*THROWBACK REVIEW* BELLE

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Pride and Racial Prejudice or Frownton Abbey. A stellar British cast uplifts a syrupy biopic that you’d expect to see on ITV. 12 Years A Slave, this ain’t. It’s certainly watchable and zips along but it doesn’t really make full use of the cast or the subject matter and inevitably leads to the same old predictable schmaltzy finale.

So what’s it all about? Inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The illegitimate mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy captain is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and wife (Emily Watson).

Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet the colour of her skin prevents her from fully participating in the traditions of her social standing. However, she soon falls for an idealistic young vicar’s son (Sam Reid – The Riot Club) bent on change who, with her help, shapes Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England.

Well, at least gets the ball rolling . . . sort of, kinda.

The beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Touch) takes the fold and delivers a strong performance. One to watch for the future. Matthew Goode (Stoker/The Good Wife) applies enough charisma to make a memorable impression as Captain Sir John Lindsay, who plucks an orphaned Belle from poverty and much worse. A shame that he is only in the film for five minutes before departing on a long voyage.

To be honest, anyone could have played him. Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) seems to be typecast of late as the uptight old prune of an aunt but if she delivers the goods, does it matter? To me, just a bit.

Even Tom Felton is playing a Victorian Draco Malfoy, complete with “mudblood” attitude in tow. Don’t get me wrong, he plays the slick toothed snob to perfection. As does James Norton (or Tommy from the highly acclaimed BBC TV series Happy Valley) as Felton’s smug brother and partner in crime.

They are both the weasel-y twins (What?) as they try and weave their way into Belle’s fortune. Miranda Richardson (Blackadder) is also brilliant as their conniving matriarch. Emily Watson plays her part well, even if her character is completely unnecessary.

Merely, a commentator sitting on the side lines. Commentary that is self-explanatory as, to be honest, there is not a lot going on. The beautiful Sarah Gadon (Dracula Untold) is making an impression. She plays the dibby cousin Elizabeth well. You do feel for her character as she appears to be used as pawn in a game of rich chess or left lingering in the shadow of the “exotic beauty”.

I appreciate the concept and direction the film took. This is a completely different story to 12 Years A Slave that deals with the issue of race within the aristocracy. The fact that Belle was awarded the stature and position of any rich member of power and is unable to use it, says it all.

However, it all feels a little petty in comparison to the visceral gritty torture that Solomon endured. He was beaten, whipped and hung. Belle was made to eat in a separate room to the rest of the family and was perceived merely as an exhibition piece, an exotic jewel, nothing more.

Tom Wilkinson is fantastic as Lord Mansfield whose position is compromised in between fulfilling the law. The law that does not treat any person of colour with respect or even see them as people.

He works well with Mbatha-Raw which allows for some heartfelt moments. After the initial introduction and set up in an easy going half hour, the film seems to be happy to tend with the mundane gossip of petty rich Victorian folk while the inevitable romance blossoms between Belle and John Davinier (Reid). The awkward exchanges, the subtle glances and turning aways. Check, check. All there.

It all feels like by the end it is merely ticking the boxes for all the clichés of a period drama. Any chance of making statements are crushed by an inevitable corny love story. The finale is merely a revelatory court case with the verdict relying on Mansfield’s overriding decision.

A decision that is so obvious and unbelievably predictable that all the grandiose speeches mean nothing. I expected so much more.

It’s well-acted, easy going but doesn’t seem to be sure on whether to be a hard-hitting drama or a slow burning love story.

If you’re a period drama fan, then you’ll love this but it brings nothing new to the genre. Weaker episodes of Downton Abbey have done a better job (There’s never been a weak episode of Downton? That’s scandalous!)

If you’re already going in making comparisons and expecting 12 Years A Slave, then . . . watch 12 Years A Slave. Such a shame. Not bad but not great.

2.5/5

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*THROWBACK REVIEW* ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH

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And the duds just keep on coming. I need to escape from the cinema for a while. Enough to keep the little ‘uns quiet for 80 odd minutes but parents might want to take in their Kindles (or a physical book if you’re old school).

Astronaut Scorch Supernova (Brendan Fraser) is a national hero to the blue alien population. A master of daring rescues, Scorch pulls off astonishing feats with the quiet aid of his nerdy, by-the-rules brother, Gary (Rob Corddry). However, when the brothers receive an SOS from a notoriously dangerous planet (Earth. What? Spoilers? Come on guys), Scorch rejects Gary’s warnings and bounds off for yet another exciting mission leading to his capture. Inevitably, it’s up to scrawny, risk-adverse Gary to do the real rescuing.

