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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.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

Hear that sound? It’s the sound of critics and bloggers stoking up the fire and getting ready to burn the wicker man. And who’s the latest sacrifice? Well, it sounds like Brian the dog from TV’s popular Family Guy… Oh wait, no, it’s Seth MacFarlane from TV’s popular Family Guy.

Since its release, MacFarlane’s foul-mouthed western has been getting a shoeing from all areas. MacFarlane is shy sheepherder, Albert Stark, who loses his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfreid) to the town’s lothario (Neil Patrick Harris). Though its not all bad as here comes Charlize Theron as Anna, who, unknown to Stark, is the wife of hardened outlaw, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). Anna and Albert’s new relationship is put to the test when Leatherwood comes back to town.

A Million Ways to Die in the West certainly doesn’t stand up to MacFarlane’s previous effort, Ted, but it doesn’t deserve the critical mauling it’s been receiving. The humour is crude and deeply offensive, but it’s also very funny. Sometimes breathtakingly so. Sarah Silverman as a virginal prostitute (yes, you read that right) is a particular standout. However, there’s only so far the shield of irony can protect you and some of the more racial jokes are dubious at best. Just because you’re taking potshots at everyone, doesn’t mean you should.

There’s also the problem with the third act when McFarlane tries to insert some emotion and drama into the proceedings. Slowing down the film to a snail’s pace, it could easily have been jettisoned in favour of some, you know, jokes.

With a stellar performance by Theron and the catchiest song about moustaches you’ll ever hear, A Million Ways to Die in the West is not the vanity project its been branded with (Let’s save that kind of thing for After Earth, guys!), but it is by no means his best work.

Bad Neighbours (AKA Neighbors) (2014)

Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen play an affluent couple riding that thin line between maturing and yearning for their days of youth. They have a nice house on a nice street, and an adorable baby girl. When a fraternity moves in next door, the couple hope they can build up a neighbourly relationship, but a misunderstanding soon leads to a line being drawn and a battle of wits begins between them and the frat’s leader played by Zac Efron.

Bad Neighbours is a frequently funny and foul-mouthed comedy that excels simply by allowing everyone to play their part and just have fun with it. Of course all this fun does cause some problems. Namely the improvisations, which, as we’ve grumbled about before, just need to be reigned in a little. When everyone in the scene begins to look tired of the joke, you’ll be damn right in assuming the audience is too!

However, this kind of grumble can be swept under the carpet when the laughs here are so plentiful. And despite the numerous dick and fart jokes, it’s clear that Rogen and his frat pack are beginning to mature. The role of finger wagging wife usually reserved for films of this ilk, is crushed under foot by Byrne. Never assuming a backseat role, her Aussie housewife even calls bullshit when her husband says it’s her job to keep him in check.

Oh Katherine Heigl, how angry you must be right now.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street plays like a Martin Scorcese greatest hits album. Whirling camera work, extensive, continual jukebox selection, amorality, marriage breakdown, rise and fall stories, law breaking, cocaine, bad metaphors, cocaine, pills, asides to the camera, paranoia, sharp suits and most of all, cocaine all make plenty of appearances. Scorcese appears to have made a homage to himself and in particular, Goodfellas. In Goodfellas, however, all he asked of us was to empathise with gentlemen who made money off theft, blood, prostitution, drugs and protection. The Wolf of Wall Street asks us to empathise with REAL scumbags – corrupt stockbrokers. Fortunately it doesn’t ask too hard.

The plot, which could be explained with the equation; ((Wall Street x 10) + Goodfellas) x amateur pornography, is based on the life and subsequent book of Jordan Belfort who together with Donny Potash (Donny Azoff here) formed the Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm which existed primarily to swindle people out of money with a “boiler room” fake stock strategy. Starting out ripping off average joes, Belfort realised if he applied his selling principles to the “real stock market he could defraud the richest of clients. Greed is good multiplied by a factor of one thousand. In the film, Belfort shows the same contempt for his audience as he does for the people he defrauds (legally and illegally), repeatedly turning to the camera and telling us we don’t need to understand how they are making millions, just that they are. Or he begins to explain financial procedure and gives up on us, a nice nod to the labyrinthine structures of finance created by rich men to make themselves richer. In Belfort’s world money only flows to him. The client is as unimportant as us.

