The Salvation

Director: Kristian Levring (2015)

Saddle up for this exciting and cynical Western shot through with murder, revenge and rape.

When a peaceful farmer swaps his ploughshares for pistols to exact retribution on his family’s killers, it results in a deadly feud threatening the interests of the rich and powerful.

Having reinvented police procedural TV dramas, the Danes cheekily train their sights on the archetypal Hollywood genre.

They deploy the usual dramatic furniture of six-guns, shoot-outs, saddles, saloons and a safe full of money – then dress them up with biblical overtones and contemporary issues such as government corruption and environmental concerns.

Filmed in South Africa with a European, predominantly Danish cast adds to the new perspective, emphasising the sweeping immigrant nature of the US of the period.

Seven years after serving in the Danish army in the 1864 war against the Germans, brothers Jon and Pete (Mads Mikkelsen and Mikael Persbrandt) are living a hardscrabble farming life in the US West.

They are finally joined by Jon’s wife Marie and son Kresten (Nanna Oland Fabricius and Toke Lars Bjarke) on the frontier.

Kresten is now a young teen while Marie is an elegant porcelain beauty in pale blue and blonde, appearing dangerously delicate in her new rough and dusty surroundings.

Travelling by stagecoach to Jon’s smallholding, Marie and Kresten are savagely murdered by a pair of recently released criminals. It’s the first of many terrifically tense scenes, played with minimal dialogue.

Though Jon exacts bloody revenge and kills the men, one of them is the brother of a vicious gang leader called Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

He in turn wants revenge and holds the local townsfolk of Black Creek accountable until Jon and Pete are apprehended, leading to a violent and gripping showdown.

With a brisk running time of 91 minutes, the dialogue, direction and editing are delivered with a considered economy, consistent with Mikkelson’s controlled central performance.

In a role requiring her not to speak, Eva Green  shows what a strong actress she can be as Madelaine, Delarue’s disfigured sister-in-law.

Jonathan Pryce is as excellent as ever in a small but pivotal role as Mayor Keane, who in the manner of rural communities, doubles as the undertaker – an essential role in many Westerns.

Former footballer turned thespian Eric Cantona plays a henchman known as The Corsican, glowering from under his beetlebrow with menace.

His appearance is only incongruous if one’s strongest memory of him is turning out for Manchester United. But we should remember he’s been acting for the best part of twenty years. There’s nothing wrong with his performance; he’s pretty good.

Co-written by the director, the script is sharp with clear character motivation and well constructed conflicts fuelling consequences of greater acts of violence.

The violent personal dramas play out on a broader social canvas; the church and the law are under the control of Delarue who is playing a far bigger game than the townsfolk realise.

There’s a commentary on how corporate America uses military mercenaries to bully elected representatives, the law and the Church and serve their own interests over that of the people.

None of this slows down the action but enhances it by providing context and motivation. A dead body is deposited next to a pool of oil, the only building left standing in a burnt-out town is the bank.

As well as missing legs and tongues, there are many mutilated teeth and eyes befitting the biblical criteria for justice. Fire and water are elemental punishments, adding to the well-crafted Old Testament atmosphere.

Cinematographer Jens Schlosser burns his daytime colours. His rain lashed night-times have ferociously heavy and apocalyptic shadows.

Costume Designer Diana Cilliers dresses the cast in a variety of colours to reflect the swathe of languages and accents we hear from the throng of immigrant nationalities.

Just as in the 1960’s the non-Hollywood talent of Sergio Leone could use his perspective as an outsider to rejuvenate a well-worn genre with his operatic Spaghetti Westerns, so too does Levring.

Although operating on far smaller scale, he re-invigorates the genre with a passionate energy and fresh location. The magnificent South African landscapes are an imposing spin on using the venerable Monument Valley as a backdrop to the action.

Not only do they have the requisite majestic expanse but they hark back to the era of John Ford and John Wayne, steeping The Salvation in cinematic history and modern day excellence.

John Wick

Director: Chad Stahelski (2015)

An assassin goes on an entertaining one-man rampage of revenge in this bloody, brutal and bullet-ridden action thriller.

Filled with blistering action, fast cars and a cute puppy, it’s a slick return to form for Keanu Reeves.

Grieving the death of his wife, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) disses a Russian gangster Iosef (Alfie Allen).

Not a bloke to be dissed by a fifty year-old in stubble, classic sports car and brown leather jacket, Iosef beats Wick up, trashes his apartment, kills his dog and steals his motor.

