Reckless (DVD Review)

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15 – 112mins – 2015


ELITE ENCOUNTERS

Belatedly released straight to region 2 DVD with an unremarkably insipid title replacing the US variant Zipper (oo-er!), The Conjuring 2‘s Patrick Wilson is perfectly cast in this intriguing highly erotic political drama inspired by a real life scandal as a professional man enticed into illicit affairs with a string of high-end escorts while congress remains in his wavering, once-focused sights.

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A Street Cat Named Bob (Cinema Review)

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12A – 103mins – 2016


A BUSKER’S BEST FRIEND

A drug addict shunned by his family and repelled by society, James Bowen’s inspirational transformation from homeless deadbeat to self-sufficient and employable home-owner is detailed in his bestselling 2012 biography, from which Tomorrow Never Dies director Roger Spottiswoode’s big screen adaptation gets its name.

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The Man Who Knew Infinity (DVD Review)

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PG – 108mins – 2016


GOOD WILL COUNTING

“Change, gentlemen, it’s a wonderful thing. Embrace it.”

Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel headlines this austere adaptation of Robert Kangiel’s 1991 biography of mathematical prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose pioneering self taught prime number theories see him admitted into Cambridge University’s Trinity College after growing up underprivileged in Madras, India.

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Joy (DVD Review)

12 – 124mins – 2016 


 

THROUGH THE WRINGER

“You can’t let the practical get you down…”

Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell reunites his hot-right-now headliners Jennifer Hunger Games Lawrence and Bradley Burnt Cooper for the third time in this enlightening biographical drama about a struggling single mother who overcomes the obstacles of her humdrum domestic existence to become a self-made millionaire in command of her own business empire.

I baulked at the horrendously slap-dash DVD cover when I first saw it on Amazon. For an Academy Award nominated film – for which J-Law won a Golden Globe for Best Actress – of this calibre to receive such a sloppy, lacklustre third-rate effort (it honestly looks like it was flung together in MS Paint in five minutes) scrambled my mind. However, such a cheap, no-nonsense aesthetic does in fact – whether coincidentally or not – perfectly reflect the humble homemade beginnings of Joy Mangano’s (Lawrence) Miracle Mop invention.

“I don’t want to end up like my family.”

But as inspirational as Joy’s determination to succeed in the face of constant upheaval, rejection and negativity is, Joy tries almost too hard to glamorise this very everyday industry success story. This is the “true story of a daring woman,” but Russell and fellow story-writer Annie Mumolo consistently inject Hollywood conventions into the narrative to spruce things up. So we have narration from Joy’s deceased grandmother (Diane Ladd), a non-linear plot structure (“Time moves forward, time moves backwards, time stands still”) and surreal soap-opera induced nightmare sequences.

While the road to commerce Queen is rocky, including back-stabbing, a personal meltdown and bankruptcy (“The world destroys your opportunity and breaks your heart”), the end result is a happy one. However the film delays its happily ever after until a brief epilogue reveal, instead choosing to focus on the negative, with the downtrodden mop-maker forced to reinvent herself like a phoenix from the flames following her lowest ebb.

“When you’re hiding you’re safe, because people can’t see you… But you’re also hiding from yourself.”

In outgrowing commerce giant QVC, Ms Mangano’s journey is certainly a motivational kick-up-the-arse for all those moaning layabouts who blame the world for their woes while sponging off of it. And yet, I still can’t completely scrub away the niggling smudge of doubt in my mind that maybe such a humble story isn’t powerful or dramatic enough to justify such sparkling, A-list treatment? It sounds harsh, I grant you, but then as Joy teaches us: so is business.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

The Conjuring 2 (Cinema Review)

15 – 134mins – 2016


 

PHENOMENAL PHENOMENA

Fast & Furious 7 director James Wan forwent the opportunity to climb back behind the wheel of the eighth big money Vin Diesel-lead car/heist ensemble in favour of returning to his beloved horror genre and reopening the case files of real life spiritualists Ed and Lorraine Warren.

With 2013’s retro-spooker The Conjuring earning big box office, high praise and a spin-off in demented doll origin story Anabelle (2014), and with the opportunity open for multiple ghost-hunting adventures, Wan reteamed Vera Farmiga (Special Correspondents) and Patrick Wilson (Insidious) as the husband and wife ‘busters and dived into their large backlog of chilling investigations.

Opening by touching on their most famous case (1974’s Amityville murders), this polished and effective sequel then jumps across the pond to a council house in Enfield, England in 1977 where a pesky poltergeist is giving harangued single mum Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children sleepless nights with many an unexplained phenomena – none more chilling than possessing the vocal cords of toothy middle child Janet (a standout performance from Madison Wolfe).

Wan’s attention to detail with the period dress is spot on, so too the overcast greys of lower-middle class Britain. He handles the notorious and well-documented case with aplomb, creating a near omni-tense aura of fear and getting effective scares out of toy fire trucks rolling across the floor and TVs channel hopping all by themselves – usually hackneyed genre tropes.

While the actual ‘haunting’ has been questioned and debunked by sceptics over the years (the sisters have admitted to exaggerating “2%” of the activity, while they were caught on camera faking one para-attack), Wan does a fine job of orchestrating the scares so that the Hodgson’s claims are open to opposition from the outside world. There’s no doubt in the director’s mind, however, that an inhuman presence is terrifying this poor family.