Brendan Fraser (The Mummy franchise/George of the Jungle) what happened? Oh how the mighty have fallen. In all fairness, his movie list of late is hardly legendary. He does his best to bring the laughs as chughead Scorch in his strangely Buzz Lightyear-esque attire.

It’s a shame with how much talent was attached to this. I know, it’s a kid’s film but Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks (most of the time) have delivered timeless classics with great stories, great characters and enough to entertain everybody. Unfortunately this one just doesn’t make the cut.

It’s not all bad. It has enough OTT slapstick gags to keep the little ‘uns giggling and the animation is brilliant. Visually colourful and detailed. 3D hardly a must but there were a couple of clever gimmicky moments in there. Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine) plays the pathetic protagonist quite well.

Ricky Gervais once again pops up in a rather dull and fed up voice over as the computer system, BING, James Bing. Oh dear. Now I’m one for the puns and silly one liners but even that one got me cringing. Jessica Alba surprisingly goes against character type and plays the baddie for a change.

William Shatner provides his Trekky gravitas to the sinister General Shanker with aplomb. Sofia Vergara (Modern Family) plays a rather irritating and bland character that really doesn’t have a point or contribution to the film (Bit like Modern Family. Ouch. Stop it). Sarah Jessica Parker does her best with the lines, “Not bad for a mom who’s had two kids”.

As does Jane Lynch (Glee) as the one eyed creature and appropriately named Io, “First time I laid eye on you”. Does that line sound familiar? Hmmm I thought so too (*Cough* Monsters Inc *Cough*)

The characters that stood out for me were George Lopez (Rio/Rio 2) as the slimy slug hybrid Thurman. The ever talented Craig Robinson (This is the End) manages to make a memorable performance as the eccentric fast talking Doc. Steve Zahn (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) hippies it up as alien enthusiast Hawk. His first encounter with Corddry’s character was quite funny but it soon goes on too long and gets very annoying.

This isn’t the worst animation film I’ve seen this year. That honour goes to the turkey Free Birds (What?) but it’s pretty close. Interestingly enough for those who have seen Free Birds; was Escape from Planet Earth an unintentional spin off? The facility and more importantly, the quarantined Monsters Inc rip off suit guys look just like them.

Regardless, they steal the show in one tut worthy guilty pleasure of a scene in which they manage to parody a number of movies in a food fight. The Artist was a nice touch.

There is a cheeky pop at satire with the government propaganda video segment, “Do you believe in Communism? Then you are an alien”. Unexpected but not bad. The Beatle-esque aliens got a guilty laugh. The twist *POSSIBLE SPOILER BUT NOT REALLY* that humans have been capturing aliens and stealing their technology and claiming it for their own was a nice touch. Doc venting his frustration at the money he should be earning for Facebook was quite funny.

However, it gets all too corny and cheesy. For every good joke, there’s a dozen naff ones. I mean an encounter with a wacky waving inflatable tubed man brought the odd chuckle. But just doesn’t work as a recurring joke. Mainly because it wasn’t that funny the first time round.

If you’re looking for a quick distraction for the kids, then give it a go. Otherwise invest in How To Train Your Dragon 2 or something.

CHEF REVIEW

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Jon Favreau cooks up another treat, a little overcooked and missing a little seasoning. This meal may be a little overhyped but a treat none the same.

Don’t worry, there will be more food punnery somewhere. Overall, not bad. An easy going, nice film. Makes a change to have an upbeat movie. The only problem is that it may be too nice and gets absorbed too much in it’s running length and preparation that it forgets to deliver the dessert (There we go) or in my case, drama or conflict.

The film is about . . . let me guess, a chef? Come on, stop it now. A chef (Favreau) who loses his restaurant job starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative premise, while piecing back together his estranged family. Favreau plays a likeable lead and the initial preparation in which we see his character’s relationship with his son and torn obligations between cooking the set menu and being creative makes for a watchable, if a little long, opener. However, once he ends up getting into a Twitter feud with a pestilent food critic (Oliver Platt) and has a Gordon Ramsey-esque meltdown, it all kicks off.

