Assorted Thoughts of a Salted Caramel...
Begin Again

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                                           End already…

Begin Again manages the rather curious feat of being both tremendously hateful and winsomely charming, all at the same time.

Down on his luck music producer Dan (a never-more-disheveled Mark Ruffalo) stumbles across maudlin songwriter Greta (the permanently pouty Keira Knightley) and sees a star in the making, not to mention his ticket back to the top. 

Not that it really matters as it’s all just a flimsy construct to allow John Carney to channel the indie charm of his offbeat debut, Once, into a musical love letter to New York with added A-list sparkle as Dan, Greta and a ragtag band of (prodigiously talented) musicians take to the streets to record an open air album. This is Begin Again at its best - every scene in which music is performed is at worst nice to listen to, and at best thrumming with a kooky,lovable inventiveness. The soundtrack is almost aggressively pleasant, all the more remarkable when one considers that Knightley apparently did all the singing. 

That said, the fun stops as soon as the music does. The two main characters are monstrously annoying for most of the film, so much so that the first half hour is more of an endurance test than a pastime. It beggars belief that a songwriter of any ilk, even the willfully bohemian Greta, would be so disinterested in having their music heard by an audience of more than one. I consider Knightley to be perpetually annoying at the best of times, but playing a maudlin, fastidious singer-songwriter, she is the absolute pits. Alongside Ruffalo, unfortunately excelling at playing one of the least likable lead characters I’ve seen in a film for a good long while, Begin Again turns into a grating experience any time they get to talk. 

Chuck in some underused gems (Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld), and an indulgent amount of pretentious music chat and it’s an engaging, frustrating chimera of a movie, like a unicorn-orc hybrid.

Begin Again soars whenever it sticks to showcasing one of the greatest cities in the world in the form of an extended music video for an album that just shot to the top of my purchase list. Just fast forward anything not featured on the soundtrack. 

Sharknado 2: The Second One

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                                        Great White squall

Like 99.99% of sequels, the ingeniously titled Sharknado 2: The Second One is (somewhat astonishingly) not as good as its predecessor.

Notwithstanding the airborne sharks (yes), flaming sharks (yes) and celeb munching sharks (oh hell yes), Sharknado 2 is, perhaps inevitably, a little too in on its own joke. Certainly, any movie in which real life meterologists give regular updates on the progress of said fishy weather front (in inches of sharks falling per hour no less) is clearly beyond parody.

It’s also beyond review (although not beyond reproach, the mortality rate of African Americans approaching 1980s levels of ethnic attrition). Suffice to say however that if you already want to watch Sharknado 2, nothing will dissuade you from that goal, and if you don’t…there’s nothing I can say to persuade you.

So keep your eyes on the sky and your tongue wedged firmly in your cheek and pray that someone, somewhere, is working on Sharknado vs. Giraffealanche

The Brass Teapot

                                           Lacking lustre

A hard up couple come to possess a magical brass teapot (go with it) that produces money in response to pain (stay with me) setting them on a dark path as they plumb the depths of their psyches to keep themselves in designer gear and McMansions.

Lead couple Juno Temple and Michael Angarano are commendably committed to the hit ‘n’ miss comedy drama that follows, but ultimately the film asks the audience to turn a blind eye to too many plot holes, while never having the gumption to take its premise to its darkly logical conclusions. 

Intriguing but fatally flawed.

Let’s Be Cops

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                               The Ronseal of summer movies

Requiring little explanation beyond its title and tagline, Let’s Be Cops is the ultimate Ronseal movie. Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr (familiar to viewers of New Girl or the infinitely superior yet sadly shorter lived Happy Endings) are two high school buddies who, through a sequence of coincidences and glossed over plot holes, end up pretending to be police officers and attracting the attention of a psychotic mobster. 

Clearly, plausibility is not high on the priority list but it’s a shame that writer-director Luke Greenfield didn’t have the comic prowess to ramp up the enjoyability instead. While the banter occasionally breeds a zinger (usually delivered by Wayans Jr - “I look like Danny Glover before he got too old for this s**t!”) Cops never makes the most of the easy chemistry or natural charm of its two leads. Notwithstanding the stand alone comic set pieces (involving a disproportionate amount of beating, teabagging and other physical humiliations for Wayans Jr) the movie sags for large stretches of its running time and never quite milks its premise as much as it should, namely like a dairy cow two days from retirement. 

