Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (12A)

We have one rule here at Popcorn Towers - write the review as soon as you get out out of the cinema. That's it.

The aim is to capture the feelings a film gives you as instantly as possible, the excitement, the disappointment, the joy - whetever.

Which is where Hobbit 2 has caused me a problem.

I awoke yesterday morning feeling like I'd gone at it big-style at a Baggins bash. If a part of me didn't hurt, it was because I couldn't feel it. But I soldiered on.

It was Hobbit day, and if nothing else I had to try and wipe last year's disappointment from my memory. After the joy of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, I owed co-writer/director Peter Jackson another chance.

But by the gods it was tough. And I decided to take a bit of time to look back, as it was hard to work if my health was clouding my views.

Also, the minute I got home I fell asleep. And didn't wake up 'til it was time to go to bed.

So, here we are, the cold light of the afternoon after. And I still have no idea what Peter Jackson thinks he's doing.

Let's not dwell on the whole 'turning a short book into a trilogy' thing - it's a dumb idea, but it's done now.

Let us, instead, start with a recent interview in which Jackson said the great thing about getting the first film out of the way was that you didn't have to dwell on who was who - that was all sorted - you could just hit the gas and get on with the story.

Which raises the first of many questions - mainly the fact that if that were the case, why did we need an opening ten minutes of recap? If everything was so well set up in An Unexpected Trilogy, why did we need telling AGAIN?

Other questions still linger from the first film, including how a tribe of dwarves from the same mountain have such a wide variety of regional accents - something he has added to this time round by having a family with, seemingly, Welsh accents whose eldest daughter is from East London.

Maybe she's adopted.

Questions also need asking about the two hour fourty minute running time. The Hobbit is a short book, and somehow Jackson is going to stretch the whole shebang to close to ten hours. That's a lot of padding.

Tolkien purists will point out Jackson's done this by padding with characters he's made up himself, but he's also done this by going down the 3D route and adding a lot of scenes purely for the benefit of having things come flying out of the screen.

He really should have stuck to telling the story.

Ahh, yes, the story. This being the middle bit of the trilogy, we're covering the bit through the woods to the mountain to meet the dragon. This takes almost three hours. Kubrick did the birth of the universe and the whole of evolution in 90 minutes.

But let's leave quibbles of the running time aside. What's done is done, and he's doing it all again next year, so moaning won't change anything.

Let's find some positives.

Martin Freeman is again wonderful as Bilbo. Having grown into the role, he owns every scene he's in and more than holds his own going up against Sir Ian McKellen's Gandalf.

Sylvester McCoy is actually better this time round as Radagast, while Evangeline Lilly is stunning as Tauriel.

And the action set-pieces are well done. People go down a river in barrels, Bilbo surfs a sea of gold coins, orcs die in many a splendid way - these are all things Jackson does well.

Then there's Smaug.

We already know Benedict Cumberbatch is a good actor, but he's also a damn fine dragon it turns out. Oozing sinister intent, mixed with a smidge of sexual charm, you'd go on a date with this dragon. You know it won't end well, but hey...

But none of this is enough to stop Hobbit 2 from being anything more than OK.

Yes, it's better than the first one, but it lacks focus. Too many times you'll leave one scene mid-action to check in with another character's bit of the story before cutting back to the main bit of the plot. Which makes the thing feel a bit disjointed.

It also makes you wonder how long it takes Bofur to actually find the herbs, given what else has happens after he leaves the house...

Ahh, Bofur. And the many other dwarfish folk. Jackson still hasn't got a grip on them you know.

What was clear in the first Tolkien trilogy was Jackson knew the characters. Knew them, loved them, and made each one shine.

This is not the case here.

OK, this time we're saved the singing and the washing up, but Thorin Oakenshield aside (a fine performance again by Richard Armitage) and possibly Balin (yes, it's Ken Stott under there), the other dwarves have all the depth of a fine mist.

And Jackson seems so hell bent on getting each of them on the screen, he's sacrificed the story and the action.

There's also absolutely no need to throw an elf-dwarf love story into the mix.

Like I said, this isn't Hobbit 1 - it has more zip, more flair, more swish. But it's still not brilliant.

When you look back at the Lord Of The Rings films, you can see what Jackson can do as a director. Those films were epic. And you didn't care that they were too long, because you were having so much fun watching them.

And it's remembering this that makes you realise that, again, Jackson has fallen short of expectations. Which doesn't make one look forward to There And Back Again.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Top 10 of 2013

Yes, you've guessed it, it's that time of year when film fans - not content with having enjoyed a year's worth of movies - feel the need to then draw up a list of their favourites.

How else will we know, in years to come, which was our favourite? And how else can other people take issue with our choices and point out all the ones we got wrong?

It's what loving films is all about.

This year, in a change to the format, we'll be starting at 10 - because it's Christmas, and who doesn't like being kept waiting for the big reveal? No scrolling to the end now...

Oh, and just to maintain the suspense a tad longer, lets take a moment to remember the turkeys. It is Christmas after all.

January set the bar high with Movie43, a diabolical waste of everyone's time and money that failed to raise so much as a titter as a plethora of stars looked embarrassed and bewildered by the unfunny sketch they had to perform. Presumably at gunpoint.

Hansel And Gretel - Witch Hunters fell just the wrong side of stupid, taking a half-decent idea and then stomping on it with an anvil, while The Host proved that Stephanie Meyer should have stuck to vampire love triangles.

Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring also took good ideas and ruined them, with Dark Skies happy to prove that having all the ingredients of a thriller is not enough - you need to actually do something intelligent with them.

Of the 'blockbusters', May and June struck out, serving up both The Great Gatsby (which wasn't) and Man Of Steel (the dullest superhero film made to date). Not that July did any better, as Now You See Me made people wish they hadn't. And the less said about World War Zzzzzz the better.