Favreau has a fantastic cast at its fingertips. Dustin Hoffman plays the arrogant owner to perfection. Scarlett Johansson is hot . . . What? And plays a restricted supporting role but pulls off the tattooed dark brunette look. Platt doesn’t really get to say much as Favreau’s chef lays into him before he has a chance. A shame as we know Platt could have done more with that role. His grimacing and face pulling were convincing, if that’s any comfort. Sofia Vergara (you may remember her from Modern Family) was surprisingly not irritating at all. I expected her to be whining and yelling like Gloria. Nope, a much more subdued role and to be honest, I wanted to see more of her. Not like that . . . well a little.

The main focus is on Favreau finding his passion again but also restoring his relationship with his son (Emjay Anthony). Anthony and Fav work well together and there are some nice moments. One critic did mention how this film was like food porn and my word, some of the dishes that are prepared, I was sweating and panting. My lord. Anyway, moving on. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire) plays Fav’s knuckle head sous-chefs well. Leguizamo, in particular, proves yet again to be a good supporting choice. He doesn’t quite get enough of the laughs or time that his character deserves.

The only problem is the length for me dragged in parts. Once they have got on the road with the truck and served a few people, it gets repetitive. Mainly because everything is all tickety boo. No real drama along the way. Vergara is very supportive. Every one is getting on. The police appear at one point but only in the form . . . of the hilarious comedian Russell Peters. His Lady and the Tramp pic with Fav brought a chuckle. It’s all too nicey, nicey. Favreau seems to suddenly realise at the end. Hang on, can’t make it that easy. Let’s throw a quick spanner in the works but still make it alright in the end. It leaves little in plot development or surprises and gets a little predictable.

But it does keep you watching. The scenery and the dishes look fantastic. There are some funny moments. Robert Downey Jr makes a five minute, if slightly overhyped, cameo. He does deliver the laughs with him bumbling and baffling poor Fav. Friends doing what they do best. A nice touch.

The whole social media jibe worked really well, especially in this day and age with Favreau failing to understand the impact of one tweet and the issue of becoming a viral phenomenon. Favreau’s previous works have always seemed to suffer from either an overlong pace with little story or too much story and not enough pace. This was a mish mesh. Started off with a story but then the pace dragged it out that for a certain moment, I felt I was just watching two chefs work. But it’s not all bad. Chef is a nice movie to look at but just not as tasty as you hoped. Still worth a bite or two. 3/5

Currently ranked 63 out of 196!

UNDER THE SKIN REVIEW

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Under the skin? More like grating against my skin. What the hell did I just watch?

Now imagine Species. Replace Natasha Henstridge with the even more alluring Scarlett Johansson. Set it in a grittier, murkier Scottish backdrop and you have . . . something worse than Species. In fact just watch Species. Hell, even check out their dreadful sequels.

Now Scarlett Johansson plays a flirty alien that feasts on weak, shallow, lonely Scottish men. How could this be so bad? How can the man who brought us Sexy Beast produce this? (I mean he did do the oddly bizarre Birth. You know the one with Nicole Kidman and her husband whose reincarnated as a 10 year old? Yeah that one).

And breathe. I tried to find redeeming features in this drab affair and the points are few and far between. Director Jonathan Glazer creates a daunting experience that despite starting off harrowing, soon turns into a mind-numbing coma inducing journey with an unexpected if pathetic climax.

From the opening sequence, you knew what to expect. An incredibly drawn out and mind numbing scene opener that desperately attempted to be clever and artistic BUT just came off pretentious.

The light and orb like imagery to form an eye was a nice touch but ten minutes of Johansson mumbling with that irritating tinny noise drilling through your head? Not so much. It felt like Glazer was trying to outdo David Lynch and failing miserably.

The low budget Taxi Driver-esque hunting sequences were originally intriguing. Especially when Johansson entraps her first kill. BUT that soon got very repetitive. The killing sequences were the better moments of the film. Haunting and engaging in parts. The soundtrack was more a collection of noises BUT creepy ones that will stick with you.

The men she entraps makes for some darkly comical moments whether that was intentional is another matter. Once the feasting method is revealed, it’s pleasantly gory. The special effects are actually very good (When they are used).

However after a solid hour of Johansson vamping it up with her mangled posh English accent, I felt my eyes wandering to my watch. Apparently, most of the men that Johansson approaches were just normal, I say normal, fellas walking the streets. One major gripe. The trip scene. What was the point of that? She trips. Which Glazer decided to keep in the movie. I couldn’t understand the purpose. Other than for hilarious Internet memes.

