Monday, 23 May 2016

My King / Mon Roi Review ( Starring Vincent Cassel)

There is a creeping sense of familiarity when watching Mon Roi, a drama that examines the complexity of the relationship between a husband and wife over ten years. Luckily though, Mon Roi never feels like ten years to watch, and in detailing the ups and downs of a modern marriage, it demands attention throughout. You can always depend on Vincent Cassel for a terrific performance and Mon Roi may just be one of his best yet, even to those with extraordinarily high expectations of the actor.

Mon Roi tells the story of the turbulent relationship of Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel), as Tony reminisces on the high and lows of her marriage while recuperating at a physiotherapy facility with a broken leg. The pair meet (in flashbacks) after Tony has already freed herself from one previous marriage, and Georgio’s charm and charisma win her over easily. Much to her brother’s vocal disapproval, Tony and Georgio fall madly in love, marry and have a child together. While in the present, Tony makes slow progress in getting her leg working again, she looks back at what went wrong in her marriage and reflects on the love she may still feel for Georgio.

Mon Roi means My King and it is an apt title for this story of one woman’s inability to move on from the problematic love of her life. Tony can be a frustrating character for not being able to see Georgio for what he truly is, and for constantly ending up back in his bed, even after it is clear he is an arch manipulator. The strength of Mon Roi lies in making Tony sympathetic throughout, even if she does make some poor decisions. Her love for Georgio is unquestionable and to writer and director Maiwenn’s credit, it is almost completely convincing that Tony would keep coming back for more from Georgio.

Vincent Cassel’s perfect performance is fearless in its deconstruction of this character. Cassel excels at the beginning of the film, showing exactly why Tony would fall in love with Georgio. He is funny, successful and devoted to Tony; that is until one of his exes slits her wrists and cracks start to develop in their relationship. Cracks become fissures and soon, with a baby on the way, the compatibility of these once joyful lovers is called seriously into question.

Cutting back and forth between the past and present makes Mon Roi a well-paced and involving drama at just over two hours in length. The scenes of Tony having physical therapy are quick and concise, until later in the film when she develops some friendships with the other patients with leg injuries. Director Maiwenn flits through the relationship; it’s like having a peek inside Tony’s memories as she attempts to heal her leg and her heart. Watching these characters grow, and more worryingly, repeat their same previous mistakes again and again is never a chore. The concern for the child growing up between them is felt more keenly as the film progresses, especially as it becomes clearer just how calculating and cold Georgio can be. It’s impressive that Cassel manages to keep his character from being utterly and irreparably infuriating.

The flawed characters make Mon Roi very convincing. This is a relationship plucked straight from the real world and by the conclusion, Maiwenn's story has a brief but potent tug at the heart strings. In a final scene of the film, her direction, the cinematography and Emmanuelle Bercot’s terrific performance culminate in a heart wrenching moment of clarity. The message is clear; you cannot choose who you fall in love with, though life could be so much simpler if only there was an off-switch for these feelings. It’s not an outstanding film but it packs an emotional punch without resorting to tragedy.

Watch the trailer:


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

A Night in the Woods DVD Review

Fed up of found footage films?  Wish they would just stay lost in the woods?  Well this British Blair Witch from director Richard Parry isn’t going to do much to get you back on board as it’s more likely to leave your stomach churning from another shaky-cam extravaganza.  

That said, if you enjoyed the last couple of Paranormal Activity films or any other number of lazily shot and scripted found footage horrors from the atrocious The Devil Inside to 2010’s marginally better The Last Exorcism, you could do worse than this well-acted little shocker.

While A Night in the Woods adds nothing to the already saturated found footage sub-genre like, say, the super powered capers of Chronicle, it does have a vaguely interesting threesome of lead characters, admirably played by capable actors who improvised much of the dialogue.  We first meet brash American Brody (MonstersScoot McNairy) and his beautiful British girlfriend Kerry (Anna Skellern) as they prepare for a camping trip to Dartmoor’s Wistman’s Woods, stopping off along the way to pick up Kerry’s cousin Leo (Andrew Hawley).

The character dynamics are the most interesting element of the film and it feels as though more thrills, twists and turns and a far greater sense of dread could have been gleaned from the odd love triangle that develops between a boy, his girl and her cousin.  Yes that sounds weird but there are surprises in store as to the motivations of some of the characters and even who one claims to be.
Brody is amiable and amusing as the American belittling Britain’s Stonehenge in favour of his own country’s Grand Canyon and taking an instant dislike to the lothario Leo for reasons that become increasingly clear.  But as the woods grow darker and the night gets longer, it is clear that Leo isn’t the only one with things to hide.

The found footage technique is justified continuously by dialogue between the characters.  Kerry complains about Brody’s need to film everything.  Leo has even brought his own camera along for the trip allowing perspective to shift between the two characters’ cameras and finally to Kerry as she takes one of the cameras herself.  They watch previously filmed footage on laptops and an iPod, giving the film a clever way of showing revealing flashbacks about the characters.  It has to be said that this is actually not a bad looking film (for found footage) with the opening half particularly having some very attractive cinematography from DOP Simon Dennis.

