Saturday, 14 December 2013

Coriolanus review - No Holds Bard as Hiddleston kicks ass and takes names as Coriolanus

"You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

Shakespeare? Not quite. The quote actually comes from The Dark Knight but it does perfectly capture the dilemma facing the character of Caius Martius in William Shakespeare's final tragedy Coriolanus.
It is one of the Bard's lesser performed works, yet Ralph Fiennes directorial debut in 2011 managed to use the medium of film to bring its grisly battles and scenes of the angry masses to life.
For this production at the Donmar Warehouse, under Josie Rourke's direction, it has been stripped back (sometimes literally) to the bare essentials.
A brick wall becomes graffittied with messages that echo the voice of the people, the cries of the masses amplified through sound design and the battles kept off-stage save for one physical bout of hand-to-hand combat.
Rourke recognises that despite the scale and settings of his plays, Shakespeare's work is ultimately about the people and the dialogue.
The external conflicts give way to focus on the internal conflict within one man.
Caius Martius is a proud and decorated soldier, almost bred for the purpose of war by his mother. Yet while he is willing to fight and die for his city, he has a deep disdain for the politicians who govern it and the people he protects within it.
When he is elected to the senate after single-handedly taking an enemy city, a plot emerges to expose his true feelings to the people and strip him of his power (after all, who doesn't like to see a politician publically disgraced?), but it could have dangerous repercussions for Rome as hell hath no fury like a soldier scorned.
Shakespeare's plays have been performed in theatres for over 400 years and part of this longevity has been the ability to make these ancient texts accessible and appealing to new generations.
They can initially appear daunting to some but by adapting the plays to more modern settings and incarnations on stage (the National Theatre's recent runs of Hamlet and Othello for example), on film (Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet), or even making them watch it without realising (West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Lion King), it helps to introduce new audiences to the Bard.
Another way of increasing awareness is by casting actors who are better known for their work in the world of TV and film. This year alone has seen the likes of James McAvoy, Jude Law and David Tennant take on some of the biggest roles in Shakespeare's back catalogue including Macbeth and Henry V.
Tom Hiddleston is the latest name to tackle the Bard but this is certainly not a case of mere stunt casting. Hiddleston is an experienced stage actor in his own right, winning an Olivier Award for Cymbeline, plus has a self-confessed love of Shakespeare, previously appearing in Othello at the Donmar and Prince Hal in the BBC's The Hollow Crown series.
He might be best known for being Loki of Asgard in Thor and The Avengers but he is burdened for glorious purpose on the stage once more.

Hiddleston commands the stage with a brooding, physical presence and also has a tremendous command of the Shakespearean dialogue, at ease delivering speeches to both armies of soldiers in the field of battle or politicians in the senate. The highlight comes during one of the few real monologues in the play, a spellbinding scene where Martius kneels before his enemy Aufidius and offers him his throat to spite the Romans who banished him. His Martius is not all pomp and bravado however; Hiddleston peels away the layers to reveal the sarcastic nature of his true feelings towards politics, the vulnerability at the heart of his Achilles heel, his mother, before being laid bare to the audience in a shower scene that exhibits the true cost of his many years in battle.
He is ably supported by a small yet hugely talented cast including Deborah Findlay as his mother Volumnia and Mark Gatiss as senator Menenius, who brings out the pathos of being turned away by the man he used to look on as a son and bleak future for his city for "This Coriolanus has grown from man to dragon".
The intimacy of the Donmar Warehouse space really helps to heighten the performances and even standing in the circle, you can still see Hiddleston's face begin to crack with emotion as his mother pleads with him to call off the siege of Rome.

While it is fair to say that there is not a bad seat in the (Ware)house, the problem is actually getting one as the popularity of the production meant that the entire run sold out as soon as tickets went on sale. However thanks to National Theatre Live audiences can watch the play performed and transmitted live via satellite at their local Picturehouse cinema on Thursday 30th January at 7.00pm.
Tickets can be booked here.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The World's End - review

"Have you ever had one of those nights that started out like any other and became the best night of your life?"
Gary King certainly did, and 22 years down the line he still thinks about that night and so he rounds up his childhood friends aka "The Five Musketeers" and they head back to their hometown of Newton Haven to have another crack at The Golden Mile. 5 guys. 12 pubs. 50 pints... 60 pints.
But the times they are a changing and it's not long into the crawl that things turn a bit "Invasion Of The Boddingtons Snatchers" and the lads will have more than a hangover to deal with if they are to make it to The World's End...

The best friendships are the ones where years could have passed without seeing each other but within half an hour, the old camaraderie and jokes are flowing as fast as the beer and its as if nothing has changed at all.
This is certainly the case with messieurs Wright, Pegg and Frost. It has been six years since Hot Fuzz and they seamlessly pick up where they left off with a terrific opening sequence outlining the ill-fated pub crawl with Wright's traditional smash cut and frenetic editing, an eclectic and killer soundtrack and a script that is smart, funny and multi-layered.
However beyond the appearance of a particular ice cream, a fence gag and fruit machine sound effect, this is an all-together more grown up flavour of Cornetto.
Gone are the multitude of pop culture references and the gag-ratio has been toned down in favour of something much more reflective, nostalgic and ultimately bittersweet. Although I can guarantee that a certain line that features the word Legoland will become one of the quotes of the year.
The film makers themselves have admitted that they are older and not the same people they were when they first worked together on Spaced and Shaun Of The Dead so it would be have foolish to try and act that like they were still in their twenties... They just leave that to their main character.

