All posts by Callum Petch

Occasional Film Critic, Human Disaster.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Amazing-Spider-Man-2-Peter-Parker-Harry-OsbornSecond verse same as the first, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes all of the exact same mistakes the original did, burying the nugget of a great film deeper and deeper the longer it goes on for.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Did you see The Amazing Spider-Man from 2012?  Congratulations, you don’t need to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2!  You know, the lazier of us film critics like to snarkily dismiss sequels with the phrase “more of the same” as if that is inherently a bad thing.  Sometimes it’s very much a good thing, something that works happily repeating its formula in a “if it ain’t broke” manner.  Sometimes, though, it is a bad thing, the observation that the sequel hasn’t learnt from the previous film’s failings and the growing loss of patience on the reviewer’s behalf.  This film is one of that kind.  The second one.  I am not kidding, this film makes the exact same mistakes as the first one did with the exact same potential of a great movie permanently bubbling underneath the near-endless mess of bad ideas or poor executions or bad ideas with poor executions.

Ladies, gentlemen and others, this was maddening to sit through.  In fact, in lieu of a traditional review, I am going to dedicate my time and your time to a couple of case study examples as to how this film fails, in order to fully impress upon you, the reader, the way in which The Amazing Spider-Man 2 spends upwards of two hours taking a giant extended piss on its potential.  No, there will be no spoilers, nothing more than the trailers have shown off, but I feel that this is a far more productive usage of our time.  This film and its predecessor will be used by future, more intelligent generations who are less distracted by flashy and actually rather OK, all things considered, filmmaking as the basis of an entire class in film school on what not to do.  I’m just getting in on the ground floor.

First, let’s talk about the Tragic Villain plotline.  This is something that both this film and the original use as the basis for their villains, in an attempt to give them depth and something to do besides instructing the audience to comically boo their every appearance like we’re at a panto.  I am all for this, it adds a nice measure of moral ambiguity to proceedings and a level of depth and maturity to the superhero medium in general; not every villain is evil for the sake of being evil, after all.  The problem is not the fact that the franchise has used this idea for every single one of its villains so far and, in ASM2’s case, twice in one movie with Max Dillon a.k.a. Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan).  You can find enough spins on that formula.  The problem is that the films never ever follow through with it.

The reason why The Dark Knight gets this right whilst The Amazing Spider-Man series doesn’t boils down simply to the fact that the former commits to the tragedy inherent to the plotline.  In fact, sod it, this paragraph is going to spoil The Dark Knight.  So, if you haven’t seen it and still want to, just jump on down to the next paragraph, you shouldn’t be missing too much if you do so (and if I’m doing my job right).  See, Harvey Dent’s slide into the man known as Two-Face works because his motives remain understandable and relatable.  He still has the same goal, to clean up the streets of Gotham and wipe out corruption in the GCPD, but his methods are now harsher.  The point is that he has snapped mentally and now no longer cares about working within the law to get his goals.  He’s not evil for the sake of evil, he’s just had his hope crushed and now he’s willing to do anything to reach his otherwise noble end goals and it’s the way the film commits to that falling that the plotline works.

Contrast this with Max Dillon.  When he starts the film, he is a weak loner.  He has an important job at Oscorp but he is constantly pushed around and harassed and put-upon by the world because he basically lets it.  He has no backbone, no social skills and no life outside of his work and this makes him miserable, even emotionally disturbed.  He just wants someone to notice him.  Then, out of the blue, Spider-Man saves him from an oncoming truck and gives him the usual Spider-Man speech of “you are a somebody because you’re somebody to me”.  This gives Max a reason to live and a reason for us to care about him, even if he becomes hopelessly obsessed with the man.  It’s what’s supposed to make his fall into the electro-chamber sad and painful because it’s the world’s fault, not his.  It’s why the public triggering of his powers is supposed to carry real emotional resonance as he finally gets the attention he craves from the public at large and his obsession, Spider-Man.

Pity the film is only an hour in by this point.  So, because the film is only an hour in, the emotional arc of Max is very quickly wrapped up and the tragic side of his schtick is almost immediately dropped in favour of “I will do evil things because I am evil”.  This would have been majorly disappointing… had the film actually handled any of this well to begin with, because they play pre-accident Max for laughs.  Jamie Foxx pitches his pre-accident performance to absurd wet-doormat extremes and his every scene is backed by bouncy silly music so you know that you’re supposed to find events on screen funny instead of saddening.  It undercuts the emotional groundwork and comes off as mean-spirited, overall.

In fact, before I move on, I want the name of whoever decided on the music that should back Electro’s action sequences and I want to make sure they never work in this field again.  Why?  Because his theme is dubstep.  Nearly every shot of electricity is accompanied by dubstep wubs that are severely out of place with the rest of the film’s score.  But that’s not why I am calling attention to this.  No, there’s also the fact that his music contains whispers buried in the background.  Whispers that go something like “Hate… destruction… kill… I hate him…. I hate him…”  This kind of crap might have been cool to a teenager in 2001, but to me in 2014 it’s the equivalent of backing his action scenes with “Batman’s Untitled Self Portrait” from The Lego Movie.  It’s embarrassing is what it is.

Harry Osborn gets a better treatment on the whole Tragic Villain angle but the film falls down by again just not committing to keeping his goals sympathetic and relatable to the end.  Him and Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, still deserving of so much better) used to be childhood friends (because everybody is connected to everyone for cheap and easy drama in amateurishly written scripts).  He’s dying of the same disease that’s killing his father and, therefore, desperate for a cure.  His cure may involve Spider-Man and, when things don’t go his way, he goes a bit off the deep end.  That last part would be fine… except that it involves him turning straight crazy evil so that we can have a two-part action finale.

The failure of the Tragic Villain plotlines, the same reason it failed in the first film with Curt Connors and his sudden obsession with creating an army of lizard men, is twofold.  The first is the lack of faith from the screenplay that the audience will be completely behind and invested in the proceedings if they don’t know who to cheer and root for.  And since Peter is still kind of a huge boring dick in this one (more on that in a bit), the film cops out on its moral ambiguity and emotionally heavy stakes by reverting to “these bad guys are evil because they’re eeevilll!!” which squanders the depth previously built up and the groundwork laid beforehand.  The second is the fact that this is just a bad screenplay, in general, with both villains’ switches to straight-up evil-doing boiling down to the switch on the back of a Krusty doll.  I guess you could salvage such a behavioural switch but it requires far better writing and handling than what’s on display here.  It’s amateur work.

Now let’s move onto the issue of serialisation.  Do you want to know why the Marvel Cinematic Universe get away with doing things the way they do?  It’s because when their films end, they feel like they’ve ended.  They’ve told a complete story, all of the plot threads are wrapped up and the character arcs are completed.  They may leave an uncertain future or a sequel tease but they can do that because it doesn’t feel like story is being held back for future instalments.  I could hop off after pretty much any of MCU entries with the sense of completion.  That is why Iron Man is allowed to end the way it did, that is why The Avengers was allowed to end the way it did, that is why Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are allowed to end the way they do.  Some had some plot threads hanging, others blatant sequel teases but all felt complete because everything important is wrapped up and all character arcs have concluded.

Much like its predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does not do that.  In fact, despite running over two hours and even having a clear stopping point ten minutes before the end (even if, yes, it still would have failed to wrap up several big plot threads and character arcs so I would still be having this rant anyway), it actually has the gall to not have an ending.  The Amazing Spider-Man 2 stops.  It just stops.  At roughly two hours and nine minutes it goes “OK, that’s all the time we have!  Come on back in two years and we’ll pick this up again!”  So, no, the conspiracy stuff with Peter’s dad Richard Parker (Campbell Scott who plays the role like a gruff William Shatner and is awful here) again does not get a payoff, Peter still doesn’t seem to learn anything from the events of the film (and the incredibly rushed final five minutes do not serve to fix this problem) and Harry Osborn remains a threat who even starts up his latest scheme as the film wraps up (and, no, not in the sense of “I’ll get you next time, Gadget!”).

There’s no resolution here.  I don’t feel like I’ve been told a full story.  I feel like I’ve been told half of a story, at best.  There’s no payoff.  Just a whole bunch of clumsily handled foreshadowing and set-up work for the endless sequel parade to possibly payoff down the line in the future maybe who knows?  The Man In The Shadows from the mid-credits stinger of the first film makes a reappearance at the end because reasons, Harry’s assistant is called Felicia (as in Felicia Hardy because that’s just how subtle this film is in regards to going “THIS CHARACTER WILL DO SOMETHING IN A FUTURE INSTALMENT”) but she doesn’t do anything and, surprise sur-f*cking-prise, there’s a conspiracy at Oscorp that is left totally unresolved at the end because of-f*cking-course it is.  The point of a film ending is that it is supposed to have told all of the story it needed and wanted to tell but such a thing is clearly not the case for ASM2.

Speaking of, Peter Parker is a boring dick.  Andrew Garfield is trying so very, very hard to make this character work (he has a lot of natural, easy-going charisma and he is great at the better parts of Spidey’s mid-combat snark) but his character spends most of the film in the background and, when he does actually get to wrestle control of his own film back to him, he’s actively dislikeable.  He’s a dick to everybody almost all the time, primarily because his character arc is almost permanently stuck on the cusp of the transitional period from “dickwad hero” to “noble figure for hope and justice” and he doesn’t actually start that transitional phase and learning lessons until ten minutes before the end of the GODS.  DAMN.  MOVIE.

And the stuff with Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone, deserves better).  Oh, Maker, how I hate all of the material with him and Gwen Stacey.  It’s predicated around the fact that Peter loves Gwen but the promise he made to her dying father to stay away from her is causing him to feel guilty about that love.  Good, fine, you can do stuff with this.  You can do good, non-crappy stuff with this.  Except this manifests as Peter being a dick to her at all times but his love for her leads to him stalking her (again), putting her in danger (again) and begging her to give up her own wants so that they can be together happily (again).  Hell, a better movie would make parallels between his obsession with Gwen and Electro’s with Spider-Man, but that movie wouldn’t allow a big loud action sequence with a hint of tragedy, apparently, so it’s nowhere to be found and their romance is played as true love that’s futile to deny.  Credit to Stone and Garfield, they have excellent chemistry, but the material is awful.

Those are just a few of the major problems with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that were also present in the original (well, admittedly, the original at least had the decency to attempt to come up with an ending).  I’d go on for more, but I’m running out of time here and I need to wrap up.  This a bad film.  It is a bad, bad film.  But it is going to make hundreds of millions of dollars and we are going to be up to our eyeballs in sequels for however long the shared-universe superhero bubble manages to avoid bursting.  And it will do so because it is not a badly made film.  The surface level sheen is great.  The performances are mostly great (Dane DeHaan still makes time to put in excellent work even as he seems to be voluntarily flushing his career down the toilet between this and Metallica: Through The Never), the film is nice and pacey which at least didn’t make me feel like I had been dragged through a sloggy bog watching the damn thing (*coughcoughDivergentcough*), the effects are great and the fluidity of them fits the hyper-reality of the film’s universe, and action scenes are shot like every action scene in every Western action movie ever (shakily, busily, nearly incoherently at points) but may at least seem exciting to less jaded viewers.

More importantly, there is still the spark of a great movie and a great franchise in here.  No matter how badly the series so far has tried to snuff them out, there are still nuggets of potential littering The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  This could be a fantastic superhero movie in a fantastic superhero franchise but it, like its predecessor, keeps making all the wrong moves at the worst times and in the crappiest possible manner whilst, all the while, never openly sucking.  This is not an outwardly and plainly bad movie; its badness simmers underneath beneath a protective sheen of great performances and well-made filmmaking, but still ruining everything.  It’s why I cannot tear this film to shreds.  I should do, it is terrible, but that potential is still there and I am adamant that if people who actually knew what they were doing were given creative control, this series would learn from its mistakes and subsequently realise that potential.

Consider this a staying of execution, then.  I am prepared to give The Amazing Spider-Man franchise one more chance to realise that potential and learn from its mistakes.  If I come back here in two years’ time to find a sequel that again wastes that potential and makes the same mistakes, I will consider this series officially devoid of all hope and the resulting review will be merciless.  In the meantime and nevertheless, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a bad film.  You should not go and see it.

Callum Petch run on the track like Jesse Owens, broke the record flowing without any knowing.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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Divergent

DIVERGENTDivergent is two hours and twenty three minutes.  You will feel every last second.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

You know what I miss?  Films with endings.  And I mean proper endings.  Ones where everything is tied up, all of the characters have completed their respective arcs and everyone is in a new status-quo that has a clear direction for the future.  Yeah, sure, you can leave some things open if you want that sequel tease or you could go the ambiguous route but the important part is that there is a sense of finality to proceedings.  That it’s over.  That the film’s world will now go on in this new equilibrium as we leave it, at least for now.  That I can stop being involved in its world and characters if it hasn’t grabbed me because at least it told all the story it needed to tell.

Sadly, thanks to the combined global dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Harry Potter series and Hollywood’s continued learning of the wrong lessons from the both of them, films don’t have endings any more.  They have stopping points.  Cliffhangers.  Unresolved stories that resemble old film serials that would tell you to “Come back next week for the thrilling conclusion!” only ‘next week’ is ‘next year’ and each instalment wastes nearly three hours of your life a go instead of 10 minutes.  Oh, and film serials used to actually wrap-up enough that you could stop watching them without feeling like you’re missing anything major.

As you may have gathered, Divergent doesn’t end so much as it screams in your face “THE EPIC TALE WILL CONTINUE NEXT YEAR, SEE YOU THEN AND MAKE SURE TO BRING MONEY!”  But that’s only where the derivative nature of Divergent begins.  It’s like somebody attempted to scientifically engineer the next big young adult book and film series by stealing from pretty much everything else on the market, following all of the genre conventions and tropes to a tee at all times (the final half hour is practically the film ticking off the last free spots on its bingo card in quick succession), not even trying to hide its high school parallels (to make it more relatable to average and ordinary teenage girls just like you) and with writing and directing and acting that are just decent enough to skirt by without my feeling confident enough to call it outright dreadful, despite it being so, because it’s just too competently made and stars too many people I like doing just good enough of a job to make me label it a total failure.

In other words, they’ve finally done it, ladies, gentlemen and others.  Hollywood and literature have finally found a formula that enables them to print money.

Our story, then; which, by the way, and as an added insult, takes two hours and twenty-three minutes to tell (and does it ever feel like it).  It is the unspecified post-apocalyptic future (because there is no other kind of future) and Chicago thrives among the ruins thanks to a strict faction-based system.  There are the Erudite, who are smart, the Amity, who are peaceful and do absolutely nothing in this movie so feel free to forget they exist, the Candor, who are overly truthful or maybe just can’t tell lies it’s rather unclear, the Abnegation, who are do-gooder-goody selfless types, and the Dauntless, who are action-y and jocky and they free-run everywhere like it’s still 2006.  Or, to put it another way, you have The Nerds, The Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film-s, The Gossipers, The Politically Active and The Jocks.  No, the high school parallels are not better hidden than that.  Anyways, at age 16, the Chicago inhabitants are forced to take a test that tells them which of those groups they are best suited for and then they get to choose for themselves, with the caveat that they are locked into their chosen faction for life and cannot ever switch or leave or go back to their families if they’re in a separate faction ever, otherwise you become Faction-less, or, in high school terms, That Weirdo Kid Who Doesn’t Associate Themselves With Anyone.

Now, you may be asking yourself, or me if you’d prefer this to be a two-way conversation, “OK, so, why do the undefined masters of this universe make them take the test if they’re just going to let the people choose their own factions anyway?”  That’s a good question and one that I don’t have an answer to because the film doesn’t have one either.  It seems to think that having its lead character openly question the reasoning for this for about five seconds is enough to paper over the mess but they’re wrong.  You may also be asking, “Right, so, why ARE they stuck in this faction system?  Is there somebody ruling over them?”  The answer is no.  There is a government, run by the Abnegation because reasons, but they don’t seem to do anything and it still doesn’t explain how this system came into being in the first place.  It’s not The Hunger Games, is what I’m getting at.  “Sure, so, why is everybody sticking to it despite there clearly being unrest and, in any sane universe, some people who would object to such a strict dictatorial system?”  To ‘keep the peace’, apparently.  “So why has nobody attempted to organise an overthrow of such a system seeing as there is quite literally no reason to keep going along with this?”  Err…

So our heroine is Beatrice (Shailene Woodley, gods-frakkin-dammit) who is an Abnegate but who dreams of becoming a Dauntless, presumably because the people of post-apocalyptia have suddenly found free-running cool again because it’s certainly not down to their personalities (surprise, The Jocks are dicks until you do something awesome enough to earn their respect).  So she takes her test only to find out that she’s Divergent meaning that she doesn’t fit into any one of those categories which therefore makes her the most important threat to the unclear and undefined leaders of this dystopian Chicago.  Forced to hide her true identity, she joins up with the Dauntless and begins her training as one of them whilst the audience waits for something to happen that justifies this being a story worth their time.  And waits.  And waits.  And waits.  And waits.  And waits.  And waits.  And waits.  And waits.  And waits.  And…

Yes, I do believe you have a question, feel free to ask it!  “So, are Divergents rare?”  Yes, apparently so.  So, naturally, most of the people that the newly rechristened Tris cares most about are also Divergent because that’s how surprise plot twists work, duh.  “Why are Divergents a threat, then?”  Because, wait for it, ‘they can’t be controlled’.  “You didn’t answer my question.”  Because they’re a threat to the system.  “But WHY?!”  Because they can’t be controlled.  “Yes, I get that part, but…  OK, who controls the peace?”  The Dauntless.  “OK, that makes sense in a way but I’m going to ask this anyway, why?”  Because they’ve been commanded to.  “By who?”  F*ck if I know.  “So why?”  Because they’ve been commanded to.  “BY WHO?!”  The System, I guess.  “Which is run by…?”  I haven’t got a clue.  “SO WHY IS EVERYBODY STILL STICKING TO THIS IDIOTIC SYSTEM AND WHY ARE DIVERGENTS A THREAT TO ITS PAPER-MACHE CONSTRUCTION?”  …it sounds cool?  “NO IT F*CKING DOESN’T!!

As you may have gathered, this world makes no sense.  Look, I am willing to give films dramatic leeway when it comes to constructing worlds.  I will put my suspension of disbelief on the line for a lot of things (need I remind you of Need For Speed), but there comes a point where I am going to feel insulted by just how much suspension of disbelief I need to enjoy a movie.  Divergent’s world is basically the result of what would happen if the protagonist from The Lonely Island song ‘Threw It On The Ground’ wrote a work of fiction.  I genuinely wouldn’t have been surprised if one of the characters had just suddenly burst out with “You can’t trust the system, MAAAN!!”  It’s all oppressive class structures and regimented social cliques and “your individuality is what makes you so special so don’t worry if you don’t fit into what ‘society’ deems to be acceptable groups” without any of the effort required to make any of it hold up to people who think about the premise for more than five seconds.

And I wouldn’t have spent all that time picking apart the stupid, stupid, stupid nature of the film’s universe if the film had even the slightest grasp of the concept of pacing.  This is a film that is two and twenty-three minutes and you had better believe that I felt every single one of those minutes pass by me.  Fact of the matter is, there is no narrative propulsion to this film.  For two of those hours, I had no idea what the end goal was and I don’t mean that in the way that, say, a great thriller constantly pulls the rug out from under you in a way that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.  I mean that I literally had no idea, for a good 90 minutes after Tris joins up with the Dauntless, what the film was supposed to be building towards.  Nothing happens, nothing adequately threatens Tris, in all honesty when you think about it… she just trains.

