Lone Survivor [Title Spoiler: only one of ‘em survives]: follows a Navy Seal team as their recon mission goes south and they’re ambushed by Taliban militia. From the get go it’s a flag-waving military recruitment advert; glorifying the ‘Army Bro’ lifestyle and full of manipulative shots: wide aperture, emotional music, golden hour lighting. It takes a while to get going, but when the action starts the movie completely shifts gear. After a quick round of various viewpoints on killing potentially dangerous civilians (also the only real characterisation we get) there’s an epic, sustained and very intense action scene, that goes on just long enough to become a bit silly; as the protagonists are shot dozens of times but keep limping on, literally throwing themselves face first down massive cliff faces while mowing down seemingly infinite hajis with seemingly infinite clips of ammo. This set piece is grittier than most too, with blood splattering headshots, close-ups of wounds, shrapnel surgery – not much left to the imagination. This kind of action, and the way it’s shot make the film feel more like a HK influenced heroic bloodshed film than a traditional army or Hollywood action movie. The final five minutes are a tribute to the dozens American soldiers that died in this operation; a nice touch, but ultimately raises more questions about why America perpetually sacrifice so many young people to interfere in the middle-east. As a War Movie, Lone Survivor is pretty light, but as a no-brainer action film it works spectacularly, with one of the best gun battles in recent memory.
“Been around the world twice. Talked to everyone once. Seen two whales fuck, been to three world faires. And I even know a man in Thailand with a wooden cock. I pushed more peeter, more sweeter and more completer than any other peter pusher around. I’m a hard bodied, hairy chested, rootin’ tootin’ shootin’, parachutin’ demolition double cap crimpin’ frogman. There ain’t nothin’ I can’t do. No sky too high, no sea too rough, no muff too tough. Been a lot of lessons in my life. Never shoot a large caliber man with a small caliber bullet. Drove all kinds of trucks. 2by’s, 4by’s , 6by’s and those big mother fuckers that bend and go ‘Shhh Shhh’ when you step on the brakes. Anything in life worth doing is worth overdoing. Moderation is for cowards. I’m a lover, I’m a fighter, I’m a UDT Navy SEAL diver. I’ll wine, dine, intertwine, and sneak out the back door when the refueling is done. So if you’re feeling froggy, then you better jump, because this frogman’s been there, done that and is going back for more. Cheers boys.”
Southpaw [minor plot spoilers]: a boxer’s life crumbles when his wife is killed, and he loses everything else he cares about. For a standard beat-down/comeback sports story arc, it feels overly ripe and melodramatic – the ‘Fall’ section of the story takes forever and just gets worse and worse, to the point where it’s becomes borderline comical: losing wife, then fighting licence, then money, then child, then house, then gets a shit job… Because this bit and the token training montages take so long the short-but-more-upbeat ending doesn’t really counterbalance the emotional front end. For a boxing movie we don’t actually get much fighting either; as the focus is on 1-dimensional characters (slimy agent, has-been trainer…) and a well-worn story arc. Although his character’s a simple short-tempered meat-head Gyllenhaal puts in another sterling shift (talk about a hot streak); the rest of the cast are definitely supporting roles. You’ve seen everything in Southpaw before, but with a bit of emotion and some strong storytelling Fuqua and The Weinsteins deliver a solid – if unremarkable – boxing picture.
Safety Not Guaranteed: a journalist and two interns head off to investigate a classified ad about a man who’s about to go time-travelling. Inoffensive Indie soundtrack, check. Strong indie cast, check. Mumble-core indie dialogue, check. Welcome to 2012’s feel-good quirky, low-key, shoe-gazing, Sundance-bait movie of the year. The director (Colin Trevorrow) puts a big bet on you fawning over Aubrey Plaza and finding her hilarious & irresistible: she’s in most scenes/shots and feels like the absolute focus – I personally don’t dig her that much, which pulled the film down a little for me. There’s also a fairly substantial side story with college ex-girlfriend, which is obviously filler, and I would have preferred to have spent more time with the funnier characters (like Karan Soni riffing off Napoleon Dynamite). But hey, the director went on to do Jurassic World, and a Star Wars film so he probably knows more than me! The acting’s good, script’s funny, characters are well-drawn, but the film itself feels like it’s trying three or four different half-assed angles (comedy, conspiracy, heartbreak…) and not sticking to one in particular. It would have been good if the ending had been explored further too. Although greatness isn’t guaranteed, this is actually way better than I thought it would be, for an entire film based on a single picture as old as the internet. It’s got highs, lows, and is a bit deeper and more engaging than most indie films – showing that quirky can still be funny and entertaining.
