Need for Speed
Another video game adaptation which sees little need to go beyond its gaming roots. Fans have acclaimed director Scott Waugh for setting a new benchmark in automotive stunt photography, and in the course of the film’s grueling 131 minutes, you certainly have plenty of opportunities to become familiar with his style. Unfortunately, Waugh is not so strong on other elements like storytelling, and Need for Speed makes Vin Diesel and the Fast and Furious franchise look like a Chekhovian character study by comparison. This is despite the presence of two outstanding actors, Aaron Paul (from Breaking Bad) and Dominic Cooper (The History Boys) who are simply all wrong for the parts they play. A street racer (Paul) who was framed by a wealthy business associate (Cooper) joins a cross country race with revenge in mind. Plenty of cars get destroyed in the process, and the film as a whole is little more than a monumental car crash.
12 Years a Slave
From the hand of Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave picked up three Oscars last week, including the big one: Best Motion Picture. It is the film of the moment and tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery. He sees and experiences a litany of horrors that is the fate of a black man in the unreformed Deep South. The material is powerful in its own right, and McQueen brings his radical showmanship to the telling of a shocking story that pulls no punches. With a track record that includes Hunger, the tale of Irish republican Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, and Shame, a story of sex addiction, McQueen is familiar with handling highly charged materials. He is working with an excellent cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. Despite almost universal acclaim for the acting and directing, there is also an unrelenting hectoring about the horrors of slavery that does not let up throughout the over two-hour film.
Only Lovers Left Alive
A new film by Jim Jarmusch is definitely something to celebrate, and Only Lovers Left Alive provides a wonderful alternative to Twilight and its unholy spawn of teen vampire movies. This is a mood and tone piece with a slight story held together and enhanced by beautiful visuals and indulgent emotions. It is something like In the Mood for Love except with vampires. In this case, the central couple are Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, who are perfect as two ancient, world-weary souls inhabiting hot bodies and getting off on retro cool. Their lives become rather more complex when rock-chick Ava (Mia Wasikowska) drops in and things begin to go badly wrong, but this dramatic framework is really little more than an excuse. Only Lovers Left Alive is all about style, but what style! Bella Swan and Edward Cullen can learn from Hiddleston and Swinton how grownups go about being undead.
The Monuments Men
What a cast! What a story! It’s such a pity that The Monuments Men does not quite live up to its own sense of self-importance. Written, directed and starring George Clooney, the film tells the story of a military unit during WWII tasked with rescuing the art masterpieces stolen by the Nazis. Inevitably, the unit is filled with some unlikely characters, and the likes of Matt Damon, Bill Murray, and John Goodman ensure that this riff off a well-worn theme plays out in entertaining fashion. Direction is tight, the script more than adequate, the production as slick as you could want, but somehow the film is lacking heart. Its ponderous message that destroying art is destroying the heart of a people drips with high-minded seriousness that only succeeds in making a perfectly legitimate message sound trite, or worse, bogus. As a director of Good Night, and Good Luck Clooney has proved he can deal with complex historical events, but in The Monuments Men he has become caught up in the trite cliches of mainstream Hollywood entertainment.
Liam Neeson has never been averse to slumming it in the B-movie mainstream. With Taken and its sequel, he has virtually made this his calling card, and now with Non Stop he is taking that very successful formula of badass agent to new heights, this time adding a couple of twists. An air marshal (Neesan) springs into action during a transatlantic flight after receiving a series of text messages that put his fellow passengers at risk unless a ransom is paid. The confined space of the aircraft helps build the tension, and director Jaume Collet-Serra makes sure that the audience knows that the action is not meant to be taken too seriously. Which is a good thing, as this is a story in which drama and action are far more important than narrative cohesion or indeed the laws of physics, and Neeson manages to get up to some pretty improbable high altitude acrobatics.