After that things seemed to pick up - right up to the point The Fifth Estate came along. Benedict Cumberbatch was as good as ever, but even he couldn't save this mess. Still, at least he wasn't in The Counsellor.

Movie43 was still the worst, though. And that in a year Machette Kills was unleashed.

Anyhoo, that's enough negative wossinames, let's get to the chart. Feel free to put on Yellow Pearl or that jazzed-up Whole Lotta Love while you read this (assuming you're old enough to actually remember Top Of The Pops).

Nestling just outside the Top 10 we have Midnight Son, Stoker and Robot And Frank - any one of which would have been in the 10 in a lesser year.

Anyway, right, yes, the actual 10. Play the music...

Katharine Isabelle plays a medical student who finds an alternative way of paying her student fees, utilising skills that come in damn handy when revenge is called for. Luxuriously shot, superbly performed and garishly brutal, it's the shot in the arm an increasingly tired horror genre has needed.

A recurring theme this year - the task of making a despicable character likeable. Something James McAvoy pulls off here with aplomb. In a year that saw him shine in both Trance and Welcome To The Punch, this is the film that stood him out from the crowd as he played a corrupt police officer drinking and snorting his way through a breakdown. And making you laugh as he did it.

The first of two films with young stars at the centre of the action, Lore (pronounced Laura) tells the tale of a young girl (Saskia Rosendahl) who has to take over as the head of the family after the Third Reich falls, taking her high-ranking Nazi parents with it. Touching and sensitive while never shying away from the brutal truth of the new situation, it was a spellbinding piece of filmmaking.

At a time when big corporations are coming under greater scrutiny and suspicion, Britt Marling's look at a gang who target companies who have wronged innocent people could not have been better timed. Tense, gripping and with a stellar supporting cast, The East took you inside the action, forcing you to question who was right and who was wrong.

One that really did divide the critics (the American Film Institute had this in its 10 worst films of the year), OGF was not an easy watch by any stretch. Rich in colour, the story of a screwed up family and bonkers cop all out for revenge was so slow-paced you could feel dust settling on you as you watched. But watch we did, gripped and enthralled by the dark, twisted tail - and entranced by Kristen Scott Thomas' stunning portrayal of the mother from hell. And yes, Ryan Gosling was Ryan Gosling, but in films like this he fits in just fine.

Yattter, yatter, blah, blah, Woody Allen returns to form etc etc - but wait, here he actually has. Breaking his own box office records, Cate Blanchette's portrayal of an unlikeable woman who is the architect of her own downfall was heartwarming and captivating. Oh, and Sally Hawkins is amazing in it as well.

A small British film that deserved a much wider audience, Broken saw the debut of Eloise Laurence, who performance as Skunk was simply astounding. Hard to explain but easy to enjoy, Broken is the tale of converging lives on one inner-city housing estate. It's violent, it's funny, it has an ending not everyone agrees with (we loved it), and it has more quirk than most films have a right to. It's simply beautiful.

Only Joss Whedon could decide to take a bunch of mates, mess about at home for 12 days with a Shakespeare classic, shoot it in black and white, and make it this good. A front runner for film of the year after its premiere at the Bradford International Film Festival, it's only been edged out by late contenders. If I could have a triple-header at 1 I would, but I'm a stickler for my own rules. Much Ado is one of the finest Shakespeare adaptions you'll ever see.

It's got a cast of barely two, it's been shot in 3D and the whole thing takes place in space. There is no way this can be any.... Oh. It can. And is. On paper this film shouldn't have worked, but thanks to a stunning performance from Sandra Bullock and some ground-breaking effects, Gravity just pins you to your seat for 90 minutes. I was still catching my breath half an hour after it had ended.

So what does it take to push the other members of the top 4 down a place? Well, a Belgian film full of bluegrass music that looks at love, loss, grief and religion. Obviously. OK, that doesn't sound like a winner, but it's the way you fall in love with the characters from the off, the way even the darkest moments lift your soul, the way a genre of music you probably wouldn't touch with an extra-long banjo all come together to just wrap you in love and warmth that makes this stand out from the crowd. There isn't a bad performance, there isn't a mis-step, there's just a sublime cinematic experience that we are still telling total strangers about now.

Right, just The Hobbit 2 and Walter Mitty to go, and then we can crack on with 2014...

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Saving Mr Banks (PG)

Now I know this film has been out for a couple of weeks, but life has this uncanny habit of inserting its screwdriver into the least suitable part of the works at just the wrong time.

So it's been a bit of a battle to get out from Popcorn Towers and actually spend a couple of hours in the company of Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson and - kinda - Mary Poppins.

Fortunately, nothing major has crossed our path (except maybe Nebraska, that looks damn good) since Banks was released, so nothing else has got in the way. One advantage of a massive blockbuster being on the horizon (evening Bilbo).

If you've missed the hype around Saving Mr Banks, you've done well - but allow us to fill you in.

Hanks plays Walt Disney, Em plays Mrs Travers (she wot wrote Mary Poppins), Paul Giamatti plays her driver Ralph, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak play the poor buggers trying to write the film and Ruth Wilson and Colin Farrell play Mrs T's parents.

The film focuses on the battle (and it was a fight and a half) to get the world's favourite umbrella-bearing nanny to the silver screen, interspersed with flashbacks to Mrs Travers' early life growing up down under with her two sisters and dad's drink problem.

With me so far?

Now, a lot has already been written and said elsewhere about Farrell's English accent in this film - but it's better than the Irish one he tried in Daredevil (and yes I do know he's Irish), and in a world where Dick Van Dyke's laughable attempt is looming on the horizon, Farrell does just fine.

A lot has also been mentioned of Oscars. Yes, I know, you're still doing your Christmas shopping, but the great and the good of Hollywood are well into next year and planning their wardrobes.

On the face of it, Saving Mr Banks wouldn't appear to be Oscar fayre - it's good, don't get me wrong, in fact it's very good, but it doesn't have that 'worthy' feel of a 12 Years A Slave or The Butler.

