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FILM REVIEWS: J

Contents

  • "J. Edgar"
  • "Jack Reacher"
  • "Jason Bourne"
  • "Jobs"
  • "Joe"
  • "John Carter"
  • "John Wick"
  • "Johnny English"
  • "Joy"
  • "The Joy Luck Club"
  • "The Judge"
  • "Julie & Julia"
  • "Julieta"
  • "The Jungle Book"
  • "Juno"
  • "Jupiter Ascending"
  • "Jurassic Park III"
  • "Jurassic World"
  • "Just One Day"

  • "J. Edgar"

    John Edgar Hoover founded the Federal Bureau of Invesgiation and led it in megalomaniac style until his death. This account of his career and speculation of his private life is a dark movie on so many levels. It deals with serious criminality ranging from mobsters to kidnappers to spies; it portrays a FBI that tramples over human rights and itself spies on citizens; it is a portrait of a man who effectively blackmailed presidents but hid his own sexual tendencies; and the whole thing is shot in bleached-out colours and endless shadows.

    It is an ambitious project for producer and director Clint Eastwood, who has tackled the bio-pic before with "Bird", and writer Dustin Lance Black, who scripted the bio-pic "Milk", since they cover the huge period from the Palmer Raids of 1919 to Hoover's death in 1972 in a series of flash backs involving multiple characters which makes it hard work for the viewer. Of course, it is an even tougher enterprise for Leonardo DiCaprio who has to portray the eponymous and complex FBI chief as he ages half a century. DiCaprio is a fine actor who has come along way since "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" in 1993 and he too has done the bio-pic thing before ("THe Aviator") and is quite well deserved by his prosthetics (which one cannot say for Armie Hammer as Hoover's No 2 at the Bureau Clyde Tolson).

    So this is a fascinating film but it lacks a narrative thrust and real drama or excitement.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Hoover click here

    "Jack Reacher"

    I haven't read any of the 17 Jack Reacher novels written by the British Jim Grant under the pseudonym Lee Grant, so it was no bother to me that the 5' 7" Tom Cruise did not match up to the 6' 5" character of the books. Whatever one says about Cruise, he is still looking good and has genuine star appeal. Writer and director Christopher McQuarrie has produced a fast and often violent film with implausible plotting but pace and verve. From the tense opening segment of a sniper attack in Pittsburgh, this is a work with style if little substance, aided by some good support performances from Werner Herzog and Robert Duvall. Like a Clint Eastwood character in the likes of "High Plains Drifter", Reacher appears from nowhere and disappears to nowhere, but Cruise and Child are no doubt hoping that this is the start of a new franchise and, in sheer entertainment terms, I wouldn't mind a return.

    "Jason Bourne"

    The three original Bourne movies - "Identity" (2002), "Supremacy" (2004) and "Ultimatum" (2007) - became bigger and better with the charismatic Matt Damon in the title role and, for the last two segments, the accomplished British director Paul Greengrass creating a brilliantly frenetic style of shooting. It looked as if the franchise had neatly run its course and those of us who loved the combination of Damon and Greengrass had the pleasure of "Green Zone" (2010). However, Universal studios needed to produce another Bourne movie if they were to retain the rights and offered up "Legacy" (2012) which, despite not having Damon on board, was surprisingly good.

    Menwhile Damon and Greengrass, who repeatedly said that they would never return to the series, found real-world events involving the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden so compelling that irrestistibly they have been drawn back together to give us a fifth film in the franchise (Greengrass also co-wrote the script). And it is vintage Bourne with the same winning ingredients: a variety of urban locations, insistent score, frenzied cutting, visceral action, long chases and a storyline that - while incredible - is disturbingly contemporary. The only reason it does not rate more highly is that essentially we have seen it all before.

