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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire [DVD] [2013]
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire [DVD] [2013]
Dvd ~ Jennifer Lawrence
Price: £6.99

2 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars In which I see that fire, and p*** on it a little bit., 13 Feb 2014
We no longer live in a world where the law of diminishing returns can be instantly applicable to film sequels. Since comic book adaptations developed the habit of producing second instalments superior to the original, worry has instead fallen upon the third part of a film series, as, more often than not, this is where stagnation and declining quality tend to be a factor. Recently though, there have been a number of disappointing second instalments. Thor: The Dark World wasn't awful, but it wasn't a patch on the original. Kick-Ass 2 received a barrage of hatred from many, although I hasten to add that I felt this was grossly undeserved. That's not to say it's all gone to hell. Star Trek Into Darkness managed to keep the flag flying for the superior second instalment, but it's not so much guaranteed now. A change in director is something that can often signal this decline in quality and that is exactly what The Hunger Games series faced with Catching Fire. Now obviously, Catching Fire has been a success, both critically and financially. For me to pretend otherwise would be foolish and deluded. Equally though, for me to say that I am in agreement with that praise would be a lie. Catching Fire is decent and, as a result, disappointing that it's not excellent.

With Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) having been declared joint winners of the previous Hunger Games, they face a Victor's Tour round all the other districts, where they're supposed to smile and wave to the relatives of the people who died so they could survive. It's a cheerful affair. Forced to keep up the façade of their relationship for the purposes of publicity, Katniss has also managed to become a symbol of hope and rebellion for the other Districts. In the eyes of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), this makes her Public Enemy Number One. Convenient for him then, that The Hunger Games are about to have their 75th Anniversary, it's third Quarter Quell, in which tradition dictates they do something a little different. Seizing his opportunity, Snow declares that they will mark this by having a Hunger Games comprised entirely of former victors, guaranteeing Katniss' involvement, due to her status as the only former female winner from District 12.

Catching Fire sees Francis Lawrence taking over as director, as he will for the final two instalments. Lawrence's career has been fairly mixed, ranging from the downright awful I Am Legend to Water For Elephants, a film far better than Robert Pattinson's lead performance indicated. For a man who began his career directing music videos, things could have been a lot worse. When considering the sterling track record of previous director Gary Ross though, Lawrence pales in comparison. Here, he has one huge advantage as he's working with a host of brilliant actors. Jennifer Lawrence's star has risen considerably in the short time that has passed between this and the previous instalment, while the reliable hands of Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson also make their return. His real ace-in-the-hole though is the addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Plutarch Heavensbee, a character that achieves the seemingly impossible, by out-ridiculousing (it's a word) the already strong competition for daftest character name in the series. It appears Lawrence knows that he's struck lucky with this cast and his direction reflects this: keeping things simple and very much focussed on them. There's no rushed cutting to scenes of explosions and desolation, out of some ill-found and incorrect fear that the audience will lose interest. There's also no "Michael Bay a*** shots", despite having many prime contenders for providing him with those. Instead, he has remained faithful to the style that was set up in the first instalment, but has somehow made this feel even more character-driven. For the most part, that's a good thing.

For starters, Jennifer Lawrence absolutely nails her performance, moreso than in the first film, able to appear strong when necessary, without betraying the emotional scars that Katniss now has to bear. Thankfully, there's been no asinine complaints over Lawrence not looking malnourished enough this time around. Donald Sutherland also produces one of his best performances in years. Since the first film, President Snow has developed from an unlikeable symbol of the repression of the lower classes into a fully fledged monster. He is hateful in every way that a character like this should be, but fearsome in his willingness to confront his issues head-on. An early meeting between him and Katniss is rife with tension as you wish for Katniss to end him and hate him even more as he rests in the comfortable knowledge that that is the last thing she can do. He is a villain, through and through. The most frightening aspect of him is that he is a believable one.

The real surprise, however, comes in the form of Josh Hutcherson. He wasn't exactly weak before, just a bit unmemorable. Here, he demands your attention, as though he's realised that he's acting opposite Hollywood's favourite new star and ups his game accordingly. The effects of the first Hunger Games have matured Peeta, but he is now facing the brutal realisation that Katniss' affections may merely be for show. Instead of this making him look weak, it does the exact opposite. Peeta brings your sympathies straight to him, by refusing to mope over the undesirable situation he has found himself in, instead doing what he can to make sure that a bad situation will hurt him as little as possible. This is achieved in a performance by Hutcherson that could hopefully ensure he's able to keep his popularity going beyond the series. While he portrays an obvious sadness and disappointment well, he also conveys a believable inner strength that avoids the stock jilted lover template. Unfortunately, through no fault of his own, he's also a major part of one the film's weaker elements.

The reason why Katniss is not with Peeta is because of her attraction to Liam Hemsworth's Gale, hence the dreaded love triangle unfolding before our very eyes. While her mouth says her heart lies with Gale, her eyes suggest otherwise. This element works, mainly due to Jennifer Lawrence being more than capable of handling this through simple facial expressions, rather than awkward exposition. The problems with the triangle begin with Liam and end with Hemsworth. To call Gale wet is to render the Atlantic dry by comparison. In a persistent state of self-pity over how unfair it all is, there's nothing about the character that makes you see why Katniss would ever like him more than Peeta. As a result, the love triangle doesn't work because the film wants you to believe in the possibility that Katniss has affections for both. No amount of puppy dog eyes from Hemsworth can do anything to change that. He had next to nothing to do in the first film, leaving the character feeling undeveloped. Now we've had that development, I'm wishing they hadn't bothered.

Sadly, under-development does rear it's head in a really disappointing way, namely Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman, one of the original's best characters. The annoying thing is that he just picks up where he left off and then stays there. There is nothing new about Flickerman and anything that he does is something that he has done before. I couldn't help but feel like they were squandering the chance to show Flickerman outside of his television persona. It's at this point that the necessity for full disclosure rears it's head. My knowledge of The Hunger Games series practically defines partially educated. I have never read the books and have only the first film to act as the extent of my knowledge in this series. Like further development of Caesar, many of the things that I felt would and, in some cases, should have happened feel like they're being saved for the final two films, leading me on to my next issue. Catching Fire doesn't half feel like a stop-gap.

As soon as the trailers arrived for Catching Fire, I started feeling worried. Again, having not read the books probably served as my downfall here, but the notion of Katniss being involved in another Hunger Games felt worrying to me, even if the stakes were raised and the way in which she enters them feels credible. The first film was unfairly criticised by some for being too similar to Battle Royale. No film though wants to be compared to Battle Royale 2 and that is what I felt was at risk here. Stagnation does happen to a degree, although it's not quite as bad as it could have been. It's helped by the arena in which the games take place. Without giving anything away, the arena is a true high concept, a dangerous strategy that pays off by helping make the games feel different and provides the characters with a completely different aim to just killing each other. It's not quite explored as much as I would like, but this is because they take their time in getting to the games and, to be honest, the stuff that comes before is much more interesting. The biggest problem though is an accentuation of one of the original's. With 24 competitors in the games, it would be a nigh on impossible task to properly develop each one's characters, but, in developing the essential ones, they don't even try to give the others anything remotely resembling a personality. A hefty proportion don't even get a name, turning them into disposable entities on the level of a teenager in a dark, secluded house.

The Hunger Games left things set up perfectly. It was apparent where everything was going and this left huge anticipation for the next film. Catching Fire simply kills time while we await this climax, leaving us in the exact same place as the first one did, with little development, bar a rushed final 5-10 minutes which attempt to up the ante. In a weird way though, they leave it all feeling a bit anti-climactic. I'm both excited and nervous for Mockingjay. It's definitely going to present the story that I was hoping Catching Fire would present some of and I'm really looking forward to seeing that. On the flip-side, I've heard from a number of sources that the book is nowhere near as good as the first two, leaving me to wonder whether I should get on with reading the books in an attempt to suppress any potential disappointment. On it's own merits, Catching Fire would have been an excellent film, with some fantastic performances. It's following The Hunger Games though, a film which managed to break free from the shackles of being "the new Twilight" and prove that sparkling vampires don't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. While the performances are unaffected by this, Catching Fire does feel like a diminished return.