For what, I don’t know.  She trains.  And she falls in love with, and I would like to give you a second to adequately prepare yourself here because I am about to impart to you the stupidest name for a love interest in a film supposedly grounded in some kind of reality of all-time, a boy called Four (Theo James who you may recognise as That Dick James from The Inbetweeners Movie), and vice versa, by virtue of him literally being the only guy who is not a complete and total dick to her at some point.  Other than those two things, nothing happens until the final 20 minutes.  I appreciate a film taking the time out to craft its characters, flesh out its supporting cast so that, when they inevitably bite the bullet for pathos, I actually feel something instead of a burning desire to hold in my urge to go to the bathroom.  However, a good film is capable of doing this whilst keeping the pace up, that’s why you have actual character beats in action scenes instead of just mindless carnage, and Divergent instead just holds off even revealing the end goal until it feels we’ve spent enough time with its cast and/or it’s finished wanking off to its own masterwork.

 

And, if you’ll indulge me the chance to twist the knife a little further, I still didn’t even care about the film’s cast of characters because they can all still be boiled down to their archetype without losing much in the way of anything.  The cast of Divergent is made up of Protagonist, Love Interest, Best Friend, Best Friend Who Betrays Protagonist, Dickhole Drill Instructor Who Turns Out To Be Evil Because Dickhole Are Naturally Evil, Person Who First Finds Out Protagonist’s Secret But Doesn’t Do Anything In This Film (But May Do Something Later), Protagonist’s Mother and Father and Brother (listed in order of importance) and, last and least, Evil Villain Lady Who Is Evil.  None of them are interesting, few are particularly likeable and not a single one of them manages to adequately justify spending nearly two hours in their company whilst waiting for the plot to start.  An infinitely, infinitely better version of this film could have cut an hour out.  A full hour; at least then there’d be enough of a pace going on that my mind wouldn’t be pulling apart the flimsy mechanics of the film’s universe like I’m a godsdamn philosopher.

“But that would cut out all of the characters and character work that will pay off in the sequels!” shouts the, likely, lone Divergent book series fan reading this review.  Maybe so.  Do you know what would happen, though?  STUFF!  Things would happen on-screen!  Events would occur!  Character arcs would actually be completed instead of hanging unresolved, plot threads would have some closure and the whole enterprise would have accomplished something besides wasting two hours and twenty-three minutes of my preciously short life.  Hell, we might have even gotten through some of the second book’s material!  Wouldn’t that have been something?

In all fairness, there is some decent stuff here buried under the stupidity and the snail pacing.  For one, there’s great casting going on here for what little material there is available to everyone.  Shailene Woodley (who, gods-frakkin-dammit, deserves better than this) proves to be an ably capable lead actress who could be the more homely Jennifer Lawrence if the script was willing to help her (because Woodley is trying really, really hard to make this tripe work).  Theo James can smoulder with the best of them, as it turns out, and he too seems more than willing to make this whole venture work if the script would meet him halfway.  Maggie Q gets a couple of monologues that prove that her time spent on Nikita really strengthened up her dramatic chops.  Sam Worthington Jai Courtney (sorry, sorry, I legitimately kept mistaking him for Worthington throughout the film) actually turns in a great performance for once in his miserable career as a complete and total arsehole.  Miles Teller does similarly great work in a similarly thankless role.  Zoë Kravitz is able to strike up a nice friendly chemistry with Woodley for the relatively limited time she’s in the film for.  The weak link is a checked out Kate Winslet and the only reason she sticks out is because she’s the only one who doesn’t seem to be trying to make this crap work.

There are some cool looking mind-space sequences that, admittedly, have been done way better by pretty much every other film ever made that attempts to tackle that subject but, and this is important, stuff happens in them.  They also feature some nice camera tricks and transitions that actually managed to cause my brain to switch back on and take focus for a short while at a time.  Action scenes are competently staged; they still make usage of shaky-cam to hide more physical violence but you can at least tell who’s hitting who and how hurt they are.  Well, until guns come into play in the final 20 minutes and the film desperately attempts to save its 12a rating by becoming a visual mess.  And though the CG is atrocious (to put it another way, I have no idea how this film cost $85 million to make), the cinematography is pretty good, peaking with an early mindscape sequence involving infinite mirrors.

There’s an OK movie buried somewhere inside Divergent.  Not a good one, the crevice of plot holes and inconsistencies in the film’s universe render that near impossible, but one that I’d be OK with recommending if you like this kind of genre.  Unfortunately, the film we have is both bloated and anaemic; way too long and lacking in content to sustain that run-time.  It moves at a pace that’s outclassed by glaciers, features characters with the depth, interest and likability of a sachet of ketchup and it’s so frakkin’ joyless.  There’s an aura of extreme self-seriousness surrounding the film that keeps it from being any fun (I count precisely two gags in the whole film and they both involve a subversion of the “you don’t have what it takes to shoot me” routine) and that makes the act of making it through Divergent feel like an arduous test of endurance.  A slog in all senses of the word.

Maybe the book is better.  I doubt it but, more importantly, I shouldn’t have to find that out.  My enjoyment of a film should not be predicated on my residual love for the source material.  It should stand up in its right and be enjoyable on its own terms; a different way to experience the story, not a substitute for it.  That’s why it’s an adaptation, that’s how these things are supposed to work.  And Divergent has precious little going for it to make it worth your time if you aren’t familiar with the books and just dying to see your favourite characters physically embodied and up on the big screen.  I’ll see you all back here in 12 months’ time to do this dance again.

Callum Petch looked into your eyes and his world came tumbling down.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

A Civil Plea For Proper Cinema Etiquette

Justin Beiber eats nachos when he goes to the cinema. You don;t want to be like Justin Beiber, do you?
Justin Beiber eats nachos when he goes to the cinema. You don;t want to be like Justin Beiber, do you?

Callum Petch is unimpressed with your cinema-going behaviour and feels that it’s time for a little talk.

by Callum Petch

I love going to the cinema to watch movies.  I really do.  I’m on a Film Studies course at Hull University, at the moment, so not a week goes by when I’m not seeing at least one film and, being a university student who lives in a populated area with a CEX nearby and some disposable income, my Blu-Ray collection keeps expanding by the week, and let’s not forget Netflix.  I am surrounded by movies.  But, man, very little beats the experience of going to the cinema and watching a brand new release film as it drops on the big, well-detailed screen with various, often loud speakers surrounding myself at all angles, sat in comfy chairs that don’t squeak like hell or cause me enough discomfort that I have to readjust my seating position every five minutes and with other likeminded film fans who want to see their hard-earned cash rewarded with good times.  It’s aces!

Lately, however, a disturbing lack of decorum and basic cinema-going etiquette has been showing up in most all of my screenings.  There were white teenage girls giggling throughout all of 12 Years A Slave’s more disturbing and powerful moments (quite frankly, though, that behaviour would have been unacceptable regardless of their gender, age or race), a family consisting of a mother, father and their university-aged daughter decided to turn Her into an impromptu Mystery Science Theater 3000 recording and, most recently and inspiring this column, my experience of Starred Up was nearly derailed by a crowd that giggled like five year-olds at any nudity, regardless of its disturbing context (heaven knows how any of them make it through having sex with one another, it must be a very painful experience), and responded to any and all onsets of violence by going “ooh!” like they’re impersonating a sassy Ray from Archer.

In other words, it seems that a lot of people have forgotten what is and is not acceptable cinema-going behaviour.  Well, on behalf of those of us whose only refuge from life’s cruel and intolerable nature is that of the world of film on display in the cinema, as well as those of us who pay good money to watch a film without having idiots ruin it, have no fear!  I, Callum Petch, Failed Critics’ premiere Old Man In Training, am here to help you fix your dumb cinema behaviour with a simple list format of what is not acceptable.  If it’s not listed here, and you won’t get sent to jail for doing it, you’re probably fine to do it in the cinema.  Just, you know, so long as it doesn’t annoy the rest of us.

1] Do not.  Have sex.  In the cinema screen.

Fun Fact: before my screening of Ride Along a while back, I wandered into the screen early to get a good seat… whereupon I heard the very distinct sounds of what I inferred to be a man pleasuring a lady, or perhaps the other way around, coming from the back of the screen.  I immediately turned back around and left.  I re-entered about 5 minutes later, after about six other people had gone in, to find those six scattered about the place… and a sheepish looking couple sat in the back corner of the screen.  And this is without even mentioning my friend, Jackson, going to a Spring Breakers screening last year and witnessing a bunch of self-absorbed teenagers giving each other blowjobs (yes, in the cinema, not the film, before you make the obvious joke, James).

Yeah.  Don’t perform sexual acts in the cinema, please.  Contain your animal instincts until you get home.  The rest of us have to sit in those contaminated seats and walk on those sticky floors.

2] Ignore your phone.  At all times.  And ESPECIALLY for Cinime.

Normally, I would more than advocate your usage of a mobile or smart phone during the advertisement stage of the pre-movie experience (after all, nobody has ever willingly paid money to be sold to… well, excluding those who just bought Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes).  However, advertisers seem to be one step ahead of our cunning plans to avoid being sold to and are now rewarding us for using our phones in the pre-movie segment.  Seems harmless, right?  Except that you just know, you just know, that soon this will extend to the trailers and then, before you know it, we’ll be rewarded for using our phones during the film we had paid to see.  And no!  No, I am completely against that!  So don’t give them the satisfaction, don’t even glance at your phone once the first of three separate Movie Signs pop up.  Hang around outside until the ads are done or listen to music on your iPod instead!  And if your iPod is your smart phone, well I guess you’re just used to making bad life choices aren’t you?

As for when the film starts: off.  Turn it off or put it on silent and don’t touch it for the rest of the time you are in the cinema screen.  Life will go on fine without you for the two hours you dedicate to watching a film.  Facebook will still be Facebook, Twitter will still be Twitter and yours and my inane lives will still be inane once the end credits start rolling.  If your phone does ring during the film, and it’s on silent, you can either ignore it or you can leave the screen and answer it.  I recommend Option A, unless it’s an emergency, in which case you should go with Option B.  Just, whatever you do, do not answer it in the middle of the film.  Even if it is a big emergency, the fact is that the rest of us won’t care and we’ll just think you’re an arsehole (which, if it is a legit emergency, will make us the bigger arseholes, but I’m just giving it to you straight; we’ll think you’re The Worst).

3] Dress properly, for godssake.

I was killing time hanging around the Cineworld before Starred Up, because buses are mischievously weird and inconsistent little buggers, when I saw it.  Entering the cinema, collectively in their own little group, were a bunch of teenagers dressed in animal-themed onesies.  To go and watch a film.  I have no idea what film they were going to see, but they bought tickets and went into a cinema screen in their ridiculous get-ups, so they had chosen to see something.  Let me put it another way: when you go out for a meal anywhere, anywhere at all, doesn’t have to be a fancy restaurant, do you rock up to the place in just your pants/knickers and bunny slippers?  No, no you don’t.  You get dressed when you go out in public.  The cinema is no different.

There are, of course, exceptions; namely midnight screenings and fan-showing events for films where cosplaying and the like are considered acceptable because you’re surrounded by fellow diehard fans and stuffier types such as myself are nowhere in sight, so we can’t judge you for (or, if I were to be at these events, marvel in awe at) your accurate-to-the-millimetre handmade Nick Fury costume.  Turning up to these events in clothes that you can/do sleep in, however, is still a no-no.  Seriously, put a little bit of effort in going to the cinema, why don’t you?

4] Feet on the floor, frakker!

Chairs are made to be sat on.  In cinema screens, they are arranged in a manner that allow as many people as possible the luxury of sitting on them whilst watching a movie.  Empty chairs once the presentation starts may be filled later on by viewers who need a better view, can no longer bear to be sat near this couple who just won’t shut the hell up or are just plain tardy.  What chairs are not are foot rests.  They have not been designed as such.  They have never been designed as such and cinema chairs never will be designed as such.  Nobody wants to see your big, lumbering feet blocking out a good portion of the screen because you were too lazy or too late to get an aisle seat.  Or, godsforbid, have your feet dangling inches away from their head.  So put your feet on the ground, where feet typically belong, and deal with the fact that you’re not at home and that, for two lousy hours, your mid-range sofa is going unappreciated.

Oh, and this should go without saying, keep your shoes on.  You’re not in a Japanese tea house so the rest of us don’t have to or want to put up with your foot odour.

5] A note about Food & Drink

No, I am not about to ban all snacks and beverages from the cinema; don’t be absurd, I am not a monster.  However, there are some people who are more likely to get annoyed by consumption based behaviour so, in order to minimise their chances of getting needlessly annoyed at you (for the record, that person would not be me; most of the time), here are some simple guidelines.

  • A] Don’t bring any rustling bags into the cinema. – You know the ones.  The ones where merely having a mouse cough in their general direction creates a sound akin to that of somebody running through a particularly leafy forest.  If you like sweets, maybe covertly borrow a pick and mix bag and store them in there.  At least then if you cause a ruckus when you’re trying to get the last Haribo Starmix, everybody will know you just have really bad aim.
  • B] Do not slurp. – Your drink is finished.  Accept it and move on.  You don’t need the ice as well.
  • C] No nachos.  Ever.  – You’re at the cinema, not a Baseball game or a Monster Truck meet.  Keep your smelly, loud, disgusting fratboy foodstuffs away from the rest of us, thank you kindly.
  • D] Refrain from eating, drinking, slurping or rustling during tense moments. – When a film is trying to ratchet up the tension by having its vulnerable hero or heroine wander about a dark room or corridor unsupervised and you just know that something is going to jump out and get them at any moment, it is anything but the perfect time for you to selfishly remind everybody that they are in a cinema and that nothing that is happening on screen is real by stuffing your face and causing a huge racket.  Everyone will hate you, so don’t.
  • E] Don’t be that arsehole who cuts a hole in the bottom of their popcorn tub so that when their lady friends reach over to grab some they actu… – I doubt this is something that happens in real life and only exists in films and TV, but if it does: stop it.  Stop being a douchebag, you douchebag.

6] Turn up no more than 90 seconds late to a film

It’s not like you haven’t been given ample leeway.  Unless your cinema is a piece of pure heaven and actually does start the movie at the time listed, you get anywhere from 15 to 30 and sometimes 40 minutes after the programme starts to make it to the cinema in time to see the start of the film itself.  Films are meant to be seen from the start to the end and turning up 10 minutes through the film is not the way you’re supposed to experience it, not to mention the fact that your bumbling through a pitch-black cinema in search of a seat is highly distracting for the rest of us.  If the opening logos have finished their business and you’re still not in the screen ready to watch?  Too bad, go and see something else or wait for the next showing.

(Incidentally, in a perfect world, cinemas would stop encouraging this behaviour altogether by stopping the selling of tickets to films that have started, but we don’t live in a perfect world, unfortunately.)

7] Shut. The. Hell. Up.

Nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, paid nearly £10 to listen to you offer up a Director’s Commentary on the film in front of them.  There are no exceptions.  So do not ruin the emotionally draining finale of Frozen by shouting out loud “KISS!!” to Anna and Elsa as if incest is something that we should be encouraging.  Do not spend the entire time that Her is on screen audibly insulting the entire premise in a way that you think is just between you and your family but, in actuality, is clearly audible to everyone else in the cinema.  Do not snap everybody else out of the ending of Starred Up by loudly inquiring “Is it done?” after the final smash cut to black.  Do not announce your belief that it was not worth sitting all the way through the end credits of Captain America: The Winter Soldier for another post credits sequence (to be fair though, although this does not make it better, this was brought about by judgemental cinema employees sarcastically quizzing the first of those who left at the very end).

Also not allowed: reactions that completely go against what the film is trying to do.  If you laugh out loud at the finale of Titanic in a cinema filled with people who may actually be enjoying it?  Guess what?  You’re an arsehole.  Do you giggle like a 5 year-old any time anybody gets naked in a film, regardless of how disturbing and distressing the context may be?  Guess what?  You’re immature and should not be allowed to have sex until you grow up.  Do you and your friends titter like idiots at the disturbingly long hanging sequence from 12 Years A Slave or, in fact, any of the brutal violence and abuse sequences of 12 Years A Slave?  Guess what?  You’re a monster.  And, also, all of you are ruining the film for other people.

Also not permissible: spoilers within a 100 metre radius of the cinema’s car park.  Just because you’ve seen the film, doesn’t mean that everybody else has.  In fact, they may even be turning up to see the screening after yours and I guarantee that the very last thing they will be wanting is for your inconsiderate being to gleefully and loudly discuss how Bruce Willis was really dead in The Sixth Sense the whole time as they enter and you leave.  You and your friends or family, if you went with them, may want to talk about how good or bad the film is as you leave and that’s fine; go right ahead.  But save talk of anything that could be deemed a spoiler until you’re in the car and/or safely away from other people.

You can laugh at funny things, you can cry and sob at sad things, you can scream in terror at scary things, and you can gasp in shock and surprise at shocking or surprising things.  What you can’t do is talk.  Ever.  If you must communicate with your friends at the cinema, do so with facial gestures.  If you talk during a film in the cinema, know that I hate you.  If I had power, I would pass a law ordering you to be shot.  There would be no second chances, no opportunities to apologise and no exceptions.  I feel strongly about this but only because people who talk in the cinema are The Literal Worst.

There.  That’s my list of very reasonable demands in order to make the cinema-going experience more pleasurable for everyone involved.  I’m pretty sure that it’s rather comprehensive, but let me know if I’ve missed anything in the comments, this list is open to addition and revision.  In the meantime, go forth and be a good cinema-goer!  You’ll be heavily improving the experience for the rest of us and maybe even yourself, too.

Callum Petch is a reasonable man, get off his case.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Raid 2 (Berandal)

Iko Uwais in The Raid 2The Raid 2 is a cut 20 minutes and tighter focus away from being near-perfect.

by Callum Petch

Well, holy crap.

Look, despite anything bad I have to say in this review, I loved The Raid 2.  I got out of the cinema last night extremely giddy at what I had witnessed.  Said feelings only grew the longer I stayed awake and they are still here the day after.  If anything, that film keeps rising in my estimations the more I think about it.  When it officially releases on April 18th, I will be going to see it again.  If it were in the cinema again before that date, I would drop everything and see it again.  It is, in a word, amazing.  Unfortunately, there are legitimate problems with The Raid 2 and I can’t switch off my critic hat to ignore them.  So, regardless of whatever negative words I attach to this gushing session, you should not let it get in the way of going to watch The Raid 2 the very second it drops.  Promise me that and I promise you that you won’t regret it.  It really is that good.

OK, now to get professional.  Real Talk: I was not a fan of The Raid.  Well, maybe that’s a poor way of phrasing it.  I thought it was alright.  The first half of the film was great, it was tense, exciting and a lot of fun.  Unfortunately, the film really ran out of steam by about the midway point.  It attempted to force in a plot that was immediately forgettable, slowed the pacing to a crawl and had a final fight scene that, whilst undeniably badass, went on for so long I could see the seasons change outside my window by the halfway point.  There was half of a great film there, and half of a dull slog weighing down the back end.