As Jordan and Donny begin to make serious money their egos increase and their appetites spiral downwards. Scenes of such consumption fly past at a rate impossible to remember. EBFS stopped counting the jaw dropping moments where swaggering pricks consider themselves both invulnerable to and above the law and any reasonable code of ethics. Within the opening two minutes, car based blow jobs and cocaine blown up posteriors has occurred and that’s just to get us up and running. Offensive conversations about dwarves, dwarf tossing, Jonah Hill masturbating in public, plane based orgies and “hilarious” racism follow. One scene involving DiCaprio’s rectum and a lit candle has joined Tommy Lee Jones and Joe Pesci spray painted gold and whipping each other in JFK at the top of our “things we thought we’d never see” list. Cars are crashed, boats are crashed, helicopters are crashed, lives are crashed. Not that our protagonists notice. They just carry on with gleeful, sadistic abandon, assuming they’ve unlocked life’s secret and refusing any responsibility. The sheer volume and length  of some scenes of depravation are presumably there to desensitise us to the acts in the same way Belfort and his cronies have been, whilst distracting us from the lives at stake off screen, just as the stockbrokers attempts to get more and more “fucked up” presumably distracted them. It works, just, only occasionally falling into heavy handedness with all the subtlety of the rat/city hall interface that close The Departed.

DiCaprio, who’s acting has been on a spectacular run of late all the way up to Monsieur Candie in Django Unchained, has improved with every Scorcese collaboration after a shaky start in Gangs of New York. His tortured, undercover cop in The Departed showed real pain. If anything, this may be his best performance yet. Slick, confident, disgraceful and a tour de force of persuasion, his sharp suits clashing with his dyed hair, his drug sweats and gluttonous eyes. Avarice glitters through every move he makes. Jonah Hill, by contrast, is grotesque, a leering, chubby, watery, horse toothed sloth of a man, riddled with inferiority but blessed with enough chutzpah and money to try to cover it up. He’ll get an Oscar nomination because the academy members probably struggled to avert their eyes. His performance is the wound you can’t itch. The two of them are supported by a willing cast of circus freaks, gurners and grifters (Spike Jonze, Jon Favreau, Matthew McConaughey…..erm, Joanna Lumley, that guy who can’t see the sailboat in Mallrats, Jean Dujardin) who hang out, fuck up and gradually drop out. Oh, and Kyle Chandler does his best Max Cherry impression as the FBI agent on Belfort’s case who is rewarded with the loneliest scene in the movie. So, well done him.

As the third hour lurches into life, Belfort’s monster begins to unravel. Scorcese sets up a teasing, fake ending then yanks it out from under us, exposing us more harshly to the following scenes of domestic violence, paranoia, backstabbing and mortality from which the Stratton Oakmont people thought themselves immune. The comeuppance, we think, the deserving comeuppance that must surely be coming is right around the corner. The wimper that follows is the most devastating thing of all. At the end, as the loop is completed, there has been no downward spiral, no learned life lessons. These people were contemptible to begin with. At best, they go from utterly amoral to venally immoral. Like Henry Hill’s “the rest of my life as a schmuck” speech, Belfort whines and moans at his meagre punishment, then celebrates how the rich never really have to suffer. Utterly repellent to the end, Belfort’s rise and fall may be both a familiar Scorcese trope and filmic theme but the lack of any effect on it’s King Lear lends a vicious poignancy to proceedings. Still way too long, mind.

The Sweeney (2013)

Facking hell, it’s the rozzers. C’mon bruv I can hear the sirens coming. Apples and pears. Lawks a lordy. Etcetera, et-bloody-cetera.

Based on the popular 70s TV show of yesteryear, everyone’s favourite cockney Nick Love brings The Sweeney bang up to date. And by up to date, we mean mid to late 90s, when Loaded was a well-thumbed periodical and you were as hard the man you punched. This is the kind of film Tony and Gary would watch in Men Behaving Badly as a parody of the bullshit lad culture that permeated all those years ago.

If Danny Dyer and Vinnie Jones had a baby and then raised it in Wormwood Scrubs, it would grow up to write this script on the back of a fag packet. Probably whilst ‘shagging a bird’ or quoting lines from The Football Factory. Starting off with a conversation about how fit someone’s bride-to-be is, this utter dribble of a movie plods from one cop cliché to another without a hint of irony; barely bothering to pick itself up from the drunken-blue-balled-on-all-fours-crawl-from-the-pub pace its put itself on.

Ray Winston growls in his pants, Plan B doesn’t sing, Steven Mackintosh’s DCI is the baddy because Winstone is poking his wife and he doesn’t like corrupt cops. Or something. In fact, who cares. It’s all so tiresome. We actually miss the aforementioned Dyer, that’s how much he would have improved this film.

Apocalyptic (2013)

In this independent found footage horror, a duo of documentary journalists become involved in the machinations of a mysterious cult hidden in Australia’s outback. The cult’s leader, Michael (David Macrae), envisions the end of the world will soon come. Is he mad or is there a kernel of truth in what his all female disciples say? If the story sounds somewhat familiar, then it may be because you’re thinking about Gareth Evans’ segment of V/H/S 2, entitled Safe Haven, which covered similar ground.

