Lawless

Year: 2012
Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Tom Hardy, Shia Lebeouf, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

When I watch a film and see the message “based on true events”, my whole viewing experience thereafter is affected by the knowledge that I’m watching a ‘true story’. This varies depending on the genre, for instance, if I were to watch a horror film with this warning I would begin to question the importance of the word ‘based’, how much has the production team distorted the story for the purposes of entertainment. In the case of a film like ‘Lawless’, one which tells the story of a significant person or event, I am immediately aware of an air of authority. I know that I’m going to be treated to a genuine and gripping recollection of events.

Tom Hardy is faultless as the dominant and fearsome leader of the Bondurant family. Not only does he play the part of the invincible hero impeccably, but he looks the part too. Hardy delivers a truly believable, gritty performance, combined with moments of vulnerability, revealing a human side to this godly being. Jessica Chastain portrays Forrest’s love interest, the fragile Maggie, as an interesting contrast to the masculine undertones of the film. In real life, Shia LeBeouf is at present, a bit of an odd character. But in ‘Lawless’ he is actually rather impressive in his depiction of both the snivelling younger brother and the transformed, confident man seeking revenge. Indeed Lebeouf’s character, Jack, becomes something of a secondary hero. Perhaps his consumption of copious amounts of moonshine on the set was actually a good move for LeBeouf? The villain in this all-star cast is the talented Guy Pearce. Pearce provides the story with the perfect villain, a cruel man capable of pure evil. Detestable in both nature and appearance, Charlie Rakes will have you screaming at the screen in disgust, clamouring for his comeuppance. 

From the start, there is an aura of power and immortality created surrounding Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy). This is presented throughout as a strong contrast to the weak and cowardly younger Bondurant brother, Jack (LeBeouf), who is regularly undermined within the family. This sets up nicely, if not a little predictably, the surprise hero element to the tale. As polar opposite to both of these characters, no one embodies the violent, dangerous spirit of the film more than Howard (Jason Clarke), the alcoholic, crazy, hothead older Bondurant brother. You would be forgiven for thinking that ‘Lawless’ would be an all-out, guns blazing, action film, but there are plenty of delicate moments to balance the fight scenes and prominent theme of masculinity and violence. Set during the prohibition era in America, deep in Virginia, Forrest Bondurant is a thing of legends after surviving the war, and is thus elevated to the role of superior, to put it simply, he runs the town. Amongst this social hierarchy, we are introduced to Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) and his gang, as well as the oppressive, ruthless Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce). The backdrop of aggressive conflict and power struggles throughout, instill a tense and ominous tone to the film; all the way through you’re sat there thinking “something is going to go really wrong here”.

‘Lawless’ is undeniably a modern classic of the Western-style, gunslinging, action genre. A film full of graphic violence from beginning to end, and all the better for it! Forrest Bondurant should go down as a legendary hero in the world of film, just as much as he is an immortal legend throughout Franklin County, Virginia. The true story of corruption and the law is told exquisitely by director John Hillcoat and must be considered as one of the best crime/action movies of the last decade at the very least. 

Jakob’s rating: 8.7 out of 10
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Bad Teacher

Year: 2011
Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

There was once a time when the typical role for Cameron Diaz was to be the sexy love interest for your male protagonist, and she was pretty damn effective in that role. Think ‘There’s Something About Mary’. I bet you’re picturing Cameron Diaz with semen in her hair, right? Grow up, fast forward 13 years and you get the badass, ruthless, hilarious Cameron Diaz, still sexy, but now the star of the show in ‘Bad Teacher’. Don’t get me wrong, I saw the cast and read the story synopsis and assumed we had another run of the mill, easy watch comedy to fill the DVD bargain baskets. Thankfully, I could not have been more wrong.

Jake Kasdan directs this fantastic, laugh out loud comedy about the miserable, rogue teacher who is forced to, at least try, and educate the youth at James Adams Middle School. Cameron Diaz leads as the cruel and cynical Miss Halsey, who after being dumped by her fiancée, is on the prowl for a rich, new husband. Enter, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who is rich, attractive and popular. Underneath this materialistic façade however, lies an undeniably lame, weak and painfully ‘nice’ loser. Of course, gold digger Halsey can deal with that, and aims to snare her new man to fund a breast enhancement. Failing that, Miss Halsey goes to desperate lengths; from supervising a raunchy car wash for her students’ perverted fathers, to stealing test papers for her class, in order to win the cash incentive for topping the exam results list. In her pursuit of Scott and teaching ‘success’, Miss Halsey constantly battles with the detestable goody-goody Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch), and manages to ignore the advances of the likeable gym teacher, Mr Gettis (Jason Segel).

