We review this week’s new cinema releases, including BLACK SEA, PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR and MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN…
BLACK SEA (UK/15A/115mins)
Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Starring Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Smiley.
THE PLOT: Robinson (Jude Law) is a submarine captain who has devoted his life to his job. When he is unceremoniously fired, he receives word that the location of a legendary Nazi submarine that was carrying several million dollars in gold when it sank, has been found. Robinson is hired to round up a crew and salvage the gold for a cut of the money, but the company that hired him may have different ideas.
THE VERDICT: Sporting a rather chewy accent, Jude Law plays the captain of the submarine, and thus the leader of a band of misfits whose work in submarines has dried up. Law plays Robinson as a reasonable man, so when the situation on the sub starts to change, the audience looks to him for tone and sanity. Law does well with the role, and becomes the heart and soul of the film. Scoot McNairy takes on the role of the manipulator, and creates many of the twists and turns by whispering in peoples’ ears. Ben Mendelsohn plays another unreasonable but engaging character, and Michael Smiley brings a lot of humour to the incredibly tense proceedings.
The script, written by Dennis Kelly, feels as though it could have been made as INDIANA JONES 5. The rumour of the occult being a fascination in the Third Reich is never explicitly mentioned, but the idea that this treasure is cursed is a thread that runs through the entire film. The dialogue is smart and the characters are rounded enough that we know and understand who they are. The Russian cast members suffer a little due to the English language actors being given more prominence, but they are still integral to the story and the film as a whole. Kelly seems to have run with the idea that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, but manages to keep the audience on the characters’ side through clever development and insights into their lives.
Kevin Macdonald has created a film that runs with tension. As soon as the submarine dips below the surface of the Black Sea, the tension is raised, and keeps going up from there. The film lives and dies with the relationships between the characters and, although they are not always fleshed out, there is enough of a bond formed on screen to keep the audience gripped and under the sea with the cast. The Nazi gold is lovely touch as well, giving the film an air of the occult, without ever needing it to be explicitly said. That said, there are times when the teeth gritting tension becomes almost unbearable, and any reprieve feels like set up for another disaster. This gets stressful and tiring at times, and a moment’s relief would have done wonders for the film.
In all, however, BLACK SEA is a gripping, thrilling and incredibly well made film. Led by an impressive and unglamorous performance from Jude Law, the cast have the audience immediately on their side and they work incredibly well together. Macdonald’s direction keeps the feel of claustrophobia and tension rising and rising, and although a moment’s breathing room would perhaps have made the film more bearable, this is a film where the audience is in the thick of the action with the characters; a rare and often terrifying thing.
Review by Brogen Hayes
PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR (USA/G/92mins)
Directed by: Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith. Starring Tom McGrath, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich, Chris Miller, Ken Jeong.
THE PLOT: This time, the penguins from the beloved MADAGASCAR franchise are out on their own, and have to stop an evil villain bent on revenge against all penguin-kind. The trouble is that the penguins may have more help than they need, and certainly more than they want.
THE VERDICT: As is often the case with big, successful franchises, MADAGASCAR is a series of films that lives and dies with its supporting cast. Thankfully the makers of the franchise have realised this, and sent Kowalski (Chris Miller), Skipper (Tom McGrath), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) off on an adventure of their own. The gang find themselves at the heart of a conspiracy that forces them to team up with the secret organisation The North Wind, to take down the evil Dr Octavius Brine.
The voice cast are on fantastic form in PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR, and they inject the heart and much of the comedy into the film. As well as the long standing voices of the four penguins, Benedict Cumberbatch – who still can’t say ‘penguin’… Aww – Ken Jeong, John Malkovich, Annet Mahendru and Peter Stormare join the fun. Malkovich brings the fantastically evil Dr Octavius Brine to life, and obviously has a great time bringing the evil, but the standout role has to be Werner Herzog in an inspired cameo as a documentary filmmaker. Not only is Herzog screamingly funny, but he manages to take the mick out of himself, and send up the documentary genre as a whole, all in the space of one short scene. Well done, sir.
Many times, when a film is written by several screenwriters, the result is a mess, but John Aboud, Michael Colton, Eric Darnell and Brandon Sawyer have worked together to create a cohesive story that sends up the spy thriller, brings the laughs and is in keeping with our previous encounters with the penguins. Running gags abound here – including a spectacular one concerning actor’s names – as well as sight gags and silliness. Irish fans of the franchise will delight in the Dublin gag, but the film also has a sweet and warm message of acceptance and family.
Directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith direct their cast, and the action, to cinematic brilliance, while managing to strike a balance between sight gags and dialogue, and allowing each character a moment of brilliance. No mean feat. As well as this, they keep the film rattling along at a great pace – which often leads to madcap antics on screen, and jokes landing several seconds after they have been realised – but this is all part of the fun. As always with the MADAGASCAR films, the animals and scenery may not be animated as photo realistic, but they are warm and have a style all of their own.
In all, PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR was a brilliant move from filmmakers, since the penguins as beloved from the franchise. In bringing supporting characters to the fore, the film could well have fallen flat, but PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR is consistently funny, action packed and has a whole lot of heart. Hear that!? That’s the sound of a new franchise forming, and if its half as good as this film, then I can’t wait.
Review by Brogen Hayes
THE PYRAMID (USA/16/89mins)
Directed by Gregory Levasseur. Starring Ashley Hinshaw, Denis O’Hare, James Buckley, Christa Nicola, Amir K, Faycal Attougui.
THE PLOT: Egypt is going through some major civil unrest, but a group of archaelogist explorers have more important things to deal with when they unearth a mysterious three-sided pyramid. It’s father and daughter Egyptologist team Holden (O’Hare) and Nora (Hinshaw) who discover the unique structure, and when their explorer robots goes AWOL inside, they decide to follow – with eager TV journalist Sunni (Nicola) and her Brit cameraman (Buckley) chronicling their every move. Once inside, the foursome find themselves trapped, and facing a series of strange and ancient devices. Oh, and some shaven, nutter cats. Think THE CUBE meets THE MUMMY. Meets Simon’s Cat. On acid.
THE VERDICT: If Dan Brown made horror movies, they’d probably be this. Your very run-of-the-mill, standard-issue schlock horror offering, the only remotely interesting thing about The Pyramid is wondering what the hell INBETWEENER James Buckley is doing running around in the middle of it all. I can understand Jay Cartwright saying yes to this, but Buckley? He’s got a career, hasn’t he?
Bringing the found-footage schtick to a very jaded subgenre of horror, first-time feature director Levasseur makes no real attempt to make his mark here, plainly hoping that, as with so many so-so horror movies, this one will reach its devoted audience, money will reach the backers, and he’ll live to fight a proper fight some day.
Review by Paul Byrne
MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN (USA/16/119mins)
Directed by Jason Reitman. Starring Judy Greer, Jennifer Garner, Emma Thompson, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort.
THE PLOT: A look at the lives of teenagers and adults in a Texan town, and how technology and the Internet impacts their lives.
This week, director Jason Reitman takes on the challenge of ensemble drama, but after the misstep of LABOUR DAY, this may not be the film that gets the director of JUNO, UP IN THE AIR and YOUNG ADULT back on track.
THE VERDICT: The cast of MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN is a great one; Emma Thompson narrates the whole affair from afar, Adam Sandler turns back to drama, Judy Greer plays a rather manic mother and Ansel Elgort plays a charming young man on the look out for love. As well as this, Rosmarie DeWitt plays a wife bored of her marriage, Jennifer Garner takes on a role decrying the Internet and its ways, and Dean Norris plays a father trying to connect with his son.
The trouble with ensemble dramas, as we saw with last month’s THIRD PERSON, is that with so many threads running through a film, it takes a strong screenplay to pull them all together to deliver a message, and this is something that is lacking in MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN. Despite what the UK trailer would have you believe, this is not a film about teen love, instead, the film tries to examine the impact of secrets and the internet on people’s lives, and the notion that none of this really matters anyway because, in terms of the universe, humans are insignificant. Cheery!
There is so much going on here that any one of the stories could have been pulled out and developed, in order to give the film structure and a feeling of connectedness, but instead we dip in and out of stories, seemingly at random, never truly getting a feel for the characters, other than the superficial.
