Golden Years

Director: John Miller (2016)

With grand designs on Hollywood, TV presenter and star of DIY SOS Nick Knowles has knocked out this very British comedy.

His workmanlike script is an off the shelf construction of stately homes, incompetent cops, cups of tea and bare arses.

As mild mannered retiree Arthur, Bernard Hill leads a solid cast that includes Una Stubbs, Alun Armstrong, Simon Callow and Virginia McKenna.

They give this gentle crime caper a dash of colour and a veneer of respectability.

Accidentally discovering an aptitude for bank robbery, Arthur plans to save the local bowling club from closure and sets about raising the funds in a Robin Hood stylee.

The story highlights the contemporary issue of OAP’s being fleeced of their pensions by robber banks, and makes a point of the invisibility of the elderly in society.

It bestows vitality on its characters and respect to its audience by wisely saving its mockery for the media attention seeking copper in charge of the robbery investigation.

Brad Moore as Detective Stringer channels his inner David Brent in a perma-tanned performance.

Although it offers mild entertainment and is difficult to object to, it all feels like the movie version of a never seen 1970s TV sitcom.

Breaking the golden rule of cinema finance, Knowles has used his own cash to fund the project.

There’s definitely a screw loose somewhere.

Heaven Knows What

Director: Ben & Joshua Safdie (2016)

This raw tale of homeless heroin addicts refuses to offer easy solutions or heavy handed homilies.

It’s a loosely plotted account of dependancy, desperation and destitution, told with a blessed lack of sentiment or backstory. Events are given an immediacy through cold location work, shot guerrilla-style with handheld cameras.

New York is presented as an overcrowded, dirty, concrete conurbation where the state uses medicine to control the population. The internet exists but technology intermittently fails.

Adding an astonishing synth soundtrack to the opening scenes of dystopia and isolation, it feels like a 1970s sci-fi prophesy of the 21st century. And it’s set in the present day.

Framing the drama in this way affords us a degree of separation from events, necessary for us to endure watching them.

Based on her own memoir of life on New York streets, Arielle Holmes is compellingly aggressive and agitated performance as Harley.

She rebounds between sadistic addict Ilya and drug dealer Mike, leading to a running battle between the abusive pair. Caleb Landry Jones and Buddy Duress are grubbily convincing.

Littered among the mental illness, overdoses, shoplifting, fighting and begging are small random acts of kindness. They fuel a shambling camaraderie among the down and very nearly outs.

What seems to be dangerous, threatening and unhinged behaviour to bystanders, we recognise as being an understandable reaction to Harley’s extreme circumstance and limited options.

Heaven knows how she survived, not all her acquaintances are so fortunate.

 

Captain America: Civil War

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo (2016)

Hard on the heels of the showdown between Batman and Superman in Dawn of Justice  (2016) comes another super-powered spandex smack down.

This time it’s Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. facing off as Captain America and Iron Man.

Although nominally the third stand alone Captain America film, it plays like a third Avengers movie and deals with the fall out of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

But Civil War lacks writer/director Joss Whedon’s ability to build a strong narrative and offer a spotlight for each major character.

Although the Russo’s bring a harder edge to the action, they haven’t Whedon’s grasp of group dynamics or comedy. They seem unable or unwilling to nurture interesting female characters, which is Whedon’s absolute stock in trade.

Here the blunt banter and sparse stabs of humour seem forced rather than growing organically out of character.

Many jokes seem parachuted in by executives and there are more than a few about gags about ageing. They lend the movie the stale air of a spandex version of Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables franchise.

The ferocious and superbly choreographed opening action scenes are at the very top end of Civil War‘s 12A certificate.

But the story is cluttered with too many minor characters. New ones are introduced to flag up their own stand alone solo movie and there’s a much herald appearance of a rebooted favourite.

Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle return respectively as sidekicks War Machine and The Falcon. The Hulk and Thor are noticeably absent.

Young Brit Tom Holland steals the film with his wide eyed chatterbox take on Peter Parker.

It’s a shame his Spider-Man CGI alter-ego is so poorly rendered, all the more puzzling as the generally the film looks fantastic in its IMAX 3D version.

A great deal of time is set up the Black Panther (2018) movie. Marvel seem so eager to involve and so self pleased at promoting a black character they haven’t looked too closely at how he’s presented.

Removed of the cowl and claws of Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman is fine in the undemanding role as the urbane and irony free African prince T’Challa.

However he’s prone to beginning sentences with ‘in my culture..’. Maybe people do speak like this but it reminded me of Ron Ely era Tarzan. His dialogue and demeanour seem freshly minted from the preconceptions of the white New Yorkers who created him back in 1966.

William Hurt and Martin Freeman are introduced as part of the Black Panther thread.

While Jeremy Renner gives the most lacklustre performance of his career as Hawkeye, Paul Bettany does some lovely work as the Vision.

The script can’t work out what to do with him or his ill defined powers, so opts for ignoring him whenever it can. Notably during the fighting.

Dragged down into the melee and still without a film to call their own, the only two female heroes are Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch.

At heart Civil War wants to be a hard hitting action thriller. The tone is suitably subdued as the script deals with politically compromised ideals, murdered parents and revenge.

Then it remembers the audience and bursts into blasts of candy coloured action.

Remorseful at collateral deaths of civilians during an Avengers mission, the once independent Iron Man is ready to accept UN oversight of The Avengers team.

Bizarrely for a soldier, Captain America doesn’t agree with operating under a hierarchal command system.

A UN conclave are about to sign an accord to will curtail superhero activity when they suffer a terrorist attack.

Number one suspect is Captain America’s friend turned terrorist agent Bucky Barnes. AKA The Winter Soldier.

Despite being played by the physically impressive Sebastian Stan, he remains an irritatingly anonymous figure.

