Magic Mike XXL (2015)

Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike was, let’s be honest, a surprise hit. Whilst the auteur has tackled many subjects, a dramedy about the lives of male strippers seemed odd when written down. However, all fears were mislaid and the film turned out to be a special, oiled-up, gyrating nugget. Sadly, if only the same could be said of Magic Mike XXL, a film that feels less like a continuation of Channing Tatum’s titular character and more like the next chapter in the Step-Up franchise.

Mike is now living his dream working for himself, but all is not right in magic’s kingdom and when the opportunity arises for him to re-join his old mates in the stripper game, he grabs it with both hands. With a number of stars from the first having been written unceremoniously out of the flick, XXL relies on us caring about everyone else. So to make amends Mike’s merry troupe have had to have their characters fleshed out. And by that we mean they’ve been squeezed into little parcels each labelled with a different stereotype. A fact the film at least acknowledges as Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie runs through a roll call of his fellow dancer’s tropes.

XXL starts off well but quickly loses its way when we start introducing new characters into the mix. Frist there’s Amber Heard’s insufferable Zoe; a character so hip that you wonder if she ever gets lost having to look down her nose at everyone so much. Then there’s Jada Pinkett-Smith as Rome, a former employer of Mike, and her protégé Andre (Donald Glover). Neither seeming to have a particular character trait outside of being black and supporting our beefcake white knight. It’s as problematic as it sounds.

Magic Mike, whilst light on female characters, at least gave us Brooke (Cody Horn) who challenged Mike and his universe to some extent. Notable by her absence, XXL simply has all its women gagging for a slab of man meat. Yes, we should be applauding the fact that women own their sexuality, but in XXL, sexuality is all they have. One only needs to look at the resolution of Zoe’s sub-plot, for what it is, where it’s established she just needs to have a willy wagged in her face to make her happy. And of a fashion that’s how XXL treats its audience. Sit back and prepare to be waggled at.


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part one) (2014)

As well as clocking in as one of the longest film titles this year, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part 1) also, unfortunately, happens to be one of the more underwhelming films too.

Once again, Jennifer Lawrence dons wig and quiver as Katniss, victor of the 74th Hunger Games and now working begrudgingly for District 13 led by the steely-eyed, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). Under the tutelage of ex-Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour-Hoffman), Katniss is prodded and poked into becoming the face of the District’s rebellion. Like a member of the royal family, she is carted around from place to place with a camera crew/marine guard filming her every moment. Meanwhile, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) appears to be now working for the Capital who are ramping up their propaganda to sedate to the great unwashed.

You know how in the run up to an election, you become awash with leaflet campaigns and door knocking from every party. You start becoming deaf to their accusations that the other party is the worst. Mockingjay (Part 1) is similar in that despite its big name stars and large budget, we’re basically following some people on a campaign trail.

Those who have read the source material will know the action doesn’t really ramp up until the second half, which makes it all the more obvious that this is simply a cash-in. There is nothing here that wouldn’t be missed if someone was to take a scalpel to the film and cut it down to 45 minutes tops. This is not a slur on anyone involved in the film itself. Everyone is fantastic and on the ball through out, with the exception of Liam Hemsworth who hasn’t convinced in any of these films. It’s just it’s hard to defend Mockingjay (Part 1) against accusations of lining the pockets of those above. No movie needs this much setup. Like The Deathly Hallows Part 1, people are being duped into thinking this is a complete film. It’s not. It’s flashy exposition. It’s the prawn cocktail before we get to the roast dinner.

When the second part is released next year, there’ll be a better idea of how well this film fits in with the narrative. However, for now, this is an incomplete movie. After the success and, quite frankly, joy of Catching Fire, it’s a shame the suits had to be involved so much.

Tammy (2014)

Melissa McCarthy stole the show in Bridesmaids as Megan Price; the bolshy, loud-mouthed sister-in-law who wasn’t averse to getting down and dirty. There hasn’t been an event since that we haven’t recommended could be improved with a Fight Club. That’s why it always hurts when another Melissa McCarthy vehicle comes out and the material doesn’t do her justice. Last year’s Identity Thief was a painfully unfunny comedy that tried to fill in the cracks with sickly sweet pathos. It would be nice to say that Tammy manages to steer clear of oversentimentality and focus on quickfire gags. However, it would also be nice to say that Tammy is enjoyable film.

