations, we will get some absolute gems as compensation. And now, the opening act.

Anthropoid stars Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Toby Jones and Charlotte Le Bon and is directed by Sean Ellis. The story follows the true story of two Czech Resistance members (Murphy and Dornan) during the Second World War, as they attempt to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the “Butcher Of Prague”.

The set-up of the film really intrigued me. So many war films seem to only focus on the European Theatre of WW2, and then restricting that down to D-Day and onwards. There are so many other battles, such as the attacks in Asia or Eastern Europe that many films don’t focus on (That’s why I intensely liked The Railway Man for focussing on the former). The Czech Resistance is an unexplored time period, so it would bring something fresh to the film.

The actors are excellent in their roles. Jamie Dornan, who is probably most known for his leading role in Fifty Shades Of Grey shows that he isn’t just a set of abs, with a character that is in the position of never being in a combat zone, and having to come to terms with the knowledge he may have to kill to survive. Cillian Murphy does his usual vacated role, a man who is a little too into being able to murder anyone who gets in his way. Both actors, as well as the rest of the cast sport Czech accents, which while sometimes are a little hard to understand, fit into the world and give it a nice sense of believability. This is heightened by the occupying Nazi’s all speaking German, so we, just like the main characters, are lost when talking to the occupiers.

The film is mainly the planning of the assassination attempt and the aftermath, with the assassination mainly being, at most, five minutes of the film. For those wanting an action-heavy WW2 film, this is not it. The film relies more on the tense atmosphere, the sneaking around, passing slips of paper under the cover of darkness knowing any moment the army might crash through the door. It’s excellent at creating that environment, knowing when to release or heighten the tension. The assassination scene is a highlight of the film, with an almost montage effect, splitting between the various members of the hit squad, waiting for their time to strike.

The film is lent more to the slow-build crowd, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t action segments. The assassination sequence, as well as the finale, are great recent example of how to do shaky camera well. Grenades are going off, gunfire is peppering the scenery, and the camera conveys it without being obnoxious. The final fight hits a watermark of emotion-driven drama, as we realise the limited ammunition the characters have and the unending waves of Nazi troops camped outside their safe house. It’s similar to films like Calvary or 300 (without the weird goatmen), where you realise that our protagonists might not make it out of the story in one piece.

The one part I wasn’t invested in however, was a small romance plot near the beginning. To solidify their cover stories, Murphy and Dornan start to date two Czech girls, allowing them to walk around Prague without the Nazi’s questioning them. The romance plot is not fleshed out, with Dornan and Murphy seemingly falling in love in mere minutes. The romance is meant to grow over a few months, but the time scale in the film makes it seem much sooner. It’s probably to fit the film under two hours, but it bugged me a little.

With Anthropoid, Oscar Season is off to a flying start. This is one to see, just so you can be smug to all your friends when it gets nominated.

Score: 9/10 A tense and stark reminder of the sacrifices of war.

Hell Or High Water Review

Sicario was one of the highlights of last year. A dark, twisting film about an extra-legal team from the FBI trying to shut down the drug cartels in Mexico. So when writer of Sicario, Taylor Sheridan, name came up in the pre-release buzz around Hell Or High Water, my interested picked up. Are we in for another grim treat?

Hell Or High Water stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham and is directed by David Mackenzie. The film follows a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Pine and Foster) who after several daring heists are chased by a determined aging Texas Ranger (Bridges).

The three leads are tremendous, a sure reason to go see Hell or Water. Just like other great suspense heist films such as Heat, we see both sides of the law, seeing their wins and losses, with us rooting for both cop and criminal. Jeff Bridges does his usual “too old for this” schtick. He even says that this is his last case (an all too common trope), but he is still an interesting character. Chris Pine and Ben Foster work well together as brothers Toby and Tanner, they have a good back-and-forth, whether it be during the getaway or back home on the ranch. Pine sheds his usual douchy persona and brings a layered character, trying to provide for his family doing something that might get him killed. Ben Foster starts off as the wackier older brother, but thankfully adds more nuance to his performance rather than the played out lunatic bank-robber formula. All three sport Texan accents, which sometimes are hard to understand.