One of the main themes of the film is the notion that you can't keep living in the past, like a shark you have to keep moving forward or die. And with Gary King what we have on our hands is a dead shark.
Gary is unable to realise this at first, even with help from his best friends, and in many ways bears resemblance to one of 2013's other cinematic (and literary) nostalgics, The Great Gatsby.
Nick Carraway says the line "You can't repeat the past" to which Gatsby replies "Why of course you can".
Gatsby has spent most of his life and fortune in one long party, trying to recapture that one perfect moment in his life (his relationship and love with Daisy Buchanan), a pursuit which is ultimately doomed...
Similar to Gary and his attempt to conquer the Golden Mile.
His character can come across as selfish and annoying but we've all had a friend like that yet underneath there is a sadness which makes him a rather tragic anti-hero.
It is a refreshing change to see Pegg & Frost mix up the dynamic by having Frost play the straight man while Pegg gets to play the comical f*ck up this time round. They may have swapped roles but the chemistry is still there and you really get a sense of the history between the two.
There is a scene between them in the final pub which went to places one would never have expected when the trilogy started nearly ten years ago, leaving me with a lump in my throat and is the best on screen work that Pegg and Frost have ever done.

The Cornetto Trilogy has always managed to draw some incredible talent into appearing in these films and once again they have assembled one of the best British ensemble casts outside of the Harry Potter franchise.
A whole host of familiar faces (and voices) pop up in cameos alongside newcomers like Rosamund Pike and Eddie Marsan who fit in perfectly with Paddy Considine rounding out The Five Musketeers along with Martin Freeman who excels in what might be the trickiest role to play outside of Pegg's.
The reason they have been able to continue to attract this level of talent is down to the quality of the script and filmmaking.
Each part of the trilogy has featured at its core, an individual or small group fighting against the homogenisation of an external force, whether that be zombies, the NWA or The Network.
Wright & Pegg have taken genres typically associated with Hollywood (the zombie horror, action blockbuster and science-fiction) and grounded them in a very British reality by having them becoming an obstacle to the protagonist's main goal (Shaun getting his girlfriend back, Angel trying to solve a Midsomer Murder Mystery and the quest to conquer The Golden Mile).
The World's End has just the right level of juxtaposition that allows Wright to deftly move between the ridiculous and the sublime, effortlessly moving between comedy and tragedy. For example, going from a heartfelt confessional moment of pain and regret to a beautifully choreographed bar brawl that combines drunken monkey style Kung fu and early 90s' WWE moves, but never at the expense of character.
Plus the scripts are very densely plotted that there is much to enjoy on multiple viewings with the names of the pubs acting as chapter titles for the action and even subtly hints at how the plot will unfold from the very beginning. This is also goes for the soundtrack which features several classic tracks from the early Nineties that fit the mood perfectly but also contain many lyrics that echo emotions and actions that drive the story.
If there were to be any criticisms, it may lie with the final epilogue which feels just a touch out of place with the rest of the film but it does provide one of the main running gags which helps tie the whole trilogy together.
The World's End might not have been the conclusion to the Cornetto Trilogy that people were perhaps expecting but I've tried to think of another way it could have ended and my mind is drawing a complete "blank".
The best films are the ones that stay with you long after you leave the cinema, the ones that speak to you on a personal level, like the filmmakers wrote it specifically for you and I feel that this one more than the others in the trilogy will grow to fill that place in many cinemagoers hearts (particularly ones of a certain age) as they take stock, reflect on life and get in touch with some old friends for a nostalgic trip back down memory lane to their own Golden Mile.

4 stars

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Edgar Wright Takeover at The Prince Charles Cinema review - An Epic Of Epic Epicness

Anyone who knows me will know that I am not adverse to the odd film-going experience that other people may find, extreme.
I've done a 12 hour round trip to Glasgow to catch the first screening of The Dark Knight Rises at the IMAX, I've hosted a Dark Knight Trilogy at The Belmont Picturehouse dressed as The Joker (including Nurse outfit) and I've watched every single one of Empire Magazine's Top 500 films in one year (on top of new releases).
However the event on Saturday 7th July would be on a whole different level in terms of endurance.
Edgar Wright is one of my favourite directors and one of the most exciting talents working in the film industry today and to coincide with the upcoming release of The World's End, The Prince Charles Cinema just off Leicester Square had organised a 16.5 hour Edgar Wright Takeover.
The Prince Charles is famous for its repertory programming and events and there was a buzz of excitement growing outside the cinema, helped by the awesome readograph message. Could the event be an "Epic of Epic Epicness" or would it amount to nothing more than sitting around eating peanuts in the dark?

Since 16.5 hours is a long time to spend in a cinema, it was important to have a steady source of snackage and therefore I'd sourced a selection of themed snacks to sustain me over the night including Hog Lumps, Twiglets (caution - violence may ensue) and Jaffa Cakes in my coat pocket. Only thing missing was a pint of Bovril!

"280 eager fans begin their own version of the Golden Mile.
16.5 hours from A Fistful Of Fingers to Scott Pilgrim Vs The World"

The evening kicked off with Edgar Wright happily chastising us for choosing to spend part of the hottest weekend of the year inside a darkened room watching his life's work and provided a layout of the night/morning ahead but also promised a few surprises... However a preview screening of The World's End would not be on the cards sadly, ha ha.

First up was Edgar Wright's debut feature film A Fistful Of Fingers, a Western filmed in his hometown of Wells, Somerset, which hadn't been in cinemas since it played The Prince Charles in 1995.
It might have received a 1 star review in Empire Magazine (oh how times have changed!) and is clearly the work of a young filmmaker just starting out but the film is full of the technical inventiveness and whipsmart gags (the "Nun shall pass" gag being a highlight) that would become his trademark style and could be described as "If Zucker/Abraham/Zucker had created a mash-up of Blazing Saddles & Monty Python And The Holy Grail".

