Reviews – New movies opening March 14th 2014

We review this week’s new cinema releases, including UNDER THE SKIN and VERONICA MARS…

THE ROCKET (Australia/Thailand/Laos/IFI/96mins)
Directed by Kim Mordaunt. Starring Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Suthep Po-ngam, Bunsri Yindi, Sumrit Warin, Alice Keohavong.
THE PLOT: After big business announces that the next phase of their dam development means wiping out their small village, little Ahlo joins his loving mother (Keohavong), his stern father (Warin) and his superstitious nan (Yindi) on a journey across Laos to their reportedly brand spanking new housing development. One that boasts real walls. And a proper roof. And electricity. Only trouble is, the housing development isn’t quite ready, and Ahlo’s family – along with many others – have to live in a makeshift shanty town next door. Worse, on their way there, the boat that Ahlo insisted be brought along broke loose on a mountainside and killed his doting mother. Cue nan turning her belief that this surviving twin is a curse on the family all the way up to 11. It doesn’t take long for Ahlo to upset his fellow shantytown dwellers either, not least because he’s befriended little Kia (Kaosainam), niece to eccentric, James Brown-loving uncle Purple (Po-ngam) – who happens to be public enemy no.1. Until Ahlo tries to work his magic, that is.
THE VERDICT: A sweet, funny, uplifting foreign film with a cute and cuddly cast, this is just the sort of sun-kissed Benetton feelgood winner that makes Harvey Weinstein suddenly embrace a terrified PA. Despite all the misfortunes, and misery, and poverty, you just know early on here that this will all end in tears of joy. As opposed to the sort of tears that people facing this kind of hardship would usually end up with. But you forgive any sugar-coating director Kim Mordaunt sprinkles on this sad tale, comedy and caricature helping any bitter pills go down extremely easy before the big happy fireworks finale. Literally, in this case, but by the time everyone is high-fiving the sky, you too are going to feel like hugging the nearest living thing you can find. A big hit at the recent Dublin film festival thingy, this is a truly wonderful little film. 
Review by Paul Byrne 

UNDER THE SKIN (UK/18/108mins)
Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan, Krystof Hadek, Jessica Mance.
THE PLOT: A lone biker retrieves a woman’s limp body from a desolate roadside, but we soon see a brand new mute model being suited and booted. Later, Laura (Johansson) is driving through the streets of Edinburgh, tarted up in stonewash denim and leopardskin jacket, asking any lone man she can find for directions. Where to doesn’t seem to matter – it’s all about the conversation. And the flirtation. And Laura getting the guy back to her abandoned, isolated two-storey house. From where the horny young Scot will never return. As Laura goes about her task though, she begins to waver in her conviction, and decides to go AWOL…
THE VERDICT: There’s so much to admire about this film – Johansson’s bravery in not only letting it all hang out (and her all is surprisingly plentiful), but also for literally cruising for action on the streets of Edinburgh (hidden cameras and an 8-man crew in tow); the blackly-lit watery grave that awaits the unsuspecting men lured by this black widow; Glazer’s daring black hole of a storyline – but it’s hard to actually enjoy it. Certainly the first half hour is full of intrigue and chilly atmosphere, as you follow Johansson’s wide-lipped alien scouting for victims in her big, white, windowless van, looking and acting not unlike your average Ukranian sex worker struggling to survive in a new city. Once we get over the kills, and that strange, strained Haneke-meets-HAL hybrid of having a Philip K. Dick creation stranded in a Ken Loach movie, the thrill steadily fades.
Review by Paul Byrne 

