Seven Psychopaths

Irish writer and director Martin McDonagh has gone Hollywood. He’s gone to Hollywood and made a Hollywood film, about people living and working and dying and not working in Hollywood. Seven Psychopaths is a gory black comedy which works as a both a satire on, and an example of, hardboiled gangster cinema. Closely connected in spirit and execution to the surreal knottiness of Charlie Kaufmann and the vivid Grand Guignol theatrics of Quentin Tarantino, McDonagh’s follow-up to In Bruges operates on the verge of absurdity throughout, being defiantly self-aware, self-referential and completely and utterly clever-clogs.

All of this is nothing new for McDonagh, whose characters, even in his acclaimed stage plays, have always shared the quality that Tarantino calls “movieness”; the awareness that they are characters and that the world they inhabit is make-believe. For In Bruges, McDonagh placed two stock characters, a bickering pair of killers-for-hire, in a situation that not only allowed him to explore how their glamorised cinema universe bumped up against the grey, everyday world of dusty museums and shuffling tourists, but to slowly absorb into their orbit other characters from a film-within-the-film, a ferocious dwarf actor and an art department love-interest. McDonagh mocked his assassin’s appetite for violence while indulging in it, a neat trick that he executes again, albeit without the same levels of subtlety and wit. It is Hollywood, after all.

Colin Farrell, who co-starred in In Bruges, plays Martin, an ex-pat Irish screenwriter working in Hollywood. Martin seems to enjoy his new life in Los Angles; the comfortable domesticity he shares with his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish, briefly) and sipping cocktails with his live-wire best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) beside sun-kissed, rooftop swimming pools. The trouble is that Martin has forgotten how to write. Terminally blocked, and with his agent pressing him for delivery of a long-promised screenplay, all he has to show for a year’s work is a title: Seven Psychopaths. Everyone loves the title, it’s a great title, but Martin is unable to progress his story any further than EXT: LOS ANGELES STREET CORNER, DAY.

Martin is beginning to despair that he will never be able to place two words together again when his peripatetic life starts feeding him inspiration. The newspapers are filled with stories about a masked killer who only kills mobsters, leaving a playing card on their bleeding corpses. There’s a character in that, Martin thinks, but the Jack of Diamonds killer is only one psycho: he needs six more. When Billy places a recruitment ad in the paper looking for psychopaths to get in touch, they meet a rabbit-stroking tramp (played by Tom Waits) who describes, in eye-watering detail, those events that drove him to become a killer. Billy, whose career as an actor has hit the skids, tells Martin about another potential character, his colleague in a dog-kidnapping business Hans (Christopher Walken), who has recently taken illegal possession of a yappy Shih Tzu belonging to Charlie, a notoriously ruthless mob boss played by Woody Harrelson. What’s the count on psychopaths now? Four, maybe five? A side-story introduces us to a Vietnamese priest (Long Nguyen), sitting in a motel room plotting revenge on America for the Vietnam War while, somewhere in the city, Harry Dean Stanton stalks the streets in a wide-brimmed hat as a vengeful Quaker tormenting the man who killed his only daughter. There’s really not a lot to be gained in keeping up with the various shades of human psychopathology on display, the film is more about following the looping convolutions of the plot, and perhaps it’s not even about that.

Just as the fictional Martin becomes distracted by the unhinged characters that he meets, the real-life Martin allows this otherwise workaday buddy crime caper to break free from the conventions of cinematic narrative and fold in on itself, becoming a reflexive meta-textual commentary on screen violence, storytelling and Los Angeles itself. For instance, Rockwell’s excitable Bickle demonstrates what should happen next at a key juncture in Farrell’s screenplay, proposing an action set-piece which gathers everybody in a cemetery to shoot off big guns and splash around in fake blood; a crude, dumb shoot-out that we then watch being acted out, in all its high-concept glory. When the story takes a long detour into talkativeness, Bickle is again on hand to observe, “oh, we’re making French movies now?” Elsewhere Walken’s grizzled Hans tells Martin, truthfully, “your women characters are awful”, as Cornish and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe come and go in a couple of frames.

But if McDonagh can see where his screenplay needs work, why not do the work rather than leave it to the characters point out the problems and carry on with a smirk? That’s not to say that the results aren’t entertaining, the dialogue fairly fizzes and the multiple storylines are enjoyably contorted, but it is difficult to remain involved in a film when the characters are going out of their way to remind the audience that they are watching a film. There’s no time during Seven Psychopaths to think how neatly McDonagh’s story fits together, if it fits together at all, and afterwards the film doesn’t linger long enough in the memory to bother trying.

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s wholly engrossing, slyly disorienting study of the symbiotic relationship between a feckless drifter and a charlatan cult leader in the years after WWII is an extraordinary film; brilliantly realised and audaciously eccentric.

The Master opens in the days before the end of WWII, as the Japanese surrender is being negotiated and American sailors are enjoying shore-leave on a sandy Pacific island. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is an able seaman with a talent for making high-proof moonshine from whatever chemicals he finds lying around. Newly demobbed and unable to adjust to civilian life, he spends some time in a veteran’s hospital, where uncaring psychiatrists diagnose him with a post-traumatic stress disorder and don’t seem to notice, or care, that he is drunk all the time.

Having cleaned up enough to get a job as a photographer in a department store, and keep it just long enough to fall back off the wagon, Freddie flits across the United States, eventually ending up in a field in the middle of nowhere harvesting cabbages with migrant workers. After almost killing an elderly man with a bad batch of his booze, Freddie finds himself a stowaway on a yacht belonging to the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), or rather, the yacht that the self-proclaimed visionary, literary genius, nuclear physicist and philosopher has borrowed from a rich benefactor and is using as a training centre for his quasi-religious movement, The Cause.

Before too long, Freddie is making his moonshine for Dodd, using paint-thinner, crushed-up pills and orange soda to loosen the older man’s writer’s block. The two become friends, perhaps because Freddie’s home-made hooch mirrors Dodd’s home-spun hogwash. After submitting to Dodd’s psychological profiling in a thrillingly tense question and answer session, Freddie becomes the Master’s right-hand man and surrogate son, booze-supplier, confessor and sometime violent enforcer. “You'll be my protégé and my guinea pig”, Dodd tells him, with a flourish, but Freddie is just content to have a roof over his head and three square meals a day. Actual self-realisation will take more time, according to Dodd and his manipulative wife Peggy (superbly played by a steely Amy Adams). As Dodd works his mountebank magic on Freddie’s broken mind, the story follows his ups and downs as he struggles to write his new book (on the restorative power of laughter) and stay one step ahead of his enemies, while his sidekick tries to cope with his troubled past, and mourns his lost love (played in flashback by Madisen Beaty).

In the same way that There Will Be Blood was loosely based on the life of American oil tycoon Edward Doheny, The Master is undoubtedly inspired by L Ron Hubbard, the founder of the cult Church of Scientology. Yet it also encompasses every other entrepreneurial evangelist, self-help saviour and pavement prophet in American history, malignant and benign, from Dale Carnegie to Jim Baker, Pat Robertson to Jim Jones. Anderson’s portrait of Dodd is not damning, exactly, but he carefully positions the guru as a symptom of the enormous social upheaval such as that experienced in the aftermath of WWII when, at the dawn of the Atomic Age and faced with unspeakable horror and mass death, people went looking for answers to the big questions: why are we here? What’s the point of it all? Dodd is a vulture, a smart, confident charlatan with a natural-born ability to identify weakness and speak directly to it. He finds an exemplary subject in Freddie, traumatised by war, floundering in alcohol and brim-full of regret.

With his vulnerable, fractured face, Phoenix’s performance suggests the grimaces and squints of the Method actors who came of age in the 1950s, such as Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, while the preening, pretentious Hoffman, playing a role Anderson wrote specifically for him, is like a plump Orson Welles, dancing nimbly across the screen, around the chasing police and lawyers, around any explanation of his ridiculous theories and skipping, laughing, ahead of his followers; the people who buy his books, pay for his seminars and, like Laura Dern’s wealthy Miss Sullivan, honour him with the title of “Master”.

Phoenix and Hoffman, both at the top of their game, slug it out all the way through Anderson’s story, as he surgically dissects post-War American life, separating the parasites from the prey, the profiteers from the paupers and the crooks from the credulous. From time to time, Anderson breaks the story with unannounced dream sequences, if indeed they are dreams, strange deliriums that tie elements of the story more tightly together or hang, loosely, like worrying threads. Johnny Greenwood’s discordant orchestral score takes a little getting used to but has a similar effect, unsettling and sometimes distracting.

Skyfall

“You know the rules of the game,” Judi Dench’s spymistress M tells Daniel Craig’s James Bond with an exasperated glare, “You’ve been playing it long enough.” The 23rd Bond film in a franchise that celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, director Sam Mendes Skyfall manages the neat trick of striding ever forward while repeatedly looking over its shoulder, into its own past.