THREE out of five
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 28, 2014 10:47 PM GMT


Inside Llewyn Davis [Blu-ray] [2014]
Inside Llewyn Davis [Blu-ray] [2014]
Dvd ~ Oscar Isaac
Offered by EagleDVD
Price: £12.89

12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In which the Coen Brothers do something different, even for them., 23 Jan 2014
I hate cats. Not in a "throw them in the bin" kind of way. Nor in a "set the dog on them" kind of way, although that wouldn't be successful anyway, as my dog's scared of cats. No, instead my dislike comes from how high and mighty they are, strutting around the place like you should drop to your knees in reverential cries of unworthiness, while actions to the contrary result in a death stare comparable to Putin's at a t.A.T.u. reunion. So, a film must be doing something right when it not only makes me like a cat, but also makes me want to take it's side. When you consider that the Coen Brothers gave us an almost (ALMOST!) justifiable shooting of a dog in No Country For Old Men, it could just be them trying to realign karma in their favour. Whatever the reason though, it's worked. A part of me now wants to adopt an abandoned ginger cat.

After releasing three excellent films and Burn After Reading in just four years, the Coen Brothers looked like they might be going a bit Woody Allen as far as regularity of releases went. However, with the exception of writing the script of Gambit, which felt more like a clearance of the brain rot they'd collected over the years à la intolerable Cruelty, things have been relatively quiet in the Coen camp and we've had an almost three-year gap between the releases of True Grit and Inside Llewyn Davis. If a three-year gap results in films like this, then I suggest they take them more frequently, because this is one of the best films the Coens have ever made.

Inside Llewyn Davis follows the titular character, played by Oscar Isaac, living homeless and penniless in New York as he attempts to put his career in the folk scene back on track, following the suicide of his songwriting partner. With little success coming his way and others doubting his ability to succeed, mainly due to his torturous lack of people skills, Davis is also informed of the very real possibility that he's impregnated his friend's wife. What we then follow is a week in Davis' life, as he becomes torn between continuing on the path he wants to, or going in the direction that others think he should.

Despite a couple of blips, you can never call a film by The Coens boring. As a result, I'm always interested to see anything they put out. In this case though, the bulk of my interest laid elsewhere, as I more wanted to see how Oscar Isaac fared in the lead role. Hardly a household name, Isaac's career has, up until this point, consisted of solid performances in not-so-solid films, some well-known (Robin Hood, Sucker Punch), others less so (10 Years). Apparently, he was in Drive, but I don't recall his performance, serving as further proof that I really do need to go back and give that film a repeat viewing. While there was nothing about his previous performances that particularly stood out as great, there was something about him that made me think he may be a better actor than the films he was in would indicate. I just couldn't put my finger on why. Here, he proves it. His performance is, first and foremost, human, operating within the Coens' quirky world, without that overcoming him. In other films, many established actors have delivered a performance that feels more like the Coens than their own. For Isaac, this is firmly his performance. It's in the other actor's that you see the more Coen-esque performances and the downside of this is that they almost entirely serve as background to Isaac's greater accomplishment. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan are both solid, but fail to find that element that will let them linger in your memory. Everything you will remember about this film involves Isaac, who manages to differentiate himself from the others, without becoming separate from the world he inhabits. If your film's going to retain focus on one performance, it's a fine one to choose.

One fantastic performance does not prove you entirely as an actor. That's aimed at you, Sam Riley. It does, however, give you the advantage. An advantage that, if seized properly, can propel you and just about erase any past transgressions. If that sounds too idealistic to be true, look at Matthew McConaughey, a man who only avoided becoming the most annoying screen presence going by persistently wheeling out Kate Hudson as some sort of impenetrable vitriol deflector. Put a lit match next to McConaughey's prior brain-farts and you've got an atom bomb. Put them next to Isaac's and, in comparison, you'll be lucky if the things stays alight. This could the be the kick-start to greater things and, provided the performances stay as strong as this, it's an ascension I would greatly welcome.

Of course, you can't talk about a Coens' film without talking about the script. It's easy to say that a Coens script is excellent and await agreement, because it's a generally accepted fact that the Coens are masterful writers. On a bad day though, the Coens have produced some frankly awful scripts, with the aforementioned Gambit feeling flat-out lazy and Burn After Reading appearing pitifully unaware of how far it was descending into self-parody. I can accept that it must be harder to maintain quality when you've previously hit such dazzling heights as Miller's Crossing and The Big Lebowski, but when the Coens make a bad film, they make an absolute stinker and it's usually the result of a lacklustre script. Not so, here. Not everyone will understand why someone would want to spend their life playing folk music, but that's not the point. Anyone can relate to passion and the desire for that passion to become imbued in your existence. Funny at turns and touching at others, the script manages a deft balance between presenting the world that Davis inhabits and relating that to any member of the audience who doesn't share an immediately apparent common link.

This brings us to awards nominations or, rather, the lack of them. Every year, a film comes out that gets heaps of praise, but then gets all but ignored when it comes to award nominations. Last year it was The Master. The year before that it was Drive and before that it was Inception. This year, it's Inside Llewyn Davis (although, no Oscar nomination for Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips? REALLY?!?). There are more than a handful of great films released every year and so some are inevitably going to get missed out. My problem, however, is that American Hustle has been frequently nominated and Llewyn Davis hasn't, despite deserving it more. Hell, let's be bold. Inside Llewyn Davis deserves a Best Picture nomination more than Gravity does. The nominations have been few, but at least it's been nominated in two areas where it really does deserve it: namely cinematography and sound.

First off, the cinematography, which is beautiful. This is going to sound somewhat hyperbolic, but you'll have to take my word for it. In the club scenes, where most of the shots give us a view from the audience, you actually feel as though the screen isn't there. You are in a club, watching someone perform. I can say this with confidence, because when the song had finished, I very nearly applauded with the on-screen audience, saving myself from embarrassment at the last second when I remembered that I was actually in a fairly packed cinema. The sound is also necessary in creating this feeling. Things are kept very simple here. They don't litter the performances with sounds from the crowd, instead really focussing on the music itself and ensuring that this sounds as good as it possibly could. It must be said that, at times, performances sound closer to studio recordings, rather than live performances and this can be a little distracting but, on a technical level, they've done a masterful job. I don't think it stands the slightest chance of beating Gravity in this area and I don't know that it should, but it's nice to see the recognition in an area where it could have easily been overlooked.

While some of the ticks and twitches often attributable to the Coens are present within the background, this is a film more about one man as an embodiment of human ambition, both when striving to achieve that ambition and when falling into laziness. Davis is far from flawless, a character who makes some very poor and, at times, unlikeable decisions, thus making him all the more human. I heard someone leaving the cinema complain that they thought the film was a bit slow. If that's true, it's only because the realisation of ambition is slow and certainly not something that you could realistically show if your entire movie takes place within the same week. Sometimes, slow can be a compliment, in the same way that simplistic can and both of those could be used in relation to Inside Llewyn Davis. For me though, plain old excellent seems better.

FIVE out of five
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 28, 2014 10:44 PM GMT


American Hustle [DVD] [2013]
American Hustle [DVD] [2013]
Dvd ~ Christian Bale
Price: £5.00

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In which THAT cast and THAT script almost create something phenomenal, 8 Jan 2014
This review is from: American Hustle [DVD] [2013] (DVD)
It's amazing how the slight manipulation of a simple phrase can create such a huge difference. Every time I sit down to watch a film where the first words I see are "based on a true story", I let out a despairing sigh and usually spend the duration wondering how much they are leaning on the word 'based'. American Hustle almost falls into this trap, but by changing the wording to "some of this is true", it completely alleviates the issue. By turning the phrase into an open admission that liberties have been taken with the story, it removes any pretension. It no longer feels like a marketing ploy. Instead, it feels like the film is focussing far more on telling a story, than it is on desperate attempts to provide levity to the events that are about to unfold. In addition, it also helps to stop people from citing every moment as gospel truth, as it makes it clear that some of this is fiction. It's all the more enjoyable for it.

My opinions on David O. Russell's previous films have been, shall we say, lukewarm. While I haven't seen all of them, I have been mostly underwhelmed by the ones that I have seen. I really don't like Three Kings, although I'm fully aware that I'm in the minority there. As for Silver Linings Playbook, I just found it to be a bit dull, saved mainly by Bradley Cooper's excellent performance and the film's miraculous achievement of somehow making Chris Tucker not annoying. Yes, Jennifer Lawrence was excellent too, but I do feel she unjustly overshadowed Cooper. The only two things that make me keep trying Russell's films are The Fighter, which I absolutely loved, and the fact that the stories he decides to take on always intrigue me. I'm glad of that, as this led me to give American Hustle a go.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams play con artists (and extra-marital lovers) Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser. While their scams are successful, they eventually get caught by Bradley Cooper's FBI agent Richie Di Maso. Hardly squeaky-clean and very much promotion driven, Di Maso sees Rosenfeld and Prosser's excellence in their field and decides to blackmail them into helping him achieve more arrests on his record. Despite some reluctancy, Rosenfeld and Prosser have no choice and are forced to give in to Di Maso's demands. Their scam, involving a fake Sheikh, leads them to Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, where they set about exposing corruption in various politicians, despite the fairly shady motives on their own part.

With the exception of Renner, the cast is a bit of an amalgamation of both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, with Bale and Adams coming from the former, while Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (as Bale's slightly crazy, but by no means foolish, wife) continue on from Playbook. He is pretty much pulling in the greatest successes of his last two films to create what is an absolutely blinding cast. You've got to imagine the only reason Melissa Leo's not here is because there's not really a part for her. Without exception, the performances are fantastic. For most of them, it's a given that they're going to be great. Find me an awful Bale, Adams or Lawrence performance and I'll negate it with at least three phenomenal ones.

Andy Kaufman fans may need a moment to get over Bale's striking resemblance to Tony Clifton, but this is easily one of his best performances. I've always been a huge fan of his, but have recently found the overly serious roles he takes on to get slightly wearing and, in a few cases, dangerously close to feeling samey. Here, he not only delivers a performance unlike any of his that I can think of, but also properly adds a new string to his bow as he demonstrates effortless comic timing, embracing deadpan hilarity with such great aplomb that Tommy Lee Jones may be feeling a bit threatened. Adams demonstrates an amazing ability to create a believably wavering accent as she masquerades as fake British royalty, Lady Edith Greensley. The small flaws in her British accent feel purposeful, as though they are errors committed by the character, rather than Adams. In one fantastic scene, there's, what appeared to be, a skilful blend when she speaks in her American accent, but keeps falling back into the British. It's as though the character is starting to believe that her real personality is that of Greensley and the lines between that and her real self are more than a little blurred. It's also good to see her with a fleshed-out character after her outright bland performance as Lois Lane. If you're still clinging on to Adams as Giselle, you may want to stay away too. Sydney Prosser is anything but sweetness and light. Lawrence, meanwhile, continues to develop more and more maturity to her roles, impressive when you consider that her previous roles were hardly lacking in that department. My concerns that it became apparent they weren't going to acknowledge the 16-year age gap between Lawrence and Bale were soon proven to be slightly idiotic on my part. It both doesn't and shouldn't matter. They are a fighting couple who manage to show dispute and mutual affection at the same time, something that doesn't often come across. Most of the time, actors would just present screaming followed by affection, with any blend between the two being impossible to discern. Lawrence and Bale feel like a real couple, going through real issues. When they're on screen together, you have some of the film's strongest moments.

The acting revelations though are Cooper and Renner. Cooper has managed to banish any possibilities of The Hangover series being his entire legacy and he's done it in less than a year. If you'd asked me to bank on that two years ago, I would have laughed in your face and told you that Ed Helms stood the strongest chance of doing that. Last I checked, I'm dead wrong on that, with Helms' only solace currently being that he doesn't have to call himself Zach Galifianakis. Is Cooper's performance entirely different from anything he's done before? No. The character's going through dual personality issues similar to those that he had in Silver Linings. Instead, what Cooper is doing is falling back on things that have succeeded for him in the past, but then developing them, instead of resting on his laurels. What excites me about Cooper is that I feel he's only going to develop as time progresses and the next time he's in cinemas, I will be genuinely interested to see if he can continue on what could be an ascent to great things. Although, if they don't get their act together with releasing Serena, his next film will probably be Guardians Of The Galaxy, when I'll be more interested in seeing if James Gunn is capable of making something that isn't awful. Renner, on the other hand, has achieved a minor miracle in making me care about something that he has done. Until now, Renner has been leeching off the fact that he was in The Hurt Locker and gone from there to bring an aura of dullness to anything else that he's starred in. Finally though, I may be starting to see what others see in him. His performance here is not perfect, veering a little close to overacting at times. Critically though, it's never dull. He doesn't take anything away from any of the scenes he's in and, on occasions, becomes their strongest asset, avoiding the corrupt politician stereotype to the point where you can even feel sympathies towards him.

As great as the performances are, they're only 50% of the film's success. The other 50% is the script, or, more accurately, the lines. Put bluntly, I would sell my soul to be able to write lines as good as this. It's intelligent without feeling like it's considering itself above it's audience. Also, the comic timing demonstrated by the actors is only going to be of benefit if the lines themselves are funny and, on a number of occasions, I genuinely laughed out loud, instead of the internal uncharitable laughter that I am often prone to. With that in mind, the script also contributes to a nagging flaw which doesn't detract from the film too much, but does present itself for the duration.

American Hustle doesn't owe a debt to Martin Scorsese's Casino. It owes it's entire existence to it, to the point where if you replaced Bale with De Niro, Cooper with Pesci and combined Adams and Lawrence into Sharon Stone (God forbid) you would, at times, be hard-pushed to tell the difference. The characters often feel very familiar, with it being the actors that make them unique, rather than the story or script. There's a number of stolen ideas too, from the use of a regular multi-character narration to a climactic opening that teases you with what's to come. It's not quite an exploding car, but it still serves the same purpose. I wouldn't call it an identity crisis, because it rarely feels like it's trying to stray from it. Also, I suppose If you're going to use another film as a template, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better one than Casino. I just wish it had been a little more capable of creating it's own style. It's not a damning issue and never stops the film from feeling enjoyable. Just slightly derivative.

If you've driven past anywhere with enough billboards, you will have seen an American Hustle poster and it will probably have been emblazoned with the various Golden Globe nominations. I'm also writing this on the day that the film received 10 BAFTA nominations. Of all the eligible films I have seen, I have absolutely no problems with Hustle's nominations. Sadly though, I don't really want it to win any of them. For me, Captain Phillips deserves Best Film, although I think that's wishful thinking and also need to note that I've not seen 12 Years A Slave or Philomena. Alfonso Cuarón deserves Best Director and I can name others that I want to win in the acting categories, with the exception of Supporting Actress and that's only because I haven't seen the other nominated performances. I also don't think it will win too many of them and fully anticipate that, on ratio of nominations to wins, it will be this year's Lincoln. American Hustle is well worth a watch, but I do think it's going to be a victim of a saturated and incredibly strong awards field. While it doesn't quite hit all the notes needed to be truly great, I fully recommend it, but suspect there's going to be other films more worth your money in the coming weeks.

FOUR out of five
Contains frequent greatness in the performances and the script, but fails to maintain it overall.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 24, 2014 6:03 PM BST


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time [DVD]
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time [DVD]
Dvd ~ Gemma Arterton
Offered by DVD Overstocks
Price: £4.24

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars In which we have the best-reviewed video game adaptation of all time. God help the other ones!, 8 Jan 2014
It would seem that some members of the Hollywood institution have great issues when it comes to the phrase "if you can't beat them, join them", in that they don't know when that phrase should be applicable. This mentality is most evident in the stream of video game adaptations that have been thrust upon us. Through the works luminaries like Uwe Boll, Paul W.S. Anderson and Andrzej Bartkowiak, one point has been clearly demonstrated: films based on video games are about as appealing a prospect as 24 hours locked inside a room with the cast of Geordie Shore and the complete DVD box set of Made In Chelsea. Given this, combined with the fact that they are usually reserved for the worst directors going, the question needs to be asked: what the hell possessed Mike Newell to make one?

Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular prince, Dastan, a former street urchin who was adopted and raised by the King of Persia. Dastan and his brothers conduct a successful siege on a city suspected of supplying Persia's enemies with weapons, and take Gemma Arterton's Princess One-Dimensional, here known as Tamina, prisoner along the way. During the celebrations, however, the King is murdered when a cloak presented to him by Dastan turns out to have been covered with... I'm not sure what actually, but it basically burns him to death. Suspected of murder, Dastan is forced to flee with Tamina, where he sets about clearing his name. It is during this time that he discovers that a dagger that he has stolen from the city has the power to turn back time using the mythical sands of time and the same people who have framed him would very much like to take that dagger from him.