But it's the performances that elevate this above a standard, Disneyfied biopic.

As ol' Walt, Hanks is sublime. He's not over the top, he's not trying to act everyone else off the screen. Instead it's a subtle, measured performance. He perfectly captures a man trying to hold himself to a promise made to his children.

Hanks plays him as a thoughtful, caring man. A man people liked working for, a man who - while keen to make money - was driven by wanting to make magical movies for children of all ages.

It is a measure of the strength of Hanks' performance that his is not overshadowed by Emma Thompson. And this is every bit HER film.

Travers was a woman haunted by her past, a difficult childhood without which there would have been no Mary Poppins. As a result, she is fiercely protective of both Poppins and the Banks family.

And Thompson captures this perfectly.

Travers' fears of going to Hollywood, her efforts to kybosh the film and her years of keeping the world at arm's length did not make her a warm, loveable human being - but Thompson gets in behind the facade, producing a touching, almost fragile portrayal of a woman lost in the world.

The film teaches us (or certainly me) that the film was Travers' last chance to make some money. The books sales had dried up and she'd had to get rid of her maid. Amazingly, this didn't make her any more likeable.

Despite all of her defences, through Thompson you warm to Travers. You share her fears and feelings, her mannerisms and expressions make you laugh and smile. The only time you're not on her side is when she's being nasty to the script and song writers.

There's really precious little to be negative about with Saving Mr Banks - yes it's a bit saccharine, but it's a Disney film. It's actually quite toned down for the House Of Mouse.

The look of the film is also excellent - it has the perfect, aged look of a film shot in the early 60s. That slightly worn look celluloid takes on after being stored for many years.

Oh, and Giamatti almost steals the whole thing. If he isn't on the Oscar shortlist, I'll be very cross...

If I had any criticism, it would be the flashback scenes. Yes, we need to see what shaped Travers, yes we need to discover the inspiration and what led to her hatred of pears, but these could have been cut down. And more should have been made of the incident with her mother.

But (and it's a huge but) all is forgiven and forgotten during the  final scene when Walt rocks up in London to try to finally get the film made.

The emotional weight of that encounter, added to the emotion of the premiere, leaves you feeling warm of heart and moist of eye.

Away from all the Oscar buzz and hype, Saving Mr Banks isn't a film that will change your life - but it will make you feel warmer towards the world.

With two stellar performances from stars at the top of their game, and a rendition of Let's Go Fly A Kite that will have you grinning from ear to ear, this is a film the whole family will enjoy.

And it'll make you want to watch Mary Poppins when you get home.

Which is what I'm now going to do...

Friday, 22 November 2013

Filmage: The Story of Descendents/All (E)

T'other night, a rather cool rock doc was screened at Leeds International Film Festival - unfortunately, we couldn't make it, so our lovely friends at Bang The Drum Magazine donned their shorts and popped along to the Hyde Park Picture House...

On the face of it, this could be just another documentary charting the history of a seminal punk rock band with talking heads, live footage and photos from the vaults and anecdotes from band members past and present. Fairly standard, stuff, right?

Well, no, actually. Few documentaries can cover a rollercoaster career spanning 30 years of revolving line-ups with enough humanity, humility, humour and heartache to draw in more than just the bands’ fans.

The Descendents - Bill Stevenson, Frank Navetta, Tony Lombardo and Milo Aukerman, whose nerdy, awkward looks were streets apart from the leather-clad cool of The Ramones - drew the blueprint for today’s pop punk. If it weren’t for them, there would be no Foo Fighters, no Blink 182 and no Green Day. Probably. 

The film takes us on the journey from late-70s garage band to today’s punk rock stalwarts, exploring each band members’ caffeine-fuelled highs and lows in the Descendents then ALL – the band which followed frontman Milo’s (seemingly) final departure in the late-80s.

The story unfolds as fast as the pumping soundtrack and is full of fond memories, as well as hints of bitterness and regret as former members contemplate their decisions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing...

We’re also given a fans’ perspective in the forms of Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters, Mark Hoppus from Blink 182, Keith Morris from Black Flag and other leading punk rock faces keen to share their affections for the bands that helped shaped their lives. 

“I... worshipped him,” Grohl says of Stevenson. High praise indeed.

Right from the get-go, Filmage is funny. Really funny. There is plenty of laugh-out-loud banter from band members, though every now and again they throw the narrative as the comic timing trips over itself into the next talking head.

Quirky animated sequences also help bring to life odd moments of reflection, such as the time ALL slept in a house full of weirdos, including a psychotic woman’s pet rat which could only run in a clockwise circle. Quite.

But at the heart of Filmage is the powerhouse that is drummer and founder Bill Stevenson and his quest for All. 

This self-created concept of ultimate achievement and always going for greatness, celebrated on Descendents’ album entitled All, actually takes on a darker tone to that of the All-o-Gistics  - a song which lays down the commandments of All – “thou shalt not commit laundry” and “shalt not partake of decaf”. 

Balancing out the food-and-farts light-heartedness, the filmmakers pull the rug from under our feet with a heavy dose of harsh reality in the second half of Filmage – touching on Stevenson’s troubled relationship with his father, which to me was the drive behind his undeterred quest for perfection and control  – for All.

It also revealed Stevenson’s brush with death, twice, as he survived a foot-long blood clot in his lung and a tennis-ball-sized brain tumour. This truly amazing tale is given a bit of a punk rock kick when we see the doctor who helped save his life caught on camera shirtless in a moshpit at a Descendents show. Fact really is stranger than fiction.

And that is why Filmage is such a joy to watch. A story so warped, weird and wonderful should be lifted from the pages of a script, not recited and recounted by those who have lived it.

When does a teenage wannabe happen upon a bass guitar thrown out in the rubbish, or a singer be so torn between touring and becoming a biochemist? Or a musician just deciding to quit the band and set fire to all his gear, or a drummer getting back behind his kit just two years after miraculously surviving a near-death experience?