On any other fifty year old, Wick’s fashion choices could be the sign of a mid-life crisis and but this is Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan, Johnny Utah and Neo – so he can dress how he likes and he’ll always be forgiven.

In flashback we see poor Bridget Moynahan as Wick’s late wife Helen. Despite being seven years younger than her screen husband, Reeves makes her look like a toyboy-chasing cougar. The illness that killed her could have been old-age.

Unfortunately for Iosef, Wick is a retired hitman who used to work for his dad, a beard-stroking villain called Viggo (Michael Nyqvist).

Wick has a killer rep, he once killed three men in a bar with a pencil and is famed for his focus, commitment and sheer will. Nyqvist delivers the word pencil with articulate relish.

To protect his spoiled son Viggo reluctantly puts a $2million dollar bounty on Wicks’ head. Meanwhile Wick is breaking out his arsenal of weapons and is in a bad mood. The muted blues and greys of his house are a stylish representation of his emotional state.

The film plays to Reeve’s strengths by giving him lots of screen-time, great suits to wear, fast cars to drive – and minimal dialogue. Plus he’s at the centre of plenty of crisply choreographed carnage set to a grinding rock soundtrack.

What’s best about John Wick is the script’s nicely created heightened sense of reality, it exists in a parallel universe of coded conversations, rigid rules of engagement, financial penalties and it’s own currency of gold coins the size of doubloons. We only ever see one cop and he apologises for doing his job.

Adrianne Palicki and Willem Dafoe appear as as fellow hitmen Ms. Perkins and Marcus. Her Mrs Peel leather and eyeliner combo adds to the timeless quality of this alternate reality.

Ian McShane saunters through as Winston, a sleazily ambiguous owner of the Hotel Continental where a lot of the action takes place, John Leguizamo has a small role as Aurelio, a mobbed-up garage owner.

The moments of humour are underplayed for the greatest effect. Reeves delivers laconic asides with confidence and there’s a variation on the classic ‘pause in the fight and listen to elevator music’ gag.

Editor Elísabet Ronaldsdottir cuts the action with as many long edits as possible, giving them tremendous dynamism. Reeves may well have used a stuntman but you’d be hard pushed to say where during the hand to hand fighting.

Cinematographer Jonathan Sela captures the ultra-violence in deep wells of light and adds increasing levels of colour as the story progresses – but sadly there’s a lack of poetry in the glossy aesthetic and too little re-invention of action tropes.

We don’t need the traditional sweeping helicopter shots of the city and we’ve seen too many times the rain-soaked night-time fight on the docks. Plus this showdown would be stronger if we considered the two men to be equals – as in Michael Mann’s Heat – rather than a super-assassin putting the hurt on his elderly former boss.

However it’s great to see the likeable Reeves in a well-executed action thriller – he even gets to walk towards the camera with the room on fire behind him in classic action hero style.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Director: Steve Pink (2015)

Anarchic and knowingly stupid, this gross-out comedy sequel goes back to the future with nobs on. And out.

Loud and lewd, it’s a booze, drugs, sex, vomit and gay-rape romp to the year 2025, a pop culture mash up of The Hangover and Back To The Future franchises.

Having exploited their time-travelling hot tub to become billionaires, Nick (Craig Robinson) and Lou (Rob Corddry) are having a party in Lou’s mega-mansion.

Nick is importing music and claiming it as his own while Lou has invented Lougle, the dominant internet search engine. Lou’s son Jacob (Clark Duke) is employed by his dad as a butler.

An unidentified man shoots Lou so Nick and Jacob throw him in the tub to travel back in time to stop the shooting. But they go forward in time by mistake and have to find a supply of secret formula chemical to take them back home.

They hook up with Adam (Adam Scott) the son of the character played by John Cusack in the original film. Cusack obvioulsy decided this is a Hot Tub trip too far. The very game cast who do return put their all into the film.

The story doesn’t bear any analysis with regards logic. It’s a shameless hook to hang on as many badly judged and executed jokes as possible, the more rude, offensive and stupid the better.

There’s a driverless smartcar with murder in mind, hallucinogenic trips, drasic dancing and Christian Slater as a game show host

Very aware that 2015 is the year in the future Back To The Future II travelled ahead to, there’s a hoverboard joke. References to other time travel movies include The Terminator, Looper and of course the Back To The Future films litter the script.

Joke cameos from Lisa Loeb, Jessica Williams and Bruce Buffer as themselves may have been funny if I didn’t have to Lougle them to discover who they are.

Disposable and daft, the most acute joke is 2025 is only ten years away.

