Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Hansel And Gretel - Witch Hunters (15)

It never ceases to amaze me just how many people fail to spot the difference between a cinema and their living room.

It's like they are completely oblivious to the wider world. And by wider, I mean anywhere further than 6 inches from the head they so clearly have rammed up their own backsides. For any such people reading this, here's a handy guide:

Living room - here you can talk, munch crisps, fold empty crisp packets, chat some more, eat sweets from wrappers seemingly made from tissue paper and broken glass, check your phone, eat more crisps, more sweets and carry on chatting.

Cinema - it's bigger, darker, the screen is about 20 times the size of your TV and if you do any of the above you are going to seriously piss off the other patrons. Especially when they've paid a stupid amount of money to get the full cinematic experience.

And if you're not careful, one of those pissed-off patrons will berate you online. But I digress...

To be honest, my mood wasn't great as I entered the audio lottery that Screen 8 was to become to watch Hansel And Gretel - Witch Hunters. It seems that while Cineworld are happy to charge you a minor limb for the privilege of watching a film in their establishment, they'd rather you queued behind the snack-buying rabble who are going to do their best to ruin the film for you instead of them providing a lacky at the ticket desk.

I believe that's pretty much the definition of 'insult to injury'.

One's heart sank further when, having been briefly buoyed by trailers for Iron Man 3 and Man Of Steel (maybe Zack Snyder won't stuff this one up), the opening credits reveal not only MTV Films as one of the production companies, but Will Ferrell as a producer. Pretty much essential ingredients for any major shit sandwich I thought, sinking further into my seat as Mr Crisps finished his packet origami.

Fortunately, I was wrong.

Now, I'm not claiming H&G is a great work of art here - you won't leave the cinema pondering the state of the human condition (well, you might, but that's down to the audience) - but what you have is dumb-as-nuts popcorn fodder that pisses about with steam punk and fairytale conventions and covers them in squish and blood.

The tale, such as it is, involves the titular siblings (played by Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner) taking to witch hunting having killed the one that trapped them in her house made of candy. They are hired by a village's mayor - against the wishes of the nasty sheriff - to hunt down the witch which is nabbing kiddies. From here things go bang, whizz, pop, squish, splat, snap, bang again and screech.

It's all good fun.

The cast do what they do well. Arterton is strangely sweet as a crossbow-toting girl on a mission, and while Renner seems slightly distant on-screen (can be explained away by his Hansel's childhood I guess...) he handles the multitude of fight scenes well.

Then there's Famke Janssen. Now, I've been a fan since her appearance in Star Trek (Next Gen, she's not that old) and I love her in the original X-Men trilogy, but here she somehow fails to conjure the necessary sinister evil madness and menace the role of grand queen majesty evil witch requires.

A quick aside - she makes a point of gloating to Gretel that her names are too many and wondrous for mere mortals to utter. IMDB says she's Muriel...

It feels like Janssen is happy for the effects and make-up to carry the load while she focuses on looking good in black. And she does. But she would. She'd look good in a bin bag. It just would have lifted several of the scenes if she'd at least hinted at the nasty within. Even when she's beating up H&G, it feels a bit, well, hollow.

Despite this slight drawback, the action scenes - while at times too blurred for you to work out who's what has just been smashed into the scenery - are brutal and fast-paced. The use of weapons and gadgets (they've invented the first tazer) is a good move, with bullets and arrows splintering doors, limbs and trees with gay abandon.

Even the more expositional sections of dialogue don't irk, but fill in the H&G back story without slowing the pace down too much.

And if 3D is your bag, it may well work. There are enough scenes that have clearly been designed for the requisite bits 'n' bobs to come flying out of the screen, even if some seem a bit muddied.

Apart from Thomas Mann (as geeky fanboy-turned-helper Ben), Derek Mears (Edward) and Pihla Viitala (as Mina), the supporting cast doesn't really have much to do. Peter Stormare is suitably panto-esque as the nasty Sheriff, but everyone else pretty much blends into the scenery (although not naming the Sheriff's hired goons is a nice touch). So, it's loud, dumb, brash nonsense. That's all good.

And it has a positive message. Hansel is diabetic. This came about from being force-fed sweeties by the nasty witch at the beginning. Get that? Too many sweeties = diabetes. A message wasted on the over-sized sweetie muncher with the noisy wrappers five seats to my right, but at least writer/director Tommy Wirkola tried.

But then there's the bad.

While it looks lush and bright, as mentioned earlier, the fight scenes are at times too dark and messy to make out what's going on. And while you expect the plot to be hokey, it creates big problems for itself.

Without giving anything away, there are two very clear moments when you wonder a) how Muriel (sorry, but the more I type that the dumber a name for an evil witch it is) didn't know and b) how Hansel failed to grasp what Muriel was yelling at him.

Oh, and don't start dwelling on H&G's grasp of geography because the whole thing will fall apart.
(I appreciate none of this makes much sense, but it will when you've seen the film. Go see, pop back, read again... see? You're welcome).

But oddly, none of that really bothered me.

In fact, the only thing that did bother me (and this I still can't rationalise given my own vocabulary) was the use of the 'f' word. It just didn't sit within the rest of the film - in fact, the first time it's uttered it sounds like it's being used by a child attempting to look grown up.

It's almost as if it was written into the dialogue to make the characters try and resonate with its target audience, and there was really no need.

I have no problem with the word, obviously, (I may be a hypocrite, but not on this subject), but it needs - as do all words used by scriptwriters - to sit snugly in the dialogue. It needs to be at home, fit snugly in the home it is given. But it doesn't.

As I may have pointed out many times, this film won't change your life. But if you park your brain in neutral, tolerate the inconsiderate nincompoops who seem to populate cinemas these days, don't ask too may questions, then Hansel And Gretel - Witch Hunters will help to pass a perfectly pleasant 90 minutes.

And it's already made a profit in America, so I'd be amazed if there wasn't a sequel.

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Oscars 2013

And so, as the dust settles, and I wonder why my body felt the need to be awake for this year's Oscars, let's reflect on America's (and, by association, the whole world's) year in film.

Well, for a start, the office cat (now asking to be known as Richard Parker) gave his views on this year's ceremony by going out just before it all began, and then asking to come back in just as the credits rolled.

Clearly no fan of Seth MacFarlane.

Which is a tad harsh, because while he's no Bob Hope or Billy Crystal, Seth did OK hosting the show. Jokes about Argo (a film so secret the Academy wasn't allowed to know who the director was) and Amour (or This Is 90) were OK. We didn't need Captain Kirk showing up, we didn't need a whole host of song and dance numbers, but at least he wasn't Ricky Gervais.

Elsewhere, no one really did anything shocking or embarrassing. The speeches were kept fairly short, famous movie stars proved why they need the safety net of several takes and no audience to deliver three lines, and Renee Zellweger looked like she didn't know if she was at The Oscars or shopping at Walmart.

Oh, and Liam Neeson and Kristen Stewart proved that their personality-free acting style isn't an act.

Of the awards, there were no big shocks - except maybe in the Best Actress category, where the hotly-tipped birthday girl Emmanuelle Riva didn't win for her role in Amour. And that was it.

All a bit safe and sanitised, not a stunning year, but the good people won the good stuff and Ben Affleck gave good speech (almost quoting Chumbawamba into the bargain). In fact, the only real shock was the amount of botox that had been used. John Travolta and Jennifer Aniston could barely move an eyebrow between them, and Zellweger looked like she'd bathed in the stuff...