The story opens in media res with Craig’s taciturn Bond and fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) racing around the crowded streets of Istanbul in pursuit of a swarthy villain, who has stolen a computer hard drive containing the names of all the double agents the British Intelligence service has placed in terrorist organisation. The chase comes to nothing, and worse, it seems Bond has been fatally wounded by Eve’s friendly fire, falling feet first over a waterfall in mournful slow-motion. No body is found.

Just in case anyone thinks I’ve given the game away, all of this happens in the first ten minutes, before the trademark credits sequence, scored by Adele’s immediately forgettable theme song. Bond has survived the cascade, of course, and escaped to somewhere remote and tropical to recover. Back in grey, damp London, Dench’s exhausted-looking M also appears to be on the way out. Newly promoted Whitehall mandarin Mallory (a delicately priggish Ralph Fiennes) is gently pushing her towards the exit door. At the same time, a mysterious enemy agent with a shadowy connection to M’s past has somehow infiltrated the MI6 fortress beside the Thames, hacked the computer system and exploded a bomb. From an idyllic shoreline, where he has been medicating himself with whiskey and women, Bond hears of the attack on his mentor and returns to the nest. 

Soon, videos of the compromised agents being executed by a variety of masked terrorists start appearing on the internet, making MI6 look incompetent and Bond and M seem like throwbacks to a bygone age, whose guns and guile are no match for a new breed of techno-anarchists. Having waited in the wings for more than an hour, the villain finally takes centre stage in the form of Javier Bardem’s Silva, a bleached-blonde, majestically camp former agent with enough charisma to cover the emerging plot holes, Silva doesn’t just want to destroy MI6, he's out for vengeance.

Mendes’ decision to emphasise plot and character over non-stop action is commendable, with the director allowing his ensemble cast the time and space to flesh out characters that previously were truncated to allow for another chase or thunderous explosion. Dench’s M is effectively given a co-starring role with the veteran actor delivering a sterling performance, alternating between steely authority and tender frailty. Craig, who has settled into the role admirably, finds new character notes to add to Bond, playing him as an aging, inscrutable presence who allows the characters around him to fill in the story while he concentrates on the messy business at hand. The supporting cast is of a higher calibre than we’ve seen in the franchise previously.  Bardem’s Silva is a particularly juicy creation, the most memorable villain in the franchise since the days of Richard Kiel’s Jaws, a creepy, eerily unruffled sociopath with seemingly unlimited powers.

Skyfall gathers together all the familiar Ian Fleming elements of the series; the guns, the gadgets, the exotic locations, the beautiful women and the unsubtle product placement, but places them in a changed world – one whose origins lie more in the glossy pages of a modern superhero comic than a cheap paperback. Mendes’ film has less in common with the traditional all-action 007 fantasy than with Christopher Nolan’s moody Batman trilogy, which reconfigured the template for the modern blockbuster by framing a heroic story through the lens of geopolitics and psychology. Bardem’s clownish Silva is the Joker without his make-up while Bond is revealed as a self-sufficient orphan whose lack of emotional connections to the world outside MI6 allowed M to remould him into a deadly, disposable asset. Like Batman, he is a man without a past but its in exploring this vacuum that Skyfall finds it’s most interesting and progressive material. He might race around the world to face fearsome enemies but is at his most vulnerable when he finally returns to his childhood home.

“We don’t go in for exploding pens any more,” quips the bespectacled young boffin Q (Ben Whishaw). Neither do audiences, but Mendes’ tinkering can only go so far. In the end, the traditional requirements of the Bond formula take precedence over any post-modern reinvention. Skyfall achieves its aim of returning the 007 franchise to the gritty high of Casino Royale after the addled low of Quantum of Solace, but the chance to find a new direction for the fifty year old series is tantalisingly spurned. Maybe next time.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut Beasts of the Southern Wild is a deeply eccentric, strikingly immediate story of life and loss in the flooded wastelands of post-Katrina New Orleans. Adapted by Zeitlin’s artistic collective Court 13 from a one-act play by co-writer Lucy Alibar, played by an amateur cast (who also built the sets) and shot on grainy, hand-held 16mm film, Beasts has a charmingly home-made, half-baked aesthetic that, unfortunately, also carries over into the ill-considered narrative.

Hushpuppy, an intrepid six-year-old girl played with extraordinary courage and tenacity by Quvenzhané Wallis, lives with her alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in “The Bathtub,” a flooded Delta community at the edge of civilisation. Hushpuppy is the film’s heroine, a cross between a mini-Mad Max and the biblical Eve, whose whispered voice-over fills us in on her shattered family life, their hardscrabble existence and her sustained belief in magic, despite her father’s tough-love teachings about survival. When Wink contracts a mysterious illness that turns his veins black under his skin, nature itself seems to fall out of synchronicity. A great flood arrives, sinking The Bathtub, the tumbling clouds cause the temperature to rise and, somewhere far distant, the ice-caps melt unleashing a herd of prehistoric pig-like creatures called Aurochs. As the waters rise, and her father slowly succumbs, Hushpuppy goes in search of her long-lost mother and a new home.

But there’s comes a point, about half way through, when it becomes clear that the inhabitants of The Bathtub aren’t the straggled survivors of some apocalyptic disaster, living in a post-industrial Eden of their own assembly, but rather a band of people who choose to live apart from the rest of the world. While the “beasts” commitment to their home and community is touching, and touchingly played, the subsequent story is constructed around their naïve determination to live as Rousseau’s ‘noble savages’, eschewing the medical and social assistance they so desperately need and actively asking the audience to root against the faceless people that offer help. Over time, a desperate cuteness soaks into the film as Zeitlin strains to avoid even the most obvious social comment while having his characters run around in rags in a devastated world where alcohol is the only currency.

Zeitlin does get an extraordinarily self-assured performance from young Wallis (expect her to be nominated for an Academy Award in January) but his Malick-like evocation of natural poetry and magic realism don’t sit comfortably with the realistic depiction of grinding poverty and blackout-chasing alcoholism. Characters that we have come to care for, Hushpuppy in particular, are abandoned as the story sidelines into condescending clichés about ragged people struggling against 'the man' for the right to return to their home. The photography is sensitive and immersive, the soaring score is bouncing and playful but no amount of atmospherics and lighting can fill the gaping hole where a fully-formed story should be. By the time that the Pied Piper Hushpuppy leads a ragged parade of her friends and neighbours holding sparkling fireworks, the film has become little more than a sustained round of applause for its own loose, improvised novelty.

What Richard Did

Having explored the margins of Irish society in his first two films, Adam & Paul and Garage, director Lenny Abrahamson moves towards the centre of things with his new film What Richard Did, set in the leafy suburbs of South Dublin, and finds it can be just as lonely and rotten a place. Sensitively photographed and superbly acted by a talented young ensemble, the film is a major step forward for Abrahamson; a riveting, daringly ambiguous drama that defines a generation.

Loosely adapted by writer Malcolm Campbell from Kevin Power’s novel Bad Day in Blackrock, itself inspired by a notorious real-life violent crime, Abrahamson opens the story with a languid sequence at a summer house party in a holiday villa in Wicklow that carefully establishes the tone. Richard (Jack Reynor) has borrowed his doting parent’s (Lars Mikkelsen and Lorraine Pilkington) place for the weekend to celebrate the end of exams and the university fun to come. 

A private-school student and captain of the rugby team, Richard is a leader among his peers, who look to him to guide them through their tricky teenage years. Among the kids hanging out on the beach is Lara (Roisin Murphy), who is in a relationship with Conor (Sam Keeley). As the summer continues, Richard sets his sights on Lara and the two start dating. But the heart-broken Conor keeps hanging around, making the previously confident and carefree Richard uncomfortable and insecure.

Jealousy, alcohol and bravado combine for a momentary brain-freeze. At a drunken house party deep in the suburbs, Richard becomes involved in an altercation with Conor. Badly hurt, the young man staggers away as Richard jumps into a taxi and goes home. The next morning, the radio news tells us that Conor has died. The fallout drops slowly, settling like a layer of radioactive dust across Richard’s life and the lives of those closest to him.

Unlike Abrahamson’s previous two films, Richard isn’t so much a victim of an uncaring society as its over-confident scion. He’s brilliantly played by newcomer Reynor, who combines an easy, swaggering affability with a brittle fragility, sometimes in the same scene. The ensemble cast are strong, with Murphy and Keeley distinguishing themselves in delicately drawn roles that, like the titular protagonist, skip lightly between obnoxiousness and overwhelming compassion: just like real teenagers. As the story inches towards its resolution and Richard grapples with his guilty conscience, Abrahamson deliberately avoids passing judgement on his characters, providing just enough information and the storytelling space for audiences to draw their own conclusions. The best Irish drama of the year, this hugely impressive and complex film is a must see.

The Imposter

Bart Layton’s frequently jaw-dropping documentary The Imposter nimbly illustrates the old cliché: truth is stranger than fiction. A sensational blend of interviews, archive footage, reconstructions and investigative reporting, the film arranges the real-life story of a missing child as a mesmerising psychological thriller. You’ll still be talking about it, as I am, weeks after seeing it.