Naked Weapon: when her best assassin is killed on a job, an evil hitwoman kidnaps prize-fighting girls and turns them in to deadly, sexy, naked killers. The first five minutes features sex, nudity, explosions, fighting and bad jokes; the next 30 minutes are set on an exotic island full of hot, leggy, potentially lesbian martial arts chicks trained to become hitwomen – so far so good for a film called Naked Weapon. The fights throughout are pretty spectacular, with some tasty choreography, sweet wire-work, and fluent breakdancing-esque kung-fu – all surprisingly intricate for a film like this. The revenge story is also fairly decent, and there’s some pretty harsh moments like a rape scene and dead kids. There are a few bum notes though, the dialogue is dirt-cheap, any emotional scenes are beyond tacky, and there’s flashes of ‘uber-kewlz’ superpower moments that would be better placed in a manga adaptation. It may have been made in 2002, but looks and feels way more like a ‘classic’ turned up to 11 exploitation action flick. Ultimately, Naked Weapon is a love/hate film that will depend on your tolerance for sleazy action. I’d be going against every manly bone in my body if I gave a solid film with great fight scenes, hot chicks and nudity less that a 7…
S.W.A.T. – a drug kingpin offers $100M to anyone that will bust him out of prison; a special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team is assigned to make sure he checks in to the big house. Most evidently, this bad boy has every single cop film cliché you could find in the ‘big book of cop film clichés‘. The unit’s best hot-shot is a maverick that gets results, but he’s bounced off the team (because of his ill-tempered partner) by pencil pushers; another wildcard officer sees potential and puts both their careers on the line reinstating him – would you like some more platitude sauce with your hackneyed sammich sir? Not content with having a copy/paste story, every sloppy racial / cultural / actor stereotype is also present; Samuel L. is very angry-with-attitude, Renner has a short fuse, macho man Michelle Rodriguez pops up in her white vest, everything’s too familiar, right down to the ‘uncool vegan loser’ and ‘big fat black mama’ that shouts “mmmmmmmm hhhmmmmmmm”. The action is big, loud and decent, if a little ridiculous – like a Die Hard / Michael Bay movie. It’s all so ridiculous that it couldn’t possibly be anything other than a cheesy, tongue in cheek satire of the genre? Surprisingly enough, despite not having an ounce of originality, S.W.A.T. is super-strength, all too watchable, well-executed, cheese-tastic, guilty pleasure action material.
21 Jump street: two useless police officers are assigned to a revived ‘undercover‘ branch of the department. The film’s lucky in that it has two genres to mashup and play with – buddy cop and high school – which it does effectively, although the school element is far, far funnier. The first hour is fantastic, catches you off guard, full of well-observed school humour, and ‘random’ comedy (Korean Jesus, trippy drug scenes etc) – I almost choked at one point. It does however deflate and lose its magic in the second half as it frantically ticks all of the boxes you’d see in a bog-standard cop-buddy story arc. Jonah Hill is funny, but well within his comfort zone; Channing “is there anything he can’t do” Tatum is comedy gold – he hinted at this by being the only good thing about last year’s Dilemma, but this is a whole other level – show stealingly good. For additional smartness there’s a nice run of meta jokes about recycling ideas & humour, and loads of movie tropes – these can be found in the car chase and party scenes. With an emphasis on off-the-wall humour, and a genuinely funny script paired with some great improvisation, 21 Jump Street is a solid contender for comedy of the year.
IP Man (AKA Yip Man) [Blu Ray]: partial-biogaphy of grandmaster martial artist Yip Man, as he fights to protect his town through the Japanese invasion of 1937. This is a jaw-dropping homage to the old martial arts films; choreography, subtle wire work, sound effects and filming of the action. This all peaks during a 1-on-10 fight indoors, which is action-tastic, bone-snappingly brutal and phenomenal to watch. Storywise, the film starts off amazingly with random schools of martial artist groups challenging each other to fights, but as soon as the war / Chinese history kicks in it slows the film down to a crawl. Annoyingly, there’s random leaps forward in time about every ten minutes; is it a week, month or year… we don’t know. Outdoors the BD picture great, but inside it’s very grainy – and the entire second half (invasion) looks depressingly washed-out and devoid of any colour. Films that handle the Sino–Japanese war have a tough job, and IP man succeeded nationally (although falls down internationally) in doing this; because it’s over-sentimental – but you can’t hold that against such a nationally proud, historical piece. Overall, IP Man starts with a massive bang, but the entire second half becomes a bit of a struggle, although the great action will keep you in your seat.
Space Dogs [Blu Ray]: family friendly, fast-and-loose re-telling of the Soviet space dogs Belka and Strelka, who were sent up in Sputnik 5 and became the first animals to return from space in one piece. As a grown up, this film wasn’t pitched at me – the characters are a large-headed, squeaky-voiced, constantly kinetic mixture of animals on spectacularly dazzling adventure. Needless to say, that description ticks every box on the “child entertainment requirements” checklist. Being presented by the Russian Centre of National Film and Ministry of Culture Office there’s a lot of interesting, educational national pride, history, facts and even a mini tour of the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue – which is quite refreshing. The Blu Ray presentation and sound are both impressive; it’s bright, colorful, detailed and sharp. Although missing the multi-generational appeal that Pixar seem to have perfected, Space Dogs looks great, has a simple “happy ever after” story and would be a neat stocking filler for young children this Christmas!