A common criticism of video game adaptations is that they feel like watching someone playing a video game, rather than just playing it yourself, and that's not something a lot of people enjoy. In my opinion, this isn't always the case. My bigger issue is that a lot of them are about as faithful to the source material as Pearl Harbo(u)r was to facts. In addition, I'm one of those sad cases who can sit watching people play certain video games and not get fed up. Nonetheless, if there's one game where that's not applicable, it's The Sands Of Time. That's not meant as a knock on the game as I remember absolutely loving playing it, but the linearity of the game itself meant there wasn't particularly anything of interest to watch if you didn't have the controller in your hand. Watching the film version really is just like watching someone play the game. Overly-expository dialogue precedes every set piece, feeling like those really annoying games which spoon feed you every bit of information, as though you're incapable of figuring it out for yourself. Except, this is a film so you don't even get the pleasure of then going on to do it for yourself. It's like a game thinking you're too thick to manage it.

All that may be tolerable if they managed to garner some interest from elsewhere, be it some decent performances or a decent story. Unfortunately, neither exist. In some cases, the terrible acting isn't actually too surprising. SIR! Ben Kingsley has been phoning in his performances for years now, too busy finding new ways to inflate his own opinion of himself, rather than realising that his descent into self-caricature has completed and the quality of his performances has reached a new low. You'd have thought he'd learn to stay away from video game films after BloodRayne, but sadly that is one lesson he is still yet to take on board. Gemma Arterton, meanwhile, has built up a slightly sad reputation of playing bland roles in bland action films (Clash Of The Titans, Hansel And Gretel), conveniently filling the shoes of Britain's Most Wooden Actress after Keira Knightly learnt how to act. It baffles me as to how Arterton demonstrates such effortless charisma and wit in interviews, but then fails to bring anything remotely interesting to the table in her roles. I want to like her performances, because I like her. She's just not making it easy to do that.

The performance that brings up the most confusion though is Jake Gyllenhaal's, as he seemingly forgets that he's a good actor. It's like there's a determination on his part to not descend to the same lows of Keanu Reeves' or Russell Crowe's attempts at the British accent. While he succeeds in this respect, it comes at the expense of a performance that is even remotely acceptable. It doesn't matter that he's delivering lines that feel like they belong in the likes of Sharknado, because it appears that his finely chiseled body is empty of anything closely resembling humanity. His line delivery borders on monosyllabic and he seems so vacant that he makes Henry Cavill's performance as Superman appear multi-dimensional.

As for interesting plot developments, forget it. Perhaps they would have worked better if they were remotely unpredictable. The reveal of who is behind the murder of Dastan's father is obvious, regardless of whether you've watched the trailer or not. If you have watched the trailer though, it's yet another one where they blow one of the major plot points. Elsewhere, the ending is telegraphed very, very early, but don't worry if you miss it, the constant conversations about the origins of the sands of time pretty much scream what's going to happen throughout, meaning that any level of tension or excitement is destroyed by the film's own inability to keep it's mouth shut.

Speaking of failing, there's Mike Newell to talk about. Not many directors can weave through genres and produce work of high quality, but Newell is (most of the time) one of them. Here is a man who followed Four Wedding And A Funeral with Donnie Brasco, before stopping off at the criminally underrated Pushing Tin. He's even proven himself in this genre before, by making one of the decent Harry Potter films. Here though, it's impossible to see any directorial touch. It's like Newell's dialogue on set was comprised entirely of the phrases:

"ACTION!"
"Yep, that'll do"
"CUT!"
"Where's my pay check?"

It's not that it's been directed on autopilot, so much as that it's just not been directed. This feels far more like a film that was made by the producer, ticking the boxes for mass appeal, but forgetting that an enjoyable film should be top of that list. Of course, this is a film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, so box ticking would never happen!

*COUGH*piratesofthecaribbean*COUGH*

You can't talk about a big budget blockbuster without analysing the spectacle of it. I should probably take this moment to say that if you've come looking for positives, you're wasting your time. There is nothing here that you haven't seen before elsewhere, with the possible exception of ostrich racing and that's nowhere near as fun as it sounds. Nothing makes you wonder how they did it, because it's blatantly all CGI and everything feels just so expensively bereft of anything resembling an artistic touch. It's also fairly shameless in ripping off ideas from other video games. A shot of Dastan stood on a high ledge results in the very same rotating angle that you get in the Assassin's Creed games when you activate a viewpoint. There's also a group of assassins, here referred to as Hassansins, presumably because someone read Wikipedia and found the name of the first Assassin Grandmaster. Well done, you, although if you really wanted to be clever you could have called them Hashashins, because, you know, that's a name they actually did go by. Who needs accuracy though? Anyway, back to point, one of these Hassansins has blades on chains. He may be called Kratos, but that would imply that the filmmakers deem the screaming man with big weapons important enough for a name.

According to Rotten Tomatoes, Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of TIme is the best-reviewed video game adaptation of all time. The fact that it's still only got 35% should be enough of an indictment of how bad these films really are. Watching this film makes the indictment a whole lot worse. Don't worry, though. Need For Speed, Assassin's Creed, Ratchet And Clank, Warcraft, Metal Gear Solid, Mass Effect, Deus Ex and Splinter Cell have all got filmic adaptations in the works. Add to this reboots for Tomb Raider, Hitman and Mortal Kombat. Surely one of them will buck the trend, right?

ONE out of five
Contains Jake Gyllenhaal shirtless. If that's enough to sell the film to you, you deserve to suffer through it.

P.S. They're also making an Angry Birds film. Erm......... Yay?


The Sorcerer's Apprentice [DVD] [2010]
The Sorcerer's Apprentice [DVD] [2010]
Dvd ~ Nicolas Cage
Price: £2.86

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars In which the word 'better' may be used, but only in a relative sense, 8 Jan 2014
You've got to know your career's gone down the toilet when you release a film that hits all the checkmarks necessary to be viewed as acceptable, but nothing more, and this registers as one of the better films that you've made recently. Alas though, this is the situation that Nicolas Cage has found himself in. He doesn't have to make something extraordinarily groundbreaking. He doesn't even have to make something great, because whenever he finds himself involved in something that isn't terrible, it seems like a triumph, not just for him, but also for the audience. An audience who can breathe a sigh of relief that they are not about to sit through another "Cage dud". Another Next. Or another Knowing. Or another Ghost Rider. Or another Justice.

Or another Ghost Rider 2.

Whenever Cage works with director Jon Turteltaub, we seem to get perfect examples of this. Turteltaub is a serviceable commercially-orientated director, although he has a horrible habit of switching on directing autopilot. Previously, he and Cage made the National Treasure films together. Though I'm yet to see the second of those films, I remember quite enjoying the first one only to like it less upon a second viewing, something that I put down to repeated viewings lessening the relief of not having to sit through another of Cage's turgid excursions into ignominy. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a bit of a different story. It begins fairly well, with the relief setting in that it's not going to be too awful. As time passes though, things start to unravel and the positives only lie in the absence of true negatives.

Using that bit from Fantasia, The Sorcerer's Apprentice puts the 'based' in based on. Cage plays Balthazar Blake, one of Merlin's three protégées. In the battle against Merlin's arch nemesis Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krige), Merlin and Blake are betrayed by their ally, Horvath (Alfred Molina). While Morgana manages to kill Merlin, the betrayal doesn't work out too well for Horvath as he finds himself locked inside a nesting doll. However, the only way to stop Morgana is for the other protégée, Veronica to absorb her into herself. With Morgana killing Veronica from inside, Balthazar is forced to place her in the doll with Horvath. He then embarks on a quest to find the Prime-Merlinian, a foretold individual who will take Merlin's place as the one man who can rid the world of Morgana. Cut to present day, where Jay Baruchel's path will cross with Balthazar's and his potential destiny as the Prime Merlinian is discovered. When he accidentally releases Horvath back into the world, this is a destiny that he must come to terms with fairly quickly. What, however, is this foretold saviour's name? Whom will the legends tell of as the successor to Merlin's name?

That would be Dave. I mean, really. They could have called him Mickey, won points from the "Based on" department and it would have still sounded a better wizard name than Dave. If only slightly better.

With that in mind, how, you may ask, does this tie in with the famous section from Fantasia? Well, there's a scene where various cleaning products come to life and Dave can't keep them in control. It lasts about five minutes. There's also a ten second shot of a blue wizard's hat with white stars on it, after the credits. I could go on, but I fear it may start to appear as though the filmmaker's were clutching at straws and, of course, this is not the case at all.

The film's biggest problem is that while it has it's concept and presents itself fairly confidently to begin with, it then realises that the ending is in sight and hasn't got much idea how to fill the time in between. Failing to realise this, it presents us with countless training scenes, interspersed with Dave getting into trouble, only for Balthazar to come and rescue him and a love story that practically defines trite. Instead of realising this and getting things over with quickly, it spreads out what should be a 90 minute film (at most) to nearer 2 hours. The jokes are few and will rarely conjure up (pun wasn't intended, but I'm sticking with it) little more than a wry chuckle and the big set pieces are either short and pointless or yawn-inducingly pedestrian fare.