In 1994, the Barclay family of blue-collar San Antonio, Texas were left distraught by the sudden disappearance of their 13-year-old son, Nicholas. He was the light of their lives, the family say, a bustling bundle of energy glimpsed in eerily fuzzy home video footage. Their frantic search for the youngster made the local news, for a couple of nights, but their hunt led nowhere and the police and media moved on to the next case. Three years later, the phone rings. It’s the Spanish police, who have picked up a teenager who claims to be Nicholas Barclay. 

Found huddled in a phone box, traumatised and confused, Nicholas claims to have escaped from a secret prison in the desert, where he had been brought by child-abusing US military officials, experimented upon with drugs and tortured. It’s a surreal story, but it appears to check out. Within hours, Nicholas’ sister Carey is on a plane. In front of the Spanish authorities, she positively identifies the young man as her brother. Never mind that the blonde, blue-eyed 16 year-old now had brown hair, brown eyes, brown stubble and spoke with a French accent: Nicholas was found at last.

The mystery of the young teenager’s disappearance did not end with his apparent discovery: a far greater puzzle was about to reveal itself. The Barclay’s had brought a cuckoo into their nest. Frédéric Bourdin was a 23 year old French-Algerian orphan with a long history of impersonation, petty crime and manipulation. Somehow, he had discovered the details of Nicholas’ case and transformed himself into an American teenager. He fooled his own “mother” Beverly and the rest of his immediate family. He fooled the rest of the townspeople, the local news journalists and his old school friends. He fooled immigration officers, embassy officials and the FBI.

Consulting every interested party, whose testimony is sometimes contradictory, Layton’s extraordinary film poses two key questions: how was Bourdin able to achieve this deception and why did Nicholas’s family accept him as their long-lost son? The answer to the first is explained like a police procedural (and is astonishing enough by itself) but it’s when Layton and the loquacious and charismatic Bourdin get into the second question that the film’s strangest secrets uncover themselves. I’ll say no more: there are some stories you just have to hear for yourselves.

The Bourne Legacy

The Bourne Redundancy” was the title that Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two Jason Bourne movies, proposed for any future installment. When you’ve successfully turned Robert Ludlum’s page-tuning spy novels into three genre-defining blockbusters, and titled the last film “Ultimatum”, where do you go from there? If you're Universal Pictures, you find a way to keep on going.

Rather than start from scratch with a new property, which would require acquainting the audience through expensive marketing, director Tony Gilroy, who scripted the original trilogy, has found a different approach for The Bourne Legacy: spinning off a parallel story that places a new character in Bourne’s cinematic universe, at the same time. Smooth-cheeked amnesiac Matt Damon has been substituted by Jeremy Renner’s squatter, lumpier Aaron Cross. If you’re going to make a Bourne movie without Damon, Renner isn’t a bad choice, but the results are less a thrilling reimagining of a popular franchise and more an exercise in squeezing the last toothpaste out of the tube. Renner is game, and there are a scattered few moments that approach the power and persuasion of the original but the overall mood is rehashed and redundant.

Gilroy opens his story with an echo of the curtain-raising shot in Doug Liman’s first Bourne film, as a body floats in clear blue water. The floater is Cross, in Alaska on a solo survival course equipped with only a powerful rifle and a pillbox filled with blue and green tablets. He is part of a CIA programme that develops better soldiers through chemistry; super-strong, steroidal geniuses with lightning-fast reflexes and endless stamina. When the spy is ready to come in from the cold, he makes his rendezvous with a fellow agent (Oscar Isaac) in a remote cabin, awaiting transport back to Washington. Instead, an unmanned drone descends through a flurry of snow and blows the place to bits. Having made it out alive, Cross makes the long trek home to discover he is one of nine super-agents whose spymasters (led by a grizzled Edward Norton and a whiskey-swilling Stacy Keach) have decided are now surplus to requirements. Now classified as a dangerous rogue agent and cut off from his supply of medication, Cross seeks out Dr Martha Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a medical scientist at a secret laboratory where the selected agents are tested and dosed.

When he finds her, the good doctor has just survived a mysterious shooting at the hands of a seemingly hypnotised colleague. Without his medication, the preternaturally agile Cross would revert back to his ordinary, everyday dull-mindedness, like the experimental subject in Flowers for Algernon. As the one link to the drugs, and with his powers slowly fading, Cross must convince Marta to escape with him. Her mind is made up when a tense interrogation with a seemingly kindly psychologist turns into another, even more deadly shootout. Somehow they must find their way to a clandestine drug factory on the other side of the world, with the massed weight of the CIA and their fantastic surveillance technology hot on their trail. There are glimpses of Matt Damon’s Bourne on television news reports and cameos from returning characters but none of that back-story feels connected to the frantic events unfolding.

Renner’s everyman anonymity worked to his advantage for his breakout role in The Hurt Locker but here he is overly convincing as a superhuman killing machine, robotic and efficient but burdened by an underwritten motivation and lacking any emotional ante. Gilroy’s script, co-written with his brother Dan, doesn’t help, with the story delivered in two-sentence chunks that follow a discernable, repetitive pattern: Norton glowers at a glowing computer screen and arranges his face in a pensive pinch while Renner and Weisz kick down doors and shoot off guns.

The limitless surveillance power of the agency is convincingly realised but smothered in a babble of jargon while the action sequences have all the jumpy, crunchy verisimilitude that money can buy but no cinematic point (which, of course, money cannot buy). In the closing stages Gilroy introduces an Asian super-villain with extraordinary staying-power who trails Renner and Weisz on a crushingly familiar chase over the vibrant roof-tops of a developing country, as the clock ticks slowly on and interest levels flat-line. We’ve seen it all before, and better, in the Bourne franchise. At one point, the words “no more” appear scrawled in eyeliner on a mirror, a promise nobody involved has any intention of keeping.

Ted

Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane brings all the comic crudeness and pop culture satire of Peter Griffin and his scatological chums to his big screen debut, Ted, the surprisingly sentimental story of a fraternal romance between a thirty-something man-child and his magical teddy bear.

A short pre-credits sequence, sonorously narrated by Patrick Stewart, introduces John (played later by Mark Wahlberg), a lonely boy growing up friendless in the suburbs of snowy Boston. On Christmas night in 1985 John makes a wish on a falling star, yearning for just one pal in the world. Magically, his beloved teddy-bear Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) comes to life. The boy and his bear become best friends, promising to always be there for one another through thick and thin.

John isn’t the only person who loves the talkative stuffed toy. The novelty of a real live teddy turns Ted into a celebrity overnight with a Forrest Gump-like montage showing his rise and fall from chat-show couches to handcuffed walks of shame. Back in Boston and doing nothing all day but smoke marijuana, lay about on the couch and continue arresting John’s development, Ted is at a loose end. More than that, he’s become a bit of a pest, particularly where John’s high-flying girlfriend Lori (Family Guy cast member Mila Kunis) is concerned. Short version, she wants her man to grow up and wants Ted stuffed in a box and thrown in an attic somewhere.

MacFarlane’s animated output has been criticised for favouring easy pop culture references over trickier character-based comedy, but the funniest stuff in Ted derives from the relationship between the Wahlberg’s innocent child-man and his adorably maladjusted teddy bear. Having never evolved beyond the nursery, the two characters are content to hang out and mess about with MacFarlane revelling in that easy, uncomplicated friendship, a chemistry that carries the story over the bumps in the inconsistent plot.

The romantic triangle that comprises the plot isn’t exactly earth-shatteringly original, but its MacFarlane’s unique comic trimmings that give the film its edge. Although Ted isn’t a million miles from Peter Griffin – at one point referencing the fact they sound awfully alike – MacFarlane has an enthusiast’s zeal for politically incorrect comedy and the perfect conduit in the seemingly innocent bear. The script’s targets run the gamut: sex, religion, race, drugs and endless pop culture references including a running joke about the pair’s abiding affection for Mike Hodges 80s camp sci-fi Flash Gordon and a cameo appearance from its one-hit wonder leading man, Sam Jones. For fans of the ten seasons of Family Guy, none of this will come as a shock, although the novelty of the material being delivered by a three foot tall talking teddy is not insignificant.

Freed from the restrictions of the television censors, with a 16 certificate MacFarlane can do and say what he likes. And he does. Live action filmmaking also gives him the chance to show that he can work with real actors, and he does this pretty well too, nimbly combining the real world with the computer-animated Ted and making the central relationships, between life-long friends and Kunis’s no-nonsense Lori feel real and well developed. What proves more difficult is turning 23 minutes of a cartoon episode into an hour and a half of cinema, which requires a different tempo and a more focused attention span, with the film sagging distractedly in the middle. But for all that, Ted is consistently funny, in a summer where so many other comedies have failed to raise a laugh.

The Dark Knight Rises

Director Christopher Nolan fulfils the promise made in the first two instalments of his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, his circle-closing finale that isn’t just the year’s most anticipated blockbuster, but an epic in every conceivable way: almost three hours long, crammed with dense, sticky plot, thrilling action and gripping spectacle. With this extraordinary film, Nolan has raised the bar for genre cinema beyond all expectation: taken together, these three films make every other superhero adventure look like crayon drawings stuck to a fridge.

