Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists/Band of Misfits

The Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists or Band of Misfits as it is known outside the UK for some reason, is the latest stop-motion feature from Aardman Animations, the studio behind the likes of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. It is based on the first two novels in the Pirates! Series by Gideon Defoe.

Set in 1837, the story follows the adventures of a pirate captain called Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) in his attempts to win the Pirate of the Year competition for the first time. Despite being mostly deluded and incompetent he is actually kind at heart and has the respect of his crew. He is really up against it through when it comes to winning the competition because he is a pretty rubbish pirate and is up against the cream of the piratical world which includes Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven). While attempting to rob a ship, Pirate Captain has a chance meeting with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who notices that the ship’s parrot, Polly is in fact the world’s last Dodo. Darwin, the Captain and his crew travel to London to show the Scientific community their discovery but while there risk bumping into the staunchly anti-pirate, Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).

As you’d expect from an Aardman production, the film is full of both subtle and not so subtle humour. One of the first things that made me laugh was the names of Pirate Captain’s crew. There is The Pirate with a Scarf (Marin Freeman), so named because he wears a scarf, The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson) who is fat, the Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey) and the best of them all, the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) who is a woman in a fake beard. They are great names which bought a smile to my face each time they were used. A lot of the humour comes from the book on which the film is based but it is liberally laced with Aardman’s trademark subtlety. Every shop sign or wanted poster features a pun and there are nods to the likes of Blackadder. It’s the sort of film that will take several viewings in order to see all of the jokes.


The animation is top notch, as it should be. Aardman are the masters of their art and having dabbled in stop-motion animation myself (my most popular video can be seen here), I understand the time and effort that must go into making a stop-motion feature. Aardman has come a long way from the rough and ready clay models of The Wrong Trousers but the models still maintain their distinctive style and it is obvious that care has been taken during each of the millions of frames.

The voice cast is excellent. Most of the actors are instantly recognisable but David Tennant puts on a convincing accent for his interpretation of Charles Darwin. The actors help to make the scrip very funny and I’m pleased to see that the filmmakers have stuck with a mostly British cast and stayed away from an A-List star.

Pirate Captain isn't a fan of wearing 3D glasses

The soundtrack is enjoyable and uses songs which are not only great but fit the story perfectly. You can expect to hear the likes of The Clash, Flight of the Concords and Blur.

While my girlfriend, most of the adult audience and myself enjoyed the film, the young children in the audience seemed a little bored by it. I don’t think there was enough in the film to keep the young children entertained and a lot of the humour was going over their head. It is almost like the film has been pitched at an adult audience, which is fine and worked, but with a U rating and an Easter release, lots of children will go and may be disappointed.

This is not Aardman’s best work but it was an enjoyable 88 minutes that featured plenty of laughs and a fairly interesting but in the end throw away plot. I would definitely go back to watch the sequel and will watch it again when it is inevitably shown on TV during a future Christmas period.    

7/10

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Morning Glory

Morning Glory is a 2010 comedy (apparently) drama set in New York. Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) is an up and coming TV News producer who loses her job on a New Jersey TV show due to budget cuts. She lands a job in New York City at Daybreak, a national morning network show which is struggling with poor ratings and a lack of funding and direction. Becky sacks the male anchor and tries to get veteran journalist Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) to join co anchor Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) in fronting the show. Pomeroy has to accept due to a clause in his contract but makes it clear both on and off air that he is above the show and doesn’t want to be there. Somehow Becky must try to improve the ratings before her boss Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum) cancels the show.

Do you think she will manage it? Will Mike Pomeroy come around and save the show? Will Becky end up in a relationship with the hot guy she meets on her first day? Of course she will. The plot is so obvious you might as well have a director’s commentary telling you what is going to happen next. It isn’t just the plot that’s obvious but specific parts of the dialogue. I found myself saying what characters were about to say before they said it. The film treats its audience like idiots, as does the TV show which they are trying to save. It is the kind of sunny, happy, vacuous show that is on some channels in the morning. You know the type. Here in the UK it’s whatever is shitting all over the screen if you tune into ITV in the morning. I was actually routing for the arrogant and grumpy Pomeroy when he tried to inject some current affairs in amongst the stories of psychic pets and celebrity name changes. Occasionally the script will make fun of these types of shows but then go straight back to telling Pomeroy he can’t talk about the news.


The film has one of those terribly annoying and patronising soundtracks which sound like a tampon advert. Every time Becky makes strides we get some uplifting warbling from Natasha Bedingfield and then some slow schmaltz when she hits hard times. It’s predictable and lazy.

There are so many idiotic problems with the film. After losing her job, Becky is offered a job in NYC which is one of the most expensive cities in the world. She is told she will be earning half what she earned in New Jersey but moves in to an apartment that is large enough to swing several cats. Also, while she is still on the verge of having her failing show cancelled, she is offered her dream job on The Today Show, which makes no sense. What makes even less sense is that she turns down her dream because Harrison Ford makes a bloody frittata on TV! It’s infuriating. The Daybreak office is unrealistically unkempt. The filmmakers try to get across the idea that the show is in turmoil by having everyone speak at once in a production meeting and showing that the door knobs are broken. I’m pretty sure that even the forth biggest morning show in the richest nation on earth could replace a couple of f***ing door knobs! This film is so stupid!


