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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mega Catch-up roundup Jan/ Feb 2013

I've been trying to write full reviews for the many noteworthy films that have been released over the couple of months, but there are just too many to cover if I am to have any hope of getting back on schedule. As such, here's a boat load of snap reviews for a boat load of films, some good, some less so. Oh and one or two of these might even be December 2012 releases and are sure to be on DVD very soon - if they're not already.

Jack Reacher. Much has been made about Tom Cruise being wrong - or at least the wrong height - for Lee Child's mysterious anti-hero, but he does his thing and he does his thing well, resulting in a very enjoyable action thriller that's smartly written, snappily directed and plenty of good pulpy fun. Fans of the book may sneer, but as a piece of cinema, it's certainly far better than dreck like A Good Day to Die Hard. Plus, it has Werner Herzog as the villain and it's  worth watching for that alone. (7/10)

End of Watch. It's use of the thoroughly irritating "found footage" device notwithstanding, this is a humane, powerfully told and enthralling crime drama that takes us into the daily lives of regular cops who have to contend with fraught personal lives, contemptuous plain-clothes detectives and a job that could result in their coming home in a body bag on any given day. Jake Gyllenhall gives what may be a career-best performance but the acting throughout is top-notch, though it's the film's emotional core and attention to detail that really makes it soar. It does, however, lose points for its straightforward thriller aspects that are a bit forced and nowhere near as compelling as the film's more "mundane" aspects. (8/10)

Celeste and Jesse Forever. A charming and funny romantic comedy about a couple who, while in the middle of a divorce, attempt to remain best friends. It does fall into cliche at times and the central relationship, though played by two actors with real chemistry, strains credibility but thanks to a warm and witty script and a terrific lead performance that recalls the similarly terrific Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids - both by the undeniably talented, but often underused Rashida Jones - it makes for one of last year's better rom-coms. (7/10)

Butter. Now here we have a truly surprising delight. Who would have thought that a film about a butter-sculpting tournament would be this heart warming, this smart and this funny? And yet, thanks to a razor sharp script, killer comedic performances (Olivia Wilde, in particular, is just glorious as a stripper out for revenge) and plenty of bite, laughs and sweetness in equal measure, it's already one of this year's most unexpected gems. (8/10)

Parental Guidance. Sure, Billy Crystal is still funny and I do feel much the same way about Marisa Tomei as George Costanza does, but this inert, unbelievable family comedy is a real letdown, considering some of the talent involved. It's perfectly watchable, to be sure, but it's way too empty to be this schmaltzy, and way too lacking in proper laughs to be this silly. (4/10)

Gangster Squad. A slight and vapid crime flick that has great actors camping it up and loads of largely unearned violence. Still, it's always a pleasure to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone on screen together and the look and feel of the '30s period setting does at least make it something of a visual delight, if nothing else. It's a dud, in other words, but not one without its pleasures. (5/10)

Playing for Keeps. I'm not a huge fan of Gerard Butler as a serious actor, but as a comedic lead, he's just laughable - and not in a good way. Playing for Keeps is a trite and mostly unfunny romantic comedy drama about a former soccer star trying to get back with this ex-wife and kid, while hooking up with loads of single mothers along the way. Considering how awful it is in conception, I suppose credit must go to the film that it's just a bit rubbish, rather than totally unwatchable, but this is for die hard Butler fans only. (3/10)

Lawless. A tough, moody period crime-drama that is easy to admire but pretty difficult to love. The cast is great (though Jessica Chastain is underused , while Shia Labeouf is overused) but Lawless is just a bit too dreary, slow and underwritten for its own good - with it's first half hour being particularly difficult to get through. It's the sort of film where I can easily see it working for others, but it left me entirely cold. (5/10)