So, on to who won what (this is in order. Why Best Supporting Actor was first is beyond me):

Best Supporting Actor
Christoph Waltz

Best Animated Short Film
Paperman

Best Animated Feature
Brave

Best Cinematographer
Claudio Miranda, Life Of Pi

Best Visual Effects
Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R Elliott, Life Of Pi

Best Costume Design
Jacqueline Durran, Anna Karenina

Best Make-Up and Hairstyling
Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell, Les Miserable

Best Live-Action Short Film
Curfew

Best Documentary Short
Inocente

Best Documentary Feature
Searching For Sugar Man

Best Foreign Language Film
Amour

Best Sound Mixing
Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes, Les Miserables

Best Sound Editing
Paul NJ Ottosson for Zero Dark Thirty, tied with Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers for Skyfall

Best Supporting Actress
Anne Hathaway

Film Editing
William Goldenberg, Argo

Production Design
Rick Carter and Jim Erickson, Lincoln

Best Original Score
Mychael Danna, Life Of Pi

Best Song
Skyfall by Adele

Best Adapted Screenplay
Chris Terrio, Argo

Best Original Screenplay
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Best Director
Ang Lee, Life Of Pi

Best Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Actor
Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln

Best Film
Argo

Right, I need another cuppa. Right after I've let Richard Parker out again...

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Lore (15)

Sometimes, it feels wonderful to actually know you've watched a film.

I don't mean by walking out into the sunlight, blinking, while you talk about the special effects and jokes while fumbling for your lighter.

Rather, by feeling so moved by what you have seen, so connected to the characters portrayed on screen, that you sit there, not wanting to move, not wanting that feeling to end.

So it was with Lore.

Based on Rachel Seiffert's book The Dark Room, Lore (pronounced Laura) tells the tale of a family of children attempting to make it across Germany in the days after the fall of the Third Reich. Their parents have been captured, the world is in chaos, and all they have is each other as they attempt to make it to the safety of their grandmother's house.

On the face of it, not a fun frolic through the Fatherland. And it's not.

It's a stark, harrowing tale as children too young to understand have to face up to a world that is changing. From being members of a favoured family, high-up in the regime, they are forced to scavenge and scrape by as the conquering forces divide the country up.

But it's also wonderfully compelling, drawing you in instantly and never letting you go.
There are two things that give this film the emotional impact it has - how it is shot, and how it is performed.

Now, normally, the phrase "it looks lovely" is critical shorthand for "there's nothing going on here", but that's not the case with Lore. The filming is so lush, and some scenes so moving, that it underlines the stark reality of life for Lore and her family. Rather than covering up shortcomings, director Cate Shortland has used deft brush strokes to enliven and enhance the story.

But all that would be for nowt if it wasn't for Saskia Rosendahl. Not even 20 when Lore was made, and in only her second film, she shines as a young girl forced to take on responsibility for her family.
Through her you feel the hardships, the cultural shocks, and it is a measure of her performance that you don't hate her when the instilled Nazi hatred and dogma comes to the fore.

I honestly can't remember the last time I felt so moved by a performance.

But she's not alone in capturing a raw, honest, harrowing portrayal of youth forced to take on a world created and destroyed by adults.

Alongside her is Kai-Peter Malina, of The White Room fame. Here he plays a young man on the run using Jewish papers, who teams up with Lore to effectively take on the father's role of finding food and shelter. He creates the perfect foil for Rosendahl, allowing her space and focus as Lore battles with reality, while at the same time leaving his own impression on the audience with a performance that is beautifully subtle and understated.

I'll admit, sitting there watching children fighting for survival as the world they knew is torn apart by powers beyond their comprehension and control will not be everyone's idea of a great night out - but this film is strangely heartwarming and uplifting.

Yes, Lore is entrenched in the Nazi mindset, yes her younger brothers are well-drilled Hitler Youth boys, yes she learns ways of getting what her family needs that she should have been shielded from - but is any of that really her fault?

Well, that's ultimately for you to decide.

All I can tell you is that as the credits rolled, I just wanted to watch it all over again.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Mama (15)

Now I know this is probably an unpopular opinion - but I bloody love Mama.

From its slow build-up to its sense of menace and foreboding, it delivers on just about every level.
I won't say I wasn't surprised when it got made into a full-length....

What?

You sure? (flicks through press notes)

Well there you go. (double-checks press notes)

Nothing to do with Genesis after all.

Oh.

Mama is, in fact, a 'presented by Guillermo del Toro' feature based on a 2008 short film of the same name and by the same people.

Now, as all film buffs know, 'presented by GdT' (as he likes to be known) means many things. For a start, it means he likes it - and he knows what makes a good film, does the creator of Pan's Labyrinth. It also means it should be creepy and scary. It also means it's no guarantee it will be.

In this case, however, it is. In places.

In others, you'll find yourself screaming at the screen in incredulity.

The story starts off well enough - father kills mother following some dodgy financial goings on, goes on run with their daughters, drives over cliff, finds house, gets whisked away by the ghostly Mama leaving young Victoria and Lilly to fend for themselves. With Mama's help.

But it's OK, fear not, their beloved uncle is on the case and he will stop at nothing - including financial ruin - to track down his brother's children. And just as the money runs out, they are found. All is well.

Except, of course, it's not.

From here on in, all the fine modern horror conventions are observed as Victoria and Lilly are integrated back into their new family home. Along with Mama. And while there are scares and suspense aplenty, it's here that issues with the film start to emerge.

Let's start with the positives, though.

Megan Charpentier (Victoria) and Isabelle Nelisse (Lilly) are creepy as all hell. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is great as uncle Lucas trying to give his nieces a normal life. Daniel Kash, as Dr Dreyfuss, is a fine child psychologist and Jane Moffat convinces as Aunt Jean, a woman who wants the children for herself (in a non-sinister way).

Amazingly, it's Jessica Chastain (fresh from finding bin Laden) who is a problem. Now, I love Chastain. Wonderful in Zero Dark Thirty, wonderful in The Help... I had high hopes. But here she fails to convince as Annabel, a goth bass player who has parenthood thrust upon her by dint of the fact she's sleeping with the girls' uncle. If she's a goth bassist, the Chuckle Brothers are qualified decorators.
Part of the problem is having her as a goth bassist. It serves no purpose other than to suggest she's wild, an individual (she has tattoos you know), a girl who walks her own path.  A girl who's in the least convincing band ever is what she is. Would it have been so hard for her "singer" to at least watch a few genre-specific music videos to at least get a feel for how a singer would hold themselves?
And if you're a musician, why would you just leave your bass lying around within grabbing distance of young, curious fingers? I know she's not used to children - the point is well made and well laboured from the outset - but she is supposed to be used to guitars. She is supposed to earn her living this way. There isn't a hope in hell she would just leave it on the sofa for weeks on end. She'd have moved it on day two.
I'm sorry, but these sorts of things bug me.

Amazingly, it bugs me more than the bit when she's upstairs while eight-year-old Victoria is frying breakfast alone in the kitchen. And this isn't the only flaw in the film.
The issue of dwindling finances is important enough to be brought up just as the girls are found - and yet, it never comes up again. Even though no one seems to be working. And then there's the bit when Lucas is thrown down the stairs by Mama and taken to hospital. An odd hospital, where Dr Dreyfuss (a child psychologist, lest we forget) is the man to treat broken bones and concussion.
And when Lucas recovers enough to leave hospital, how fortunate someone thought to put into his overnight bag the old map he'd been using in his search for the girls. Genius bit of foresight that. Meanwhile, at home, going through the files of the now disappeared Dr Dreyfuss (only his secretary seems to give a shit - I reckon she was sleeping with him), Annabel takes care to make sure the girls can't hear the interviews of them she is watching by plugging in some headphones.\
Clever girl.

And we are now listening with her, through the headphones. We know this because the sound clearly changes when the jack is plugged in. So it's somewhat amazing to find, minutes later, that we can still hear the interview even though she's taken the headphones off. It's a little thing, I know, but it sometimes feels like people don't actually watch the films they're working on.