    But there are fewer words from Bourne and there are some new characters who are well-played: CIA Director Robert Dewey (craggy Tommy Lee Jones), Agency specialist Heather Lee (the Swedish actress du jour Alicia Vikander), and "the asset" (French actor Vincent Cassel). And there are some new locations: riot-fuelled Athens (actually shot in Tenerife) and car-smashed Las Vegas. Matt Damon was just 30 when he first took on the role and he is now 45 but I wouldn't be surprised if he (and hopefully Vikander) are back.

    "Jobs"

    Mark Zuckerberg is to Facebook what Steve Jobs was to Apple - the college drop-out who became the founding genius of one of the absolute giants of the new information age, a brilliant mind, a compulsive personality and a ruthless entrepreneur. In the case of Zuckerberg, all this was superbly represented in the 2010 movie "The Social Network" - a work which set the bar really high for a bio-pic of an IT guru. I'm afraid that the 2013 "Jobs", while a workmanlike film, cannot compare. "TSN" had a bigger budget ($40M compared to $12M) but more importantly it had a much better scriptwriter (Aaron Sorkin rather than first-timer Matt Whiteley). The box office takings reflected the different budgets and talents.

    "Jobs" focuses on the early years of Apple, so we witness the Apple, Apple II and Mackintosh computers and the iPod but not the iPhone or iPad. And there is nothing about the man's illness and death. Instead the core of the movie is his expulsion from Apple in 1985 and his return in 1996. This makes for some drama but overall the film is slow and pedestrian compared to the pacing and excitement of "TSN". Ashton Kutcher is creditable in the lead role - he adopts the facial features and the gait of the man - and many of the supporting characters look quite like the real-life men (there are very few women around) that they portray, but much of the acting is as weak as most of the script.

    "Joe"

    In 1971, there was an American movie called "Joe" set in New York City and state in which a couple of ordinary 'joes' (one is actually called Joe), resenting the liberal society in which they find themselves, turn to appalling violence. Now (2014), we have another American film with the same title with a story that is almost as depressing and almost as violent as again a joe - both in character and name - finds himself turning to brutal action for what he judges to be a rightous cause. This time the director is David Gordon Green who films Larry Brown's novel in a very male, dirt poor, hard-drinking world around Austin in Texas.

    In a slow-moving and atmospheric tale, Joe befriends a 15 year old Gary who is abused by his drunken father. This is an outstanding central performance from Nicolas Cage who keeps his trademark histrionics under control here. But the two other lead roles are played by interesting characters. Gary is ably portrayed by young Tye Sheridan who, after both "Tree Of Life" and "Mud", is beginning to make a name for himself. Then the violent father is represented by a complete non-professional: Gary Poulter, a homeless man who died on the streets shortly after the film was finished. This is art imitating life imitating art.

    "John Carter"

    This is a film adaptation of a science fiction novel written by Edgar Rice Burroughs a hundred years ago. Was it worth the wait? Well, it has enabled state of the art special effects to be deployed in a movie estimated to cost some $250 million to produce and the creatures and features on display are impressive. I saw the work in 3D on an IMAX screen and, while I certainly felt part of the action, I can't say that the 3D added much most of the time.

    Canadian Taylor Kitsch plays the eponymous former Confederate soldier who suddenly finds himself transported to Mars - or, as the locals call it, Barsoom. In his previous film "The Bang Bang Club", Kitsch portrayed another character called Carter with long hair and a beard so maybe he just walked off one set and into another, although in this role he has extraordinary powers of jumping. Some of his co-stars - notably Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton - are unrecognisable since they play CGI-created aliens, while many of the others - such as Mark Strong, CiarĂ¡n Hinds, Dominic West and James Purefoy - are stalwarts of British cinema and television.

    There are three tribes on Mars: citizens of warring Zodanga and Helium, who inexplicably look just like humans, and the exceptionally tall, thin, green, four-armed Tharks who look like cousins of Jar Jar Binks from the "Star Wars" series (indeed so much of "John Carter" is derivative of "Star Wars", although defenders of the film will point that that the Burroughs novel long preceded the George Lucas movies). A fair bit of the time, I had no clear idea what these characters were up to and why but the whole thing was a visual treat that does not bear any serious analysis.

