Sunday, March 27, 2016


WELCOME TO ME is a truly unique, moving and darkly film from debut feature director Shira Piven and writer Eliot Laurence.  It stars Kristen Wiig as a bipolar woman called Alice Krieg who goes off her meds and uses her lottery winnings to fund a daytime talk show in the manner of her heroine, Oprah Winfrey. Except this show is an unfiltered expression of all of Alice's insecurities, obsessions and historic persecutions.  Despite the fact that she is clearly unhinged, a commercial production company takes her money and puts the show on air, to surprisingly decent growing ratings, until Alice suffers an emotional crisis and runs out of the necessary cash. Along the way, we come to admire her ever-loyal support network of parents, ex-husband and best friend Gina, and have some hopes that a nascent relationship with one of the show's producers might be sustainable.  We also come to have huge sympathy for Alice, despite her bouts of hurtful narcissism.  

The performances from the first-rate cast are superb.  Kristen Wiig allows herself to be utterly vulnerable and yet also manages a laconic deadpan humour that takes us through the movie's most awkward and disturbing moments. Linda Cardellini has the most to do as Alice's best friend and their final scene moved me to tears. It's also a pleasure to see Joan Cusack, James Marsden (as the show's producers), and Alan Tudyk (as the ex-husband) and Tim Robbins (as the psychiatrist) in smaller roles - all won over by Alice in the best way.  Only Jennifer Jason Leigh's producer stands in for those viewers put off by Alice's antics - or feels morally queasy by the fact that this entertainment is the result of mental illness.

A movie tackling the subject of mental illness that also purports to be an albeit very dark and dry comedy treads on this ice.  But the results here are provocative, assured, moving and unique.  This has to be one of the best films I've watched this year.

WELCOME TO ME has a running time of 87 minutes and is rated R. The movie played Toronto 2014 and was released in the USA and Canada last year. It is currently on release in the UK.


ZOOTOPIA/ZOOTROPOLIS is a pointed but obvious commentary about racism and sexism in supposedly multicultural western society. As such, its trenchant criticism comes at an apposite time in world politics.  But it rather wants to have its cake and eat it.  And I'm not sure it's any fun for kids. Because, after all, this is a kids animated feature!

The movie comes from directors Rich Moore (WRECK IT RALPH) and Byron Howard (TANGLED).  It posits a world full of anthropomorphic animals who live in apparent harmony because they have evolved beyond the predator/prey instinct. This is meant to be a world in which anyone can achieve anything - a spin on the American Dream. Of course, the real world is not, in the words of Captain Bogo, "some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So let it go." In other words, this movie is a clash between those hokey Disney values of yore, and our more post-modern cynical sensibilities. 


BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE is even more arse-numbingly dull than last year's MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. - another action movie remake that not un-coincidentally starred The Tudor's Henry Cavill.  Cavill, just like his UNCLE co-star Armie Hammer, is an actor of beauty but little charisma.  In fact, it's a sad testament to the lack of star power at the centre of this movie, that the two most charismatic and shaggable men in it are Jeremy Irons (as Batman's butler) and Kevin Costner as Superman's dad.  Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor like a milder version of Jim Carrey's Riddler.  And what can we say of Ben Affleck's BATMAN?  All our worst fears, carried over from DAREDEVIL, are realised here.  He's the Ben Affleck of SOUTH PARK pastiches, square jaw, Blue-Steel troubled intense gaze, humourless anti-acting.  I'd go so far as to say that the only interesting thing about Batfleck's portrayal is his suit, which looks a bit like someone took an Iron Man outfit and spray-painted it black.  Apparently this is to imitate Frank Miller's graphic novel Dark Knight but it just looked laughably clunky, much like the screenplay.

Sunday, March 20, 2016


HAIL, CAESAR! is, of all the Coen Brothers screwball comedies, the least funny and the most tedious. I say this with a heavy heart as a great fan of their work and a shared love of the old Hollywood big budget genre pics it aims to lovingly pastiche.  But the best bits really are in the trailer, and their sharp editing in that trailer gives the impression of a movie of high energy and cannon-fire wit. Sadly the real thing runs at an ambling pace, punctuated by the odd set piece, and stutters to its final close.