Lost River

Director: Ryan Gosling (2015)

A mother struggles to keep her family safe in this challenging and contemporary nightmarish fairytale.

Director Gosling can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition in his directorial debut, it’s the Hollywoods heart-throb’s execution of his underdeveloped story that let’s him down.

Billy (Christina Hendricks) is three months behind on the mortgage and local bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) suggests she takes a job with Cat (Eva Mendes)

She runs a local cabaret, owned by Dave. It’s a strange, credit card-accepted-only place where the acts involve the dismemberment of beautiful women. The audience gleefully lap up this conflation of sex and violence as bloody entertainment.

However it’s downstairs in the secret chamber where the girls can make the real money but the fearful Billy is reluctant despite the pressure to do so.

Meanwhile her eldest son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) is friendly with Rat (Saoirse Ronan) who lives next door with her grandmother.

Their tentative relationship is threatened by the local hardman called Bully (Matt Smith). Bones has fallen foul of Bully for stealing copper pipes and the plier-wielding psychopath is out for revenge.

It is an apocalyptic setting, there’s no internet for a start. The bureaucracy still operates though.

The destruction of the man-made environment is ongoing; sledgehammers smash through walls, bulldozers rip down houses, buildings are burnt to the ground, there are burnt out cars and dinosaur statues. The elemental power of fire and water are recurring motifs.

Detroit and its astonishing urban decay are exploited to good effect; roads are swamped by a green and aggressive mother nature. Zoos are empty, neighbourhoods are abandoned.

Encounters with random people seem unscripted and there’s far too much improvisation to too little effect. Dialogue is sparse and there are no real conversations but lots of questions asked in an open-ended teenage way.

Insufficient menace and tension are generated by a languid pace.

In natural light Gosling throws in every shot he has heard of with no rythym or reason; dutch angles, tracking shots, overhead pans, shifting focus – and all in the first five minutes.

It does possess a strong sense of colour with many scenes saturated, giving Hendricks hair and complexion a startling vivacity.

There’s nothing wrong with the work of editors Nico Leunen and Valdis Oskarsdottir or of cinematographer Benoit Debie – just a lack of cohesive thought in preparing the shoot.

The soundtrack is a curious combination of industrial noises and old melodies; Mendelsohn gives an unexpected performance of Bob Nolan’s 1936 western song Cool Water.

As an actor Gosling has made some interesting work with director Nicholas Refn and is strongly influenced by his work. There’s also touches of David Lynch though this is not necessarily a compliment.

More random ideas bandied about include the character of Rat’s Grandmother who has been mute since her husband died building a reservoir. She watches the video of her wedding day on a loop, echoing Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

All the actors commit themselves to the directors vision and some are familiar with him. Both Mendelsohn and Mendes worked with Gosling on The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) while Hendricks appeared in the Refn’s Drive (2011) with Gosling. Ronan appeared in the similarly fairytale inflected Hanna (2011).

Lost River feels like a film shot with the intention of finding itself in the edit. It may still be looking.

Woman In Gold

Director: Simon Curtis (2015)

A young lawyer and elderly woman team up to haggle over the ownership of a valuable piece of art in this dull plod of a true story.

Half courtroom drama, half Second World War thriller and all unremarkable, an uninformative script fails to inspire two mismatched leads.

Widowed US citizen Maria (Helen Mirren) is Austrian by birth and bossy, rude and talkative by nature. She spends a lot of screen-time staring into space and listening to music. She has come into documents suggesting a valuable painting of her aunt Adele may in fact belong to her.

Painted by famous artist Gustav Klimt and known as the ‘Woman In Gold’, it’s of such great importance it’s colloquially referred to Austria’s Mona Lisa, though it’s real name is ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I‘. As her aunt’s will specified it’s hanging on public display in the famous Viennese Belvedere Gallery.

Maria hires the inexperienced lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). The grandson of a famous Viennese composer, Randol takes the case to further his career but after visiting the Holocaust Memorial it becomes a personal mission to secure for Maria the painting.

Together they scuttle off to Vienna to demand the paintings return from the gallery. She tries to shame the authorities into gifting her a painting worth over a hundred million dollars. Even to my inexpert legal mind it’s not a strategy likely to succeed.

Eventually Randol discovers a legal loophole and takes Maria’s claim to the US Supreme Court for permission to sue the Austrian State for the painting’s return.

In one scene a Ferris wheel is featured prominently in the Viennese background, prompting the mind to drift to this famous moment from cinema.

