Review: ‘Red’

Promotional stills from upcoming movies rarely attract major attention; certainly none as much attention as the one released back in the summer of Helen Mirren, pristinely dressed in a dove-white dinner dress, manning a huge .50 calibre chain gun. Few images are quite as deliciously incongruous as seeing the highly acclaimed Dame operate heavy artillery to promote the forthcoming action flick Red, and the collective interest was heightened in learning that she would be ‘running and gunning’ alongside fellow Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, acting legend John Malkovich and, in the lead, the king of action, John McClane himself, Bruce Willis. Justifiable excitement followed.  Surely the casting coup of the decade? A fine action movie, we might reasonably expect, was bound to follow.

Unfortunately, the casting is perhaps the best aspect of Red, at times a middling sort of action movie which never utilises or challenges the megastars it so grandly parades. Yes, it’s fairly entertaining to see the decorated actress who portrayed our Queen come out with lines like “I take a few contracts out on the side” (as in, you know, killing contracts). But having semi-legendary actors do wild action nonsense is a gimmick that cannot carry a film.

It doesn’t help that Bruce, for all his action stripes, does look a bit tired. Fighting scenes aside, he hardly looks like he’s trying. It’s the same Bruce we saw in Die Hard way back in 1988, and in the myriad of sequels that followed (and continue to follow – a fifth is on the way). It’s action Bruce. It’s heavy grimacing, wise-crackin’ beefcake Bruce, ticking all the same boxes as before and having the scenes stolen from under his nose by the great cast that surrounds him, including love interest Mary-Louise Parker. He’s good, but only because it’s the only thing he seems to do anymore.

Director Robert Schwentke, who spent his last film watering down acclaimed novel The Time Traveller’s Wife into an overly sentimental romantic drama, here waters down Warren Ellis’ dark and bloody comic book into something considerably lighter and hammier. Clearing aiming for that lucrative PG-13 rating, Schwentke plays for laughs as best he can, and not always hitting the mark – the always great Malkovich is badly wasted as the comic relief. Schwentke’s action scenes, meanwhile, are unaccomplished – the best bits, such as Bruce leaping madly out of car whilst shooting in slow motion, can be found in the trailer. We are treated to plenty of energetic fighting and explosions, but moviegoers have come to expect more from action flicks than just stuff blowing up.

Elsewhere, it’s merely Bourne-lite, a standard CIA yarn with numerous references to how our heroes are ‘the best of the best’ who will ‘stop at nothing’, etc. Perhaps the screenplay was written as satire but that part was forgotten along the way; how else can you justify non-ironic concluding lines like “it all worked out in the end!”  Red is a mildly diverting couple of hours, better suited to idle watching on a DVD than forking out a tenner on a cinema ticket. It’s a good laugh, but I’d hesitate to call it a good film.

A version of this article originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com

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Music preview: The Bad Shepherds

Adrian Edmondson made his name as the psychopathic punk student Vivyan in classic eighties sitcom The Young Ones.  These days, in a neatly cyclical turn of events, Edmondson is touring with his band The Bad Shepherds to perform energetic folk covers of classic punk songs, with a date this evening in W12 – proving, if nothing else, that even violent maniacs like Vivyan can mellow in their old age.

What does seem like a somewhat gimmicky premise actually works pretty well – the translation from angry electric guitars to spirited acoustic ones is fairly effective.  Edmonson suggests that punk “was the folk music of its day” and it’s hard to argue when you can expect cheerful acoustic versions of ‘Teenage Kicks’, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and a Ramones medley.  Edmondson’s roles are listed as ‘Vocals/Thrash Mandolin’.

As you might imagine, it’s all tinged with a layer of irony, but unlike other actors recently foraying into music (hello Tim Robbins) this particular foray boasts a real musicianship, solidified by established folk musicians Troy Donockley, Andy Dinan and Ella Edmondson joining Ade on stage, and a heavy touring schedule behind them, including a well-received Glastonbury appearance last summer.

Tickets are just about still available for the gig tonight at the Bush Hall; expect to stand shoulder to shoulder with a mix of ageing punks, real ale fans and curious musos in what promises to a be a quirky and different way to spend your Friday evening.