Captain America is convinced Bucky is innocent and sets off to find him before the CIA do.

This puts him at odds with Iron Man, leaving the rest of The Avengers team to decide with whom they stand.

As allegiances shift and romance blooms across the barricades, loyalties are stretched and snapped.

Meanwhile there’s a sinister plot involving Daniel Bruhl’s shady scientist and a super enhanced elite death squad.

Easily the best part of Civil War is the promised punch up between the host of heroes.

It’s an imaginatively conceived and entertaining executed bout which leaves the heroes damaged and divided.

Unfortunately it happens about half way through the running time, so the rest of the film feels very anti-climactic.

And after two and a half hours of spandex clad action, I was beginning to chafe.

 

Jane Got A Gun

Director: Gavin O’Connor (2016)

Since winning her best actress Oscar for ballet based drama Black Swan (2010), Natalie Portman’s career has been noticeably quiet.

In this small time western with occasional epic leanings, she’s back with a bang as Jane, a pistol packing farmer.

The genre that refuses to go to boot hill is on a decent run. Not just with high profile recent Oscar winners The Revenant (2016) and The Hateful Eight (2016) but also taut tales such as Mads Mikkelson’s The Salvation (2015) and Kurt Russell’s Bone Tomahawk (2016).

Jane Got A Gun is a blend of genre motifs and contemporary hot topics, offering a tale of revenge, rape, infanticide and sex trafficking among ranches, brothels and shoot outs.

Considering its troubled production history it’s remarkable how competent and coherent the finished film is.

In May 2012, it was announced that Natalie Portman would star in the film as the title  Lynne Ramsay would direct. Michael Fassbender was reported as cast in the hero role and Joel Edgerton was cast as the villain.

Scheduling conflicts lead to Edgerton replacing Fassbender and Jude Law stepping into Edgerton’s boots. When director Lynne Ramsey was replaced by Gavin O’Connor, Law was replaced first by Bradley Cooper and then by Ewan McGregor.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji also left the production, and was replaced by Mandy Walker. And rewrites followed.

Jane is saddled with grief, a dirt poor farm and a wounded husband Ham, the underused Noah Emmerich.

Her gun is a mumbling Joel Edgerton who plays Jane’s alcoholic war hero and ex lover.

Their personal chemistry is no more lacking than any other relationship in the film.

Jane employs Dan as protection from Ewan McGregor’s pantomime villain, a notorious outlaw who has vowed to kill Ham.

As Bishop’s scurvy faced posse arrive for revenge, the dead bodies mount up alongside the spare horses.

The familiar narrative has a strong through line, even if some of the scenes fit awkwardly together.

There are some splendidly cinematic sweeping vistas and agreeable rough and rugged design.

But there’s a lack of chemistry and though the climax doesn’t fire blanks, it never quite hits the emotional targets it’s aiming for.

 

Friend Request

Director: Simon Verhoeven (2016)

This silly horror show about internet stalking opts for cheap slasher action and ignores the very real dangers of the virtual world.

Lurking at it’s dark heart is a cabal of well worn ideas such as secret sects and black magic.

Wasps buzz angrily and the scrabbly screechy soundtrack is laden with ominous echoes.

Alycia Debnam-Carey stars as student Laura who accepts a social media friend request from classmate Marina, played by pallid Liesl Ahlers.

When the lonely goth commits suicide on camera, Laura’s social media account takes on a life of its own, publishing the video and offensive messages.

As Laura’s friends suffer violent deaths, she must turn cyber sleuth to save herself and importantly, her diminishing online popularity.

It’s difficult to work out if the pair of cops investigating the case are a signifier of satirical intent. There are numerous unintentional laughs.

Presumably  in a bid to prevent legal problems, the specific social media site is never identified and the F word is never mentioned. But I could think of a few.

The Divide

Director: Katharine Round (2016)

There’s a serious lack of facts in this wooly minded documentary which wants to change the world.

It claims extreme levels of relative inequality within the UK and US are the main driver of social problems such as ill health, substance abuse and crime. Advertising is blamed for stimulating demand for unnecessary excessive consumption.

Archive news footage is mixed with testimony of historians and economists.

There’s a sloppy failure to define poverty or present a single chart or graph. Instead the narrative such as it is relies on emotive anecdotes and opinion to make its point.

Abandoning its starting point of 1928, it briefly raises the spectres of Thatcher and Reagan before landing in the present.

Seven people, including a rapping Scots alcoholic, a Wall Street psychologist and a Sunderland care worker, are used as examples of the unhappiness in both the rich and poor.

Apparently being wealthy does not make one happy, a theory I’d like to put to the test.

Described as a ‘a call to arms’ The Divide is propaganda for change but forgets to offer a solution to the ills it idnetifies.

Without which it amounts to little more than a cry of ‘it’s not fair’ – behaviour I don’t tolerate in my five year old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midnight Special

Director: Jeff Nichols (2016)

This downbeat road trip takes you on a mild goose chase with no particular place to go.

A messiah metaphor without a message, the story is bogged down by it’s own dour incoherence.

Stern Michael Shannon and vulnerable Jaeden Lieberher play  Roy and Alton, a father and son on the run.

Alton is considered a weapon by the FBI and a saviour by the cult his father has just escaped him from.

Alton’s speaking in tongues has revealed location to which they are heading, but time is running out.

With his health is worsening, Alton has to wear goggles and headphones for protection – except for when he doesn’t.

Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton offer solid support while Adam Driver brings as much humour to the role of an FBI analyst as he dare smuggle in.

Every line of dialogue is delivered with ponderous import but script has nothing to say about religion, belief or faith.

Car chases and shoot outs compete with earthquakes, meteor showers and power cuts but due to Alton’s increasing cosmic powers, there’s not much tension.