Edgar returned for a quick Q&A on the film in which he was frank and honest about it, the story behind the Jeremy Beadle cameo, how the film's lead Graham Low appeared in Hot Fuzz as the Living Statue and whether we might ever see it as an extra on a future DVD release.
He then bid us farewell and hoped we would all enjoy the rest of the event and that he would be back in the morning to make sure we were all still here!

First bathroom break followed and I had to pee, not due to boredom but necessity, and in a nice touch the staff had placed "Pee Bars" above the urinals.
The gaps between each segment were kept to 5-10 minutes each time in order to quicken the pace of the event and keep everyone's attention focused on the screen but the brief breaks were a hive of activity with long queues for the bathrooms, people stretching their legs, shouts of "Can I get any of you c*nts a drink?" and "Do you want anything from the shop?" as they went to the bar.
The PCC staff were also filming audience reactions and had a photo booth set up with props including cricket bat, vinyl records, etc.

Each segment began with a special bonus treat and we got the first episode of The Random Adventures of Brandon Generator, the online graphic novel that was created with the help of fans.
Spaced is my all-time favourite TV show and seeing it on the big screen was one of the main draws of the event for me.
I have watched the series many, many times but the show is so well written and performed that another viewing unlocked new gags and references that I hadn't noticed before.
Initially I was surprised that we wouldn't be watching the whole two seasons back-to-back, which would have meant the event would have run in chronological order, but it turned out to be a very smart move to break it down into runs of 3-4 episodes as Episode 3, featuring the zombie segment, was the inspiration for the first instalment of the Cornetto trilogy Shaun Of The Dead.

No real signs of fatigue in the audience at this point but I had one minor irritation, my eyes. The weather in London that weekend was glorious and as a pasty white Scotsman I had needed some protection so in the words of Buffalo Bill, "it puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again", but during the day it had melted off my face into my eyes and ended up irritating my eyes which I continued to rub for the entire night and I was forced to purchase eye drops and apply some between each film. I didn't care if my eyeballs bled (a distinct possibility when the time came round to watching Scott Pilgrim) nothing could stop me watching the big screen.

Preceded by the Don't trailer that Wright directed for Grindhouse, it was time to watch everyone's favourite "Rom-Zom-Com" on the big screen for the first time since I saw it on release back in 2004.
Still remains a pitch-perfect blend between comedy and horror with a host of random crowd-pleasing moments like the C-Bomb that ITV2 always cuts, Bill Nighy's amazing pivot turn and the pool cue fight to Don't Stop Me Now.

We were now into Sunday and approaching the halfway point in the marathon with the conclusion of Brandon Generator and the second part of Spaced season 1 including my favourite episode of that season, the clubbing episode and the introduction of Michael Smiley's Tyres.

After another quick pit stop we were off to the country and "this shit just got real" with Hot Fuzz. Once again Wright and Pegg's script perfectly balances the culture clash of Bruckheimer action with a Midsomer Murder Mystery heavily influenced by The Wicker Man.
If nothing else, the film proved that Timothy Dalton needs to appear on the big screen more often and that dropkicking a granny in the face is never not funny!

After being treated to a fun home video clip of a young Edgar Wright's appearance on Going Live, we cracked on with Season 2 of Spaced and having just watched Season 1 earlier it was clear to see the leaps and bounds that Wright had developed as a director in that time as it was a lot more cinematic in terms of visual flair.
The first three episodes also included the fallout of The Phantom Menace and Reece Shearsmith's unique delivery of the line "aw yeah, I hadn't thought of that!".

Still wasn't suffering from any general fatigue symptoms but my eyes looked as if they had been on the receiving end of an entire can of mace.
No time to worry about that though as the "bonus features" kept on coming with a selection of music videos including a Bluetones song that allowed Edgar to indulge his love for Bugsy Malone.
Meanwhile in the city of Toronto, Canada Scott Pilgrim was battling his way through the League of Evil Exes in the only comic book movie where Michael Cera defeats Superman AND Captain America... "That's actually hilarious".
Scott Pilgrim Vs The World might not have had the box office success that it deserved but it showed that after the Britishness of Shaun and Fuzz that Wright was extremely comfortable working in the US studio system and the action scenes proved that the upcoming adaptation of Ant Man for Marvel was in safe hands as we were to find out... but more on that later.

As promised, Edgar returned after Scott Pilgrim Vs The World to check up on how we were all doing and brought Jaffa Cakes for everyone. However he had brought so many he needed a friend to help him carry them and out popped Nick Frost to the delight of the crowd.
After dishing out 300+ Jaffa Cakes for breakfast the two stuck around for a hilarious and expletive-laden impromptu Q&A.

Highlights included:

  • when asked if he could film a biopic on anyone who would it be Edgar lamented that unfortunately all his childhood idols were now paedophiles which would make it rather tricky
  • debating whether a Jaffa Cake was a cake or a biscuit
  • Edgar & Nick leading the screen in a rendition of Happy Birthday to a lucky fan

  • I was fortunate enough to be able to ask a question, well I asked it after Wright complimented my Shaun Cosplay outfit but pointed out that Shaun wasn't Scottish so to ask it again in an English accent so putting on a stereotypical posh voice (to which he dubbed me "Downton Shaun") I asked them if they wrote the scripts for The Cornetto Trilogy with certain actors in mind (not including Pegg & Frost's roles of course) and hope they get them or if they tailor the script following casting.
    Edgar admitted they write with actors in mind as it makes it easier to write to their voices and they have been very fortunate with all the great people that they have worked with.