The script also has a horrible habit of writing itself into a corner with no idea of how to get itself out of them. Horvath is set up as a true villain. His actions will result in the death of millions and he doesn't care, but the script presents situations where he has the upper hand and retreats with no real reason. He even abandons sure-fire opportunities to kill both Balthazar and Dave, abandoning these with just as little reason. There's no suggestions of a developing humanity in the character. It instead just feels like Lex Luthor trapping Superman in a Kryptonite mine-shaft, only to throw him some rope. Moments like these are what rewrites were designed for and they should have never passed the continuity tests.

So far, so "Cage dud", but the film's real advantage lies in it's decent cast. A cast who are all capable of raising up the material. I'm including Cage in that. The common misconception is that he's a bad actor. He's not. He's a fantastic actor who has made some absolutely horrible choices and repeatedly fails to learn from those choices. He sees an electric fence, touches it and then decides to do it again a few times, just in case he imagined the consequences. That's not to say he's never delivered a bad performance because he has. It's just that a bad film doesn't require bad performances. It's like pre-2010 Matthew McConaughey. His films before that were torturous, but he was never, by any stretch, a terrible actor and he's proving that now. I'd love Cage to have a similar career resurgence and do think he's capable of it, but the doubt grows ever-increasing. At least here though, he's perfectly watchable and even enjoyable, adopting the Castor Troy mentality of overdoing it, but doing so in a fairly fun way.

Elsewhere, Baruchel is continuing with his intelligent outcast routine, but, unlike many of his fellow Apatow graduates, he's avoided over-exposure, meaning that he can still be enjoyable. On the feminine side of things, the Bechdel test's calling out in cries of anguish. Bellucci suffers most, as she's got bugger all to do. Criminal under-utilisation grows ever apparent as the story of Bellucci's Hollywood career. Teresa Palmer, on the other hand, is someone who I'm hoping will be propelled to greater things as a result of Warm Bodies. There is nothing in her character or the "geek-guy likes cool-girl" romance to help her in being anything other than the bland love interest, making her feel about as important as the background props. Palmer, however, is easy to warm to. Able to rise above just appearing for her natural attributes, she makes herself instantly likeable and her performance does it's best to make her feel human, while the script's just concerned about making men fancy her.

Then, we have Alfred Molina who flat-out steals the film as it's chief villain. There's a bit of Loki about him, in that he gets all the good lines and the film's at it's best when he's in it. However, regardless of the advantageous position, Molina just oozes menacing charm and is one of those actors who never appears to consider himself above the film that he's in. He always feels like he's trying to deliver his best performance, be that through pulling out the acting chops, or trying to keep things fun. While he's been in some terrible films (Prince Of Persia, Abduction), but I struggle to name a film in which he's ever been anything less than decent and, most of the time, he's exceptionally good. He's also more than capable of being the film's sole villain, begging the question of why they didn't let him be that. Instead, we get Toby Kebbell as Drake Stone, superstar magician and chief henchman to Horvath. There's nothing wrong with Kebbell in the role and it's not that the film doesn't try to provide the character with some point. It's that the way they instil that point is entirely perfunctory and it's an angle that also leads to the slightly pathetic addition of a well-known historical figure from witchcraft. The angle that justifies these characters' existence could have easily been removed, taking the characters with it, allowing us to simply sit back and bask in Molina's wonderfully fun villainy.

There's also the anticlimax of the ending, living up to the rest of the film by being everything you've seen before and nothing more. There's no tension, because nothing has made you believe that the norm will be strayed from. Worst of all, it completely sidelines Molina. Whilst it's essential to pull the focus away from him slightly, there's no call for the literal casting off that the character receives and their attempts to make up for this in the sequel-baiting post-credits sequence don't help, because as well as a sequel to this not being a particularly appealing prospect, the film (while not a complete financial disaster) made nowhere near enough money for us to ever think that sequels going to arrive.

It's my first film where I'm struggling to decide on the score, as it's the sort of film that the term "middle of the road" was invented for. It's a 2.5 out of 5, but I vowed to never resort to .5 scores as, let's be honest, how do you really distinguish between a 4 and a 4.5? The question, therefore, is which side of 2.5 I go. If you look at this as a Nicolas Cage film, it's a 3 on the basis of the aforementioned relief. That, however, would be to base the film on only one of it's many elements, a precedent that would open up a whole new dangerous world in which Two Weeks Notice gets a perfect 5, because it's not as bad a Hugh Grant film as Nine Months. In addition, I also feel that if the film deserved 3, I wouldn't be debating it, in the same way that I would never hand out a perfect 5 if I wasn't sure. The most positive thing I can say about The Sorcerer's Apprentice is that it's not entirely devoid of merit. At the same time, it is entirely devoid of true brilliance, no matter how close Alfred Molina comes.

TWO out of five
Contains infrequent examples of Cage's worst work, but equally infrequent examples of his best work.

P.S. Or another Windtalkers.


The Muppet Christmas Carol [DVD]
The Muppet Christmas Carol [DVD]
Dvd ~ Michael Caine
Price: £6.30

5.0 out of 5 stars In which I come over all nostalgic. Consider yourselves warned., 8 Jan 2014
Let's not beat around the bush. I adore The Muppet Christmas Carol. Since my parents bought it for me on VHS back in 1993, it is the only Christmas film that I make a point of watching at least once every year. Taking one of the greatest stories ever written from one of the greatest writers of all time and making at least a half-decent film out of it shouldn't be too hard a task. Yet, there are films out there which have completely failed to make anything decent out of Dickens' story and some have even managed to somehow make it boring.

The biggest problem anyone faces with adapting A Christmas Carol is making it stand out from the other versions of it. To say there's an overabundance of adaptations is a radical understatement. On that basis, you'd think that one of the key ways to help your version stand out is by adopting a gimmick. There's so many failed examples of this though. The last high-profile adaptation was Robert Zemeckis' take on the story with Jim Carrey as Scrooge. The gimmick? Motion capture animation and 3D. Exactly what the story didn't need. Elsewhere, you've got modernizations, a potentially decent idea, but I can't name one that worked. I know some will stand up for Scrooged, but, for me, it was OK at best. Then there's A Christmas Carol 2000, in which ITV decided that a modernization with Ross Kemp playing Scrooge was a good idea.

It wasn't.

So, why does The Muppet Christmas Carol work? The main reason is it's refusal to resort to any level of pretentiousness, a real sticking point for some of the worst versions of the story. Here, there is no belief present that they can add anything to the story or make it better, because they know that they can't. Instead, they take the story and everything that's great about it. Then, most crucially of all, they make sure that The Muppets themselves are made to fit around the story, rather than the other way round. I'm not providing a synopsis. If you don't know the plot, where have you been? In addition, I'm also not going to worry too much about avoiding spoilers from this point on.

In this adaptation, Michael Caine plays Scrooge and, frankly, it's inspired casting. Scrooge is a character that demands an actor with credibility, but the presence of The Muppets would mean that a lot of actors out there would not have taken this role seriously and would have completely phoned in the performance. Caine's not doing that here. He's crafting what I honestly believe to be one of his best performances. The usual style of performance for Caine wouldn't have worked here and it's refreshing to see little to none of his usual mannerisms present here. He delivers a fantastic interpretation and one that feels human, rather than the overly animated cartoonish performances (hello again, Jim Carrey) that we often find ourselves subjected to. That's not to say he's relatable. He's every bit as reprehensible as he should be, but because he seems like a real person, it means that his development over the course of the film feels legitimate and, in no way, forced. As for his singing and dancing, you'll just have to learn to forgive him for that and realize that it could be worse, you could be watching him in Jaws IV.

The presence of Caine also helps in another matter, as he makes sure the story is respected, allowing a balance to form between that and the antics of The Muppets, who fill most of the other roles. Kermit takes the biggest role of Bob Cratchitt and is really the only instance of a Muppet playing it straight, with the exception of a Kermit Jr. playing Tiny Tim. Elsewhere, the Muppets are pretty much kept to the comedy characters, as they should be. Rizzo's playing the sidekick to Gonzo's narrative performance as Charles Dickens and while Fozziwig may seem an obvious joke, it's a necessary one.