This is a truly terrible film but is partially salvaged by four excellent actors. At least three of them should have gone nowhere near it but nonetheless, all four are good. Rachel McAdams is affable as Becky. This is a role she is comfortable in but has done many times before and since. Diane Keaton is believable as a news anchor and Jeff Goldbum is good in a very small role but is by no means stretched. The standout is Harrison Ford though who, although playing a version of himself brings some gravitas to the film. His character really seems like he doesn’t want to be there, but that could just be the actor’s emotions showing through. Patrick Wilson also features but has so little to do it is hardly worth mentioning him. He basically has to flirt with Rachel McAdams and act sad when she thinks about work too much.

I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone. Even for fans of the normal Rachel McAdams rom-com type films, this would be disappointing. It isn’t funny, nor is the idea interesting. The romantic storyline feels like it was added on the set and if not for some fine actors paying their bills I wouldn’t have made it to the end. There is nothing to like here.

3/10

Tenebrae

Tenebrae is a 1982 giallo horror/thriller from one of the kings of the giallo subgenre, Dario Argento. American horror writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is in Rome to promote his latest novel Tenebrae. Shortly before his arrival, a young woman is murdered in the city using the same method as the killer in his latest book. The local Police ask for his help as more murders take place using the same method. Eventually the murderer is discovered but the murders continue, leading both the Police and the author searching for a second killer.

The film features all of the major trademarks of the giallo subgenre. There are plenty of extended murder scenes which feature excessive blood letting. There is a ‘whodunit’ plot and the film is laced with unnecessary sex and nudity. The music that accompanies the film is the distinctive and funky work of frequent Argento collaborators, Goblin (Title Music here).

The plot is interesting enough but I was able to figure out most of the surprises before they happened and predict one of the two killers. Thematically it is quite similar to the last film I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in that it explores violence that is specifically aimed at women and features scene of sadism. The story is also quite similar to the recent John Cusack film The Raven.


Argento shows that he is a master of working behind the camera with this stylish and precise film. It features some wonderful cinematography and a couple of beautiful and technically difficult tracking shots. He is also unafraid to show graphic violence which gained it the ‘Video Nasty’ label in the UK and meant it was banned until 1999. While the violence is gory and a little shocking, it is not more so that today’s ‘torture porn’ style films such as Saw or The Human Centipede and is not gory for the sake of it. The horror itself isn’t very scary. I didn’t jump or feel tense but it is the violence and blood letting which got the film banned. Many of the female characters walked around half naked and most of the violence is aimed at them which probably didn’t help when it came to censorship.


The acing is completely over the top and for the most part, terrible. I have seen few films with acting as bad as this. Nevertheless I didn’t let this annoy me as most of the cast were working in a second language. This is actually what annoyed me. Despite being set in Italy and featuring a mostly Italian cast, the film was shot in English in order to be more widely accessible in America. As a result the dialogue feels clunky and badly written and it often looks dubbed when it isn’t because the sound and picture are out of sync. I think it would have been a better film had it been in Italian.   

Overall the film is a little uneven and suffers from poor acting but is an fascinating study of sexual deviancy and violence as well as paranoia and madness. It is a must see for any giallo fans or fans of early 80s horror in general and features a great, funky soundtrack.

6/10

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo

2009’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is the first of two recent film adaptations of the best selling novel by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. It centres on the hunt for answers after a young girl was murdered in 1966. Writer Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) has recently been found guilty of libel and is due to be spending a few months in prison. On behalf of Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) a young investigator called Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) does some background research on Blomkvist and Vanger asks him to help solve the mystery surrounding his niece’s disappearance forty years ago. Blomkvist accepts and travels to the island upon which many of the Vanger family are based and where the missing girl, Harriet was last seen. As Blomkvist begins to gather clues and evidence, Salander continues to hack into his computer and becomes interested in both him and the case. Eventually she cracks a clue and sends her findings to Blomkvist who finds her and persuades her to help him. She is at first reluctant but agrees. Together the two try to uncover the mystery and end up uncovering much more than they ever expected to or even wanted to.

Having now seen the film I can now totally understand why the novel has gained such a large following and has sold as many copies as it has (53 million for the trilogy combined). The plot is fascinating and intriguing and is delivered at a steady pace. It successfully feeds just enough information to keep you interested but not enough to allow you to have it all figured out too early. It is quite literally a thrilling Thriller.

Nasty man
Many of the themes of the film are quite dark and have had to be tackled delicately. One of the main themes is violence by men, towards women and indeed the original Swedish title is Men who hate women. There are a few grizzly and quite frankly horrific scenes, one of which has stayed with me the day after seeing it. The films lead female, Lisbeth Salander has undergone some quite horrific acts at the hands of men, many of which are played out during the film and this gives us an understanding as to why she has turned into the woman she has. She is very distanced, especially around men. She is cold and introverted and has difficulty connecting with people. She is sexually ambiguous and shows great hostility towards men who do women harm as a result of her traumatic childhood. All of these traits are performed wonderfully by Noomi Rapace who is simply sublime as Salander. The male lead Mikael Blomkvist is an intelligent and dedicated investigative journalist and Michael Nyqvist plays him well. He is very believable but his performance is completely overshadowed by that of Noomi Rapace.

Whodunnit?
Another theme which has a place in Sweden is Nazism. This is something that is still quite a contentious subject in the country as many Swedes joined their Aryan cousins, the Germans during World War II. I was shocked to discover in a recent book on the subject that towards the end of the War there were many Swedes, Norwegian and even French volunteers fighting in the streets of Berlin when most of the German’s had been killed or had surrendered. This murky past is explored in the film and becomes a major part of the deduction the two leads undertake.   