Wreck It Ralph. Being exactly the right age to get all those vintage video game references, it's hardly a surprise that I really, really enjoyed Wreck it Ralph, which tells the story of a villain in an old arcade game who after years of being the bad guy, decides to try and prove his heroism in other video games in the arcade. Still, even those who aren't fans of everything from Street Fighter 2 to Pacman (and those are just the well known games) this animated gem still has enough heart, laughs and great characters to win anyone over. It's not up to the best animated classics, but it's still one of the better animated films we've had recently. It's worth it alone for Paperman, the sublime black and white animated short (an easy 10/10) that opens the film, which mixes CGI and traditional animation to create a truly irresistible love story. Wreck it Ralph though, on its own, easily earns a very respectable... (8/10)

The Inbetweeners. Based on the hilarious British sitcom, The Inbetweeners suffers a similar fate to many TV-to-film adaptations in that its use of international locales aren't enough to make it truly cinematic and it's somehow a lot less funny than the show that spawned it. Still, it's funny enough, if ultimately disappointing juvenile fun. (6/10)

Anna Karenina. It's disappointing to see director Joe Wright go from the fresh and exciting Hanna to this dull, misjudged literary adaptation, just as its befuddling that so many critics seem to like it. At first glance, Wright's decision to stage this Russian classic as a mix of the cinematic and the theatrical, especially in the innovative way that ever changing theater sets are used in place of traditional cinematic backdrops. It's an admirable attempt, but it doesn't work. Not only are theater and cinema two completely different and largely incompatible storytelling media, Wright often fails to stick to his own gimmicky device when more lifelike backdrops are required. Beyond this, the film is overwrought, boring and features, as the titular character, a woefully miscast and seriously annoying Keira Knightly in her worst performance since the Pirates of the Caribbean films. (4/10)

Flight. After years of freaking us out in the uncanny valley of stop-motion animation, Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) returns to live-action filmmaking with this somewhat predictable but engrossing adult drama. Denzel Washington is brilliant as a drug-abusing, alcoholic pilot whose heroic landing of a doomed passenger aircraft is called into question when it starts to become clear that he was under the influence when he did so. John Goodman, on the other hand, is terrifically entertaining but it looks like he wondered in off an entirely different film. Flight is a compelling look at addiction and faith and, though there are certain elements about the film that are rather "Hollywoodized", it's a really solid return to form for Zemeckis and a nice, meaty role for Washington and well worth your time, especially if you're more forgiving of some emotional manipulation.. (7/10)

Beasts of the Southern Wild. By far the most surprising of this year's big Oscar nominations was this admirable but very challenging little indie flick about a young girl who is forced to grow up prematurely as she faces natural disasters and the failing health of her tempestuous father. It's a film that not only features some spectacular performances from first-time actors (7-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, especially), but is one steeped in metaphor and is unflinching in its depiction of the hardships that our young heroine is forced to face. Add to that some headache-inducing shaky-cam and you're left with a film that is sure to divide audiences right down the middle. As it so happens though, my opinion happens to fall right in the middle: I hated the shaky-cam and though I really loved the metaphorical nature of the story, I found myself oddly detached from much of what was going on. It's worth checking out, but be prepared for a challenging piece of work. (7/10)

The Words. Once again, Bradley Cooper proves to be a far better actor than most of us would have thought as little as a year ago, but The Words is otherwise a fairly dire drama that plays out like a serious version of the German comedy film Lira, Lira about an unsuccessful writer who finds a brilliant lost manuscript and passes it off as his own, until the original writer confronts him with what he has done. It's a good premise and the film has a good cast and even a few solid moments but it's spoiled by an over-inflated sense of its own importance, a total lack of a sense of humour and a totally redundant framing device about an older writer trying to prove that he's something he's not. (4/10)

Quartet. An immensely charming little comedy drama set in a retirement home for former classical musicians and opera singers that features some really great performances from veteran British actors, a witty script and a nice balance of drama and comedy. It's fairly slight and it's perhaps a bit too close to The Exotic Marigold Hotel for comfort, but it's still a pretty delightful little British confectionery. (7/10)

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