    "John Wick"

    James Bond, Jack Bauer, Jason Bourn, Jack Reacher, John Carter, and now John Wick - writers do seem to have limited imaginations when it comes to the names of their action heroes. JW is a retired assassin and we all know that, in the movies, it doesn't take much to bring a man with "a very particular set of skills" back into the game. Kidnapping his daughter usually does it but, if you want to be sure, kill his dog. This really makes Wick (Keanu Reeves back on cracking form) mad. Of course, we knew who the bad guys were even before their mistake with the mutt because they speak Russian and the subtitles are presented in comic book style to add to the fun.

    There's minimal plot but maximum action in this film directed by Chad Stahelski (Keanu's stunt double in "The Matrix") and David Leitch (another veteran stunt coordinator). Wick is not out simply to disable his foes but instead rarely leaves death in doubt and he is no silent killer but absolutely litters the screen in bodies in a riot of action and noise that somehow escapes the notice of the New York Police Department. According to those who count these things, the original "Taken" movie clocked up a body count of 35 but Wick racks up a much superior 84. I saw the movie on an IMAX screen so I was both shaken and stirred.

    "Johnny English"

    Mr Bean meets Mr Bond and the result is "Laugh Another Day". Rowan Atkinson can be very funny, as we saw in his 1997 beanfeast. The trouble with this movie is that, 40 years after the first 007 outing, Bond has been parodied to death. What was funny for 60 seconds in a television advertisement for Barclaycard cannot be sustained for a full-length movie and most of the jokes are signposted well in advance. Natalie Imbruglia gives the impression of having wandered off the set of an Aussie soap (what do you mean, she has?), while John Malkovich looks squint-eyed and affects the most appalling French accent, because "The Wonk Is Not Enough".

    "Joy"

    A movie written and directed by David O Russell and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper - a trio involved in the wonderful "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle" - is one to excite any cinema-goer and, as the cast list also includes such veteran actors as Robert De Niro and Isabella Rossellini, expectations were understandably high. But sadly the film is a disappointment and only the ever-watchable and immensely talented Lawrence in the central role ensures that it does not receive a more challenging assessment.

    The title refers not to an emotion but to a person, the American entrepreneur Joy Mangano. and the movie is a worthy attempt to show how women can be empowered and inventive if they pursue their dreams with passion and support. Perhaps any film about the design of a mop - even a so-called Miracle Mop that sold in huge numbers on the television channel QVC - was going to struggle to seize the emotions (after all, we are not talking about "The Social Network" and the creation of Facebook here). But the work suffers from an odd structure - there are early flashbacks and the voice-over is from someone who dies - and a weak script. So, really not much joy at all.

    "The Joy Luck Club"

    This is an ambitious and worthy film that unfortunately comes near to collapsing under the weight of its multiple storylines. Four Chinese women recall their brutal lives back in the feudal homeland and then their Chinese-American daughters are shown clashing with their mothers in modern-day California. Taken from the novel by Amy Tan and co-written by her for the screen, the movie tries to cover too much and as a result engages too little, although it is refreshing to observe a different culture and view new actresses.

    "The Judge"

    I'm happy to see my share of action-packed, effects-laden blockbusters, but what a pleasure it is to experience a film like "The Judge": a work that is character-driven, that has a fine script, and that boasts a cast list headed by two of the most distinguished actors of their respective generations. Robert Duvall is Joseph Palmer, the eponymous by-the-book judge, who has presided for ever over a court in rural Indiana. His middle son Hank, played by Robert Downey Jr, is a hot-shot, take-no-prisoners defence attorney in Chicago who is forced to return to his hometown when his mother dies.