The film kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Salander is a compelling heroine who I was rooting for in every scene is which she was able to enact some revenge on those who had wronged her. Towards the end as all the loose ends had been tied up, I felt that the film carried on for two long but this was obviously to set the story up for the sequel. I also felt that at 152 minutes it was on the long side but having said that there is little I’d want to take out. In regards to the graphic sexual violence, although disturbing I thought that it was necessary in order to show the audience what Salander has had to go through. The film is a great thriller which features a gripping and horrific story and some fantastic acting from Noomi Rapace who deserves all of the nominations and awards that she won for the role.  

8/10

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Time Bandits

Terry Gilliam’s 1981 fantasy film Time Bandits is about a young boy called Kevin (Craig Warnock) who is one night awakened by a gang of time travelling dwarfs who have stolen a map from ‘the Creator’ which they are using to steal treasure. Kevin joins the gang and travels to the middle ages and ancient Greece amongst other times and places and eventually ends up facing off against Evil (David Warner) in a battle of quite literally good vs. evil.

From what I’d read of the plot beforehand I was hoping for a kind of Goonies crossed with Brazil but what I got didn’t live up to either of those films. While Terry Gilliam’s directorial style is all over the film with lavish and unusual sets and costumes and his distinct animation, it lacked the humour of the Python films and the drama and intrigue of the likes of Brazil or 12 Monkeys. The film is obviously aimed at a younger audience than those films and perhaps a younger audience would have enjoyed it more than me.


Craig Warnock, playing the central character of Kevin was really annoying but I liked the gang of dwarfs. They each had their own little eccentricities and quirks and were sometimes amusing. John Cleese has an excellent cameo as Robin Hood in which he channels Prince Philip. His few minutes on screen were very funny. Sean Connery is another with a small cameo, playing King Agamemnon but a version of the King who has a passion for magic. He is fine, but like Cleese is under used. Co-writer Michael Palin has a couple of cameos and his small roles are the funniest of the film.

One of my main problems with the film is that it lacked the laughs you’d expect from a Palin-Gilliam co written piece. There is the odd subtle bit of humour laced here and there but they are few and far between. The film focuses too heavily on the adventure which isn’t actually that interesting. Maybe it isn’t meant to be that funny but I think the film would have been greatly improved had it been so.


There was one moment towards the end which I liked and thought was bold. This came when Kevin asks ‘the Creator’ why so many people had to die in order for him to carry out a little experiment. As an atheist, I liked this little question as it is something I personally would love to ask ‘the Creator’ did it exist. Why cause so much suffering when you don’t need to and can stop it? It’s a nice sly question which might have children watching asking their parents and priests the same thing.  

On the whole the film is fine but lacks excitement and humour. The sets and effects are superb and the cameos good. I just expected a lot more from Gilliam, who is a fantastic film maker.  

5/10

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Crash

WARNING - Adult themes. Do not read if you are under 18 or read the Daily Mail.

David Cronenberg’s 1996 thriller Crash is a film that looks at the phenomenon of Paraphilia, the sexual arousal of people in response to objects, situations or individuals that are not part of the normative stimulation and can cause danger or harm to those involved. These can include arousal, fantasies and behaviours involving non-human objects, children, non-consenting persons and shamefully up until 1973, homosexuality. Crash looks at the idea of people who are sexually aroused by car crashes.

James Ballard (James Spader) is a film producer living in Toronto with his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). While driving home one night, James is involved in a head on collision with another car which kills the driver of the car he hit. While trapped in the wreckage, James looks across to the passenger of the other car, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) who suddenly exposes her breast to him. While in hospital recovering James meets Helen again and she introduces him to Vaughn (Elias Koteas), a man who likes taking pictures of scars and people in accidents. Helen and James begin an affair and visit a performance put on by Vaughn in which he fetishises the car crash which ended the life of James Dean. James becomes a man who is aroused by car accidents and meets more people like himself through Vaughn. The rest of the film follows the group as they search out car crashes and enjoy themselves in various car related scenarios, often becoming involved in crashes themselves and sometimes purposely.  

Given what is in the previous paragraph it shouldn’t be too difficult to see why this film generated such considerable controversy upon its release. It is one of the strangest film’s I’ve watched and I actually thought I was sitting down to watch the 2004 Oscar winner of the same name at first. I can’t say that I liked it as the film’s focus was primarily on what the characters were doing rather than the reasons behind it. I’d loved to have seen the film delve into the psychoanalytical reasons behind the fetish but it generally stays away from that side of the story. This is a shame as psychoanalysis is a subject which Cronenberg dealt with marvellously in A Dangerous Method. Having said that, it did piss of the Daily Mail a lot which is a good thing in my book!


One of the reasons the film attracted so much controversy, aside from the fact that it is about people trying to crash cars for a sexual thrill, is the amount of sex contained within it. Just looking at the cast list which includes Holly Hunter, James Spader and Rosanna Arquette should give you some level of understanding as to the graphic sexual nature of the film but it is much more graphic than you are thinking. I’m a bit surprised that it got through the censors to be quite honest. The film begins with a woman rubbing a nipple on a car bonnet and the first three scenes all contain sex. In fact about half of the scenes in the entire film do. One in particular is shocking and involves a large scar (you can figure it out for yourself).

I think that this is a bold film which tries to look at a controversial subject but it fails to live up to the interestingness of its subject by skirting around the psyche behind it. What the film does make evident is the desire the protagonists have towards their fetish. This is not more so than when the group are watching a video of car crash safety tests. The whole group become visibly excited and their excitement swells until it is about to reach bursting point when the tape freezes. Holly Hunter’s character jumps off the sofa in a fit of rage and nearly pulls her hair out at missing out on the videos climax (as well as her own).

