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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Bunch of Current Films to Watch Instead of Transformers: The Age of Extinction (can'tcomequicklyenough)

Like the title says!

Or, ya know, catch up time!

Between Transformers 4 and the upcoming Blended (more on that soon... probably), you would be excused for thinking that mainstream Hollywood cinema has finally died the death that everyone has been warning about for decades. The bad news is that with this week's release of Blended, we get similarly insipid stuff like  House of Magic, Hateship Loveship and The Invisible Woman - the latter two of which, have loads of potential but sadly really don't work. On the plus side though, the last few weeks have seen the release of a bunch of really worthwhile films. I've reviewed a few of them already (seriously, have you  still not seen The Fault in Our Stars and Edge of Tomorrow? What the hell are you waiting for?) but there are even more goodies that are more than worth your time. And, would ya know it, most of them are the very definition of "mainstream"!

On the less-than-mainstream side of things though, we have the frankly quite terrific Locke (9/10), which is this moving, thrilling and thoroughly engrossing movie about a guy talking on his phone (hands-free, of course) while driving to London for the birth of his illegitimate child. Seriously, that's all that happens for 90 minutes. We don't see anyone but Tom Hardy as the eponymous protagonist and the only time the camera leaves his car is for the occasional tracking shot of the traffic just outside his car. It should be a nightmare but thanks to a storming performance from Hardy and incredibly well scripted conversations with his character's wife, kids, boss, mistress, work subordinates and dead father, Steven Knight crafts as gripping a character-drama as we've seen all year.

Also on your local art circuit is the immensely enjoyable but very slight Fading Gigolo (6/10) that may ultimately suffer from an acute case of male-wish-fulfillment-fantasy syndrome but still has plenty to recommend about it. John Turturro directs the film and stars as a regular middle-aged yobbo who suddenly finds himself becoming a very successful gigolo after his former boss (Woody Allen) convinces him to sell his, um, services to a couple of girl-friends (Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara) who are interested in trying out a menage a troi. It's balderdash basically, as you may well expect, but the really interesting thing about the film is that not only does Turturro channel Woody Allen's writing to jaw-dropping levels of accuracy but he has also made the most Jewish Woody Allen film since at least Crimes and Misdemeanors. This well-known Italian-American doesn't just set his film in a Satmar-Hasidic (a particularly isolationistic branch of ultra-Orthodox Jews) neighbourhood but delves headfirst into that neighbourhood, its people, its customs and it's Shomrim security guards. There's even a semi-romance between his character and a Satmar widow. It's all very strange, but it's also an interesting and, seemingly quite accurate - well, to this modern-orthodox South African Jew, at least - depiction of this particular Jewish sect. The best thing about the film though, is - quite unsurprisingly - Woody Allen, who plays the usual "Woody Allen" character with all the brilliant comedic timing that we've come to expect from the guy. Weird, weird stuff.

On rather safer ground then, we come to Belle (8/10), a shamelessly mainstream and accessible film about slavery, the caste system and a women's liberation (or lack thereof) in 19th century England. It's based on a famous painting, which itself is a portrait of real people, but Amma Asante's film about Dido Elizabeth Belle, an illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of an English noblemen who is raised among - but also away from - her upper-class extended family is a mixture of history, romance and melodrama that also has an awful lot to say. It's grounded by brilliant performances by the great Tom Wilkinson as the girl's great-uncle (who also happens to be Lord Chief Justice - which plays a key part in the film's later sections) and newcomer Gugu-Mbatha Raw as Dido Belle herself. Many a critic has scoffed at the film's melodrama, its sentiment and its softness of touch but they're missing the point. Belle is a film that deals with very complex, very important themes but does so in a way that makes them accessible to even younger viewers. Its populist to its core but that's really kind of the point.

I am a huge fan of How to Train Your Dragon - I consider it the best Dreamworks animated film to date - so it kind of pains me to say it, but I was somewhat disappointed with How to Train Your Dragon 2 (7/10). Don't get me wrong, seven out of ten is hardly a bad score and the film easily earns that rating with its giant battle scenes, more mature storyline and incredible visuals but there's something vital that's missing from this sequel. It would hardly be fair to say that it's lacking in heart or humour but the decisions to go larger in scale and darker in tone means that the intimate, casual charm of the original is largely lost, while the dopey, kid-friendly humour doesn't sit quite as well with the second film's more adult tone. It's pacing too, lacks the snap of the original. It's worth seeing for the spectacular visuals alone but your overall enjoyment will be heavily affected by how you like your fantasy. Lord of the Rings fans may well go nuts for How to Train Your Dragon 2 but those of you who lean more towards the Harry Potter/ Neil Gaiman side of grounded-fantasy may well find yourself wishing for the simpler times of the first film.

Quite conversely, while I was only moderately impressed with the 21 Jump Street movie, I was really, really impressed with 22 Jump Street (8/10), which currently stands as easily the funniest film of the year so far. Sure, it's a bit too long, it's a bit of a mess and half its jokes fall flat on their faces but when a film is as committed to its comedy as 22 Jump Street clearly is, the latter two failures are easy enough to forgive, while the former is easy enough to understand. Hill and Tatum are fantastic together and Ice Cube redeems himself from the ghastly Ride Along as the duo's long-suffering captain but the real stars are directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and the army of writers who are responsible for the script. Like the best full-on comedies, 22 Jump Street is willing to do whatever it can to get you to laugh and it tries every kind of humour there is to accomplish this. There's slapstick, verbal comedy, metatextual post-modern comedy, sight gags, pop references and (reverse) double entendres - sometimes all at once. With this much comedy on screen, it doesn't matter if half the gags don't land because there's always something funny coming just around the corner. It's like the creators of the film have decided that the only way to deal with the hyper-subjectivity of comedy is to make a dozen different comedies at once - and it works brilliantly. Also, be sure not to miss what may be the greatest end credits of all time, which are almost as funny as the rest of the film combined!   
So, really, with this much good on circuit right now (as well as, again, The Fault in Our Stars and Edge of Tomorrow), there really is no excuse to waste your money on Transformers or Adam Sandler's latest crime against cinema. If you do, you really only have yourself to blame when Blended and Transformers 5 come along in a couple of years.

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