The movie's protagonist is studio producer and fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) - a man with a religious conscience - although this is not something that is explored as in their more overtly philosophical movies.  Mannix spends his days and nights getting his movie stars out of illegal problems and massaging the press all to get his movies off the ground. This is contrasted with a job offer from Lockheed - a job that is grown up and in a real industry. But even as that job offer is made we know that Mannix won't take it, because he loves the industry that he's in, for all its deception, egomania and crazy hours.

Sunday, March 13, 2016


LONDON HAS FALLEN is a pretty dispiriting piece of hack action with a second-rate cast, second-rate actors, second-rate direction and second-rate action sequences.  Gerard Butler reprises his role as a special services agent assigned to protect his friend, the President (Aaron Eckhart.)  They go to London on short notice to attend the funeral of the Prime Minister, but it turns out all the world leaders have been lured there so that terrorists can take them out and much of iconic London with them.  The result is a bunch of low-rent sub-24 action and anti-terrorist plotting in tube stations and abandoned houses with nasty people threatening to behead the President on the internet.  Of course, Butler's action hero is going to save the day so there's no real sense of peril.  And then he'll go home to his cute wife and baby.  

This movie's precursor, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, was a pretty bad movie - far worse than WHITE HOUSE DOWN, which had essentially the same plot.  OHF didn't have the humour of the latter, or indeed the charismatic lead actors.  If anything, LHF is even worse, as director Antoine Fuqua left the project to be replaced by a no-name German director.  The whole thing feels like a bad TV movie or straight-to-DVD action film.  One can only hope it does so badly at the box office that a third instalment is prevented. 

LONDON HAS FALLEN has a running time of 99 minutes and is rated R. The movie is on global release.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E13 - Chapter Fifty Three

Thoughts:  Notably this is the only chapter of this season written by series creator Beau Willimon. So I guess this sets us up for the House of Cards tumbling in season 5? Is that the last season?  Altogether it feels like this season didn't really have a coherent story arc to itself. It started off as Frank vs Claire. It then became Frank and Claire vs Conway and Tom Hammerschmidt.  I felt we suffered from not having enough of the top drawer writers and directors from the first two seasons involved. You could absolutely tell Beau Willimon's hands weren't on the typewriter. We learn that it's three weeks to the election and the Underwoods are going to "make time" to fight.  The final exchange is chilling and the delicious irony of Frank echoing Obama is the kind of high level dark wit we'd come to expect from this series but all too rarely got this season.

"I'm done trying to win over people's hearts," says Claire.
"Let's attack their hearts," replies Frank.
"We can work with fear."
"Yes we can." 
Similarly, the final line of the season is operating on a level of darkness and Machiavellian genius that we should've been operating on for the entire season.
"That's right. We don't submit to terror. We make the terror."

Running time: 55 minutes. Written by Beau Willimon. Directed by Jakon Verbruggen.

Detailed and spoiler filled plot summary:

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E12 - Chapter Fifty One

Thoughts:  Perhaps my favourite moment of this entire series is when Hannah Conway asks Claire Underwood if she regrets not having children, and Claire asks if she regrets having them in return.  It's amazing how many mothers feel it's fine to ask that question because it's assumed to be the default setting. I must remember to use that rebuttal in future!  Other than that, I'm suspending judgment on this episode until I've seen the next one because it's evidently meant to be viewed as a tense two-parter.

Running time: 46 minutes.  Written by Laura Eason & Bill Kennedy. Directed by Jakob Verbruggen.