While the film is supposed to be in West Texas, it was actually filmed in New Mexico. Even so, the scenery is beautiful. Much like Sicario before it, Hell Or High Water has may long. wide shots of the never-ending landscapes and stunning setting suns. The film also makes use of the urban environments, little one-street towns and retro diners, leaving a sense of places that simply got lost in time. It gives both a feeling of modern day but also timelessness. If you swapped out the 4x4s for horses and the automatic rifles for revolvers, you would have yourself an old-fashioned Western.

The film is over 100 minutes, but none of it felt like it was dragging or padding out the run-time. The extended bank sequences, using long sweeping takes rather than conventional editing keep the excitement up as the brothers go from bank-to-bank. The film also masters the art of the “ticking-time-bomb”, having something dangerous (in this case a bank robbery) in the background, while the other characters are talking with each other, oblivious to what is happening behind them. These dual approaches to the story keep it moving rather than the slower methods or predictability of previous heist films. The plot might become apparent to more savvy watchers, but the story behind why the brothers are bank-robbing will keep you invested until the finale, with raging gun battles and car chases suiting the more action-oriented fans.

The action is rather sporadic, but it is explosive and brutal. Guns are used more for intimidation, but when bullets start flying they leave blood and brains splattered. It isn’t glorified, again, similar to Sicario, it’s more sickening than fun.

The film is completed by country music, blaring both out of the radio and as part of the soundtrack, created by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. While country may not be to my taste, it fits the film’s setting perfectly, once again creating that atmosphere of young and old merging together.

I was holding Hell Or High Water to a high standard with the list of names attached, but it easily delivered. With tense and dramatic heist sequences, beautiful scenery and supreme acting from the three leads, this is one to go and see.

Score: 9/10 They don’t make many like this anymore.

Ben-Hur Review

They remade Ben-Hur? Sure, why not? With all the other bloody films being remade let’s just do whatever film studios still have the rights to. Disclaimer; I haven’t seen the original (apart from the chariot sequence), but it is usually seen as one of the biggest films of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Let’s see though, maybe the remake could be good.

Ben-Hur stars Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, and Nazanin Bonaidi and is directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Based on the book from 1880, the film follows Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) who is betrayed by his Roman Soldier brother (Kebbell) and forced into slavery during the time of Jesus Christ.

I’ll start with what I did like. The film is split between several built sets and real-life wilderness. While it is very easy to spot the former I really enjoyed the latter. Near the beginning we see a montage of Ben-Hur’s adoptive brother Messala’s army career with him fighting in Germania and Gaul through wheat-fields and falling snow. It reminded me of the opening of Gladiator, but sadly it is only in the film for a limited amount of time. I also mostly enjoyed the chariot sequence. While it can’t hold a candle to the original (famous for the alarmingly high amount of injuries and near-death experiences on set) the destruction throughout has a nice crunch to it.

I’m also glad that a lot of the horse and chariot racing was done for real. Sure, horses being tripped and riders being thrown off or trampled are computer generated, but there are many scenes where Ben-Hur is learning to tilt his chariot onto one wheel or another where he jumps onto runaway horses, and it is all done for real. Director Timur Bekmambetov stated he wanted to not rely on CGI unless it was heavily needed so I applaud him for using it correctly rather than splashing out.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been used and quite terribly. During Ben-Hur’s time as a galley slave, rowing ships for the Roman Navy, he looks out the portholes and sees some truly awful looking ships. The previously mentioned chariot sequence (when it isn’t the real riders) is full of rubbery looking models unfit for the early 2000s. It is a little sad when something goes from real-life stunts to bad stand-ins.