I’d put Filmage up there with Pearl Jam’s Twenty as far as inspiring and insightful music documentaries go. 

As a huge Descendents and ALL fan, the film is an utter delight. It took me right back to being an awkward teenager, the raw, fast-paced songs I fell in love with still resonating, and now have me rummaging through my box of old vinyl.

“Thou shalt not commit adulthood…”

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12A)

Following up the massive hit that was The Hunger Games was always going to be a big ask - especially when the source material goes so spectacularly south in book two.

And the promo material doesn't help when it sells Catching Fire as, essentially, nothing more than another round of The Games.

Fortunately, HG2:CF (catchy, no?) is much more than that (and, for once, IMDB gets its description right).

For the seven of you who managed to miss the first film (or the book), a quick recap:

In a world where The Capitol controls everything and oppresses the districts, every year youngsters are picked for The Hunger Games - a jovial bit of fun where 24 kids fight to the death, and the survivor gets proper food for the rest of their lives.

Katniss Everdeen (the ever-superb Jennifer Lawrence) caused a few problems by making sure she and her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, who has definitely found his feet now) both survived. President Snow was not a happy bunny.

While Katniss was only thinking about getting out alive, the rest of the world saw her actions as rebellion, and now the downtrodden and mistreated have revolution in their hearts and a poster girl for their hope.

Again, President Snow (a wonderfully sinister Donald Sutherland) is not a happy bunny. The peasants are revolting and putting him off his biccys.

Hence, the new Hunger Games. This time, previous winners must go head to head, ideally killing off Everdeen in the process and saving President Snow more grief.

Yet it's actually the games at play behind The Games that are what the film is really about.

The Games themselves come late on, so if you're planning on another two-hours of children stabbing each other, you're in for some disappointment.

Instead, what we have is wonderful political and personal tension, as Katniss realises her actions had consequences far greater than she imagined. She's also, not surprisingly, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress.

Lawrence captures perfectly the little girl struggling to deal with what she went through, what she must go through again, and how the world now seems to perceive her.

And there are lighter moments too, thanks again to Stanley Tucci's gameshow host maniac (we need more Toby Jones, people) - but even he has a delightfully sinister edge.

Unfortunately, the film does suffer from a few problems.

For a start, it's too long (just a smidge under two hours 20 mins). And it's in 3D (if you choose this option, the last third of the film will make your head explode as you strain to work out who's punching who in the murky gloom). Granted, none of that is the book's fault.

And, much like Pirates Of The Caribbean 2 and The Deathly Hallows part 1 (or Harry On Camping), Catching Fire exists purely to set up the final book/films. The book suffers from this a lot. Fortunately, the film solves this problem.

The love triangle is a bit too Twilight for comfort, too. Yes, it may be in the book, but it adds nothing to the film.

But, by making the impending revolution the focal point, and President Snow the villain of the whole thing (something the book tried to do and failed), the twists and turns, the human torment and angst are all brought to the fore convincingly.

As with the first film, the weakest performance goes to Lenny Kravitz (as dress designer Cinna), but even he manages to up his game this time round.

New to The Games is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who as new Games designer Heavensbee is given the job of helping President Snow bring Katniss down to earth with several bumps. And he'd better do a good job, given what happened to the last guy...

Flaws aside, though (the score needs another run at it, too), Catching Fire is at the very least as good as The Hunger Games. It's possibly even better.

It could have been a risk taking the focus off the fighting, and there was always a chance it would fall flat as it just sets up the next film(s), but all of these issues are dodged by a well-written script, great action sequences and a convincing plot.

Where the first film was looking at a barbaric, dystopian society, Catching Fire has far more to say about Government oppression and power - capturing perfectly the lengths those in power will go to stay there.

It's a message that gets more relevant with every passing year.

So, that's two books down, one book to go. In two films. Which is being done for artistic reasons, obviously - same as it was with Potter and Twilight - and not to milk every last drop of cash out of a limited-run franchise...

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Counsellor (18)

There was quite the buzz of excitement when it was revealed multi-award winning author Cormac McCarthy was going to write an original film.

This buzz was elevated further when it was revealed that Ridley Scott was producing and directing the whole shebang. And then we saw the cast list and the world exploded.

A McCarthy film, directed by Scott, starring Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt? What could go wrong?


If you saw the trailer for The Counsellor, you'd understand the excitement - it looked slick, fast-paced, suspenseful, uber cool, sexy and mildly violent. In short, exactly what you wanted given the component parts.

Sadly, something, somewhere has gone ever-so-slightly wrong.

And you'd have to say it's the script.

There's not a bad performance here - Fassbender is fine as a fish out of water lawyer trying to raise some cash for his beloved (the lovely Cruz) by funding a drug deal.

Pitt (the cool middleman) and Bardem (the experienced drug man who's a few wraps short of a full packet) deliver the goods, and then there's Diaz.

For a woman who's made her name at the fluffier end of the spectrum to turn in a performance this sleazy, nasty and vicious is just superb. She pretty much steals the show.

And it looks as cool as the trailer had you believe. Lush, warm tones abound as the beautiful and swim-suited go about their business. Even the prisons and car shops look like places you could tolerate being in.

And when needed, the seedier side of town is made to look so grimy you believe you could catch something just sitting in the cinema.

So why does it feel so cold and detached?

OK, Ridley dropped the ball with Prometheus, and the less said about Robin Hood the better, but he can make a film, the lad. He's got pedigree.

And we can see that here.

It's cool, it looks great, the violence is almost visceral. The pacing is on the slow side, sure, but that works for the most part.

And there are times when you do get caught up in the tension.

The problem is in the characters. And the dialogue.

It matters not a jot that we don't know anything about Pitt and Bardem's characters - we're given enough information in how they play out on screen. That's fine.