And either the bad aunt had a key to the house (bloody unlikely in the circumstances) or she's a grade-A lock-picker. It's one or the other.

And there's a bit at the end, after the solution to everyone's issues is discovered, that'll have you laughing out loud. To avoid spoiling things, lets just ask how she managed to slip it under her coat.
You'll understand if and when you get that far. Oh, and the less said about The Grudge, the better.

Yet.

And yet.

If all this gives you the impression I didn't like or enjoy Mama, you'd be wrong.

Yes it's bonkers, flawed and has more plot holes than an entire Gruyere, but... it still managed to make me jump, it's filmed beautifully, I found myself holding my breath and tensing at the right moments.

And the ending did not disappoint. In fact, it almost got a standing ovation (the Wittertainment Code Of Conduct prevented me, but I was cheering in spirit). Because, with all that's wrong with Mama, the fact the Muschetti's had the balls to do what they did deserves high praise indeed.

Oh, and PS...


You can see how I got confused...





Friday, 22 February 2013

Cloud Atlas (15)

Time is a precious thing.

As we toddle through our lives, as age creeps upon us, we become more aware that we only have a finite amount of days, months and years with which to fulfil our destiny, to achieve all we hope to achieve.

Which is kind of the message of Cloud Atlas - that we all have roles to play, tasks to accomplish, destiny to reach for, as we go through life. Whichever one it is we happen to currently be living.

Which is why it's all the more galling that this film is, near as dammit, three bloody hours long.

Don't get me wrong, I've had worse three-hour periods of my life in the cinema (if I ever get to meet Mr Baggins, we're having words), but when the whole message seems to be about living your life and playing your part in the universe... well... it's somewhat incongruous - not to say ironic - that one has to waste so much time getting the message.

If that was the message.

The message could equally have been 'fuck it, doesn't matter'.

But I'll get to that later.

For those of you who haven't read the best-selling David Mitchell book (and I am one - but, as I'm sure will become a recurring theme, I'm a busy man) what we have with Cloud Atlas is not one but six (seven for the pedants among you) yarns about different folks at different periods in time. Only they're not all different.

Each time period is linked to the next, and the next, by people and events. And the telling of each piece is done well. With a star-studded cast that would shame Movie43 (Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Ben Wishaw, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon - all playing many parts), we move between an 1850s ocean-going vessel, modern-day London, 1930s Scotland, 1970s San Francisco, 2140s Neo Seoul and post-apocalyptic Hawaii (both 2321 and 2346) in as haphazard a method as is possible.

It's confusing as all hell, and yet it makes total sense. All at the same time.

And the performances are great. Doona Bae shines as Sonmi-451 in a futuristic Korea that brings to mind both Blade Runner and Attack Of The Clones (in as much as it shows what George could have achieved. But then, the whole "new trilogy" could be re-named the If Only years. But I digress. A rant for another day perhaps, or even another life). The scenes look the part, they are totally believable as a world away from our own.

Elsewhere, Jim Broadbent flips between an ailing composer, a sneery sea captain and a dodgy literary agent with consummate ease. Hugh Grant both acts (his vicar and vindictive millionaire are great) and reverts to type (his 70s fuel magnate comes from any number of standard Grant performances), Tom Hanks shows both his vast range (characters) and limits (accents) and Halle Berry is surprisingly measured both as a journalist and a futuristic seeker of truths.

But, for me, it's Hugo Weaving who steals the show. From voodoo-esque god of mischief to an evil nurse via a cold hit man, he simply oozes the menace and foreboding that is required of him. Even when he's at his nicest (in the early years towards the end of the film...), there's an underlying tone that chimes with what is to come and has already been.

If you get me.

You see, one of the problems I have with Cloud Atlas is the message it carries within. If indeed there is a message. I suspect everyone seeing it, or who has already read the book, has their own idea of what it's about. I'm just not sure the film is about as much as it thinks it is.

It reeks of worthiness and lofty ambitions, but at the same time seems to have no more depth than the office cat's water bowl. It's trying to explain, and show in many a convoluted twist and turn, that everything is connected, that everyone has their role to play, and how Shakespeare was on the money when he posited that a man in his time may play many parts (even if 'his time' may spread over thousands of years).

Or it's trying to show you that the universe has a plan, and much as you try the universe will win in the end. That we're effectively just atoms bouncing around, impacting on those we hit, but with no ultimate control over our destiny.

Or it's trying to show you that with redemption comes love, while those who pursue entirely selfish aims are doomed to die alone in an Hawaiian hut, their face painted up like an extra from Doomsday.

At some point as well, I'm expecting certain sections of the American right to denounce it as promoting communist dogma. Ultimately, Cloud Atlas can give you a lot of things, and you can take out of it what you want.

Yes, there are the big, neon-flashing messages of love, hope and redemption, but if you want to just sit back and enjoy the bonkersness of it all, you'll get something out of it too.

The comedy story (Broadbent breaking out of a care home helped by Last Of The Summer Wine's Howard) is a good, light-hearted romp. The 70s thriller is action-packed and tense, the sci-fi story is glorious (if you think you're upset about what's in your food now...) and the post-apocalypse period is, well, it has goats.

I'm not kidding.

There is a scene where a brash youngster happily steals the show. And then they disappear. Poof. Gone. Vanished. Without so much as a goodbye bleat. It's quite the mystery. If only because the man charged with looking after them (Hanks) seems to not give it a second thought.

And there lies another problem I have with Cloud Atlas.

I shouldn't have been giving the goats a second thought - but I was. When a young Broadbent is covering his modesty with a cat, I laughed - and then, minutes later, started wondering when the aforementioned office moggy needed his jabs.

For all the weight and heft the film thinks it's carrying, it fails to hold your attention for the whole experience. Caught up in it all, you may not notice two of Hanks' characters have terrible accents (I won't spoil the surprise for you), but you aren't and you do.

Despite these flaws, however, I did enjoy Cloud Atlas.

Yes, it sometimes looks like a show reel for the actors, set designers, make-up artists and costume folks.

Yes, it tries to make a full philosophy out of the twisted logic of Dirk Gently. Yes it's far too long. BUT...

Given what Jackson's doing with the Hobbit, we should be grateful they stuck to one film (they could have got an entire franchise).

This film has been made with a lot of love and care - on both sides of the camera. It understands the individual genres it's playing with. There are some good performances. And above all, somehow, it actually manages to be fun.

It just needs to take better care of its goats.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Sound City (15)

Drummers, eh? Can't live with 'em (it's noisy), and you can't live without them ('cos then the bassist would have to keep time, and where would that leave you?).

Dave Grohl, it seems, is the exception to half this rule - you can live with him, because he's just a bloody likeable guy.

People still couldn't live without him, though, because take Mr G out of the universe and you have no Nirvana, no Foo Fighters, no Songs For The Deaf from Queens Of The Stone Age, no Them Crooked Vultures.... And, importantly, no Sound City.

For those who spend more time in a cinema than near a stereo, and for those slow on the uptake, Dave Grohl is a multi-instrumentalist whose band Foo Fighters have pretty much conquered the world.

He's also funny, charismatic, got a lovely family - in fact, hating him wouldn't take much effort at all.
Especially as he now seems to have successfully turned his hand to film making. The bastard.

It helps, of course, that he's talking about things he loves - namely music, musicians and the studio where it all began for him.

This could have been a seriously dull affair. It could have been self-indulgent (and it doesn't entirely dodge that bullet), it could have just been a bunch of musicians (and Ratt) sitting around talking about the good ol' days. But it's not.

It's more than that.