The acting is mixed pot as well. Most of the cast is English or American (odd, since the film is meant to be set in Jerusalem). Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur as a gruff, wooden character, breathing every other word like Kristen Stewart used to do back in Twilight. Toby Kebbell isn’t as charismatic as he was in Warcraft earlier this year (he was honestly the best part of that film), but his character is meant to be a nigh-emotionless killer so I’ll let it pass. The person I was most confused by was Morgan Freeman. While he is really good in the film I was pulled out the experience by his inclusion. Everyone else is either relatively unknown or coming into their careers so to have this huge actor in the film creates a divide. Bekmamtebov said he wanted the film to be global hence his inclusion of Freeman. Alright, I’ll let it go. Morgan Freeman does draw in the crowds since remaking a classic film is not usually a winner of box offices (the film is reportedly making a loss of $120 million).

The bit I found both unintentionally hilarious and odd was the inclusion of Jesus Christ. Jesus is in the original story (the subtitle is A Tale Of The Christ), but in the 1959 version he’s usually off-screen, a higher presence that is alluded to but never truly shown. There is a line in the updated version which basically is, “This Jesus fellow is rather great, he’s just wonderful.” I’m all for including whatever you want in a film, but it was just so funny how the line was presented in the film, it felt really out of place. That being said, Rodrigo Santoro, the actor who plays Jesus (who also played Xerxes from 300 and Karl from Love Actually, interesting fact), is actually giving a good performance and an interesting addition to the film.

In the end Ben-Hur wasn’t as bad as I was thinking it was going to be. Its an odd mix of Gladiator, Passion Of The Christ, and Ben-Hur, but sadly with nothing really standout to warrant it being remade.

Score: 5/10 There are better movies to spend two and half hours with.

Kubo And The Two Strings Review

For all of the shoddy sequels and comic book movies this year, animation has been on point. With Disney’s excellent The Jungle Book and Zootropolis, Studio Ghibli’s final film, When Marine Was There, and the incredible Anomalisa, 2016 is looking up in terms of animation. And now, a new one, Kubo And The Two Strings.

Kubo And The Two Strings stars Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara and is directed by Travis Knight. The film follows Kubo (Parkinson), a young boy who must find a set of magical armour bequeathed to him by his samurai father, while being chased by evil forces.

The animation is some of the best of this year, which is really saying a lot. Laika, the team behind Kubo, is the same team that made ParaNorman and Coraline, two recent greats for animation buffs. The level of detail and the production design is part of the reason to go see Kubo right away. The incredibly smooth stop-motion animation, along with the 3D printed faces turns even the small down time in between the big action set pieces into a jaw dropping display of craftsmanship, you completely forget the massive human effort it took to create something so magical. One of the first big fights in the film includes what is apparently the largest stop-motion character ever animated. Be sure to stick around during the credits, which includes a “see how we did this” behind the scenes moment that shows how ridiculous the task must have been.

Kubo is heavily influenced by Japanese folklore. While the story is a grab bag of several different legends and tales, it’s more in the mood rather than the plot. Little wisps of fog coat lakes, half forgotten statues to Shinto and Buddhist religions are throughout the land, it does a good job of creating a world, and not just a succession of places in a line. The music helps settle us into the world, with the strings of Kubo’s guitar, along with flutes and chimes constantly coming and going from the film, highlighting some scenes as being instant favourites of the year so far. The plot though is very by the numbers. A little boy finding magical armour and defeating dark gods, it’s a story that’s been told before (mainly Legend Of Zelda). The story has a few twists that might be easy to figure out for the older viewers, especially reveals about Kubo’s companions Monkey and Beetle, but overall it’s more a dressing than the central point.

Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are excellent as Kubo’s friend Monkey and Beetle respectively. Theron is doing her usual badass performance, with McConaughey playing a bit against type as the rather slow-minded Beetle. Ralph Fiennes does his sinister charm in a small role as Raiden, and Rooney Mara, playing dual roles as a pair of evil witches is remarkably menacing for how little she is on-screen. Art Parkinson though as Kubo is who deserves the high praise. Most notable as Rickon Stark from Game Of Thrones, the young actor carries the majority of the first act mainly by himself.

I always feel that when animation goes dark, due to it being animated, it adds to the scariness. Kubo And The Two Strings is rated PG for “mild fantasy violence and scary scenes”. The scary scenes are mainly supplied by Rooney Mara’s excellent twin sisters (who never actually get names), who appear at night in a swirl of black smoke. Their black robes and their constantly smiling facemasks add a genuine deal of creepiness to the film, and leave a distinct impression that will be remembered long after it’s finished.

