Category Archives: New Releases

Youth by Paolo Sorrentino.


“I don’t use twitter. I’m a serious person.”

When thinking about Paolo Sorrentino I often want to use the word serious, and then stop myself. His films have a lightness to them, and even the darker moments seem elliptical. But when I came across this brilliant quote, I felt it gave me permission to consider him a serious man.

Youth does not, at first, seem to be a ‘serious’ film. A famed British conductor, Fred Ballinger, (Michael Caine in a Tony Servillo turn) is holidaying in the alps with his daughter Lara (Rachel Weisz) and best friend and filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Fred is being tempted out of retirement to play a concert for Prince Phillip, whilst Mick writes what he considers to be his last, and hopefully best, film.

But this is a Sorrentino film, and nothing is really about coming out of retirement to play a final concert; it’s about the intracacies and complications along the way. Sorrentino meanders through this loose narrative, contemplating life’s bigger issues,  peeking through windows and doors, and stopping to stare at whatever he considers beautiful or interesting.

Fans of La Grande Bellezza will find much to be enjoyed here, and whilst the sweeping Rome vistas have been replaced with the comparatively contained setting of a luxury spa, there is a similar tone of navel gazing and philosophising.

Like many of Sorrentino’s films we encounter a roster of characters, from the morbidly overweight Maradona to Boyle’s team of scriptwriters, two of whom are slowly falling for one another. Even these  minor characters – like those of ‘screenwriter in love’ and ‘girl screenwriter’ – have something more to them than their few lines or scenes allow – and it’s that feeling of an underlying depth and richness that makes all of Sorrentino’s films so pleasurable.

Michael Caine, who could be said to have played the same character in many of his films, puts on a performance of his career. Ballinger and Boyle are caught between the extensive successes of their past and the limited but crucial success of their future. There are many references to this impasse. Boyle tells his young writers to look through a telescope. He points out that the mountain appears really close, which represents the future. When he turns it around and peers through the other end, he says everything looks really far away – and that that is the past.

Whilst Ballinger and Boyle are preoccupied with a yearning for their youth, or at least what came with it, the film imparts a wisdom that is only really achievable through age. Youth doesn’t quite leave the same feeling of awe and sentiment that La Grande Bellezza impressed upon viewers, but that seriousness of Sorrentino’s, that explores birth to death and everything in between, is yet again communicated in the most beautiful, subtle, and comic of ways.


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The Change-Up

Hooking you with the opener, so you’ll head over to New Empress Magazine and finish it…

The ‘family’ genre is often one of nonconformity, a colourful mix where pretty much anything goes so long as it’s safe viewing for wee-uns. Silly concepts also tend to work in kid’s flicks – silly concepts like body swapping. Ticket sales for tween faves 17 Again and Freaky Friday are testament to the fact that a dubious product can work in the correct market. So, with a family un-friendly R-rating and no Zac Efron in sight, David Dobkin’s unimaginatively titled The Change-Up has already come a cropper.  Kids are certainly not welcome to this crude shell-switching scenario, which sees Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds playing for juvenile laughs in a film for the John Hughes generation who are yet to grow up………….

Read the rest here 

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Lucky McKee’s gnarly controversy, The Woman

The androgynously named Lucky McKee has a knack for turning seemingly ordinary situations into unexpected shockers, and often at the behest of a central female character.  In 2002’s May, so sick is the eponymous goth of trying to fit in, that she takes to meticulously sewing together her own best friend – comprised of the body parts of those who have wronged her. In a similar tableau of peculiar normality, Chris Cleek’s family live under his authoritarian gaze and an unspoken fear permeates the household. Similar to May, Chris begins a pet project of his own; rehabilitating a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) he has caught in the backwoods of the family property. As the family creak under the pressure of their new addition, the bubbling tensions erupt in a sickeningly satisfying finale.