As Mr G points out towards the end, it started out as a bid to tell the story of the Neve board - the hulking great recording desk the studio had installed at twice the cost of owner Tom Skeeter's house.
Created by Rupert Neve (the interview with him is lovely), it was at the cutting edge of recording technology. And it was meant to be at the heart of the film.

But the film becomes more than that. Sure, people love the Neve board (Tom Petty looks so at home leaning on it...) but it's the people who become the real story of Sound City. And not just the rock stars who passed through the doors.

The feeling and family, friendship and love runs right through this film - to the extent that when they talk about the day it closed, you find yourself welling up alongside the people on the screen. The studio was so much a part of their lives, they are still coming to terms with its passing.

And you share that with them - and that is entirely down to Grohl.

By staying mostly out of the way, he allows the story to unfold naturally, overlapping stories neatly and with a deft touch not normally associated with one who hits stuff for a living. We find out how the studio played its part in the lives of Neil Young (whose arrival at the studio is a top tale), Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Rick Springfield, producer Keith Olsen, Rage Against The Machine, Nine Inch Nails - basically if you listen to any music of note from the last 40 years, at least one album in your collection will have been recorded here.

And, at a time when the film industry is talking about a digital revolution (Side By Side, the Keanu Reeves documentary, covers this. Expect a review later this month), how perfect that the digitisation of music should play such a part in Sound City, with cheaper alternatives to the studio eventually robbing City of its livelihood.

At a cost, not just to the people who worked there, but to the wider musical world - as current go-to producer Rick Rubin laments.

Now, I'll confess I'm something of an 'old school' tape geek. I grew up surrounded by reel-to-reel players (still have one), I trained as a radio journalist on proper, cut-it-with-a-razor, tape. And loved it. That feeling of touching the thing you're working on is something that can't be replicated. I imagine serial killers feel much the same way, but I digress.

And it's that love of the old school that runs right through this documentary.

I laughed, I got a tad misty-eyed, I ticked off all the albums I had that were recorded there...

That's not to say it's perfect. Not by any means. While the story of the studio and the Neve board and the people whose job basically became their life is vibrantly told, the final act of the film - where Grohl calls in all his famous friends to make a record on the Neve board (now relocated to his home studio) - does get a bit self-indulgent.

Do we need to watch the whole recording session with Paul 'Macca' McCartney? No. Do we need to actually watch Trent Reznor 'using technology as an instrument'? Not particularly. But to be honest, who cares?

By then, Grohl has built up such a bank of goodwill, you forgive him. He's having his fun.

But he's allowed you to have a lot of fun first.

(After a one-night cinema run - you've already missed it - Sound City and its stunning soundtrack will be out on March 11.)

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Beautiful Creatures (12A)

One of the things I love about the entertainment industry - and the film industry in particular - is the fact that original ideas are happily eschewed in favour of milking an established cash cow.

Why risk a new thing that might be shit, right?

The Beatles are from Liverpool? Quick, sign more Liverpool bands. And Cilla.

People like watching celebrities? Quick, chuck a load in a swimming pool.

People like supernatural/magical vampirey stuff? Quick, step right this way...

But first, let me be fair here. I am neither female nor 14, so odds on I'm not the target audience here. I have read half a Twilight book (and managed quite a decent distance when lobbing it away in disgust as Bella went from feisty independent girlie to swooney simperer) and watched three of the films, though, so I am aware of the universe writer/director Richard LaGravenese is aiming at with Beautiful Creatures.

It just would have been nice if he'd maybe been a little less aware, or made more of an effort to distance himself from it.

For those of you who haven't read the popular books, the story centres around Lena Duchannes (played by Alice Englert) and her beau/Southern Gentleman/boyfriend/puppydog Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich). She's a caster (NOT witch), he's a bookish, non-jock sort who yearns to read his Bukowski books somewhere other than Gatlin, South Carolina.

The rest of the town are bible-bashing bigots who hate change and Lena's whole family. And books. They ban books for fun in this town.

From Lena's arrival, it's a faux Romeo And Juliet rom-com, with spells, the individual triumphing over the small-minded collective and positive messages of love and sacrifice. Not celibacy, you'll notice. They've left that to the Twilight world.

Which is all fine and dandy. That's all good stuff, all standard fair that has been hashed and rehashed on the small and big screen to great success. It just doesn't seem enough.

The performances are great - nothing wrong in that department. Ehrenreich and Englert are good together (even if she does have something of the Bellas about her), and the fellow pupils convince as the bitches and nerds they are.

And the adults are given space to shine too. Issues with why three stalwarts of the British acting establishment were needed to trot out questionable Southern accents aside, Emma Thompson, Jeremy Irons (never one to turn down a fantasy flick) and Eileen Atkins all excel. Thompson in particular seems to revel in the evil mother role, switching between humour and drama with consummate ease.
Sure Irons is coasting, but even with minimal effort he manages to convey the requisite amount of malevolence as Lena's uncle - recluse, owner of half the town, and man with skeletons in many a cupboard.

And the film looks stunning. Exquisitely shot, the scenes look both lush and dramatic, keeping you awash in a warm glow as the action unfolds.

But that's it. Like fine bone china, it may look lovely but you can see right through it. There's no depth, no density.

As the story races along to its conclusion, as Lena faces the trauma of her 16th birthday - being chosen for either the Light or the Dark - it's a bit hard to give a toss.

As a reading experience, I'm sure fans of the series will happily extol the virtues of the characters, sparky dialogue (some examples of which can be found here) and wholesome messages. It's clearly held its own among the Twilights and True Bloods of this (and the other) world, so that clearly speaks for itself.

Sadly it just doesn't translate to the screen.

It doesn't help that they've gone for a girl who looks not dissimilar to Kristen Stewart. Better actor, sure, and she smiles, but the casting director knew what they were doing. And it doesn't help that a lot is made of the fact Lena is charging headlong towards her 16th birthday, because there is a moment when you sit bolt upright. knowing they shouldn't be doing what they're doing.

I'm sure fans of the book will love it, and young fans of this much-mined genre will find another franchise to wallow in - and that's cool.

But for me, it's a bit too Twi-lite.

Friday, 15 February 2013

This Is 40 (15)

I was always brought up on the edict that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

So, then, This Is 40.

Um...



Nice soundtrack.

*sound of an angry The Man*

OK, fine. I'll write more. See if I care...

John Patterson, writing on The Guardian website recently, put forward the theory that This Is 40 is the victim of a backlash against writer/director/producer/caster-of-own-family Judd Apatow.

According to Mr P, the world is just jealous of Apatow's success. It's the reason we didn't all rush out to see Funny Man. It's not.  No one went to see Funny Man because - and brace yourself for the shock news here - it was shit.

"Easily the bravest and rawest movie that Adam Sandler has ever appeared in" he wrote, presumably with a straight face.

"Funny People repeatedly took the audience beyond comedy, almost to the edge of horror and tragedy" he added.

Again, I think he was being serious.

He also suggests that it's not Apatow's fault if his propensity for helping his mates' movies get made results in the odd stinker. He may have a point, but when he classes The Five-Year Engagement as "rotten" and mentions it in the same breath as Your Highness (which needed to improve a lot to elevate it to the level of a stinker) you know he's talking out of his arse and just trying to be intellectual and contrary for the sake of it.

He also says This Is 40 was the best comedy of 2012. 2012. A year that gave us Moonrise Kingdom. And Young Adult. Hell, God Bless America and Ted are funnier. 

You see, the reason This Is 40 has been panned Stateside is - and again, you'll be shocked by this - because it is genuinely crap.

And I'm not saying that because I have an 'agenda' against Apatow (I actually liked Knocked-Up, and Engagement, and his continued use of Jason Segal led eventually to The Muppets), it's because I sat through just over two hours of a COMEDY film (their words, not mine) and did not LAUGH (a basic requirement of a comedy-watching audience) once. Not once.