To be honest, the only place where the presence of a Muppet is fumbled is in Miss Piggy playing Emily Cratchit, or rather Miss Piggy playing Miss Piggy, but going by the name of Emily Cratchit. The jokes work fine for her. Piggy's not exactly my favourite Muppet, but the traditional and necessary elements of her character worked here. The problem is when they expect us to take her seriously as the grieving mother. It just doesn't work and renders what should be one of the most poignant moments of the story feeling a little bit hokey. To be honest though, it probably won't bother you too much and, as my score will demonstrate, it's not something that gets held against the film. In the long run, it's a minor gripe.

Then, we have the Muppet-style comedy transitioning into the Dickensian world and there's only one word to describe how they've handled this. Masterful. First off, it;s actually funny. A requirement that shouldn't need stating about comedy, but I watched Disaster Movie last week and learnt that, apparently, it does. There's also the flawless way that each joke fits into the story without feeling like it's intruding. Each joke is fast and to the point and, crucially, they don't dwell on them. The joke happens, you laugh and they head straight back to the story, meaning that the focus is never lost. They also don't feel the need to saturate every scene with them. The 15 (or so) minutes assigned to The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come is pretty much devoid of jokes, relying almost entirely on the words of Dickens to bring out any humour, but, for the most part, keeping the necessarily morbid tone that the scenes require. As a result, that element of the story feels particularly powerful, as we're left to focus on Scrooge's despaired realization of where his actions will take him. If the earlier jokes weren't funny, this wouldn't have felt anywhere near as strong as it did and it also wouldn't provide the relief and joy of the final moments as we return to the jovial nature that dominates the rest of the film.

Finally, there are the songs. I'll say it now. Musicals are not my thing. I would much rather someone just tell me how they feel, rather than sing it to me. Yet, despite that, I love a lot of the songs from the film. I'm sure it helps that I first heard them when I was 6 and far less discerning than I am now, but regardless they are well written songs and my only issue comes from the deletion of one of them. Again, this is not something I will hold against the film as it is entirely down to studio interference, rather than creative choice. The song that's deleted is called When Love Is Gone. It's not the best song and it's almost overbearingly shmaltzy. Despite this, removing it causes far more issues than the quality of the song ever would. The most noticeable is a jarring edit, one of the worst I've ever seen in my life. Even if you haven't seen this film with the song included, you'll almost definitely still notice it and it won't sit right with you. Added to this are the facts that it almost makes the entire character of Belle border on pointless as she's gone faster than she arrives, as well as rendering the whole point of the film's final song effectively moot.

I found myself not sure how to end this review, because I kind of stated my conclusion in my introduction. I also would like to think that my love of this film has been summed up. So, I'll end with this. This review is my first perfect score that I've posted. This is probably more to do with the fact that it's Christmas time more than anything else. When I think about it though, The Muppet Christmas Carol is probably the first film I ever saw that I would have given a perfect score back then and still give a perfect score to now. On that basis, I think it's a fairly appropriate first.

FIVE out of five
Contains everything you would want from a Christmas film. Something that's an increasing rarity.


Paul Blart - Mall Cop [DVD] [2009]
Paul Blart - Mall Cop [DVD] [2009]
Dvd ~ Kevin James
Offered by Champion Toys
Price: £6.79

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars In which a film feels the need to provide constant reminders that Kevin James is overweight, 8 Jan 2014
Picture the scene. The hero of a film is riding through a mall on some kind of weird electronic-scootery thing, having already been set up as a pathetic schlub. He spies the girl of his dreams and finds himself unable to stop staring at her. As she notices him and smiles, he finds himself even more entranced, due to the possibility that she may have just, in some way, positively received his affections. Will he:

a) Continue on his way, feeling a great sense of self-worth at the girls acknowledgement.
b) Gracefully glide over to her on the scooter, dismount and engage her in friendly conversation.
c) Ride by the girl and masterfully sweep her into his arms as the two ride off into the sunset while Up Where We Belong plays over the tannoy.
d) Fail to notice that he is headed straight for a kiosk and proceed to crash into it.

The answer will be revealed at the end of this review, so take your time. You never know, it may not be as obvious as you think. After all, this is a film produced by Adam Sandler and we all know how unpredictable he likes to keep things.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop stars Kevin James (in his first big solo starring role) as the titular Blart. Suffering from "hilarious" issues with hypoglycemia, Blart has failed to achieve his dreams of joining the police and has had to settle for running the aisles of his local mall on security detail. When the mall is taken over by a group of, what can only be described as, "extreme sports thieves", Blart finds himself as...

...Wait for it...

...THE ONLY MAN WHO CAN STOP THEM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'm sure it will come as a surprise to no one that Paul Blart isn't good. To it's credit, it's not quite sitting amongst the true disasters of Sandler's career. I'd sooner sit through this again than the likes of Jack And Jill, You Don't Mess With The Zohan and Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, still very much his three most skin-crawlingly vile efforts. In the interests of full disclosure though, I should also note that I am open to the possibilities of Adam Sandler creating enjoyable films. Big Daddy, Click and (God help me) I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry all stand as films that I have quite enjoyed, but Paul Blart is sitting in a somewhat curious position. It's the only example of Sandler's productions I can think of where my feelings are of complete and total indifference.

I say this, despite the fact that there is so much to dislike about it. Chief of them all is Blart himself. He is the pathetic schlub mentioned earlier, but not in a way where you feel sorry for him because the script completely mishandles him. It seems perfectly understandable when other characters ensure they can avoid any and all association with him, even when those characters aren't particularly likeable themselves. Within the first few scenes of the film we see him bully a man in a wheelchair because he's been going too fast in it. This would maybe have worked, except the old man has blatantly not been going all that fast, meaning that your sympathies are going to lie with him, rather than Blart. As he drives off, dragging Blart behind him, you may find yourself remembering that Blart earlier committed the unforgivable act of running over a dog and start willing the old man to stick the gear into reverse and repay the favour. We then arrive at the "staring at the girl of his dreams" scene and this is just as badly handled. Instead of us feeling that he deserves her attention, it feels uncomfortable, edging Blart closer to stalker territory. While he longs for the commitment of a relationship, it slowly begins to look like commitment of the padded cell variety would be a better option.

It doesn't stop there. Blart's over-inflated sense of authority makes him intensely dislikeable. His ideas are so far above his station that he makes your average McDonald's manager look humble. The other issue with this is who it turns into the most likeable character. I'm going to try and avoid spoilers here, but there may be minor ones. If you care, don't read the rest of this paragraph. The trailer goes a long way towards not revealing who the bad guy is, which is commendable as it's revealed within the first half hour anyway and it's not uncommon for the final scene to appear in trailers nowadays. Nonetheless, I will acknowledge the effort by not stating the actor's name. Suffice to say, until the bad guy is revealed he is the character you're most likely to warm to, coming off as the only one who is vaguely human. This is a problem for two reasons: the first is that when he does turn bad, you're left with absolutely no one to sympathize with, as the film has done a terrible job of actually making you like anyone else. The second is that as far as villainous performances go, he's awful. It's like he's read Bad Guy Acting for Idiots and then decided that Gary Busey's a good template to adopt. He's even missed that mark by a distance. All sneer and no idea, his threats to shoot hostages seem idle for the duration and, even when he reaches his villainous peak, he's still coming off less like Alan Rickman and much more like Timothy Olyphant.

This film really is a Kevin James vehicle, but the supporting cast should at least get a mention. Jayma Mays comes off best. She plays the role to a perfectly acceptable standard and seems fairly happy to be there. When you consider that her career also contains Epic Movie and both of The Smurfs films, that probably explains why. Elsewhere, Allen Covert continues to mourn the fact that he's no longer Adam Sandler's favourite stooge and has been shunted off to the smaller films in favour of Nick "Comedic Antichrist" Swardsson and Jackie Sandler also makes an appearance, because Adam was too busy making Funny People and she's only allowed to appear in the bad films. Then there's Peter Gerety, providing a superb masterclass in awful comic timing.

Which leads us to the most important aspect of comedy: the jokes. To be fair to Paul Blart, there's a few decent ones, but I'm emphasizing the few. Out of the two best jokes, one of them's in the trailer and the other one I can't actually remember, I just know that I laughed twice. Elsewhere though, you have jokes that were done better elsewhere (comedy karaoke singer) and a grotesque overabundance of fat jokes. We get it. Kevin James is portly. The issue is that a single fat joke isn't funny. One a minute is even worse. Then, speaking of unnecessary devices, Paul Blart has a plot twist. It is probably the most inane plot twist going, although it wouldn't surprise me if there's a worse one in horror. Literally tacked on to the end, it attempts to justify the existence of a moderately pointless character and instead just makes him more pointless.