The film has many more negative than positive points unfortunately. The most glaring hole in the plot is that there is no police investigation after a man kills another by driving on the wrong side of the road. What is also very strange is that seconds after seeing her husband die, Holly Hunter’s character is exposing her breasts to the man who caused his death. While this can be explained by her fetish, it is still quite bizarre. During the group’s trip to visit and photograph a car crash that has just taken place, not one policeman or paramedic asks why they are there or tries to stop them. The acting is for the most part wooden and the script is clunky and robotic.

I wasn’t bored by this film but I think that is more down to me trying to understand what was going on and why than because it is a great film. I’ve read that Martin Scorsese ranked it the 8th best film of the 1990s and while I don’t want to argue with my favourite living film maker, I found it confusing and while it showed plenty of the taking part, it lacked the explanation of why.

5/10

Bedevilled

"You killed them all, bitch! Why didn't you just kill yourself?"

Bedevilled is a 2010 South Korean horror/thriller from debut director Chul-soo Jang. A young single woman from Seoul called Hae-won (Seong-won Ji) is ordered to take time off from her job in a bank after slapping a colleague and visits the small, backward island that her grandparents lived on when she was a child. When she arrives she becomes reacquainted with Bok-nam (Yeong-hie Seo) a woman she briefly knew as a child and is shocked to find out that she is treated as a virtual slave by the other islanders. She is used as a sexual play thing by the men and for slave labour by the women. Although Hae-won is shocked at the behaviour of the islanders she is reluctant to become involved in their affairs and remains distant from the activities on the island.

After Bok-nam fails in an attempt to escape from the island with her ten year old daughter Yeon-hee (Ji-Eun Lee) she is merciously beaten by her husband. In the insuring violence, Yeon-hee hits her head on a rock and is killed. This marks the beginning of a violent and bloody final act in which Bok-nam finally snaps and takes out her revenge on the small island population.

It should be said at the outset that this is not an easy watch. I started eating a packet of M&Ms as the titles rolled but soon had to put them down. The audience watches as Bok-nam is brutally abused by most of the eight or so island population. She is stripped of all her dignity but still manages to remain hopeful of rescue. Shortly after this rescue fails, the viewing gets even more difficult with more horrific beatings and humiliation for Bok-nam which is then followed by over the top Korean violence which if you are familiar with the likes of I Saw the Devil might not be too shocking but even I who have become accustomed to Korean horror, felt my entire body clench on a number of occasions as the blood started to splatter. On one occasion the entire camera lens is covered with blood as Bok-nam goes about getting her revenge. The violence is met with psychological horror as Bok-nam stops briefly during her rampage to sharpen a scythe and scissors only to then give an elderly islander a haircut. This act is very creepy but provides some calm in an otherwise frantic final half hour. The sound of the steel on the sharpening stone sent shivers down my spine.


Yeong-hie Seo who was excellent in 2008’s The Chaser is even greater here. She has to undergo some quite humiliating acts and is treated like dirt during the first half of the film but manages to maintain an optimistic attitude. Her transformation towards the end is spectacular and bold as she appears to completely lose control. She appears possessed but underneath you can still see some semblance of love and compassion and that is a credit to her as an actress. She is truly terrific. Seong-won Ji is more uneven as the outsider. She sort of floats through the film and is unconvincing in the final scene. The supporting cast are all excellent and manage to come across as backwards, dumb and cruel. They reminded me of the sort of inbred character’s I saw in 2003’s American horror Wrong Turn but with less of a blood lust and more of a cruel superior nature. They really believe that Bok-nam is there to serve them and has no other use.   

The film isn’t as compelling as some of the great Korean thrillers such as Oldboy or Joint Security Area but stands up well on its own as a scary and unsettling genre film. It’s gruesome, troubling and violent but has love at its centre. I look forward to seeing what debut director Chul-soo Jang comes back with next.

8/10

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Hunger Games

As Twilight comes to an end and Harry Potter becomes a thing of the past, there is an opening for a new teen movie franchise and The Hunger Games seems set to take the crown from the two aforementioned cinematic behemoths.

Set at an undisclosed future date in North America, The Hunger Games has created a world in which the continent is reeling from an uprising some seven decades ago in which twelve districts rose up in defiance of the Capitol and were beaten into submission in a tale with echoes of the American Civil war. As a punishment for the twelve insubordinate districts, each year two children, one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12-18 are randomly selected from each district to fight to the death in an arena, a fight that is shown on television. Of the 24 ‘contestants’ there can only be one to emerge alive. In District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives with her mother and young sister and hunts with her bow to get enough food for her family to eat. When reaping day arrives it is Katniss’ sister Primrose (Willow Shields) who is chosen to represent their district. Fearing her sister has no chance of survival, Katniss herself volunteers to go in place of her young sister and along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) she travels to the Capitol to begin her training and take part in The Hunger Games.

I was unfamiliar with the source text as I am not a teenage girl and what I read and heard before going in lead me to believe that it was simply Battle Royale for the teen audience. This disappointed me as Battle Royale is one of my favourite films but I still went in to the screening with an open mind. While being probably as close to a Battle Royale remake America will ever dare to make, it is certainly no Battle Royale rip-off. The films look and design is excellent. District 12 feels like the back end of nowhere and its people seem well and truly downtrodden. Before the arrival of people from the Capitol, it feels as though you could be watching people from the late 19th Century. There is no computerised technology and the people seem to live very simple lives. The Capitol on the other hand couldn’t be more different. It is a gleaming, modern city with a futuristic look yet with a somewhat historical Communist iconoclasticism to it. This gives the impression of complete control over its citizens. The people of the Capitol look as though they are on loan from a Terry Gilliam/Tim Burton collaboration with their over the top hair, makeup and costume. Their look couldn’t be more different from that of the District 12 residents.