Not even during the 'eating a hash cookie in a hotel' scene.

You see, for a film - any film - to work, you have to actually care about the characters. Not like, necessarily - that would be nice, but if done right it's not essential - but care about is a must.

And it's not just hard to like Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann's characters, it's bloody impossible. Maybe it's because I am going to be 40 this year, maybe that's the problem. I couldn't relate to anything people my age were doing on screen. I just spent a lot of time thinking "SHUT UP". 

Granted I'm not approaching this milestone with any sense of optimism - quite the opposite. All celebrations have been cancelled, and a quiet holiday in the middle of nowhere has been arranged, thanking you. But even I couldn't believe anyone could be so hung up on their age that they'd lie to their own gynaecologist. Frankly Mann's Debbie possesses a shallowness that would shame the cast of Sex In The City.

And she runs a shop. A shop that has just lost $12,000 in a month. Something that causes her such concern she checks the store's security footage. And watches shopworker Megan Fox (her prime suspect) getting shagged on the counter. 

Her reaction?

To discuss the hows and whys of the unfolding sex scenes before lambasting Rudd's Pete for his excessive display of flatulence. But before this gives the appearance of a misogynistic tirade, let's look at Pete a bit more. He runs his own record label. He only signs bands he likes. They don't sell. He's missed mortgage payments. He's lent his dad $80,000 without Debbie's knowledge. He'd rather spend time on the toilet playing Jewels and Scrabble than interact with the family he's doing his best to make homeless. 

He's frankly so weak it's a miracle he doesn't collapse when his clothes come off.

And the children - played by Apatow's own off-spring - are odious. And they can't act. Great, you're in charge and you can cast your own kiddies in your movie. Hurrah! Next time, make sure it's not to the detriment of the film.

Not that better performances would have saved this film - the problems lie in the script.  The dialogue was written by a man who, apparently, has never observed grown-ups talking (which must be a bit of an insult to wife Leslie...), the situations are barely linked - giving the impression of a bunch of sketches draped over a weak story arc, and the peripheral characters are so insignificant as to barely warrant the screen time - it's frankly a mess.

And then there's Ms Fox. Cast, according to Apatow, for her previously untapped comic ability, she seems to be in the film for no other purpose than to satisfy the director's dream of seeing Fox and Mann in a threesome.

Cast her for her comedic talents? Give her some funny lines and let her keep her clothes on, rather than having her strip to her undies while your wife fondles her boobs.

At a point - again - when she's supposed to be concerned about the aforementioned missing $12k. Frankly if she's that easily distracted she deserves to lose the shop and house.

And did Fox really need to be the only grown-up woman at the birthday party who's knocking about in a bikini? Of course she did. It was essential for the comedy...

But do you know what? I could have forgiven the film all of this if it had just been funny. Hell, I'd have liked it more if he'd played it straight and gone darker, because in here is the makings of a half-decent drama. Instead, it feels like he was aiming somewhere between the heartbreaking tragedy of Blue Valentine and heartwarming whimsy of Take This Waltz and missed.

By miles.

There are some small crumbs of comfort in here. Albert Brooks (as Rudd's mooch of a father) and John Lithgow (as Mann's long-absent father) may be phoning in their performances, but they shine. 

And the music's good. After that you've got nothing. There's a moment at the end where Rudd's character manages not to be killed in a bike accident. And you find yourself being disappointed.

Maybe this mythical Apatow backlash wouldn't be happening if he actually managed to make decent films.


Right, the boss is busy. I'm making a run for it...

Thursday, 14 February 2013

A Good Day To Die Hard (12A)

Stretching a franchise into a fifth episode is akin to juggling with dynamite - sure, it might look good, but it could blow up in your face at any moment.

Going to Moscow is also problematic. Police Academy did that.

Having a car chase in Moscow is also tricky. Bond did that - and did it damn well.

Still, John McClane's never been one to let history affect his decision making...

Fortunately the Academy ghost lays undisturbed, and car chase sequences are different enough to step out of the shadow of Brosnan and his tank - even if they don't quite outshine him.

The only other potential problem A Good Day To Die Hard had was the lunking beast that was Live Free Or Die Hard (Die Hard 4.0) that lies in the background, lurking like an unpleasant smell. After three slick, sharp, sassy action flicks, part 4 fell a bit short of expectations.

So it's something of a relief that part 5 is a return to form.

Not a full-on, as good as the first one, return to form, but the action sequences have boyish fun about them, the dialogue - while not sharp - has at least a bit of a cutting edge, and it happily references the past. Almost to the point of plagiarism.

The story is a simple one. John is off to Russia to help a kid who's got into a bit of bother. Turns out the kid is his son (played well by Jai Courtney), and the bother is his job with the CIA.

Apples never fall far from the tree, it seems, even if you shoot at them. From there, you can park your brain in neutral, sit back and enjoy the ride.

There is a plot, of sorts, but to be honest it's only there to link the action sequences. And it doesn't do that very well, because the second half of the film (with TWISTS and SURPRISES no less) is pretty much one long action sequence.

But things go bang, things go boom, McClane hangs out the back of a helicopter (not a euphemism), it's a lot of loud fun.

Just don't look too far below the surface.

Sure, there are touching moments of estranged father and son finally bonding, but the fact writer Skip Woods felt the need to mirror this with Sebastian Koch's Yuri Komarov and his daughter Irina (Yulia Snigir in her first non-Russian film) tells you that subtlety isn't a watchword here.

And subtle it isn't.

By the end of the film, there's not a car or building that hasn't been smashed, shot at, blown-up, driven over or crashed into. And the same goes for Chernobyl. Sure, the building they're mucking about in is a hollow shell left abandoned after the nuclear meltdown, but it's a palace compared to how it's left after the McClane and Komarov families have finished with it.

Even the score - used to tell us which bits are the emotional heart of the film - is shovelled on rather than being used with a deft touch.

And that's where the problem lies.

Take away the explosions and car chases, and there's not a lot left. The villains aren't villainy enough, apart from the daddy issues we know and learn nothing about Jack, without the other four films we'd know feck all about John.

It's like a Russian doll, only without all the other dolls inside it. And comparisons between Snigir and Megan Fox (might look great, but has all the depth of a puddle) are hard to shake. And there are other issues.

When you go and see A Good Day To Die Hard (and you should, because even with all its problems, it's still good dumb fun), watch carefully and ask yourself these questions:

How does John get his hands free?

How come the minister speaks in Russian, yet his villainous lacky answers him in English?

Where does Jack get the binoculars from?

How, when the kidnap party left in a helicopter, do Jack and John manage to get there so soon after?

When did the iPad get a geiger counter app?

I don't even think the film has suffered from Fox's much-maligned cuts to secure a 12A rating - the only real victim is an abrupt shortening of THAT catchphrase (which seems meaningless when earlier John bangs on about being on "fucking vacation". Couldn't that swear word have been cut instead?) and a couple of punches to a couple of heads.

And it knows its history and heritage. It knows what makes a Die Hard film.

I'm not sure recreating a famous scene from the first film was a wise idea, but hey, maybe there's a feeling of completing a circle.

There may be things wrong with this film, but what it gets right it gets right.

Sure there's a lack of plausibility and realism about A Good Day To Die Hard, but wasn't it ever so? John always survived more than any normal human being could endure, that's his thing. And now two of them are doing it.

Just don't think too much about it.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

A beginner's guide to date movies

It may have escaped your attention, but looming large on the horizon is the international celebration of the colour red, heart-shaped pandas and chocolate-flavoured champagne.
It's an important day - the only day of the year you're legally allowed to declare your feelings for someone and not receive a restraining order in return.
It's also the only day of the year you're allowed to tell the person you married that you still want to be shackled to them for all your days.
So, no pressure then.
And how to celebrate such a spontaneous and pressure-free display (non-public, natch) of affection?
Why, with a movie of course.
But what movie, I hear you cry? There must be at least a dozen out there, how do we choose?
Fear not, young Padawan, Creepy Uncle Popcorn is here to help.