Despite what you may have seen in the trailers, Tammy is not a film about a woman on the run after robbing a fast food restaurant. Though they sure as hell wanted you to think that. Instead, the titular Tammy (McCarthy) ends up losing her job, discovering her husband is cheating on her and being beaten up by a deer all in one day. Tired of the shitty hand life has dealt, she decides to leave town for a bit and discover herself. Her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon) lends her her car on the proviso that she can tag along. What follows next is a road movie so banal, it’s physically hurts to see so many decent actors being used so poorly. Toni Collette, Sandra Oh and Kathy Bates all make appearances and add very little to the story. The faults of Identity Theif appear not to have been learnt and serious issues about granny’s drinking problems sit uncomfortably next to scenes of Tammy falling over. Repeatedly.

And that’s the other issue, there’s an confusing meanness to Tammy that invites us to laugh at her rather sad existence, then wag its finger at us for joining in. Before finally admitting, that yes, she is a bit rubbish and needs to pull her finger out. Meanwhile, the alcoholism storyline drifts off on the nearest breeze.

It would be nice to lay the fault of the whole film at anyone at McCarthy. However, seeing as she co-wrote and produced it as well as taking on a starring role, means our sites are firmly set on her. We’re sorry Melissa. We think you’re better than this.

Pride (2014)

There’s nothing quite as lazy as reviewing a Brit-flick to be the new Billy Elliot or the new Full Monty, but here I go doing it anyway, because like its much heralded predecessors, Pride is a perfect slice of that thing we Brits do best. Set in 1984 and based on the remarkable true story of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign and its effect on one small Welsh mining town, Pride is equal parts uproarious and touching, with a true respect paid by the filmmakers to a very bleak part of Britain’s history.

Seen through the eyes of yet-to-come-out Joe (George MacKay), the film charts the movement from its early formation as the brain child of activist Mark (Ben Schnetzer), who is quick to correlate the treatment of gays with the treatment of miners in Thatcher’s Britain. What follows is an uneasy journey (many of Mark’s friends are quick to dismiss the movement due to their own experiences with miners) from the Gay’s The Word book shop in London to the Dulais valley in Wales, where Uncle Bryn-like Dai (Paddy Considine) is paramount in welcoming his new friends to the community.

Boasting an excellent cast list (I no longer trust a British film if it doesn’t contain Bill Nighy), Pride excellently weaves in and out of the lives of its whole ensemble, so it’s hard not to care about each and every one of them, whether it’s “gobby northern lesbian” Steph (Faye Marsey) whose opening line of “She broke my heart at a Smiths concert” sounds like a Smiths song in itself, Gwen (Menna Trussler) with her rallying cry of “where are my lesbians?” or shy Welsh Gethin (Andrew Scott) who struggles with the journey back to his homeland in the wake of his life as an openly gay man in London.

Pride is that remarkable kind of film that manages to acknowledge the injustices of its characters without cheapening the film with sentimentality, preachiness or forced scenarios, a feat for any film based on a true story. Alright, there is a scene where Dominic West’s theatre luvvy Jonathan wins over the miners’ social club with his sweet dance moves, but the history books will never be able to convince me that didn’t happen. And with a soundtrack as perfect as Pride‘s it’s hard to resist displays of such blatant showboating.

As I write this review of this stunningly crafted film, the news has broken that Pride has received an unwarranted R rating in the States. It really is a shame. Pride not only contains no sex or violence, it teaches the strength of friendship and the damage of prejudice. It’s also down right entertaining, and there’s not a single part of that that should be restricted to audiences.

Felony (2013)

Written by Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby), Felony is a gritty Australian thriller that dissects the ideas of morals and honour amongst thieves. Or in this case, honour amongst the boys in blue.

Mal Toohey, played by Edgerton, is a hardworking detective with a decent future ahead for him and his family. After a successful raid and a near miss with a bullet, Toohey and his colleagues blow off steam at the local watering hole. From this point on, Toohey makes a mistake that will scar his life immeasurably. He decides to drink drive home and ends up clipping a young boy out on his bike. When the authorities arrive on the scene, senior detective Carl Summer, played by Tom Wilkinson, takes Mal under his wing and helps fabricate a story that the Mal is in fact a hero. Whilst the boy lies in a coma at hospital, the two men begin to feel the pressure. Mal struggles with his conscience and Carl is harassed by his young by the book partner, Jim Melic (Jai Courtney), who believes Mal’s act of heroism doesn’t add up.

