Insurgent – The Review

The latest chapter in the Divergent series is a film of two halves. The first has all the appeal of wandering around one of those abandoned concrete-filled cities due for demolition. 

Greyness abounds. Grey skies, grey suits, grey landscapes of steel and stone. Grey people. Grey dialogue. In short, 50 shades of meh. 

Things pick up half way through. My pending sleepiness avoided by Matrix-style action scenes in which mousey, likeable heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley) wracked with personal doubt, tortured by demons, sporting a pixie haircut, chases after her mum in a stone cube. It’s reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but as is the way with all CG dream sequences, lacks any real danger and looks utterly fake. 

While Tris is the glue that holds the movie together, the whole thing comes unstuck many times. 

In one scene, Four (hunky Theo James) meets his mum Evelyn (Naomi Watts), who looks about two years older than him. In reality she’s 46, he’s early thirties, so it’s feasible, but blimey Naomi. Have you got a Dorian Gray-style painting in your attic?

Anyway, Four and Tris are loved up, following the ’will they won’t they?’ arc of film one, most of which I’d forgotten after a year of better movies. It was hard to remember who was who, with the exception of the lead protagonists and antagonists. 

Kate Winslet was glacially cool as the despotic ruler whose exposition-heavy intro coloured in many of the grey areas for newcomers. For the rest of the movie a mannequin in a blue dress with a photo of Kate’s face stuck on would have sufficed. 

The one real plus is Whiplash’s Miles Teller as Peter, the Judas character who comes across as a young, snarky John Cusack. He provides the only laughs in the movie. And that’s one of the many problems. Insurgent is so serious it hurts. There’s no levity in this austere world. Yes, we get it: the proscenium is horrible, but humour is crucial to alleviate the tension, and here it’s so miserable it’s hard to care for any of the characters. 

The movie opens with our renegade heroes at a hippy commune in a forest. Kevin McCloud would love the Amity house, with its beautiful beams and gorgeous staircase. When you start admiring a house more than the characters, something is seriously wrong. 

The earth mother character in the first act looks like she stepped from The Matrix, an Oracle sort who provides a little tension before the generic evil guys turn up on their spotless trucks. These vehicles are as capable of repelling dirt as the characters’ costumes are. Seriously, they jump from trains, roll around, get into scrapes and there’s not a mark on them. (In the real world, I can’t go more than a few hours without spilling tomato ketchup or tea on my white tee shirts). 

So the movie plods along, lurching from action scene to heartfelt confessional to plodding bad guys to Tris mumbling something incoherent while looking like a miffed prom queen who’s been sent to her room. 

There’s an unintentionally hilarious moment in the third act when her bed head hair out acts her after she’s mumbled something dull. 

I get that I’m not the target audience: teenage girls who loved Veronica Roth’s YA saga. I also wasn’t the target audience for Maze Runner and loved that, though at times I wasn’t sure where that movie ended and this one began. The YA movie world seems to be one big playground with the same generic characters running around. If Tris had to enter a deadly labyrinth for film three, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Oh, and there’s no fat people in Insurgent. Everyone clearly streamlined from lack of food, lots of running around and making their own clothes which look like they’re off the peg… but unironed.

And oh the crowd scenes! Awful. A supporting cast mumbling incoherent “yays” or “nays”, acting as a mass instead of individuals. Weta’s CG crowd generation programe ’Massive’ creates more realistic scenes; a shame they didn’t use it.

By the time Insurgent rumbled to the (great) closing titles I felt, like Hunger Games (another good YA franchise) had been ruined by the tricky bridging sequel, linking film one to the full-on finale (no doubt split into two movies).

I’ve seen worse movies, but I do wonder if staring at a bottle of detergent for 90 mins would have been more fun.


The Duke of Burgundy – The Review

The Duke of Burgundy is quite unlike any film I have seen.

Inspired by the works of Jess Franco and assorted other European filmmakers, director Peter Strickland, the brains behind Berberian Sound Studio, has created arguably the best film of the year.

Released within a few weeks of that other S and M bonanza, 50 Shades of Grey, this is light years ahead of the slick competition.

The relationship between the two central protagonists, Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen) as Cynthia and Chiara D’Anna (Berberian Sound Studio) as Evelyn, is both compelling, disturbing, and often hilarious; shifting power plays where you are never quite sure who has the upper hand. 

Strickland has created a multi-layered comedy drama with so many textures you can almost touch them.

The following might sound like it’s taken from The Big Book of Superlatives, but The Duke of Burgundy is one of those movies that lives up to the hype.

The sound track by Cat’s Eyes is utterly absorbing; the cinematography by Nic Knowland is lush, and the editing by Mátyás Fekete is superbly executed. 