A version of this article originally appeared on Londonist.com

Review: ‘Not Going Out’ Season 3

In the final episode of Not Going Out’s third season, now out on DVD, the BBC1 sitcom lands a special guest star to play the lead character’s long lost father: Bobby Ball.  It speaks a great deal about a programme that its creators would look to seventies teatime stalwarts Cannon and Ball as inspiration, let alone as a choice of guest star.  Perhaps it is a comfort to some that this brand of bland, old-fashioned comedy still has a place in our television schedules amongst edgier, more modern fare like Peep Show or The Office.  Such comforts do not make sitting through a whole season of cheap puns and cheeky put-downs while a BBC audience politely chuckles any more entertaining or any less exhausting.

At best, it’s a mixed bag.  The show has a Seinfeld-y premise – a bunch of mates get into capers – and stars Lee Mack and Tim Vine, ostensibly playing versions of their stand up personas (as with many US sitcoms, they share their characters’ names).  Mack is the cheeky northerner, Vine the posh bloke with the penchant for one-liners.  On a stage each are a master of their craft. Within the confines of BBC1 primetime and its conventional three-wall multi-camera studio-audience setup, the humour is toned down, the madcap situations more implausible, the hit rate considerably lower and the groan rate considerably higher.

Occasionally they’ll strike gold with some rather deft wordplay – “He had a tough life – he had to go down the mine at 11.” “11? That’s a lie in!” – but for every decent line of dialogue, there’s ten lame ones, e.g., “You know that expression ‘be yourself’? Well, don’t.”  The studio audience laugh, irritatingly obediently, even at such toe-curlingly vapid writing and hammy delivery.

That’s not to say it won’t please anyone – broad humour is broad for a reason, and the BBC has made an unusual U-turn in cancelling the show only to commission a fourth season, signalling that there must be a willing audience out there.   But sitcoms of this genus seem almost unpalatable in a comedy landscape where shows like Peep Show and The Inbetweeners rule the roost.  And Graham Linehan’s excellent The IT Crowd has proved that the old-school studio format can still work if the characters are strong, the plotlines clever and the jokes funny – a formula severely lacking here.

Not Going Out has a wealth of writing talent behind it who, like Mack and Vine, are wonderful, well-respected stand-ups, among them Simon Evans, Milton Jones and Andrew Collins.  But they cannot bring to life a show which brings no spark to a tired old format, and which offers no unique reason why any potential viewer should not indeed go out, instead of watching this rubbish.

DVD Extras

Conversely, the single DVD extra (aside from a trailer) is often funnier and more entertaining than most of the episodes on these two discs.  A thirty minute behind-the-scenes look at the various locations shoots provides an interesting, laid-back look at the cast and crew’s habits.  Unrestricted by their lame scripts, Mack and Vine show themselves to be a giggly, chummy pair who enjoy each other’s company.  Mack in particular is hugely entertaining, letting loose with his quick-fire wit on all manner of targets in an effort to avoid boredom on set.  Citing budget cuts and wielding a torch, he claims at one point “I have to do my own lighting.”  You only wish they’d written a show as funny as this.

A version of this article originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.

Review: ‘Modern Family’ Season 1

Now here’s a surprise: a schmaltzy US family sitcom which is actually rather funny.  The first season of Modern Family has arrived in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD (after relative inexposure on Sky1) and the wind of audience and critical acclaim on which is rides is not entirely unjustified.

A family-based sitcom is hardly an original idea, and Modern Family will win no points for brave new ideas.  Most of these 24 episodes feature familiar sitcom conceits – comedies of error, awkward misunderstandings, the eternal need for some sort of feeble life lesson.  Nor is it entirely brave, style-wise, though its fly-on-the-wall mockumentary format might suggest so.  Taking its cue from shows like Arrested Development and the US version of The Office, creators Chris Lloyd and Steven Levitan go for realism, incorporating faint elements of postmodernism.  All the while, however, they retain trad-com sensibilities content-wise, never broaching anything especially controversial or radical.

What it will win points for is how genuinely, consistently funny it is.  Boasting a writing team with Frasier, King of the Hill and The Larry Sanders Show on their collective CVs, Modern Family has the comedy chops to keep you watching.  Some splendid writing is on show here, observing the complex relationships between relatives and the foibles of parenting with confidence, pace and intelligent repartee.

And though the comedy is fairly old-fashioned, the ‘sit’ part of the ‘com’ is appropriately modern.  Yes, there’s the nuclear family of Claire, Frank and their three kids, but then there’s Claire’s father, Jay, who has remarried Gloria. a sexy young Latino wife with a 10-year-old son.  And then there’s Claire’s gay brother Mitch, who has just begun a thoroughly modern family with his partner, Cam, and their adopted Vietnamese baby, Lily.