Here's the thing though, I was never actually bored during Paul Blart. I didn't sit there pleading for it to end. I just sat there thinking: this film merely exists. It never angered me, but it rarely entertained me. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, trust me, it's not. I have zero desire to praise this film. I'm just going to remember absolutely none of it.

Oh, and the answer to the earlier question is d). Bet you didn't see that one coming.

TWO out of five
Contains no evidence of Rob Schneider and Nick Swardsson, meaning that it is, at least in some respects, safe.


Year One [DVD] [2009]
Year One [DVD] [2009]
Dvd ~ Jack Black
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £2.70

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars In which many talented people combine their mental aberrations and expect us to sit through it., 10 Dec 2013
This review is from: Year One [DVD] [2009] (DVD)
A Partially Educated Review

The main criticism that's often thrown at Judd Apatow's films is that they're far too long. It's not something that I'm going to try and deny as, quite often, it's a valid complaint. However, I would rather sit through a decent film that's a bit too long than one that's just bad from the start. It's with that in mind that I have my own rule. If a film involving Judd Apatow (in any capacity) runs nearer an hour and a half than two hours, it's probably awful. There's exceptions to that rule, with Walk Hard being the biggest. Most of the time, though, it's fairly accurate with Fun With Dick And Jane, Drillbit Taylor and Wanderlust all serving to back this up. Chief of them all though (and I'm sure you've all guessed where I'm going with this) stands Year One.

To say it's a disaster is to understate the point through the employment of an overused word, but it feels like a film that the word was invented for. Every single element of this film drops to it's knees in a spectacularly pathetic attempt to beg for your amused approval. I'd be remiss to say it all fails. It doesn't. Jokes involving the invention of the wheel elicited some laughs from me that made me think it was kicking into gear. A cart chase that follows soon after gave me even more hope that the film was going to be great, with a merely lackluster beginning. Unfortunately, those jokes are both done within the first half an hour and they really are the film's last laughs.

So, where does the blame lie? Everywhere really. We'll start from the top though. Harold Ramis' directorial career has pretty much lived and died off the fact that he made Groundhog Day. It's not his only decent film, but it stands out well above the rest. Deservedly so, it's a comedy classic. In addition, it's not a surprise he's capable of making a bad film because Bedazzled exists, but even that had some semblance of comic capability to it. Year One feels like a load of people coming together who are far too sure of their own comedic brilliance and have just been left to their own devices. A controlling hand should have been there to say the simple and necessary word: No. It's in this where Harold Ramis has failed far more than he he ever has before. Even more than when he accepted a part in Airheads.

What of these comedy geniuses though? Why is it they're failing so much when they've previously demonstrated commendable skill in the genre? It's simply because they don't blend well together. Both Michael Cera and Jack Black take on their well-known personas, but instead of working as polar opposites, they instead expose the irritating flaws in each other's characters. I used to think I liked Jack Black, but I honestly don't. He irritated me to the point that he nearly ruined Tropic Thunder. He bored me into a catatonic stupor with Nacho Libre and I'll save my grievances with Envy for a later date. He even grates on me in School Of Rock, leaving me somewhat baffled as to why I still like that film. Nonetheless, you can't watch Jack Black and get too annoyed when he plays a cocksure, slightly deluded and loud-mouthed character through which the comedy is pulled out of his own delusions, since that is, after all, the character he's made his career out of. Michael Cera plays the antithesis to this: shy, awkward and anything but confident. If comedy comes from conflict, then the pairing of these two should be a walk in the park, but instead of helping each other, though, it feels like they're trying to expose the worst aspects of each other. Cera becomes whiny and pitiful, kicking up a slight fuss every time Black tries to force him into something he doesn't want to do, before giving in and becoming Black's bitch. As for Black, he just comes off as an arrogant prick. Neither are fun to be in the company of, leaving you to side with the other cavemen who hate them. Every time Matthew J. Willig's Marlak threatens to "kill them where they stand", you wish he'd just gone ahead and done it a long time ago.

Elsewhere, the rest of the cast are comprised of either cameos or glorified cameos. Oliver Platt contributes to some of the film's many gross-out gags, but unfortunately these gags are being done better by The Farrelly Brothers even today, let alone when they were in their prime. Even Hank Azaria fails to be funny and that almost never happens. Christopher Mintz-Plasse wheels out McLovin AGAIN and David Cross remains under the illusion that he's funny. Then, just when you thought the film was torturous enough, Vinnie Jones arrives. As for female characters, forget it, none of them are given any real chance to try and get some laughs and they're there purely for the purpose of eye-candy. In this department, they succeed. Sadly, anyone who's seen Olivia Wilde and Juno Temple in other films will know that they're capable of so much more.

It's the obligatory outtakes sequence that proves where the film's problems really lie. First off, they're not funny, even for cheap laughs. If there's one place where it's easy to get a cheap laugh, it's the outtakes. There's no imagination or wit to them, it is literally people forgetting their lines, combined with Jack Black providing the bodily omissions and Bill Hader wheeling out his Al Pacino impression. A good impression? Yes. Funny the eighteenth time? Not really. Critically though, the outtakes expose that the cast and crew had fun making this film. Morecambe and Wise didn't enjoy making comedy. It drove them mad. Pull out any documentary on them and you'll see people backing this up. If you're having fun making a comedy, it's probably no fun for the audience because you need to be scrutinizing every joke and making sure that it's funny. The result is that over-analysis makes you sick of that joke, but it ensures that it's enjoyable for more people than just yourself. There isn't a single person involved in Year One who hasn't failed in some capacity, meaning that the blame is even and can be spread between all of them. To say that careers have suffered because of this film isn't a longshot. Ramis hasn't directed since. Black has only really had Kung Fu Panda to provide him with any success and that's not really sold off his name. As for Cera, he's faced an unprecedented swan-dive with the terrible Youth In Revolt and the, undeserved, commercial disaster that was Scott Pilgrim being the only two things of real note he's done since then. Year One is a film that has seriously hurt careers. The film itself is incapable of providing a silver lining to that fact.

ONE out of five
Contains possibly the worst comedy of modern times. And it's only possibly, because I haven't seen Movie 43 yet.


The Men Who Stare At Goats [DVD] [2009]
The Men Who Stare At Goats [DVD] [2009]
Dvd ~ George Clooney
Offered by 247dvd
Price: £3.63

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars In which inverted commas never required more use, 10 Dec 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
A Partially Educated Review

There's a problem with films that are based on a true story and that's that there's so many of them that it's far too easy to become cynical and disbelieving about how much emphasis is placed on the 'based'. I once had a conversation with someone about how their cat ran away. On the basis of the creative liberties taken in film today, I could take that story and say that the cat found itself in Libya and single-handedly (pawedly?) bought down Colonel Gadaffi. It would probably still get a 'based on a true story' credit too. While the liberties taken with The Men Who Stare At Goats aren't quite to that extreme (that's the horror genre's department), there's still an overbearing smell over the whole thing and it isn't coming from the goats.

Based on Jon Ronson's book of the same name, which stemmed from an investigation conducted by him and the uncredited John Sergeant, ...Goats stars McGregor as reporter Bob Wilton, who finds himself discovering stories of the U.S. Army training psychic soldiers. A meeting with Clooney's Lyn Cassady leads to the true (that word again) story being recounted over flashback, whilst they deal with various encounters with terrorists and U.S. security details in the present day.

As for the goat staring, it's actually a pretty small part of proceedings. Apparently the real-life research into whether psychic soldiers could kill goats just by staring at them took place over 25 years. During this time, they managed to kill a staggering total of one goat. Fantastic indisputable results of the programme's success, I'm sure you'll agree. There's no mention of this in the film, the way it's demonstrated in the trailer is entirely representative of the film's treatment of this real-life "phenomenon". Perhaps if the film were able to make a believer out of me, it would have worked, but skepticism becomes the prevailing attitude of the day. As it stands, I found myself struggling to believe far too much of it.

There's two main reasons for this. The first is a complete mishandling of Bob Wilton. McGregor should represent the necessary gateway for the audience into the world that Clooney represents. Everything's accepted far too easily though. Any doubts that McGregor has are dealt with in the first scene and it's not in an entirely believable way. He then spends the rest of the film as the Clegg to Clooney's Cameron, sitting back, blindly believing and accepting every word that comes out of his mouth, instead of asking the very questions that the audience is asking. All this serves to do is leave McGregor's character feeling a bit pointless, which is slightly bizarre as the character serves as an amalgamation of Ronson and Sergeant, the only two people that could ground the story in relatable reality. That's not to say that McGregor's putting in a bad performance. He's perfectly fine in the role. It's just not a great role.