The performances superb, while intentionally integrating a note of amateurism. Yes, that sounds derogatory, but when professional actresses intentionally achieve a degree of amateurism as a homage to its source movies – dodgy euro flicks from the 1970s – film fans can’t help but mentally applaud.

As a lover of intelligent cinema, anyone who adores transcendental cinematic journeys should bask in its glow, their hearts fluttering like wings at the core of the spectacle. 

There’s a scene in the third act that was reminiscent of Dave Bowman’s trip through the stargate at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

For me, great movies are those you can’t get out of your head for days and weeks. Strickland has achieved that goal, and I am delighted.

The fact the closing credits even feature the integral moths at the heart of the drama, along with dates, times and temperatures at which photos were taken is an added bonus. 

Just when you thought you had seen every credit under the sun, The Duke of Burgundy proves there are plenty of new ideas out there. 

Yes, you can rent it on line, or wait until it is released on DVD and Blu-ray in April, but I’d recommend tracking it down at your nearest art house cinema. 

The atmosphere of this extraordinary production is one that cannot be recreated on the home cinemas, no matter how good your sound system is.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – The Review

What happens if you mix classic British sitcom Waiting For God with Slumdog Millionaire? You get a bittersweet comedy with a Bollywood feel, aka The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. 

Those key elements helped rinse many a pensioner of their grey pounds, dollars and the like a few years ago. (I remember one of the workers at a Florida theme park raving over that movie, so I knew it had universal appeal). 

It helps that the cast is a Who’s Who of top drawer talent, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup. 

If there’s safety in numbers, then director John Madden spinning the assorted plates of Ol Parker’s script was well insulated in case any smashed. 

Thankfully they all span marvellously while resounding with the masses. 

It didn’t take a genius to realise the cream of British and Bollywood talent united to tackle the vastly under appreciated seasoned viewer market would leave cash tills ringing. 

All of which geriatric preamble brings us to the bravely titled Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a movie which some may see as a cynical attempt to cash in on a sleeper hit, but as someone who didn’t see the first movie, I found to be an engaging, good looking, beautifully acted tribute to that amazing ensemble. 

It didn’t matter a jot that I didn’t know most of the characters or the setting. Some of the wafer-thin plot lines were as diaphanous as a sari on a summer washing line, but the thesps generate a swell of goodwill, so little wonder the movie surfed that wave even if there were a few holes in the board. 

Richard Gere’s inclusion as the ’is he or isn’t he?’ hotel inspector Guy (not that one) Chambers added the obligatory American appeal lacking from movie one. Dev Patel shone once more as Sonny, the young entrepreneur driving the movie forward with his endless optimism while concerned about his perfect brother’s interest in his gorgeous fiancée. David Strathairn, Tamsin Greig and Lillete Dubey added solid support to the by-the-numbers proceedings. 

The whole thing is lighter than candy floss, just as colourful and while it may not linger long in the memory, for its duration, this ticks over nicely and sustains the interest. 

Check (it) out. 

Focus – The Review 

Given a couple of key reviews for the new Will Smith/Margot Robbie con man caper Focus, you’d think the cast had gone round the critics’ houses with a swag bag and emptied them. 

Okay, it’s not as clever as some of the best episodes of Hustle or classic movie The Sting, but it looked terrific, the leads were magnetic and there were some splendid scenes. 

One involved a brilliant horse track caper which was engrossing for its 10 minutes, the other a splendid moment in the life of a henchman as he prepares for a head on collision. 

Okay, a racetrack scene was ill judged, the cars drowning out the thesps, but far more of this movie worked than didn’t. 

The plot centres on veteran con-man Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) who falls for rookie grifter Jess Barrett (Robbie). He trains her up then dumps her. 

Three years later, Nicky is in Buenos Aires, employed by tycoon motorsport team owner Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). What follows is a second rate con compared to the outstanding, aforementioned horse track caper. 

Admittedly Focus, which was screened in the wrong aspect ratio – thanks Cineworld Castleford – is not high art; it washes over you like a pleasant wave. But if you fancy wasting a couple of hours without engaging your brain, then this is perfect entertainment. 

I enjoyed it far more than Blackhat, seen a week earlier, and laughed out loud a few times in all the right places. 

Robbie is a screen magnet while Smith claws back some of the credibility squandered with After Earth. 

Would I watch it again? Unlike Blackhat, definitely. It’s cinematic candy floss that goes straight through you. The Argentinean backdrops are a welcome break from the usual US locales, though given the fact it has the best tango in the world, a shame the film makers didn’t shoehorn a fleet footed routine in. 

If you want a great conman caper then watch a few eps of Hustle. If you want slick escapism, then Focus is a likeable diversion as diaphanous as some of Margot’s dresses. And thank heavens for that.