Film reviews: Ruby Sparks | Pusher | Hit & Run | Private Peaceful | Hotel Transylvania

ALISTAIR Harkness reviews the films making their way to a cinema near you...

Ruby Sparks (15)

Directed by: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton

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Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Elliot Gould, Chris Messina, Steve Coogan

Rating: * * * *

THE notion of an artist struggling to get to grips with a character that he or she has created has been prominently dealt with numerous times before on film by the likes of Woody Allen and Charlie Kaufman (not to mention that terrible Will Ferrell film Stranger than Fiction). Nevertheless, married directing team Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) put a fresh and darkly compelling spin on the Pygmalion myth by using it as the basis for a fantastical romantic comedy that deconstructs quirky stereotypes to get at something more truthful about the debilitating ways in which people try to mould their significant others into their ideal partners. Much of the credit for the film’s success in tackling this, however, should be attributed to its star and writer Zoe Kazan. Her incisive script runs with the fanciful conceit of having a blocked novelist (Paul Dano) literally write into existence his dream woman (Kazan) without shying away the messy implications that arise when the eponymous Ruby Sparks begins to outgrow her creator, whose own limited experience with, and understanding of, women restricts his imagination. The result is a smart, literate, yet still heartfelt take on love and what it really means to be with someone.

Pusher (18)

Directed by: Luis Prieto

Starring: Richard Coyle, Bronson Webb, Agyness Deyn, Paul Kaye, Zlatko Buric

Rating: * *

HAVING already formed the basis for an impressive, ultra-stylish cult gangster trilogy, Nicolas Winding Refn’s career-launching 1996 debut Pusher is franchised again for the English-language market with this London-set update. Alas, aside from Richard Coyle’s committed turn in the title role, this otherwise overly familiar tale of an up-against-it drug dealer (Coyle) trying to settle a massive debt while his coterie of associates, girlfriends and useless mates inadvertently screws things up for him, feels like just another pointless remake. Where Refn’s ultra low-budget original was a visceral, gut-punching genre film that flew in the face of the Dogme 95 movement defining Danish cinema at the time, the new version, made by Spanish-born director Luis Prieto, is all empty style and possesses very little of the dread and excitement that made Refn’s version stand out. Indeed, with the Drive director serving as executive producer – and Zlatko Buric reprising his role as the drug kingpin to whom Coyle’s Frank is in hock – it’s as if the film has taken a few of Refn’s signature contrast-heavy compositions and cut them with more generic material in an effort to pass it off to punters as the real deal. Whether you’ve sampled the original or not, it’s dodgy gear.

Hit & Run (15)

Directed by: Dax Shepard, David Palmer

Starring: Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell, Bradley Cooper, Tom Arnold, Beau Bridges

Rating: * * *

WITH his second film as a writer/director, American sitcom star Dax Shepard travels down a significantly less introspective filmmaking path than peers such as Zach Braff and Josh Radnor. That’s probably a good thing, though, for while Hit & Run, which he co-directed with David Palmer, may attempt to analyse the intricacies of a modern relationship, it does so via a story that plays out like a self-conscious throwback to the Smokey and the Bandit films – something that, surprisingly, works in Hit & Run’s favour. Shepard plays Yul Perrkins, a likeable-seeming guy who decides to risk coming out of the witness relocation programme to drive his girlfriend Annie (Kristen Bell) cross-country to a last-minute interview for her dream job. Running-on-fumes plot duly established, it’s not long before the couple’s relationship is put to the test as a collection of cops, criminals and ex-boyfriends chase them to LA. In between all the retro car fetishism and old-school stunt driving (much of which is clearly being done by Shepard and Bell), Bradley Cooper’s arrival as a deadly, dog-loving, dreadlocked ex-con causes the film to veer into some very 1990s post-Tarantino caper territory. Yet despite the tonal split that ensues, this ends up being kind of fun.

Private Peaceful (12A)

Directed by: Pat O’Connor

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Richard Griffiths, John Lynch, George Mackay

Rating: * *

FOLLOWING Steven Spielberg’s bland and drearily old-fashioned War Horse, this latest adaptation of a Michael Morpurgo war weepie manages to be even more tedious and uninteresting. Looking like a bit of Sunday-night TV from 30 years ago, it recounts in boringly detailed fashion the tale of two brothers, from their hardscrabble upbringing in rural Devon, through their shared love of the same girl, to the horrors of the Western Front that force them to grow up far too quickly. Told from the about-to-be-executed point-of-view of younger brother Tommo (George MacKay), the film attempts to use his imminent court-martial via the firing squad as a dramatic framing device for an extended flashback that leads us by the hand through his tragedy-tinged life. But the film only ever threatens to come alive when focused on his roustabout sibling Charlie (Jack O’Connell). Along the way, clanging attempts are also made to chart how the First World War exposed a generational and class divide within Britain, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been seen in dozens of better dramas.

Hotel Transylvania (U)

Directed by: Genddy Tartakovsky

Voices: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez

Rating: * *

WITH his live-action comedies finally falling out of favour with the American public, Adam Sandler made a surprise return to the top of the US box-office recently as the voice of Dracula in this CG animated adventure. Its success, however, is no marker of quality; rather it’s a sign that, as with the Ice Age movies, making inoffensively bland family entertainment is sometimes a licence to print money. That’s too bad because the film’s monster mash premise, if far from original, is not unpromising. In present day Transylvania, Dracula runs the titular hotel as a holiday retreat for the world’s monsters, allowing them to relax in safety, far away from the perceived threat posed by baying hordes of torch-wielding, pitchfork-toting humans intent only on destroying them. Personal experience with the latter has turned the Count into a widowed overprotective parent who is reluctant to let his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) spread her batwings – more so after a spaced-out backpacker (Andy Samberg) turns up and catches her eye. Though the film is built around Dracula’s parental angst, there’s really not enough here to sustain the gags which, save for save for one late dig at Twilight, just aren’t funny enough to stand on their own.