    The finishing line was in sight when the roof nearly blew off the auditorium as we were treated to one last surprise from Mr Wright... NO, not The World's End but the Ant Man test footage that was screened at Comic Con and it would be fair to say the crowd approved of the sequence that showed Hank Pym switching between sizes as he fought his way down a guarded corridor. I had previously seen it on YouTube but it looked amazing up on the big screen.
    The marathon drew to a close with the final four episodes of Spaced featuring Edgar Wright's favourite episode (which also happens to be mine and many others) 2.5 Gone.
    There is always clamour for another season of the show but I feel that it ended on the perfect note and besides the best UK comedy shows only have 2 seasons (Fawlty Towers, The Office).

    "Skip to the end..."

    So 16.5 hours later, a couple of hundred people emerged from the darkened auditorium into the blinding sunshine for the traditional Prince Charles Marathon Survivor photograph which quickly descended into a Spaced-style gunfight.
    Finally the icing on a very delicious cake of awesome came in the form of the item that has become synonymous with Edgar Wright's work... A free Cornetto!

    And so that was the end of the Edgar Wright Takeover and I can honestly say that it was one of the best experiences I've ever had in a cinema. So much so that even though I live in Aberdeen, I bought a year's membership for the cinema as I can guarantee it won't be the last event I attend there.
    There are more ways than ever to view movies (DVD, streaming, on a tablet/phone) and between ever-shrinking theatrical windows & multi-platform releases there is a danger that the trip to the cinema will become the minority choice for many consumers.
    However I don't care how big your widescreen TV at home is, nothing can recreate the feeling you get when you watch a movie that you love on the big screen surrounded by people who feel the same way.
    I believe that repertory programming and special event cinema, like that being done at The Prince Charles, generates that sense of community, of belonging to something and being around others who appreciate and enjoy it too, is the way forward and will keep the big screen experience alive and kicking.
    A huge thanks and a big thumbs up to the staff at The Prince Charles Cinema (and Edgar Wright and Nick Frost) for organising such a successful event and long may it continue.

    Wednesday, 29 May 2013

    Much Ado About Nothing - GFF review

    Back in February, the Glasgow Film Festival was lucky enough to host the first UK screening of Much Ado About Nothing or "Joss Whedon, I Know What You Did Last Midsummer Night's Dream".
    Many people, including Joss himself, must have been asking the question "What does a man who has just directed The Avengers, the third highest grossing film of all time, do next?". Ay, therein lies the rub...
    Yet rather surprisingly the answer was not "I'm going to Disneyland" but instead he took the opportunity to brush up his Shakespeare and film a black and white adaptation of one of his plays in his own house with all the parts being played by his actor friends, all in the space of a Twelfth night.
    Two weeks in the Magic Kingdom it was not, or perhaps it was depending on your point of view.
    Now modern takes on Shakespeare are nothing new and have taken many forms over the years from musical (West Side Story) to teenage rom-com (Ten Things I Hate About You) but what has always been tricky is combining a contemporary setting with the original text.
    The most successful of these has been Baz Luhrmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet", which managesd to stay faithful to the Bard but opened up his work to a brand new generation.
    It is certainly possible that Whedon's work could have a similar crossover appeal, especially with it being marketed as "From the director of The Avengers", and he's avoided the tragedy of "For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo", instead opting for a comedy of errors and one of Shakespeare's funniest that you could describe as "For never was a story of more wit, than this of Beatrice and her Benedick".
    With the rapid-fire dialogue, battle of the sexes and striking black and white cinematography, this adaptation has the feel of a screwball comedy from the Thirties or Forties.
    The Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn of this particular production are Alexis Denisof as and Amy Acker.
    Both are completely at ease with the fast-paced, whip-smart dialogue and also adept at comedy as evidenced by Acker's pratfall down the stairs and the sequence where Denisof combat rolls outside a window whilst spying on a conversation about him.
    Whedon's version certainly does play up the comedy but never at the expense of the romance which has a real spark, helped by the fact that the two have played lovers in the past on Angel.
    By adding a scene at the beginning of the film which reveals a past tryst between Beatrice and Benedick, it puts a fresh spin on their relationship.
    There is always a danger with this play that it could become the B&B show but of course this is a Joss Whedon movie, and therefore a perfect ensemble piece with not a weak link in the cast from Sean Maher's dastardly Don John, Agent Coulson Clark Gregg's loving father Leonato to Nathan Fillion's security chief Dogberry who secures the film's biggest laughs with his constant iterations that "forget not that I am an ass".
    Casting his friends in the roles not only helped the production as Whedon had confidence in their abilities to deliver in such a short time scale but the sense of family that he has built up over the years with his actors transfers to the screen in this play where family plays an important role to the story.
    The adaptation, set in the world of war heroes and politics, contemporises the text and while the words still hold their power (even if it does take a little time to acclimatise to the rhythms of the speech) some of the behaviour and romantic notions will still be considered odd and old-fashioned by some audiences but love is eternal and hey, remember this is Shakespeare, the man who had two teenagers kill themselves after knowing each other for only a week, so what are you going to do?!
    So all's well that ends well for Joss Whedon because this labour of love is anything but lost because, measure for measure, Much Ado About Nothing is one of the best Shakespearean adaptations to ever grace the silver screen.