Now, there are, of course, rules.
Fun isn't fun without rules.
First you need to set the mood - low lighting is good, but not so low that you trip over the cat when the pizza arrives. And not so bright that he/she can see how you eat said pizza. That's vital.
Second, some eats. Pizza's good. Can be eaten quietly without disturbing the film. (This is working on the assumption you're not in a cinema, by the way. Don't go taking your Pizza Hut take-out into Screen 7 of the multiplex next door).
Third - stay at home. You want a nice, romantic, snuggly night, right? Isn't that why you bought that faux-leopard skin sofa? The dark of Screen 7 can be conducive to the warm-n-cosys, but stepping outside again is like a bucket of cold water. No, best you stay at home.
This also allows a nice bottle of red to be consumed.
It's the only natural choice.
You can of course go for a meal first, then home for a movie. That's allowed. Also saves fighting the cat for your pizza.
Oh, and fourth - pick a film that either you've both seen, or at least one of you knows well enough to not mind missing bits if you get distracted.
Date movies are not meant for that subtitled masterpiece you've been meaning to catch for years.

So, then, we're all set. We've set the mood, poured the wine, persuaded the cat to take the dogs for a walk - all we have to do is pick a movie...
Welcome, then, to Unsalted Popcorn's Top Five Films Guaranteed* To Make Valentines Day Go With A Bang**

The Muppets

You may remember this film from our Top 10 of 2012 - and there's a reason it was in there. It's wonderful.
It's got everything you want, everything you need to say to your special someperson that you have a heart so big it can love Jason Segal singing.
It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, it'll make you sing along to Starship.
It's THAT good.

Four Weddings And A Funeral

OK, this one is a bit cliched, but sod it - it's Valentine's Day.
Amazingly, some people still haven't seen this. Rectify this now.
From the moment Hugh Grant and Charlotte Coleman start swearing and tearing about, you know you're in for a good time.
You can laugh together through the weddings, sob and sniffle together during the funeral, and sigh contentedly together at the end.

The Empire Strikes Back

Now, this is for the newer couples.
The more established pairings among you will already know this is the best Star Wars film, and will know that it contains the classic exchange between Han and Leia, but if you've only just started opening your damaged little heart to your intended special someperson then you need to know if you're ever going to be on the same page.
Hence Empire.
If they dismiss this choice, ditch them.
If they show surprise and intrigue, these are good signs.
If they greet this choice with whoops of delight and start quoting lines from it while stabbing a Ja Ja Binks doll - lock 'em in the cellar straight away. This one's a keeper.

Chalet Girl

This is definitely for the pinker and fluffier minded among you - and I'm not saying this as a bad thing.
Chalet Girl kinda passed the world by when it was released, and I'm pretty sure only myself, Dr Kermode and Felicity Jones' family have actually seen it - but that makes us the lucky ones.
It's a sweet, funny film that just wraps you in the warm-n-fuzzies and tells you the world will be OK in the end.
Jones is great, Bill Nighy is at his most animated, and Bill Bailey is, well, Bill Bailey.
People will get sniffy about this as a choice, but screw 'em.
And if your date doesn't go with it, well, there are plenty more snowboarders in the sea.

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Remember that rule about no subtitles?
Doesn't apply here.
This film is too good not to be included.
It's both funny and heartbreaking, love and hate colliding in the Mexican surf at the end of a road trip that becomes much darker than first appears.
It's got the lot - sex, love, anger, jealousy, an older woman pulling the strings... It's simply wonderful.
Sure, you'll have to do some reading, but suck it up. Some films are worth it.



* There is no guarantee
** Size of bang in no way indicative of amount of fun being had

Monday, 11 February 2013

Wreck-It Ralph (PG)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a family film in need of an audience must be in want of something that appeals to the adults as well as the children.

That Jane Austen was ahead of her time.

And she was spot on, because this is one of Wreck-It Ralph's strengths.

For the intended audience, there's the sweet, smiley, fast-paced action.

For those paying for everyone to attend, there's enough geeky game references to make you chuckle (keep an eye out for the original gamer tennis stars...), as well as a healthy smattering of wise-cracks and one liners for the less game-savvy.

Essentially, the story is about a game character (Wreck-It Ralph - voiced by the brilliant John C Reilly) who becomes disenchanted with being 'the baddy' and sets off to another game in search of recognition and reward.

One thing leads to another, friends are made, villains unearthed, cars made of sweets are raced and all's well that ends well.

It's all pretty standard fare.

What makes it stand out from the crowd is the gaming knowledge it carries with it, and the voice talent brought on board.

As with all animations these days, it's the voices that maketh the movie - and along with Mr Reilly, we have the effervescent Sarah Silverman, the stern Jane Lynch and the crazy Alan Tudyk.

The interaction between the characters is brilliant, and each actor brings their pixels to life in fine style. And the pixels are also wonderful. Created with clear and understood knowledge of the gaming world Ralph, Vanellope (Silverman), Felix (the charmingly sweet Jack McBrayer), Calhoun (Lynch) and King Candy (Tudyk) are allowed to go about their adventure in a universe that is both believable (if you can have believable make-believe) and knowledgeable.

The use of music, too, is 'on message', with Rhianna - clearly an artist the target audience will be aware of - being used to good effect during the car race.

If there are any negatives about the film, it's that it's a tad sugary. It won't trouble the diabetic community in the way, say, a Puss In Boots or a Tinkerbell might, but watching it too often will rot your eyeballs.

But there are laughs in here, there are knowing smiles and the odd mental round of applause for the creators.

It's bright, it's loud, and kids will love it - just like all good arcade games.


POST CREDITS EXTRA:
Well, kinda - what else was I gonna call this bit? DVD extra? Extra Popcorn? Rewind?
Actually I like the Popcorn one.
Anyway, that's not the point. Having had time to think about this review a bit more, I began to wonder - was it too glib? Did it just gloss over the film? Did I fail to dig beneath the surface?
So I thought about this.

And I read a laughable Guardian Blog (forget who wrote it, I was too busy shaking my head - lets call him Bungo) bemoaning the fact that Ralph (the implied bad guy here, according to Bungo, only he's not - someone else is) wants to be a good guy. Where have all the bad guys gone in kiddies' animation, he wails.

Sorry, but if this is what's bothering you right now, get out more. Have a sweetie and go for a paddle in the sea. The world is too big and scary for you.

Ralph may be the 'bad guy' in his game, as are the other game characters he meets at the support group, but that's just part of the film.

And the film has its own bad guy, like as what ol' Bungo was a crying for.

And then, the more I thought about it, I realised that you don't always have to look beneath the surface. Sometimes there's not even anything below there anyway.

And that's not always a bad thing.

Take Wreck-It Ralph. Might as well, it was the cause of Bungo's Blog and my review, so makes sense. There are themes of friendship, helping each other, that we all have our role to play but that role doesn't have to define us (who knew zombies could be so wise). And there's a teeny twist at the end that, I suspect, will make the wee ones grin with glee.

And that's it.

And that's fine.