Setting aside the unfortunate timing (although it’s interesting to note that if anything, Cops preaches a less militaristic approach to policing) Johnson and Wayans Jr are better than this film deserves. Still, it does at least serve as a decent if featherweight showcase for their metrosexual/manchild twist on the mismatched buddy movie.

Million Dollar Arm

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                                     Once Upon A Time Out…

It’s not for nothing that a live action Disney movie tends to go hand in hand with an impending sense of doom, but Million Dollar Arm is the House of Mouse at its animation free best. 

Million Dollar Arm has all the best qualities of its spritual and sporting precursor, 2002’s The Rookie. Based on a true story, it chronicles the attempt of struggling sports agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm, channelling a latter day version of his patented Don Draper) to bring baseball to India’s billion strong population by staging a reality contest to find the country’s first Major League Baseball star. 

Sweet, but not diabetically so, it breathes life into the clichéd “callow bachelor undergoes life changing experience with the help of his ragtag surrogate family” storyline. Resisting most of the celluloid sterotypes that creep into any film about India (MDA makes it beautiful and grimy in equal measure, avoiding over-saturated colours and seas of jewelled saris) it’s a gentle movie that doesn’t try to surprise and thus succeeds in entertaining.

It’s helped by Lake Bell’s beatific Brenda, the inevitable love interest for JB, not to mention charming turns by Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire), all the more impressive for being almost entirely in Urdu. Indeed, Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin and the Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi are almost sidelined in favour of their sub-continental co-stars.

Still, everyone plays their part splendidly, and however unlikely (given it’s a film about a sport that no-one outside the US, Cuba and Japan really gives a fig about), even this cynical old curmudgeon was warmed to the deepest cockles of my left and right ventricles by this gooey confection.

One to be enjoyed on rainy Sunday afternoons in perpetuity…

Hector And The Search For Happiness

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                             Happiness is…not watching this film.

Simon Pegg plays stuck-in-a-rut head shrinker Hector. As for the plot, well…see title. Abandoning long-term girlfriend Clara (an exceptionally unappealing turn from Rosamund Pike) to jet-set across the globe on a whim, Hector embarks on a fecklessly callow ‘research trip’ to try and find out what makes people happy. 

The whimsical promise of the first 20 minutes is soon jettisoned in favour of a series of trite, predictable and ultimately cloying conclusions via a series of fundamentally horrifying experiences. Exhibit A: when a prostitute is beaten and effectively kidnapped by her pimp in front of him, Hector appears to be more upset by the fact that the devastatingly attractive woman was paid to spend time with him, undermining his previously chipper conclusion that happiness might be ‘loving more than one woman’.

Indeed, if Hector’s search for happiness teaches us anything, it’s just how lucky some of us are to be afflicted by rich world problems (worst thing to happen to me last week, apart from this movie? Overcooked scallops. Tragic) rather than real ones like, say, forced prostitution. As he stumbles from continent to continent having brief encounters with everything from drug lords to paramilitary groups, the overwhelming message is that happiness is being able to catch the next flight out of whatever craphole a rich Westerner might inadvertently find themselves in. 

A shallow, witless waste of a film whose only redeeming quality is that it’s less (just) than two hours long. 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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    If only the title referred to the film and not just the character…

I would normally devote a great deal of time, effort and thought mulling the plus and not-so-plus points of a major summer blockbuster, but The Amazing Spider-Man sequel is so very much like the first outing in 2012 that I really can’t spare the time (particularly not with a broken hand and a subsequently much reduced typing speed). 

Suffice to say the best thing about the rebooted franchise remains the sparky chemistry between Andrew Garfield’s cocksure Spider-Man and the always delightful Emma Stone, reprising her role as Gwen Stacey. On the other side of law and order, Jamie Foxx (shock ‘n’ bore villain Electro) and Dane DeHaan (spoiled brat and erstwhile Green Goblin Harry Osborn) make do and mend with superficial characters. 

By the book action sequences, super villains fleshed out with all the care and nuance of a stick man sketch and the sort of ludicrous plot twists that would have been trashed had they shown up in the previous trilogy (Peter Parker’s father had a secret lair? A LAIR?!?!) mean that the only memorable moment of the film occurs near the end. While it packs a leftfield emotional wallop, it left me feeling bereft - not something I’m looking for from my popcorn movies as a general rule - and increasingly disinclined to bother with the third installment. 

Bring back Alfred Molina as Doc Ock and I might reconsider - until then, I can only hope that Garfield and Stone get to bring their sizzling chemistry to a movie more deserving of his cocksure charm and her retro brand of modern day moxie.