    To say that the Palmer family is dysfunctional is an understatement. As Hank puts it: "This family's a fucking Picasso painting." But director David Dobkin, who co-conceived the story, and scriptwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque take their time with a slow reveal, only gradually sketching out the background of the Palmer family and associated characters. It makes for compelling viewing and, when the end comes, it is not one of universal happiness but it is up-lifting.

    Duval and Downey are terrific but there are also some excellent support performances from the likes of Billy Bob Thornton and Vera Farmiga. This accomplished work manages to be an examination of both a fractured family and a flawed legal system and is highly recommended.

    "Julie & Julia"

    Julie Powell is a New York blogger who in 2002 decides to write about how she plans to cook all 524 dishes in a famous American cookbook of French food over the course - sorry for the pun - of 365 days. She is played by the amiable Amy Adams. Julia Child is the larger than life co-author of the book which was published in 1961 after many years of effort only to become a US classic. She is portrayed by the wonderful Meryl Streep in yet another marvellous performance. Nora Ephron - who gave us "Sleepless In Seattle" and "You've Got Mail" - is both screenwriter and director.

    Now I know nothing about cooking, but I am both a blogger and an author so I could identify to some extent with the main characters can see how these true-life intertwined narratives could work well in writing (the blog actually became a book and the cookbook led to an autobiography) and indeed the movie frequently quotes from blog postings and letters. As a two-hour film though, there is simply not enough dramatic material or plot development to make a meal of a movie and the two hours rather drag.

    Links:
    Julie Powell''s original blog click here
    Julie Powell's current blog click here

    "Julieta"

    Gay Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar loves working with beautiful women and offers them some powerful roles. Here two wonderful actresses play the same eponymous character: Adriana Ugarte as the younger, more care-free woman and Emma Suárez as the older, grief-ridden mother trying to come to terms with the sudden disappearance of a loved one (the transition between the two is cleverly executed). Based on three short stories by the Canadian writer Alice Munro (which I have read), the narrative is transposed to Spain and this gives the viewer some wonderful colours and landscapes, but ultimately the emotions explored are universal.

    "The Jungle Book"

    When I offered to take my niece Saskia (almost 13) out for the afternoon, she suggested that we see the Walt Disney remake of "The Jungle Book" which was such a success for the company in 1967. It proved to be a splendid choice. Director Jon Faveau has produced a work to delight all ages. The film only has one human performer: Indian-American child actor Neel Sethi who is cute but otherwise unexceptional as the man-cub Mowgli. The real stars are the animals, who are brilliantly realised by superb CGI, and the well-known actors voicing the animals, including Idris Elba (Shere Khan the tiger), Bill Murray (Baloo the bear), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the panther), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa the snake) and Christopher Walken (King Louie the king of the apes). There are fewer songs in this remake (just three), but they include my favourite, "I Wanna Be Like You", and feature both in the narrative and in the credits. In short, a Shere delight.

    "Juno"

    An unusual title for an unusual movie but one that is an absolute delight. Juno is a 16 year old girl living in Minnesota, USA who is named after a Roman goddess and she is played by 20 year old Canadian Ellen Page in a wonderfully mature and quirky performance that achieved an Academy Award nomination. Early on in the film, she becomes pregnant and the rest of the story is how she - and her parents and the intended adopted parents of the baby - deal with the situation. J K Simmons, Allison Janney, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner bring real texture to the adult roles.

    The witty script is a cracking one and comes from Diablo Cody, a pen name for one-time stripper Brook Busey, and it won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Shooting was in and around Vancouver, standing in for Minnesota, and the tiny budget of US$6.5 million was recouped within three weeks of (limited) release. Personally I could have done without the songs from Kimya Dawson, but in fact the soundtrack was very successful in its own right.

    The director is Canadian-born Jason Reitman whose father Ivan directed such movies as "Ghostbusters".