As director, Jason Reitman has coaxed some believable performances from his cast, but since we never delve beneath the surface of the characters, the film quickly becomes tiresome. Instead of a meditation on the internet and its evils, audiences may well find themselves wondering why no-one logs out of accounts on shared computers, does a malware check on their PC, uses condoms and just what the internet ever did to Jennifer Garner. As well as this, MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN takes great glee in using the schtick of displaying computer and phone messages on the big screen, and since SHERLOCK, this gimmick has never really been used well or effectively.
In all, MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN tries to be a meditation on the evils of the internet and the human race’s insignificance, but ends up being superficial, muddled and uninteresting. Still, Adam Sandler doesn’t shout in the film, not even once, so that’s got to be worth an extra star.
Review by Brogen Hayes
GET SANTA (UK | USA/G/102mins)
Directed by Christopher Smith. Starring Jim Broadbent, Rafe Spall, Warwick Davis.
THE PLOT: Steve (Rafe Spall) is released from prison after two yeas, and wants nothing more than to reconnect with his son Tom (Kit Connor). Tom, however, discovers a man claiming to be Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) hiding in his shed to recover from a sleigh crash, and begs his dad to help him reunite Santa with his reindeer and save Christmas.
THE VERDICT: Jim Broadbent is well able to play Santa, and does so with aplomb. There are times where the character is a little cringeworthy, but when he gets back into his red suit and regains the twinkle in his eye, then all is right with the world. Rafe Spall plays Steve as an earnest and caring, but rather messed up father. Spall also creates a warm and gentle relationship with Connor, and it is obvious that the two had fun creating their characters. The rest of the cast is made up of Warwick Davis, Stephen Graham, Ewen Bremner and Jodie Whittaker.
GET SANTA obviously has good intentions, but is completely let down by a weird tonal mix created by Christopher Smith. The idea of Santa needing ordinary people’s help to get Christmas back on track is theme that recurs again and again, so immediately GET SANTA feels a little unoriginal and uninspired. Couple this with Santa thrown in jail for trying to rescue his reindeer and the film quickly becomes a mess. As well as this, much of the humour comes from toilet jokes and, while these may impress the tiny ones at first, there is only so much poop that can be flung before the audience mentally checks out. The cast do what they can to rescue the film from disaster, but they are fighting a losing battle.
As director, Smith fails to marry the two strains of the story together and, while the performances are fine and when the magic of Christmas truly kicks in, it’s charming, Get Santa takes far too long to get where it’s going. As well as this, there is a feeling of inevitability about the whole thing, since Christmas will surely be saved like it always is. Smith has made his name as a horror director and, while he is to be admired for trying to stretch himself as a filmmaker, this is a challenge that well and truly fails.
In all, GET SANTA is a film that tries to run on British charm and the connection between an estranged father and son, but there are two sides to this coin, and they never truly connect. The poop jokes get old, the prison scenes are odd and try as the cast might, they can’t rescue this film from feeling a weird sentimental mish-mash that never truly feels coherent.
Review by Brogen Hayes
SCHOOL OF BABEL (France/TBC/94mins)
Directed by: Julie Bertuccelli.
THE PLOT: Over the course of a year, filmmaker Julie Bertuccelli filmed students in a ‘reception class’ in Paris, where they adapt to French culture and language, before going on to join their French contemporaries in school.
THE VERDICT: SCHOOL OF BABEL is a fascinating and apt title for this film, which opens with students of the reception class telling their colleagues the words for ‘Hello’ in their native languages. These children have come to France from all over the world – China, Northern Ireland, England, Serbia, Brazil, Senegal – to learn the language, to avail of a better education or to be reunited with their families.
Throughout the film, director Julie Bertuccelli gives each of the students a chance to tell their stories and give the audience a chance to get to know them. Stories of tragedy, heartbreak and joy emerge as we get to know the kids on screen, and their passions, hopes, dreams and innocence are writ large on the screen, for all to see.
SCHOOL OF BABEL is a film that focuses on the microcosm of a class learning French, but as such, it also examines the world as a whole and the way that children suffer in order to learn and grow. Julie Bertuccelli’s film is an engaging and uplifting one, as we are reminded of the resilience of kids, and their innocent way of viewing the world around them.
Review by Brogen Hayes
THE GRANDMASTER (Hong Kong/China/15A/130mins)
Directed by Wong Kar-wai. Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Wang Qingxiang, Zhang Jin, Zhao Benshan, Song Hye-kyo, Yuen Woo-ping.