The world's a baffling place at the best of times. Sometimes it's nice for a film - and a KIDS film at that, lest we forget - to just be a film.
Oh, and should Bungo ever happen upon this - RALPH IS NOT THE BAD GUY! Remember that bit at the end? Where the guy who was the guy suddenly starts showing himself to be not that guy? HE'S THE BAD GUY!
(This will make sense when you've seen the film. Sadly it'll be lost on ol' Bungo Blogger, 'cos he either didn't watch the film that far or didn't get it.)
Oh, and there are no monsters in Scooby Doo either. It's always the caretaker in a wig.
Right, time for some Coco Pops.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The 2013 EE BAFTAs

And so this year's EE Bafta awards have come to a close - what did we learn?
Well, for one, London this year belongs to Ben Affleck, with three well-deserved BAFTAs for the stunning Argo.
Elsewhere, Amour picked up a couple, Skyfall finally got recognised, and Django Unchained was garnished with some well deserved praise.
Of course, the night would have been nothing without the glorious Stephen Fry - and watching him at work once again, one is left wondering how the hell Ricky Gervais ever got asked to present so much as a sports day runners-up cup, never mind a premier awards show across the pond.
On a separate note, I know Orange (and T-Mobile) is now EE, but did they have to change the name of the awards? It just sounds like someone on Emerdale or The Archers has just got excited about Anne Hathaway...

Anyhoo, here are this year's runners and riders:
 
Best Animation
Brave

Outstanding British Film
Skyfall

Best Original Screenplay
Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actor
Christoph Waltz

Outstanding British Debut
Bart Layton/Dimitri Doganis for The Imposter

Special Visual Effects
Life Of Pi

Best Supporting Actress
Anne Hathaway

Best Adapted Screenplay
David O. Russell for The Silver Linings Playbook

The Outstanding Contribution To British Cinema
Tessa Ross of Film 4

Film Not In The English Language
Amour

Rising Star Award
Juno Temple (off of Killer Joe)

Best Documentary
Searching For Sugar Man

Best Director
Ben Affleck for Argo

Best Actress
Emmanuelle Riva

Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Film
Argo

BAFTA Fellowship
Alan Parker

Friday, 8 February 2013

Hitchcock (12A)

Biopics are tricky waters to go paddling in. Whoever you choose as your subject, someone somewhere will love that person and be distraught at your portrayal.

The best you can hope for is to capture a moment in your subject's life that encapsulates what they were known for and go from there.

Which is what Sacha Gervasi has done with Hitchcock.

Focusing on the making of Psycho, Hitchcock tells us how the great Alfred and Alma mortgaged themselves to the hilt to make a film that no one wanted them to make, from a book that shocked Hollywood, while Alma flirted with a screen writer and Hitch fixated on his latest star.

We also learn that Alma directed some scenes of Psycho while Hitch was laid up in bed. Or that could be all made up.

Writer John J Mclaughlin seems to have played a tad fast and loose with the facts surrounding one of the legendary man's defining films, but does this really matter? After all, according to some reviewers, this is a fitting portrayal - a film the good man would have been proud of.

Granted, while his ego would be massaged at the thought of being the focal point of a movie, I'm not sure he'd have approved of the way the whole thing is put together.

For a start, no one dies.

For seconds, it's as suspenseful and thrilling as Mary Poppins.

Which is not to say it's a bad film per se. It's not. It's just not great. Which is a shame. You can't fault the performances. Anthony Hopkins as Hitch is good, delivering a surprisingly measured - if a bit 'panto villainy' - performance, capturing Hitchcock's more sleazy side alongside his drive and ambition.

But it's the women who steal the show here. Scarlett Johansson is wonderful as Janet Leigh, the woman behind the shower curtain, while Jessica Biel more than holds her own as the somewhat jilted Vera Miles (who, if the film is to be believed, had the audacity to put family first, thus snubbing Hitch film desires). Then there's Toni Collette (playing the much put-upon Peggy Robertson), who's rigidity and icy calm could hold up buildings.

Helen Mirren, meanwhile, IS the film. As Alma, she is waspish, bitter, loving, supportive... everything you'd want from your real-life leading lady.

Which is one of the problems with the film. Yes, it's called Hitchcock - but he's in third place here.

The film is about the making of Psycho (appreciate you can't call the film that...), and it's about how much Alma had to go through (either real or made-up for dramatic effect here). It really should have been called Alma. It's her film. She takes centre stage in every scene she's in, showing more style and personality than Hopkins manages throughout the film (and, as I said, his is a fine performance).

The other problem I have with Hitchcock is the way it's presented. While I quite enjoyed the 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' approach at the start, it actually takes away from the dramatic intent of the film, giving it a Sunday afternoon feel it never quite manages to shake off. And the less said about Hitch's chats with the ghost of the killer Ed Gein (the inspiration behind Norman Bates) the better.

Presumably these scenes were meant to be haunting or a quick psychological thrill - instead, they show Hitchcock as a man who gets spooked easily and talks to the wall...

As a tribute to the great man, Hitchcock falls some way short. As a harmless piece of cinematic fun, it fits the bill.

Pretty sure that's not what he would have wanted.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

I Give It A Year (15)

There's a real art to making a movie trailer, you know. It's like magic.

You take the best bits of a movie, chop 'em up, shuffle 'em about, and - like an estate agent's particulars - you order them in such a way as to make the film shine while hiding the dodgy guttering and damp patch in the kitchen.

Even Movie 43 looks passable condensed down to a minute...

And it was precisely because of the aforementioned shit-fest that was Movie 43 that I was apprehensive about I Give It A Year. You see, I'd rather enjoyed the trailer. It made me laugh.

And recent experience has taught me that this can't end well.

It helped enormously that I'd missed the fact it was written and directed by Dan Mazer - the man who penned Borat. And Bruno. And Ali G Indahouse - as this would have only served to dampen expectations to subterranean levels.

But I needn't have worried. I Give It A Year is a funny film.

It's not brilliant. It won't change your life. But there's enough here to make you chuckle away. The premise is simple. Two people (Rose Byrne's Nat and Rafe Spall's Josh) get hitched after a whirlwind romance, and promptly discover how ill-suited they are together.

Through plot contrivances that stretch credibility to breaking point (do people REALLY seek marriage guidance months after saying 'I do'?), they seek help from the excellent film-stealing Olivia Colman. These bits are great.

They also seek advice from friends, and in Josh's case the girl he was with before Nat. What you get are a series of sketches, each with their own plot line and joke. Some go on a bit long, sure, but overall there are chuckles aplenty.

Which is why it was somewhat baffling to walk away from the screening feeling I'd had an empty experience.

To paraphrase, all the bits are there - just not in the right order.

Part of the problem is in the editing. I suspect that the set-up of the film is supposed to be the couple looking back over their time together from the perspective of their therapy sessions. But this isn't made fully clear at the right time.

Instead, what you end up with is a couple of bits with Ms Colman around other bits that show how the pair are ill-suited. It all just feels a bit off-kilter.

The cast are great. Everyone is on top form - even if Rafe doesn't seem fully at ease playing the romantic lead. Stephen Merchant as the best mate, Minnie Driver as Nat's sister, Anna Faris as the ex, Simon Baker as the rich client - they're all on top form. Tim Key beats them all as the solicitor, mind, but hey-ho. 

The writing is also a slight problem.  It is clear that Mr Mazer has watched a LOT of romantic comedies. And the good ones, too. He knows which bits are needed, and as painting-by-numbers go he's ended up with a cute puppy.

Unfortunately he's painted outside the lines.

In an effort to 'push' the comedy, he's added more swearing and nudity than Richard Curtis would deem necessary, resulting in a kind of Four Weddings And An American Pie mash-up.

Where as in Pie you expected crudity and vulgarity by the bra-full, it jars when put up against the more sedate, gentile Four Weddings. You can have one or the other no problems, they just don't mix that well.

And there are moments when bits of dialogue just leap out at you, clearly having been lifted from real life (Mazer himself has said he's taken inspiration from his own life) - and it's frankly bizarre that these bits (I won't spoil them for you - have some fun and try spotting them) jar so drastically with the bits that have bubbled up from his imagination.