For me the film is split into two very distinct halves. The first part is the picking and training of Katniss and the others and the second is the Hunger Games themselves. Jennifer Lawrence gives an inspired performance as Katniss. She is fearless and motherly, headstrong and dedicated. She proves here that Winter’s Bone was no fluke and uses this film to show the world what a fantastic actress she is. Joining her in the Capitol is Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) as an outrageous and over the top presenter of the Games. He has got his character down to a tee and is excellent. Also joining Katniss in the Capitol is an almost unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks and Woody ‘Cooler than Sam Jackson in a fridge’ Harrleson, both of whom give fantastic if brief performances. Even Lenny Kravitz pops up and gives a solid performance.

The first part of the film gives us a chilling glimpse into the possibilities of our own future in which reality TV becomes ever more shocking and its contestants will go that step further to win. During the contestants time in the Capitol they are showered with fame and riches but then have to fight literally for their lives in what can be read as a simile for the world of reality TV.  


Before the Games begin, the tension is racked up and Lawrence’s Katniss is seen to be shaking with fear. The violence during the Games is kept to a few brief moments in order to get the certification needed to allow its target audience to see the film. The film makers had to tread a very thin line between the violence of the story and the fact that it is a film aimed at a young audience. For me, they did a good job but came down slightly too conservatively. I understand that here in the UK cuts were made to get a 12A certificate and obviously that is what the film makers wanted but considering this is a film featuring children murdering each other, the fights, gore and violence are quite weak. The Games themselves actually take a back seat to the story of survival and affection between Katniss and Peeta. There are dramatic fight scenes and emotional deaths but it is very much the story of two people willing each other to survive. This part of the film did remind me of Battle Royale and while I believe that film does a much better job of its battle, The Hunger Games creates a dangerous atmosphere which had me gripped. Unfortunately I felt that the Games ending were a bit of a let down but they are obviously setting us up for the second film in the series. The actors portraying the children were all excellent but Amandla Stenberg deserves special mention for her wonderful and emotional portrayal of Rue. She shows character and ability beyond her years.

The director Gary Ross has judged the tone correctly. He hasn’t given it a glossy Hollywood feel but is more melancholic. He has managed not to go too far in the other direction as well and the film remains very accessible. On the downside, considering the nature of what we are seeing, there are very few shocks in the film and all but one of the Games’ participants look far too old to be playing children. One character is often seen but we learn little about him and it is obvious that he will feature in a future film. I haven't read any of the future books but I can already feel another Edward/Bella/Jacob coming on. The film was also not bold enough for me but perhaps they are just setting the groundwork for the next film.   

To sum up, The Hunger Games is an impressive film with great performances throughout and a gripping and interesting story. It creates a world I want to find out more about and look forward to revisiting. It has its flaws and is likely to appeal more to younger viewers but is much stronger than the likes of the early Harry Potter films and is the sort of smart film that young audiences should be watching.    

7/10

Monsters


Six years ago a NASA probe carrying possible alien life forms crash landed in Mexico. Today, northern Mexico is known as the infected zone and the US and Mexican military are trying to contain the outbreak of 100 foot high aliens. South of the infected zone, photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is on an assignment when he is asked to check on his boss’s daughter, Sam (Whitney Able) who has somehow ended up in a hospital near by. Kaulder’s boss tells him to make sure that Sam gets out of Mexico and the two set off through the infected zone in an attempt to get to the American border.

When I saw this film at the cinema a couple of years ago I was blown away. It was made for only $500,000 with Director Gareth Edwards also shooting the film and doing all of the special effects by him self at home. The finished film looks anything but home made as Edward’s has created depth of field with his cinematography and CGI which rivals all but the best that the big Hollywood Studios produce. It is frankly astonishing that the film was made with such a small budget and looks as good as it does. When I was at the cinema back in 2010 there were a few walk outs and I think it probably has something to do with the film’s title. Monsters is a human story and not a monster movie at all but rather a film which features monsters, and sparingly. The alien creatures provide a backdrop to a relationship drama with political undertones.

The political aspects of the film become more apparent towards the end when the two characters are confronted with a giant wall to get across the border having undergone a dangerous journey to get there. Aside from a few other political moments such as talk of Kaulder being paid handsomely for a photo of a dead child but nothing for a smiling child and people talking of America sealing itself off in its own prison, the main focus of the film is the relationship between the two lead characters who happen to be a couple in real life. This familiarity helps to add to the connection and understanding between the two of them and comes across well on screen. Both actors do a good job of reacting to their surroundings and the ordeal they face. Most of the film’s dialogue was ad-libbed but the finished film is coherent while remaining natural.

Considering the budget and themes I was glad that Edwards stayed away from the found footage formula that more and more low budget films are using these days. It would have been easy for him to have done this as he wouldn’t have had to worry about such high production values but the traditional method that has been used looks wonderful and has earned Edwards the honour of being asked to direct the latest Godzilla remake. I personally think this is a shame because there must be hundreds of directors who are capable of making a monster movie with a $70m budget but there are probably very few who could make one for under $1m as Edwards has proved he can. I’d like to have seen him stick with this method of film making for a few more years.

As I mentioned earlier, the CGI is for the most part excellent, especially considering that it was not an outside Special Effects company that did the 200 plus effects in the film but the director on his own computer. The creatures themselves, though they only appear a handful of times, look spectacular from far away. This is not more so than in a quite superb scene in which two of them appear to be dancing as they either court or mate with the two human characters watching a gasp with tears in their eyes. When we see close ups of the creatures, the effects aren’t so great but the shots of destroyed buildings and downed helicopters are.