The Raid 2 does not have that pacing or interest problem.  Even with its much-publicised two and a half hour runtime, this is not a film that drags at any point.  OK, maybe the opening crams too much exposition into too long of a time frame before the real fun starts, but once it does start, the film knows how far apart each of those fight scenes should be.  It knows how to make the plot-oriented stretches of the film feel as propulsive as the rest of it so that, even though I was never 100% certain as to who everyone was and what was going on (more on that in a moment), I was still as enraptured by villains secretly scheming with one another as I was when a man’s face was being forcibly applied to a hibachi grill.  There are actual peaks and troughs, here, and the film wisely holds off pitching its action scenes to 11 until the final hour (save for an absolutely stunning prison riot at about the 25/30 minute mark) to keep that section of the film, the cathartic and climactic release, from feeling like an extended sequence of “been there, done that”.

That being said, The Raid 2 still does not need to be two and a half hours.  The scope is much wider, this time, more resembling a sprawling crime drama except that any and all problems are solved by extended bouts of extreme violence, but it’s a bit too wide for its own good.  Following straight on from the first film, Rama (Iko Uwais) is sent undercover in order to help root out corruption on the Indonesian police force by cosying up to Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo) who runs Jakarta’s biggest crime syndicate.  That goal, however, rarely comes up again and Rama himself spends most of the film being shoved to the side-lines as the slowly-becoming-more-disgruntled Uco finds himself tempted by another rising crime boss in the shape of Bejo (Alex Abbad) who is trying to raise his stature in the criminal underworld by stirring up trouble between Bangun’s group and a Japanese crime syndicate led by Goto.

Seem a little bit too muddled yet?  Well, throw in about another 10 or so characters, each with less of a personality than the last, all of them affiliated with one side in some way shape or form and some with full-on subplots of their of their own, and a whole bunch of betrayals and double-crosses and you have the plot of The Raid 2.  You can’t fault writer-director-editor Gareth Evans for trying to address the original’s lack of plot, but he’s honestly not there yet in terms of keeping everything coherent.  It’s a bit too wide-reaching, there are too many characters running about (as cool as every fight sequence involving them are, Bejo does not need three separate gimmick-based assassins doing his dirty work in-story) and the overall aim and direction becomes a bit muddled, especially for Rama.  The ending of the film does strongly tease a sequel (and Evans has stated he wants to make this series a trilogy), so maybe some of the bloat and needless character work in this film will pay off in two or three years’ time, and again it’s a testament to Evans’ growing skills as a filmmaker that I was always thoroughly engaged during the plot stretches, but I can’t help but wish it were 20 minutes shorter and tighter in its focus.

Because, and I mean this with total sincerity, if the story being told were clearer and the scope reigned in just a bit, The Raid 2 would be near-perfect.  In fact, let’s stop beating around the bush and just talk about the fight scenes, already.  They start with a group of about 50 prisoners all trying to bum-rush Rama who is sitting in a locked prison toilet stall.  That’s how they start and, by the end of the film, that one is positively small-scale.  However, although there are many scenes of one man fighting his way through a seemingly endless horde of metaphorical red-shirts, the film doesn’t just decide to start at, say, 9 and go higher from there.  There are just as many shorter fight scenes of one guy fighting his way through, say, four or five metaphorical red-shirts or a fight involving just two guys that’s over in seconds instead of minutes.  Again, it all comes back to the film’s airtight and propulsive pacing.  Evans and his fight choreographers (star Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian) know when to reign it in and when to go big, which makes the big moments that much bigger.

And of those big moments?  Let me put it this way, The Raid 2 will fill up all top three slots on your Best Action Scenes of 2014 list and they will stay there until the end of the year.  Seriously, they’re that good and it’s not just down to some stunning choreography, which manages to be showy yet relatively realistic with extremely fast exchanges of strikes and no shortage of painful-looking limb breakages.  Although he still employs shaky-cam at several points, Evans seems more confident in his fight work or direction in general, because most every fight is shot super clearly and shots last much longer than in Hollywood action films.  Not once did I lose track of who was hitting who, where they were in relation to the rest of the scene and what else was going on around them; there’s excellent scene geography going on here.

But that’s not to say that the camera isn’t getting in on the action.  In fact, the sheer dynamism of the camera is why I’m stunned at the fact that the scene geography is so well done.  During an extended prison riot, the camera rarely stays in one place for long, running all over the scene to keep an eye on what else is going on around the fringes.  Quick whip pans help keep up energy and camera shakes help sell some of the more painful collisions of heads with scenery.  Sometimes the camera is almost literally flung about the scene, too; a chase with an escaping gangster has the camera move with him so that it crashes through a window at the same time he does.  It’s kinetic, frenetic and masterfully done.  Also, it must be said, even outside of the fight scenes there are some gorgeously composed shots going on here.  Big credit should be given to the film’s cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, they knocked it out of the park, here.

Yet that is nothing compared to how this film sounds!  There is some exceptional sound work throughout this thing.  Every hit sounds like there’s real force in its delivery, every stab from a weapon sounds painful, every bone snapped is physically wince-worthy and every gunshot is a deafening roar.  The fight scenes are excellent as is, but the sound work creates fights that have real impact and that only adds to the effect.  As for the score, barring an absolutely killer end credits theme, its mostly content help drive the action.  It doesn’t particularly call attention to itself but it fits the events on screen brilliantly, often with nice thumping energy and good builds to natural crescendos.  It’s one of those scores that you can’t necessarily hum individual tunes for but, in the moment, you know that you’d rather have nothing else backing it.

Now a moment to address the violence.  Yes, The Raid 2 is exceedingly violent.  It is even more violent than the original and, yes, that is more than possible.  One of the film’s smaller-scale yet best fights involves a single mute deaf girl carving her through six guards on a subway train with only two claw hammers.  Baseball bats are brutally buried in people’s faces.  Throats are ripped or stabbed or gouged or many other rather horrible things I’d prefer not to think of.  Shotguns utterly demolish faces.  Hibachi grills burn off half off somebody’s face.  Blood flows like wine at a party where everybody is too smashed to hold their drinks properly.  It will be too much for many people and some will claim that it’s all too gratuitous and meaningless, due to their aforementioned lack of coherent plot issues.  And taken on its own, yeah, maybe the violence is too much.

But when combined with the choreography, the cinematography, the sound work and the pacing it serves a true purpose: to create fight scenes with real impact and thrills that are rarer in modern day action films than I’d like.  It’s visceral, it’s uncompromising, it’s 900 other clichéd words you’ve heard from pretty much every other reviewer on the planet by this point but it works.  It works.  I was wincing at the more painful moves, laughing at some of the pitch black humour that litters the film, silently begging them to use that thing that was lying about the scene and then cheering when they did, on the edge of my seat during some of the closer fights and gasping in amazement at certain violent flourishes or impressive moves.  So was everyone else in my screening.  The Raid 2 delivers thrills aplenty during every single one of its action sequences (without wishing to spoil, the action scenes are not just hand-to-hand fight after hand-to-hand fight).

It also, and this is how confident I am in my opinion here that I am willing to go on official record with this, has my favourite fight scene of all time.  In one absolutely heart-in-mouth beautiful sequence, everything in the film goes up to 12.  The choreography, the sound work, the score, the camerawork, the violence and the pacing all come together to create a piece of ridiculously exciting, jaw-dropping and all of the available words in a thesaurus that still don’t quite adequately get across just how f*cking awesome it is.  Wisely, the film saves it for the end and doesn’t even try to wrap up the plot with something close to its level and it absolutely justifies the ticket price and 2 hour build-up alone.  Holy crap.

So, as you may be able to tell, I loved The Raid 2.  It is not perfect, its plot is too convoluted, it has too many characters and strands that don’t go anywhere and it is 20 minutes too long by virtue of that too-wide scope, but I honestly don’t care.  I am still high off of the energy I got from seeing it nearly 24 hours ago as I type these words.  When it is on, almost nothing else comes close to the level that The Raid 2 is operating on and I order you to go and see it.  I don’t care if extreme violence turns you off of films, I don’t care that you don’t want to read subtitles and I don’t care that you’re not old enough or don’t have any money, right now.  I am ordering you to go and see The Raid 2 and to see it in cinemas.  So do so.

Callum Petch has an old head on young shoulders.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Rio 2

Rio2Rio 2 is Rio Again, with all the positives and caveats that such a statement entails.

by Callum Petch

24 hours before seeing Rio 2, I pushed play on Rio.  I figured that I should probably do my research before I went to go and see the new one and be a good film critic and all (one who, this weekend, has entered his fifth year of attempting to do this thing, woop woop).  Despite major trepidation on my part going on, it turned out to be pretty good.  It was often funny, had pretty great animation as long as no humans were heavily involved, some good songs, a great villain in the form of the Jemaine Clement-voiced Nigel and was, overall, pretty entertaining.  It also had a very formulaic and by-the-numbers plot, an unconvincing relationship between its two main characters, some dire voice acting from at least half of the cast and an air of disposability to proceedings.  Rio touched greatness enough for me to be disappointed and slightly annoyed that it never fully grasped it but, I must admit, it gave me a tonne of hope for Rio 2.

If I had seen Rio at the time it came out and written a review of it (and if my work from 2011 didn’t cause me to crawl into my skin and die every time I re-read it), I would likely have simply copy-pasted that review here, futzed around with some of the particulars and simply left this review at that.  Quite literally, bar two key new criticisms, this is the exact same way I felt once the credits rolled on the original Rio.  It’s not the same movie, but it has the exact same feel and the exact same things going for it and the exact same things working against it and it has been three years since the original you’d think they would have at least tried to fix those issues with the first one!

Here would be where I describe the plot to Rio 2 except that I’m still not entirely certain what the overall plot is.  Outside of Blu (Jesse Eisenberg, still surprisingly adept in the role) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway, still surprisingly underserved in the role) taking their children to the Amazon once their owners Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro, still really not very good in the role) and Linda (Leslie Mann, still all over the place in the role) discover a tribe of other Blue Spix’s Macaws, meaning that Blu’s family aren’t the only ones anymore, it’s a free-for-all.  Compared to Rio’s laser-sharp focus in plotting, although it was overstuffed in regards to characters it kept its plotlines down to two and both were related to each other, Rio 2 seems content to act as a feature-length version of one of those Simpsons episodes where the characters travel to far off places and stuff happens to them.

Naturally, this leads to a lack of focus, generic-ness in regards to the majority of the scenarios and certain plots being better than others.  Best of the lot involves the return of Nigel, now rendered flightless after the end of the first film and currently stuck in the Amazon as a street performer, whose passion for vengeance is reignited when he spots Blu and sets out to deliver it with the help of a dumb aardvark and a hopelessly infatuated poisonous frog named Gabbie (an excellent Kristin Chenoweth).  These play a lot like Ralph Wolf trying to catch himself a sheep, to begin with, but then Nigel keeps inadvertently wandering into other plots which switches up the formula and keeps it from getting stale.  He’s also, sadly, not in it enough which is damn shame as, especially, his scenes with Gabbie are comic gold, primarily because Clement and Chenoweth are that great in their roles.

The most main of the main plots involves Blu trying to fit in with the tribe, led by Jewel’s long lost father Eduardo (Andy Garcia).  This goes almost exactly as you’re expecting: Blu, a domesticated city-bird at heart, doesn’t acclimatise well to his new surroundings, Eduardo stops short of all but derisively shouting “CITY BOY!!” at him, his attempts to fit in screw things up for the tribe, Jewel shames his legitimate inability to fit in by all but going “it’s not this place’s fault, you’re just the selfish arsehole!” (which is a route I would very much like kids’ films, actually just all films in general, to stop going down for reasons that are too lengthy and off-topic to properly address here) until an outside threat causes Blu to step up and prove himself worthy of the tribe’s respect.  It couldn’t be more by-the-numbers if it tried but there are at least some good jokes here and a very fun football setpiece at the 2/3 mark, plus the final setpiece, which clumsily tries to link all of the other plots together, is very exciting.

As a subplot of that main plot, Blu also has to contend with feelings of inadequacy when Jewel is reunited with her childhood sweetheart Roberto (Bruno Mars; yes, really) and the strain on his relationship with Jewel caused by her homecoming and burgeoning desire to never leave again.  I will commend the film, by the way, for not making Roberto and Blu battle for Jewel’s affection.  Instead, Roberto completely respects the relationship that Blu and Jewel have and never once tries to make a pass at her.  It felt good to see the film sidestep such an obvious relationship roadblock, one designed purely for drama’s sake.  That goodwill is, of course, mostly evaporated by making Blu the unreasonable one in him and Jewel’s “should we or should we not stay in the Amazon” arguments despite having the more sympathetic viewpoint and mining that for drama’s sake, although it stops short of having the two break-up for five minutes.  Instead, Jewel shames him and then Blu seems ready to reluctantly make things work.  So… baby steps?  It’s too formulaic for me to get worked up over.

We’re still not done, though, as another subplot involves the returning will.i.am, Jamie Foxx and George Lopez as Black Comic Relief, Slightly Less Black Comic Relief and George Lopez, respectively.  They’ve followed the Blu family over to the Amazon in order to scout out talent for Rio’s upcoming Carnival but are really only here to make some very easy gags (or, in the case of Black Comic Relief, saying a bunch of random and often not funny words and sentences in a self-consciously wacky way in a vain attempt to make them funny) and to provide an excuse for the film having a couple more musical numbers.  On the subject of those, they’re fine if forgettable.  The best of them are Poisonous Love, which is at once hilarious and surprisingly poignant near the end (mostly because Chenoweth absolutely slays the Broadway-style number), and a parody of I Will Survive that retrofits certain lyrics to Nigel’s situation and throws in rap sections, dubstep breakdowns and pointless, lampshaded auto-tune in a very self-aware effort to be as stupid as possible.  The rest blend into one another, but at least there’s nothing on the “oh gods, make it stop” level of the various will.i.am numbers from the last film.

Finally, we have the adventures of Tulio and Linda as they attempt to pinpoint the exact location of the tribe of Blue Sphix’s Macaws and end up running afoul of, and I kid you not here, an illegal logging operation run by a thin, non-moustached Burt Reynolds lookalike who genuinely and frequently refers to the pair as “good-for-nothing tree-huggers”.  These guys are unrepentantly evil and the film plays every scene involving them as straight and dark as possible which is the worst possible thing it could have done.  Look, I get that Rio 2 wants to get its environmentalism message out there to the younger generation and good on it, it has every right to and should be doing, but it also leads to major tonal whiplash as we cut from Blu’s goof-ups at trying to win Eduardo’s approval to scenes of Linda being hunted through the forest by people who, and it’s all but explicitly stated, want to kill her.  And the film rarely comes back to this plotline, as if even it realises how misguided and out-of-place it is but ended up building its climactic final setpiece around it and, therefore, can’t just jettison it.  It’s from a much different film and should either have been severely rewritten or just plain dropped.

Oh, and if you’re looking forward to spending some quality time with Blu and Jewel’s kids, prepare to be disappointed.  They basically wander in and out of the film whenever they want.  Although, considering the overly stuffed nature of the film’s 101 minutes, that’s probably a wise decision.

I’ve spent so long running down the quality of each of Rio 2’s various plotlines because it helps elongate a review that would otherwise have been me making the exact same criticisms and praises of the first film.  The animation quality, for example, has both progressed greatly in the 3 years since Rio and, at the same time, seems to be stuck in 2011.  The stuff that looked great in the first film, mainly any of the animals and especially nice wide crowd shots of anything at all, looks excellent here; there definitely seems to be more detail when it comes to the way that individual feathers look and move than before, for example.  The stuff that didn’t look so good in the first film, namely the humans, still doesn’t look so good, only that “not good”-ness is now further enhanced by the great stuff looking fantastic.  Specifically, human movement still sits at an uncomfortable halfway house between realistic and cartoony, which creates a very uncanny and distractingly fake result in anything except wide and distant crowd shots.  Also, there’s still a suspicious-looking amount of Chroma Keying going on here (where the backgrounds and the characters are animated separately and then layered onto one another later in production), much like in the first film, and it’s very noticeable if you’re aware of the process.

Meanwhile, the voice cast pick up from where they left off in the first film.  Jesse Eisenberg is still surprisingly great as Blu, although that might be because the role plays to his pre-Social Network strengths.  Anne Hathaway still makes as much of an impression as her character does, which is little.  Jemaine Clement again gives the best performance of the entire cast seeing as he puts in this little thing called “effort” that Andy Garcia couldn’t be bothered with; the only reason Garcia isn’t the film’s worst voice actor is because william and Tracy Morgan return from the first film.  Kristin Chenoweth nails every single line and is clearly having a tonne of fun but the big surprise is, and I swear that I am being completely serious with you, Bruno Mars.  As Roberto, he spends most of the film delivering his lines in a breathy, rather emotionless kind of manner, like he thinks he’s portraying the epitome of suave and “HAVE MY BABIES” when he really, really isn’t.  Initially, I thought it was a bad performance.  And then he gets a freak-out scene, and he nails it so spectacularly that it made me realise that his earlier work wasn’t unintentionally bad, it was so purposefully bad that I didn’t realise the intention until he showed off how good he is at material with energy!  Give him a round of applause, he deserves it!

Rio 2, then, is a sequel to Rio that manages to be exactly as good as the original.  It has the same strengths (Nigel, some good songs, great animal animation and a good successful/unsuccessful gag ratio) and weaknesses (clichéd nature, poor human animation, half of a voice cast that’s either untalented or not bothered, and little desire to innovate or stick out in anybody’s memory more than a few hours after having seen it) as Rio but with the added caveat of having had three years to fix those problems.  I feel that Blue Sky could make a great Rio movie if they wanted to, but they instead seem content to settle for creating an above-average way to pass the time.  And whilst I can’t deny that I had some good fun with Rio 2, I hope it’s an attitude the company moves away from fast.  For if this same attitude gets applied to their upcoming Peanuts movie, then I and every other animation lover on the planet will be queuing up to burn their offices down.

Callum Petch is gonna gain again what he wants to steal.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Muppets Most Wanted

Kermit in Muppets Most Wanted
Kermit in Muppets Most Wanted

It’s a definite step down from their big comeback, but Muppets Most Wanted is still a lot of super happy fun.

by Callum Petch

Muppets Most Wanted opens with a musical number where Kermit and Fozzie sheepishly admit that “everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good”.  It could be taken as a pre-emptive apology on the behalf of everyone involved; an admission that everyone knows that they will not recapture the lightning that 2011’s The Muppets so effortlessly bottled and a warning to tone down your expectations.  Admittedly, I found this self-deprecatory plea rather humorous seeing as it was paired with a song that I thought was better than any of the ones The Muppets cooked up (yeah I said it, I have a soft spot for knees-up sing-a-long show tunes, and I will gladly fight you over this), but they’re not wrong to give you the heads up as, no, Most Wanted is nowhere near as good as The Muppets.

