The question you want to ask everytime there’s a threat to humanity: “Why don’t the other Avengers just help out?” is half-answered here as Captain America (Chris Evans) teams up with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

Captain America. He has an (almost) indestructible shield but it’s not very large. So how does he cope with a group of soldiers with machine-guns spraying bullets in his direction? Not a problem –  they will handily aim directly at the target-like design on his shield (never at his exposed legs). Helpfully his assailants will often shoot bullets at his shield long enough for him to angle it and deflect the bullets back at them.

There are a few moments like that in this movie that you need to suspend your disbelief for – maybe too many. This sequel though is definitely an improvement over the OK yet rather bland 2010 original, Captain America : The First Avenger in which weakling asthmatic army recruit Chris Evans was transformed into towering musclebound super-soldier Captain America by an experimental serum. Just like his character Evans has now grown into the role. There’s less nostalgia-tinged 1950s matinee idol about Captain America this time around although there’s still enough of those old-fashioned qualities to make him honourable and admirable.

The subtitle of the film: ‘The Winter Soldier’ refers to a mysterious masked assassin (name) who has never failed and whose actions have shaped much of history. Soon his target becomes Captain America himself.

The story begins well, with the concealed threat of Hydra gradually revealed. This is followed by a great set piece in which Captain America has to fend off an attack from ten Hydra agents in a cramped elevator. Forced onto the run he teams up with fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). But can she be trusted? In fact can anyone be trusted?

This is an entertaining and tense film, with Evans, Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson (as S.H.I.E.L.D. head Nick Fury) all on good form. My main issue was one of predictability. Having seen most, if not all of the previous Marvel super hero films *SPOILERS ALERT*, I instinctively knew that when Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) boasted about his three huge brand new hovering armoured fortresses – they would end up being used against S.H.I.E.L.D. I also immediately knew  when one of the main characters died – despite appearances to the contrary – that they weren’t actually dead. It was just too obvious that they wouldn’t kill off this particular character.

Overall this could have done with being more believable (within it’s universe) and also would have been better if it had diverted from the now well established Marvel-movie formula a little more. Otherwise this is a pretty good super-hero film. There’s a slightly unspectacular and unsaitsfying finale but this is redeemed by a touching ending. A solid 7/10.

Slimane’s step-daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi) entertains the guests at the opening of his new cous cous restaurant.

In one way this film is amazing. It transports you into someone else’s life – in this case SIimane (Habib Boufares) a 60-year-old Tunisian immigrant in France. It does such a good job that you actually feel these are real people that you are around – not just actors. You’ll experience moments of drama, high emotion, boredom, voyeurism and even everyday moments where you just feel part of the family. Some of this is due to the way the film is shot – with the camera often pointing directly at people’s faces capturing every emotion and expression and in general just moving about all over the place. It might be imitating a sudden head movement to watch a new character enter the room or just focussing on the expression on the face of an onlooker – exactly as your eyes would in real life.

Slimane who has recently been laid-off from his job at the shipyard decides to open a cous cous restaurant with his ex-wife as cook (she makes damn good cous cous – you are left in little doubt about this at an earlier family meal which can only be described as food porn). However Slimane’s new lover (Hatika Karaoui) is understandably not pleased at this sleight to her cooking skills and also by his apparent lack of loyalty and this inevitably this leads to tension and arguments. But if only this was all Slimane had to worry about…

Another boon about the film is the way that Slimane – although in no doubt the central character – is left out of many scenes as the director takes what might otherwise be background characters and brings them to the foreground. Out of the films I have seen recently this is the one that most mirrors real life in that all the characters are fully rounded and not just depicted as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters. These are for the most part good kind people but they are still gossipy, sly, temperamental, disloyal or sulky depending on circumstance.