Not that Nolan ever intended his Batman to be a superman. From the opening frames of the first film, 2005s Batman Begins and on into the sequel, The Dark Knight, he has asked the question, ‘what if all this was for real?’ His vision for Gotham city looks like a cross between New York and Chicago, because those are the grand streets he shot on; places that feel palpably real. Eschewing trendy 3D, Nolan instead concentrates on creating three-dimensional characters that are psychologically complex, dark and conflicted. He uses digital effects sparingly, with much of the spectacular stunt-work done in-camera to emphasise danger and suspense and add an unnerving authenticity that computers cannot yet match. The Batman’s weaponry and gadgetry are a close fit for real-world military technologies while the narratives, co-written by Nolan with his brother Jonathan and screenwriter David S Goyer, marry the tropes of the superhero character with tangible issues; terrorism, corruption, economic collapse and class warfare.

Nolan’s achievement is to combine all this in a cutting-edge superhero blockbuster and still maintain a singular, auteurist vision. His Batman is a deeply personal story of a character that, since his conception in the pages of Detective Comics in 1939, has belonged to everyone. Unusually for modern mass-market cinema, where trailers are viewed millions of times within minutes of being uploaded to the internet, Nolan keeps the details of his story a secret. There’s no reason to reveal much more than he already has.

Although it’s only been four years since the release of the last film, eight years have elapsed in Gotham city. An injured Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has squirreled himself away in his mansion, suspiciously around the same time that Batman has disappeared. As the previous installment ended, the caped crusader had been blamed for the death of Gotham’s great liberator, Harvey Dent, who the public believe had cleansed the city of organised crime. With his people having turned their backs on him, and his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) worried about his mental health, Batman is dragged back into his rubber suit by the simultaneous appearance of two masked villains, slinky, super-skilled cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, never referred to as Catwoman) and the hulking mercenary terrorist leader Bane (Tom Hardy), who wears a complicated breathing apparatus that gives his voice a sinister, crackling echo.

Bane has come, seemingly from nowhere, to cause mayhem. His goal is anarchy and he has a simple plan for bringing it about. First, he needs to lure Batman out of retirement and then he means to kill him. Standing in his way are the series’ returning characters, technical expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and new faces, graduates from Nolan’s franchise-breaking Inception, noble-hearted philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s resourceful cop John Blake.

The rest of it is a highlight reel of the very best in epic cinema; intelligent, grippingly told and painstakingly crafted. Individual sequences are breathtakingly realised; a thunderous chase along crowded streets and through darkened tunnels, a thrilling attack on a crowded football stadium that acts as a shorthand for chaos, a pitched battle on Gotham’s equivalent of Wall Street that might have been taken from a news bulletin. The only moments that feel false are those unavoidable places where the requirement to push the story along in chunks of easily digested block text breaks the immersive spell that Nolan and Bale have crafted. It might be a little ungainly in execution but the plot, arcing across three lengthy films, is meticulously mapped and contains at least one superbly concealed surprise. Nolan and Bale have made it absolutely clear that they will not return to Batman, even though the final sequence indicates the likely direction an offshoot franchise by Warner Bros will inevitably take.

Magic Mike

In 2010 American director Steven Soderbergh declared he was about to retire from filmmaking. Since then, he has released three films in cinemas; low-budget, naturalistic examinations of shadowy, unseen worlds. There was the panic-stricken epidemic thriller Contagion, which brought us inside the laboratory as a virus threatens to end the world, the clandestine arena of international espionage in Haywire and now a peek behind the glittering curtain of male strippers in the funny, enjoyable Magic Mike, a film about money.

Based on star Channing Tatum’s experiences as an 18 year old exotic dancer in a Florida nightclub, Magic Mike opens with the now almost 30 year old as he wakes up, surrounded by women, in his Tampa home. An entrepreneurial spirit, Mike juggles a day job as a building contractor and a sideline in custom furniture manufacture with being the main attraction at a small-time, beach-side strip club called Xquisite. The club’s owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) has taken the young man under his wing, promoting him as the club’s main attraction, dressing him in overalls and hoodies as a blue-collar working stiff, to the whooping delight of his female clientele. Mike is a big star and makes big money. Dallas has plans to make him even bigger, moving the club to a bigger site in Miami where four thousand women will be given the chance to stuff his g-strings with sweaty dollar bills every night.

Having been mentored himself, Mike in turn acts as protector to Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a broke and desperate youngster he meets on a building site. He takes him out to the nightclubs and instructs him in the art of hustling customers for the strip-club, before a series of comical accidents lead the 19 year old to make his stripping debut. Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn), a level-headed nurse, is not convinced that the change in direction is the best thing for the naïve teenager, but she trusts Mike when he says he will look after him. Soon, the club’s newest act has fans of his own and the summer season stretches before them filled with easy money, all-night parties and endless girls, set to a shrill, synthetic soundtrack.

Soderbergh does his best to balance the squeal-friendly dance routines with narrative substance, as the young men become involved in some unsavoury business dealings with dangerous people, but the off-stage story struggles to catch a spark. Magic Mike only truly takes off when focusing on the baby-oil skin and ritualized bumps and grinds of its muscled protagonists, with Soderbergh gradually revealing the repetitive, soul-destroying nature of the performances, where the men willingly trade their sexuality for crumpled cash. A scene where Tatum sits in his living room, ironing out the wads of currency and weighing them down with a book is balanced later by a moment where McConaughey lies supine on the stage and his audience shower him with bills.

Tatum, best known as an almost-silent presence in a series of dull action films, reveals an unsuspected depth as the titular hunk, gradually realising that his time as a stripper is running out and he has no back-up plan. But it’s McConaughey who steals the show as the heavily-varnished Dallas, throwing himself into the role with a cocky swagger with more than a hint of self-parody. Bound to find an appreciative audience among the hen-party set, Magic Mike is more than just a parade of bulging beefcake, but a witty, moral story about cold hard cash and commodified sex. The only trick Soderbergh misses is not presenting the film in 3D.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Nominative determinism is a theory in psychology that supposes a person’s name has some influence over what they do with their life. Mr Field might grow up to become a horticulturalist, for example and Mr Payne a glazier, or a dentist. So it was predestined that Marc Webb, in only his second feature, would direct The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Comics’ hasty re-imagining of their superhero franchise. Even that mild coincidence won’t be enough to distract attentive cinemagoers from the fact that they’ve already seen this film, exactly a decade ago, when Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s film (the first in a dwindling trilogy that finally exhausted itself in 2007) kick-started the current renaissance in comic-book blockbusters.

Since Raimi’s Spider-Man, almost every spandex-clad superhero has had a cinema outing: Batman, Superman, Iron Man, even second-tier champions such as The Green Lantern and Captain America. Just last month, Marvel Comics crammed as many of their characters as could possibly fit into one film, and made another billion at the international box-office. So, perhaps understandably, the industry giant thinks the time is right to reinvent Spider-Man for a new generation; anyone under the age of ten and hopeless amnesiacs. Myths and legends are designed to be told and retold, I suppose, but in a market saturated with superhero origin stories, blockbuster sequels and special-effects derived fireworks-displays, The Amazing Spider-Man really needs to live up to it’s over-confident billing.

Maguire has been replaced by the taller, leaner Andrew Garfield – the likeable British actor best known for his supporting role in The Social Network – but apart from a few tweaks, the story is stultifyingly familiar. This time it opens with young Peter Parker being separated from his parents, Richard and Mary (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) who leave him in the care of their relatives Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field, a great pairing) when Richard’s scientific research causes the family to be threatened by sinister forces. Growing up safe in suburban anonymity, Garfield’s lanky, awkward and now orphaned Peter is skateboarding around his school while tinkering with electronics and throwing forlorn glances at his crush, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).

You already know the rest: Peter visits a laboratory and is bitten by a radioactive spider. Suddenly, he’s no longer a geeky beanpole, but a faster, stronger, stickier teenager; a development neatly captured in a scene on a subway where his abilities surprise himself as much as a potential mugger. Having acquired his red spandex suit, and started his campaign against evildoers, the story brings him into the orbit of one-armed geneticist Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans), whose sense of right and wrong has been clouded by his obsessive scientific experimentation.

Where once superhero movies aspired to little more than recreating the experience of reading the comic-book; a series of set-pieces arranged as flat, highly-detailed tableaux, the genre has matured over time to incorporate credible, well-acted drama that adds credibility to their character’s emotional lives. Webb’s previous film 500 Days of Summer was a lightweight indie rom-com but it had heart and soul, something he carries with him to the superhero franchise, successfully combining shaded, complex characters with grandstanding spectacle, something Raimi’s brightly-coloured rollercoaster struggled to achieve. There are exhilarating moments of airborne acrobatics to enjoy as the whooping hero swoops through the Manhattan skyscrapers at the end of a silvery thread, but the 3D effect is too sparingly-used to justify the extra couple of euro on the ticket price.