    5 stars

    Desperately trying not to geek out... Joss managed to keep his cool ;-)

    Following the screening, Joss Whedon was on hand to take part in a Q&A and was met with a rapturous reception from the GFT audience.
    Below is a video of the Q&A in which Joss was on excellent form and as eloquent, witty and self-deprecating as anyone who has listened to any of his DVD commentaries can attest to.
    Highlights include talking about how he first developed a love for Shakespeare, the decision to film in black and white, winding up Nathan Fillion and that if he was to do another film like this following Avengers 2 it would be Hamlet.

    P.S. The silly and off-topic Cabin In The Woods question was mine!

    Thursday, 9 May 2013

    Star Trek Into Darkness - review

    Star Trek Into Darkness begins with a breathless James Bond-style opening chapter that joins the crew of the Enterprise as they are in the process of completing a mission to prevent a volcano destroying a primitive indigenous species and from that point the film never takes the pedal off the gas as it whips along at warp factor 5 in order to stop the audience focusing on the plot which has more black holes than a Romulan ship full of red matter. (Kirk loses command of his ship for allowing primitive life forms to see his ship rise up out of the water. How did they land in the water without anyone seeing them? Then ten minutes later he has his ship back. Star fleet is awfully fickle).
    The plot they do want you to focus on is Kirk's quest to find rogue Star Fleet officer John Harrison (Cumberbatch), who is guilty of a terrorist attack in London and will test Kirk in ways he has not been tested since... well, you can probably see where that is going.
    John Harrison is "better" than Kirk. "At what?" he asks. "Everything".
    And it would be fair to say that Benedict Cumberbatch is better than everyone else in the film. He is cold, calculating and evil yet justifiable in his actions when his back story is revealed. He blows everyone else off the screen and out the goddamn airlock with his screen presence and is a welcome addition to the cast, along with a surprisingly strong performance from Peter Weller aka Robocop as a Star Fleet Admiral.
    Faring less well is Alice Eve whose most memorable contribution is to stand around in her underwear at one point.

    Alice was as bemused as the rest of us over the purpose of this shot

    The original cast all return and free from the introductory nature of the previous film, free to develop their characters and relationships, especially those between Kirk & Spock and Spock & Uhura, but everyone gets a moment to shine whether it be Sulu getting a moment in the captain's chair, the look of Chekov's fave when told to put on a red shirt and Simon Pegg's increased role of Scotty as comic relief.
    The 2009 reboot had used the time travel card to set the new films in an alternate reality where they are starting from scratch and free from the continuity of the previous films.
    However the film repeatedly throws in references to iconic moments from that series that it keeps reminding the audience of that universe rather than forging its own one.
    I'll say no more for fear of leaving the neutral zone and straying into spoiler territory.
    Instead of a fully fledged sequel, it feels more like a calling card for JJ's next job of directing Episode VII, as evidenced in particular by one space chase reminiscent of the Asteroid Field sequence in Empire Strikes Back.
    As part of the USS Enterprise's mission to seek out new life and new civilisations, will we see them land on Tatooine or Dagobah in the next film? Or will they be back searching for humpback whales?

    3 stars

    N.B. I honestly don't know if it was just my screening but I felt that the 3D conversion was really poor with a lot of ghosting, many scenes feeling out of focus and it also increased the annoyance of the ever-present lens flare.

    Tuesday, 16 April 2013

    Scary Movie V - review

    The moment that Lohan realised that even appearing in a scary movie
    wouldn't help her career rise from the dead

    The majority of the running time for Scary Movie V was spent doing two things:
    a) composing a letter to Entertainment Film Distributors outlining my intention to sue them under the trades description act and b) trying to figure out exactly when this movie had been filmed.
    Seemingly beginning with the Paranormal Activity films as their main target, it suddenly decides to use the plot from the film Mama which was only released in February, also including "parodies" of the new Evil Dead film which is actually released a week AFTER this film in the UK. In a desperate attempt to try and be up to date and given the quality of the script, performances and filmmaking, it is entirely possible that it had been filmed over a couple of days last week. I can just imagine that in Scary Movie VI, they'll be parodying horror films that haven't even been made yet.
    On the other hand the film, which comes from a series that originally started as a parody of horror movies, spends considerable screen time spoofing films like Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Black Swan and Inception with the entire film being narrates by a guy who sounds like Morgan Freeman, why? Despite only being 2-3 years old, the references feel almost completely out of date compared to the horror references. And they have no relevance within the story being told. They just feel shoehorned in. Some of them could possibly have had merit if the referencing had led to actual gags but the laziness of the script seems to think that simply going "Hey look it's that guy from Inception", that is enough to merit a laugh. It is not.
    The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes parody only seems to be there so they can have a running gag about monkeys throwing their shit against the wall.
    Sadly this seems to have been what happened during the writing process for the movie: throw any "joke" about sex, drugs, bodily fluids, etc against the wall and see what sticks.
    The parody film genre has become a pale shadow of itself from the days of Airplane and The Naked Gun. 33 years on, Airplane remains one of the funniest and most quotable films of all time. As for Scary Movie V? Well let's just say "looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue!"