One criticism of the film is that it is hard to believe that the aliens who show few signs of the capabilities could have caused as much damage as they have. Another problem is that Sam’s father is incredibly wealthy so why would he ask a photographer to save her rather than chartering a helicopter or something similar? These are only minor faults however in a film which on the whole is a triumph and shows what is possible when a film maker has a vision and the ability to carry it through. With many film makers becoming ever more marginalised by big budget remakes and franchises, we could see more of this type of film making in the coming years and if they’re half as good as Monsters, I for one can’t wait to see them.     

9/10  

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Delicatessen

Delicatessen quirky and unusual dark comedy set in post-apocalyptic France in which grain is the currency and people do anything they can to survive. Ex-circus performer Luison responds to an ad in the newspaper for a maintenance man in an apartment block with a butchers on the ground floor. It becomes apparent that the Butcher uses the ad to attract people to the apartment who he then kills and makes into meat which is split between the other tenants in the building. Julie, the Butcher’s daughter becomes infatuated with Luison and goes in search of underground militant vegetarians who attempt to bring the Butcher down and steal his hoards of grain, thus saving Luison from his fate.

Just going by that brief plot summary above it should be clear that this film is bonkers. The film is a deliberate homage to Terry Gilliam and this is very obvious. The way the film is shot, the dystopian nature, even the costume are all reminders of Gilliam’s work. The camera pulls in to close ups of peoples anguished and twisted faces and the whole film is shot in various shades of brown, there are few other colours. The mise en scene is so Gilliam that had the film been in English you’d be hard pushed to believe it wasn’t one of his films. It contains all of his trademarks. The visual comparisons go even further with the vegetarian’s costumes looking remarkably similar to Robert DeNiro’s in Brazil. Basically, if you are a Terry Gilliam fan, you’ll love this.


The film isn’t funny all the way through but contains moments of genius. One woman’s increasingly elaborate attempts to kill herself are a recurring joy. In one scene she stands on a chair with a noose around her neck and a gun pointed at her head which is attached to a string on the door so that when her husband opens the door, the gun will go off and the chair pulled from under her. In addition, the oven door is open with the gas on and she has a bottle full of pills at the ready. Despite all of this, the suicide attempt goes wrong and it is very funny to watch. The film is scattered with moments like this, but only lightly scattered. The real joy of the film is the cinematographic style which is used which is dark and monochromatic but visually appealing.


Due to the lack of funny moments and confusing story the film is inevitably a bit dull in places but each of these moments is quickly erased by an action set piece or subtle bit of humour. The film on the whole is a success and is worth watching for its style if nothing else.

7/10

Melancholia

Melancholia follows the story of two sisters, Justine (Kirstin Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) during and shortly after Justine’s wedding. Both, but especially Justine, are suffering from depression which is perhaps being bought on by the fact that the rouge planet Melancholia is on course to come very close to colliding with the Earth.


The film begins with a long sequence of ultra slow motion images that are beautifully framed and shot. While stunning to look at, after a few minutes I did begin to worry if the whole film would be like this and it unfortunately began to remind me of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life which I really did not get. The remainder of the film is split into two sections, each named after one of the sisters, the first at a wedding and the second shortly after. After the quite wonderful opening sequence I found the cinematography in the rest of the film annoying. Von Trier uses a lot of shaky camera work and at times it is more like a Bourne film than an emotional drama.


Another problem I had with the film was Dunst’s character. While she is excellent in the role and probably the best I’ve ever seen her, I felt that her behaviour at her own wedding was ridiculous. I was surprised that her fiancé Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) would have wanted to marry her in the condition she was in. At the best he should have got her some medical help and at the worst, run a mile. I also found it strange that Dunst was American yet her mother, father and sister were English. It didn’t make much sense and I was confused for the first 45 minutes by who her parents were. I thought that the film on the whole was clunky and like a first draft. There are undoubtedly great moments in there but to me it felt like half a film. I also found it very monotonous. On the plus side, the view of Melancholia as it passed by and approached the Earth was spectacular and stunning.


Considering the last Lars von Trier film I watched, Antichrist had Charlotte Gainsbourg ‘pleasuring’ a man until he bled and then removing her own clitoris, I was hoping for a more enjoyable watch with Melancholia but while Antichrist isn’t an easy watch, I thought it was a better film. I realise I am opening myself up to not getting what von Trier was trying to do and while I do get the idea of depression and someone’s depression destroying the world, I just didn’t think it was dealt with in a satisfying way. The film was confusing and not interesting enough.

6/10  

The Adjustment Bureau

David Norris (Matt Damon) is the youngest Congressman in history but is about to lose the race to become a New York Senator. While practising his concession speech in the bathroom he bumps into Elise (Emily Blunt) and the two have an immediate connection. Despite numerous attempts to be with Elise, Norris finds that he is always thwarted and uncovers the truth that all of our lives are kept on a pre designed plan which is implemented by The Adjustment Bureau. Norris spends the film trying to find a way to outsmart and outmanoeuvre the Bureau in order to be with the woman he loves. 
 
I really like the idea behind this film. It has drawn comparisons to Inception in that it is a smart, sci-fi blockbuster and I can see why but this is a completely different film. The design of the Bureau and its operatives is wonderfully period. The Bureau look as though they’ve just got off a bus from 1963 and this is heightened by the inclusion of John Slattery looking like he’s come straight from the set of Mad Men. The reason for the look is explained and makes sense. The Bureau’s offices are intimidating yet sterile and feel as though they are untouched despite being full of people. New York looks, as always, picturesque and a lot of the city is seen throughout the film.