With a movie so full of capers, antics, rebellion and fun, it is easy to ignore the elements which contribute to making this such an enjoyable and hilarious film. Cameron Diaz, despite her catalogue of average roles in average movies, is faultless in ‘Bad Teacher’. She portrays perfectly the bad guy I want to love, the anti-hero I shouldn’t be rooting for. Which leads me nicely onto Lucy Punch, who is so righteous and moral as Miss Squirrel that she is easy to dislike. Combine this with her crazy, obsessive edge and you can’t help but question who the real ‘villain’ is. Jason Segel is a man who divides my opinion massively. I can’t bring myself to watch ‘How I Met Your Mother’, but he is great in ‘I Love You, Man’. As Mr Gettis here, Segel excels himself, making me laugh at just about everything he says whilst maintaining a persistent, odd sort of charm. Last but not least, Justin Timberlake is superb as the geeky, cringe worthy sycophant, Scott Delacorte.

‘Bad Teacher’ is a truly hilarious film that I could, and indeed have watched, many times. Admittedly, it IS an easy watch comedy, but there is nothing wrong with that when the experience is so enjoyable. Although not quite up there with the truly great, modern comedies such as ‘Anchorman’, ‘Superbad’ and ‘The Hangover’, ‘Bad Teacher’ certainly isn’t far behind. I can’t praise enough, the writers, director and actors, the whole ensemble, who helped create this comedy which is highly regarded and recommended on my behalf.

Jakob’s rating: 8.1 out of 10

Adventureland

Year: 2009
Director: Gregg Mottola

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

From the director of the legendary ‘Superbad’ comes another odd little comedy-of-sorts, albeit a much more obscure and delicate film. Gregg Mottola takes us back to the 1980s, 1987 to be precise and economic crisis is in the air. The materialistic, patriarchal society of America is collapsing and fathers are losing their jobs, their money and their power. So what are the youth of this period meant to do now? ‘Adventureland’ is more than just a comedy, it delves beneath the surface of everyday life and reveals kids dealing with familial rifts, making bad decisions and their attempts to escape all these problems in the fun and lights of the theme park. But as our protagonist James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) discovers, growing up isn’t always that fun.

This is a true ‘coming of age’ rom-com, I really am struggling to think of any film which fits that description more accurately than ‘Adventureland’. When James graduates from college, he has big plans to tour Europe for the summer and then pursue his journalistic ambitions at grad school. Unfortunately for James, his family are no longer able to fund these endeavours, and so begins his crazy summer at his local theme park – Adventureland. Whilst there, he makes friends, meets a girl (Em Lewin), falls in love and loses it all. There is a heavy focus throughout on the forced, new-found independence of the teens, who are easily led and morally vulnerable and as a result are prone to making plenty of mistakes to add to the drama.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as James and is superb as the naive and fragile geek who is opening up to the ways of the world. The journey we witness here is absorbing and genuine and Eisenberg delivers a performance of simple brilliance. Opposite him, Kristen Stewart is equally fantastic as the closed, stand-offish, troubled teen Em. Personally I’ve never been a fan of Stewart, but this film has certainly improved my opinion of her as an actress. Ryan Reynolds is eerily effective as the smarmy, manipulative maintenance guy who is far too involved in the lives of the young employees at Adventureland. At the head of it all, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig (the funniest woman in the world) are hilarious as the oddball owners of the theme park, but you would expect nothing less.

I have been effusive in my praise of this film thus far, I really believe it to be an understated, cool, classic. But it doesn’t end there. My personal highlight was the delightfully eclectic soundtrack which accompanies this film, enough to elevate ‘Adventureland’ to instant cult status. The soundtrack to a film can be so important, and here we have a soundtrack which captures perfectly the playful youth of the 80s. From Bowie to Big Star, The Cure to The Crowded House, I could go on but by now I’m sure you are sufficiently tantalised. Add to this, the classic 80s outfits, the iconic staff uniform and the garish party wear and you have costume design done right. The contrasting dullness of everyday life, against the lights, sound and colour of the disco and amusement park, encapsulates the whole theme of escapism acutely and is also a great excuse to jam a total of 41 tracks into the film.

‘Adventureland’ is truly a cult classic, to stand alongside the likes of ‘Superbad’ and ‘Napoleon Dynamite’. For arguments sake I will call it a comedy, but I can’t recall laughing out loud properly whilst watching. This however, should not be misconstrued as criticism. ‘Adventureland’ produces an awkward, intense kind of humour, which made me laugh to myself, but only for a moment so as not to distract myself from the surprisingly captivating story that lies beneath.