If May was a heroine styled in the image of Carrie, then The Woman is a full out feminist revolutionary. On first appearance, through the telescopic sight of Chris’s rifle, the woman appears as a hulking untamed creature. Her plentiful supply of body hair and long unclean nails rail against the usual norms of femininity, standing in stark contrast to wife Belle’s petite apron-wearing frame. The children are clearly cast from the same dye as their parental other; only son Brian’s sociopathic behavior mirrors his father’s own misogynistic tendencies, and youngest daughter Darlin’ takes great joy from mimicking the domestic duties of her mother. But it is teen outcast Peggy, with her baggy unshaped t-shirts, defiant black hair, and pale features, which are more aligned with their basement visitor than either of her parents.

Bella’s conveniently turned blind eye is brought to bear, and the household is overturned in an exhilarating final sequence. Although tempting to share The Woman‘s gratifying ending, there is certainly a case for ‘don’t let anybody tell you what it is.’  The climax might be inevitable to some, but no amount of warning will quite prepare you for the graphic final sequence.  Following the Sundance premiere, a furious member of the audience  questioned what value the film has ‘for any person to see’. The Woman will certainly leave you with a reaction as animalistic as her appearance, but whether that reaction is tribal will probably depend on your assigned XY chromosomes. McKee’s nihilistic horror sometimes breaks into comedic melodrama, turning horror conventions on their head once again. In a radical reading, The Woman expounds a messianic tale of emancipation; of overturning a patriarchal rule which will only fester and trickle down the bloodline to start all over again.

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Horrible Bosses: Neither Horrible, nor particularly Boss

The moment Jason Sudeikis drops his bosses phone in Jason Bateman’s bosses house, potentially framing their superior’s in some sort of cocaine related triple homicide, it becomes apparent that Horrible Bosses could be a modern Hitchcockian cum Jerry Zucker hit. Instead, despite it’s robust premise of killing three villainous bosses, the film shies away from following through with it’s bombast concept. Any signs of a whip-smart conclusion fade with the general direction of the film. Suddenly it’s no longer about three men killing their bosses, but trying not to get killed themselves (it’s not as cat and mouse as it sounds, either).

The leads, although distinct enough in their comedic style and delivery, are all essentially playing the same character; working men at a middle-aged crossroads crisis, hampered by ‘the downturn’ (a requirement, apparently, for all male characters this year). Jennifer Aniston isn’t at all bad in her tête à tête with Charlie Day, but their excuse for giving up on murdering her is lazy (a quick shag with Sudeikis and her libido will be forever satisfied?) Kevin Spacey is at home playing the sadistic taskmaster in a breezily apt fashion, but much like his fellow bosses, lacks sufficient character development. Day provides the most laughs of all, if you’re partial to juvenile comedy, particularly during his coked up rendition of the Ting Tings. Bateman, as loveable as he might be, needed to stop playing Michael Bluth about four years ago.

There are enough risible moments in Horrible Bosses to keep it ticking over, but hopes for a satisfyingly smart crime caper are sadly spurious. The film’s whimper-not-a-bang resolution is worth sticking with just for Day’s closing monologue. The sharp cut to the credits leaves you on a high, helping you forget that you were mis-sold the film in the first place.

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The Conspirator

The true story of the trial behind Lincoln’s assasination is much more interesting than The Conspirator would lead you to think. This straight -played drama features James McAvoy as the reluctant lawyer to Robin Wright’s accused co-conspirator, who is willing to defend her family no matter what the cost. Redford might be able to line up a stellar cast (just see Lions for Lambs), but can he follow through this time?

The clunky edits and garrulous exchanges strip away any ardent feeling towards  Surrat’s plight, which is quite a feat given she’s the only likeable character in the whole thing. The sun-in-your-eyes shots are irritating, along with the rest of the garish cinematography, which pushes Redford’s ideology a little too conspicuously.  The actors have  no discerning chemistry, and it’s hard to take Justin Long seriously at the best of times, let alone as a post-Civil War hero. It all would have worked better as a courtroom drama, where the wiliness of McAvoy’s lawyer starts to shine, as does the talent of the very underrated Danny Huston.

The Conspirator has been regarded as a liberal assessment of civil liberties, but Surrat’s fate could also be read as a warning to those willing to sit on subversive knowledge. They are as guilty as those who commit the physical acts. Sadly though, such musings (which match Evan Rachel Woods’ perma-brood), are lost in the The Conspirator’s clomping drudgery.