Then again, it’s not exactly trying to be.  See, 2011’s The Muppets was, for all intents and purposes, a fan film.  A fan film written, directed, starring and scored by fans as a love letter to the Muppets themselves.  It was a labour of love and it wore that and its heart on its sleeves, it was sentimental and nostalgic and was counting on you feeling the same way so that, when Rainbow Connection finally appeared, you too would be bawling your eyes out.  Most Wanted does not have such ambitions.  Most Wanted doesn’t want to make you get all nostalgically teary-eyed, it just wants you to laugh.  It wants you to laugh and laugh and laugh so loudly that the sheer volume of your laughter causes distressed family members to look at you suspiciously.  Because of this, it was never going to be as good as The Muppets, in much the same way that The Great Muppet Caper was never going to be as good as The Muppet Movie.  And that’s fine, because laugh I did.  A hell of a lot.  To the point where I left the cinema with a jolly little skip instead of just going “Yeah, that was not quite as good as the last one.”  I liked it on its own merits, for what it was because it is damn good at what it does.

The set-up for the jokes, then.  Shortly after the conclusion of The Muppets, the Muppets are tapped by a big-shot tour manager named Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais at his smarmy best) to go on a world tour of their show so that they can capitalise on their return to fame whilst they still have it.  What the Muppets don’t know, though, is that Dominic is in league with an escaped master criminal named Constantine who is a dead ringer for Kermit, save for the mole on the former’s face, and that the pair are planning on using the tour as a cover to steal various elements that would help them steal the crown jewels.  With Kermit being shanghaied off to a Russian Gulag under the strict watch of secret Kermit super-fan Nadia (Tina Fey), Constantine takes his place as the leader of the Muppets and his laissez-faire attitude to his cover allows the rest of the gang a degree of creative control that it be better they didn’t have.  And not helping matters are the Interpol (Ty Burrell) and CIA (Sam the Eagle) agents on their tail after the heists start causing too much noise.

It’s a farce, basically.  A good old-fashioned farce where the stakes are relatively low, the mood is nice and light and breezy and features a plot where everything could have been solved in five seconds if any of the characters involved had their brains switched on that day.  Like I previously mentioned, there’s little emotional depth going on here, the sole exception being Miss Piggy’s continued attempts to finally get Kermit to put a ring on her finger, which makes things much more easily disposable.  Do not expect to be moved and, honestly, don’t fully expect to still be thinking about it about a week or so removed from seeing it.  Again, this is not the film’s intention.

And that would be a legitimate problem if it weren’t for the fact that Muppets Most Wanted is absolutely hilarious.  It can’t quite sustain its manic pacing for its near-two-hour runtime (I honestly feel like it could have trimmed a good 10 minutes and ended up with a wall-to-wall hysterical 95 minutes), but it comes damn near close.  Nearly everything that Constantine says in his awful-Russian Kermit impersonation (that at times seems to inadvertently slip into Transylvanian but only adds to the effect) is comic gold, especially his butchering of classic Kermit phrases.  Nadia’s simultaneously hard-assed and affable prison warden (she doesn’t even really try to stop Kermit’s escape attempts because she knows every single prison escape trick in the book, because she’s seen every prison break film ever made, yes, even the ones in space) is a near-perfect usage of Tina Fey.  The constantly bickering nature of agents Jean-Pierre and Sam the Eagle is priceless and equally as priceless are the running jabs at France’s… lackadaisical attitude to work breaks by having Jean-Pierre literally take a break every single time that something big happens in the case.  And as for the film’s best gag?  I won’t spoil it but, as a lifelong Muppet diehard, it was exactly the kind of reverential self-deprecatory gag that is capable of making me burst out into extreme laughter.

More importantly, though, it’s consistent.  This is not the kind of film that blows all of its best gags in the opening 30-odd minutes or revealed all of them in the trailers.  The giant laughs are infrequent but well-spaced out and linked with consistently chucklesome or chortle-worthy material (and I apologise for using the phrase “chortle-worthy” but it’s the best I could come up with for “laughing loudly material that’s not as laughing loudly-worthy as the film’s best jokes”) so I spent the majority of the film with a giant smile on my face.  It also helps that the human cast trio are almost equally happy to be here.  Nobody’s at Jason Segel-levels of “Oh, man, I COULD NOT BE MORE STOKED TO BE HERE!” because that is almost impossible, but everybody is game for whatever the script throws at them.  Ricky Gervais seems positively thrilled at getting asked to have his boss tap dance on his head during a song entirely designed to disparage his character’s role in the story; it’s his best performance in years.  And while most may think that Ty Burrell is the standout human actor, and they can be forgiven for thinking that (he is excellent as a cartoonish Swiss stereotype), those people will immediately realise just how wrong they are when Tina Fey pulls out a newspaper clipping of Kermit The Frog and starts snogging the lights out of it.  She’s pretty funny in this.

A brief note on the celebrity cameos.  Yes, there are a lot of them.  However, this is not a problem and everybody who is trying to insist otherwise is wrong for these reasons.  1] Celebrity cameos have always been inherent to the world and premise of The Muppets.  They’ve been there since nearly Day 1 and anybody who has a problem with them now is either not familiar with The Muppets or their nostalgia goggles happened to forget everything about the cameos.  2] They’re not just “Look at this A-lister we got for these five seconds!”  There will be just as many that go over your head as there will be that you recognise.  For every Lady Gaga, there’s a Tom Hollander, for every Christoph Waltz, there’s a Hornswoggle from the WWE.  3] There are no more cameos here than there were in The Muppets.  4] They never take the focus away from the Muppets themselves.  When Tom Hiddleston pops in for five seconds, that’s all he does.  He’s not stealing vital plot and screen time from the Muppets themselves.  In fact, this is probably one of the more Muppet-focussed Muppet movies, the attention is on them at nearly all times and I don’t think that there’s a scene in here that doesn’t feature a Muppet in some way, shape or form; news that will likely please Muppet purists.

And as for Walter, who basically led the last Muppet movie despite it supposedly being about the other Muppets themselves?  Well, and most likely for the better, he slides comfortably into the supporting Muppet cast as the closest thing the film gets to a straight man.  He fits the role well and he’s a nice part of the overall ensemble.  Speaking of that ensemble, it’s also mostly well handled.  Gonzo fans will likely be disappointed that, again, he’s pushed to the side-lines and only really gets a couple of really funny moments, but the Muppets are a large cast of characters and I think it’s to the film’s credit (or, at least, I’m pretty sure it is, it may also just be my fan nostalgia talking) that most of the cast get a defining line or action.  Most of the cast get the chance to do or say something extremely funny which is probably the best we can all hope for as, let’s face it, everybody has different Muppet preferences and no two people are going to be 100% satisfied with how the balance turns out in a Muppet film.

If there is one thing I can properly knock the film for, besides its slightly-too-long running time, though, it’s the occasional usage of CGI.  Now, I know that the merest mention of CGI will likely immediately send most Muppet diehards running for the Internet message boards to complain, but there is good news about this.  The most prominent usages of CGI come in Constantine’s prison break sequence and his first musical number, both of which are dealt with in the opening 30 minutes.  Afterwards, if there are a tonne of CGI-enhanced shots, I didn’t notice them.  The bad news, however, is that the CGI in those two sequences (and especially Constantine’s prison break) is awful.  It sticks out dreadfully, moves shoddily and cheaply and looks like it was done in about 15 minutes before a lunch break.  I wonder if that was the intention, quite frankly, because everything else in the film looks spectacular (these are master puppeteers at the helm, after all) and it only leaves such a sour taste because it’s one of the very first things you see after the opening musical number and you know what they say about first impressions.

Still, two instances of dreadful CGI in the opening 30 minutes are not enough to distract from what Muppets Most Wanted is good at and that is making the viewer laugh something fierce.  It lacks the openly sentimental heartfelt-ness of The Muppets but it’s still top-quality entertainment.  And, in all honesty, if you can easily apply the phrase “it’s The Great Muppet Caper to the original’s The Muppet Movie” in regards to a film sequel, then it’s not exactly a comment that’s supposed to be taken as a knock against the film in question.  More film sequels should strive to that kind of level as a minimum baseline.  Muppets Most Wanted is huge fun, has great songs and I left with a big old smile on my face, what more of a recommendation do you need to go and see it?

Callum Petch had no choice but to get down, down, down, down.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Labor Day

Labour Day
Labor Day

Labor Day is a saccharinely sweet, obnoxiously earnest piece of unromantic romantic tripe from a filmmaker who both can do better and is good enough to keep this from being truly awful.

by Callum Petch

Jason Reitman had an unblemished track record.  He burst onto the feature film scene with 2005’s darkly hilarious Thank You For Smoking, followed it up with the moving and saddening (and also, for pretty much everyone except me, funny) Juno, succeeded that with the damn near masterpiece Up In The Air and then re-teamed with Diablo Cody for the subversive and real Young Adult.  His films near-expertly juggled comedy and drama, presented lovable or relatable or, at the very least, entertaining and interesting characters and, and this is something that a lot of filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to do these days so it’s worth pointing out, he knew how to craft excellent endings.  That unblemished track record was no joke, you could pretty much guarantee quality if you turned up to a Jason Reitman film.

The usage of the past tense in that previous paragraph is not an oversight on my part.  See, Jason Reitman had that unblemished track record.  Unfortunately, that unblemished track record had to grow its first zit some time, show me a filmmaker who has never made a below-par film and I’ll show you a way inside Fort Knox, and that time has finally arrived for Mr. Reitman.  For Labor Day, based on a bestselling and critically acclaimed 2003 romance novel of the same name (in what must have been a really slow year for decent novels, if the evidence displayed here is anything to go by), is garbage.  And yet, maybe it’s a testament to the skill of Reitman as a filmmaker that my predominate thought when leaving the cinema was not “that was dreadful and offensive sh*te” but instead “well, that could have been a lot worse”.

So our story is set in 1987 and we follow mother and son Adele (Kate Winslet who, if Divergent does end up as bad as it looks, is not having a great start to 2014) and Henry (Gattlin Griffith and, yes, that is his actual name, I checked).  Adele has been suffering from depression, seemingly because her husband (Clark Gregg) left her but actually because of really stupid and misguided reasons, and this renders her practically incapable of leaving the house.  Henry tries as best he can to make her happier, but it’s not working and he’s at a loss as to how to make things better.

Enter Frank (Josh Brolin, who I think has officially used up all of the goodwill he earned in 2007 & 2008 by this point), an escaped convict who was thrown in jail for murder that he insists is way more complicated than it sounds except that, no, it really is not.  He forces Adele and Henry to shelter him at their place from the cops whilst his wounds heal over Labor Day weekend.  Except that, whilst he’s recuperating, it turns out that good old Frank is actually a perfectly swell guy who fixes things up, talks politely, turns into the father figure that Henry never got, and Adele also ends up falling for him because, oh, have you seen his arms!  And the way he broods!  And he is just such an excellent baker!  I want him inside of me, right now!

I apologise for not falling head over heels for the charms of Frank, the convicted and unrepentant murderer, but this is f*cking awful.  No film relationship, no convincing and heartfelt film relationship, can or should ever begin with an escaped ex-con threatening to murder the female protagonist’s son.  If you’re doing it as a complex drama, that asks you to sit and psychologically analyse the two people involved and how they would reach such a situation, a character study that never explicitly asks you to empathise with or root for those involved, go right ahead.  That actually sounds really interesting; get on it, Hollywood!  If you’re going to ask me to sit down and root for these two lovebirds for the course of two hours, to share in their intimacy and heartbreak and to be begging for them to somehow make it work for these crazy cats even whilst this cruel and heartless universe strives to keep them apart, I am going to snort derisively and consider you a little screwed up.

What part of this is romantic?  Explain to me how any part of this scenario is supposed to get my heartstrings all tangled and tugged at.  I am dying to know, here.  Please, regale me with a thousand word essay on how this is comparable to Romeo And Juliet.  They’re both doomed romances, because SOCIETY JUST DOESN’T UNDERSTAND THEIR LOVE, but one begins with a chance meeting at a masquerade ball and involves two people falling for each other in a love at first sight type deal, whilst the other comes into being through the combined efforts of Josh Brolin’s smoulder and Stockholm Syndrome.  It’s romance written by and for people who either have had no actual experience with romance and love or have unrealistically high and stupid expectations for romance and love.  None of this is the fault of Winslet or Brolin and probably not so much Reitman too, this sounds like an abysmal launch point of material and they’re all trying really hard to make it work, but they’re putting in doomed efforts.  The material isn’t romantic and, quite honestly, it’s kinda repulsive.

Not once did I buy into the affection that the pair shared for one another.  Frank never seems to have a reason for why he’s so taken to Adele and Adele’s entire reasoning as to why she’s fallen for Frank can basically be boiled down to “she’s damaged goods” thanks to a horrifically misguided and melodramatic late-game reveal as to why she’s so depressed.  I’m not saying that the plot point itself is the thing that should be off-limits, I am saying that it needs to be handled way better than it was here and, preferably, not used as provocative fuel for a romance weepy.  And as for Frank, the convicted and unrepentant murderer?  The film teases what he did by randomly strewing short, near-wordless flashbacks to his past throughout the film even though anybody who is aware that this is a romance film will have gathered what it is in about five seconds.  Then the reveal comes and the film practically bends over backwards to make Frank seem totally justified, all but openly inviting viewers to join in in shouting “YEAH, TAKE THAT, B*TCH!  YOU GOT WHAT WAS COMING TO YOU!”  Funnily enough, I did not take this bait.

And yet, I can’t muster up the energy or the passion to maul Labor Day to pieces.  Maker knows I have tried, repugnant stuff is being peddled here under the pretence of “Aw!  Look at the couple in all the love!  All the love!  So much love!”  But I can’t and that’s because the film is too competently made and too earnest for me to get angry at.  It’s not like 300: Rise of an Empire where it’s sneaking by a lot of problematic subtext without even realising it because it’s competently made, and it’s not like A New York Winter’s Tale where it totally fails as a film on every basic level.  No, this is a film that knows exactly what it’s doing and is completely sincere in what it is peddling in that decently-constructed product.  And it’s that sincerity that makes it hard for me to get angry at this film.

Even when Henry stupidly engages the shifty-looking stranger with the bleeding wound in the store instead of running away (seriously, it’s not like Frank has him cornered, Henry all but walks up to and talks to the guy); even when Frank ties up Adele and feeds her tinned tomatoes, both in a manner that, yes, is supposed to represent sexual feelings being exchanged; even when Frank leads the pair through the steps of how to bake a nice pear pie in a sequence that would be more fitting a Saturday morning cooking show; even when the film trots out a mentally disabled and physically crippled child whose mother beats him when he gets on her nerves; even when the film juxtaposes Frank and Adele’s romance with Henry’s own sexual awakening and his growing closeness to The Most Annoying And Precocious Fictional Girl of 2014 So Far; and even when the film’s romance fully kicks in and asks us to root for their planned run for the border, I couldn’t get mad.  I couldn’t elicit any strong emotions either way.

It’s all so… nice and pleasant.  The film equivalent of wallpaper.  I would have said the film equivalent of a nice warm hug except that a] I reserve that phrase for usage in reference to Studio Ghibli productions only and b] that would insinuate that I was touched by this film at some point.  I wasn’t.  I was mostly bored but I could at least appreciate the well-done technical side of the proceedings.  The end sequence before the extended denouement is genuinely tense for a while (well, until stupid stuff resolve or complicate things), Rolfe Kent scores most of the film like a suspense drama instead of a romance flick which, if nothing else, adds a different spin to this kind of film than I’m used to, it’s very lovingly shot, Reitman keeps the pace from feeling languid, even if it never fully managed to excite or engage me and all of the cast are alright if not particularly great (the exception being Gattlin Griffith, who is just plain atrocious and could give Twilight-era Kristen Stewart a run for her money in the Dull Surprise stakes).  If the romance at its centre was not predicated on f*cking Stockholm Syndrome, and instead on something, you know, romantic, I would give this a mild pass as a decent timewaster, even if it is rather dull.

But I keep coming back to that premise and I just can’t get over it.  It’s not romantic and the film can’t compensate for the lack of romance in that premise by injecting some believability into proceedings, instead resorting to tired and manipulative melodrama.  Here are three people who fall in love because the woman likes the way he smoulders, the man likes the way she loves him for his smoulder and the son loves him for being a man and stuff… despite the fact that the man coerced them into hiding his murdering arse from the police and repeatedly threatens to kill them if he is exposed.  I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out exactly why 300: Rise of an Empire’s misogyny and racism irked me into a ball of white hot rage despite it being well-made disposable nonsense and yet this, with its toxic romanticising of murderers and escaped convicts and damaged women who need a good smouldering man to repair them, can barely get me to shrug my shoulders in disgust, but I’ve still yet to figure it out.

The best reason I’ve got right now is simply the fact that Labor Day is so well made that I can’t really feel the need to get exasperated about it or anything.  It’s so well made, that if the romance at its centre were predicated on almost literally anything else, and even if the execution of that new romance was still as unconvincing and mediocrely done as it is right now, I’d probably be giving it a mild recommendation.  But it’s not, and that’s what sinks the film.  It’s not enough to get mad and angry and hollering and hooting in rage, but it’s not decent enough to be worth your time despite the premise.  Jason Reitman has finally got a black mark on his directorial record.  Let’s hope it’s his last for a long while.

Callum Petch has got the game spiced like ham.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Need for Speed

Need For SpeefIt’s a complete mess and totally insane, but Need For Speed is the best videogame-to-movie adaptation yet made and it’s a fair bit of fun, too.

by Callum Petch

Let’s get this out of the way immediately: yes, Need For Speed is the best non-animated videogame-to-movie adaptation that has been made and released at this moment in time.  Admittedly, when your competition for that prestigious crown includes Street Fighter: The Movie, DOA: Dead or Alive, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Bloodrayne, Postal, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Super Mario Bros., Bloodrayne 2: Deliverance, Hitman, two movies based on The House of the Dead, The King of Fighters, both Tomb Raider flicks, both Silent Hill films (although the first one had bags of unrealised potential), Tekken and Bloodrayne: The Third Reich; that’s not exactly saying much.  Nevertheless, it is true.  Need For Speed is the best non-animated videogame-to-movie adaptation given a Western release yet (take your time Ace Attorney, we’re in no rush, really).

Here’s something else about Need For Speed: it’s a complete and total mess.  Throughout the course of its 2 hours and 10 minutes (yes, you did read that correctly, Need For Speed has a run time of 2 hours and 10 minutes), the film wildly careens from tone to tone, through different corresponding levels of self-awareness, through its many plot points, with its cycling of characters, going through every level of “Aaron Paul is/is not interested in this movie”, from explaining away everything to just throwing its arms up in the air and going “I dunno!  This is just a thing that happens, don’t question it!”  I haven’t met a film this schizophrenic about its own nature and what exactly it wants to be in a long while.  And yet, I’m honestly not too hung up on that fact because it’s also kinda a lot of fun.  Both intentionally and unintentionally.

But we shall get to that.  The formalities, first.  Aaron Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, a down-on-his-luck mechanic who street races on the side to pay the bills.  Falling behind on the payments for his recently deceased father’s garage, he and his crew (consisting of Ramón Rodriguez, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek and Harrison Gilbertson) agree to fix up a Ford Mustang for an old acquaintance of Tobey’s, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper).  They don’t get along.  A lot of stuff then happens between that and what sets up the main plot: one of Tobey’s crew gets killed in a street racing accident (and you’ll figure out exactly who within the first 65 seconds, he may as well wear a glowing neon shirt that reads “HELLO, I AM GOING TO BE THE SACRIFICIAL LAMB FOR THIS FILM”), Tobey is framed for it, spends the next two years in jail and, once released, begins his quest for vengeance by…

I don’t really know, in all honesty.  His plan seems to be to hitch it across the country in time to enter a supposedly super-secret and possibly illegal race called the Something Stupid & Pretentious Or Other (they keep mentioning it but it kept slipping my mind, I know that it completely seriously involves d’-something) and beat Dino in it but the film never outright says.  Maybe we’re just supposed to think up what Tobey’s going to do to Dino ourselves or maybe the film just couldn’t decide for itself.  I’m leaning towards the last one thanks to the ending.  In fact, here’s something you must know about Need For Speed: the ending is unfulfilling and kinda garbage.  There are more loose threads here than a linen shop run by the world’s worst sewer and it aims to be happy and uplifting without actually providing any reason to be happy or uplifted.  If the ending makes or breaks a movie for you, then Need For Speed is likely to become your new least favourite film of 2014.  Only 300: Rise of an Empire wraps up worse in regards to films released in the last six months.