Normally, writers manage to blend the two seamlessly - but then, blending and mixing is clearly something Mr M has a problem with.

By the by, in a recent interview Mazer said he wanted to make an 'edgy' romantic comedy. It's as edgy as Hush Puppies.

Still, despite all that, this film does what it sets out to do. It's a comedy that makes you laugh. And in my case, laugh a lot.

Sure there are problems with it, but no one's perfect. You might not want a long-term relationship with I Give It A Year, but you'll have a fun night together.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Chained (18)

Amazingly, this film is billed as a "film from Jennifer Lynch", as if this is a huge selling point.

Yes, she may be David's daughter, but she's still some way off having the same standing as the man who gave us Mulholland Drive, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.

What she does have is a CV that contains the words Boxing Helena, and while forewarned is forearmed, nothing prepares you for what unfolds during Unchained.

The plot sounds interesting enough - a serial killer abducts a nine-year-old boy and his mother, kills the mother and then raises the lad as his 'son', training him in the ways of the family business as he grows up.

And it's beautifully shot. There's no arguing with the fact Jennifer knows how a film should look.
And the use of sound is great. No crashing score here, there's a sparseness to the sound which is reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

And the performances are good. Vincent D'Onfrio is a convincing psychopath as Bob, while Eamon Farren is hauntingly fragile as the unfortunate Rabbit.

But somehow it all fails to come together.

After the initial flurry of suspense and terror, it all settles down to a crashing snore fest. There are times you should be scared, but you're not. You should be afraid, but you're not. You should care about what's happening to Rabbit, but you don't.

The bulk of the film is played out in a strangely detached manner, leaving the audience disengaged from what should be a tortuous, harrowing experience.

By the time Rabbit has to carry out his first kill, you're not remotely arsed what he's going through or what happens to his victim.

And the final twist just feels like Jennifer bottled it and went for a safe option.

You'll find yourself asking questions as the plot unfolds. Questions such as "why haven't the police cottoned on to this bloke yet? It's been at least ten years".

The fact this question gets answered with a handy line of dialogue suggests Jennifer was asking the very same questions, but couldn't find any dramatic or convincing answers.

This could have been a great film. The parts are all there. But even having Julia Ormond in it briefly (as Rabbit's mum) doesn't save it.

Released on Friday and already out on DVD, something tells me Chained won't be troubling the 'best seller' lists anytime soon.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Flight (15)

A new film by Robert Zemeckis? The bloke what did Forrest Gump, Death Becomes Her and the Back To The Future trilogy? Oh this should be a bit of frothy fun...

Or not.

Even knowing Denzil Washington plays a pilot who saves a planeful of lives only for it to transpire that he may have had a drinkie or two the night before, nothing prepared me for just how tense and gripping a film this was going to be. Nothing.

I'm still in a slight state of shock now.

It all starts off innocently enough - Denzil's Whip Whittaker is naked, rowing with his ex-wife on the phone, doing a couple of lines to help wake up... All the stuff you'd be happy your pilot doing before he flew you on a short hop across a couple of States.

Meanwhile, in another part of the country, Kelly Reilly's hapless character Nicole is doing her best to clean up her act by shooting up a quick overdose of heroin.

And STILL nothing prepares you for what happens next.

You know there's a crash. The trailer shows you the crash crashing. All the film blurb mentions the crash. There's definitely a plane crash.

And this is a Zemeckis film. OK, there was a plane crash in Cast Away, but he's Zemeckis - there's no way this is going to be a tough... WOAH!

As soon as things start going wrong, you're transfixed, mesmerised. You're holding your breath, your holding your seat, you're probably holding the hand of the person next to you.

The plane is spinning, people are screaming, stowed luggage is unstowed, buckled passengers become unbuckled, breath is still being held.

And then Whip gets it on the ground.

And you can breathe again.

Only you can't. Because no longer has Zemeckis allowed you to relax, he starts turning the screw again as we watch Whip's life unravel as the truth starts to emerge. And this is where Denzil really shines.

In lesser hands, it would be hard to care for a man whose arrogance and denial are pretty much his only personality traits - but Denzil captures perfectly a man falling apart, forcing a surprising amount of sympathy from the audience (without giving anything away, there is a moment where you will almost want to stand and applaud).

But this isn't purely the Denzil show (although he more than deserves his Oscar nod).

Ms Reilly is wonderful as Whip's fallen angel who fell a bit too hard, John Goodman seems to be channelling his inner Dude - bringing brief light relief with a sinister undertone as Whip's 'friend' - and Don Cheadle is at his cool, aloof best as the lawyer who'll do what is needed to save the arse that's paying him.

That's not to say Flight is a flawless piece of work - it's not. God seems to be heavily invoked with no real sense of purpose or conclusion, it could have been a tad shorter, and the final scenes seem almost to deliberately add the schmaltz for the Oscar judges - but you find yourself forgiving all this as your emotions soar and plummet with Whip's turmoil-fuelled life.

I can't be sure I'll be getting on a plane anytime soon, but I know I'll be drawn back to watch Flight again.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Hyde Park On Hudson (12A)

And so, following hot on the heels of President Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt is brought to life in Hyde Park On Hudson - or, King's Speech II: Driving Miss Daisy, if you will.

Billed as the previously untold story of FDR with his mistress/cousin (at least fifth, so that's OK), and culled from letters found after Daisy died, Hyde Park On Hudson is weirdly both more AND less than that.

Because, while the "love" story is there, lurking in the shadows like a fifth cousin no one is supposed to know gave the president a hand job in his car, we also have Bertie and Queenie visiting the presidential homestead ahead of the outbreak of World War II.

And this is where things get complicated.

First, let's look at the positives. The performances can't be faulted. Bill Murray is great as FDR - acting with his eyes and face, given the president was unable to walk following a bout of polio. Olivia Colman and Samuel West take their turn as the royal couple, and manage to step out of the hefty shadows cast by Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth in The King's Speech. Olivia Williams is good as Eleanor (the woman the president is supposed to be legally sleeping with), and Laura Linney is fine as Daisy, the other other other woman.

It just all feels muddled and a bit light-weight.

Given the story came about from Daisy's stash of love letters and diaries, it seems odd that we don't actually get a clear picture of who she is, or why she decided to stick around as one of FDR's harem. She's portrayed as being shy, socially awkward, a bit wet and unsure of her place in the entourage, and FDR is certainly not a man to issue gushing sentiments of love and desire, so already the relationship seems off kilter.

Equally, FDR isn't painted as a man who commands sexual attraction - especially as his mother seems to be doing the matchmaking.

The relationship seems to be one of convenience - as in, it's convenient for everyone else.

And all of this is played out over the weekend of the royal visit. And not just any visit. Bertie was charged with getting America on side as that Hitler chap set his sights on taking over Europe.

And this, for me, is the actual story here.

It's got a clearer identity, it's better portrayed, and garners better performances from those involved (Murray's late-night chat with West is a great moment).

Questions of how Daisy knew anything about any of these events, given she was either at home with aged aunt or mooning about in the woods at night, are best left unasked. Presumably writer Richard Nelson did some research away from Daisy's scribblings, but one is still left thinking the rows in the royal quarters are the figment of his imagination.

It's almost as if he purposefully took the Queen's character in the opposite direction from HBC's portrayal just for the sake of being different rather than any actual historical accuracy.

And as the film progresses, we still don't know what the story is here - a love story or a political drama? Neither gets enough clarity or weight, and so we are left looking at the scenery.

It's as if Mr Nelson figured we knew who these famous people were, so there was no need to flesh out their characters. A simple sketch was deemed sufficient.

He was wrong.

Like I said, you can't fault the actors - they've done a good job with what they were given. They just needed more.

And so do the audience.