Matt Damon does a fantastic job portraying David Norris. Despite his age he has the look of a politician and the script helps him to beef out his character’s political credentials. When things start getting a bit strange he shows no fear but rather an understanding of what he must do and a determination to get it done. Emily Blunt is very much a secondary character but is light and quirky. Her and Damon’s relationship feels realistic and this helps to drive the romantic element of the film. The Bureau is filled with stern and intimidating types and all are fine. Anthony Mackie brings a human edge to the Bureau in his portrayal of Harry, the Agent who helps Norris.


The film is not without its problems. The Bureau is investing so much time and resources in Norris because he is destined for great things but with all the hassle he is giving them and with three hundred or so other American’s to choose from I’d have thought they might have cut their losses with him. The themes of religion and free will were interesting but I’d like to have seen the film makers explore them a bit further. It felt as though we only touched the subject rather than delved into it. Unlike Inception, The Adjustment Bureau isn’t the sort of film that will have people thinking or discussing much afterwards. The film is quite neat at tying up any loose ends and there is only really one area which could be open to interpretation. Despite the odd flaw, the film remains very good. It is nice to see a romantic story that doesn’t just appeal to women and a sci-fi film that doesn’t just appeal to men. The film is definitely worth watching.

7/10  

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street is an action comedy based on the late 80s TV show of the same name. It stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as recently graduated cops who are sent undercover at a High School with a drug problem. The two were never friendly at school but have become best friends as cops. While Jonah Hill’s Schmit finds that he fits in much better at his second chance at High School, previously popular Jenko (Tatum) find that things are drastically different from his days as the popular jock and struggles to find his place.

21 Jump Street was new to me having been too young for the original series and I don’t think it was even shown in the UK anyway. I found it very funny and enjoyed it immensely. It is a laugh a minute comedy with great characters and an attention-grabbing idea. The film is aware of itself but doesn’t take itself too seriously. One policeman even says of the Jump Street unit, “We are cobbling together something from the past and hoping no one will notice” in reference to the original show. As I said, the film is very funny and unusually for most comedies, the funniest parts aren’t in the already hilarious trailer. One scene where the central characters are on drugs had me in stitches. Ultimately the laughs to trail off towards the end in favour of resolving the plot but there are little details such as an uncomfortable looking paramedic which keep the humour going when in lesser films it might not be there.

The odd couple relationship between Tatum and Hill works really well. They seem like total opposites and you can imagine how they wouldn’t have got on in High School, but at the same time their later friendship feels real. Jonah Hill plays his familiar chubby loser character which has worked to varying degrees in the likes of Superbad and The Sitter but here is thoroughly successful. He also brings added depth to the character to make him smarter and more caring than in previous incarnations. I have never seen a Channing Tatum film before having been put off by his annoying name and face as well as the type of romantic films he’s appeared in, but in this I thought he was excellent. He has a great double act partner in Hill and plays the dumb meathead well. His comedic moments are also first-rate. I think he was funnier than Jonah Hill. Maybe this is where his career could end up when he’s finished walking on beaches at sunset?

The supporting cast were all great too. Ice Cube was outstanding as the ‘angry black police sergeant’ although I do wonder what 1992 Ice Cube would think about 2012 Ice Cube playing a cop in a mainstream Hollywood comedy. Dave Franco, who is looking more and more like his brother each time I see him was well cast as the arrogant, cock-sure popular kid and The Office’s Ellie Kemper was very flirtatious and funny as a teacher with a crush on Tatum. Rob Riggle plays a strange character but pulls it off well. There isn’t really a weak link anywhere in the cast.

I didn’t work out who the bad guy was before the reveal but the film had me laughing so much that I didn’t even think about whom it was and when we found out I didn’t really care. On the downside, some of the jokes feel a bit stretched and the love story between Hill and the school girl felt forced. Also, it was obvious as soon as she said “I’m 18” for no reason that it was going to happen. That’s the green light to tell the audience that although she’s in school its all legal and above board. There is a great cameo towards the end which both shocked and delighted my girlfriend and despite the formulaic Hollywood ending this is a successful comedy. I look forward to the sequel which was heavily implied at the end.

8/10

Monday, 19 March 2012

We Bought a Zoo

I walked seven miles, there and back to watch this film on a quiet Monday afternoon. This should tell you three things; One) I have too much time on my hands, two) I really like Scarlett Johansson and three) I’ve hit rock bottom. I sat in an empty cinema auditorium in the hope that the seven miles would have been worth it. I sat through the Orange advert and the painfully annoying M&Ms/FTRC advert, wishing the film to be worth the trip. Well it wasn’t.

The plot, based on a true story which I was familiar with goes as thus. Recently widowed writer, Benjamin (Matt Damon) is struggling to keep his family on the straight and narrow. He is close to losing his job and has a fourteen year old son who keeps getting into trouble at school. After his son is expelled, Benjamin decides to up sticks and finds a lovely house in the country. The house has one drawback though, it’s a zoo. With the help of a dedicated team which includes Head Zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), Benjamin tries to bring the ailing zoo up to standard before a grand opening in the summer.


I think from the trailer and even my paragraph above, 95% of people could guess how this is going to turn out. There are no shocks or surprises and you can see all the jokes from a mile off. The film over uses the families loss to try to inject heart into the film and I think this is a mistake. It constantly pulls on the heart strings by showing Damon looking at picture after picture of his wife while terrible music plays underneath. We know how hard it must be but the film keeps pulling the audience back to it. The family also only appear to miss the mother at convenient moments which doesn’t feel very realistic. The whole film is also miss-sold by its trailer as a comedy. Pretty much all of the comedic moments are in the trailer and it is much more of a drama.