THE ZERO THEOREM (USA | Romania | UK/15A/106mins)
THE PLOT: Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a computer hacker who has spent much of his life waiting for a phone call. At his request, the Management (Matt Damon) allows him to work at home, in case the call comes, but in his attempt to be alone with his work and his thoughts, Qohen finds himself connecting with the people the Management sends to help and distract him.
THE VERDICT: Gilliam has imagined the world of THE ZERO THEOREM as a retro-futuristic, brightly coloured madland, a weird futuristic setting that combines Steampunk and Dr Seuss into something completely Gilliam-esque. Christoph Waltz is wonderful in the lead role; he embodies the bewildered, warm and gentle character of Qohen completely. Qohen is as bewildered by the world as the audience is, and it is through understanding him that we understand the actions and universe of THE ZERO THEOREM.
Mélanie Thierry is a charming as futuristic cyber-slut who refuses to have sex, Tilda Swinton lays on the kooky as Dr Shrink-Rom, Qohen’s cyber therapist, Lucas Hedges adds to the oddness of the world as a boy genius who calls everyone Bob and Matt Damon channels his inner Jean Paul Gaultier/David Byrne/Philip Seymour Hoffman as the enigmatic and frustrating Management. David Thewlis plays Joby; a character as different from Qohen as it is possible to be. Joby accepts and flourishes in this mad world, as much as it bewilders and isolates Qohen.
The story is actually rather simple; Qohen is tasked with solving a computer riddle where 100% must equal zero, thus proving the zero theorem and proving that everything is worthless. The charm, however, lies in the fact that Qohen’s life – up to the point where he started work on the theorem – was basically proof that the theorem was correct, but as he works to prove the idea, he realises that maybe he was wrong after all. Of course, this being Gilliam, this realisation is wrapped up in reams of dialogue and personal quirks, such as Qohen referring to himself by the majestic plural.
THE ZERO THEOREM is as much a mess as we could expect from a Terry Gilliam film, but at the heart of it – when the heart can be found through layers of dialogue, quirks and kooky characters – this is a simple and charming story about companionship, friendship and acceptance of oneself. Perhaps one of Gilliam’s least accessible films, it’s best not to think about it too much and let it wash over you. It will come to you in the end.
Review by Brogen Hayes 

PLOT FOR PEACE (South Africa/IFI/84mins)
Directed by Carlos Agullo, Mandy Jacobson. Starring Jean-Yves Ollivier, Winnie Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Neels Van Tonder, Jacinto Veloso, Odile Biyidi, Pik Botha, Joaquim Chissano, Chester Crocker, Wynand du Toit.
THE PLOT: Having witnessed firsthand the volcanic conditions in his native Algeria that caused the 1945 uprising and that country’s independence from France nine years later, cigar-chomping commodities trader Jean-Yves Ollivier recounts how arriving in South Africa during the apartheid era felt very much like deja vu. He knew an uprising was just around the corner, and that it would be better to find a peaceful way for this inevitable change to come. Such as getting the iconic Nelson Mandela freed from prison. And so Ollivier set about becoming both instigator and mediator for the various warring factions involved to work out the details, his inclusion of other world leaders at the negotiation table adding weight and an international spotlight. Those involved in the negotiations here recount the near-misses and the giant leaps forward that went into finally getting Nelson Mandela released on February 11th, 1990, along with the sometimes questionable motivations. Including Ollivier’s.
THE VERDICT: A fascinating story that somehow makes for a so-so documentary. Which is either because directors Agullo and Jacobson don’t quite know how to spin a great yarn, or, more likely, the sheer complexity of South Africa during the dying days of apartheid are just too much of a clusterf**k for the traditional Hollywood arc. There was so much cruelty and so much politics to wade through in finally getting Nelson Mandela released that the mind boggles here – a lot – as those close to the battlefields recount their particular version of events. How to be sure of the heroes and villains in such a story? And it’s a question that’s been thrown at our protagonist too, the commodities trader who felt he could use his business contacts for good. And free up the market a little too, of course. This is a man who received twice received the highest honour South Africa could bestow upon him, once by the man who was determined to keep Mandela in prison, apartheid-era President P.W. Botha, and later, by the First President of the new South Africa, Mandela himself.
Review by Paul Byrne