But how does a lawyer afford a Bentley when he's doing pro bono work? Is Bardem's loon paying him THAT much? And if he's so strapped for cash that a drug deal is his only way out, what's he doing in Amsterdam shopping for diamonds?

And what does Cruz's character do? Why does she seemingly know so little about the man she's planning on marrying? And when did she become such good friends with Diaz's cheetah-loving uber-bitch that she was happy to spend the afternoon lying next to her wrapped in just a towel?

And how the hell did the cheetahs get out of the car?

Sure, I know some people will say such things don't matter - but the very fact I found myself asking these questions tells you that they do.

But all that pales next to the dialogue.

Now we know McCarthy's a good writer - you don't get a gazillion awards by being a second-rate Barbara Cartland, eh?

But there's a huge difference between what works in a book and what works on the screen, and going by this it's not something he's grasped.

We get deep and meaningful monologues from Pitt's faux cowboy, we get trite sentiment (dressed up as insight) from a woman who pleasures herself on a car windscreen, we get life lessons from a man who goes through life answering every question with "I just don't know".

All this may work on the page, where you have all the time and space you want to paint the characters - but in a visual medium, where the audience is being left to fill in the blanks, none of it rings true.

And that's almost a tragedy.

Because somewhere in here was a great crime thriller just waiting to leap out and tear your head off.

Instead, we're left asking questions. Like how does one get a car windscreen clean after that, and why did I just spend two hours of my life with these people?

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Don Jon (18)

My, how Joseph Gordon-Levitt has grown up. Once the little kid in an alien family, now he's starring in his own film, which as well as writing it he's only gone and directed.

And blow me if the clever little sod hasn't gone and done a damn fine job (although the other men in the screening might disagree).

Because, while the film's publicity centres on JGL's Jon and his addiction to three-minute porn clips, what the film doesn't have is endless gratuitous sex scenes. Which seemed to disappoint the grown men gathered in our local World Of Cine.

What you get instead is a story about human connections, or the lack of them - from the family dining table to the bedroom, stopping at all points in between.

The story is a simple one. Jon's single, likes his sports, car, mates, the gym and one-night stands, but nothing does the trick like the fine women of Pornhub.

Scarlett Johansson's wonderfully captured Barbara Sugarman, meanwhile, has grown up on a diet of romantic comedies so has her own values and ideals based entirely on her own particular viewing habits.

The story centres on this clash of ideals, as a man not used to talking to women is forced to engage in an actual relationship with someone who likes her man to look good, better himself, but not be someone who knows about cleaning products and hoovering.

Into this melting pot ambles Julianne Moore's Esther, a classmate of Jon's at the night school he was pushed into by Barbara and her dreams. Esther's been to the school of life and knows the value of human relationships.

And so our tale unfolds.

It's a tale of human interaction, how our social connections are tempered and tainted by the media we surround ourselves with.

But it's not just about porn and rom-coms.

Jon's family has also played its part in how he deals with the world. His dad (a superb Tony Danza) can't have a meal without the match being on, meaning he spends more time arguing with the ref's calls and lack of replays than he does engaging with his family.

Not that this bothers Jon's sister as she's never off her phone, leaving poor old mum (the brilliant Glenne Headly) to keep the monologue going.

Through Jon, JGL wants us to ask questions about our relationships, how we deal with other humans, and what it is we're actually looking for (as opposed to what we think we're looking for).

It's a finely balanced study that, at times, is perhaps too subtle - leaving other characters to point out what it is you should have noticed already.

And while porn takes a beating and its impact on relationships is shown in a negative light, the fantastical world of the rom-com also gets shown up for the fiction it is.

Yes, Jon's life has got to the stage where he thinks sex should be as good as it looks online, but Barbara's own obsession leaves her chasing ideals that are unattainable while being unable to compromise or listen to reason.

One of the great things about Don Jon is the main pairing.

At first glance it would seem Jon and Babs don't really connect that well or have chemistry, but that's the point - and it's a measure of how good JGL and SJ's performances are that this is captured so well.

Neither is able to fully connect with another human being, because neither has taken the time to live in the real world and realise how humans actually are. Flawed and imperfect.

Which is where Moore comes in.

Through her, the middle ground of actual life is fed in. Slowly at first, but gradually taking over - and Moore's fragile, grounded performance is exactly what this film needs to complete the circle.

While none of the characters are classically likeable, that doesn't matter. They're flawed people taken to an extreme, and the fact you care about what happens is as much a credit to JGL's writing and directing as it is to the main three performers.

The editing is perhaps a bit too fast-paced in the first half of the film, but as this mirrors the quick flashes of Jon's porn-addled brain, it works. The pace slows and scenes lengthen as real life seeps in.

If anything left me puzzled, it was the quick dashes of Jon's in-car anger. While this presumably serves to show how frustrated he can get, it more gives hints at an underlying anger which never fully surfaces (road rage incident aside).

But such niggles are minor.

For a debut self-penned directorial effort, JLG has far exceeded expectations. He has succeeded in highlighting a modern social issue, but has done so in a light-hearted way that never preaches.

He hints at views on religion, but again these aren't preached, and instead draw parallels with how people struggle with forgiveness, or choose instant gratification.

JGL's subtle touches (Jon's decision to go play basketball for example) leave this as a layered piece, with the audience able to take away as little or as much as they want.

Go in with an open mind, and it will probably steal your heart. Go in expecting endless scenes of Kayden Kross and chums, and you'll be both disappointed and missing the point.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World (12A)

And so the Marvel juggernaut rumbles on in the post-Avengers universe - this year we've already had Tony Stark back for more in Iron Man 3, and now Thor has dusted off his hammer for another bash at baddies.

And he's got some ground to catch up.

Pre-Avengers, Thor was a baby of the box office bunch (if you ignore Ed Norton's Hulk attempt, and I am), making a 'mere' $450m and putting him ahead of only Captain America.