THE PLOT: We begin with true-life martial arts legend Ip Man’s early years, being initiated into the ancient combat practice by his teacher Chen Heshun (Yuen), whilst we also see Ip’s happy domestic life with his wife (Song). His first notable duel arrives when northeastern Chinese martial arts master Gong Yutian (Wang) sets out for a last fight, hoping to establish his school’s superiority over southern rivals. Ip wins the fight, and soon Gong’s daughter, Er (Zhang) is demanding a second fight, so she can restore her family’s name. It’s during their close physical struggle that the two manage to fall in love, but the two go their separate ways, as we then follow Gong Er’s story. The two will meet again though…
THE VERDICT: There’s so much to love, cherish and obey about Wong Kar-wai’s unsurprisingly lush and beautiful historical martial arts epic, but there are also a handful of elements that make you want to punch kittens. Such as the wildly-varying tone. On the plus side though, as I said, it’s beautiful, it’s lush, and – thanks to choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, The Matrix) – it kicks ass so very, very beautifully.
And talking of beautiful, Wong is once again so very right when it comes to portraying long-distance longing, his two romantic leads Leung and Zhang offering up the perfect lump-in-the-pants counterbalance to all that lump-in-the-throat violence.
Inspired by real-life martial arts legend Ip Man, and first announced by director Wong Kar-wai in 2002, The Grandmaster is every bit as grand and masterful as you might expect from the director of In The Mood For Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). Given that Wilson Yip’s Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010) have been and gone since that first announcement for The Grandmaster 12 years ago, Wong Kar-wai moves beyond the simple biopic here to deal with how Hong Kong become the retirement ground for many of the fighters exiled from China, as well as his old favourite, unrequited and repressed love. And he does so with style. Buckets of style. And blood.
Review by Paul Byrne
ST. VINCENT (USA/12A/102mins)
Directed by Theodore Melfi. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Bill Murray, Terrence Howard, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd.
THE PLOT: Newly single mum Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves into a Brooklyn house with her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), and immediately catches the attention of her grouchy neighbour Vincent (Bill Murray) by accidentally damaging his property. When Oliver is locked out of his home, however, he calls on Vincent, and soon an unlikely friendship grows between man and boy.
THE VERDICT: Bill Murray seems to have a sense of humour about himself, both as a person and as an actor, and this – coupled with the knowledge that he made great friends with the young cast of MOONRISE KINGDOM – makes him the obvious choice for the title role of ST. VINCENT. Murray makes Vincent a man with a good heart, who is plagued by demons including grief and alcohol. The good heart remains, however, and it is through his friendship with Oliver, and his frequent visits to a patient in a nursing home, that the audience gets to see the softer, more caring side of the man.
Melissa McCarthy has spent a lot of time since Bridesmaids, creating kooky, larger than life characters on the big screen, with varying degrees of success, so thank god for her role in ST. VINCENT. McCarthy gets the chance to tone everything right down, and to play a woman that we recognise on screen. McCarthy is warm and relatable on screen, and brings her strong on screen presence and charisma with her. Jaeden Lieberher is warm and sweet as Oliver, and it is through his eyes that we see the world, and the spark of kindness in Vincent. The chemistry and connection between Lieberher and Murray is wonderful, and together they form the emotional heart of the film. Elsewhere, Naomi Watts turns up as a mouthy and gruff but caring stripper, and Chris O’Dowd plays perhaps the best on screen teacher since Robin Williams in DEAD POETS’ SOCIETY.
The story, written by Theodore Melfi is one that immediately feels familiar, as though we have been down this road many times before. That said, for all the films’ predictability, it still has some surprises to offer, and makes up for the familiar ground it treads through wonderful on screen chemistry, touching dialogue and laugh out loud scenes. As director, Melfi allows Murray and Lieberher to rule the screen, and coaxes strong performances from his entire cast, even those with the smaller roles. There is something of GARDEN STATE, THE STATION AGENT and IS ANYBODY THERE? about ST. VINCENT, which makes it familiar, but it’s a treat nonetheless.
In all, ST. VINCENT is a familiar film, but a sweet, heartwarming and surprisingly funny one. Bill Murray shines, as is his wont, and a star is born in young Lieberher. Theodore Melfi directs competently, and has created a familiar, warm and safe world for the film.
Review by Brogen Hayes