In short, Kubo And The Strings is one of the best of the year and one that will be enjoyed both by young and old. Go see it now while it’s still in cinemas, then go push it on all your friends. You will not be disappointed.

Score: 10/10 Genuinely awe-inspiring.

Café Society Review

Woody Allen is one of the most celebrated directors on the 20th century. With hits like Annie Hall and Manhattan, he’s loved for his quirky, almost self-loathing humour and existential crises. His last film, Irrational Man, released in 2015, was met with mixed response, so let’s see if his new film can do any better.

Café Society stars Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carrell, Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively and is written and directed by Woody Allen. The film follows Bobby Dorman (Eisenberg) who engages in the high society of both Hollywood and New York during the 1930s.

As the film is set during the early 1930s, the golden age of Hollywood, Café Society is in love with its time period, similar to The Coen Brother’s Hail, Caesar! earlier this year. Many references are made to Hollywood actors, actresses and directors, so if you’re not clued up on your Busby Berkeley’s and Greta Garbo’s you might not get as much enjoyment as I did from it. It’s not like Allen’s Midnight In Paris, with actors taking the place of the Era’s stars, most of them are just name-dropped, a shallow attempt for the characters to boast how many famous people they are friends with.

The 30s setting though gives us two great things, the music and the costumes. Our main character Bobby is a huge fan of jazz, constantly playing records while he potters around his house. Through the story he becomes owner of a club, with smooth jazz being played every night. The many parties he goes to show off the latter, with classic suits and elegant dresses. Everyone is wearing double-breasted jackets with wide lapels, bow ties, suspenders, it at least deserves a nomination for the both at when Oscar season rolls around.

The film is shot mainly in long takes. It isn’t the pretentious long takes of The Revenant, it’s more controlled, used when it fits the mood. In that fact, it feels more like a play rather than a film, with focus squarely on the actors, rather than lavish sets. The sets are subdued, mainly people’s back gardens and small parties, not the sprawling excess of films of the era.

After his mincing, over-the-top portrayal of Lex Luthor in Batman Vs Superman, Jesse Eisenberg seems to be redeeming himself by turning around from comic books to indie darlings. He is good as Bobby, moving from adorably geeky at the start to a high-flying socialite by the end. Kristen Stewart is perfect as Vonnie, the 30s version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl that Bobby is infatuated with. Sure, it was easy to ridicule her during her Twilight days with her wooden acting, but she’s really grown as an actress since then. The show is stolen though by Corey Stoll in a small role as Bobby’s big brother Ben. A kingpin in the NYC underworld, his technique of getting rid of competition by giving them “cranial ventilation” (in his words) before burying them in concrete drew many laughs from the audience and fits into Allen’s recurring theme about the ethics of murder. Many other Allen motifs turn up, the eternally anxious main character, love and relationships (usually forbidden), classic cinema and of course, lots of Jewish-based humour.

The points that I didn’t really like were mainly story-based. The story is pretty predictable, nothing really new or different on-screen. The mood shifts wildly from light comedy to melancholy and back again, leaving me wondering whether I was meant to be laughing or feeling sympathetic for the characters. And even being a 96 minute film, it feels rather slow. The film dallies about, with events happening but no real story to speak of. It doesn’t build too much, ending rather abruptly.

In the end, Café Society will suit those who enjoy the vibe of the 30s with small dashes of comedy and melancholy. It will be more one for the indie crowd, but you should have a good time with it.

Score: 7/10 Brief fun and glamour in Classic Hollywood.

Sausage Party Review

Seth Rogan I feel is one of those people that you either love or hate. I know so many people who either think it’s one of the best comedy creators of the 21st century and others who wouldn’t watch his films unless you forced them to. Me, I’m a bit of both; I like Knocked Up and Superbad but couldn’t get into Pineapple Express. And now, his latest, an animated film, Sausage Party is in theatres.