    Sunday, 14 April 2013

    Oblivion - review

    Oblivion begins with what feels like an eternity's worth of voiceover narration from Tom Cruise's Jack Harper, telling the audience in the minutest detail about how the earth was attacked, last people on earth, alien scavangers, drone maintenance, yada, yada, yada (at least I assumed he was talking to us because the only other person around was Andrea Riseborough's co-worker and late night skinnydipping partner Vika and she's already aware of the situation).
    Already the audience might be thinking that this feels rather similar to films like I Am Legend and WALL-E, however WALL-E was able to introduce the world it had created with zero voiceover, just creative storytelling.
    Then if in any doubt that this film will be mish-mash of elements from other entries in the sci-fi genre, the title card appears with a gigantic blast of the "Inception horn".
    Yes, not only is the plot highly derivative but the score is a collection of outtakes from The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and Tron Legacy.
    A lot of reviews for this film have criticised it over its similarities to other sci-fi classics, even going as far as explicitly naming several movies, which could act as possible spoilers due to certain plot points. This is actually doing the film a disservice.
    "Everybody steals from everybody. That's movies" says Ron Livingston's character in Swingers in a debate over Tarantino's work versus Scorsese, and its true. Tarantino doesn't get nearly as much abuse as genre movies do for recycling ideas from other movies. Just look at John Carter last year. Criticised for being a rip-off of Avatar, Star Wars, etc despite being based on a 1917 novel that actually inspired those films in the first place.
    All that should matter is whether or not the movie is actually any good.
    My advice would be to skip reading about what movies it has ripped off, only watch the initial trailer, which unlike the others actually doesn't give too much away, because there is certainly a lot that can be appreciated in Joseph Kosinski's world. It might not be a hugely original film but it certainly isn't a bad film either.
    Much like his previous film Tron Legacy, Kosinski (with his background in architecture and engineering) is very adept at creating fully realised worlds, whether it is recreating the ruins of a football stadium or the Empire State Building on the barren wastelands of Iceland or designing a living quarters that looks like it has been furnished top to bottom by Apple. All of it beautifully shot by Claudio Miranda, who just won an Oscar for his work on Life Of Pi.

    Tom Cruise is dependable as ever, recycling the Everyman role he does so admirably, with the usual amount of stunt work and running added to meet his quota for the year.
    The real one to watch though is Andrea Riseborough who elevates what could have been an underdeveloped role of just sitting in front of a desk reciting computer jargon into something much more engaging, delivering at times an icy turn that channels a Weyland-Yutani Company suit but with a vulnerability and longing underneath that makes the pairing "an effective team", much more so than Cruise & Kurylenko.
    As with I Am Legend and WALL-E, Oblivion is a much more interesting film when exploring the post-apocalyptic world it has created and starts to lose its way with the arrival of new characters/humans/monsters and starts to unravel quite quickly under the weight of the various plot holes (if Jack has had his memory wiped how can he remember someone telling him about a Superbowl game from 70 years ago?) and the need to tick the boxes on summer blockbuster action set pieces.
    Ultimately watching Oblivion is like going to a really expensive restaurant and having a Michelin-star looking plate of food only for it to still leave you feeling hungry and remembering that you've eaten a dozen similar meals which were all much more satisfying.

    3 stars

    Monday, 8 April 2013

    Evil Dead - review

    A man called S. Leonard Rubenstein once said "Curiosity is a willing, a proud, an eager admission of ignorance".
    Never has that phrase been more true than in the genre of the horror movie.
    Curiosity is what causes people to wander around in the dark when they hear a strange noise.
    Curiosity is what causes people to ask "who's there?" when it can only be the killer.
    Curiosity is what causes people to read from a book bound in human skin that has repeated warnings inside telling them NOT TO READ FROM THE BOOK!
    And curiosity is what killed the cat... rather emphatically in the case of Evil Dead (2013), as there are dozens of dead cats strung up in the basement of a cabin in the woods where five hot young kids find the Book Of The Dead wrapped up neatly in black bags and tied up with wire.
    Everything about this situation says "put it down immediately and get the f*ck out of Dodge", but they won't. Everyone knows they won't. They could try and leave but the way will be shut. They HAVE to read from the book.
    Why? Because if they didn't then we wouldn't have a movie AND because this film exists in a post-Cabin In The Woods world.
    There was always going to be a danger that a film such as Evil Dead would suffer following Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's take on the horror genre, but it actually stands up very well and feels like it could have been one of Hadley & Sittersen's successful appeasements to the ancient gods.
    It succeeds because it knows what its purpose is and pays attention to the dialogue spoken by Dana, the final girl in Cabin, upon realising their fate "They don't just want to see us killed. They want to see us punished."
    And "punished" would be a very mild word for what happens to the kids in Evil Dead.
    There are needles, nailguns, nastiness, mutilations, disfigurations and amputations galore in this deliriously deranged and violent body horror that is fully deserving of its 18 rating.
    Director Fede Alvarez deserves credit for sticking to his (nail)guns and not cutting back on the gore front. Also for the decision to film everything using practical effects wherever possible rather than going with the CGI option which heightens the 'ick' factor.
    As a fan of the horror genre, it is refreshing to see a film like this that embraces its video nasty roots rather than compromising in order to get a lower certificate to increase box office or overuse CGI effects at the expense of practical work.
    I have always been a firm believer that practical trumps CGI every time, as evidenced if you compare the original The Thing vs the 2012 prequel, and I'm glad this director is of the same mind.
    Yet it is not just gore hounds that Alvarez needs to satisfy with this film. There is a shadow cast over the film by the original Sam Raimi version and one of the most distinctive chins in the business in Bruce Campbell's iconic Ash.
    Now this is where a few feathers might get a little ruffled. *in a hushed whisper* The original The Evil Dead is not actually all that great.
    Rewatching it recently, yes it is incredibly violent and creative in its use of gore on a minuscule budget, but once you get past the elements that made it one of the original video nasties, some of the acting and filmmaking is rather amateurish.
    This is not a slight against Raimi, Campbell, et all. They have admitted as much themselves (after all it was their first film) and I consider Evil Dead 2 to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time with Campbell's manic turn as Ash one of the great horror performances and a masterclass in physical comedy.
    It is one of those classic horror films of the seventies and eighties that actually could benefit from a remake, and Raimi & Campbell essentially remade it themselves in the first 10 minutes of Evil Dead 2.
    And yet the 2013 Evil Dead could argue its case that it is neither a remake nor a reboot of the franchise.
    Between a pre-credit sequence featuring a family trying to exorcise a Candarian demon and the fact that when we are first introduced to the character of Mia she is sitting on top of a broken down Oldsmobile (is it Ash's car?), this leads towards the idea that they are simply the latest group of people in a long line of those who have fallen victim to what is released from the Book Of The Dead.
    Alvarez (with a script polish from Diablo Cody) does a fine job on the balancing act of paying tribute to the original film yet at the same time putting his own stamp and twist on the material.
    This is apparent from our introduction to the main characters with their reason for visiting the cabin in the woods being to help Mia (Jane Levy) quit her addiction to drugs cold turkey.
    This allows for the group to initially doubts Mia's claims of there being "something in the woods" and subsequent demonic behaviour as products of her imagination and deteriorating physical and mental state due to the detox.
    However Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci who kept making me think I was watching Jared Leto) has read from the book and soon realises something more serious is happening once Mia starts vomiting blood and slicing her tongue in half and giving her friends French kisses.
    "Something is attached to Mia's soul. In order to help her, we're going to have to kill her."