Honestly, though, a messy and unsatisfying ending is rather fitting considering the two hours that precede it.  See, Need For Speed is dumb.  It is super dumb.  It has a character on Tobey’s team who seems to have access to helicopters at will.  It’s a movie in which Michael Keaton plays the one man who seems to have power over all of the illegal street-racing in the country, who live streams about illegal street-racing on a seeming 24/7 basis whilst taking calls from viewers and listeners and whose identity is a total mystery… despite the fact that he can set up prestigious races and his face is constantly on display so you’d think at least somebody would have run a facial or voice recognition software on him and shut his ass down by now.  It’s a movie that sort of romanticises the concept of illegal street-racing (which would be controversial had movies not glamorised a lot worse and had one other major action series not already built its foundation on rooting for the crazed street-racers).  It is dumber than a lobotomised Big Brother contestant.  This is constant.

What’s not so constant is the movie’s attitude towards that dumbness.  Its self-awareness level fluctuates like crazy; one moment it’s completely in on the joke, the next it’s trying to abuse super slow motion for emotionally devastating effect (key word: attempts), the next it’s somewhere in the middle.  At the film’s midpoint, Dino effectively, no wait, he actually does put out a hit on Tobey and it’s played completely straight with no police interference whatsoever (seriously, the way that illegal street racing runs in this movie’s universe is quite literally the dumbest thing I have had the good fortune to experience in… man, I can’t even remember).  Near the end, a character currently held in military prison successfully convinces the guard watching him to get him an iPad so he can watch the final race and plays that for silly comedy.  One of Tobey’s crew, after the two year time skip, is reintroduced in a scene where he takes off all of his clothes in the middle of his work environment as he quits.  It should tell you a lot about this film that that was the scene that I the most baffled about.

Let me put this another way.  Do you remember the first trailer for this film?  The one where Aaron Paul monologues about vengeance over operatic wailing and you sit and wonder whether everyone involved is actually aware of just how ridiculous the thing that’s currently playing out before your eyeballs is?  Yeah?  OK, take that feeling and apply it to 2 hours and 10 minutes because that’s Need For Speed.  It feels like seven different movies being very awkwardly smushed together into one product and, quite honestly, it defies logic, common sense or any sort of coherent opinion.  I guarantee that you will leave the cinema in bafflement at the film you will have paid money to witness.  My brain is turning to glue trying to make sense of this film.  It really is.

Oh, and the score!  What in blue blazes was going on with the score of this film?  Did the guy writing it think he was writing it for some kind of inspirational Oscar bait?  Maybe an inspirational biopic about some important person’s life?  Because that’s the score we’ve got for this film and it’s the most mismatched score for a film I’ve seen since smooth heist jazz music backed Haywire.  Turns out setting the first trailer to opera was the marketers secretly trying to prepare us for the abject weirdness of the score to this movie.  There’s even the single strangest inclusion and interpretation of All Along the Watchtower I have seen since Battlestar Galactica!  Was anybody actually communicating with one another during the creation of this movie?!

So, it’s insane and the ending is utter crap.  Why am I advising you to go and see this again?  Besides so that, when you inevitably bring it up for your next bad movie night, you can smugly go “I saw this one in cinemas” towards all your buddies (I guarantee that this will become legendary on that kind of circuit in the coming years).  Simple: I had a lot of fun with this one.  I’ve seen a lot of films recently, good and bad, and most of them have either been really serious or really boring (and sometimes both).  There’s nothing wrong with serious movies, but sometimes I want to sit and watch something fun.  I want to laugh, I want to be excited, I want to be having a good time.  300: Rise of an Empire didn’t provide that, Non-Stop didn’t really provide that (because that wasn’t its intention for a lot of it), A New York Winter’s Tale should have been the kind of bad movie to provide that and it clearly wasn’t.  Need For Speed, though, provides fun.  It provides a lot of fun and whether that fun is intentional or unintentional changes by the minute but, in all honesty, is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

It helps that it has style oozing throughout.  Director Scott Waugh (whose previous claim to fame was the excretable and similarly muddled Act of Valor, so at least this is a step up for him) often shoots chases or races with cameras that are supposed to be POV shots of the drivers, with CGd Heads Up Displays and checks around the cockpit, like it’s a cockpit view mode in a videogame.  He likes to attach his camera to various aspects of the expensive cars as they drive or crash.  He especially enjoys seeing just how close his vehicles can get to the moving camera at very high speeds before they have to overtake.  It adds a flair to proceedings, makes the chase scenes feel alive and fresh even though nothing particularly new is happening in them.

On that note: none of the stunts in this film are performed with CGI.  Everything is achieved with practical effects.  Every crash, nudge, last-second near miss or spin is done with practical effects and really good stunt drivers.  So, no, do not expect to see any new or outrageous feats of automobile havoc out of Need For Speed.  Do, however, expect to be reminded of just how amazing and amazingly tense a good practical car chase sequence looks and is.  There’s an early section involving a race through traffic with three Koenigseggs that was nail-biting because I was sat there the entire time thinking “Wait, no, this can’t actually be real.  They can’t afford to even risk scratching the paintwork on one of those-OH GOD, NOW TOBEY’S IN ONCOMING TRAFFIC!!”  It sounds slightly sociopathic and sadist but it’s true: people become tenser and more involved in risky activities when there’s a chance that it can go horribly wrong for those involved, and that works gangbusters here.

Every collision, hell, every scrape, be it from one of the main characters or just some unlucky civilians, carries real impact from collisions being mundane, infrequent and done with practical effects (ie: actually crashing or rolling them).  And this is not even mentioning the final race which I would not be surprised to discover was just an excuse to smash some of the world’s most expensive and gorgeous cars up real good.  I could practically see the money burning away in front of my eyes.  Frankly, thanks to modern action films’ total embracing of CGI to enhance any and all action scenes, I had forgotten just how great a good-old-fashioned practical setpiece can be and I’d love for this film to be the start of a return to that end of the scale, rather than it be a one-off.

There is one other reason why Need For Speed gets a pass from me, despite it being utterly confoundingly stupid, and that reason is Imogen Poots as Julia, the woman who tags along with Tobey on his cross-country drive for… reasons (I’d like my brain to still retain some of its functions, so I’m just going to stop thinking about the plot side, now).  See, in a rare turn-up for the books of almost every action movie ever, Julia Maddon is a great female character.  Yes, she’s a badass driver, but that’s secondary to everything else about her and is revealed long after you get to know her.  And, yes, she’s introduced by having the boys make fun of the fact that she’s a woman and so obviously is ill-suited to their world of cars and fast, reckless driving, but the film quickly shuts down that line of thought as an unacceptable one too (whether or not the film briefly brings that thought back up sympathetically for a “terrify the passenger to death” sequence is down to personal interpretation, quite frankly).

Instead, she’s a character.  Not one with much of a backstory, granted, but she has personality.  A deep and consistent personality, one that doesn’t just revolve around Tobey every second of the film.  She’s manic, charming, snarky, strong-willed, capable behind the wheel, quick-witted (if not so great at following through with her plans) but also petrified of heights, not as accustomed to extremely reckless driving as Tobey and prone to doing silly things when panicked.  She feels rounded and grounded, an actual, three-dimensional character in a film that didn’t need one.  Credit should also be handed to Imogen Poots who gives it everything she’s got, seemingly also completely amazed at being given a well-written female character in an action film, in this action film of all sodding places, to play and determined to make the most of it.

In fact, I’m going to go ahead and call it, right now.  Action films made post-2000: this is now your new minimum gold standard when it comes to female characters.  She may not be Ripley, but Julia Maddon still kicks the arse of pretty much every female character you’ve come up with for the past decade and a half.  Need For Speed did this.  A movie based on NEED FOR GODDAMN SPEED DID THIS!  Are you seriously trying to tell me that a movie based on the Need For Speed franchise can outdo your female action characters?  Are you going to let that stand?

It also helps, to be fair, that Imogen Poots seems to be the only person capable of getting Aaron Paul to be consistently alright, striking up a nice easy-going chemistry with him.  Whether it’s due to nerves at this being his first big leading movie role or just not giving a single crap, Aaron Paul is not very good in this movie.  He over or under-plays damn near every single line, seems damn near checked out during several solo sequences of him driving a car and pulls the stupidest faces during the slo-mo serious dramatic scenes (although, to be fair, those are so overwrought that his hamming them up actually improves proceedings).  It’s a shame, really, and I’m hoping he finds a vehicle that he’s comfortable with or interested in or that stretches his skills soon because I’d love to see him have a leading man career.  Similarly, if you’re hoping for another wonderfully hammy turn from Mr. Dominic Cooper, then prepare to be disappointed as he’s barely in it and, possibly as payback for that crime, he doesn’t really seem to be trying; underplaying every line and acting very subdued.  Shame, really.

Need For Speed, then, is a giant and total mess that has no clue of what it wants to be, checked-out performances from its two leads, a stupendously baffling and incoherent plot despite its simplistic and barely-there nature and a ferociously unsatisfying ending.  It’s also huge amounts of fun, a great showcase of how even the simplest car chase can be livened up with a bit of style and a liberal usage of practical effects and has the new gold standard for post-2000s female characters in action movies.  In other words, what we have here, ladies and gents, is the definition of a mixed bag.  We also have a film that you’re actually likely to remember 48 hours after having seen it.  I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll still be thinking about Need For Speed long after this review goes up, even if it’s just to futilely try and make sense of the damn thing.

It’s got an identity.  That identity is essentially a Frankenstein’s Monster of other, often better movies, but it’s got an identity.  It’s also never boring and often a lot of fun which is way more than I can say for so many action films pumped out by Hollywood nowadays.  I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy Need For Speed, hell I don’t even know if I actually enjoyed Need For Speed, but you’re going to have an opinion on it, either way, and you’ll probably be glad you saw it.  You decide if that’s a good thing or not.

Callum Petch is hoping she can sock it to him one more time.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Escape from Planet Earth

Escape from Planet EarthYou could probably make a good movie out of Escape From Planet Earth.  This isn’t that movie.  Not at all.

by Callum Petch

Fun Fact: this film has been out in America for over a year.  No, really.  It got its American release on February 13th of 2013.  It’s been on Netflix Instant over there for a good while, too.  I was told this by an American friend of mine over Twitter whilst I killed time waiting for it to start.  Naturally, that info bode well for what I was going to see.  Yet, I held out some hope.  Rainmaker Entertainment, the people responsible for the film, aren’t exactly first-timers.  They made the first ever all-CG cartoon TV series in the form of Re-Boot, they’ve been pumping out Direct-To-DVD Barbie films since 2001, they made that one Dire Straits video that everyone remembers as well as something called Tony Hawk in Boom Boom Sabotage (which, yes, I have seen before… it’s not good), and they’re going to give us big screen versions of Ratchet & Clank and Sly Cooper in the near future!  Past experience is past experience and I was hoping for a good film.

Escape From Planet Earth is not a good film.  Think of every single bad trait of your stereotypically bad kids’ animated film.  Chances are it shows up here at least three times.  Sequences set to chart-ready pop songs?  Sledgehammer-subtle moralising message?  Fart jokes?  Toilet humour?  Jokes specifically for parents that typically involve gay panic or implied rape as punchlines?  Pop culture references in place of actual jokes?  Obnoxious product placement?  An unfunny catchphrase repeated ad nauseam in an effort to make it the next cultural phenomenon because if you say it enough times then kids will eventually start saying it too?  (It’s “Scorch me, baby” in case you’re wondering.)  Bored celebrities turning in paycheque collecting performances?  Really cheap animation?  They’re all here and all accounted for and result in one of the most singularly boring bad movies I have had the displeasure of sitting through in quite some time.

Our story, which proceeds at light speed because this film is barely 90 minutes with credits, revolves around two alien brothers.  Scorch (Brendan Fraser) is the younger brother and he’s a heroic manly man who’s kinda dumb and also a jerk but he’s got big muscles and a love for danger and action; Gary (Rob Corddry) is the older brother and he’s more cautious and detail-oriented, a bit of a doormat and the head of Mission Control, ergo he’s supposed to be in command of his brother.  They don’t get along.  After yet another argument about their opposing viewpoints on life, Gary quits and Scorch has to take on his next mission alone: a recon mission to The Dark Planet, otherwise known as Earth, where he is promptly captured by the military, led by General James T Shanker (William Shatner and, yes, that is the supposedly clever joke).  Feeling partly responsible, Gary heads off on a rescue mission, where both he and Scorch may just learn a thing or two about a thing or two, whilst his wife Kira (Sarah Jessica Parker) and son try and uncover the conspiracy back home.  Because there’s also a conspiracy, involving the head of the alien planet’s space program (voiced by Jessica Alba).  And there’s also two comic relief human characters (voiced by Chris Parnell and Steve Zahn).  And Gary is almost immediately captured by the military, too, and thrown into Area 51 where he meets four other aliens.  And there’s also some little green…

You get the point.  This movie is overstuffed and the fact that it runs the credits at about minute 80 of 89 means that everything is glossed over with the bare minimum of effort and detail.  Gary is the only slightly developed character here and that’s purely because he’s the lead.  Otherwise, there are no real characters in this movie and that makes it hard to care about what happens to all of them.  This goes double for the central brother dynamic between Scorch and Gary because Scorch is kind of an irredeemable asshat.  He’s pompous, hot-headed, a dick to Gary, reckless and only seems loving of Gary when it’s time for the finale to kick in because “brothers may sometimes just be total dicks” is not the kind of message we’re supposed to be sending kids home with.  If he were at least entertaining to watch then I’d be OK with this, but he isn’t because he’s just not funny and, therefore, what should have been the emotional core of the film rings hollow.

On that note: the animation and the character designs.  To be blunt, I have not seen an animated film that looks this ugly since… well, probably since Tony Hawk in Boom Boom Sabotage.  The character designs are friggin’ awful.  I initially entertained the possibility that the designers were purposefully going for off-putting designs for the aliens, they’d contrast well with the humans and deliver aliens that look like actual aliens for once, but nope.  The humans then enter and they’re just as boxy, lifeless and Madame Tussauds-y as the aliens.  It’s like somebody tried to surgically blend the styles of early DreamWorks and very early Pixar (as in, Tin Toy-era Pixar) and ended up with the ugly monstrosities you see before you.

And then there’s the actual animation itself.  $40 million may not seem like a lot to make a CG animated movie with (Disney and Pixar flicks haven’t had budgets below $150 million since 2010, for example) except that I question where most of that money went.  This is very limited animation.  Cameras are often static, facial expressions number about five, several scenes and sequences seem to have a maximum of four items moving at most at one time, and I don’t think that anyone ever blinks.  Like, I don’t think anyone just naturally blinks during conversation.  It doesn’t feel like the work of veterans who have been in the industry for upwards of 20 years, it feels like the assessed project of a first year animator.  The Lego Movie cost merely $20 million more and look at that compared to this!  Tinker Bell and The Pirate Fairy (which I previously reviewed here) likely cost pittance (less than $10 mil) and that looks better than this!  Maker, My Little Pony: Equestria Girls was animated in Flash and that looks better than this!

That $40 million, then, more than likely went to the ‘all-star’ voice cast and I really hope that those involved found some way to get the majority of it back from them.  Brendan Fraser is the only one who at least attempts to put on a voice.  Unfortunately, that voice is Brendan Fraser trying a Patrick Warburton impersonation and it’s pretty damn not-good.  But at least he tries throughout, which is more than I can say for Jessica Alba, who gives off the impression that she mumbled the lines in her sleep.  Sofia Vergara is near-impossible to understand because she plays up her accent way too much.  Ricky Gervais (oh yeah, Ricky Gervais is in this as a sarcastic British computer named James Bing because of course he is) is on auto-pilot.  And then there’s Rob Corddry who maintains a sub-“Patton Oswalt in Ratatouille” voice the entire way through but seems to be eternally waiting for his cheque to clear.  Then, halfway through, it apparently does and he proceeds to give line readings like he’s ordering a pizza.

(In fact, sidebar before we move on: why do all animated feature films insist on getting expensive celebrities to voice in their films?  I assume it’s because marketing love to trumpet the names as a selling point in order to get more reluctant parents into the cinema, because kids will apparently show up to anything shiny and loud enough.  Counterpoint: when has this ever worked?  When was the last time any parents were persuaded to take their kids to a crappy looking animated flick on the promise of Brendan Fraser?  Professional voice actors, ones like Tom Kenny or John DiMaggio or Tara Strong or Troy Baker or Grey DeLisle-Griffin or I could go on all day here folks, do this stuff for a living!  Most of the time, you want a good voice acting performance out of an untrained celebrity, you need excellent direction.  Professional voice actors could likely get you a sensational performance from that excellent direction.  And, if you’re talking business-wise, they’re often cheaper, too, which lets you pump the money you were going to use to hire Sarah Jessica Parker back into the production.  So cut it out with the often-dreadful celebrities!  Sidebar over!)

So far we’ve established that there’s a lack of heart, a lack of characters, poor pacing, ugly characters, by-the-numbers plot and lifeless animation in Escape From Planet Earth, but the fun doesn’t stop there!  Nope, because now we hit the jokes, which are lazy and unfunny.  Hey, guess what, everyone!  Did you know that humanity are the real monstrous aliens?  And that aliens invented the internet and cell phones and social networking because we’re too dumb to do so otherwise?  Oh, hold my aching sides because, movie, you just blew my mind with laughter at those genius gags(!)  There’s also a bunch of physical comedy that lands with a thud because, again, the animation running this show is god-awful.

What’s worst of all, though, is that there are some genuinely funny gags here.  The order to destroy Halley’s Comet is accompanied with an instruction to prepare a condolence card for Halley’s family, in one of those kind of purposefully silly gags that I, and likely only I, find amusing.  There’s a short sequence that parodies 50s-style American instructional films and a bit where the gang find the camouflaged spaceship in a trailer park by yelling out “TORNADO ALERT” and seeing which door doesn’t immediately lock itself.  These should be funny, and would be funny, but the sheer dull unfunny-ness of the rest of the film crush the potential ‘laughing loudly’ reactions stone dead.  Most of these 89 minutes contain extended jabs taken at Simon Cowell, Slurpee brain freeze jokes, food fights, aliens with dreadful Beatles impersonations for voices, and moments where the faceless goons will shout things like “James! Cameron is down!” and you’re supposed to laugh because they referenced James Cameron.  They do that last joke at least six separate times during the film, by the by, and it gets more embarrassingly cringe-worthy each time.