Sausage Party stars Seth Rogan, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Michael Cera and Jonah Hill and is directed by Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan. The film follows a sausage called Frank (Rogan) and his girlfriend Brenda, a bun (Wiig) who find out the terrible things that happen to food when they leave the supermarket.

The cast list is immense. Aside from the ones previously mentioned, the film also includes Edward Norton, Salma Hayek, James Franco and Danny McBride. And unlike other animated films none of them sound like themselves (2016s The Jungle Book is the opposite, with some voices being so recognisable that it became distracting). Even Rogan sounds quite a bit different from his usual persona, it took a long time for me to realise it was him.

The jokes meanwhile, are your usual Rogan-style. Even with a cast made up of various food-items, Rogan manages to push in marijuana and stoner jokes, like every other film of his. The jokes lose some of their shine as the film goes on, you see one jar of honey mustard swear and make sexual innuendos, seen them all. The jokes do pick up however in the final act. The final twenty minutes is a roaring mad send-off to a film that was losing steam, with the last five minutes being a fantastic gross-out scene, making the Elephant Scene from Grimsby look tame by comparison.

The film’s laughs aren’t just powered by sex, drugs and swearing though. There are a few cute visual sight gags, such as a Jewish Bagel and a Middle Eastern Lavash constantly trading verbal barbs, a jar of sauerkraut that looks vaguely Nazi-fied (and wants to destroy all juice, a bit of wordplay) and “I’d Do Anything For Love” sung by an actual Meat Loaf. It’s more satirical than the trailers would give it credit, with ideas about religion and politics being explored, if a little bit on the nose. All these jokes are added for the more eagle-eyed viewers, but are sadly overpowered by the traditional “Stoner-Bro” comedy of Rogan and his entourage.

The story, to cut it down to its bare essentials could be said to be Toy Story but for grown-ups. You remember how Buzz Lightyear thought he was a real spaceman before learning the truth? It’s that, just filled with a lot more swearing and sex. Apart from that novel raunchiness though, not much else is that interesting or note-worthy. You can tell how the story is going to play out beat-by-beat, with hackneyed break-up/make-up sections and other screenwriting 101 plot points. If you can get over those though, you should be pretty fine. The concept though, of food learning what it’s true purpose is, it’s interesting enough that it sold me on the film. The food’s have their little districts; the spices and curry are mocked up to be an Indian Market, the Alcohol Aisle is a rave, the Frozen Food section is a snowy mountain, it’s all cute and imaginative until juice-boxes are getting sexually assaulted and baby carrots are being eaten alive, then you remember the film is rated 15.

In the end, I’m conflicted by Sausage Party. It’s jokes got stale after a while and the story is by-the-books, but the concept and the over-the-top final twenty minutes means that it’s score moves up. Overall it doesn’t deserve to be on the Must-Watch list, but for those few jaw-dropping moments, everyone should watch this one.

Score: 7/10 Absolutely bonkers, with a small streak of smarts.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping Review

After the middling David Brent: Life On The Road a few weeks ago, we have another comedy-mockumentary-musical, this time with The Lonely Island. Their songs maybe funny, but is the band able to fill out an entire movie length? Let’s find out.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping stars Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone and Tim Meadows and is directed by Schaffer and Taccone. The film follows pop singer Conner4Real (Samberg) who tries to make a comeback with his old boyband, “Skill Boyz”.

Every comedy-mockumentary-musical (which for some reason is a really big market) is obviously going to be compared to Spinal Tap, basically the ground zero for all three of the genres at play. Popstar is nowhere near the leagues of Spinal Tap, but nothing ever is. It’s a disservice to both films to try and compare, so we’ll just have to look at Popstar on its own merits.

The Lonely Island are known for their comedy songs, and they have some excellent ones in Popstar. Songs about the assassination of Bin Laden (used as a metaphor for sex), gay rights (which ends up just being a mash up of random words) and an entire song about being humble, the satirical lyrics and crazy music videos are good for couple of minutes. This is where Popstar shines, but we only get a few songs and videos at most.