Whereas Evans went for the jugular in a short, sharp shockfest, Apocalyptic’s writer/director, Glenn Triggs, lets his story brew before tipping its contents all over you. Triggs ensures realism throughout: cameras aren’t conveniently placed to capture action and music is a big no-no. A large success of the film is in the performances, something which can often destroy any attempt to pass off a movie as something that really happened (we offer Exhibits A and B: Gacy House and 100 Ghost Street). Macrae is particularly creepy, simply by being so utterly open and friendly. There’s no damning the outsiders and cursing with fire and brimstone here. Which is why, when things start to spiral out of control, it’s even more disturbing. His casual selection of a child to take to bed is particularly effective in how under-played it is.

Triggs has mentioned that The Blair Witch Project was a large influence on him when he was younger, and this is quite evident, particularly in some earlier scenes when our heroic journos are gathering information from some locals nearby.

Like all found footage films, Apocalyptic does suffer from a couple of scenes that are nothing more than pointing at the ground and shouting ‘What the fuck is that?’, which is distracting. However, with strong performances and clear talent on show, Apocalyptic is nerve-shredding and we look forward to seeing what else Triggs will have up his sleeve in the future.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013) (1623)

Well, doesn’t this feel like a gift? In between helming mega franchises, Joss Whedon has crafted this little, sex-comedy bauble. Shot in his own home on a $20,000 shoestring budget and starring a cast of trusted friends and seemingly anyone who was knocking about, Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is faithful to Shakespeare and still indelibly a part of the whedonverse. Fanboys will be sated.

Whedon has professed a love of Much Ado above Shakespeare’s other comedies, possibly explaining his decision to make this so relatively recently after Kenneth Branagh’s justifiably exalted version from 1993. Although, in a world where Spiderman origin stories exist  barely a decade apart, perhaps this isn’t such a shock. Whilst Branagh’s film was a bawdy, Tuscan romp (with Keanu as the bad guy), Whedon’s version is a tighter, more world weary vision, a careful observation of love shot through with pathos rather than a saucy seaside postcard if you will.

Ostensibly a play about Claudio (stoner from Cabin In The Woods) trying to secure Hero’s (new) hand in marriage despite the scheming machinations of Don John (doctor from Firefly), Much Ado is much more focused on getting sparring ex-lovers, Beatrice (Fred from Angel) and Benedick (mini-Giles from Angel) to fall in love despite their collective bitterness concerning the ideals of marriage. These plots are helped, hindered and investigated by Hero’s father, Leonato (SHIELD guy from The Avengers), Don Pedro (some guy from Dollhouse, which we never watched) and bumbling flatfoots, Dogberry (Firefly captain) and Verges (one of the nerd-herd from Buffy). This familiarity of cast is a stroke of genius as firstly, they worked for free and, secondly, for the warmth and comfort with which they deliver their lines, the cadences and syntax of Shakespeare’s flowery, old english rendered into twenty first century gossip and bickering, flowing as free as the ever present wine.

Whedon’s skill has always been in being fully aware of the rules of the genre he’s working within and subsequently subverting them gently, yet plausibly. Here, he takes Shakespeare, remains faithful, albeit with a cut here and there, and shoves it through his knowing prism, fracturing a brash comedy into a fragile, delicate, worried tramedy. He bravely leaves in a racist slur from the original, instead using it to highlight our discomfort and ability to turn a blind eye to such things. His decision to shoot in the softest of black and white’s  gives this comedy an austerity that grounds it in reality (despite the conceit of a woman “dying” of shame, which must of stunk in the sixteen hundreds as much as it does today) and lends an honesty to the broken relationship of Beatrice and Benedick.

So, Whedon gives us this, a deft, little gem, blending a classic with his own comfortable style, creating a work as pleasurable to view as it clearly was to make. A Shakespeare adaptation that can sit with McKellen’s Richard III, Branagh’s trio of this, Hamlet and Loves Labours Lost and er….10 Things I Hate About You as the best of recent times. Let’s see him do that with the Avengers sequel……

Grabbers (2012)

There is an excruciating moment in I’m Alan Partridge when the titular DJ is trying to win favour with a couple of TV execs form Dublin in the hopes of bagging a job over there. After running through innumerable Gaelic stereotypes, he hits upon the woeful campaign slogan of ‘Dere’s more to Ireland dan dis’. And whilst it may seem odd to say, Grabbers kind of lives up to his ad campaign. Like Australia, New Zealand and other countries that most people associate with looking pretty on a postcard, Ireland has given us a stonking creature feature.