Felony’s dark and stressful themes will certainly stir up emotions in its audience. Its three-way structure and moral ambiguity reminded us instantly of Curt Hanson’s LA Confidential, with each of our three protagonists lying somewhere on the spectrum of corruption. Even the wet behind the ears tests his professionalism when he starts to become attracted to the young boy’s mother, Ankhila Sarduka, played with great emotion by Sarah Roberts.

The performances are superb with Wilkinson standing out the most. Starting off cocksure and a little out of touch with modern society, he expertly portrays a man whose own moral barometer is no longer fit for purpose. Meanwhile, Edgerton moves from one scene to the next riding the clutch on a man ready to collapse under the weight of his own guilt and Courtney manages to maintain his head whilst all those around him lose theirs.

Felony is a mature piece of work that certainly shows Edgerton’s talents in writing. Here’s hoping the film gets the recognition it deserves outside of Australia.

Frank (2014)

Frank Sidebottom was the alter ego of Chris Sievey. Or more correctly, Chris Sievey was the alter ego of Frank Sidebottom. Frank, with his cheap suits, nasally voice and, oh yes, his oversized Papier Mâché head, will be unfamiliar to audiences outside of the UK. Something which is likely to change with the release of Frank, Michael Fassbender’s latest; directed by Lenny Abrahamson.

Co-written by Jon Ronson, a member of Frank’s original entourage, Frank takes its inspiration from the man from Timperley (that’s a town in Cheshire for those of you not in the know), but pins it down with a large fictional nail. Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon; an office worker with desires to be the next big singer songwriter. His ‘big break’ arrives when he is asked to play keyboards for Soronpfbs; a band consisting of extroverts, mutes and mad people. All of whom idealise Frank (Michael Fassbender); their softly spoken perma-masked lead singer.

Fassbender is superb as the titular Frank, seemingly more emotive whilst wearing the mask and having to say his facial expressions out loud. Maggie Gyllenhaall plays his aggressively violent and emotional sidekick. Immediately mistrusting of Jon, this is one of Gyllenhaal’s best performances since Secretary.

‘You’re just gonna have to go with it,’ says Don (Scoot McNairy), the band’s manager, when Jon questions him about the logistics of wearing a mask 24 hours a day. A statement that becomes the film’s mantra. You’re either going to accept the next 90 minutes or your not. If you do, you’re letting yourself in for a heart-burstingly warm film that touches on the deconstruction of fame, the idea of identity and chasing after your band mates with a shovel.

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Human pipe cleaner, Nick Cave has a career that spans 40 years and encapsulates being a singer, writer, shit kicker, actor and connoisseur of narcotics. His output with The Birthday Party, to the Bad Seeds, to Grinderman, and numerous compositions with beardy Warren Ellis in between, has bounced from clenched fisted punk to soul gnawing eulogies to the dead. It will come as no surprise then that, like his back catalogue, 20,000 Days on Earth is hard to pin down and summarise.

Directed by video artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (who have collaborated with Cave on numerous occasions) the artist lives out a fictional 24 hours in Brighton. Except it’s not all fictional, because here comes a candid interview that delves into Cave’s drug abuse and early days. And there’s Ellis breaking bread and discussing Nina Simone. But then the waters are muddied as Cave dips into an archive of photos and diaries set up for the film and disguised as something urgent Cave needs to deal with that day (He even cuts his meal with Ellis short to get there on time).

Yes, it’s all a construct. But not in the fashion we’ve become desensitized to thanks to the likes of the Kardashians and the rest of the E! news stable. We actually learn something about our subject, even if we’re not getting a full view behind the black velvet curtain. Cave’s family are rarely glimpsed, apart from a cheeky film night with his youngest children to watch Scarface.

It’s also a fitting portrait on the subject of aging gracefully and being forgotten. Not that Cave has any intention of doing either. As he drives around his hometown of Brighton, he also ferries around Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone and Blixa Bargeld whose appearances are dressed up as Cave reminiscing, merely ghosts of an afterthought. They talk about the humility that comes with growing old and the added responsibilities that crop up.

On paper, it probably all seems jarring, but there’s something intrinsically organic about 20,000 Days on Earth that suggests that this was the only way you could build this cinematic monument to an artist.