But, having now saved New York and beaten his brother for a second time, one can safely assume Thor: The Dark World will play to a wider audience.

Sadly, said audience was spoilt by Joss Whedon's epic - so phase two of Marvel's bid to take over the world has to aim higher. Much higher.

And while Iron Man succeeded by adding a more human element to the playboy hero, Thor finds himself straddling two worlds - both figuratively and literally.

The first film had to obviously set the character up, and then create a baddy who could actually go toe-to-hammer with Asgard's favourite son.

Post Avengers, the world and his mother know who he is, so we can just get on with the action, yes? Well, kinda...

On the plus side, Thor: The Dark World is visually brighter than Kenneth Brannagh's first effort - a dark and moody tone severely hampered by the 3D glasses.

Not a problem this time round.

Even with the glasses on, Asgard shines like never before. And, in places, the tone is noticeably lighter as well, with the comic touches giving the film a welcome lift.

And it needs it.

Written pretty much by committee, at times T:TDW (lets call it that, eh?) feels like a series of vignettes strung together by a pre-arranged narrative (baddy finds a thing that should have been hidden, uses it to try and destroy everything, hilarity ensues etc).

Alan Taylor, making his film directorial debut after some stellar TV work, has also struggled to get a handle on just what sort of story he's telling here.

Which is a pity, because there's so much potential.

Chris Hemsworth has clearly settled into his armour, Natalie Portman is more at ease as scientist-cum-girlfriend Jane, Tom Hiddleston has (rightly) made Loki a superstar, Idris Elba is wonderfully mystical as Asgard's guardian - it's all in place for a wonderful, god-like romp.

But, it just feels flat in places.

When it's good, it's good - Hiddleston shines once more, the comic touches are superb (Thor on the Tube a particular highlight) - but it feels like no one could get a handle on the troublesome elves.

Christopher Eccleston lacks the real malevolence needed for a super-baddy (the effect on his voice being a major problem), while the attack on Asgard is poor-man's Star Wars/Star Trek mash-up.

Then there's good ol' Sir Anthony Hopkins.

At times, he brings his Shakespearian gravitas to bear with good effect (something that was used well in the first film), but at other times it's clear he neither believes in nor cares about what he's saying. Which gives certain scenes a throw-away feel.

And poor old Thor's pretty much on his own.

His cohorts - a good source of levity last time round - are reduced to bit-part players, while Sif's (a strangely muted Jaimie Alexander) feelings for old beardy are laid out for all to see but then never dealt with, and he's never given enough time with either Jane or Loki to get any real screen relationship established.

(Yes, I know you could say that was done last time, but it's needed here too.)

When T:TDW hits, it hits - and Hiddleston steals every scene he's in. And Hopkins aside, there's not a bad performance. Well, OK, giving Jane's intern Darcy (Kat Jennings on good form once more) an intern of her own is a mis-step, but other than that...

It's just that the flat patches are very noticeable. The pacings slow at times, making the brighter moments that much brighter while sadly also highlighting the flaws.

Almost certainly, having shone in Avengers, Loki and Thor will sweep all before them in the coming weeks, but as a Marvel devotee I wanted more.

Gravity (12A)

One of the advantages (and let's face it, there aren't many) to being awake at 6am is that you can get all the tedious stuff out of the way early and head to the cinema for a bit of double-bill catch-up action.

And so, counting my solitary blessing, off I skeedaddled to the neighbourhood World Of Cine to catch Gravity, a film some selfish sod saw fit to release while I was lounging in my friend's sun-baked garden in Abu Dhabi.

I've been excited about this film since first seeing the trailer - an experience that left me breathless. If two minutes can do that, what could 90 achieve...

And not normally one to be bothered with the whole 3D hoodoo, I really wanted to watch this with the sunglasses on. Everything I've read in the build-up suggested it would be worth it.

OK, turns out you could probably see it in 2D and not feel like you'd missed out on much - but, one tiny line of dialogue aside, that's my only complaint.

If you've somehow missed the build-up to all this, Gravity stars Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone - a doctor on her first space mission.

She's joined up there by veteran space trucker Matt Kowalski, played sublimely by George Clooney, a man who's on his last mission and would like to take the space walking record back to earth with him.

Sadly, that chance gets kyboshed when a Russian attempt to get rid of one of their own satellites goes a tad awry, resulting in a chain reaction that sends tonnes of debris rocketing around the earth (as fast as a speeding bullet apparently - a line that really jars).

And so, as you'll have seen in the trailer, the fun begins. And 90 minutes later, you'll get your breath back.

To call this film tense, gripping, enthralling and all-consuming is almost under-playing it.

With the subtle use of dialogue, the two characters (and, aside from other voices, that's yer lot) are drawn quickly and clearly, and we start down the road of trying to fix a space thing before the bad stuff comes flying in.

With every bounce, with every knock, you're willing Bullock to grab something to hold her steady, you're almost screaming (but it's a cinema, so you don't) for her to grab Clooney's hand as he spirals past.

And that's just the first half hour.

After that, thankfully, co-writer/director Alfonso Cuaron (the man who gave us the best Potter film in Prisoner Of Azkaban and the sublime, timeless classic Y Tu Mama Tambien) gives us a few breathing spaces.

But not many. And not really, because as one drama subsides, you know the next one is on its way, and you find yourself scouring the screen looking for any tiny bit of satellite that might cause more mayhem.

It's the subtle touches that help in this regard.

The music is understated, the spaces between score segments as important as the orchestration. The dialogue is all necessary (bullet reference aside). The characters are believable, likeable and by the end they're almost family.

Then there's the look of the thing.

Seeing this film on a plane will be a waste, and to be honest you might need a bigger TV to do this justice when the DVD is launched.

Space is big, as we know, but Cuaron doesn't let that stop him from trying to capture it.