Jakob’s rating: 8.0 out of 10

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Year: 2014
Director: Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

Much like the X-Men series, Spider-Man is another Marvel franchise which I’ve never really got into. The Toby Maguire trilogy was painful for me to watch; I think they took the geeky Peter Parker character to an awfully cheesy level. But director Marc Webb has worked wonders with his reimagining of the web-slinging hero, moving away from the cheese and right into the cool end of the spectrum. Introducing an edgier, darker and more dangerous aspect than ever before, we finally have a Spider-Man who wouldn’t look out of place in the Avengers line-up.

The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012 brought the Spider-Man franchise back to life, an exciting and thrilling reboot, and TASM2 (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) is even better. I went to see this in IMAX and 3D at the cinema and it was truly amazing, the scenes where Spidey swings between skyscrapers are breathtaking, as are the slow motion fight scenes. Following on from the first film, TASM2 sees Peter Parker haunted by the promise he made to Gwen Stacey’s father, to keep away from her and in turn keep her safe from his dangerous life. Parker sacrifices his own happiness and true love to keep Gwen safe and as a result, we see a deeper, more emotional side to the coolest ‘geek’ in comic book world.

Andrew Garfield is perfect as the cool, funny, likeable protagonist, and is equally adept at conveying the troubled, dark nature of his character. Alongside Emma Stone, the pair provide excellent on-screen chemistry as one would expect. The key to a great superhero movie however, is a great villain. Thankfully, this film has two. Jamie Foxx is superb as oddball Max Dillon and is even better when he transforms into the ruthless Electro, expertly portraying the obsessive split personality of the quirky villain. Then, from friend to foe, Harry Osborn undergoes a haunting Jekyll and Hyde transformation into the Green Goblin.

The first live action depiction of Electro is one of the many highlights in this film. Craving attention and celebrity status, Max Dillon becomes a bitter and highly dangerous villain for the modern era. The special effects used throughout the film are truly impressive, and Electro epitomises the success of this work. Even the scene where Max falls into the electric eel tank that decides his fate, which threatened to be rather slapstick, was actually presented just within the boundaries of the absurd. In addition, the music used to accompany Electro’s attacks is acutely matched to the tone of the scenes, adding another dimension to the whole viewing experience. Add to this the classic Spidey villain Green Goblin, and you have a formidable team. Dane DeHaan is just as chilling and terrifying as the malignant Osborn, as he is after his decaying illness takes hold and he turns into the evil goblin. DeHaan brings to life a character capable of Joker-esque terror and excels in providing a deadly performance alongside Electro.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine quite how Spider-Man can overcome this challenge. Nevertheless, thanks to a few moments of perfect timing and clever moves, our hero does come out of the battle victorious, albeit without Gwen. This film does have some humorous moments and some of the silliness you’d expect from a Marvel film, but the tragic ending and the new powerful, gritty Spider-Man leave the door open for an exciting third installment to the series. Oh wait. Turns out Marvel decided they do want Spider-Man now. Never mind.

Jakob’s rating: 8.0 out of 10

Captain America: The First Avenger

Year: 2011
Director: Joe Johnston
Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

The way Marvel do things dictates that each of the Avengers gets their own ‘origin story’ first, and arguably none are more important than that of the First Avenger, Captain America. The contextual necessity of his story as the original superhero makes this a rather crucial film if you’re planning to watch the whole Avengers franchise and really get to grips with it all. Set during World War II for a large portion of the film, there is a great deal of attention paid to the background of Steve Rogers and his transformation into Captain America, but unfortunately this travel back in time does have inevitable repercussions on the viewing experience.

For perhaps the first 45 minutes to an hour, we see the failed attempts of weak, loser Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who is determined to enlist in the US Army and fight in the war. Despite his diminutive stature, Rogers’ patriotic nature, bravery and relentless persistence to become a hero, lead him to be selected as the subject of an experimental procedure. We get a look at the famous Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony Stark’s late father, who hopes to turn Rogers into a super soldier. Upon his physical transformation, Rogers becomes ‘Captain America’, and initially there are lots of pantomime-esque moments as he is turned into somewhat of a propaganda joke, a performing puppet for the Army’s advantage. Set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany,  the sinister Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) is a worthy villain. When Red Skull unleashes the power of the notorious Teseract, Rogers is forced to shake off his longstanding inferiority to become a true hero, the real Captain America. With the bitter loss of his close friend Bucky Barnes, the Captain carries out his revenge but at the cost of martyrdom in his apparent death.