The rest of the jokes are a mix of great and abysmal. Some corkers, like an extended “incident” at the Anne Frank Museum (a not-so subtle dig at a certain star), breaking celebrity news by CMZ (digging at TMZ, and led fabulously by Will Arnett) or an over-the-top proposal, complete with wolves, by Conner4Real to his trophy girlfriend, are good set-pieces, but the rest is just screaming and random sequences of “chaos”. If it wasn’t for the bared penises, breasts and the occasional swear word, it could almost be at home on the Disney Channel, inane nonsense for tweens.

The film has a huge cast list, with several musicians, such as Ringo Starr, A$AP Rocky, Mariah Carey, Carrie Underwood and 50 Cent, as well as other famous people like Simon Cowell, Jimmy Fallon and Martin Sheen. Most are just kept to talking-head interviews per the documentary-style of the film, but since most are poking fun at themselves or the music business, I am okay with so many stars turning up. It’s better than Zoolander 2, which shoved stars in despite them having nothing to do with the world of fashion or the story.

The film is only 86 minutes long, pretty short, but the lacklustre story makes it seem far longer. The documentary style is dropped quite early on, leaving us with a rather desperate and plodding orthodox style, which isn’t interesting. We have no investment in the characters, we are meant to be laughing at them, not with them, so when the film tries to be a drama where we sympathise with the main character, it grinds to a halt.

It’s sad, I was looking forward to Popstar, but it seems The Lonely Island work better in short form. Cut it down to an hour, you would have a funny TV film. Cut it down even further, you might get a vlog series out of it. It could work any other way, just not in the cinema. You might get some more enjoyment out of it if you are a diehard Lonely Island fan, but for the rest of us, it’s just passable.

Score: 6/10 Some funny moments, but nothing essential.

War Dogs Review

I’ve been looking forward to War Dogs. As a fan of true-crime films such as The Wolf of Wall StreetPrecinct Seven Five and Pain And Gain, I’ve been really looking forward to a new film in the same vein. And as a big fan of Miles Teller (who has been on a bit of a poor run recently, Fan4stic anyone?) I was hoping this could be a return to form.

War Dogs stars Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana De Armas and Bradley Cooper and is directed by Todd Phillips. The film follows the true story of David Packouz (Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Hill) who in their early 20s started running guns for the American Military in Iraq.

The director Todd Phillips’ highest profile work is The Hangover trilogy. From the promotion and the trailers, War Dogs looked to be continuing in that vein of often juvenile comedy. Thankfully, the comedy is toned down and the film as a whole is a lot more darker than it was advertised as. The Hangover crowd will find some fairly humorous moments; one scene where Jonah Hill struts around firing a machine gun in the air is one of the funniest parts of the film, but I liked how the humour is pushed back for space for a more mature story. While much of it is fictionalised, including one of the main scenes involving the duo running a truck of guns from Jordan to Iraq, it’s still an incredibly enjoyable film.

The actors do a fine job. Miles Teller is our main “everyman” type of guy, he provides a running voice over and the film is all from his point of view. Ana De Armas plays his wife Izzy, but neither have much personality beyond their roles in the story, they are pretty bland. Bradley Cooper, while a fun part of the film is not in most of it. He’s probably in it for ten minutes at the most, but his terrorist/evil gangster is an interesting role for an actor most known for being a comedy performer.

Jonah Hill though is the main comedy highlight. In a role similar to The Wolf Of Wall Street, he’s the scumbag to Teller’s nice guy. He likes to think he is a gangster; he has a massive picture of Scarface on his office wall, buys golden paper-weights in the shape of grenades and laughs manically like Jared Leto’s Joker. He’s bought totally into making money from the war, using the buzzwords of patriotism and the Free Market to clear his mind of any wrongdoing. A repeated line of his is “It’s not illegal,” which shows his entire character in three words.

The film is nearly two hours, and there is a little bit of a drop in the middle. The film starts great and ends great, but in the middle, once the duo have run their guns to Baghdad and have expanded their empire, it does drop with their second big contract. The film is split into around five “chapters”, with lines from the next part of the film being chapter titles e.g. “Welcome to Dick Cheney’s America!,” or “This is the whole effing pie!”. It’s like a less pretentious version of what Quentin Tarantino does with his films.