In re-building Parker into an introspective, uncertain teenager more typical of his debut, Webb has cast well in Garfield, who might be ten years too old to be a high-school student but brings an air of genial befuddlement that helps to smooth out the bumps in the fantastical, sometimes illogical storyline. Opposite him, Stone’s Gwen is far more than elbow-gracing eye-candy, but a complicated, smart and high-achieving heroine with parental issues of her own to work out. Together, they make for a charming, charismatic screen couple. As Peter Parker struggles to adapt to a changed existence, he must endure meaty dramatic crises, abandonment, grief and sacrifice, given a commendably credible treatment by an in-form ensemble. However, as the plot scurries along, Webb introduces elements of a glossy corporate conspiracy thriller which he then more or less forgets about; leaving the strands of that sub-plot dangling amongst a frayed web of narrative dead-ends.

Killer Joe

Forty years ago, William Friedkin was at the vanguard of a new wave of young filmmakers that revitalised Hollywood; the hotshot director who followed The French Connection with the blockbuster horror The Exorcist. Having tried his hand at just about every genre of film, after 1985s cop conspiracy To Live and Die in LA, Friedkin was a spent creative force. His career went off a cliff in slow-motion, with the Oscar-winner reduced to making low-rent television movies and pilots for series that didn’t make it to air. When he did make films, they were ridiculed (1995s erotic thriller Jade) or poorly distributed (2003s action movie The Hunted).

They say there are no second acts in American lives, but at 76, Friedkin is enjoying a late-career run of something approaching his old form. Reunited with the playwright Tracy Letts, who wrote his last film, the needless to say little-seen 2006 psychological thriller Bug, Killer Joe is a deep-fried Southern redneck noir that feels like the work of a director half his age. A bleakly comic story of murder, duplicity and sexual exploitation, Friedkin’s film fizzes with scuzzy, fidgety energy until a fatally overcooked finale undermines everything that has gone before.

Skipping though the potholed puddles in a torrential downpour, ragged drug-dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) turns up unannounced at mobile home where his dim-bulb father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) lives with his slatternly stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his virginal teenage sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Repeated cutaways to a vicious pit-bull snarling and pulling on its chain remind us that this is a dog-eat-dog world, and someone is going to get devoured. Chris is desperate for money to settle a debt with a local drug lord, who is threatening to kill him, and so proposes a Double Indemnity plan in which they kill his unseen mother, Ansel’s first wife, collect her $50,000 insurance payout and split it among themselves.

Reluctant to do any killing themselves, Chris tells his father about a police detective who has a lucrative sideline as a contract killer. Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), is an ice-cold, Stetson-wearing assassin who is totally bad and quite possibly mad. With everyone agreed on the course of action, and already counting their share of the loot, the plan hits a snag when Chris is unable to come up with the hefty deposit for Joe’s unique services. Looking around the trailer and not seeing much in the way of collateral, Joe’s cold eye falls on the innocent Dottie, a child-woman who speaks in drawled nursery rhymes and sleeps surrounded by teddy bears. The deal is quickly sealed, but can Joe get the job done before the family tears itself apart?

Letts, who won a Pulitzer for his latest play, August: Osage County, has an aficionado’s understanding of disreputable genre cinema and a finely-tuned ear for how people talk to one another. Both Bug and Killer Joe are adapted from stage plays and although Friedkin does his best to open out the story, trailing his characters along endless strip-malls and through neon-lit strip-clubs, something of the story’s three-walled, stage-bound sensibility lingers. He has cast the story well, finding actors who can convincingly transform themselves into trailer-trash caricatures and giving McConaughey his best role in a decade.

But if you make a film about essentially nasty people, you risk making a nasty film. Friedkin, by turns amused and revolted by his characters sleazy shenanigans, is uncompromising in depicting the violence, abuse and degradation they endure. Where he errs is in making that violence the film’s sole reason for being. In its closing stages, Killer Joe becomes an unapologetic wallow in the mire, with a final scene so repugnant that the black comedy stops being comic and the film is just black, full stop.

Cosmopolis

After a decade-long run of accomplished and exciting films, David Cronenberg suffers an excruciating blow-out with his stilted, stuttering adaptation of Don DeLillo’s short novel Cosmopolis, the story of a twenty-something billionaire taking a limousine ride across Manhattan. Inert, stage-bound and self-conscious, Cronenberg’s journey is not worth the destination.

Twilight star Robert Pattinson stars as Eric Packer who has accumulated vast wealth by speculating on the international currency exchanges and all before his thirtieth birthday. Self made and “raised by wolves”, Packer has built up his massively-resourced corporation to be a globe-spanning money-machine. Isolated by his fortune, he has taken to sitting in a black leather throne in his stretch limo, surrounded by the latest information technologies and cocooned behind an inch of bullet-proof glass. From this impressive perch, Packer and his young, tech-savvy cohorts practise rarefied business strategies that allow them to predict currency fluctuations based on vast amounts of data collected from any and all available sources.

As the film opens, Packer has decided on a whim to travel across Manhattan to get a haircut from his childhood barber. His bodyguard Torval (Kevin Durand), one finger constantly pressed to his earpiece, warns him about the complications presented by a presidential motorcade, an anti-capitalist protest and what he refers to as a “credible threat” against Packer’s life. To make things worse, the tycoon has made a huge bet against the Chinese Yuan and his constantly updating computer screen isn’t delivering him any good news.

Ignoring all advice, Packer gets into the car and makes his meandering way across the city, like Leopold Bloom in a very expensive suit. From time to time, people in his life arrive at the car to have hollow, didactic conversations about nothing in particular. His snooty wife (Sarah Gadon) tells him she’d rather write poetry than consummate their marriage. His art-dealer (Juliette Binoche) tells him about a fabulously expensive Rothko painting that has just come on the market, while his financial guru (Samantha Morton) delivers an incomprehensible lecture about “the narrative quality of money”. His doctor arrives and, in the film’s sole attempt at humour, gives the billionaire a prostate examination as his head of computer security watches, aghast. Meanwhile, Packer’s car gets caught up in the simmering anti-capitalist protests on the city streets, which will eventually spill over into a tepid, tired-looking riot.
In Pattinson’s hands, the po-faced, frozen financier is really not a character you’d want to spend an hour and a half trapped in a car with, regardless of how plush the upholstery. Blandly handsome and wearily dull, the actor doesn’t help matters by being as wooden as a garden fence, delivering his convoluted dialogue in a tuneless monotone, complete with long sighs and pouted sneers. Like the film itself, there is nothing going on under the surface. The late arrival of Paul Giamatti as a half-crazed would-be assassin ups the ante on the non-stop chatter as Pattinson’s quest devolves into a twenty-minute snippet from a one-act play. The two characters bounce around an overdressed set, yapping interminably about inequality and injustice. Or at least, I think that’s what they’re talking about. By this point, Cronenberg’s dialogue has collapsed into a tedious, airless jumble of barely-connected words that escape coherence or meaning.

Adapting DeLillo’s 2003 novel himself (his first screenplay credit since 1999s Existenz) Cronenberg’s script comes off as an over-considered lecture on the amoral excesses of corporate America. Among all the jargon and double-speak, there is no perceptible anger. The director stages a riot, in which a man sets himself on fire in the manner of a Buddhist monk, and the scene has all the energy and impact of a sputtering candle on a birthday cake. Intended as a denunciation of the elite one per cent, this vapid, strained drama offers nothing but shiny emptiness.

Casa De Mi Padre

A joke that has to be explained isn’t really a joke at all. You get it or you don’t. Things that are kind-of funny are also kind-of not funny while stories that start out funny don’t always end up that way.

For his new comedy, Will Ferrell spoofs the peculiarly Mexican soap-opera known as the telenovela, supersaturated serial melodramas in which moustachioed men strut about in tight pants while scheming women heave their bosoms and throw random dagger-eyes. A particularly Mexican celebration of sex, death, glitz and trash (and watched by millions) the format hasn’t travelled to this side of the Atlantic. And neither does Casa de mi Padre, although unfamiliarity is only part of the reason why Ferrell’s parody is a dud. Stilted, choppy, weird and woefully short on laughs, what might have been a riotous eight-minute skit in a sketch show – or a viral sensation on Ferrell’s own Funny or Die website - feels horribly overextended at feature length.

Wide-eyed and innocent farmhand Armando Alvarez (Ferrell, speaking fluent Spanish) is the second son of a dairy rancher (the late Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz Jr. in his last role) who lives deep in the backcountry in a hacienda filled with coloured tiles and heavy wooden furniture. Armando, devoted to the land, couldn’t be more different to his flashy older brother Raul (Diego Luna), who left the ranch to make it big in the drug-trade in Mexico City. When their father finds himself in financial difficulty, the prodigal Raul returns in his gleaming white limousine, with his gorgeous fiancée Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez) in tow, to save the homestead. When she stands and listens to her awkward soon-to-be brother-in-law expand on his notions of the ideal woman – someone who shares his love for the soil, Mexico, cattle and cactus-flowers – Sonia realises that this curly-haired buffoon is her soul mate. But how can Armando betray his only brother? And who will protect their homestead against the ruthless rival drug lord La Onza (Gael García Bernal)?