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BUT for story and structure? Nothing. Her feeling of isolation, neglect and confusion was established very early on. There was no need for the endless blank faced staring at random objects or people over and over.

The only surprise turn after an hour was when Johansson’s characters picks on a man that suffers a similar condition to the Elephant Man. Credit where it’s due. It was an engrossing scene. But one good scene does not a good movie make. Look I try to find the good in movies. I want them to succeed but in terms of story and structure, there isn’t a lot.

Once ScarJo has got in the buff (Whey. Pack it up!), you feel as if they have run out of ideas. Done a kill scene. Uh, flash her body. Done a hunting sequence. Flash her va- various regions. Disappointing. It raised questions but didn’t really answer any.

I mean, what was the deal with the motorbike guy? He came across as a Reinfeld to ScarJo’s extraterrestrial Dracula. Without spoiling; the beach scene was a strange encounter. The longer the film went on, the thinner my patience got. I was bored.

An unexpected chase sequence through the forest made for a redeeming ten minutes with a crazy if incredibly disappointing finale. I can’t help but feel that if it wasn’t Johansson fronting this, this mess wouldn’t have even had a cinema release. And rightly so.

I respect Johansson for branching out and investing in indie projects again but this? She does what she can with the part. But my goodness. I mean it does stay under your skin merely as a reminder that I wasted almost two hours of my life.

Droll, drab, dark but drawn out. A definite Marmite film. Unfortunately I hate Marmite.

1.5/5 for me. Sorry ScarJo.

ENDLESS LOVE REVIEW

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A story we’ve seen done endless times before but surprisingly enough with a light touch and a good cast, quite watchable. Not the worst love story going, but not the best. If you love all that predictable guff, give it a go. The spiel is nothing new. Privileged, if isolated, high school loner  Jade Butterfield (Gabriella Wilde) falls in love with the charismatic rogue mechanic/car valet David Elliott (Alex Pettyfer), against her controlling father’s (Bruce Greenwood) wishes. SHOCK!  What follows is a predictable luvvy duvvy affair that occurs over the summer as the pair fight against their parents and the paths that lay before them.

There is great chemistry between the two leads; the beautiful (if a little skinny) Wilde (who featured in the shambolic Carrie remake and St Trinians franchise) and (I’m sure the ladies will say beautiful) Pettyfer (I Am Number Four/Beastly/Magic Mike). They make two likeable characters, even if you worry they’re going to choke on all the cheese they’re guzzling. I was surprised to see that the two leads were British. Their accents were spot on. It was also interesting to see the number of British actors popping up in this film; Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck) and Emma Rigby?! The girl has gone far from her Hollyoaks days, featuring in all sorts now (The less we say the better Ridley Scott disaster The Counsellor and the US TV series Once Upon a Time in Wonderland). Was it just me or did she have her lips pumped? I digress.

It’s all very easygoing and at times hammy with the OTT speeches of (truth, freedom and above all things . . . ) love but the cast make something that should make you cringe watchable and at times engaging. The awkward glances and exchanges blossom into a summery romance with the usual check list; riding on bicycles together, lying in the field blowing daisies, check, check. Ice cold bitchy girl jealous of loved up couple and intent on tearing them apart in the form of the alluring, if lipped up Rigby. Check. Well, kind of. She doesn’t really kick off until late on. More could have been made of her character. Dayo Okeniyi plays David’s best friend/comic relief Mace (not the spray) very well which splits them the luvvy duvvyness. Richardson and Robert “T-1000” Patrick play their parts well, even if they’re a little too soft and supportive for my liking.

The real star for me is the underrated Bruce Greenwood (the Star Trek reboot franchise/I, Robot) as Mr. Hugh Butterfield. The friction and tension between him and David makes up for all the cheesy romance stuff. He works well with Pettyfer and shows why he should be in more films. His presence, his expressions makes his encounters very watchable and makes for a fiery finale as he fears his influence over his family is fading. There was one unexpected moment and it gets a little more interesting when David’s checkered past is revealed but because of the tone of the film, it’s not as bad or as sinister as you think or could have been. It gets OTT, cheesy, but it’s easygoing, watchable and if you like romance and dramas with cheesy predictable guff, then give it a go. Not as bad as I prepared myself for nor as good but it missed out on a treat releasing this during the summer. More a summery film if anything with the well-shot sun lit locations and bright soundtrack. Could have gone a little darker and been stronger for it 2.5/5

Currently ranks #88 out of 145.