Detailed and spoiler filled plot summary:

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E11 - Chapter Fifty

Thoughts: Badass Freddy Hays - what a hero - the only man willing to tell the President he's a motherfucker but also to beat up the journalist who would bring him down! But beyond that we get to what is so strangely open and confident in the marriage of Claire and Frank with his offer to keep Tom on. They are a strong enough partnership that it can admit of a menage a trois. But isn't this fascinating ground that we already covered in seasons 1 and 2?  It feels like this series has taken Claire's storyline - that was all about her personal empowerment in season 3 and the first few episode of season 4 - and put her back exactly where she was. She works with and for Frank and he just throws her a live-in plaything to tend to her needs. Is this really the definition of a strong woman in the new millennium?  Even Doug Stamper's growing obsession with Laura Moretti feels rather stale.  With only two episodes left, one wonders where the surprise will be? Is it that Claire will break her partnership if Frank is impeached? All feels rather lacklustre. 

Running time: 51 minutes.Written by Tian Jun Gu. Directed by Kari Skogland.

Detailed and spoiler-filled plot summary:

Friday, March 04, 2016

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E10 - Chapter Forty Nine

Thoughts: Hugely disappointed with this episode and the direction the writers chose to take the relationship between Claire and her mother. Just as the wall graffiti moment between Meechum and Frank felt forced, this scene felt utterly unearned and out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the show. Cue the swell of violins. Just cheap writing.

Running time: 56 minutes. Written by Melissa James Gibson & Kenneth Lin.  Directed by Robin Wright.

Detailed and spoiler-filled plot summary:

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E9 - Chapter Forty Eight

Thoughts: Ok so this episode improves with a predictable but still fun plot twist keeping the machinations going. But more importantly we see an interesting psycho-emotional dynamic playing out between Claire Underwood and Tom Yates - and it's the emotional side that was so good in season 3. I'm back on board after a very weak episode 8. 

Running time: 45 minutes. Written by Frank Pugliese.  Directed by Robin Wright.

Detailed and spoiler-filled plot summary:

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E8 - Chapter Forty-Six

Thoughts: This is the first episode I've been genuinely bored of. Where's the scabrous dark Francis Underwood of season 3, swearing in a Church, and the nuanced and even darker emotional breakdown between husband and wife. Instead we now have the scooby gang solving the crisis of the week as if they're in an episode of Scandal.  Literally the only interesting thing that happened - narratively or stylistically - was when the actor playing Aidan Macallan did the most gonzo TV dance scene since Ricky Gervais in The Office!

Running time: 42 minutes.  Written by John Makiewisz. Directed by Alex Graves.

Detailed and spoiler-filled plot summary:

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E7 - Chapter Forty Six

Thoughts: I am really upset that so much hard emotional and difficult and brilliant narrative work in season 3 that focussed on the breakdown of the Underwood marriage seems to have been undone by a deus ex machina plot-line so that we are now basically back to contra mundum Underwoods. This is far more dull and basically series 1 stuff.  I am also incredulous that Democratic nominee Heather Dunbar would judge that she couldn't come back from the mistakes made in the previous week and it feels rather quick and shoddy and done to allow room for us to focus on President Frank Underwood's GOP opponent, Governor Conroy. Clumsy and dull.

Running time: 51 minutes. Written by Bill Kennedy. Directed by Tom Shankland.

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E6 - Chapter Forty Five

Thoughts: A strange episode and I'm not sure I like where the show is heading with Claire's story arc. Where are the feisty woman she was surrounding herself with? Where's Elizabeth and Leann? Has all of the angst of the previous five episodes been for nothing? Has the major plot-line with Frank reset everything?  I also feel the dream sequences are poorly done and very simplistic and heavy-handed in what they tell us about Frank's psyche. Compare them with the masterful, surreal and darkly comic dreams that Tony Soprano had when in a coma. Disappointing all round.

Running time: 47 minutes.  Written by Laura Easland. Directed by Tom Shankland.

Detailed and spoiler filled plot summary:

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E5 - Chapter Forty Four

Thoughts: A solid if unspectacular episode. I like the idea that we're bringing back some of the journalists that initially covered Frank's malfeasance, such as Kate Baldwin, and that his good luck of evading justice will perhaps finally come to an end and Lucas Goodwin's sacrifice will actually mean something. I also  really like the increasing glimpses we're getting of Doug Stamper's true psychotic nature.  That said, I still don't find the Jackie Sharp/Remy storyline particularly interesting and I wonder how realistic it is that the Acting President could sit there IM chatting with someone during a secret diplomatic phonecall.