There are scenes where all you're looking at is the stars. Sure, Clooney and Bullock are there, but they're the two dots to the far right of the screen. Maybe. Or that could be a space station.

Cuaron manages to capture that feeling of being tiny and lost in the infinite. You find yourself feeling as small and lost as two people trying to get back to their damaged ship with just a few jet thrusters for company.

Somehow, with so little 'stuff' up there, Cuaron gives you a hell of a lot to look at. And you'll be looking at everything.

As for the 3D (Gravity was allegedly designed to be seen in all three dimensions, but then film makers always say that...), early on I wasn't sure it was needed. The added depth is hard to get across when it's just a sky full of twinkly lights.

But, as with everything else in Gravity, it's the subtle layers that work so well - and there were moments when I was actually blinching (it's a word - go ask A A Milne) and ducking in my seat. And that never happened in Avatar.

On the face of it, Gravity shouldn't work (and there are some who have been happily picking the science apart - don't listen to them) - it's two people for 90 minutes. Floating about.

That may work when it's Before Sunset, but they're wandering about Paris. Not spinning about in the infinite blackness of space while you catch the occasional glimpse of Mother Earth.

Then there's Bullock's performance. Not only does she hold the whole thing together, but she does it while never actually putting her feet down. Sure, it may be wires n wotnot, but her performance is so natural and real it captivates you.

And it's not just the spiralling and spinning and yelling and screaming. It's the emotional journey Dr Stone goes in, as amidst the chaos she manages to take stock of her life and situation down on earth.

Bullock manages to provide so much emotional weight to a film laden with effects you almost want to stand and applaud.

Not wishing to take anything away from Clooney, of course, but he is totally overshadowed here. And he's on top form.

So often you fall in love with a trailer, only to find the film a crashing disappointment (Peter Jackson, I'm talking to you), so to find a film not only meets but totally exceeds all expectations is simply wonderful.

Or out of this world, if you will.

(Oh, and to further labour the point about just how tense this film is, I was 15 minutes into Thor before my pulse stopped racing. It's like being strapped to a roller coaster. In space,)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Broken Circle Breakdown (15)

D'ya know what you should watch, said a smart-arsed chum of mine, that Belgian flick - the one based on a play. Got loads of country music in it. Heard it's good.

Well, with a sales pitch like that, who's to say no?

Turns out he was on about The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium's entry in the Film Not In The English Language category at next year's Oscars.

And it's not country, it's bluegrass.

Granted, ol' cloth ears may have got the genre of music wrong, but after that he was on the money.

It is indeed based on a stage play - one written by Johan Heldenberg, who stars in the film as Didier, a man who's life we follow for an hour and 50 minutes.

Didier is banjo player in a bluegrass band, who has fallen in love with first Elise (played by Veerle Baetens, seen here recently in The White Queen) and then their daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse).

Didier never planned on this being his life, but equally he never planned for the highs and lows the following years throw at him - but with a wonderfully strong performance by Heldenberg, we share everything with him.

Let's be clear early on, though - this is not a gentle, easy film to watch. It's a bugger to explain because so much of what happens would be plot spoilering to the nth degree - and the real beauty of this film is not knowing what's coming.

You get a few hints, sure, but the warmth of this film will keep you entranced and full of hope.

If emotionally tense dramas are not your thing, particularly ones in Flemmish with subtitles and lots of bluegrass, then chances are you're going to struggle - but you should still see it.

You really, really should. And here's why.

The Broken Circle Breakdown is a brutal, warm, funny, traumatic, sweet, tragic, beautiful film. It tugs on your heartstrings and will have you bawling your eyes out inside the hour.

It's simply stunning.

And it's stunning for simple reasons - the characters are lovable, the story is heartfelt and passionate, the central three performances are amazing, it's beautifully shot, it's not too long... and the music is great.

In Baetens we have a woman who can be sexy and fragile, strong and weak, who captivates in every scene she's in. Alongside Heldenberg, that's no mean feat. And boy can she sing.

The film is stolen, though, by young Nell. Not only does she melt your heart with a performance of fragile beauty, her performance carries a depth and weight that belies her tender years.

If I seem to be gushing a bit here, I am. Partly because it's not easy to type when your eyes are a tad moist - but mainly because, much like Broken earlier this year, I feel like I have been on a huge emotional journey.

In a very, very good way.

The whole of life is in this film, the whole gamut. Every extreme high, every worst low, and because of the power of the writing, the strength of the performances and the warmth that flows from every frame, you feel you've gone through the emotional wringer.

There are wider themes at play here as well - God is given both sides of the debate, George Bush Jnr gets to trash a pro-American's dreams, different approaches to grief are explored, but none of it is done in a heavy-handed manner.

And the deft touch adds more weight to the drama.

This film could have been maudlin, depressing (and doubtless some people will still see it that way), but it's not.

The Broken Circle Breakdown is, ultimately, a celebration of life and love. With added bluegrass music.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 (U)

As is often mentioned in these hallow pages (and the new podcast, when I get it edited), the best children's films work on many levels - so the adults can enjoy it as much as the youngsters.

And that was certainly the case with the first Meatballs movie, where we met Flint Lockwood and revelled in his many failed inventions - right up to the point one worked, rain became food, and then it all went to hell in a tornado of spaghetti.

It was anarchic, zany, slightly surreal and was laden with jokes both visual and audible.

So would a second helping be as tasty?

This time Flint (voiced brilliantly again by Bill Hader) is trying to put everything right after the food storm, only for his science hero Chester V (Will Forte), owner of Live Corp, to come along and whisk him away to his dream job.

As ever, dreams don't tend to go well in film world, and Flint and his friends have to overcome all manner of nefarious doing to save the day. Again.

Part of the original formula is repeated (many, many puns and gags), but there have been some changes too.

This time round there's a bit more sugar in the mix, a few musical montage moments (kudos to Sir Paul McCartney for getting one of his crackin' new tunes in there) and a less than subtle anti-corporation message - but it's still zany, mad, fast-paced and has it's surreal elements.