The whole films feels like The Wolf of Wall Street for teenagers, a TWOW-lite version. The shoddy stocks and bonds are replaced by AK-47s and over 100-million rounds of ammunition, and for good measure they went and borrowed Jonah Hill to play the same wacky/scummy sidekick of the main character. The glorification of money and despicable characters will obviously draw the anger of some critics, but that’s kind of missing the point. You not meant to cheer for the characters, but laugh at the ridiculous and risky things they do to make money and the mad opportunities that have been offered to them (such as supplying the entire Afghan Army).

The bad guys (or let’s just say “morally questionable” guys) is nothing new to cinema, and I bet that due to its subject matter, War Dogs will get lumped in with films like Pain And Gain or the previously mentioned Wolf. Don’t let that put you off, it’s one of the better things this summer and gets a hearty recommendation from me.

Score: 8/10 A lot smarter, funnier and better than it has any right to be.

Martyrs Review

Preface

Cinema as a medium is great. I don’t just mean for the fantastic stories, the heartfelt emotions and all the rest, but I think one of the main reason people love cinema is spectacle. So many people have seen The Human Centipede or A Serbian Film, not because they were looking for some rich story or characters, but mainly for the increasingly horrid spectacle put on screen. And now, a review for one of the worst I’ve seen, Martyrs. It’s been remade and is slated for an October release, so I wanted to review the original.

Review

Martyrs stars Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jampanoi and is directed by Pascal Laugier. The film follows Anna (Alaoui) who tries to help her friend Lucie (Jampanoi) who was psychically and psychologically abused as a child.

I heard about Martyrs on a list of “Horror Film For Beginners”. Martyrs was listed as one of the last films to watch, under the title of “only for the hardcore”. So naturally I went and watched it, to see what could deem a film only for those brave or stupid enough to go and watch. A damn, what a film.

Martyrs starts off so clichéd. Young girl, history of abuse, orphanages, friends in need, if you’ve seen practically any horror film from the last two to three years, they’ve used at least one of these tropes, it’s one of the those perpetual bread and butter’s of horror cinema. After the opening though…argh, I don’t want to spoil it. I don’t want to divulge too much, because this is a horror film that is built on its story.

The horror switches throughout. You’ll be scared of the dark foreboding atmosphere at the beginning, but that is dropped as soon as the credits finish. It goes to gore, then to body horror, isolation and finally existential. By the end you’ll just have a bottomless pit in your stomach through the constant revelations and turns. The film just keeps going and going, there isn’t even a break in the despair, even after the film is over. The film is only 94 minutes long, but through the constant horror it feels much longer. You think it’s about to end but then something new appears and it drags you back in, making you wish it was over.

Most horror films, there is a reason behind the madness. Someone is looking or revenge, survival against the odds or just general curiosity. While there is a little bit of explanation at the end (which makes you want to watch Martyrs again to see the clues), for most of the film nothing is explained. It makes the horror even more crushing, as you don’t know why things are happening.

While there are several cast members, the main character is Anna, played by Morjana Alaoui. I can’t even start to comprehend what she as an actress had to go through while making Martyrs. Anna goes through several gruelling scenes, some so disturbing you would be forgiven it was real. Credit to her and the make-up and effects team to showing the growing despair and disgust that the one location of the film (Yep, it’s all done in one house) ends up revealing.

Martyrs goes into an exclusive club of mine for being a film I had to take a break from. The other two films were horror, but I had to pause them for being truly scary (When A Stranger Calls and Dark Water if you’re interested). Martyrs, due to that ever-present horror, exhausted me. And while I never enjoyed myself while watching it, I was pleased that I watched it. if you end up going and watching it, you will have seen one of the most bizarre, fascinating and horrifying films ever created. It’s not a film that I can see anyone truly “enjoying”, but it’s something that everyone should see at last once.

Score: 7/10 It will haunt you for the rest of your life.