    "Jupiter Ascending"

    This ought to have been promising: a science fiction film (one of my favourite genres), written, produced and directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski (who gave us "The Matrix" trilogy), with some acting talent including Mila Kunis (as the titular Jupiter Jones), Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean. But it is a galactic mess of a movie: visually frenetic but with a plot and dialogue that are out of this world (in a bad way).

    "Jurassic Park III"

    Just when you knew that it still wasn't safe to visit the island - some fool does so. Following in the dinosaur footsteps of the earlier two movies in 1993 and 1997, a new cohort of youngsters can thrill to the brilliant special effects - especially since this one is rated PG. For the lead character, its back to the original film with Sam Neill as Dr Alan Grant and there's even brief appearances from his colleague at that time, played by Laura Dern. However, the real 'stars', as always, are the creatures themselves and - as before - we have a mixture of old and new, the latter this time being represented by something called the spinosaurus and the winged pterodactyls. There's no plot and the ending is surprisingly sudden and weak, but this won't worry the kids and, at a mere one and a half hours, it's the perfect afternoon's entertainment for them.

    "Jurassic World"

    It seems that you can't keep a good monster story down, so we've had remakes of "King Kong" and "Godzilla" and returns to the dinosaurs as the blockbuster "Jurassic Park" (1993) was followed by the less successful "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" (1997) and then by the rather tame "Jurassic Park III" (2001) before - after an interval of 14 years - we now have the spectactular "Jurassic World" which managed to take half a billion dollars at the box office on its opening weekend. How can we explain this?

    Obviously part of the answer has to be the dinosaurs themselves. This time, we have the biggest, baddest, most modified of them all: Indominus rex (will those scientists never learn?). But we also have the interesting dynamic of dinosaurs who can relate to humans and even protect them. So many creature movies - whether it's the "King Kong" ones or "The Planet Of The Apes" franchise or even "Ted" and "Paddington" - play with the notions that the animals are not so different from us and, especially in the case of the human villains, that some of us are not so different from some of them.

    Another part of the film's success has to be related to the actors. Almost overnight Chris Pratt has become such an appealling box office star with his voice in "The Lego Movie" and his heroics in "Guardian Of The Galaxy", while Bryce Dallas Howard (the daughter of director Ron Howard) is a welcome fresh face who can convincingly kick some dinosaur ass. Finally we get more gore this time around. In one memorable sequence, a poor woman is grabbed by one dinosaur which in turn is then gobbled up by an even bigger one. So no real plot and the usual stereotypical characters, but a bit more bite for your buck.

    "Just One Day"

    In its home territory of the United States, this movie is called "At Middleton" since it is located at a college called Middleton, but this is a singularly unhelpful title and around the world there have been many variations. In the UK, where I viewed it, it is called "Just One Day" which has the benefit of telling the potential viewer something relevant. So, by now, you'll have worked out that all the film is located in one place and over one day. Although the purpose of the visit is to enable two youngsters to assess whether they wish to study at this particular college, the core of the story is about their parents played by Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga who soon give up on their kids and the official tour and make their own explorations of both the grounds and their emotions. It's kind of updated version of the classic British film "Brief Encounter" (1945).

    It's an episodic movie with a lot of humour and some pathos but some scenes work better than others. The cleverest scene is when the two adults find themselves required to participate in an improvisation acting class. The silliest is when they get high on a marijuana bong. What makes the work rather charming is the warmth of the two leads. Garcia never seems to have quite fulfilled the early potential shown as long ago as 1987 in "The Untouchables" and has put on a bit of weight since, but he is still a fine actor. The much younger Vera Farmiga - there is a 17 year age difference between the pair - first came to my attention in "Up In The Air (2009) and to my mind is still not fully appreciated for her talent and rare beauty (those blue eyes). Incidentally this movie is a bit of a family affair with Garcia's daughter playing a minor role and Farmiga's sister filling the role of her daughter.

    All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.

    Last modified on 29 August 2016


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