How To Train Your Dragon 2

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                       Hiccup gets his PhD in dragon training…

Proving that bigger isn’t necessarily better, the sequel to 2010’s animated sleeper hit swooped into town a few weeks early thanks to the cine-drought caused by the World Cup (which, as entertaining and dramatic as it’s been, is no substitute for the season’s usual blockbuster fare). 

Thanks to the lack of loose ends from the first film (Dragon trained? Check Personal growth? Check. Got the girl? Check…),  HTTYD2 opts to reset the environment. Hiccup is now a strapping 20 year old (you can tell by the animated designer stubble speckling his measurably squarer jawline albeit still possessed of Jay Baruchel’s charmingly squeaky vocals) and the formerly dragon fearing town of Berk is now a haven for the flying beasties. 

Cue: Drago (an impressively fearsome performance by Djimon Hounsou, although it’s a shame that the only ethnic minority in the village is a psychotic dragon hunter), a mysterious dragon rider intent on destroying or enslaving all dragons.

What follows is a mish mash of more personal growth as Hiccup shies away from his future as Berk’s next Chieftain and makes some improbable discoveries about his past together with an epic battle that starts to feel a little like the result of a brainstorming session aimed at dreaming up as many cool dragons as possible. 

Not that there’s anything much wrong with that - and to be fair, the film potters along nicely if somewhat aimlessly for an hour or so. The real flaw concerns a Significant Event that occurs about 20 minutes from the end of the movie. Despite being a life altering moment that proves vital to Hiccup and Berk it’s quickly and conveniently brushed under the carpet as the film canters to a close. 

Is that too much of a criticism for what is, after all, ‘just a kid’s film’? Personally, I would say not - just because it’s nominally aimed at children, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be well-crafted and consistent. 

But if you’re after a one off romp that, unlike its predecessor doesn’t linger much longer than the credits, then Dragon 2 will be right up your street. 

And I still really want my own Night Fury. 

The Nut Job

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                                       No nuts, no bore-y.

I went to see this in order to cheer myself (ok and yeah - because I like cartoons despite being far too freakishly old for them). Unfortunately, The Nut Job is so dull that the best thing about it is the Gangnam style shape throwing over the credits featuring an animated Psy as well as the full cast (an act of seeming randomness until the credits reveal that it was (co)produced in South Korea.

The plot (a marginally redemptive storyline involving Will Arnett’s scoundrel squirrel reluctantly agreeing to help save the collected critters in the local park by pulling off a daring heist at a local nut retailer) is almost instantly derailed thanks to a tedious and broadly unnecessary human interaction with a bunch of scheming bank robbers. The resulting sub-plot goes nowhere for 70 minutes before becoming a clunkily essential part of the haywire denouement.

Quite apart from the story, the animation is - jerky and at times barely above the quality of a weekly budget ‘toon being churned out by Nickleodeon - at times unforgivably poor. The voicework is passable, with Brendan Fraser infusing his delusional alpha squirrel the most gusto, but the script is so dire it’s difficult to tell half the time, and the other half I just spent wishing the cast of pathologically unlikable creatures (with the exception of Maya Rudolph’s ridiculous pug) would end up as roadkill. 

Tedious with a wafer thin plot, stretched even thinner by the excessive seeming 85 minute run time, if you want a wild-critters-fending-for-themselves-over-the-winter movie, go back a few years and check out the vastly superior Over The Hedge. But should you be desperately seeking a deliberately annoying cure for insomnia - this is your film.

The Internship

                                   Google for Dummies

Out of a job in a digital economy that laughs in the face of interpersonal skills, newly unemployed salesmen Nick (Owen Wilson) and Billy (Vince Vaughn) blag their way into a Google internship for which they are comically (and I use the word advisedly) ill-prepared.

Not quite as mindnumbingly stupid or painful to watch as the original reviews (and trailers) implied, The Internship is actually a sweet film, one that should bring a little succour to those of us with socks older than the average Google employee. 

Sadly the film is infested with narratively essential but utterly implausible flaws, not least the willful ignorance of its two leads, with references to putting things ‘on the line’ and an apparent inability to use (or own) a computer, smartphone or anything made after 1998, including Google itself. And it’s a shame they don’t make more use of the host of comic talent orbiting the fringes of the movie.

Still, even if Vaughn and Wilson don’t quite bring the chemistry (or the acerbic smarts) from some of their previous collaborations, they do manage to reheat the same old schtick with warmth and a slacker charm alongside their adorkably fresh faced co-stars. Harmless, feelgood fun…if you can pretend you’ve never used Google before.