From the flashy opening credits to the obviously painted backdrops, the film mimics the sun-faded look of old two-reel serials, with undisguised rear-projections, intentional continuity errors and stuffed toys standing in for wild animals. Furthering the illusion are skipped frames, orange bursts of overexposed film and scratch marks that recall Tarantino’s 2007 retro-exercise Grindhouse.  There’s even a moment, about half way through, where everything comes to a dead stop as the filmmakers read out an apology for the shabbiness of their special effects, blaming the chaos that resulted from an unfortunate coming together of a wild tiger and a bag of cocaine. A lot of time and effort has been spent making this pricey studio comedy look like something cobbled together on a shoestring in the 1970s, but nothing like the same level of care and attention has been paid to the script. What Casa de mi Padre lacks are funny jokes that follow, one after another, in a reasonably paced progression.

Ferrell does his usual deadpan innocent but the story only occasionally allows him to play to his strengths; child-like bemusement, simmering frustration and flights of surreal lunacy. The few times that the actor does get to let loose are, unsurprisingly, the best moments in the film, particularly an inspired moment where Armando sits with his ranchero buddies (Efren Ramirez and Adrian Martinez) at a campfire and signs a plaintive love song, pausing to clean the spit-valve on his trumpet before starting a bumptious solo. But it’s too little, too late for a film that clocks in at just 84 minutes but feels considerably longer. No mi gusta. No mi gusta one bit.

The Dictator

From Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Team America’s puppet of Kim Jong-il, cinema comedy has a rich tradition of deflating the egos of tyrants and despots with deft satirical pinpricks. Dedicated to the “loving memory” of the late North Korean leader, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy The Dictator is a jumpy collection of skits and set-ups – arranged as a kind-of romantic comedy - that starts promisingly but quickly exhausts itself.

Reunited with director Larry Charles, Baron Cohen continues to mine the same seam as Borat and Brüno in establishing an outlandishly foreign, monstrously egotistical idiot as a grandly exaggerated caricature before letting him loose on America. The difference this time is that rather than construct a mockumentary travelogue, The Dictator follows a conventional narrative line, albeit one with a decidedly scatological edge.

Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the ‘beloved oppressor’ of fictional rogue state Wadiya, somewhere on the Horn of Africa. A founding member of the Axis of Evil, Aladeen enjoys a life of gilded privilege, built on the backs of his enslaved populace. Clad in a golden military uniform with a spray of unearned medals over his heart, the trigger-happy Aladeen prances around his kingdom with his uncle and second-in-command (Ben Kingsley), executing those who disagree with him at whim. But dark clouds are gathering, expressed in snippets of real-life speeches from Obama and Hilary Clinton, which threaten the despot’s reign. His plan to build a nuclear bomb and aim it at Jerusalem has met with a visit from the UN weapons inspectors. War looms unless Aladeen visits the United Nations in New York to explain himself.

Once arrived in America, Aladeen is kidnapped by the CIA (personified by casual racist John C Reilly), is shorn of his trademark luxuriant beard and let loose on the city. Adrift in Brooklyn, he meets protestor Zoey (Anna Faris), who offers him a job at her vegan feminist supermarket. Assisted in varying degrees of helpfulness by the right-on Zooey and a former Wadiyan rocket scientist (Jason Mantzoukas), Aladeen struggles to restore himself to his former position and keep his country free from the scourge of democracy.

The Dictator is obscene, scabrous, vulgar and crude but it is only occasionally funny. Aladeen is a rather tired comic character, especially when compared to Baron Cohen’s predecessors. The script pushes every conceivable outrageous button, but what is sorely missing is the candid-camera interactions with real-life people that used Borat and Brüno’s bottomless ignorance to expose shades of the same bigotry and racism in those he met along the way.

After eighty minutes or so of hit-and-miss political incorrectness, Baron-Cohen finally hits his stride in a scene where Aladeen stands before a press conference and delivers a subversive speech against dictatorships that lists, in a mercilessly detailed way, the similarities between the classic model of tyranny and the current American political landscape. It is a moment of real wit and invention that has the effect of making what has gone before seem even cheaper and shabbier.

The Raid

Every now and then, an action movie comes along that gives the much maligned genre a shot in the arm, and changes the game for all that follow suit. Writer and director Gareth Evans’ Indonesian cops and robbers martial arts epic The Raid is such a film: a breathless, heart-racing series of bone-crunching fight sequences built on a constant rush of adrenaline. An extraordinary cinematic experience, best enjoyed with a crowd of like-minded aficionados in a packed auditorium, it is the finest action film I have seen in a decade.

As terse and efficient as the title suggests, The Raid opens with rookie SWAT team cop Rama (Iko Uwais) reciting his morning prayers on a mat before kissing his pregnant wife goodbye and going to work. The police mission is simple: infiltrate a tower block in the Jakarta slums and extract the notorious crime lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy). Having filled the building with his own soldiers, spotters and sympathisers, Tama sits at a bank of television monitors in his room on the top floor, watching everything that movies. Within minutes of gaining entry (a sequence reinforced by total silence on the soundtrack) Rama and his colleagues come under sustained attack from Tama’s forces as they inch their way up, floor by floor, to a grandstand confrontation. Complicating matters is the fact that most of the cops in the unit are desperately inexperienced and that their cocksure lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno) has a cavalier attitude to their survival.

And that’s about as much plotting as the movie is concerned with, or needs. When the advancing SWAT team meet a young boy on a stairwell, and he races to trigger an alarm, it’s the cue for an all-out war. The ensuing 90 minutes are a hand-to-hand, elbow-to-face, machete-to-throat pitched battle, with a few wild-eyed machine-gunners thrown in for good measure. There are a handful of narrative twists – a helpful tenant with a sick wife, a potential turncoat in the squad, a possibility of redemption for one of the gangsters – but for the most part, The Raid is exuberantly uncomplicated. Good guy, bad guy, fight.

Once Evans kicks off the action, he never relents. Fists, feet, bullets and blades all swirl in a bravura display of violent invention, all captured by Evans’ constantly mobile camera. Uwais, who was working as a truck-driver before Evans cast him in his first Indonesian action movie Merantau, is a practitioner of a ruthless form of martial arts known as Pencak Silat and the fight choreography is blindingly quick and smooth. It’s an extraordinary performance of physical force and eye-grabbing charisma that announces Uwais as a martial arts star for a new generation.

Freely inspired by the best of the 1980s cult action movies, from John McTiernan’s Die Hard, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and John Woo’s entire back catalogue, Evans’ creates a grimy, grimly realistic world within the claustrophobic setting of the tower block. But The Raid is not another ironic exercise in strip-mining the past for grindhouse thrills. Evans uses old-fashioned methods to make an old-fashioned movie that comes from an instinctive understanding of the grammar of action cinema. Time and again Evans displays remarkable creativity in his action sequences, showing us spectacular things that simply have never been seen before. It is violent, it is brutal, it is cheap and nasty but it is also exhilarating. Evans and Uwais make it look effortless but their ingenuity, economy and control are masterful.

Winner of both the audience and critics’ awards at this year’s Dublin International Film Festival, the screening of The Raid met with a three-minute standing ovation from a crowd that gasped and shrieked their way through the film. See it before the inevitable Hollywood remake focus-groups all the fun out of it.

Dark Shadows

Over the years film directors have allied themselves with their favourite actors to form lasting partnerships, combinations that lead, in some cases, to their best work. John Ford made more than twenty films with John Wayne, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro were inseparable before Leonardo DiCaprio came along, Neil Jordan and Stephen Rea remain seemingly joined at the hip while Woody Allen made a film a year with Mia Farrow in the decade from 1982 to 1992, until it all got a bit weird.

Getting weird doesn’t seem to bother Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. In fact, they seem to thrive on it. For Dark Shadows, their eighth collaboration in the twenty years since Edward Scissorhands, the pair has composed a Gothic valentine to an almost-forgotten occult-themed daytime television serial, which ran from the late sixties to the early seventies in America but never made it to screens on this side of the Atlantic.

Having taken more than a billion dollars in box-office receipts for his reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, Burton has been given a sizeable production budget with which to play dress-up. The production design is slick and sumptuous, the cast is filled with stars, the costuming and special effects are superb. However the story is a shambles, to say nothing of the sense of fatigue that surrounds watching, once again, an archly mannered Depp wandering through elaborate sets in pale greasepaint while speaking in a strangulated voice.

Pitched somewhere between horror and comedy and missing both marks by some distance, the story opens in 1760 as the well-to-do Collins family leave Liverpool for a new life in the New World. Having established a fine house and a thriving fishing business in a town they modestly call Collinsport, young Barnabas Collins (Depp) has fallen in love with a beautiful young woman (Bella Heathcote), spurning his housekeeper Angelique (Eva Green), a jealous witch who is a dab hand with a curse. Furious, Angelique dispatches Barnabas’ true love to a watery grave and turns the young man into a vampire, sealing him in an iron coffin for two hundred years.

Disinterred by a gang of soon-to-be-drained construction workers in 1972, Barnabas sets about reuniting with his descendants. The surviving Collins’, led by matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) have fallen on hard times. The once proud mansion is falling down around their ears and their fishing business has failed. Pretending to be a distant English cousin, the vampire moves in and sets about restoring the family to their former glory, convincing Elizabeth that he poses no threat to her, her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), brattish teenage daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) or Roger’s troubled young son, David (Gully McGrath). 