Chris Evans more than redeems himself for a poor showing in the ‘Fantastic 4’ disaster of 2005, a film which did nobody any good. All is forgiven as Evans portrays perfectly the ‘First Avenger’. He looks the part and plays a charming and believable hero brilliantly. Evans does well to maintain a dangerous and powerful aurora whilst providing the wit and likeability which makes the Captain so popular. Hugo Weaving, despite a questionable German accent, is a fearsome villain, bringing a genuinely ruthless, cruel nature to his character. As Steve Rogers’ love interest Peggy Carter, Hayley Atwell is the strong, feminine character in Marvel’s cinematic universe, providing a foreshadow to the character of Black Widow in future films. Atwell enjoys an impressive chemistry opposite Evans, as well as providing her own attitude, enough to earn Atwell her own spin-off series as ‘Agent Carter’.

The special effects used are somewhat flawed in places, particularly with the depiction of Red Skull’s haunting facial features. Indeed, it is difficult at times to see the sci-fi, magical elements against the setting of World War II. Marvel seem to be keen on distorting historical events to incorporate their own heroes, but in this instance, rather than creating an alternative history, as a viewer I was simply very conscious that I was witnessing a slightly absurd superhero movie. The slow motion fight scenes were impressive nonetheless, and despite the odd issue with SFX, the general composition of the film is fantastically typical of Marvel, in a good way.

‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ is arguably less impressive than the ‘Iron Man’ films which precede it, most likely having something to do with the era they are set in. The film does frame the formation of the Avengers effectively, giving us the leader of the team, the original superhero. There are of course, the standard moments of Marvel humour throughout, and at times Captain America is guilty of being the more placid of the Avengers series. Take Red Skull out of the equation, and what we have here is nothing more than a very light-hearted, cheesy, simple film.

Jakob’s rating: 7.2 out of 10

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Year: 2014
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the X-Men film franchise and I don’t know why. I love superheroes, both in comic-book and movie form, I love the idea of the X-Men in general, but somewhere along the line I just feel as though the films got it wrong. So why am I making ‘Days of Future Past’ the first film to review here? Because this should be the film to salvage my interest, the saving grace in what, for me, is an average series of films. That, and the fact that I got the DVD for Christmas maybe.

‘Days of Future Past’ is based on the classic comic-book arc from the X-Men series, a complex story of time travel and parallel universes, which provides director Bryan Singer with the difficult task of portraying this effectively whilst avoiding any confusing butterfly effect dilemmas. Luckily for Singer, this story also presents him with the opportunity to bring together the blockbuster casts from the original trilogy, and the successful ‘First Class’ team. The legendary Hugh Jackman reprises the role of Wolverine with which he has become synonymous, but in my opinion he embodies the issues I have with the franchise. Nothing personal against Jackman, but his character is guilty of being cheesy and at times cringeworthy throughout the series, and DOFP (Days of Future Past) is certainly no exception. A lot of the music used within the film just adds to this, even the classic 70s tunes produce a cliché atmosphere rather than setting the scene as intended. The use of retro filters and handheld camera footage during the Paris fight scene however, prove to be one redeeming stylistic technique, adding an authentic feel to the events in 1973.

Similarly to ‘First Class’, where the mutants affect the course of history during the Cuban Missile crisis, Singer this time portrays the mutants as catalysts in the Vietnam war and the assassination of JFK. There does seem to be a heavy focus on American Imperialism in DOFP, more so than in previous X-Men films, which I think creates an interesting foreshadow to the apocalyptic scenes from New York and China in the future. These stunningly haunting landscapes form the setting for one of the great triumphs in the film, the depiction of the ominous Sentinels. The special effects used throughout are undoubtedly impressive, culminating in the epic final battle in China, where the sentinels run riot in Avengers-esque proportions.

Also carrying over from ‘First Class’ is the great chemistry between Fassbender and McAvoy, with McAvoy in particular excelling himself in the role of a lost and apathetic Charles Xavier. An emotional and absorbing performance gives life to the story of Xavier through his struggles and sacrifice, to become the benevolent and powerful professor we all know. Unfortunately, the development of the character of Mystique is another downfall for the film. For some reason, I just can’t buy into the sense of danger and ruthlessness Jennifer Lawrence is intending to present. Maybe it’s because she’s blue from top to toe and practically naked, but I find her scenes become a little slapstick and exaggerated.

Which brings me to the crux of the issue, I think the X-Men movies are lost somewhere on the spectrum between lighthearted, family, action film and dark, dangerous, superhero movies. A combination of big action scenes with silly gimmicks only serves to produce an odd viewing experience. The ‘perfect’ timing of the predictably happy ending concludes everything nicely, butremoves any of the ambiguity which (for me at least) provides the thrill of watching a film.

Jakob’s rating: 6.5 out of 10