Directed by Rob Thomas. Starring Kristen Bell, Krysten Ritter, Jason Dohring, Percy Daggs III.
THE PLOT: Nine years after she left Neptune, California, and her life as a private investigator behind, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is just about to land her dream job as a lawyer when a former schoolmate turned rockstar is murdered. It’s not before Logan (Jason Dohring), the boyfriend of the slain woman, calls up his old flame Veronica to ask for her help in proving his innocence, and Veronica is pulled back to her hometown, just in time for her high school reunion.
THE VERDICT: Kristen Bell reprises her role as the title character and brings Veronica back with the same sarcastic and irreverent attitude that she had in the show. Bell is also charming and warm and, even though some of the choices made for her character feel a little convenient, there is something endearing about seeing Mars back on the screen after such a long hiatus. Jason Dohring reprises his role as Logan and has great chemistry with Bell, Enrico Colantoni is back as Veronica’s father – although he has considerably less to do here than in the show – and brings with him his slightly awkward catchphrase ‘Who’s your Daddy?’. Percy Daggs III also returns as Veronica’s former best friend turned teacher Wallace and Krysten Ritter is back as Gia Goodman. Each of the cast members takes their character changes in their stride and it feels as though their return to the roles they once inhabited is like putting on a comfy jumper for the actors.
Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero’s story sees Veronica return to her old hometown and confronting the people and issues that she thought she had left behind. There is a definite sense of closure going on here as old enmities and friendships are rekindled, and Mars finds herself drawn back into the world she walked away from. There are plenty of callbacks and references to the original show to keep fans happy, including Mars’s infamous marshmallow line from the very first episode. That said, even though there is a quick recap at the start of the film, without ever having seen the TV show, there is little for you here in terms of emotional investment, as all of the issues that are resolved in the film feel flat without knowing more of the back story.
VERONICA MARS is obviously a labour of love for the cast and crew of the film, and there is plenty here for fans and casual viewers of the show. Those coming to VERONICA MARS for the first time, however, may find themselves a little out of their depth even though Bell is beautifully feisty and manages to catch the bad guy… As always.
Review by Brogen Hayes 

NEED FOR SPEED (USA/12A/130mins)
Directed by Scott Waugh. Starring Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper.
Tobey (Aaron Paul) is a mechanic with a passion for street racing cars. When a race goes wrong, Tobey is left to take the blame. Two years later, Tobey returns to the world of street racing to take the title – and a whole lot of money – the man who set him up.
THE VERDICT: The cast is made up of Aaron Paul as Tobey, the blue collar guy with something to prove, Dominic Cooper as Dino Bewster, the rich racer with too much money on his hands and Imogen Poots as Julia, the love interest. The film also stars Dakota Johnson, Michael Keaton, Rami Malek and Scott Mescudi. There is not much to say about the performances, except that each character has a plot point to fulfil, and each actor manages to stay within the lines of their poorly drawn characters. Delineation is not really the name of the game here, and at almost every point, we are waiting for Aaron Paul to shout something along the lines of ‘Car me, bitch!’, which would not have been that out of place.
The story is a classic local boy with a heart of gold seeking revenge against a smarmy git who made trouble. Writer George Gatins did not seem to be overly troubled with developing animosities or giving any of the characters a back story; instead we are thrown into this world at the deep end and, since it is so familiar, we get it almost straight away.
Director Scott Waugh seemed to be most concerned with the car races and chases, and even though these are moderately entertaining, we have seen these done better in almost any car chase movie you care to mention. There are some interesting POV shots though, and some lovely cinematography of the landscape, but this too has been done.
NEED FOR SPEED is an over the top film set in a world where the only way to settle differences is to race it out in expensive cars. That said, this is not a film that is designed to be anything other than pretty cars and pretty people, so in that respect it succeeds. It’s just a shame that this film, populated by good actors, has not got a cleverer story or a fresher take on the car chase movie.
Review by Brogen Hayes