Earlier this year, Spartacus: Blood & Sand was described here as ‘an eye-popping mash-up of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Zack Snyder’s 300 -with added soft-focus sex scenes to break up the relentless violence‘. After the tragic illness and subsequent death of leading man Andy Whitfield, the producers headed back to the drawing board for a similarly intense prequel, entitled Spartacus: Gods of the Arena (Anchor Bay).
The much-maligned prequel sometimes feels like the poor relation of the film franchise family -witness George Lucas and his ill-judged Star Wars prequels for proof -so it is pleasing to report how well-thought out this six episode Spartacus spin-off actually is. Gods of the Arena follows the fortunes of new character Gannicus (Dustin Clare, Underbelly), a man whose gladiatorial skills are overshadowed only by his knack for boozing and womanising. Under the indulgent eye of inexperienced Lanista (gladiator manager) Batiatus (John Hannah), Gannicus seeks to blaze a trail across the kill-pits of Capua and give the House of Batiatus its first champion. Little does the ambitious Gannicus realise, he and his peers are mere pawns in the unscrupulous Batiatus’s deadly game.
Rather than tone down the frequently outrageous content in a bid for mainstream consumption, the producers have actually plumbed new depths with this lurid prequel, and the sex scenes are now sleazier and the violence grislier. However, the series’ base elements aren’t simply pushed to the fore to disguise the lack of narrative -the plotting is actually tighter than before, and fleshes out the back-stories of a number of integral characters to compelling effect. With additional roles for Jaime Murray (Hustle, Dexter) as the sultry Gaia and Temuera Morrison (Once Were Warriors) as stern-faced trainer Doctore, the producers have enough fresh impetus to keep the series moving forward. It may not be for the faint-hearted -and anyone who found the original series too tawdry for comfort will likely remain unconvinced of its merits -but Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is a masterful prequel that indulges its creators’ bizarre imaginations to the hilt. Great fun.
Based on the semi-autobiographical book of the same name, Screwed (Lionsgate) is a brutally efficient prison drama in which the prison guards prove to be even worse than the men they are supposed to be watching. Arriving home after a traumatic tour of duty in Iraq, former Marine Sam Norwood (James D’Arcy, Master and Commander) finds himself forced to take a job as a prison officer, against his better instincts. Keen to learn the ropes from his hardened colleagues, Sam quickly falls into a joyless post-work existence of heavy drinking and drug-fuelled visits to lap-dancing clubs -jeopardising his relationship with his wife and child in the process, as he seeks distraction from the horrors lurking inside the prison walls.
Full of bleak energy, gritty violence and coarse language, Screwed paints an uncompromising picture of the UK prison system, but unfortunately the film wavers every time it attempts to move the plot forward. Indeed, the disjointed narrative underlines the difficulties of trying to adapt an episodic memoir into a punchy thriller, with the entirely predictable narrative curve winning few points for originality. Thanks to menacing turns from Frank Harper (Football Factory, A Room For Romeo Brass) and Noel Clarke (Kidulthood, Adulthood) Screwed is a worthwhile slice of incarcerated carnage, but it ultimately lacks the sophistication of a classic latter-day prison movie like A Prophet. That said, the film should find an appreciative audience in fans of exploitative home-grown hooligan and gangster flicks.
Directed by Jodie Foster, and conceived as a star vehicle for her disgraced long-time friend Mel Gibson, The Beaver (Icon Home Entertainment) is a self-consciously bizarre comedy/drama that sees the former-Mad Max take on one of his maddest roles yet. Plagued by demons and wracked with self-doubt, Walter Black (Gibson) is formerly successful toy executive and family man, whose personal and professional life has gone off the rails in emphatic fashion. After alienating his loving family with his glum behaviour, Walter is kicked out by his long-suffering wife (Foster), to the enormous relief of eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin, Fright Night). Following a failed suicide attempt in a seedy motel room, Walter inexplicably develops an alternative personality represented by a soiled beaver hand puppet that he found in a dumpster. He promptly starts to communicate through the puppet -which gives him a new lust for life -and slowly attempts to win back the trust of his family and colleagues.
Once you get your head around the deeply unusual premise, The Beaver is a surprisingly compelling little film, and Gibson’s presence imbues the film with a level of gravitas that it probably wouldn’t have had if (previously attached leading men) Jim Carrey or Steve Carell had remained involved with the project. The Beaver is an undeniably strange choice of feature for occasional director Foster to return to the spotlight with, but to its credit, it is never anything less than memorable. If nothing else, The Beaver is worth watching for the gravelly cockney voice Gibson gives the puppet, which is said to have been modelled on Gibson’s Edge of Darkness co-star Ray Winstone! File under: Weird but appealing.
Scripted by the writing team behind The Hangover, Flypaper (Lionsgate) is a dubious action/comedy hybrid about what happens when two rival teams of bank robbers attempt to rob the same bank on the same day. Caught in the middle of the chaos are obsessive-compulsive customer Tripp Kennedy (Patrick Dempsey, Grey’s Anatomy) and perky bank cashier Kaitlin (Ashley Judd, Kiss The Girls, Twisted), who gravitate towards one another in a bid to survive the trigger-happy events unfolding around them. While one of the gangs is a slick, professional operation lead by the unflustered Darrien (Mekhi Phifer, 8 Mile), their rivals are disorganised redneck duo Peanut Butter (Tim Blake Nelson) and Jelly (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who turned up armed with a terrifying quantity of plastic explosive.
Action/comedy mash-ups are notoriously tough to pull off, and despite their comedy credentials, screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore come badly unstuck with Flypaper, groping desperately for laughs as the increasingly unfunny scenario unravels. In truth, despite an appealing premise, the film feels as tired as Tim Blake Nelson’s well-worn redneck shtick. The slap-dash attempt at adding a Usual Suspects-style twist falls equally flat, and Flypaper ranks as a damp squib. All in all, a sloppy, derivative piece of filmmaking that does little to enhance the reputations of anyone involved.