    Sam Raimi always delights in reporting how much he would torture his friend Bruce Campbell during the filming of the Evil Dead movies but its possible that Fede Alvarez has gone to even further extremes with actress Jane Levy.
    Between being brutalised by a tree or being buried alive, Levy delivers one of the greatest horror performances of recent years, perhaps even of all-time.
    Not only does she go through an incredible physical transformation but the emotional range of her role is extraordinary, going from vulnerable, exhausted girl we meet at the beginning of the film to the anxiety-ridden and paranoid addict in the grips of a heroin comedown to the demonic host of evil determined to destroy her former friends. At times it felt like there were three different actresses playing the various stages of Mia, she just becomes that aspect of her character and disappears into the role completely.
    Unfortunately the characterisation of the rest of the group is not as strong or well developed.
    Pucci's scholar Eric gets the film's best lines and much of the (admittedly dark) humour and Shiloh Fernandez gets a nice storyline as the absent friend and brother has to become the reluctant hero (complete with blue denim shirt) with the realisation that in order to save the day it may involve cutting up his sister and girlfriend.
    The two other female characters sadly don't come off as well with Elizabeth Blackmore's Natalie in particular being rather forgettable until it is her turn to become deadite fodder.
    However this is just a minor criticism given this particular type of horror movie and the purpose that the majority of the characters have within the plot i.e. to be killed in dramatic, gory fashion.
    In Cabin In The Woods, the teenagers are offered up in sacrifice to the ancient gods and it would be fair to say that I think they would be very satisfied with this gratuitously, gloriously gory offering that climaxes with it literally raining blood, the appearance of a chainsaw and a soundtrack featuring an air raid siren (which will undoubtably become the new "InceptionHorn" staple of film trailers).
    It may not have been an offering that many people would have initially wanted but the end result is certainly not an unwelcome one. Under the guidance of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell as producers, Fede Alvarez's fresh take on the material has resulted in easily the best horror remake since 2004's Dawn Of The Dead.

    4 stars

    Friday, 5 April 2013

    Spring Breakers - review

    Around half an hour into Spring Breakers the four "Disney Girls Gone Wild", are partaking in a copious amount of drinking and drug taking (all portrayed in slow motion with a "bangin" soundtrack) and I started to think I made a huge mistake and was witnessing another Project X, one of my most hated films of 2012.
    But then something happened. James Franco turned up. James Franco turned up looking like Drexl from True Romance, playing a character called Alien and delivering a performance that was not only from another planet but from a completely different movie.
    He is the ultimate Gangsta cliche. A white guy with corn rolls, watching Scarface on repeat, dealing drugs, pimpin' on a bed covered in money and guns while "looking at my shit!".
    And then he sings a song to motivate his "Spring Break Bitches". What will it be? Jay Z? Tupac? Lil Jon? Nope, a piano solo version of Everytime by Britney Spears that becomes the backdrop for a montage of their criminal exploits.
    This was the moment that I started to understand what director Harmony Korine was going for with this film, although it took me a few hours of contemplation to truly make my mind up.
    Spring Breakers is not a movie about Spring Break but in fact a movie about what everyone believes Spring Break to be.
    The film is incredibly OTT, sexualised, violent, exploitative and completely unrealistic... but that is the point.
    What Korine has created is akin to Grand Theft Auto: Spring Break.
    There is a line spoken by one of the girls as the psyche themselves up to commit a robbery in order to fund their Spring Break trip - "Pretend it's a video game".
    And that is how the film plays out, using gritty handheld camerawork intercut with more stylised backstory and plot sections, from being bailed out by a criminal, to characters exiting the game and finally the climatic scene that could have been lifted from a mission in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
    Yes it undoubtedly appeal to a particular demographic who would love to live that lifestyle for real but the film is unafraid to point out how ridiculous it all is at the same time.
    One of the lines repeated ad nauseum is "Spring Break forever", with the characters waxing lyrical about how they wish they could stay in this moment forever. But that is what Spring Breakers is. It's a moment. A highly entertaining one but a moment nonetheless. A snapshot of a certain place and time. One that can be enjoyed at the time but should never be taken as a way of life because, to quote another new release, "if you ride like lightning, you're gonna crash like thunder".