Look, you could make a good movie out of Escape From Planet Earth.  Hell, I get the feeling that the makers of this film were spurred into action by having watched the nearly-equally dismal Planet 51, which has a rather similar general premise, and collectively going, “We could do better than that!”  Turns out they couldn’t.  Escape From Planet Earth is a collective hodgepodge of everything that is wrong with kids’ animation today in as dull a package as one can make.  I’d get angry, if you’re a regular follower of me you’ll know that I am quite passionate about animation and the quality of animated products, but I can’t muster up the energy to do so.  It’s just so safe and committee-designed, like every design or casting or creative decision had to go through fourteen different executives to ensure its maximum level of profitability.  There’s no life here, no effort, no love and if nobody involved could be bothered to be passionate about their work, then why I should I get passionate in tearing it to shreds?  It’s a bad film, but I really don’t care because it’s too dull to make a big fuss about.

For what it’s worth, none of the kids in my screening seemed to enjoy it.  They weren’t even restless, they were just bored.  There were no laughs, no gasps of amazement or any of the reactions that accompanied my screenings of The Lego Movie or Frozen or Mr. Peabody & Sherman.  Just the sounds of silence.  And, despite every word I have written over the past 11 paragraphs, that may be the most damning criticism of all.

Callum Petch waited for your call for the moon.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

300: Rise of an Empire

300-rise-of-an-empire-bannerDespite its competent production, 300: Rise of an Empire is a disgusting and repulsive piece of dreck.

by Callum Petch

I honestly don’t think that anybody involved with the creative side of 300: Rise of an Empire is a bad person.  OK, maybe Frank Miller, but other than this being a very loose telling of his unpublished Xerxes series he has nothing to do with the film in question.  This sign of good faith, admittedly, is because I prefer to try and see the good in most people (I may physically be 19, but my mental age and naivety is a lot lower) and also because I don’t know anybody involved with the creation of 300: Rise of an Empire personally, so I’d feel kinda bad calling them bad people sight unseen.  What I don’t think anybody involved does have, however, is any kind of self-awareness.  Like, none.  At all.  See, if they did have some self-awareness, then they might have realised that the movie they were responsible for making is actually horrifically misogynistic, racist and supportive of doomed offensives.

I’m going to stop for a second here before I get down to business.  This review is not going to talk much about the film in the way that you may typically see films reviewed.  You know: I give a plot summary, point out some good stuff and some bad stuff, praise or trash the acting and wrap up from there.  Purely technical terms, “[x action scene] was pretty exciting, [y actor] was as convincing as a cardboard standee of [y actor]”.  No, that’s not happening here and if that’s what you’re looking for, I am sorry to disappoint you.  Fact of the matter is, how this film is as a constructed product (and that constructed product is “boring meeeeeeeeehhhhh”) is but a distraction from the more problematic undertones that this film seems to unintentionally peddle.  I will eventually talk about the film as you would expect me to, but that’s only if there’s still time.  Take this info how you may and either keep reading or don’t.

OK, into the breach.

The major problem with 300: Rise of an Empire, the problem that left me leaving the cinema feeling dirty for having experienced it, is that it doesn’t think.  It’s so determined to be cool, to be action-y and manly and exciting and violent and “LOOK, THAT GUY’S RIDING A HORSE IN A NAVAL BATTLE THROUGH FIRE!!” that it never seems to just stop and think about what it’s actually doing.  It has noble Greeks facing off against eeeeevilll Persians… where the Greeks are all white or tanned and the Persians are of a foreign persuasion.  It has a badass female character who actually has the most developed backstory of anyone else in the film… and then makes her a villain with The Tragic Backstory (the one tragic backstory that all male writers, without fail, will saddle their Dark Action Women with to justify their behaviour) and a quirk that I can’t talk about because it constitues a spoiler but OH MY GOD.  It has a hero who fights for democracy and knows that Leonidas and the 300 Spartans are doomed for their hubris… except that he’s counting on it failing because it will unite everyone behind their senseless sacrifice and milks that for all its worth.

This is the issue.  On paper, divorced from further context, these sound fine.  Good vs Evil is the basis for most every story, well-developed and badass female characters need to be more of a frequent presence in action movies and having characters recognise that the Spartan march isn’t as romantic a notion as it sounds are all great ways to go.  There’s a lot you can do here.  But, for some utterly bewildering reason, the film keeps making the worst decisions with these ideas simply because it sounds cool.  And at no point did anybody stop anyone else involved and explain to them the wider implications of what their decisions entail.

Take, for example, Themistocles (Strike Back’s Sullivan Stapleton rarely showing the charm and charisma he showed in Strike Back) and his attitudes towards the Spartan march on Hot Gates.  He knows it’s doomed and he knows it’s foolish, as you can tell because every so often he voices his concerns that they’re going to get slaughtered, yet his entire plan revolves around lionising the 300 as martyrs to the cause of Greek democracy, thereby uniting Greece against the Persians.  I take issue with this because this, to me at least, gives off the impression that those involved are supportive of doomed offensives against enemies because of the propaganda material they provide.  Having the lead character very occasionally state his belief that the Spartans’ offensive will fail is not enough of an offset for the scene in which he gets said news and reacts with (thanks to the very limited range of emotions characters display in this film) what one can charitably describe as glee.  I’d like to see Themistocles’ take on The Battle Of The Somme, he’d likely grumble a bit about its doomed-to-failure-ness but then base his entire plan around claiming it to be the greatest piece of tactical mastery the British Forces ever came up with.  Because that’s how you unite the peoples.

Quite honestly, though, that’s nothing compared to the film’s two female characters.  Yes, two.  Admittedly, I’m pretty sure that’s one whole person of the female orientation more than the original 300 provided us with, but it’s still a man-run show, despite Eva Green as Artemesia trying her damndest otherwise.  Despite her ever omniscient narration, Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey who I really wish would star in an action flick that knows how to use her for once) is otherwise in the film only three other times and two of those involve her sulking and refusing to help the Greeks.  I’m not saying that she needed to spend the majority of the film fighting alongside the Greeks and slaughtering people left and right; what I am saying is that she needs a character.  Because she doesn’t have one.  She has the Obstructive Bureaucrat archetype and that’s it.

As if to make up for this, Artemesia is easily the most developed character populating Rise of an Empire.  But, yes, said development involves a childhood where [x] happens and then she spends the next several years [y] before being left for dead, found by That One Persian Guy From The Last 300 Who Was Also In (The Much, Much, Much Better) Spartacus: Blood And Sand.  Assuming that those of you reading this are relatively seasoned movie watchers, you should already be able to figure out what x and y are.  But although it left a bad taste in my mouth (because I am so sick of lazy filmmakers always going for [y] when they want to justify their Dark Action Women), it wasn’t derailing the show and especially not Eva Green’s performance, which I can basically equate to a ham and cheese interpretation of Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Of everyone else in this film, she’s the only one who’s having any fun and not just relying on their physical presence to carry them through.

Except then the film frames her insane lust for violence down to not having a good strong man fighting alongside her.  It’s hinted at early on, when she notes that she’s “surrounded by thousands yet I feel so alone” (or words to that effect) about her underlings’ lack of success in bringing down the Greeks.  Then it becomes all but full-blown text when she invites Themistocles to neutral ground, turns into a temptress and…  No, I’m not going to spoil it.  Needless to say, it frames all of their actions afterward, including the final battle, in a much uglier light and culminates in an action that, the very second the inadvertent subtext that the film had amassed up to that point joined up with the action in question in my head, caused me to unintentionally shout out “JESUS H. CHRIST” in the crowded cinema.  I was that disgusted by what I saw.  And my leading to this realisation and outburst wasn’t on purpose, I wasn’t trying to see the action as something awful, my brain had simply applied what the film had inadvertently told me about Artemesia beforehand to that action and the reaction unfolded.  I felt dirty for having witnessed it and, if you too pay attention to the subtext, you will know it when you see it.

Quite honestly, on any other day, the fact that the Greeks black up for the finale would have been the headline, here.  OK, their faces are supposed to be painted like that of a white skeleton on a black back-nope that looks even worse written down.  Not to mention the fact that, again, we have a predominately white cast representing absolute good fighting a predominately non-white cast representing absolute evil.  That was a problem in the first 300, it was a problem in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender and time has not made it any better.  See, the problem with doing cool things without thought is that stuff like this happens.  You get across a tonne of unfortunate implications and enough of them can make the whole film a slowly more repulsive experience that gets harder to tolerate the longer it goes on.

Stepping away from the subtext, now, although, quite frankly, discussing the film removed from it feels pointless.  See, Rise of an Empire, which takes place before and during and after 300 and depicts Themistocles’ attempts to unite Greece against the invading Persian army and navy, is a competently made and forgettable action flick.  If its various bits of inadvertently horrendous subtext weren’t there, this review would not currently be halfway through its third page.  That’s how dispensable this film is.  Excepting Eva Green, nobody turns in a particularly noteworthy performance.  After the first particularly exciting and interesting naval battle, the rest blend into one anonymous amorphous blob.  The hand-to-hand fight scenes are “meeeeh” and the copious CG is clearly going for stylish but too often seems to use that as an excuse for just plain sloppy switches between live-action actors and CG models handling the more exciting moments (pretty much the entire opening battle is done in CG, to an extent that makes me wonder why the actors even bothered coming in that week).  And the signature Zack Snyder “slo-mo-speed-up-super-slo-mo-speed-up-slo-mo-again” visual style that’s perfectly aped by director Noam Murro is still really stupid and nowhere near as cool as it thinks it is.

In other words, it’s an inoffensive product.  A bland, average and dull movie that doesn’t have anything bad happening on the surface or within its individual components.  All of the film’s big, giant, offensive, enjoyment-killing problems come from the inadvertent subtext that it presents with that big, dumb, loud, violent and inoffensive surface.  More forgiving critics or fans of the film will insist you need to “turn off your brain to appreciate it”.  I’m sorry but fuck that.  Firstly because it presents the incorrect notion that fun movies don’t need to be smart (and I wouldn’t even call this one fun, in all honesty, unless “mind-crushing dullness” sounds like your idea of a party) but also because it gives off the idea that it doesn’t matter what kind of horrible ideology and iconography a film can slip by as long as the surface is cool enough, and that is a concept I refuse to abide by.

Words and actions carry unintended meanings and consequences and for every 10 people (most likely men, in all honesty; this is a film made for straight, hormonal and possibly teenaged men) who watch the war room sequence that I started describing earlier with glee, there will be at least 1 other person horrified by what they are seeing because they aren’t distracted by the pretty lights.  They paid attention to the undertones of the film’s cool sequences and they started getting uneasy.  The film shouts “Look at these beefy white men slaughtering all of these evil baddies!  Isn’t this fun?  Pay no attention to their skin colour, if you do you’re thinking way more than we did when we made it!”  “Isn’t this line we gave Eva Green badass?  She’s so strong and powerful and sexy!  Just divorce it from everything else that surrounds it as, in context with what surrounds it, it may be kinda disturbing but who cares BADASS FIGHT SEQUENCE!  COOL COOL COOL!”  but that person is having none of it.  They’re disturbed, offended, worried that the slightly sickening undertones are being played off for fun.  Just another gory, dumb action romp.  You can’t read too much into these things(!)

No.  Fuck that.  The idea that I should let 300: Rise of an Empire off for its accidental racism, misogyny (dear Maker, I will never get that action out of my head, and if you’re dying to know what it is tweet me and I’ll tell you) and whatever-the-word-is-for-attitudes-towards-senseless-sacrifice-that-I-don’t-agree-with because it’s supposed to be a big dumb action film and I shouldn’t read so much into these things is deplorable and I refuse to accept it.  We shouldn’t let films off for being “good enough given the circumstances” or to state that “turning your brain off” will somehow increase your enjoyment for a film.  No, we should just demand better goddamn movies and take films with as disgusting an inadvertent subtext as 300: Rise of an Empire to the same task as we do genuinely racist films like Birth of a Nation.  Being a big, dumb action film should no longer be an acceptable pass-grade excuse for a problematic film such as this one.

When I left 300: Rise of an Empire, I felt like I had set cinema back several years.  Do not.  Spend money. On this.

Callum Petch is outta control but he’s playing a role and he thinks he can go to the eighteenth hole.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Ride Along

Ride AlongRide Along is a pretty decent action-comedy with a great lead performance from Kevin Hart.

by Callum Petch

Last things first, this should not be a 12a.  Now, I’m not one of those prudes who believes that the absolute worst thing a young, impressionable child can be introduced is fictional sex and violence or accidentally muttering one of The Seven Words You Do Not Say Around Children.  I haven’t turned into an overzealous moral guardian on you overnight.  What I am a proponent of, however, is a rating system that is consistent in its ratings.  And, presumably through bribery or the dark arts, Ride Along has slid through the BBFC with a 12a rating it doesn’t deserve.  This is a 15 rated comedy in a 12a body.

Why?  Well, “sh*t” is tossed around more often than an angry gorilla at a zoo, despite the promise of only one use of strong language, I counted at least two or three usages of the word “f*ck”, “n*gger” is swapped between characters every now and again, there are a tonne of sex references and jokes about sex that would a) make a dork age DreamWorks Animation blush and b) will likely go right over the heads of most younger audience members anyway, and there are several moments of black comedy that would have fit more into 21 Jump Street than, say, a film that apparently deserves the same rating as Pitch PerfectAnchorman 2 was rated 15 and Ride Along is about that level.

Now, admittedly, the kind of humour that Ride Along traffics in will seem like the funniest thing in the world to 12 year olds and above and that’s fine.  What’s not fine is that I know that there will be parents out there who will see that 12a rating and decide that that means it’s OK to bring their 8 year-olds to the cinema with them because, “Hey, Glee is rated 12!  The Amazing Spider-Man is rated 12a!  This can’t be any worse than that, right?” only to regret their decision by, at the very latest, the 10 minute mark.  Again, I’m not one of those people who constantly screams “WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?” but I am somebody who likes the BBFC to be consistent in the ratings they give out because there will be people who will ignore what the content of the movie looks like and will just look at the rating before deciding that “it MUST be fine for my kids to go and see it with me because Thor: The Dark World was also a 12a!”  So, to reiterate, this film should not be a 12a.  It should be a 15.

Now, you may be wondering why I made such a big thing out of that and, no, “being rigidly loyal to my principles” is not it this time.  It’s mainly because there’s not too much to say about Ride Along.  It’s a pretty good action-comedy.  Admittedly, we don’t get too many of those (and I can count the number of good to great comedies that were released last year on one hand) but that’s kinda all it is.  Pretty good.  Decent.  OK.  Disposable.  There are some really funny jokes that were shown in the trailer.  One or two other really funny jokes that weren’t shown in the trailer.  A lot of chucklesome jokes.  Some very bad jokes.  There’s a bit where Ice Cube drops the name of one of his most famous songs as a punch line and I audibly groaned out loud.  In short: it’s alright.  Not a bad way to spend 100 minutes, perhaps at whatever our equivalent of a matinee showing is, and you will have forgotten most of it 24 hours after you’ve exited the cinema.

Nevertheless, I have to go into more detail.  So, our story revolves around Kevin Hart and Ice Cube (their characters do have names but I’m writing this nearly 48 hours after having seen the film so forgive me for not remembering their characters’ names and choosing not to look them up for both comedic effect and an accurate representation of what your brain will remember about this film 48 hours removed from it).  Ice Cube is a tough, no-nonsense detective for the Atlanta PD who breaks the rules but, dammit, he gets results!  Kevin Hart is a videogame-loving high school security guard who dreams of becoming a police officer and is in a relationship with Ice Cube’s sister (played by Tika Sumpter, not actually Ice Cube’s sister).  Ice Cube’s sister wants Ice Cube to bless Kevin Hart’s marriage proposal to her, because she’s old school like that, and he agrees to if Kevin Hart can survive a day’s ride along with Ice Cube.

What happens next you can probably already figure out.  Ice Cube purposefully sets up a crappy day full of pranks at Kevin Hart’s expense in order to scare him away from the police academy and his sister.  There’s lots of physical comedy at Kevin Hart’s expense.  There’s the moment where the ruse is figured out.  The point where it starts getting too real.  The part where Kevin Hart and Ice Cube actually start bonding.  And there’s also the part where Ice Cube’s determined trail of an elusive arms dealer named Omar comes to a head at the worst possible time.  The plot for Ride Along almost literally could not be more by-the-numbers.  It’s like it was constructed by the film’s writers actually following an instruction book.  The mystery, in particular, entirely lacks mystery or plot turns.  Nobody has ever seen Omar before, Kevin Hart stumbles onto some clues, they find out where a deal is going down and then Laurence Fishburne turns up to chew some scenery.  That’s not particularly a spoiler, mind, his name comes up at the end of the cast list during the opening credits to allow anybody with a working brain to figure it out and for everyone else to figure it out after the 900th time somebody says that “nobody’s ever seen this guy before”.

But, eh.  Nobody’s really expecting Ride Along to set the world on fire with its plotting, and that’s fine.  We’re here for the jokes.  So, did I laugh?  Yeah, I did.  A fair bit.  As mentioned a bit further back, there are some very funny jokes, some very bad jokes, some chuckle-worthy jokes and then some jokes that inspired no reaction either way.  Although refreshingly free of gay-panic type jokes (as much as I loved 21 Jump Street, I really hope the sequel tones down the number of “ha!  Gay stuff, amirightlads?” jokes), the film makes up for that slack in regards to Kevin Hart’s obsession with videogames.  If you’re currently imagining a lot of jokes about Kevin Hart taking games too seriously, being overly cocky with real guns on a firing range, Ice Cube derisively shouting “This ain’t no damn videogame!” or variations of such in his direction a lot and for his love of videogames to come into play in a positive way in the finale… congratulations!  You too could have written anywhere between 25% – 35% of Ride Along’s screenplay!  Some of the jokes are pretty funny, to be fair, but it’s a button and a well that the film goes back to too often.

Much better are the times when Kevin Hart is bumbling his way through scenarios that Ice Cube has set-up for him.  In fact, I’m just going to get this out of the way now: Kevin Hart is the main reason to see this film.  He’s been America’s best-kept secret for a long while now (he’s pretty much conquered America with his stand-up over the past half-decade) and Ride Along seems to announce him to the rest of the world as a great comic talent in film in the making.  Sometimes he does go just a little bit too over-the-top (the bit from the trailer where he knocks himself out is not funnier in context), but his manic energy and total commitment to making any material thrown his way work is the film’s ace-in-the-hole.  There’s a section around the film’s midpoint (a.k.a. The Sequence Where It Starts Getting Real) that is made hilarious because Hart is flinging himself around the scene, exuding charisma and playing every line at the perfect pitch so that, when it does come time for him to start panicking, his ratcheting up to 11 hits that much harder.

Ice Cube doesn’t fare as well, his delivery is much less consistent and is prone to under or over-performing, but he does strike up a good chemistry with Hart that keeps the film trucking along.  If Hart’s thing is to comically overreact to everything, Ice Cube’s is to be comically angry at all times and, unlike Hart, he’s not able to either deliver the jokes well enough or to find enough spins on that trait to make it work.  There are points where he reaches the quality that he displayed in 21 Jump Street, but they’re fleeting.  Of the supporting cast, Laurence Fishbourne is the stand-out in that he’s the only one who makes a lasting impression but, man!  You know that one bit in Hannibal where he shouts “USE THE LADIES’ ROOM!” at another FBI agent entering the toilets?  Take out the serious tone of Hannibal and that’s pretty much how Laurence Fishbourne plays the villain role here.  It’s pretty funny, just putting that out there.

And… yeah, that’s pretty much all I have to say about Ride Along.  There’s really not a lot going on here.  It’s a pretty funny comedy where the best jokes have predominately been shown in the trailer but there are enough funny moments in the rest of the film to justify giving it a watch if you’re desperate for a decent comedy or if you’ve already seen everything else that’s great out.  You won’t remember any of it 72 hours after seeing it, but you will laugh.  I laughed.  I laughed a fair bit, and that’s what I wanted at the time I saw it so I’m willing to give it a pass.  Just don’t take your 8 year-old to see it.  Not unless you want to have them dropping “sh*t” around the house like it’s going out of style.

Callum Petch follows me with his good friend, the threat of poverty.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Non-Stop

Non-stopYou should go and see Non-Stop.  It’s pretty good.

by Callum Petch 

Non-Stop works best if you go into it blind, as I did.  I knew nothing about this film going in, hadn’t seen a trailer, nor an advertisement, nor nothing.  Just the one vague poster of star Liam Neeson with his gun drawn in a John Woo-ish pose, an even vaguer tagline “The hacking was just the beginning” and a rare positive review from The AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.  That’s it.  I am glad that that’s all I knew because it meant that I had no preconceptions other than the hope that, at most, it would be an enjoyably dumb thriller; the kind that Liam Neeson has spent over half a decade re-inventing his career with.  You deserve to go in with that similar kind of sentiment, because you should see Non-Stop.  So, if you want to know more than that vague recommendation or you need selling on the film, because the best thing the film has going for it takes a while to become apparent and it is best to go in not expecting it, then continue reading.  If, on the other hand, an urging to go and see it by a cantankerous stranger is all you need, then stop reading now and go and see Non-Stop.  Your choice, incidentally, is the preferable one.

Are you gone?

Last chance.

I’ll take that as an “I’m gone” or an “I don’t care”.  OK, then.

Non-Stop works chiefly for two reasons.  The first is that it commits fully to its high-concept premise, keeping the focus on Neeson and his desperate attempts to find out who’s behind the threat throughout and wringing every last possible piece of tension from it.  The second reason is that, despite (or, hell, perhaps even because of) its suspension-of-disbelief premise, Non-Stop is actually a pretty brutal subversion and deconstruction of the kind of one-man-army loner-hero action-thrillers that have become Neeson’s bread and butter over the past few years.  Not as much as you’re probably thinking, but still more so than I was both expecting and thought that studios would allow in their mid-budget action vehicles.

But we shall get to that.  The premise: Neeson plays Bill Marks, a US Federal Air Marshall who is an alcoholic, paranoid and very irritable and unstable fellow.  He’s marshalling a non-stop flight from New York to London filled with a veritable who’s-who of character actors and “Hey, it’s that one guy from that one thing!” (Julianne Moore, Corey Stoll, Michelle Doherty, Lupita Nyong’o, Scoot McNairy among many others) when his phone is hacked.  Someone on the plane is threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into an account.  So, Marks is on a race against time to find the person responsible… except that said account is under Marks’ name and his prior history, as well as nearly everything he ends up doing on the plane trying to find the person responsible, makes him out to be the number one suspect to everyone except himself.

And that’s where the deconstruction comes in.  See, Marks behaves much like the hero of any other Liam Neeson vehicle (with the exception of The Grey, as anyone who actually watched that film will quite happily tell you).  He strides about in fury, he refuses to tell anybody else about what’s really going on, he’s invasive, accusing, he roughs up suspects if they’re not immediately co-operative, he trusts few and almost gleefully burns bridges with those he does the second that they appear to be hiding something.  What separates Non-Stop from, say, Taken is that Marks is uniformly punished for his behaviour.  Everything he does only riles up the other passengers, raises suspicion at himself and plays right into the villain’s hands.  In other words: reality, more or less, ensues.  It gets to the point where Marks arguably turns into a bigger villain than the one offing passengers and demonstrates just how much manipulation stories like these need to turn somebody like Marks into a guy that we root for.  It’s not exactly subtle, and people more familiar with this kind of deconstruction will likely find nothing particularly original here, but it adds a nice layer of depth that the film, quite honestly, didn’t need to have but is most definitely appreciated.

Because, undoubtedly, this is a great thriller in its own right and that’s because it commits totally to its premise.  The perspective is with Marks throughout, only occasionally cutting away to the other passengers voicing their legitimate concerns about Marks and even less occasionally (like, about 4 times after the plane gets into the air and before the finale kicks in) to a shot of the plane flying alone with no recognisable landmarks, just to re-enforce the fact that these people are alone and nobody else can save them.  There are lots of long takes where the camera dollies along the aisles or follows Neeson as he accusingly stares out for the next possible suspect.  Unless the action really heats up, Non-Stop does not particularly like quick cuts and that, combined with the almost singular focus on Marks (the film saves the unmasking of the villains until the finale; smartest choice it makes), helps keep the tension high.

In addition, director Juame Collet-Sera (who has worked with Neeson before on the not-very-good Unknown) and the film’s three writers (John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle) know how to turn the screws.  People more insistent on thinking through the overall plot will get hung up on how seemingly unbelievable it gets, but the constant plot turns and the wrong-footing of Marks (again, almost everything the guy does plays into the villain’s hands) kept me enthralled throughout because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next.  How the villains would get one over on Marks, or which seemingly innocent character may actually have something to hide (or, more pertinently, is actually perfectly innocent but just happened to cough in the general direction of Marks) or when the villain would get in touch with Marks again.  If nothing else, this is the most dreaded I have been by the sound of a ringing bell (Marks’ message alert) since Season 2 of Breaking Bad.  It’s a pretty nerve-wracking film, is what I’m getting at here.

If I’m honest, the only things stopping Non-Stop from being the best thriller of the last five years are the last 20 – 30 minutes.  When the film’s deconstructive undercurrent should go straight for the jugular, it instead pulls back; decides that that’s good enough and settles for an action-packed and slightly uplifting climax.  I mean, it’s not a bad climax.  Not in the slightest.  It’s very exciting, basically encompassing everybody’s worst fears about being stuck on a plane, and contains the same stylish verve and tension that the thriller aspects demonstrated for the opening 70-odd minutes.  But it is kinda disappointing to see the film, which had spent the prior 70 minutes being above it, relax into being a silly Liam Neeson action vehicle.  Again, none of this is bad but it is a straight-forward climax that’s more crowd-please-y than what came before.

Oh, and I should comment on the motives of the villain: they’re dumb.  The reveal of who’s behind the threat is great, unquestionably, and it helps patch over what would otherwise have been several gaping plot holes.  But the reveal as to why they’re doing what they’re doing?  It’s ridiculous, even for a movie with this concept.  It didn’t derail the film too much for me, because almost as soon as their speechifying is done we’re straight into our silly action climax and the prior 70 minutes built up a lot of good will for me, but I know for a fact that it will be a deal-breaker for a lot of people who may have been lulled into believing they were watching a thriller with real brains beforehand.  The problem comes from the fact that it makes the film’s subtext (not the deconstruction of Jack Bauer-type heroes, the other one that I’ve opted not to mention for this very reason) straight text, in a last-minute attempt to be a film with something to openly say.  Your tolerance for this is going to depend on how much the destination on these kinds of things affects your overall enjoyment.

Because, make no mistake, Non-Stop is one hell of a ride.  A smart, unbearably tense thriller that’s well acted and stylishly directed.  A great deconstruction of the usual Liam Neeson action fare and a fun thriller in its own right.  It may wuss out on the deconstruction and subversion element when it should be time to twist the knife, and the motivations of its villain are dumb in a bad way, but the film has earned enough good will by that point to allow itself the opportunity to have its big action climax.  I went into Non-Stop with no expectations and was really impressed by what I saw and I see no reason why you can’t give it a chance, too.  I really enjoyed this one.

Callum Petch sits and waits for wasted time.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

A New York Winter’s Tale

ANewYorkWintersTaleCroweA New York Winter’s Tale is a prolonged piece of deadpan anti-comedy.  The problems being that it’s not supposed to be and that it’s achingly, miserably dull.

by Callum Petch

A New York Winter’s Tale is fucking awful.  It is so fucking awful that I feel justified in using the phrase “fucking awful”.  Not “f*cking awful”, in my continuing attempts to keep my work at a PG level, not “frakkin’ awful”, in my continuing attempts to keep that PG rating and basically scream “LOOK AT ME, I AM SUCH A NERD ON THE INTERNET, NOTICE ME” at the top of my lungs.  No.  It is fucking awful.  At the 1 hour mark, which is just over the halfway point of this near two hour exercise in unbearably earnest philosophical romanticised wank, I strongly considered leaving the cinema.  I have never walked out of a film playing in the cinema and only once turned off a first-time-viewing of a movie because it sucked horrendously (Disaster Movie, if you’re wondering), and A New York Winter’s Tale came this close to beating me.  I didn’t, more due to the principle of the thing, but the thought was seriously rattling around my brain.  I could have left, snuck into another screen and saw The Lego Movie again instead, but I didn’t because I wasn’t going to let fucking A New York Winter’s Tale be the film to beat me.

And yet, even with that knowledge and the possibility that it may already be the year’s absolute worst film (although we do still have Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie to come, so it’s early days on that front), my task of reviewing A San Diego Summer’s Story is one fraught with difficulty and peril.  See, under no circumstances should you see this film, but the problem is that I will have to describe the story, a story so batshit insane that people have been incarcerated in mental institutions for less, and I can almost guarantee that you will be compelled to give it a shot after hearing it; whether that be due to ironic appreciation for its dumbness, bile fascination or legitimate interest and excitement.  And I am here to tell you, from the bottom of my heart and with the utmost sincerity, that to act on that compulsion and pay the people involved in the creation of this film money would be a really fucking dumb thing to do; almost as dumb as this film is.

The fact of the matter is that I could happily sit here and tear this film a new one for all manner of things that don’t revolve around the story of the film.  The acting, for example, is atrocious across the board: Colin Farrell looks permanently lost and confused, Russell Crowe delivers the majority of his lines like he’s suffering from the onset of a stroke, Jennifer Connelly seems to be 10 seconds away from firing her agent, and Will Smith (yes, Will Smith is in this fi-STAY RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE AND KEEP READING) does an excellent impersonation of Will Smith on the other end of a phone call at 3am in the morning.  Oh, and there are at least three precocious child actresses running about the place delivering the abysmal dialogue in as precisely a melodramatic “I AM ACTING, LOOK AT MY ACTING, CAN YOU TELL HOW HARD I AM ACTING COS I AM ALL THE ACTING” fashion as you’re imagining.  Oh, sorry, my mistake.  There are only two precocious child actresses running about the place.  The third is Jessica Brown Findlay but she’s acting at the kids’ level, mind.

Oh, there’s also the CGI and effects in general!  Fun Fact: this film cost $60 million to make.  You wouldn’t be able to tell, mind, considering the fact that the film’s Pegasus (yes, this film has a peg-SIT THE FUCK DOWN AND FINISH READING) looks like it was ripped straight from the music video for Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” with wings that look like someone got bored halfway through implementing the CG and somehow successfully passed off their laziness by going “But it looks so much cooler that way!” to their superiors.  And do not get me started on the exceedingly cheap and fake lens flare.  We’re talking JJ Abrams levels of egregious lens fares, here, except that he actually works to make it look like they’re coming from the scene; instead of being inserted in post-production and looking like somebody spilt caramel all over various parts of the film.

There’s also the overly-maudlin and manipulative score that strains so badly to tug on at least one of your heartstrings that Keane are, as I type these words, working out a way to incorporate parts of it into their next album, but it’s time I stopped beating around the bush.  I have to talk about the story and the plot and the first hour of this film.  And, yes, I have to talk about the first hour of this film here because it’s near impossible to talk about the film otherwise.  See, the marketing has positioned A Nottingham Spring’s Folly as a tale of forbidden romance that somehow transcends two centuries.  Except that they’ve hidden a key element and, again, I guarantee that, when I tell you what that element is, you will abandon all common sense and try to see this film despite mounting evidence that you really, really shouldn’t.

Therefore, I am throwing up the Spoiler Warning and the “Have Common Sense and Don’t Go See This Movie No Matter What You May Read About It After This Warning” Warning now.  I will not spoil anything outside of that first hour but the rest?  Fair game, but that’s only because A Scunthorpe Fall’s Urban Legend is a slow burner.  A really, really slow burner and it takes a full hour for it to fully reveal its setup, like it thinks it’s some kind of big mystery worth preserving.  Again, unfortunately, the film is impossible to talk about otherwise.  So, again, Spoiler Warning and Don’t Be An Idiot And See This Movie No Matter What You Think Of What You’re About To Read Warning are in effect.  Proceed with caution.

So.  The story.  A Cape Town Autumn’s Blood-Writing-On-The-Walls Warning follows Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) who we first meet as a baby when his family get turned away from immigrating to Manhattan.  Determined to leave their child behind in New York (for… your guess is as good as mine), they sneak him back into Manhattan on their boat ride out by stuffing him into a tiny model ship and pushing it towards the docks.  This, by the way, occurs whilst the film spoils its other twist for you and a voiceover dumps out pseudo-philosophical bullcrap about how everything is connected and destiny and fates and all that.  But, in any case, the film then jumps ahead 30 years to 1914 and we meet Peter again.  He’s a thief, on the run from a gangster played by Russell Crowe called Pearly Soames (no, really, that’s his name) for reasons that… you know, I think the film just goes “because he’s evil” and leaves it at that.  Other than an alleged betrayal by Peter, the film never seems to give a reason why Pearly (again, that’s his real name) has this extreme vendetta against him.

Anyways, Peter escapes by commandeering a horse that actually turns out to be a guardian angel disguised as a Pegasus.  See, it turns out that Pearly (again, real name that people signed off on in an allegedly serious film) and his gangster associate underlings are demons.  Agents of chaos working for Lucifer (played by… sigh, yes, Will Smith) who have made it their eternal life’s mission to kill off potential miracle makers before they turn into angels because they’re demons what you want more of an explanation?  Anyways, Peter finds himself drawn to, by the universe, a dying woman by the name of Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay) and it seems like the miracle that the universe has insisted he perform is that of saving her life.  By falling in love with her.  After she catches him breaking into her house, as all great love stories begin.  Of course, this being a tale of forbidden love, Pearly (again, actual name that graced a best-selling book) and his goons are hot on their heels.  And by “hot on their heels”, I mean “there’s like a 35 minute window straight after the conflict is set up where nothing happens and Russell Crowe grimaces a lot”.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  “Callum, I saw The Adjustment Bureau and I thought it was alright, but the romance was a waste of a golden concept.  Nevertheless, I am more than willing to stomach another tale of forbidden romance for the chance to see angels and demons fighting each other and also WILL SMITH IS LUCIFER HOW CAN I PASS THAT UP?”  Well, firstly, there are no fight scenes between angels and demons, sorry to get your hopes up.  But, I admit, the premise sounds like prime “So Bad, It’s Good” material.  The kind of terrible film you love to watch to snark at repeatedly and violently.  This, again, is a film that, in the first five minutes, has two characters smuggle our lead into the country in a model ship for no discernable reason.  Except that there’s one thing keeping this from being some kind of Andy Kaufman-esque piece of deliberate, straight-faced anti-comedy: it’s dull.  It is endlessly, crushingly, miserably dull.

Oh, sure, it’s not to start with.  Again, I guffawed like a madman at the image of a baby in a model ship floating towards the New York harbour.  I tried really hard to suppress my tittering when Beverly started earnestly talking about her belief in light connecting every living being.  I reflexively let out a huge laugh when Pearly (again, his real name, not a cross-gender version of Pearl from Spongebob Squarepants) murders a waiter for no reason other than to reveal to the viewer that he’s a demon.  And, of course, there was some kind of strange noise meant to represent disbelief that emanated from me at the Pegasus reveal.  Here’s the problem: that’s where the film stops being funny.  Like, it’s so committed to its world and so committed to being this big grandiose statement about the power of love, goodness and righteous virtue and so committed to being so po-faced serious about the whole ordeal (even when it has a scene in which Will Smith as Lucifer rants about being stuck in a mortal body and how he hates sunshine and lollipops and new-born babies and all that jazz) that it stops being fun to laugh at.  It’s so committed that it just becomes sad.

And if you were coming to this film seriously, as in you were looking for a grand old inspiring tale of romance for the ages, well I’m afraid that you’re shit out of luck in that department.  Despite the film stopping to a halt for about 30 minutes so that it can truly sell you on the romance that Peter and Beverly have, it doesn’t work at all.  Farrell and Findlay have no chemistry, the dialogue between the pair is atrocious (Peter genuinely says, when he’s questioned by Beverly as to what the favourite thing he’s stolen is, “I’m beginning to think I haven’t stolen it yet”), and both of them decide they love each other totally despite only having known each other for about 48 hours by the time Pearly (again, real name, not an alter-ego on Match.com) catches up to them.  Peter tries to cure Beverly’s tuberculosis (sorry, consumption) by teaching her his super-special-safe-cracker-breathing rate tricks.  Beverly’s irritating kid sister showcases a greenhouse decked out to look like the glass coffin from Snow White in what is one of the more subtle pieces of foreshadowing and symbolism in this film.  They dance.  They have sex.  There, that is everything this whirlwind romance for the ages encompasses.  No, literally, that is everything that happens before the final 30/40 minutes kick in.

And OH GODS, THOSE FINAL 30/40 MINUTES.  The only reason I don’t tell you what happens in them and how they are, somehow, even stupider, even duller and even more poorly paced than the preceding 70 is because this is a review, and some people may be using it as consumer advice on whether this film is worth seeing or not and it is bad form for me, as a reviewer, to spoil the end of a film for the uninitiated.  Rest assured, however, that weren’t that unwritten entry into the code of reviewer ethics there, I would be gladly telling you everything that happens in there.  Both because it would complete my goal in giving you absolutely zero reason to watch this film, seeing as you’d already know what happens, and because I still can’t quite believe I actually witnessed it.  Like, I expect to wake up any second now and find that I slept through the entire thing.  No studio-based film is this relentlessly crazy, this relentlessly bad and this relentlessly, miserably dull about its craziness and badness, right?

Alas, I think it might be.  The realisation is finally setting in that I did not, in fact, imagine A New York Winter’s Tale.  This film actually happened, was completely serious about what happened and it is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the worst movies I have ever seen.  Unfortunately, I also know how people act and there will now be some of you salivating over this film: eager to add it to your future Bad Movie Night marathons or to go and pay money and/or devote two hours of your life to seeing if it really is as terrible as I am making out.  From the bottom of my heart, I implore you to eject those thoughts and go about your daily life.  You have one life to live and the two hours you would end up spending on this god-awful piece of utter shite in a 99p burger would be interminable and could be spent so much more productively or doing things that would make you happy.  Folks: it’s not even fun to make fun of.  Doing so is equivalent to picking on the kid who likes to imagine he’s flying a spaceship all the time, until you find out that he’s got genuine mental health problems and he genuinely thinks he’s flying a spaceship all the time.

To reiterate: A New York Winter’s Tale is fucking awful.  End of debate.  Stay the hell away.