By tying the case so closely to demonic nun visions Ed and Lorraine are having while at home in Connecticut (convenient), the film’s veracity does start to wobble – especially when the activity is ramped up to shark-jumping levels thanks to some obvious CG ghouls, and the Warren’s are painted as the demon-defeating heroes in a story they were really only bit-part players in.

Nevertheless, The Conjuring 2 is still a superior spook-fest which had me properly jumping out of my cinema seat TWICE. True, the long runtime could be snipped to make for a more succinct narrative (the Amityville intro and scenes with the Warren’s underused daughter could easily be excised), but when a horror film is this good, I won’t denounce a bit of superfluous scene-setting – or Patrick Wilson crooning out an Elvis number.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

In the Heart of the Sea (DVD Review)

12 – 117mins – 2015


 

THE ONLY WHALER IS ESSEX

“How does a man come to know the unknowable?”

The answer to that question is to hound another man until he eventually relents and spills his darkest secret. This is the questionable journalistic technique Moby-Dick author Herman Melville (here portrayed by Ben Whishaw) employed to gain insightful knowledge on a nautical nightmare from haunted former Essex cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who survived a whale attack – and 90 days thereafter stranded at sea – between 1820-1.

“The courage to go where one does not want to go.”

Based upon Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 non-fiction biographical book of the same name, Ron Howard’s sumptuous maritime epic recounts the “cursed” whaleship’s woes, from their departure from Halifax dock to their sanity-straining post-disaster survival ordeal.

“Going fishing, are we?”

Benjamin Walker plays the Essex’s inexperienced-but-well heeled captain, George Pollard, who shares a fraught relationship with his “landsman” first mate, Owen Chase (Chris “The Huntsman” Hemsworth). Incompetent and fearful of being belittled by a lower rank – and class – Pollard blames Chase for the listing and eventual capsizing of their flame-engulfed vessel, dividing the crew when they must unite to stay alive on the Atlantic Ocean aboard mere rowboats.

There is a darkly humorous irony that the men who happily harpooned, gutted and physically crawled inside the head of a bull sperm whale in order to take home 2,000 barrels of whale oil, later find an albino of the same species getting inside their heads – albeit metaphorically – so convinced are they that the ”vengeful” whale is following them. If Jaws: The Revenge was set a century earlier…

“Where knowledge ended, speculation began…”

Oscar-winning director Ron Howard coats the screen in an aquatic grey/green sheen, delivering the requisite grit and grime of a less refined age, but overlaid with a misty-eyed gloss which distances the audience from the tension of immediacy. I can only presume that this often dizzying, foggy lens was a stylistic choice due to Thomas Nickerson’s storytelling aspect of the narrative.

Nevertheless, the portrayal of the giant “white devil” and the damage this majestic sea-beast bestows upon the ship and crew is breathtakingly realised, even if all along you know at least one member of the crew survives to tell Melville this inspirational story. As hunger and desperation overtake morality, the remaining crewmen have to make an unthinkable decision – and while this is implied rather than depicted (as it was in the BBC’s 2013 Martin Sheen-starring adaptation of the same book), their desperation is palpable, as is the castaway’s relief upon returning home to Nantucket after such a harrowing living hell on high water.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

Black Mass (DVD Review)

15 – 118mins – 2015


 

UNHOLY ALLIANCE

Based upon the 2001 non-fiction chronicle by former newspaper reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, a stellar ensemble cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson and Kevin Bacon all play second fiddle to a balding Johnny Depp in this often grim dramatization of the 1975-1995 criminal career of South Boston’s Irish mob leader, James “Whitey” Bulger.

Not since Public Enemies in 2009 has Depp had the opportunity to shift from wacky wally to wryly wretched, but Black Mass is just that solemn showcase. Portraying the feared and felonious Whitey, head of the Winter Hill Gang – and brother to Massachusetts State Senate President, Billy Bulger (Cumberbatch) – makes for a stark (and welcome) change of direction for the Hollywood heartthrob, who has made quite the name for himself playing camp and colourful extroverts.

Entering into a problematic devil’s deal with childhood pal and FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) to act as a “criminal informer”, Whitey believes that by getting the Feds to fight his battles for him and bring down the Italian mob, he will receive free reign to do whatever he likes. But the tragic deaths of his young son (Luke Ryan) and elderly mother (Mary Klug) pushes the infamous crime lord – and his ‘business associates’ – further down a dark path from which there is no immunity.

“It’s not what you do, it’s when and where you do it.”

Ostensibly comparable to last year’s Tom Hardy double-hander Krays biopic Legend (in theme if not in period detail), director Scott Crazy Heart Cooper instead avoids any whiff of grisly black humour here, playing this violent thriller deadly straight. There are attempts to endue Bulger’s wrongdoing with a maudlin rationale, but the steely-eyed and stony-faced gangster is too depraved to evoke compassion.

On the run for eleven years and only arrested in 2011, Black Mass’s persistently sombre and severe tone achieves the desired effect of painting the life of a “strictly criminal” felon as a despairingly lonely one.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars