December film reviews

Christmas is a great time for watching DVDs as there’s so little on TV. (I’m not kidding – save for a few well-publicised specials, the Xmas schedule is filled with light variety that doesn’t interest me, and films that I’ve already seen.)

So here, very briefly, are some capsule reviews of recently-watched DVDs in order of viewing and oddly in reverse order of rating:

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The FBI forcibly enlist the services of a man who can see several minutes into the future, to face the threat of nuclear terrorism. Starring Nicolas Cage.

A film with an interesting premise (courtesy of Philip K Dick) let down by some very poor writing. The film lurches from the quirky (Cage as magician) to low key to romcom to all-action adventure film without really getting a grip. The pace is jerky with some scenes really dragging, so much so that even at 92 minutes this feels overlong – although at least it does give us some quality time against the spectacular backdrop of the Grand Canyon. Moreover the characters are totally non-formed, with the honourable exception of Jessica Biel as the romantic interest. Julianne Moore, the FBI and the terrorists are horribly malformed, while Cage as usual is his blank self, no different from being bored in his act to fleeing the FBI to meeting the love of his life. The plot development is all over the place too, with Biel suddenly falling into bed with the man she’s been wary of, Moore carelessly allowing her prisoner to escape after spending half the film tying to catch him. But the biggest problem is that the film uses it’s “shock moment/rewind” several times too often, and then throws in the ultimate “it was all a dream” twist to leave the film seemingly in search if a quick sequel that never materialised. While the precog scenes start to go off the rails toward the end (the “splitting into multiple selves” might look flashy on film, but it’s confusing and misleading), there are several excellent scenes that almost make the movie – the chase in the Vegas casino and the shootout in the shipyard in particular, while the avalanche sequence is eye-catching but succumbs to the usual overbaked CGI FX along the way. All in all, a disappointing mishmash that has a few moments but ultimately disappoints.

Rating * and a half out of five

Valkyrie

The true story of the 1944 attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by a group of his own senior officers. Starring Tom Cruise.

A handsomely mounted production with great historical authenticity and impeccable acting from a British all-star cast – and, yes, from Tom Cruise as well – this film is very much a tale of two halves. The first, frankly, drags: having to set up the characters and plot for one thing, but also the basic problem of revolving around an assassination attempt that we all know fails. Added to that the film is shot in a seriously low-key realist way and the net effect (boosted by the all-Brit cast) makes it feel like a BBC Play for Today. There’s a lack of tension, and also a lack of atmosphere – it doesn’t feel like a Nazi regime but could be almost anywhere; there’s no sense of war or tyranny or evil people doing evil things, just a lot of bureaucrats doing paperwork. Which might be spot-on, but it does not a good film make. One thing that isn’t a factor is the “accents” debate – it doesn’t need to be in German and Cruise’s American accent amidst all the Brits is not a problem.

Then the assassination attempt happens, surprisingly early in the running time, and the second half kicks into high gear and becomes fascinating as it tells the far lesser-known tale of how the plotters tried to follow through, organise the military and take over – and how it all unravels, and the consequences. As a largely untold story, this is gripping and surprising. There are some brilliant touches, and the decision to keep the Wolf’s Lair incommunicado and Hitler unseen for the remainder of the film leaves you wondering – just a little – whether your knowledge of history is wrong and Hitler really might be dead after the dramatic and sudden bomb blast scene. It’s a nice touch and really helps the film fly, so that by the end of the film you’re interested in knowing what happens to the characters you’ve been watching, and really understand the film’s core message – that not all WW2 Germans were Nazis and some had honour and tried their best to save Germany from itself (although surely this is not as breakthrough a revelation as the extras try and make it?) A worthy, laudable aim for a worthy, laudable film, just a shame that the first half lets the show down: a more adventurous, less-linear approach to the storytelling rather than the flat, plain one actually followed here might have worked wonders.

Rating *** out of five

Doghouse

A lads’ outing to the countryside goes horrifically wrong in a zombiefied battle of the sexes.