PLEASE NOTE: You might have gathered I’m not a romancey movie guy. Apologies for my terminology. I did my best 😉

The Monuments Men Review

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Not a monument that will stand the lengths of time in the huge backlog of war classics we’ve had before. It checked all the boxes but failed to deliver anything new or interesting. Hardly a bomb site, but it lacked the right execution for this operation.

George Clooney takes the helm yet again in an ambitious war effort that just fails to hit the mark. The Monuments Men is based on a real operation that was approved by President Roosevelt himself to help retrieve stolen art and relics from the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners. However, as World War Two is coming to a close, Hitler issues an order to destroy all the art, making it a race against the clock. Now, an intriguing premise that suggested a treasure hunt with a dash of Indiana Jones and a hint of Dad’s Army for good measure. Not at all, old sport. What came was a well acted, if meandering drawn out crusade that if not for a couple of twists, would have been dead in the water. It is difficult to criticize when this is based on a true story, but it still can’t be excused as it raised too many questions.

It reeked of the war movies of old. The sort of maritime viewing you get on a Sunday afternoon. A nice melancholic feel but the problem was that it felt dated before it had even begun. It does start off quite easy going and watchable. The cheeky winking and lighthearted pace as Clooney assembles a talented ensemble of retired veterans and soldiers consisting of Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Jean Dujardin (The Artist) and the underrated Bob Balaban (who has always stood out for me after his turn in The Lady in the Lake with his speech on characters. One for the writers, that). And of course, not forgetting the regular Clooney collaborators, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett.

It’s always going to be hard to make a war film after so many classics but looking at this as a sole text, the tone is all over the place. It has the cheeky twinkle that suggests a Dad’s Army and Allo Allo vibe, especially with Damon’s badly spoken French. A reverse twist that had the odd chuckle, with the French begging him to speak English. There is the occasional titter but the material fails to bring a lot of humour and the partnership between Balaban and Murray could have been so much more. We know Murray is funny, so why not let him apply a little bit of his spiel? He seemed restricted. Well, if we’re honest, they all seem restricted. There was potential with Dujardin and Bonneville, especially in an exchange as to why Hitler only bombs places with no art or culture. Bonneville retorts, “Well they bombed London”. Dujardin smiles, “Yes, I know”. A little bit harsh but there could have been a little rivalry or banter exchange between them, but the two get paired up with the wrong actors, to be honest.

That is also the main problem, the gang inevitably have to split up to cover more ground, which is more miss than hit. Damon aimlessly wonders around the beautiful French countryside before he finally meets his contact, Cate Blanchett. Clooney just drives around, barking orders and taking inventory with young recruit Dmitri Leonidas (you may remember him from the fantasy dud of a TV reboot, Sinbad).  Goodman and Dujardin do have the more interesting adventures with snipers and concluding battle scenes as the Germans were being pushed out. Murray and Balaban bring the odd chuckle and are a good pairing but their adventures are a little nothingy. When Damon meets Blanchett, it does pick up and there is some great chemistry between them but it all gets quite corny and hints at a needless and unnecessary romance. 

There are sobering moments that do bring it back home with some unexpected twists that did surprise, without spoiling, and once the group reunite, the film picks up after a drawn out hour. The land mine scene may have been corny, but was funny and suspenseful. There is a harrowing little touch when the group come across more than they bargained for, when they discover barrels of gold wedding rings and teeth. Clooney’s cigarette speech with the head German officer in charge of disposing the art was brilliant. We finally got to see Clooney come back to the fore and act well, after being quite absent. The pace quickens as the gang have to race against the clock to retrieve all the art before the Russians arrive. There is also a nice aside at the end with a fitting tribute. 

However, The Monuments Men felt more like an extension of the Points episode in Band of Brothers and unfortunately that got the point across a lot better and a lot more riveting in a condensed hour. I couldn’t help feel that in a time of death, loss and destruction, who would care about some pieces of art? Understandably, it is true that by removing the history and culture, you are truly removing the people but it seems less important to the lives that were already lost. A watchable, if drawn out, corny and predictable affair that may get lost like the art in the plethora of war classics before it. 2.5/5

Currently ranks #86 out of 142!