Randol’s argument rests on the exploitation of a technicality not sympathetic to the intention or spirit of her aunt’s original will. Although Maria has an emotional claim to the painting of her aunt, the legal ends seem to have been resolved correctly if not by the right means.

Sepia-toned flashbacks to Maria’s privileged childhood in Vienna shows us a little of a somewhat cold relationship with her aunt Adele (Antje Traue). This undermines her argument her legal case is underpinned by her love for her family.

We see far more coverage of her life as a young married woman under Nazi house arrest for being a Jew, allowing for leather-slapping SS guards to inject some menace into the film. They steal the family silver as well as the Holbein from the wall, her father’s Stradivarius cello and of course, the painting at the heart of the story.

Young Maria abandons her parents to the war and as she flees to the airport, is chased on foot and fights off armed Nazis. What a gal. I didn’t believe for a moment this is how she left Austria.

There’s too much disconnect between eras and the desperate tone of the war years clash with the gentle banter between Mirren and Reynolds.

Scenes in the Supreme Court which are played for laughs. Legal arguments are easily defeated in an uninteresting way and long lapses of time of 9, 6 and 4 months interrupt what little dramatic tension there is in court.

Whenever anyone is offered opportunity to display generosity of spirit, self-interested petulance is chosen instead.

Both leads are miscast and lack chemistry. Reynolds is static wooden pole Mirren gamely gambols about him, flirting with a mannered Austrian accent.

it’s always pleasant to see Katie Holmes on the big screen but in an inconsistently written role she’s relegated to being Randol’s stay-at-home wife. Tatiana Maslany as young Maria makes a convincing young Helen Mirren.

Poor Daniel Bruhl plays journalist Bertus Czernin. He pops up to handily explain Austrian bureaucracy and their funny ways. Peculiarly for a journalist he takes no notes, writes no stories and takes no payment, Astonishingly he’s the one buying the drinks. Mostly he serves the function of providing Reynolds someone to talk to.

We lean nothing of Klimt, his life, art or why his art is so vital to Austrian culture, relegating him to the second most famous Austrian artist in this story.

Frozen

Director: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee (2013)

Wrapped up in sisterly love, this snow-filled Disney animated adventure is exciting, funny and even moving – but sadly never in sufficient qualities to justify it’s being nearly two hours long.

Apparently ‘inspired’ Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, it too often evades the dark icy heart of the fairytale.

Unapproachable Elsa (Idina Menzel) is the queen with the power to create snow and ice. She is a misunderstood and feared character who falls out with her sweet and ditzy sister Anna (Kristen Bell).

After Elsa accidentally uses her power, a summer instantly turns to permanent winter. She struggles to control her own magic so she is accused of being an evil sorceress and driven away into the mountains.

It is left to Anna to trek into the wilds, reconcile Elsa with her subjects and subdue the weather.

The animation is brilliant and the ice palace building sequence will send shivers down your spine. Lighthearted comic buffoonery balances the action which mostly involve being chased downhill by ice monsters and hungry wolves.

Along the way they make friends with comedy sidekicks including a mountain man called Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer named Sven and Olaf (Josh Gad) a snowman. He’s the the most fun character on show but also the most inconsequential.

The annoying dialogue is, like, totally California teenspeak, except for Sven the reindeer, who is mute but a far from dumb animal.

The script has problems, not least the lack of a readily identifiable, hissable villain. Yes there’s a giant snow troll but the drama rests on Elsa changing her mind. A nicely dark opening chapter is followed by a long and middling middle section.

Plus Frozen has two feisty female characters but doesn’t make the most of them. We see too little of the more interesting Elsa and spend too much time with Anna contemplating her romantic interests.

 Elsa belts out the excellent song ‘Let It Go’ but two weak and unnecessary songs (yes I’m talking to you Olaf the snowman and you, tiny trolls) slow the pace and lengthen the running time.

Everything heats up for the finale and delivers the film’s heartwarming message that love is more powerful than fear. Awww.

Elements of Frozen suggests someone at Disney saw the record-breaking worldwide box office returns of the theatrical production of Wicked and decided they wanted a piece of the action.

Based on Gregory Maguire‘s novel  Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West in turn based on The Wizard of Oz by Frank L Baum. The success of Wicked the show was due to tapping into the under-exploited market serving young teenage girls. Frozen methodically sets out to exploit the same rich profit seam.

Her undoubted talent notwithstanding, it’s no coincidence Idina Menzel played the role of powerful but misunderstood witch Elpheba in Wicked before playing the powerful but misunderstood witch Elsa in Frozen. Nor is it a surprise Frozen’s signature tune Let It Go could easily be slipped into the Wicked songbook. In fact more than one song could be – as the Honest Trailer recognises.