Grabbers was cursed with the cruellest of releases and, like Iron Sky, struggled to muscle its way in the local multiplex. We saw it at this year’s Horror Fest in Melbourne, and it really is a romp that deserves to be on the big screen rather than on your mate’s TV via pay per view.

On a remote island near Northern Ireland, a small village comes under attack from a gaggle of tentacled aliens who have landed on Earth during what appears their mating season. When bodies of local residents start turning up, the safety of the village is  dropped into the hands of alcoholic Garda, Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle) and visiting Dublin Garda, Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley). Upon discovering that aliens are allergic to blood with high alcohol content, O’Shea decides that the villagers must seek sanctuary in the local pub for a lock-in to end all lock-ins.

Evidently, this is not a sombre under siege horror like John Carpenter’s The Fog. More likely it’s a schlockfest in the vein of Shaun of the Dead; mixing comedy and horror in a way that is often forgotten when these hybrids are produced. Kevin Lehane’s screenplay delivers memorable one-liners, but gives us characters we can believe in. Ask yourself seriously if under the same situation, you would act like Bruce Willis fighting off the aliens with a toothpick, or like the village’s drunk, Paddy (Lalor Roddy) wondering how you’re going to come out of this alive and drinking yourself into oblivion?

Jon Wright, who gave us 2009’s Tormented, squeezes a lot out of his $3.5 million budget that would put a lot of Hollywood fare to shame. Not relying solely on the formulaic ‘quiet, quiet, BANG!’ motif that comes with most modern horror – Paranormal Activity, we’re looking at you! – He delivers some literally explosive set pieces that reflect and rift on a number of classics, including Jaws and Aliens. Did we mention how bloomin’ gorgeous it all looks? Wright embraces the Irish countryside in a way that would make Peter Jackson weep.

Grabbers is a booze and blood soaked comedy that deserves a lot more credit than we feel it’s going to get with the rushed release to DVD. A true cult film in the making and a fine tourist campaign if ever there was one.

Trifecta of Horror: The Raven (2012), Theatre Bizarre (2011), 100 Ghost Street (2012)

The Raven

The final days of author and original emo, Edgar Allan Poe, remain one of great mysteries of the literary world. Roaming Baltimore, delirious, in someone else’s clothes and asking after ‘Reynolds’, Poe died soon afterwards giving no indication of what had happened to him. James McTiegue’s The Raven tries to tie all the loose ends together with a wholly fictional account that sees Poe (John Cusack) trying to solve a series of murders based on his macabre tales.

The Raven looks sumptuous; all cracked red leather seats and cigarello smoke. And that’s the good points out of the way.

Thematically, the film awkwardly staggers along the line between the Hughes Brothers pi-faced From Hell and Guy Ritchie’s slap-around Sherlock Holmes series. When Cusack isn’t beating his chest and shaking his fist at the heavens, he’s sharing quips with surly Inspector Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) in what looks like an attempt at camaraderie. This unevenness of tone is just the tip of an iceberg that encapsulates an overlong running time, a worthless antagonist and an ending that is unsatisfactory to say the least.

Theatre Bizarre

A young woman finds herself drawn inexplicably to a run down theatre, becoming witness to a series of morbid tales, hosted by a human sized ventriloquial figure. Yes, we’re in the terror-tory (Ha! Pun!) of portmanteaus – a genre of horror that the term ‘mixed bag’ was genetically grown for. Whereas in the distant past, other films of this type (The House that Dripped Blood, Asylum) have tended to be headed up by one team behind the curtain, Theatre Bizarre goes the way V/H/S, with different directors and writers for each segment.

Unfortunately, unlike V/H/S, it’s just not very successful. Some stories simply substitute gore and tits for story, whilst others seem to tag on a surprise ending at odds with the rest of the tale – a case of ‘he was walking down the street, eating an ice cream and then his knees fell off’. One story in particular, in which a mother tries to make light of her young daughter’s fascination with death after witnessing a bike accident, stands out the most because of its maturity amongst all the blood and boobs. It’s the bright spark in an otherwise depressing number of z-grade stories that not even the appearance of uber-legend, Tom Savini, can save.

100 Ghost Street: The Return of Richard Speck

Following on from the exploitative nature of 8213 Gacy House, the Asylum crew build their latest cheapovision horror around the legend of real life serial rapist and murderer, Richard Speck. People run through dark corridors, then walk, then run some more, then shout ‘what what the fuck was that?!’ whilst running. It’s all very tedious and reaches the pinnacle of vulgarity when we, the viewing public, are treated to a two-minute rape scene by Richard the Friendly Ghost. The fact the scene reminded us of Scary Movie 2, just heightened our displeasure. 100 Ghost Street plays like a bingo card for all other found footage horrors, showing a lack of originality we haven’t seen since Exorcismus. Avoid like the plague.