Callum Petch is looking for salvation in the secular age.  He normally writes film reviews and box office reports for Screened.com.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy. That’s right.

tinkerbell-the-pirate-fairy-03-636-380Although it’s not bad, Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy is dull, forgettable and soulless.

by Callum Petch

I should preface this review with two disclaimers.  1] I am not familiar with the Tinker Bell series of, predominately, straight-to-DVD mini-features starring the voice of Mae Whitman (Suzie from Johnny Bravo, Ann “Her?” Veal from Arrested Development and Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender NO, THE OTHER, GOOD AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER) as Tinker Bell that Disney’s DisneyToons arm has been steadily pumping out since 2008.  Well, I mean, I am now but that’s because I’m doing basic factual research to help with this review.  Going in, beforehand, I knew zippo and if it weren’t for my continuing mission to absorb all of the animation as it happens, I likely wouldn’t have turned up because… 2] This film, like the rest of the series, is going straight-to-DVD in America which is always a good sign (and those who wonder precisely why should go and stomach as much of So Undercover, a Miley Cyrus fronted “comedy” that underwent the same release plan as this film has, and consider their question answered).

Nevertheless, I wanted to like Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy.  Hell, I wanted to like it more so than I normally want to like films that I go and see.  After all, the series is predominately for little girls and god knows they deserve a higher calibre of animated fare aimed at them than there is currently available.  Just over a year ago, now, I allowed My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic to surprise the living hell out of me and there needs to be more like that littering the animation landscape.  Tinker Bell has been running for over half a decade, so it must be doing something right.  But, most importantly, I gave Mr. Peabody & Sherman a shot and that somehow knocked it out of the park.  I mean, if DreamWorks Animation, who I have nearly always despised, can get close to a home run, then surely DisneyToons, whose priors include this series and the abominable Planes, can turn in a decent 78 minutes, right?

To be fair, Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy is not a bad way to pass the time.  It is seven hundred million miles better than anything the Barbie franchise is churning out, which I guess already puts it in the higher echelons of entertainment primarily made for little girls by default, and the kids in my packed showing (I had to move seats thrice before the film started and, being the only one there without a kid or a parent, several guardians looked like they were within spitting distance of calling the police on me) seemed enthralled by it.  The problem is that “It’s not particularly bad” is really the only thing this film has going for it.  The direct-to-DVD origins are abundantly obvious in almost every aspect, from the run time (which is barely a hair over 70 minutes before the credits kick in, I spent more time on the bus ride back home than I did in the theatre and that includes previews and ads), to the budget animation, to the compressed plot, to the lack of imagination in the action sequences, to the side-lining of a tonne of its cast…  If this was just a straight-to-DVD release, I may have been tempted to give it a full-on pass.  But, much like with Planes, this is a cinema release and, as such, means that, however implicitly, it wants to be judged on the same level as The Lego Movie or Mr. Peabody & Sherman or Frozen.  And judge it I shall!  Right now, in fact.

The animation seems as good a place to start talking as any.  Although, unlike Planes, it’s not bad, it’s not particularly good, either (which, by the way, is a phrase that can be applied to just about every facet of the film).  There’s a lack of dynamism throughout.  By which I mean: there are several setpieces involving characters flying about whilst the camera tries to keep track, but it often just looks like the characters are stuck still whilst the environment contorts itself to make it seem like they’re moving.  Ever been on one of those virtual-reality rollercoaster rides?  The kind that purport to take you through mystical lands on a whirlwind ride where in reality you’re just watching a video screen whilst the seat you’re sitting in shakes back and forth in random directions?  Yeah, it’s a lot like that and it’s pretty noticeable.  It never feels like the fairies are chasing after things, trying to avoid danger or are, in fact, in much of any danger at all.

Then there’s the lack of detail in just about every area.  There are many segments set at night or involving the manipulation of light, but they lack “wow”, they lack the wonder of seeing dots of light illuminating the dark, it just feels like a blob of a brighter shade of colour has been dabbed into a shot (although credit is due for resisting a garish, primary-colour only colour scheme).  A short sequence involving the fairies sliding through a foliage next to a waterfall seems to lack running water, although it’s mostly hidden by shaking the camera around to near-disorientating levels.  Water in general, meanwhile, is at about Finding Nemo levels.  That’s circa 2003 for those keeping track at home, so it’s passable but it’s not, say, Frozen.  The production values in general are just slightly above the fare you’d find on Disney Junior today which, again, would be understandable for a film sent straight-to-DVD but instead look downright embarrassing when sat right next to, say, The Lego Movie as it quite literally was (The Lego Movie was actually playing in the cinema screen next to me as I left).

Oh, also, though I’d leave this part under subjective “newcomer to the franchise” opinion as criticising a series’ character design and art style six films in is kinda pointless, I’m not fully sold on the art style.  It sits at some kinda very uncomfortable halfway house between outwardly cartoony, mid-budget CGI Disney Channel series and the “we’re not even going to hide the fact that our toys come first and foremost” plastic lifelessness of what I have seen of third-generation Barbie films and its lack of commitment to either side creates character designs, and especially faces, that are distractingly weird in motion, up-close and in motion up-close.  The film has one successful character design; the one that commits to a singular style and that’s a baby crocodile that’s designed in what I am quite certain is technically known as OH MY GODS, HE IS SSSSSOOOOOOO CUUUUUUUTTTEEEEE!!!  I must, however, give props to the character designers for designing the pixies with a range of body types, notably mainly going for a fuller look instead of a parade of hourglass figures.  Seriously, this kind of variety in kids’ programming counts and we should encourage it when possible.

If this is your first Tinker Bell adventure, and I have a feeling that there are very few people who will have taken a look at this film and decided that now of all times was the time to get on the bandwagon but in any case, I’d recommend watching some other ones beforehand because the film seems to assume that this isn’t your first rodeo with the series and explains very little.  So, naturally, I was completely lost as to who these other fairies following Tinker Bell around were and how their talents related to each other.  In fact, one of the main conflicts of the film, that each fairy ends up having their specialised talents switched with one another (which, thanks to animation lead times, does sound a lot like the “Magical Mystery Cure” episode of Friendship Is Magic, now that you mention it), carries little weight because, err, I had no idea what their talents were in the first place.

Not that prior knowledge would help much, mind, as all of Tinker Bell’s fairies and even Tink herself are relegated to the side-lines for large chunks of this very short story.  The film seems more content to focus on said pirate fairy, newcomer to the series Zarina (voiced by Christina Hendricks, who seems to be making a habit of popping up in cartoons and stuff in general that I am interested in and/or like), and her number two in the crew, human pirate James (voiced by, of all people, Tom freakin’ Hiddleston); so much so that it might as well have been called Zarina’s Middle-Sized Adventure, With Those Other Fairies Too, I Guess.  The story begins with a good 10 minute prelude sequence (which, again, is 1/7 of the film) designed solely to introduce her and the things that make her tick, before she’s ostracised for causing an accident.  Tink and her friends, who pretty much have interchangeable personalities in this outing (excluding one who seems to like fashion and hate gross things despite being a flower fairy), are relegated to basically turning Zarina back to the good side and nothing else.  Maybe a longer runtime would have solved this; I’m struggling to think of stuff in Zarina’s arc that could have been cut to make room for scenes with the other half of the titular characters but I’m drawing a blank.

In addition, the ruthless efficiency in getting from A to B and out the door thank you very much for coming buy our merchandise in all good stores, means that there’s a lack of heart powering the whole thing.  Yes, a lot of time is fostered on Zarina, but the inevitable outcome of her adventure rang hollow for me.  It hits all of the heart-warming and feel-good beats without ever really feeling committed to it.  More cynical audience members or, say, anyone over the age of 8 will instead see it as their cue to start getting together their stuff for leaving.  I just didn’t really care about any of these characters and I got the feeling that the film didn’t either.  Nobody is ever in any real danger, nobody is particularly endearing, everybody except for The Fairy That Is Either Kristen Chenoweth Or A Scarily Good Kristen Chenoweth Impersonator (which of the two it is depends on which corner of the Internet you look and, no, I don’t make notes during a film screening), Zarina (because she’s the focus of the film), James (for reasons that are decent enough for me to decide to not spoil) and Tinker Bell (for obvious reasons), I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of these characters and game performances by every single cast member can’t elevate substandard material.

Look, I’m sounding really down on Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy.  This review has been nothing but negativity from almost the word go and I didn’t really mean for it to be.  It’s just that listing a film’s various problems is far more interesting and readable material than, “Meh.  It was OK whilst it lasted.  Nothing special, nothing dreadful.”  It’s reasonably engaging, very sporadically amusing and should probably be commended for sticking to its adventure premise throughout and not backing out from a sword-fight finale for stereotypical girly non-sequiturs, like fashion modelling sequences (of which there are none).  It’s the kind of thing you put on to amuse your kids whilst you do the ironing in the same room: not so bad that its continued existence drives you insane, but not so good that you become distracted by it and end up burning a hole in your clothes or something (full disclosure: I have no idea how ironing works).

In other words: acceptable direct-to-DVD stuff that kids will probably love whilst it lasts and then completely forget about 10 minutes later.  But you wanna know something?  Straight fter seeing this, I indulged myself and went straight into a screening of Frozen (which I’d already seen and which was almost nearly as packed as Tinker Bell, despite now being nearly four months old) and all I wanted to do after coming out of the cinema two hours later was talk about Frozen, or buy the Frozen soundtrack, or book tickets to a sing-along screening of Frozen, or, quite frankly, just keep thinking about Frozen.  By contrast, after seeing Tinker Bell, all I wanted to do was see Frozen and file this review so that I could go back to ruminating on Frozen when I left the Frozen cinema screen.  Point is: kids’ films can do better and kids deserve better and even attempting to insinuate that Tinker Bell is anywhere close to the levels that other kids’ films can, have and are achieving is laughable.

I dunno, maybe this series really is something excellent.  Maybe The Pirate Fairy is a lower-tier entry in the franchise.  Maybe some of the other ones, the ones that were released direct-to-DVD, are more than just inoffensive background noise.  Maybe I should cut it some more slack because it’s a film for little girls that doesn’t patronise and insult them in every other frame.  Maybe I should lay off because it’s more than decent for something that’s supposed to be direct-to-DVD.  Maybe I should, but I know that this medium can do better.  My Little Pony: Equestria Girls is coming to cinemas in a limited engagement in two weeks.  That’s also a direct-to-DVD film primarily aimed at little girls that doesn’t talk down to or patronise them; it’s also a million times better than this one by virtue of not being the film equivalent of white noise.  If you have to take your kids to one direct-to-DVD-made little girls’ cinema-release movie, you’d be better off with that one and to wait for Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy to hit the bargain bins, where its incessant mediocrity will be less of an issue.

Then again: the kids in my screen seemed to like it and I’m a 19 year-old man who seriously just wrote 3 and a half A4 pages about the worth of a film aimed at little girls to sell toys.  So, you know, take that for what it’s worth.

Callum Petch is living in a compromise.  He normally writes movie reviews and box office reports for Screened.com.  Follow him on the Twitters: @CallumPetch

The Harry Hill Movie

Our friend Callum Petch threw his critical mind into the fray when volunteering to review The Harry Hill Movie, which he describes as “exactly as bad as it looks, though it’s not due to a lack of trying”.

Harry Hill Movie 2Have you ever felt yourself physically age?  Like, have you ever been saddled with a task so monotonous, your mind drifts off elsewhere and it eventually settles on just counting off the minutes until you’re free of whatever you’re doing?  That happens to me quite a fair bit; sometimes due to my being a natural daydreamer but also because I watch a lot of bad movies.  Oftentimes, I don’t have a choice in the matter and such a mind drift only occurs when a film is either too dull or too bad for me to verbally or mentally (if I’m in the cinema, come on, I’m not a dick) insult.  But, when it does happen, it is, for me, the ultimate sign of a film completely failing.  This is why I class The Sweeney (2012) or Keith Lemon: The Film as worse films than The Last Airbender or Branded.  Those last two are incompetently made, ridiculous, poorly-acted, confusing pieces of trash… but they’re entertaining pieces of trash, the kind that I can sit and laugh at or attempt amateur Mystery Science Theatre 3000 sessions with.  The first two are terrible films and they’re boring; a lethal combination.

When watching The Harry Hill Movie, that sense of physically feeling the time slip away from me arrived in full force some 40 minutes, if that, into the movie.  But this time, something was different.  I couldn’t just feel the minutes slipping away into ether.  I could feel every individual second.  Every single one of them, getting away from me, reminding me that I voluntarily chose to spend 2 hours of my life sat in a cinema screen with the intention of watching The Harry Hill Movie.  I sank further and further into my seat.  I got close to dosing off, the first time that would have ever happened to me at a film in the cinema.  And it never felt like it was going to end!  It kept going on and on and on.  I started to fear that it really was going to run forever!  That I had died at some point the night before and had walked into my own circle of Hell; forced to, for all eternity, watch a comedy that’s too boring to insult and is nowhere near as passable as it’s trying to be.

In other words: The Harry Hill Movie sucks balls.

I feel like I should note, however, that it can’t be faulted for trying.  Whereas last year’s similarly awful and unnecessary Keith Lemon: The Film was content to just phone it in for 90 straight bloody minutes with a script that seemed happy to just throw in a bunch of pop culture references (not jokes, references) and celebrity cameos before calling it a night, Harry Hill is trying to be funny.  Specifically, it’s trying to be a live-action cartoon, and even more specifically it’s trying to be a cross between Dick Dastardly/Muttley and Sam Sheepdog/Ralph Wolf.  Harry (himself, kind of, there’s not really much of a fourth wall in this film) and his grandmother (Julie Walters) are on a road trip to Blackpool with Harry’s dying hamster Abu (voiced by Johnny Vegas because, presumably, everybody talented and likable was sick that day), pursued by Harry’s evil twin brother (Matt Lucas) and his incompetent henchmen (one of which is a visibly-desperate-to-make-this-material-work Simon Bird) because Harry’s twin wants to kidnap Abu for… reasons.  Illogical, stupid, Macguffin-based reasons.

It’s silly and out-there yet family-friendly and gives each scene a clear structure.  Unfortunately, that structure is all the film has.  Harry and co. will turn up somewhere, the incompetent henchmen will attempt to kidnap the hamster whilst Harry and his grandmother act completely oblivious to whatever’s going on, the henchmen will fail because they’re incompetent and then it’s off to the next area to do it all again.  It gets old fast because the film almost never switches up that structure and, even when the novelty is there, there are no funny jokes here.

Because, again, The Harry Hill Movie is trying to make people laugh.  There are jokes here, with set-ups and punch-lines of the verbal and physical nature, which is more than I can say for, say, The Hangover Part III.  It’s just that none of them are funny.  Either the timing is off, or the delivery is wrong, or somebody in the film clearly explains the joke when it didn’t need to be explained, or the joke goes on for way, way too long (there’s a section where Abu gets exposed to radioactive waves and a Kaiju parody gets underway… for 4 whole minutes), or the joke wasn’t funny to begin with, or the film uses a pop culture reference as its punch-line and instantly dates itself by two years (when told that he’s going to die, Abu shouts “I can’t die!  I just got a year’s subscription to Netflix!”) or four years (one of the minions’ “impeccable disguises” is a Justin Bieber costume where he talks in a high-pitched falsetto), or it’s delivered by Johnny Vegas, but none of the jokes are funny.  I think I laughed once (when Harry points out a plot hole with regards to the minions) and smirked once (when one of the minions puts scary music on the stereo before attempting to grab Abu).  For a 90 minute comedy, that’s practically a death sentence.

It’s quite mean-spirited at points, too.  In the opening, Harry blows up a family of chickens who are trying to kill him (no, I don’t know why and, quite honestly, my brain feels a lot nicer when it’s not trying to make sense of this film) and throws two eggs to his grandma with the notice that they’ll have those for breakfast.  80% of the interactions between Harry and his gran are him insisting that she has move out from his place and live in a retirement home (the other 20%, because I know you’re curious, is the pair of them acting oblivious in order for Abu’s physical hi-jinks to ensue).  There are some quick easy jokes about dwarfism, priests and nuns getting it on with one another and, and I am not kidding here, inter-species relations.  These moments are rare, but they stick out when they do occur and are endemic of a film with serious identity issues.  It tries to work on all levels for all of the family, but instead of just double-coding a bunch of jokes, it clumsily switches between age groups for targeted gags.  One moment, Abu is projectile vomiting, for the kids; the next he’s being lined up for execution, for the teenagers; the next, Harry’s gran notes that she meant to leave Harry to the wolves instead of his twin because she couldn’t raise two children and “it’s what any sensible granny would do”, for the adults.

The performers don’t do much to elevate the material, either.  Excepting Simon Bird (who is trying really, really, really, really hard to make any bit of his material work), everybody is either sleepwalking, inconsequential or, most damningly, abandoning all subtlety in favour of mugging for the camera as much as is humanly possible.  Hill, in particular, is really bad at this, there are times when he acts more like Kevin Bishop’s impression of Harry Hill than anything resembling a supposedly gifted comic actor.  Matt Lucas makes zero impression as the villain because, well, he doesn’t do anything.  Jim Broadbent cross-dresses to play a cleaning lady because… it’s Jim Broadbent cross-dressing and that’s funny?  Julian Barratt shows up in one of the film’s stupider plot turns and promptly does absolutely nothing.  He doesn’t even sing!  That’s just purposeful wasting of talent, right there!

Oh, one other thing: at points the film decides that it’s going to be a musical.  Not once does a musical number impact on the plot or have a reason for its existence (although there is one number which gets a lampshade thrown on its existence, as if the film thinks that doing so justifies doing the number and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t).  There’s a Les Misérables style ballad (and you know that it’s in the style of Les Misérables because Harry even says so just before it starts) that threatens to turn into a musical equivalent of his infamous “ear cataracts” segment from TV Burp.  None of the songs are funny, unless you’re one of those people who falls out of their chair laughing at the sight of Julie Walters rapping, and the song choices (which are or are not original tracks depending on… reasons, I don’t have an answer, in all honesty) often make no sense.  Matt Lucas sings “Nutbush City Limits” early on for literally no reason at all.  Unless the joke is just “IT’S MATT LUCAS SINGING NUTBUSH CITY LIMITS” which, come to think of it, is likely the case.  There’s only one half-decent song and that’s the one with The Magic Numbers who, in this film, are now running a B&B and a) yes, that is the whole joke and b) I’m just as surprised as you are that they’re still going, let alone that anybody even remembers them enough for this to qualify as a “joke”.

Despite all of my pre-release apprehension, I did not go into The Harry Hill Movie wanting to hate it.  I never go into a film wanting to hate it.  Sometimes I go in expecting to hate a film, but never wanting to hate a film.  What good does that do me?  I might as well light my £8 on fire.  Unfortunately, The Harry Hill Movie did precisely nothing to keep me from hating it.  In addition to a laundry list of other problems (another being that, despite my personal appreciation at the amount of puppetry in this film, Abu never looks cute, just terrifying and creepy), it commits the Comedy Film sin of not being funny and the Bad Movie sin of being too boring to make fun of or get angry at.  I felt every single one of those 5,280 seconds slip by me and I hope to the Maker that I don’t get that feeling again for a long while.

I saw this so you don’t have to.  Stay well clear.

Callum Petch won’t get much closer until he sacrifices it all.  He normally writes about movies at Screened.com (site link).  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and read his gaming column Petchulant over at GameSparked!