The other residents of the house are not so easily convinced, including alcoholic child psychiatrist Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), newly-hired nanny Victoria (Heathcote again) and dogsbody janitor Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), who Barnabas quickly makes his personal Igor. The only person standing in Barnabas’ way is Angelique, his cauldron-stirring nemesis from two centuries ago, now a wealthy fishing magnate with porcelain skin, ruby-red lips and a predilection for low-cut evening gowns who is still obsessed with either winning Barnabas’ heart or driving a stake through it.

A stranger in an even stranger time, much of the film’s sense of fun is derived from fish-out-of-water Barnabas’ nonplussed navigation of the early 1970s, his courtly manners and frilly cuffs allowing him to pass as a gentlemanly English hippy while he wanders around his former home, delicately fingering period relics like Macramé knitted doilies and lava lamps. The beautifully constructed mansion, filled with carved wooden statuary and cleverly hidden secret rooms, is a pleasant enough place to pass the daylight hours but Burton’s story soon runs out of things for his undead protagonist to do, with the repetitive gags stranding Depp somewhere between The Addams Family and Austin Powers. A scattered few sexual innuendoes and unsurprising character developments provide events with a limp frisson, but even these seem shoehorned into a rapidly dwindling central narrative that is palpably exhausted far before the end.

Depp extracts as much juice as he can from his deadpan vampire with the singsong voice but has played this character, or a variation of it, far too many times for Burton and the results are nothing new. Barnabas is a funny character that Depp cleverly underplays but without an engaging story to provide him with some impetus, he slowly fades into the background. He’s all teeth and no bite. Opposite him, Green plays her vampish witch with particular relish, her flashing eyes signalling a tone of wolfish humour and camp morbidity that the rest of the film only achieves in fits and spurts. Reunited with her Batman Returns director, Pfeiffer is the only secondary character that Burton doesn’t seem to lose interest in and provides a consistent presence, even as the scattershot story collapses into a mess of flaccid jokes, narrative dead ends and elaborate special effects set pieces.

Headhunters

Obsession, betrayal and murder are some of the rich ingredients in this entertaining Norwegian noir crime thriller that has more twists than an old road and the blackly comic sensibility of a nation that spends half the year in darkness.

Adapted from the novel by best-selling Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, Headhunters opens with a short pre-credits sequence that nimbly introduces us to a masked Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) as he breaks into a house and snips an expensive painting from its frame. Roger’s salary as a corporate headhunter isn’t enough to fund the lavish lifestyle he sees as his due; his multi-million euro house, sleek suits and his gallery-owning trophy wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). So to make up the shortfall, he steals art from well-to-do Oslo houses, selling it through his seedy security-guard intermediary Ove (Eivind Sander).

So far, so Thomas Crown. But things are not all that they seem. Crushed by his own sense of inadequacy, Roger lives in fear that his wife will leave him for somebody else: someone taller, richer and willing to give her the child she desperately craves. With his stash of money running out, and a payment on his enormous mortgage due, Roger meets the tall, wealthy and urbane Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who he immediately identifies as a perfect fit for an executive position at a high-flying technology company. More to the point, Clas lets slip that he has inherited an original painting by Rubens, stolen by the Nazis and stashed in his grandmother’s apartment. Clas and his priceless Old Master seem like the perfect target for Roger’s covert sideline. For the first time in his criminal career, however, the mark is prepared to fight back; first by apparently sleeping with Diana, then by letting slip that before beginning his climb up the corporate ladder, he was a highly-trained soldier and is still very handy with handgun and knife. As Clas comes looking for that which was stolen from him, Roger flees for his life, kicking off a brilliantly sustained hunt for vengeance that is consistently exciting and frequently surprising, falling somewhere between a morally indifferent Coen Brothers thriller and a Warner Brothers Road Runner cartoon.

The entire cast is superb but much of the film’s success is owing to an outstanding central performance from Aksel Hennie, whose character starts out smooth as glass but winds up shattered into tiny fragments. Goggle-eyed Hennie (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Steve Buscemi) plays the covert criminal as an engaging combination of skilled resourcefulness and panicky idiocy. It’s a neat trick, because each new indignity the story throws at him, from being run to ground by Coster-Waldau’s unstoppable nemesis to being flattened by a speeding truck and dunked in an open sewer, transforms this self-serving Napoleon into a sympathetic character. With his sharp tailoring, smug smile and deep concern for how his hair is looking at any given moment, Roger is a smarmy creep; it says a lot for Hennie’s performance that we are willing to root for him, regardless, all the way to a breathless, blood-splattered finish.

As Roger is slowly stripped of everything he possesses and his prospects for survival darken, the story spasms deliriously into a rapid-fire series of ever more violent twists, exposing the characters as deeply flawed and compromised individuals, providing the film with substance as well as style. Director Morten Tyldum never allows the pace to flag, sustaining the finely-wrought tension and not allowing the viewer enough time to question whether the intricacies of the plotting are entirely sound. Similarly, there isn’t room for any of Wallander’s windblown moping or the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s expositionary chatter with Tyldum racing through his story, dextrously skipping over the numerous plot holes, determined to cram in another outrageously gory thrill or gallows-humour gag.

The Cabin in the Woods

Drew Goddard’s splashy horror comedy The Cabin In The Woods expertly plays with audience expectations in a sly, cynically self-aware take on the slasher film. Not since Wes Craven’s Scream back in 1996 has a horror movie so cleverly subverted the genre with such devious wit, taking the bare bones of the clichéd camp-side teen massacre and spinning it into something deliciously dark and wildly entertaining.

The less the audience knows about the film beforehand, the more satisfying the payoff will be for a film where the merest suggestion of the workings of the simple plot might be considered a spoiler. Co-written by producer Joss Whedon and his Buffy the Vampire Slayer collaborator Drew Goddard (making his directorial debut), The Cabin in the Woods works as a gleeful rejoinder to the recent rash of rapidly uninteresting torture-porn horror films, delicately balancing the genre’s requirements for buckets of blood with a newly minted, and deviously uncomplicated, back-story that re-examines the ancient stories and myths that were the progenitors of what we find terrifying today.

The opening sequences set the stage with commendable efficiency. Five college students pile into a truck and head out to a remote woodland cabin, borrowed from a friend of a friend, for a long weekend. All five fit easily into broad character types, for a reason. There’s the athletic Alpha-male (Chris Hemsworth), the brave and brainy black guy (Jesse Williams), the blonde cheerleader (Anna Hutchison), the befuddled pot-head philosopher (Fran Kranz) and the wholesome, virginal good-girl (Kristen Connolly). Having arrived at their destination, despite dire warnings of doom from a scrofular stranger they meet on the way, the five set are soon exploring the cabin’s creepy basement. There, as decades of cinematic instruction have left the audience in no doubt, a greasy death awaits.

And that’s about all I can tell you. Although Whedon and Goddard’s script does find ways for their stock characters to surprise us, they are never developed into more than the sum of their standardised exteriors, making it difficult to care much about their fates. But that becomes much less of a problem when it becomes clear that the five imminent corpses are little more than pawns in a far greater game, as the story ingeniously enlarges. From an opening conversation between two seen-it-all scientist types (brilliantly played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) to the glimpses of international atrocities glimpsed on television screens and similarly inspired by folklore, there are signs that the gory events are being manipulated from the shadows.

The thrill is all in discovering who, or what, is pulling the strings as the terrifyingly unpredictable story piles on the genre subversions and upends every stereotype in the book. The greatest trick The Cabin in the Woods plays is in somehow refreshing a genre that had become tediously stale and unambitious. Funny, creepy and delighted with the cleverness of its own irreverent conceit, it’s the most entertaining teen horror movie in years.

The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists 3D

Beloved British animators Aardman return to cinemas after a six-year hiatus with their first stop-motion film since Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Adapted by author Gideon Defoe from his bestselling series of children’s books, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists is the studio’s first 3D outing and their first collaboration with Sony after making three full-length films with DreamWorks but everything else about the film fits within their carefully crafted body of work; being visually and verbally witty, rousingly entertaining and a treat for kids of all ages.

The title might be a little awkwardly punctuated but it tells you all you need to know about the plot, capturing something of the misplaced enthusiasm of the hapless buccaneer protagonists and the real-life (if humorously re-imagined) historical figures of Charles Darwin and his fellows at the Royal Society, under the patronage of a seemingly psychotic Queen Victoria. Better known recently for his tabloid-busting exploits than his movies, Hugh Grant emerges from semi-retirement to voice the prosaically named Pirate Captain, another in Aardman’s long line of loveable-loser heroes.

The Captain might see himself as a blood-thirsty, salt-encrusted sea-dog but he and his crew are more interested in slicing up joints of meat on his ship’s celebratory Ham Night feasts than dividing chests of ill-gotten doubloons. With his luxuriant beard and puffy shirt, The Captain has long held a dream to be crowned Pirate of the Year but faces stiff competition from his more daring rivals, including Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek).