Since this review was first penned Frozen has become a global phenomenon. A sequel is on the way and of course there’s the short film Frozen Fever being shown in cinemas before Disney’s Cinderella. Which I enjoyed more.

Godzilla

Director: Gareth Edwards (2013)

This handsome reboot of the Japanese sci-fi classic is monstrously poor, resurrecting the giant lizard with dazzling computer graphics but failing to create any excitement, tension or fun.

Characters are thin and lack humour, the dialogue is banal and the story needs focus. It lumbers from Japan to California creating plot-holes so deep they could hide a massive mutant reptile.

Nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife in a mysterious explosion at a Japanese power plant. Fourteen years later and he has become a conspiracy theorist trying to establish what really happened.

When his estranged son, naval Lieutenant Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), visits they are arrested investigating the quarantine zone where his wife died. Taylor-Johnson can be excellent but here he is a dead-eyed, muscle-bound charisma bypass.

They are taken to a secret base where scientists are keeping a huge radiation-eating insectoid called a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. It promptly buzzes off to the US to mate with another escaped Muto.

Scientist Dr Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) has nothing to contribute except listen attentively to Dr Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) bang on about the balance of nature. He displays a surprising amount of Godzilla background knowledge considering it’s the first time he or anyone else has ever encountered the beast.

Elizabeth Olsen plays Ford’s wife Elle who has very little to do. Director Edwards must shoulder the blame for his poorly written characters being absent-mindedly picked up, toyed with and forgotten about.

With no-one to empathise with we fail to care what’s happening on screen, regardless of the marvellous work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

Meanwhile Godzilla appears and swims across the Pacific to fight the Mutos. The US navy manage to lose sight of him despite his size.

A dog is put in danger in a shameless attempt to generate tension. Then children are put in jeopardy in a school-bus on a bridge. I haven’t seen that happen since ooh, The Dark Knight Rises.

Military Intelligence decides to attack the radiation-eating monsters with a nuclear weapon. This is clearly stupid so Lieutenant Ford must parachute in to defuse the bomb, ending the film with a whimper not a bang.

The name Godzilla comes from the  Japanese word Gojira and is made of two words; Gorira, meaning gorilla and kujira meaning whale. So not so much a giant lizard. But it would probably have made for a more fun movie.

☆☆☆☆

What We Do In The Shadows

Director: Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement (2015)

This dead-pan mockumentary about flat-sharing vampires lacks sufficient bite to be funny.

Offering low-key, bone-dry humour, this undead oddity struggles to come to life and struggles with weak plotting and indulgent pacing.

It feels more like a series of thin sketches strung together than a fully realised feature film and it’s no surprise to learn it was based on a short film made by the same team.

Four vampires of varying age share a house. Viago (Taika Waititi) is a 317 year old Georgian dandy who organises the house. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) is 862 and a medieval vampire in the Turk-skewering tradition. Petyr (Ben Fransham) is an 8,000 year old Nosfertu type who lurks rat-like and unspeaking in the cellar. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is a former travelling salesman who was turned by Petyr and a relatively youthful 183.

Viago’s faithful familiar (servant) Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) is increasingly disillusioned at her prospects of ever being turned into a vampire and is incensed when her dinner guest Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macue) jumps the queue. He slowly learns life as a bloodsucker isn’t as much fun as he first imagined.

Zombies and werewolves all appear at the Unholy Masquerade, an undead ball where Vladislav confronts his nemesis he refers to as The Beast.

Strip aside the vampires stylings and what’s left are some humdrum observations about four mundane middle-aged blokes sharing a house in genteel poverty and struggling to adjust to a changing world. Their vampire problems don’t inform their contemporary concerns or vice versa.

Jokes rely on mastering the internet and name-checking movies The Lost Boys, the Twilight franchise and Blade. They seek far too much comedy mileage out of unresolved domestic squabbles such as whose turn is it to do the washing up.

The strongest aspect of the production is the design by Ra Vincent whose shabby drawing room chic is complemented by deeply textured interior lighting by cinematographers Richard Bluck and D.J. Stipsen.

The use of shaky cam is unavoidable, the flying stunts are nicely realised and old-school blood splurts are enjoyably silly.

Writer-directors-actors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement are both connected to The Flight of the Conchords. Completists of their work may be keen to see this but everyone else may decide to opt for a wooden stake through the heart instead.