Negatives  – it’s just like real life so it’s not overly dramatic and at almost 3 hours long it does naturally drag in a couple of places. There’s also a scene at the end where Slimane keeps doing something stupid (I’m avoiding spoilers by not being specific) in a situation where a normal person would have said “f*ck it!” and given up almost immediately. This is the one place where the story isn’t realistic and it’s a blot on an otherwise very believable story.

Great acting, great camerawork and a great film 8/10

The latest government anti-smoking campaign perhaps went a bit too far…

The synopsis of this film’s plot sounds make it sound like an update of The Wicker Man, but in fact it’s not at all – beyond the basic premise: A pastor and his family move to a new town. The community initially seems welcoming and friendly but in fact they have sinister plans in store for him and his family…

Good Points :  The uneasy terror you feel when the family realise that everyone in the town is against them – you empathise, after all what can you really do to protect yourself then? I also liked that the director didn’t feel the need to explain everything, and often leaves you to make your own mind up as to what’s really happening.

Bad Points : Beyond the uneasy fear mentioned above, it’s not really frightening. There’s a ‘creature’ of sorts (I’ll avoid going into details to not spoil things) that is so slow moving that if you have half a brain, actually poses no danger at all. The acting is generally terrible. The central couple (the pastor’s daughter and her boyfriend) are so wooden they are often in more danger of being made into furniture.

With a decent cast, script and story, this could have been genuinely scary but instead the result is a below average horror film

Don’t watch. 3/10

“Woah… I’m really sorry for what I am doing to your girlfriend tomorrow.” Jasper (George Finn), Callie (Danielle Panabaker), Finn (Matt O’Leary) study tomorrow’s photo.

Imagine if you could tell yourself yesterday what to do today after you had lived through today. Yes it’s already confusing but be prepared to have your brain turned in more knots by this time-manipulation thriller.

Three housemates discover a camera that takes pictures of the future. The twist is they are usually in the pictures so they can use this to their advantage by sending messages back to the present. As long as they remember the next day to send the messages and take the photo. At first things work out well – Jasper (George Finn) is able to make a ton of money by betting on dog races, and Finn (Matt O’Leary) an artist who previously had creative block, now sees paintings his future-self has painted and is able to copy them. However soon their future-selves start sending worrying and disturbing messages and Finn’s paintings start to look less like art and more like warnings…

This is a pretty good film, with believable acting, it’s never boring and builds tension at a good pace. It’s full of twists and turns and you’ll often think you’ll know what’s going on but you won’t.

There are negative points: some of the time-logic seems a bit flawed at times and can be confusing unless you give yourself time to think. There are a few MacGuffins in there too that enable the plot to work – e.g. the camera is bolted to the ground and only ever points at the housemates’ apartment, and an early plot point means the housemates feel they have no choice but to match exactly what their future selves are doing in the photos. A device that is used to create much of the tension and conflict.

None of this really matters however because the films works so well. Even so it still all feels a bit small-time – more like it was made by a bunch of students with limited resources rather than a proper film company. It also cops out when it comes to nudity and sex whereas it has no problems going to extremes with the violence. Again conforming  to that  weird puritanical “sex is somehow worse than seeing someone’s brains bashed out” doctrine that continues to haunt a lot of American films.

An interesting and (comparably) realistic take on the time travel genre. Both dramatic and tense.  7/10

The Hulk wrecks havoc in downtown San Francisco.

“You wouldn’t like me when I am angry”. Muscles bulge, skin turns green, clothes rip off but amazingly stretchy shorts stay on. Yes it’s The Hulk (AKA Bruce Banner here played by Eric Bana). This is a surprsingly mature adaption by Ang Lee. I presume this is relatively faithful to the comic book. The style of dialogue often seems similar to a comic and at times it adopts comic style frames to tell the story. It’s an interesting stylistic choice and works well.