Danny Dyer; Noel Clarke; zombies. Really, the film writes itself from there and it’s exactly what you’d expect. It’s a big, laddish, sweary, gory, 18-certificate version of Shaun of the Undead, with none of that romcom’s “rom” aspect – or any of its subtlety. Everything’s big and loud and obvious, and it doesn’t hesitate to beat you over the head with anything it thinks might be getting past you. Which is not to say that there isn’t some good fun to be had and more than a few laugh out loud moments along the way, it’s just that after a good slow build-up, once the action gets going it does rather stay at one level and leave itself no where to go; it frankly overstays its welcome by a good 20 minutes, which is a shame. It’s also hard not to find the film misogynistic – although in truth it pokes at least a few sharp sticks at men, too, and has special fun with Danny Dyer’s traditional blokey image. Its main strength is in the relationships between the group and some good, charismatic performances from all concerned (the lead duo, Stephen Graham and Lee Ingleby in particular), and in the early moments which offer a very familiar and natural world of male friendship down the pub that wins many a smile of recognition.

Rating ** out of five

Untraceable

A pretty decent thriller, with undeniable tension that grips right through to the end. On the plus side we have a strong central performance from Diane Lane as FBI Agent Marsh, and there’s a determination not to deliver the rote stuff for this kind of film, so that in the end the heroine doesn’t need saving – she’s able to save herself. The techie stuff is handled convincingly for once and the direction has some nice touches; although strongly stealing from the likes of Silence of the Lambs and especially the Saw films, the film manages to stay just on the right side of the exploitation line and hence its “you are accomplices for watching” line is not lost in hypocrisy. Ultimately though, apart from its central gimmick the film comes off as surprisingly unoriginal, the kind of thing that’s been done many times since Se7en, and you just know that Marsh is going to end up in the killer’s clutches as the rain pours down, thunder crashes and lightning floods into the dimly lit sets. There’s a desperate lack of even the slightest leavening humour, even with Colin Hanks in the cast as Marsh’s sidekick, and the one-note gloom and borderline ponderous tone is something we’ve seen many, many times before. In the end it’s just a little too sub-Criminal Minds to make a lasting impression.

Rating ** and a half out of five

District 9

Refugee aliens are set up in a slum township in South Africa. Starring Sharlto Copley as a hapless immigration officer whose life takes an unexpected turn.

The problem with films that have become word-of-mouth hits is that the hype raises expectations and the reality turns out to be disappointing. Well if anything, all the hype in the world didn’t do District 9 justice: a fascinating film with so many contrasts and so much fresh creativity that it blasts the tired sequels and franchises out of the water. How they achieved this on a “limited” budget is astonishing, because rarely have CGI aliens proved so real or had such emotional depth and character. The setting of South African slums is an exciting, visceral, rarely experienced location; the comparison with racism and apartheid is impossible to miss but handled deftly and not hammered unduly; the alien ship might be reminiscent of Independence Day but the aliens (starving, dying, their technology inert) couldn’t be further from that bombast. Time and again, the film takes genre inspiration and convention (there’s Alien Nation, Enemy Mine, The Fly, Aliens and more), uses it and transforms it into something totally fresh and original. There are plenty of strikingly original and eye catching directorial touches, too. Best of all, while the film starts as ‘found footage’ evoking the likes of Blair Witch and Cloverfield, it doesn’t allow itself to be hidebound by that conceit and soon expands into more cinematic footage, but so artfully and smoothly that it never jars or undermines the documentary feel of the early stages. And that early documentary footage is genius, as it allows the lead actor – South African ‘unknown’ Sharlto Copley – to talk directly to camera and build huge rapport with the audience which propels us through the rest of the film. Copley’s performance is brilliant, starting off as something out of “The Office” but ending up a truly heroic and tragic figure by the end when he stares at the camera with a deeply unnerving gaze. In the end this is a film that transcends genre and adds military warfare, conspiracy and politics plus a dash of unlikely romance and comedy to the expected science fiction themes. One of the best, and most original films of 2009 – up there with “Moon”.

Rating: **** out of 5

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