In an effort to impress the judge (Brian Blessed in full voice), The Captain and his crew (including Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson and Ashley Jensen) start a campaign of boarding every ship they spy through their telescopes, eventually attacking The Beagle and kidnapping a terrified Darwin (David Tennant). Having quickly assessed the pirates as being of little threat to his well-being, Darwin advises them that their beloved parrot Polly is in fact the last surviving dodo, which can be exchanged for gold and glory in London. The trouble is that Queen Victoria (a seething Imelda Staunton) is virulently anti-pirate, requiring the crew to don a series of inventive disguises in order to present their prize as Darwin and his house-trained chimpanzee butler (who dryly comments on the action with placards, in the style of Wile E. Coyote) threaten to steal it for themselves.

The Pirates has all the key qualities of an Aardman film: the stop-motion animation is meticulously executed and distinctively charming, the voice acting is perfectly pitched and, perhaps most importantly, every frame contains a studio in-joke, a witty movie reference or a gag pulled groaning from an old Christmas cracker. There are moments of slapstick, character comedy, ridiculous puns, thigh-slapping one-liners and a whole series of jokes that will sail over the heads of the younger audience members, including an audacious cameo from The Elephant Man. Central to the success of Aardman’s film is the very British combination of frozen-smile embarrassment and crippling insecurity that Grant has been assiduously mining for the past two decades, although he has only rarely been as likeable. Despite a palpable sag in the middle, where the story could have used a twist or two, Aardman’s wondrous imagination and subversive sense of humour carries the film to a stirring finale with a series of frenetic chase sequences that recall their best work in The Wrong Trousers.

From the lovingly detailed pirate ships to the cobbled streets of Victorian England, Aardman’s stop-motion animation renders a wholly convincing, endearing world whose scope and detail are enhanced by subtly used computer graphics, which beautifully complement the animator’s eight-inch high Plasticine models.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

A slow-burning meditation on the relationships between men and women disguised as an obsessive police procedural, Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia plays out like Andrei Tarkovsky’s CSI: Ankara, a two and a half hour epic about a parade of cops and killers trawling the remote hillsides around a rural town, searching for a murder victim’s corpse.

Outlining the plot takes substantially less effort than the commitment and attention Ceylan’s film requires. After an unhurried preamble that introduces us to a man about to die, the story opens with a static shot of a convoy of three cars winding along a rough country road at night, their headlights streaming across a grassy hillside. The three cars contain a stern group of middle-aged men, including Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), Police Commissioner Naci (Yilmax Erdogan) and hospital Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner). In the back of the police car, they have a grim, bruised prisoner, the self-confessed killer Kenan (Firat Tanis). Kenan, who barely speaks, has agreed to lead the policemen to the corpse, but is having trouble remembering the exact location. There is a tree, he says, and a stream beside a field. But there are a lot of trees and streams and fields. The search will take all night.

Ceylan uses a three-part structure, with a few short scenes serving as transitions. The convoy visits a series of locations in the rural hinterland before they take a break at a small village. There, they all sit around in circles eating a meal as the local mayor fills their ears with requests for funds to help modernise the village. The final act brings the convoy back to town, and the sterile halls of the hospital, where the doctor, his cantankerous assistant and a police recorder undertake a lengthy post-mortem, dissecting the body they have disinterred, and the events we have just watched.

This description might make Once Upon a Time in Anatolia sound prosaic, even dull, but this is a film so delicate that any attempt to analyze it might, like an archaeologist digging through an Egyptian tomb, cause everything to crumble into dust. Ceylan’s screenplay (co-written with his wife Ebru and his Three Monkeys screenwriter Ercan Kesal) contains a whole world of suggestion, forcing the audience to piece together the tiny details of everything that came before. What appears to be a simple cop story evolves into a complex, multi-layered human drama, a compelling examination of Turkish manhood and a cutting critique of an economically depressed country on the cusp of European assimilation. Ceylan constructs his film through a careful accretion of terse exchanges, quick glances, gestures and passing moments that remain suggestions, implying a story far deeper and darker than the one being told.

What ties the three sections together is the introduction of a female presence into this all-male world. In the first sequence, the police captain’s wife calls him on his mobile to remind him of an errand while later the prosecutor tells the doctor a story about a woman of his acquaintance who prophesied her own death. In the second section, a bridge between night and day, a beautiful girl emerges from a house in the village to send each of the men into a stunned reverie, underlined by a quick shot of a burning lamp surrounded by moths. Finally, in the concluding part, the victim’s wife appears at the hospital to witness his post mortem, her stoic silence acting as a blank wall against which Ceylan bounces a series of unanswerable questions.

This mature, involving and endlessly fascinating drama was a deserved winner of last year’s Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix. Ceylan the visual stylist places his characters in a spectacularly moody nocturnal landscape, but it is the emotional resonant characters and the inquisitive performances that are the most compelling. The questions continue long after the credits roll.

John Carter

Given that it’s based on a groundbreaking work of early science fiction, it comes as no surprise that Disney’s 3D adventure based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, John Carter carries an musty air of pastiche; being a hodgepodge of elements that have been borrowed by every fantasy filmmaker in the hundred years since it was first published.

As directed by Andrew Stanton, the story opens in 1881 with Burrough’s himself as a young man (played by Daryl Sabara) inheriting the estate of his recently deceased uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). Among his effects, Burroughs finds a leather-bound journal that tells a story of interplanetary travel, war, romance and heroism that seems, extraordinarily, to be a true account. Carter was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, brought West after the peace to prospect for gold. No sooner does he discover a cave full of nuggets than he is mysteriously transported to another realm: the planet Mars, which the locals call Barsoom.

There, blessed with super-strength thanks to the lower gravity, Carter meets the Tharks; a race of green-skinned, six-armed creatures who are struggling in a thousand-year war. Their adversaries are the technologically advanced Zodangans, whose arrogant leader Sab Than (Dominic West), has just acquired a new weapon of mass destruction from a shape-shifting, blue-skinned demi-god known as Matai Shang (and played by Mark Strong). The third faction in the battle for Barsoom are the Jeddak (Ciaran Hinds) and his beautiful daughter Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who are looking for a hero to unite them against the belligerent Zodangans. They find their man in Carter, with the bemused Earthman quickly cast as the chosen one and leading the united forces of the planet in a quest for peace.

Stanton, who directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E and had a hand in writing all three Toy Story features, follows his Pixar colleague Brad Bird in moving from the elevated world of gorgeous, rightly-lauded digital animation to the hustle and bustle of the live-action cattle-market. Despite the presence of novelist Michael Chabon among the scriptwriters, dramatic coherence loses out to visual flair with the result that John Carter is more a series of thunderous incidents than a gracefully composed story. The time and patience required to thread a route through a troika of warring factions, a rogue’s gallery of good guys and bad guys, a mystical back-story and an interplanetary romance is sacrificed for another jumpy effects sequence or 3D wow. There is too much going on and little of it makes much sense on a single viewing.

All this means John Carter is more of a passing diversion than an immersive experience. Stanton has all the technological bells and whistles that a reported $250 million budget can buy, but he struggles to carve any meaning out of his pretty effects. The characters remain broad types, the plot is confused and saggy while the essential otherworldly nature of Carter’s adventure is never given a moment to settle. It says a lot when, having waited his turn for a century, we still don’t know much about our eponymous hero after two hours of extravagant spectacle. Fittingly perhaps, for a film set on Mars, there is a distinct lack of atmosphere, with the director eschewing the usual flame-red Mars template for something that looks like what it is; a snag-toothed yellow desert straight from a John Ford western.

Taking the lead role for the first time, Kitsch is entirely convincing as a rippling action hero, with his straggly hair, tattered loincloth and nipples that follow you around the room like the Laughing Cavalier’s eyes. He meets his match with Collins, a capable, courageous heroine with unconventional looks and a whip-smart mind, whose skimpy costumes might come to define puberty for a generation of teenage boys (if any of them actually go to see it) in the same way as Carrie Fisher did in Star Wars thirty years ago. The secondary characters are well delivered; Strong is good as the monkish puppet-master pulling the strings on planetary politics, Hinds does extremely well to overcome a pantomime costume and reams of explanatory dialogue while Prufroy adds a winning smirk to his otherwise perfunctory factotum.

The nagging thought remains that if Disney believed John Carter was good enough to fight for a spot in the crowded, lucrative summer marketplace, we wouldn’t be watching it in the chill damp of March. There's also something disconcerting about their decision to truncate the title, removing "from Mars" and making their hero indistinguishable from a geography teacher or, according to Google, the heroic hospital doctor Noah Wyle played on E.R. Regardless of all their tinkering, what Disney has on it's hands is a pretty decent sci-fi action picture, targeted at but unsold to the middle-teen market, that contains some intriguing ideas, gutsy performances and a few enduring moments, mostly from the special effects work. John Carter could have been much more: the story could have been more clearly deliniated, the effects work could have been cleaner, it could have been more exciting and Stanton could have made us care something for his characters. It’s no classic but neither is it a fiasco. Not out of this world, then.