All this provides a rich source of conflicts and capers, buoyed by a terrific ensemble cast.  Easily the highlights are Mitch and Cam, played with a wonderful gusto by Jesse Tylor Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet respectively.  Gay television characters always walk a trepidatious tightrope between realistic portrayals and camp stereotypes, and while there are more than a few scenes of histrionic outbursts – neither characters are prone to hiding their emotions – they do so with warmth and charm, making them utterly convincing.

They’re also by far the funniest characters on the show.  Their combined penchant for melodrama is never more attuned as when they accidentally lock their daughter in the car, and while Cam wails to the emergency services that “people are judging us,” Mitch grabs the nearest bin and screams “I’m going to smash the window” in a way that the phone operator believes is a woman’s voice.

With a sometimes patience-wearing 24 episodes, Modern Family occasionally drags with filler episodes; and the soppy, incessant moral lessons that American networks insist on ending all sitcom episodes with always sits less comfortably with the more cynical, pessimistic viewers this side of the pond.  But on the whole, it’s a treat – warm, funny, painfully well-observed.  And with the second season just starting in the US, the best could still be on the way.

A version of this article originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.

Review: ‘Takers’


Ocean’s Eleven meets the Italian Job in Los Angeles” would be the one sentence pitch for Takers, a heist movie with an emphasis on style which possesses just enough charm and action to hold focus for its duration.  As the singularly rubbish title suggests (surely there are better synonyms for ‘criminals’…?), we follow a crew of ‘takers’, high class crooks who make their living through fastidiously well-planned bank robberies.

It would seem this group (among them, Paul Walker, Hayden Christensen and The Wire’s Idris Elba) are pretty successful at doing what they do without getting caught, as they all live in stunning luxury rooftop apartments with swimming pools overlooking the glistening LA skyline.  They wear sharp designer suits, drink expensive whiskies and attend exceedingly sexy parties populated by attractive young people and extensive mood lighting.

Truly, the professional criminal’s life is one to be envied. But a spanner is thrown into their collective works in the form of former cohort Ghost (played by rapper T.I.), just out of prison, who approaches his old gang with a proposal for a big job. The group are reluctant – Ghost is something of a wild card, and perhaps they needed to lay low – but accept, observing that “you gotta think big to win big”.   In other words, it’s One Last Job.

On their tail is tough, uncompromising detective Jack Welles (Matt Dillon), from the John McClane school of cops: hard boiled, gruff talking, comes into work hungover, has a problem with authority, estranged from his wife, spends his Sundays driving around with his daughter chasing perps.  If anyone is going to catch these assholes, it’s this guy.

The scene is thus set for a high-octane cat-and-mouse game as the team plan and execute their big score, to varying degrees of success, and LA’s finest keep the heat on them, to varying degrees of success.  Indie director John Luessonhop, meanwhile, makes a conscious effort to provide a fresh approach to an old format – with varying degrees of success.

Luessnehop keeps things visually interesting, using a bold, colourful palette, a brave mix of dizzying camera angles and close-ups, and some well directed action scenes with a whizz-bang pace. Gratingly, some of the slow-motion gun battles have the music faded up and the sound effects down, Platoon-style, and too often Luessonhop falls into the Guy Ritchie trap of favouring style too heavily over substance. And where there is substance, it’s rehashed.

At times it’s glaringly derivative.  A line of dialogue from one of the crew namechecks The Italian Job as inspiration for the heist, presumably in an attempt to avoid lawsuits – some sequences are surely tantamount to plagiarism.  Key components of the big plan are shamelessly copied from the 1969 British classic, including the fiddling with the traffic lights tactic.  (As if the Mark Wahlberg remake wasn’t painful enough.)

And though Takers demands to be taken seriously – note the distinct lack of witty one-liners, a sensible move – there are still some rather ludicrous elements to it.  Matt Dillon is a fine actor, but his badass cop schtick couldn’t be more archetypal.  The ending is unsatisfactorily, needlessly inconclusive, and this must be the third or fourth movie released this year to feature Russians as bad guys. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable romp, cocksure and visually assured, and though it offers little new to the overcrowded heist-movie table, Takers can’t be accused of being boring.

A version of this article originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com

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