There are plenty of plot holes here too. Damon’s son Dylan (Colin Ford) is expelled for drawing an inappropriate mural in class which is put up in a corridor anyway along with murals depicting love and recycling etc. Also, Scarlett Johansson’s character complains that she doesn’t have time to see her friends or find a man but spends all of her free time in a small bar at the zoo with the three or four people she works with. The whole story is oversimplified which makes it feel unreal, even though it is based on actual events. Both Benjamin and his son spend half the film oblivious that they both have attractive women after them. I know they’ve just had a loss but come on!

It wasn't all bad...
Neither Matt Damon nor Scarlett Johansson are stretched by these roles and you have to feel that it was just a paycheque for them. Johansson is wasted and Damon’s only good moment comes when he is yelling at his son. He plays the likeable everyman well though. The supporting cast are mixed. Colin Ford is fine as a mopey teenager and Maggie Elizabeth Jones is cute but annoying as Damon’s young daughter. If I was annoyed by the first time she shouted “We bought a zoo”, by the third time I was ready to leave. Elle Fanning who was wonderful in Super 8 was ok but like the stars, not stretched. Her whole character was a bit odd. She plays a thirteen year old who doesn’t go to school but works at the zoo and everyone seems fine with this. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s J.B. Smoove plays an Estate Agent but I wish his part had been bigger so he could have injected some humour.

The film does pick up in the final few minutes for the sweet ending that we all expected. I’d expected more from an interesting true story and great actors but it is nothing more than mediocre.

4/10

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Tommy Lee Jones’ Directorial debut is a modern day Western set in Texas and Northern Mexico and is about the death of Mexican cowboy Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo). Before his death he made his friend Pete (Tommy Lee Jones) promise to bury him in his small town of birth, Jimenez, across the border in Mexico. Pete kidnaps the boarder patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) who shot Estrada and the two of them set out in search of Jimenez.  

One of the films strengths is that it sometimes shows the same incident from two different character’s perspectives which help the audience to decide who they believe is in the right or wrong or build up a better understanding of proceedings. This however helps to add to one of the films downfalls which is the non-linear way the plot unfolds in the first act. I found myself confused for the first half an hour or so until I worked out who everyone was and what their place in the movie was. Once I’d figured out who everyone was, I then had trouble understanding what anyone was saying. The Spanish dialogue is subtitled but I could have done with subtitles for the mumbled Texan accents that were prevalent. At times I honestly had no idea what was being said.

The story is kind of interesting but I didn’t have enough love for Tommy Lee Jones or Julio Cedillo’s characters to really care either way and Barry Pepper’s Mike Norton is made out to be quite a nasty character so I certainly didn’t care what happened to him. His partial redemption towards the end wasn’t enough for me. I think that there was another film in there, based on the relationship between Barry Pepper and his wife January Jones. The acting on the whole was very good. Tommy Lee Jones as usual was great and Barry Pepper showed greater range than I’d witnessed from him before. Even January Jones was acceptable, the best I’ve seen from her too. Melissa Leo stood out but her role was very small.


Tommy Lee Jones gave me no reason to think that he couldn’t or shouldn’t direct again but there was no wow factor. He manages to get good performances however and the locations are pretty. The film in general is fine but I wasn’t very interested in the plot.  

6/10

The Goonies


The Goonies is a reminder of a time when little boys didn’t sit around at home playing video games or trying to spot Beyonce’s nipples on MTV but went out into the world and had adventures. This is one of the last of those adventures.

A group of friends who call themselves The Goonies are threatened by the expansion of a Country Club. The club are threatening to tear down their houses meaning the friends will all have to move away. One of the boys, Mikey (Sean Austin) finds a map in amongst his father’s antiques which he believes leads to hidden pirate treasure. Along with his older brother (Josh Brolin) and friends (Corey Feldman, Jonathan Ke Quan and Jeff Cohen) Mikey sets out on an adventure to find the hidden gold.


This is exactly the kind of fun 80s movie that Super 8 was trying to replicate and having now seen The Goonies I realise how successful that film was at taking the best of the genre and mixing it with something more modern. The Goonies is full of great adventure and made me wish I was one of them, in a tunnel under the town trying to outwit baddies. It made me feel young again. The film felt more adventurous and fun that the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and cost a fraction to produce. It is really good fun and features some very funny characters speaking very funny lines. The main characters are stereotypical 80s kids but the film gets away with feeling caricatured. It is maybe that they seem stereotypical to me watching in 2012 but that they are actually the characters upon witch my stereotypes were based.


The chase and constant attempts to outwit the bad guys was reminiscent of another great family action adventure of the time, Home Alone which was directed by The Goonies writer, Chris Columbus. As with Home Alone I felt young while watching and as much a part of the action as I do with any 3D film. And like any good family film, it isn’t afraid to scare the younger viewers slightly.

The film is not without faults. The dialogue feels quite cheesy and at times it did get a bit boring but to be fair, I am not a child or teenager. The acting was also a bit mixed. John Brolin was fine, as were the bad guys Anne Ramsey, Joe Pantoliano and Robert Davi. I thought that Goonies Sean Austin and Jeff Cohen were also good but the rest weren’t. For me, this film had plenty of nostalgia and made me think back to watching the likes of E.T and Indiana Jones with my family as a child. The clothes, bikes and dialogue also reminded me of being a young child (the film is one year older than I am). Overall, I really enjoyed the film and it is that rare film that the whole family can watch and enjoy.   

7/10