It’s just a shame that it all descends into sub-Blair Witch running around in the woods, screaming hysterically, and getting bumped over the head by unseen forces, perhaps local legend ‘The Huntsman’.  These found footage films work best when a light on the camera illuminates the dark night, heavy breathing can be heard from the camera operator, and someone can be heard screaming in the distance. But when so many other films have done this to death, these scenes now drag and become quickly repetitive.  

It’s a blessing found footage films are so short as this one, like so many before it, fills most of the last twenty of its eighty minutes with shaky camera footage of the trees blurring past as a girl screams from behind the camera.  The first half’s interesting character relationships give way to something much less exciting but still a cut above many of the other found footage horrors of recent years.

See it if you like this sort of thing and you’re not looking for anything fresh, but if you’ve had enough of found footage, you’ll probably wish they never picked up the camera in the first place.

Monday, 16 May 2016

A Hijacking Review

A Hijacking. Not The Hijacking. This is not Hollywood and there is no pony-tailed Steven Seagal to save the day, no Tommy Lee Jones hamming it up as an unstable terrorist and not even an on-screen stunt-filled, action-packed hijacking. A Hijacking is so unlike a Hollywood style terrorists-take-a-boat action thriller, that it evens neglects to show the seemingly pretty damn crucial scene where pirates actually capture a ship.

This could be one of a thousand contemporary true stories. This is not the story of a hijacking. Rather it is an understated story of just another hijacked Danish ship, taken by Somali pirates in order to secure a large ransom.

The ships’ cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) is the focal point from the very first frame. But he is not a hero, or not in the typical Hollywood sense anyway. When Somali pirates board the ship, he is forced to continue his role as the ship's cook while being locked in a room with two crew mates, pissing in the corner and living in constant fear under the watchful eyes of the scrawny but well-armed pirates.

Meanwhile, back in Denmark the CEO of the shipping company is forced into tense and increasingly serious negotiations with the pirates and their head negotiator and translator Omar. Mikkel is occasionally dragged out of his hole to help with the negotiations, hoping simply for the chance to speak with his wife and young daughter and to eventually return to them.

Mikkel and his crewmates are not the action men of Under Siege. The CEO is no upstanding President desperate to do anything to get his boys back. A Hijacking feels frighteningly real throughout but not always because of the threats of the pirates. It is a modern tale of men in an impossible situation, negotiating for lives with vast sums of money but with little trust between each party. Even the Somali pirates are not cardboard cut-out bad guys, with odd moments of humanity in amongst the hard exteriors.

On board the boat, Mikkel and others are trapped and terrified. The stand off and negotiations take over 120 days allowing for plenty of time for their fears to fester and their hope of rescue to fade. There are rare glimpses of hope and even a potential bond forming between captors and captives. However these pirates are all business, as ruthless in their negotiations as any corporate big wig, just with the added bargaining chips of bloody great guns.

Whereas 120 days must seem an eternity to the men on board with pirates and the ship's crew alike all feeling cabin fever and wishing to go home, it flies by in the film. With regular on screen up dates announcing how many days the events have continued, the tension mounts as the negotiations continue and emotions escalate.

Families of the men left back home are rarely brought in to the story. Writer and director Tobias Lindholm's script rarely deals with straight forward, out in the open emotions. Crying wives and children feature far less than the cold and calculating men in the boardroom, negotiating the release. Søren Malling is magnificent as the under siege CEO, Peter who puts himself in the position of most power but also most pressure. An efficient and determined businessman, he ignores advice to bring in a negotiator and handles the communication with the pirates and Omar all himself.

Lindholm's script is sparse in terms of character motivation, back-story and depth. It is like a documentary that only captures fleeting moments over the 120 day stand off. Mikkel has a wife and child who he wants to get back to. The Somali pirates want money. They are thin, scruffy, armed and dangerous and presumably desperate. Why CEO Peter wishes to take on these toughest and most critical negotiations of his life is unclear.

That said, all the characters are completely believable. Their emotional ups and downs are convincingly realised by an excellent cast, including Gary Skjoldmose whose real life experience of dealing with pirates bled into his role as negotiating consultant Connor Julian. It is a testament to the reality of the script, shooting style and performances that the boardroom scenes are as thrilling and tense as the scenes on board the boat where guns are actually being put to heads.

The negotiations can be frustrating and the back and forth phone calls and faxes are both full of drama and down played. The skill of the negotiators and the seemingly cold efficiency that they deal with the hijackers makes way for a more personal and increasingly emotional tone as the film continues. It is fascinating to see the toll that the events are taking on all involved, from those on board to those in the safety of the boardroom.

The morality of all these players is never really dealt with. What is behind the motivation to negotiate? Is it simply to make both sides sweat on the way to a resolution? Is it greed, distrust or common sense? Risks have to be taken and the men with the money have to hold off paying up as long as possible. It really is an impossible situation but Lindholm's film captures it with all its moral complexities intact. 