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The Road to Stake Land

In Stake Land‘s opening exposition, likeable teenage slayer Martin loses his family to a universal vampire infection. Martin is saved by Mister, who slices and dices the fanged intruder in a fashion which suggests he’s done it before. The film quickly deviates from its generic start, and follows Martin on a coming of age journey to New Eden, a rumored safe haven. Stake Land follows on from the hybridism of other recent vampire films, such as Zombieland‘s dark comedy and Let The Right One In/Let Me In‘s drama, but the most unavoidable comparison comes from the adaptation of Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road. 

Where The Road’s title suggests an evasive stretch of tarmac leading from one unknown place to another, Stake Land informs us of a place which actually exists. What The Road can only imply about religion and humanity, Stake Land makes real. The films religious zealotry couldn’t come at a better time, as the commiserative Family Radio followers can catch a glimpse of their failed apocalyptic vision. The religious overtones are less hints than they are giant stakes  through the heart of the film. It’s game over for Kelly McGillis’ Nun when she casts aside her Jesus figurine, and Mister has his palms crucified by a wayward sect leader. Stake Land may satisfy with its preposterously brazen social commentary, but the ambiguity of The Road makes it an altogether more tangible prediction of our future.

Although Stake Land offers a nightmarish vision of the future, where anything is possible, pockets of society have jumped back sixty or so years. The women in the film have a limiting choice of either getting knocked up, prostituting themselves, or sewing on buttons. The twilight of Martin’s teen years are reached when he meets a prospective girlfriend to nurture, and a new journey begins. Mister is by far the most interesting character, a surrogate figure who eschews the role. In keeping with the religious meta narrative, he later proclaims, ‘I’m not your father.’

There are flickers of greatness in Mickle’s direction, particularly as the makeshift family arrive in New Eden and serenity shifts seamlessly into disorder. The nihilistic radio broadcasts (akin to the transmissions heard in A Texas Chain Saw Massacre) blend peculiarly with an Assasination of Jesse James style score, to create a dreamy soundscape which matches the dramatic surroundings. Stake Land‘s parabolic ambition might be easily apparent, but it is still a clever film, and the Ozark-esque landscape alone is incredibly absorbing.

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Still Hanging

Here is a just a small sample of my thoughts on the first Hangover, which can be read in full at my old blog.

The lovable nature of the original ‘brat-packers’ has transformed into something much more exposed; a fear of losing an innate male freedom which is under constant threat of a feminised attack. The Hangover doesn’t just fail on the misogyny front, there is also the fact that an overweight bearded man pretending to masturbate a baby, is humourously inept.

My vague justification for seeing the second feature follows my surprise enjoyment of Due Date, a film I’d previously cast aside as a similarly crass interpretation of the ‘modern man.’ Quite simply, The Hangover: Part II didn’t make me feel as angry about said interpretation. In a plot which signifies more a remake than a sequel, ‘The Wolfpack’ are (painstakingly slowly) reunited for another accidental night of depravity, with the added addition of Stu’s brother-in-law to be, Teddy. One Mike Tyson tattoo and a monkey later, and the trio realise that Teddy is missing. And so begins The Hangover: Part II‘s transition into Part I. Swap a baby for a monkey, a stripper for a ladyboy, and at times you’re on your way to a shot for shot remake of the first film.

Part II is an altogether darker film, and although the plot is splayed out in an obvious fashion, it’s an enjoyable ride. Zach Galifianakis shines in a script which is light on belly laughs, his camp physical comedy carrying the film, along with Ken Jeong’s hilarious Mr Chow. The film takes it’s time to build up even a moderate pace of humour, and any scenes which do sustain The Hangover’s reputation revolve mostly around jokes about the male genitals. High brow comedy this ain’t.

The sheer amount of scathing reviews for a film which so closely resembles it’s critically acclaimed predecessor, is baffling. To me it seems quite simple; if you were a fan of the debauched high-jinx the first time around, the Wolfpack won’t disappoint a second time.

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