However the introduction drags on for ages. Let’s face it – we all want to see the Hulk power-fantasy, not sit through reams of interminable dialogue. “How do you feel when you are the Hulk?” asks Bruce’s girlfriend Betty (Jennifer Connelly, her with the amazing eyes). “I don’t have any memory of it except… I feel free and ….. I like it”. We all like it. Hulk is at his best when smashing up things, and then growing bigger with rage and smashing even bigger things up. Yes give us some backstory but not quite so much please.

Once the Hulk finally appears and the indignity of having to beat up 3 hulk-like dogs aside (don’t ask), things get better from this point on. There are actually 2 villians here. The first is General Ross (Sam Elliot) Jennifer’s father who wants to control or destroy the Hulk. Ross brings out the full force of the US Army against the Hulk and the results are spectacular with the Hulk making huge flying leaps across the landscape while catching Hellfire missiles in his hands and flinging them back at the pursing helicopters. It’s not long before the General realises that perhaps his greatest weapon is his daughter Jennifer…

Then there’s Bruce’s Father David (Nick Nolte) who has shadier motives but whose intentions slowly become clear over the course of film. There’s a disappointing final ‘kludge’ where another Hulk-like entity is conjured up just so the Hulk has something equal to fight against but overall this is a good film albeit it one with far too much exposition.

“Hulk Smash!” (eventually anyway) 7/10

You don’t mess with Uncle Buck. (unless you need shelves putting up)

I watched this with my family one Christmas when I was young and thought it was hilarious. Now – many years later, while not bad in any way, it wasn’t quite as good as I remembered.

The story : After a Russell family emergency Uncle Buck is called in (he was last choice) to look after the children: Cold know-it-all teen Tia, and the mischievous Miles (Macaulay Caulkin pre-Home Alone) and Maizy (Gaby Hoffmann). Buck is an unconventional uncle, he’s unemployed, a bit of a slob, dries the children’s clothes in the oven, and often strays close to the wrong side of the law. He is also big (he’s John Candy after all) and is loud and clumsy.

These days comedies are faster with less down-time, and better acting. What this does have however, is heart, and the fact that it doesn’t feel the need to give the audience a laugh every few seconds actually works in it’s favour – since this leaves time for story and emotions to develop. Buck is well meaning, and eventually his warm intentions even defrost the heart of Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly) – the Russell’s cynical eldest daughter.

Buck despite being huge is always full of energy, ready to cause trouble or kick someone’s ass. This film is a good reminder of how great and energetic a comic actor John Candy was. Although watching it now with more realistic eyes, the truth is, he probably needed a lie down between takes.

Watch this as an Xmas or holiday film like I did and it’s good fun, any other time and it’s probably not funny or fast enough to keep your attention for long.

6/10

A brief moment of tenderness in an otherwise tempestuous relationship between mother Violet (Meryl Streep) and daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts).

I have to admit before watching this I was expecting a slow, over-long and over-indulgent Meryl Streep vehicle. Instead I was pleasantly surprised.

Here is a drama that is genuinely dramatic. It moves from one dramatic scene to the next, often not taking a breath in the process, but yet still managing to give breathing space to it’s characters. Their personalities and backstories are neatly fleshed-out in the way they behave and by implied events in the past. The way it should be done.

The story : A death in the family – Violet’s (Meryl Streep’s) husband, means that her extended family and friends gather at her house for the funeral and to lend support. There’s a lot to fit in: there are raging arguments, cat fights, family secrets being exposed, pot-smoking and incest. It’s funny and interesting, yet sad and tragic all at the same time.

Yes Meryl Streep is very good and despite my earlier concern rarely over-acts. However it’s Julia Roberts who impresses the most. It’s unlikely you’ll ever have seen her this aggressive and this foul-mouthed as she comes to terms with the widening gap between her and her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and the fact that yes – she is very much her mother’s daughter.

My only criticism is that it’s stagey origins (it’s based on a play) are sometimes noticeable – in the way that it does jump straight from one big scene to the next. However this could also be seen as a positive.

Overall a very good film with a quality script and a high standard of acting. Well worth watching  8/10

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