The other issue is the film's outright failure to divide the line between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Clooney is like the frontier-man spinning a tall tale and that's fine because it becomes up to you to determine which parts you believe and which you don't. Sadly, they can't stop themselves from trying to bring elements of his tale into the world that McGregor inhabits with him. They're some fairly desperate attempts to make you believe in more of Clooney's story. Some of it works (predicted coin tossing), but some of it (cloud bursting) collapses.

Outside of McGregor, you have the psychics and it's in the smaller roles that you get the film's best performances. Spacey's Larry Hooper is a weasel, boiling with ambitious jealousy. A martyr in his own eyes, his inability to accept Cassady as the better man leads to some downright reprehensible acts over the course of the film and Spacey relishes in it, making him so easy to hate. Yet again, the script lets the character down by making his finale a bit of an anti-climax, but, for the most part, it's a well-done character. Likewise, Stephen Lang puts in a hilarious performance as General Hopgood, with his belief and faith in the cause perfectly juxtaposing his blindness to his own psychic ineptitude. Necessity dictates that the character is only in the first half of the film, but that isn't really something that could be prevented. The only real question the performance begs is why Lang is so bland in other films. (See: Barbarian, Conan) (or Avatar)

As for the other leads, Clooney and Bridges both seem to believe they're in a Coen brother's film. Bridges wheels out The Dude for the umpteenth time and, while The Dude is always fun to watch, you can't help but feel character retirement's calling. Clooney delivers a solid performance, but it doesn't quite delve into the character far enough. At first, he shows the calm, cool exterior that you'd expect from him, blended quite well with a quirkier, slightly deranged edge. This is brilliantly betrayed by an early exposure of the character's rampant paranoia, but that is swiftly forgotten and never really mentioned again. Clooney simply reverts back to the original character and an extra-dimension that could have really benefited his performance is left hanging there.

Then we arrive at the ending. It's awful. Without giving anything away, it's attempt to tie in proceedings to something that people will remember is handled pathetically. The problem isn't in whether it's true or not, as, by all accounts, the link is definitely there. Instead, it lies in it's suggestion that the press latched on to the wrong story. They didn't. Did they leave out elements of the true story? Yes. Of course they did. It's what they always do and I'm not trying to justify that. From where I'm standing though, of the two angles they could have been reported, the more important one is the one that they did report as it raised a lot more necessary questions than the other angle would have. Add to this the very final scene (and, indeed, the final shot) which leaves the whole film feeling a lot more fiction than fact. If I could see what they were trying to do with the scene, I'd have been fine, but I really couldn't and it jarred with me.

The thing with The Men Who Stare At Goats is that it's not actually a terrible film in it's own right. It's decent, if unremarkable. However, looking into the real story and the proceedings around the film being made really does sour things, with the treatment and flat-out erasing of Sergeant's contributions being particularly miserable. Ordinarily, I would advise to not let the real story get in the way of the entertainment and to take the film on it's own merits. In this case though, a lot of the liberties taken just feel rotten and, for me, it's impossible to separate them. As a result, these hurt the film far more than any creative flaws ever could.

TWO out of five
Contains a decent film, that can't help but leave a sour taste in the mouth for all the wrong reasons.


Starter For 10 [DVD] [2006]
Starter For 10 [DVD] [2006]
Dvd ~ James McAvoy
Price: £3.57

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In which a casting agent displays an alarming talent for predicting the future, 1 Dec 2013
This review is from: Starter For 10 [DVD] [2006] (DVD)
A Partially Educated Review

What fascinates me with Starter For 10 is how within the space of a couple of years, pretty much all of it's (at the time) up-and-coming cast were well on their way to breaking out in a huge way. When Alice Eve and Dominic Cooper are your least established actors, you know that you've done something right. Let's be honest, the film's sub-10 million budget would very likely be unable to achieve this cast today unless they felt like being charitable.

Set in 1985, the film follows Brian Jackson, a walking hive of general knowledge. Starting his studies of English Literature at Bristol University, it's not long before Brian enrols on the University Challenge team, led by Patrick Walsh and also featuring the instant object of Brian's desire, Alice Harbinson. Elsewhere, Brian also develops a friendship with Rebecca "different protest every week" Epstein, whilst also coming to terms with his mother's new relationship with local ice-cream man Des, following the death of Brian's father.

After the obligatory character intro montage, we go straight to University with a Vicars and Tarts party in which the attendance is suitably sparse. Note to future British students: if you're expecting the parties to be like American films, stop deluding yourself. It's not the perfect set-up to be honest, every decent representation of University lifestyle is marred by stereotypes. The hippy guy claiming that toilet paper is harmful comes off as someone who you would never actually meet at a University. I'm happy to accept that I was at University 20 years after the time this film is set, but I still don't believe it. Likewise, Epstein's group of protesters stop short of literal bra-burning, but do pretty much everything else that you would expect from every movie protest group in the history of ever.

McAvoy's great though. Adopting the awkward "out of place Brit" template, he manages to avoid becoming Hugh Grant through the simple fact that he's capable of showing more than one emotion. He doesn't seek out the laughs, but lets the story and script produce them while he humanises the character, knowing that the best laughs are pulled from human flaws, rather than farcical ones. Elsewhere, he lets the more emotional side of the character show itself in equally natural ways. When he remembers his late father, he elicits genuine sympathies from you, showing a subtlety in his reflective sadness, rather than despaired histrionics. It isn't going to reduce you to tears, nor should it have tried to, but it will resonate with anyone capable of human emotion.

Scenes like this are helped by a brilliant script that never forgets that it's primary purpose is to amuse. Remaining consistently funny throughout, it's able to blend the more emotional or serious moments in a way that flows, rather than jerks, between styles. Keeping these moments to a minimum also helps in ensuring that they don't become too wearing and means that it strays from the Nicholas Sparks-esque manipulative side that writer David Nicholls demonstrated in his script for One Day.*

Elsewhere in the cast, everyone does their job to at least a decent standard. The stand-out though is Rebecca Hall. While the protest scenes have the clichés, Hall is given plenty of time to flesh out the character away from the scenes. Where the protester is often played for comedy value, Rebecca is there to be liked. It's obvious from the start that she's supposed to be the true object of Brian's desires, but it's not because the script can't help itself from telegraphing it at every point it gets. It's because Hall's performance makes you like her far more than Alice and makes you want her to be happy. Elsewhere, Cumberbatch brings out the pomposity and arrogance of Patrick well, but he's overdoing it ever so slightly and isn't given much of a chance to do anything else.

There's a couple of elephants in the room though and they go by the names of Tate and Corden. Don't be put off by their names in the cast list. I actually don't mind James Corden, but if you really can't stand him, don't worry, he's barely in it. As for Tate, I have to give her props. Loud, irritating and with a voice that's like sticking a screwdriver in your ears, Tate tones down her less likeable qualities and comes out with some of her best work. With only an 11-year age gap, she's blatantly far too young to be playing McAvoy's mother, but embodies all the motherly qualities necessary for that to become unimportant. Thankfully, her laugh only makes one appearance and does so in a scene that's otherwise funny. As for the handling of her new relationship, it's is executed pitch-perfect and that's entirely down to her ability to show her guiltless affection for Des, whilst retaining the love for her late husband.

Special mention must also go to the soundtrack. With Kate Bush, Buzzcocks, The Smiths, The Cure and many others, it's a veritable pantheon of British greats that feels and sounds like a student soundtrack from the 1980s. It doesn't matter that you've heard all of them before. It matters that it suits the film and it does that admirably. Although, Pictures Of You in 1985? I think not.

It's a shame then that box office results were hardly staggering. With a general release date that fell a couple of months before The Last King Of Scotland's, it would have perhaps fared better had it come after the growing interest in McAvoy that Last King provided. That wasn't the case and the box office didn't even break the 2 million mark globally (let alone an embarrassing domestic gross that failed to breach a quarter of a million). Bar my parents, I can't actually name anyone who's seen it either. I admit that British film has produced some dire stuff like Lesbian Vampire Killers, Sex Lives Of The Potato Men and Keith Lemon: The Film (or just him in general), but this ones more in line quality-wise with About A Boy. If you're a cynic, you'll hate it, but that's your problem.

If that's not enough then I go back to my original argument. LOOK AT THAT CAST!

FOUR out of five
Contains: a damn good advert for British film from the director of What Happens In Vegas... actually, ignore that last bit.

*Aimed at the film, not the book which I've never read.


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