Real Steel: in the near future professional boxers have been replaced by robots; this film follows the highs and lows of a struggling ex-boxer in this new era, and relationship with his estranged son. I’ll put it out there straight away – I loved Real Steel. Something else to note up front is that Virgin, HP, Ray Ban, Dr Pepper, Bing, X-Box 720, Wired, Sprint, Budweiser, Beats By Dre & ESPN logos (to name but a few) are shamelessly crowbarred into centre frame at every opportunity. Back to the film, there’s an equally shameless cheese-rammed story of sporting underdogs, and runaway dads, that’s quite predictable but surprisingly well-played. The action is absolutely fantastic – jaw-droppingly impressive CGI helps – especially for the fights, which are amazing to watch. More generally, the film is brilliantly shot and photographed. Jackman’s on good form, and the kid’s not too annoying – all other characters are tertiary stereotypes, like the Russian billionaire and advanced Japanese tech nerds, but they make for great baddies and push a subtle all-American vibe that’s rarely seen at the moment. It’d be easy to dismiss this as ‘Rocky with Robots’, but Real Steel landed every single punch on me; it’s such a boys film, with a classic comeback story, training montages, cool gadgets, big action, robots hitting each other, manliness, and plenty (albeit mostly unintentional) laughs. This is what big-budget movies are all about for me – story, spectacle and entertainment. It’s the most fun I’ve had in the cinema all year, can’t wait for the sequel.
Score: 8.5 /10
Spartacus Blood and tits Sand: 150% testosterone-fueled 13-part swords and sandals epic – It’s essentially what would happen if the cast of 300 violated the story and actresses of BBC‘s Rome. I’ll get the controversial stuff out of the way first. Violence, there’s literally GCI bucketloads of flying limbs, heads, blood and teeth every time someone grabs a weapon – most memorable; a gladiator cuts a dead opponent’s face off and wears it as a mask in his next fight – awesome… just awesome. Secondly, Spartacus is a celebration of Skin; it’s a conveyor belt of gratuitous Spartan chests, fake and real breasts, naked men fighting, women getting rammed, guys getting tugged off and gay gladiators bumming each other – most memorable; Lucy “Xena Warrior Princess” Lawless getting her gobstoppers out! Thirdly, the Dialogue sounds like 20 drunk sailors sat at a whiteboard and played the ‘best insult ever’ competition – some of the combinations are so imaginative and foul that they even impressed this sweary Scotsman. Controversy aside the actually story is so, so epic, and nowhere as linear or predictable as you’d expect – it twists and turns right to the last scene with endless betrayals, story developments and murders. The acting is also startlingly good given that there’s very few big names, so many characters, and everyone falls into either i) meat-head gladiators (for action) ii) sexed-up women (for skin) or iii) slimy political figures (for progressing the story). Other than a couple of slower episodes Spartacus is an absolute hit, that gets better as the series progresses: my lady even went from “this is so ridiculous” to a total convert, no mean feat for a series aimed at 15 year old boys! When the show works, it totally works – and if you can see past the gratuitous violence, skin and language – at the heart of Spartacus lies a compelling, well-written and well-executed story. Brilliant mix of drama, action and trash!
Hot Rod: a wannabe stuntman has to pull off the biggest jump in history to save his terminally ill step-dad; just so he can kick his ass and win his respect before he dies… Ace! This is one of the few comedies I’ve seen lately that remains consistently funny throughout, with too many laughs to list, and a great script’s that throws up obvious and subtle jokes. Some of the humour’s pretty silly and offbeat but works because of the deadpan delivery. The cast are great with Samberg as the standout (unfortunately the Lonely Island are unheard of in the UK). Danny McBride and his usual posse also put in some good face time, Isla Fisher‘s also on good form. The laughs slow up in the third quarter and a few of the visual gags are predictable but it’s forgivable because the retro 80s hair metal / synth music soundtrack that compliments (and compensates for some of) the humour so well. For me the entire film just worked, and the production values were great. It will get bashed by any serious movie goer but Hot Rod totally exceeded my expectations and was genuinely funny throughout. Will definitely be watching again. Cool beans!
Blades of Glory: started off very strongly by backgrounding the characters and fierce competition, paired with commentators on the BASEketball level of awesomeness. Unfortunately it fizzles out a little when the focus shifts off the rink and a fairly uninspired underdog / unlikely friendship story plays out. The characters definitely have their moments but they’re no Ron Burgundy or Napoleon Dynamite. Even Will Arnett couldn’t muster up many laughs, an indication of the patchy script. I’ll buy a meal to the people who made Jenna Fischer look that hot! The rest of the film relies on the innuendo of male skaters and there’s a whole load of skating stars & references throughout. Probably more for fans of the sport than Joe Public but there are some good bits scattered throughout.