    4 stars

    One huge thumbs up for Roger Ebert

    On Thursday the world of cinema lost one of its most distinctive voices Roger Ebert, who passed away after a long fight with cancer.
    Roger Ebert was probably the world's most well-known and well-respected film critic. He had been reviewing films for the Chicago Sun Times for over 45 years, becoming the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his reviews and was half of the hugely popular review show "Siskel & Ebert At The Movies", famous for their "thumbs up, thumbs down" reviews.
    Sometimes there is a snobbishness and resentment towards critics within Hollywood. The old adage about teaching of "those who can do, those who can't teach" could be adapted to filmmaking and "those who can - do, those who can't - critique" but that is not an argument that could be levelled at Ebert for he also wrote the screenplay to Russ Meyer's cult classic Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, itself a direct inspiration for Austin Powers.
    Certainly the outpouring of affection from Hollywood including the likes as Martin Scorsese, Diablo Cody, Steve Martin and even President Obama was evidence of the high esteem that people held for him and his opinion.
    For while you may not have always agreed with his opinions, there was never any argument over the quality of his writing.
    Whether it was eloquently scathing thumbs down of Freddy Got Fingered - "This movie doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as barrels."
    Or this moving passage from his final published review of To The Wonder: "Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes may look like. We realise they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?"
    Ebert had a way with words that could influence a moviegoer's decision on what to watch that weekend and also inspired countless others to become film critics themselves, whether it be professionally or just for fun on their blog, Twitter, etc.
    He was one of the first film critics to truly understand and embrace the Internet as a positive tool for the published word and for a forum in which to debate the world of cinema.
    Even though suffering from poor health and the recurrence of cancer, Roger Ebert still filed 285 reviews in 2012. That figure made me feel incredibly lazy in comparison. I love going to the movies and loved writing about them but recently I would always be putting off writing reviews because I was "too busy at work" or too much time had passed since I'd watched it for it to be relevant.
    However Ebert's death put it into sharp perspective. Yes, his job was reviewing films but he did it because he loved the movies and loved going to see them. More importantly he would go into a film looking to be entertained, looking for the good in it, not as some critics would do and go in sharpening their knives looking to eviscerate it in a witty, mean spirited way.
    That's why I'm making a vow to myself to make the time to write a review of every film I see at the cinema, whether it be 140 characters or 1400 words. Hopefully Roger would give that a nice thumbs up.

    Saturday, 16 February 2013

    Glasgow Film Festival Review - Stoker

    Stoker is adapted from a script written by Prison Break's Wentworth Miller (the fact he had it tattooed to his body must have made for an interesting cast readthrough) and is the first English language film from director Park Chan-Wook.
    The fact that Park directed Oldboy means that he knows a thing or two about, how would one put it, the "unique family dynamics" at the heart of Stoker.
    India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a rather odd, lonely girl dealing with the death of her father on her 18th birthday. While her mother (Nicole Kidman) is cold and distant, India finds herself developing a curious interest in her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who turns up at the funeral out of the blue.
    With a title like Stoker, one might imagine lots of gothic imagery and references to the classic vampire story however in this particular tale, the name Stoker takes on a more literal interpretation. The word "stoke" means "to encourage or incite" and Charlie's arrival and subsequent actions certainly have this effect on India, to "stoke her" awakening in terms of her sexuality and possible family predilection towards violence.
    As the film progresses the acts of sex and violence become intrinsically linked. There is one sequence which starts as a cliched scene of someone trying to wash away their sins that is given a devilish twist that brings to mind the French term for an orgasm "le petit mort", or "little death".
    One of the most divisive aspects of the film has been Park Chan-Wook's mise-en-scene. Some critics have argued that the film is a case of style over substance but this is certainly no Terrence Malick film. The director's use of cinematography, sound design and Clint Mansell's score help to build an unsettling atmosphere and sensual beauty that prevent the film from tipping into melodrama and heighten the sporadic moments of ultra-violence.
    The influence of Bram Stoker may not have been felt in the way many might have been expecting but there is another rather portly shadow cast over the film in the shape of Alfred Hitchcock, in particular his 1943 film Shadow Of A Doubt, with enough references to rival a Brian De Palma back catalogue.
    In that film young Charlie (Teresa Wright) worries that her favourite person in the world Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) is actually a killer.
    Where Wright shies away from Cotton, in Stoker the revelations about Uncle Charlie only cause India to become more intrigued and attracted to her enigmatic relative.
    This film might reveal it's hand earlier than Hitch would have but times have changed and he was more restricted with what he could and couldn't show. like its predecessor, this film succeeds on the strength of the chemistry between the leads and both deliver career-best performances.
    Initially not that impressed with her in Alice In Wonderland, the talent Wasikowska has shown since has led this reviewer to mark that performance down to working within such a sterile CGI environment. Here she creates a complex character that is part Wednesday Addams and part Kevin a la the kind we need to talk about.
    Matthew Goode, in the most difficult role, pitches it just right, never giving too much away behind that perfect poker face but oozing charm that lures India, Evelyn (an excellent Kidman) and the audience into wanting more.
    Park, like Charlie, knows exactly how to seduce and manipulate his prey (in this case the audience), using every trick and tool at his disposal to cast a spell over them. It might not have the visceral impact or horrific sucker punch of Oldboy but Stoker is beyond a shadow of a doubt one of the year's most beautiful and haunting films.

    4 stars