A Hijacking might not have the explosive action its title might suggest in a Hollywood film but it has high tension, high drama and high stakes. Though it skips the actual moment of hijacking, it never flinches from the psychological repercussions on the main players. For the 120 plus days depicted, it is completely captivating.

A Good Day to Die Hard Review

Can it ever really be A Good Day to Die Hard? The problems start with the title of the fifth installment in the franchise, but they don't stop there.

John McClane is back and this time he doesn’t know Jack. That's not saying he is stupid, though his brash American ignorance does provide some laughs in this Russian-set sequel. Actually, his son is named Jack, and John has failed to get to know him in the past. Their father and son relationship is so strained that everyone's favourite NYC cop is not even aware his own son is working for the CIA undercover in Russia. McClane Sr. takes off to the mother country to help his wayward son out of what looks like a serious bind.

Very quickly things get back to business. The stunts are nothing short of spectacular. Vehicular mayhem on the streets is followed by shootouts and jumping off buildings that are wonderfully OTT, but once again prove in fine style how hard to kill the McClanes are. The persistent use of old school stunts and practical effects is admirable with every crash of cars and crash landing being bone-crunching and glass-smashingly brutal. That is until the last act ludicrousness that also blighted the last entry in the franchise shows up again in some CG-assisted madness that is simultaneously explosively entertaining and just a little too far over the top. It is a problem familiar from Die Hard 4.0 with that film's jumping-off-jet action requiring a reliance on CG rendering that is disappointing to die hard old school action fans.

However, most of the action is delirious fun and what we would expect of the franchise. On the other hand Skip Woods’ script must shoulder most of the blame for the shortcomings of A Good Day to Die Hard. While McClane gets to banter with his estranged son and raise the odd smirk, the character feels like a third wheel in the first half, supplementary to requirements and crow barred into the action carelessly. There is a silly last act rug pull and some clangers as the climax approaches, while McClane has lost much of his world weary wit that has made him such a fun character to watch in the past. The relationship with Jack shows promise with some fun banter between the pair but soon descends into cheesiness.

It is becoming increasingly hard to care for what the McClane's are fighting for. While money has always been a factor in the villains' plots throughout the franchise, the first also had a building full of hostages, the second had planes threatening to drop out of the sky and the third has schools full of children at risk, and therefore to care about. Crucially the fourth in the franchise failed to raise this level of threat and it is a similar problem in A Good Day to Die Hard.

While few will dispute that there was never a better day for this franchise to have died hard than after the towering success of the first film, many (including myself) will also defend the rest of the original trilogy for their further attempts to make McClane die in the hardest of ways. How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice, thrice, four times and now inconceivably a fifth time after all? Well the fundamental problem with particularly the last three in the series is that this is far from the same shit happening to the same guy again and again. In fact, starting with Die Hard with a Vengeance, John McClane's antics have been less and less constricted, the Christmas time setting was lost and much of what made the first film work was lost. Fans don't want too much originality from a sequel and McClane has never been as thrilling when he has a whole city to run around in.

The producers are very much like the villains of the series, dazzling audiences with spectacle while they secretly rob us of our money. Why a director like Moore and writer like Woods are hired for such a huge franchise is mysterious. Surely A Good Day to Die Hard should attract the biggest names in Hollywood, not the guys who brought us deeply average entertainment such as The Omen remake and The A Team film. Moore does a fine job and for the most part should be commended on his handling of the thrilling action sequences but the flaws lie mostly with the script. Those action scenes are shot and edited with a precision lacking in many modern action films but McClane's dialogue should be more fun than this. His repetition of certain grumbles is a constant limitation of the script.

A Good Day to Die Hard is incredibly short and feels it too. The running rime is brief compared to other films in the franchise and the pace is incredibly brusque. The set up is economical, the set pieces whiz by like bullets and before you know it the film is entering its final third with barely enough time to have reacquainted yourself with McClane or dug deep enough into the family history and reasons for John and Jack's hostility.

Die-hard Die Hard fans will, again, have to wince their way through the deeply saddening lack of bloody violence too. Again showing little respect for the fan base, A Good Day to Die Hard has been trimmed for a 12A rating and it definitely shows in places with a couple of climactic moments being surely snipped to appease the censors. It's not a family film so it’s deeply sad to see the scissors back at work.

One of the biggest problems with the film is the persistent musical refrains familiar from the rest of the franchise. While this wonderful music provides continuity through the series, it also emerges at pivotal moments and drags those of us far too familiar with the original film right back to the past glories and renders anything new insignificant in comparison. However a new generation not raised on the classic first installment will most likely find as much to love in this fresh entry in the franchise as oldies did in the first.

There is the temptation to hope for a sixth entry that can set the wrongs right and Willis and Fox will no doubt be all over it if this one makes a tidy enough profit. On the other hand, A Good Day to Die Hard is an improvement on Die Hard 4.0 and therefore it might be a good day to retire on a relatively high note. After all, a disappointing sixth entry might finally ensure that the franchise dies… hard.