Where last time we had roast chickens coming to life, this time around we're invoking the memory of Jurassic Park and Return Of The Jedi as food has become a species of it's own, and the indigenous population of fruit, veg and marshmallows team up to help our friends.

The food gags are particularly inspired - we have shrimpanzees, banostriches, cantelopes, melophants and Barry the strawberry, each with their own innate personality and character traits.

And there are monsters too, with a giant cheesburger running rampant and a run-in with a tacodile. You're not in Disney any more, Dorothy, that's for sure.

The cast are clearly having fun. With just one change (Terry Crews has replaced Mr T as town cop Earl), Anna Farris, James Caan, Neil Patrick Harris ("Steeevvveee") and Andy Samberg are all delivering gags and, when needed, emotion with aplomb.

It's bright, colourful, mad as a box of leeks (a fine running gag) and pays tribute to Terry Pratchett with its ape joke. What's not to like?

Granted, the tone is a bit more 'mainstream' (an obvious shift seeing as they now have an actual audience to aim at) and the messages of choosing your friends over flattering strangers is a smidge laboured - but is that a bad message to teach children?

And, yes, three musical moments is a tad OTT when the first film managed just fine with none, but I'm nitpicking here.

It's a family film that has everything for the family to enjoy together. You'll laugh a lot and, by the end, be so caught up in the adventure you'll start feeling emotions grown people shouldn't be feeling when watching cartoons.

It's simply a great film. Just don't ask where Steve got his brown crayon from.

PS: I saw it in 2D. It was great. It might work in 3D, but it won't add anything major to the essential elements of the film - which are the jokes.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Captain Phillips (12A)

The growing problem of piracy off the coast of Africa has been in and out of the news in the past few years.

Here in Britain, we had the tale of Paul and Rachel Chandler - a couple who were kidnapped while spending their retirement sailing round the world.

In America, you had Captain Phillips. For those who missed this one, Somali pirates boarded his container ship but left with just him. In a lifeboat. Not a great success, this particular raid.

While both stories were big news in their home countries, I'm pretty sure neither washed up on the opposite nation's radar - so the story of Phillips and his time with a small band of Somali pirates in a lifeboat had passed me by.

Fortunately, as is the modern way of dealing with a traumatic event, Captain Rich Phillips wrote a book  (A Captain's Duty) which was then optioned as a film, and here we are. With Tom Hanks.

And Paul Greengrass.

And it needs Greengrass, as a counterpoint to Hanks. With Hanks at the helm, you know you're going to get Acting and Emotion. With Greengrass, you're getting in-your-face action. An interesting mix.

And, for the most part, it really, really works.

Starting off with Phillips (played by Hanks) setting off to work, arriving on the Maersk Alabama and then setting sail, the opening scenes are intercut with our Somalian pirate gangs getting ready for their day at the office.

And this is important, because we get to see that, essentially, these are people who are doing something out of desperation and fear. They're not freelancing freeloaders stealing for fun, they have warlord bosses who have revolutions to fund.

The pacing of the opening scenes is perfect, slowly allowing the two stories to unfold as they converge at the point the pirates board the ship.

Which is where Greengrass hits the throttle.

Making fast-paced action scenes is no mean feat - container ships are not quick, nippy things after all - but Greengrass ratchets up the tension, making shots of rudders and engines pounding and integral part of the action and drama.

And it works so well.

You'll be holding your breath before you know it, you won't be able to take your eyes off the screen, as shouting and gun pointing becomes the order of the day.

It's here that Greengrass' signature hand-held style comes into it's own, allowing the fear and tension to be shoved right down your throat - even when all people are doing is hiding in a cold store. The drama is pretty unrelenting from here on in.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about all this is the fact that Barkhad Abdi is making his debut here. As the leader of the pirates, he's going toe-to-toe with a Hollywood veteran - and he's holding his own.

The other pirates are all equally good, and equally making their debuts, but as the central figure Abdi almost steals the film from Hanks.

He comes into his own once they're adrift in the lifeboat, perfectly capturing a man trapped by situation and circumstance.

And it's here that Greengrass' introduction of the back story comes in. Without it, it's just some nasty criminals with that nice Mr Hanks in a small boat. With it, the pirates are human, desperate, trapped and afraid.

You'll almost be rooting for them as much as you are for the Navy Seals arriving cavalry-like off the starboard bow.

And if you thought the scenes on the container ship were tense, they're nothing compared to the lifeboat.

Four pirates and Tom Hanks, shouting, screaming, scared, afraid, violent, angry - and you're in the middle of it all. It's claustrophobic, tense, and utterly thrilling.

Now, if you don't know how this all plays out (as I didn't), don't look it up. Don't Google it. Just go see the film. Because when the whole situation is resolved, you'll be holding your breath again.

If only the film had ended at the same time.

It's a long film, that could lose 20 minutes without detracting from the experience, and it could start with the final ten.

It's not a spoiler to say Captain Phillips survives (he wrote the book leading to this film after all), but did we really need to have Tom Acting in those closing scenes?

He's been wonderfully measured and understated throughout the film. He's been believable and watchable in a way I've not seen in him for quite a few years. But then he has to go and ruin the whole thing by having some scenes at the end where he Acts and Emotes.

It actually feels like they were bolted on at the end to show how Tom can 'do' Emotion. And it almost ruined the film.

For two hours I'd been engaged, gripped and thoroughly enjoying (OK, sounds wrong, but you know what I mean) this tale of piracy on the high seas.

And just when the film's natural ending arrives, Tom has to go overboard and provide ten minutes of pure Hanks - making me wish they'd left him on the lifeboat.

It didn't quite ruin the film, but I would have rather left the screening feeling I'd watched a great film than leave - as I did - feeling annoyed at someone's blatant attempts to yank at my heart strings.