Running time: 47 minutes. Written by Melissa James Gibson. Directed by Tom Shankland.

Detailed and spoiler-filled plot summary:

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E4 - Chapter Forty Three

Thoughts: A short episode but an explosive one that was literally exhausting to watch. I loved the desperation on Lucas' face and the deadening inevitability of the actions taken.  In a sense, it's perhaps surprising that the writers didn't use this plot point before but it's really fantastic to see it thrown in at such a delicate juncture. Because by the end of the episode, Claire basically has what she wants - no? There's also some brilliant comic deadpan dialogue between Claire and Luann: "What's that?" "My mother killing a lizard." And then the final coup de grace: "Watch your step. There's blood on the floor." All in all, I couldn't be happier with the way in which this season is unfolding. My only nitpick is the cloying obviousness of the cutesy moment between Frank and Meechum.

Running time: 41 minutes. Written by John Mankiewicz. Directed by Robin Wright.

Detailed and spoiler-filled plot summary:

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E3 - Chapter Forty Three

Thoughts: Oh I really loved Claire's superbly orchestrated revenge ploy on Frank, with the very elegant final reveal and Frank's desperate turn to camera: "I knew it but I didn't believe it."  But this raised one nitpicky question for me. Why on earth would Frank keep a photo of his father with the KKK in a safety deposit box? And boy he really must've believed in their political partnership to give Claire the key. Still, the episode resolves that issue, if not in an entirely satisfactory way. Nonetheless, I like the symmetry of it: at the end of the last episode Claire had a choice and made it; and now Frank has a choice too.

Running time: 52 minutes. Written by Frank Pugliese. Directed by Robin Wright.

Detailed spoiler-filled plot summary:

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E2 - Chapter Forty One

Thoughts:  An odd episode with a lot going on and maybe that's understandable for the second episode in the series.  It just didn't feel like it coalesced to me and the short running time suggests that perhaps it suffered from mis-editing? At any rate the big story here is how far Frank will go to stop Claire's candidacy and the final political coup de grace was joyous to watch. Elsewhere I find it hard to care about Remy Danton's retirement and who's stalking him.  But I do like the nuance of Claire's relationship with her mother and the idea that in order to get our from under Frank she will have to become more dependent on her mother.  Burstyn's brilliantly hysterical "I am THE MOTHER!" outburst takes this to the verge of melodrama but let's see how it's handled from now on....

Running time: 40 minutes.  Written by Melissa James Gibbons. Directed by Tucker Gates.

Detailed and clearly spoiler filled plot summary:

HOUSE OF CARDS - S4E1 - Chapter Forty

Thoughts:  The new season of House of Cards starts off just a few weeks behind where we are right now in the US political season - the primaries in Iowa are over with Frank scraping a win - and New Hampshire is happening through this episode.  But for all that, this season feels a bit like a relic given its position that establishment parties cut deals and run races.   We find Frank behind Dunbar in the polls but forced to head to Texas to stalk his wife.  At the end of last season, Claire left Frank but they clearly aren't divorced. Oh no - for this political couple that would waste far too much political capital. Instead she is trying to kick off her White House run by standing for Congress in Texas, replacing an established black female candidate. And so the remainder of the episode sees the Underwoods come to some kind of Cold War agreement not to destroy each other's political ambitions.  

I love the amount of strong female characters that have been introduced in this episode. From Neve Campbell's campaign manager Leann Harvey, to Cicely Tyson's strong Congresswoman Doris Jones, to Claire's formidable mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn).  I really hope we get to explore the issue of race in politics but also the interaction of establishment vs non-establishment candidates too.   Finally, I like the idea that the series started with the Lucas Goodwin story-line, which in a sense is just a variation on the Zoe Barnes storyline.  It's good that this basic Achilles heel to Frank's presidency continues to bubble under the surface, waiting to bring him down.

Running time: 48 minutes. Written by Beau Willimon.  Directed by Tucker Gates

Detailed plot summary: