Friday, 29 March 2013

The Host (12a)

The power of love, Mr Lewis once wrote, is a curious thing. It can make one man weep, another man sing, and a woman with a highly successful vampire franchise under her belt write a science fiction book.

Which is fine. Didn't get on with Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books (first one got thrown across the room a third of the way in, when the previously strong and independent female character took one look at pretty boy and went all weak at the knees), but hey, this is a different kettle of badgers. And the premise is a good one.

On the surface, it's a story of an alien species (souls) implanting themselves in the human race, taking over the planet and seemingly making things better. Obviously, not everyone's a fan, and there's a resistance movement. All sounds a bit Terminator, but that's not a bad thing.

And in Saoirse Ronan's Melanie/Wanderer (she has one of the souls put in her), we have a strong female lead. One who can hold her own against the boys, and will fight everyone and everything to get back to help save the ones she loves. So far so good.

And the trailer hinted at fast-paced action, tension, drama, tussles, struggles, fights for survival. Again, all good.

What we got was a pedestrian plod of a movie that has so many messages about love, relationships, the state of humanity it almost forgets it's also trying to be Romeo and Juliet. With two Juliets. And two Romeos.

Now, on the face of it, snail-pacing aside, it's not a bad film. It's not terrible, horrible, no one does anything bad... it's just not very good. And that actually makes you feel sorry for the cast. All they can do is their best, and follow the directions of Andrew Niccol (who also wrote the screenplay, which I suspect is half the problem - we're a bit in woods and trees territory). And they do OK.

Ronan is great, capturing the inner conflict of a woman who's listening to her old self while the new owner is trying to follow the rules. No one else's characters are particularly well drawn, with both the male leads (played by Max Irons and Jake Abel) seemingly lifted from Dawson's Creek while  William Hurt's Jeb could have wandered in from True Grit. Which actually makes more sense than you think.

Things start to unravel though, if you do anything stupid like actually think about the film.

For a start, it can't decide if it's a love story or a sci-fi story, and so does neither very well. Then there's the whole issue with calling a parasitic alien race 'souls'. A race that improves its human hosts by making everyone truthful, polite, honest and good. Things are improved if you have a soul, got that? Subtle, isn't it. These are clearly issues with the source material.

Where Niccol starts to go awol is with his script. His dialogue sounds like it was written by a 12-year-old, while the whole things carries with it a hoped-for weight and worth that it frankly fails to carry off. Lots of moody looks, thoughtful stares, we're dealing with big issues here folks and don't you forget it. We're dealing with the WHOLE OF HUMANITY. And four people in love, obviously, only with three bodies involved.

Then there's the score. From the off it's made to feel saccharine, every scene sounds like an emotional event, big sweeping orchestration telling you that you should be feeling lots of, well, stuff. The problem is, though, that when you fill a perfectly normal scene with musical hormones that effectively mean nothing, where do you go when there's real stuff to feel. If the basics are at 11, there's no 12 to turn it up to.

Then there's the pacing. I may have mentioned this already, but it needs mentioning again. Everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - is played out at a crawl. Slow would be an upgrade. Even the high-speed car chases are tedious. And not very fast. And this is a big problem, because what this film does is bore you.

I suspect the plan was to play it slow, build the tension, draw you in and have you enthralled and captivated - but it doesn't. It's boring. And then it's annoying. And then it's still not over, which is even more annoying. And boring. By the end I didn't even have the energy to be annoyed any more. I just wanted to get away from it as far as humanly possible.

Without my soul, obviously.

But there are positives here. As mentioned, Ronan puts in a great performance, it's well shot, and Diane Kruger is a good baddie (I know, the alien lot are meant to be nice, but she's not. And no one thinks to ask why. I know...), and the final message amongst the messages is vaguely uplifting, but overall it's a mess.

And it's not subtle. At one point, Melanie's brother cuts himself with a scythe during harvest time (yes, harvest time. In a cave. In the desert. A cave in the desert that happens to have its own raging river. Got a problem with that?). And it's going to be bad. How do we know? Because the lingering shot focused solely on the rusty dirty blade tells us so, that's why.

Elsewhere, the female empowerment movement gets a shout-out with a scene that tells you women are in control. She's saying yes, but he being the perfect gentleman (like all horny teenagers are) is saying no. We must wait. But she is in love, and it's her choice, and she wants to do stuff. And she's OK with that.

Good message, don't get me wrong, but it would have been more subtly delivered if it had been painted onto the arse of an elephant, which then sat down in front of the snogging couple on the sofa waving a flag saying 'it's ok, it's her choice'.

I'm reliably informed that Stephanie Meyer's book, The Host, is good, and I'm sure that in the right hands there's a good film to be made - but Niccol doesn't have those hands, and this isn't that film.

Note: I'm the one who's read the book and told him it was good. Thing is if I hadn't read the book I wouldn't have been able to fill in the various gaps in the film - upshot, the book is really good but the film, admittedly, was overly long and a bit lacking.
Erica (work experience).

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Trance (15)

There's two ways I could do this review - I could sit down now, as indeed I am, freshly returned from the World Of Cine, and attempt to capture my thoughts. Or I could mull, dwell, ponder, and attempt to capture my thoughts tomorrow.

So I'm doing both.

Because, on the one hand, this is a film that will stay with you, have you remembering bits and bobs for days after seeing it. But it's also a film that has an immediate impact, gives you a buzz, and - in my case - has you grinning all the way home. Welcome back to the big screen, Danny.

Now, granted, Mr Boyle hasn't exactly been away - between this and his last masterpiece, 127 Hours, people may have noticed a small party he staged in London last summer. An event, I think it's fair to say, that put his name on a broader canvas than his films have managed (and I say that appreciating that Slumdog Millionaire landed him an Oscar and Trainspotting is now firmly ensconced in the cultural lexicon of this great nation).

So it could have been easy for Danny to return to his day job with a mainstream blockbuster - a film for the masses, something granny could take the kids to. That would have been the simplest project (especially given Trance was being filmed while he was sorting out the Olympic beanfeast), but Danny Boyle is not a man for the simple approach. No siree Bob.

Which is a bloody good job, because not doing Trance would have been a travesty.

On the face of it, it's a simple tale of an art heist gang falling out with each other as they try to find where James McAvoy's Simon has hidden the Goya he was supposed to be stealing. He probably wouldn't have forgotten if Vincent Cassel's Franck hadn't twatted him with the butt of his sawn-off shotgun, of course, but what's done is done so a hypnotherapist is called in to get to the bottom of the problem.

And that's where it gets interesting.

Rosario Dawson's Elizabeth is good at her job. So good, she becomes the centre of the movie, working to help Simon while doing plenty to suggest she's happy to help herself along the way. And this is where Mr Boyle (NOT OBE) comes into his own.

Playing with time frames, reality, and the audience's heads, Danny weaves a tale of, well, I think I can say deceit without giving too much away. Because it's a crime caper essentially, and double-crossing, backstabbing, shooting and torching cars is all to be expected. That's pretty much laid out in the trailer.

What isn't laid out is how he goes about it. With clever use of shot framings and music, the audience is kept off balance throughout. Just when you think you've got a steer on where Trance is heading, he pulls your chair away, forcing you to question your own assumptions and judgements, making you think again about who is on who's side, and crucially, who you should be feeling empathy and sympathy for.

And that's where Trance is in a league of its own. Like others of its ilk - Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Memento have been referenced by the director - the key to enjoying Trance lies in the randomness of the tale, the leaps and jumps as the pieces are put in place and then moved as you try and solve the riddles.

And the cast excel. It's a select bunch (there's only really the main three plus the rest of the gang - Danny Sapani, Matt Cross and Wahab Sheikh) but they all play a crucial role in sowing seeds of doubt and intrigue as real events and those realised through hypnosis collide like clashing tides. No one puts in a bad performance, with the lead trio of Cassell, McAvoy and Dawson all performing with measured perfection. Interestingly, watching Trance has made me reappraise McAvoy's Welcome To The Punch performance as well. There, I thought he did a bang-up job, measured it perfectly. Here, he trounces that. Sublime would be a good word, although that may be a heady mix of the wine and post-screening euphoria - but I can't imagine anyone else playing his part as well as he does.

But it's not all intrigue and suspicion. There are some lovely, gory horror touches, there's harrowing violence - I'm pretty sure there are a couple of kitchen sinks in here too - and then there's the music.

Music can do one of two things. As with Lincoln, it can go beyond suggestion and just smack you over the head as it instructs you as to what you should be feeling at any given moment. Alternatively it can be used, as it should be, as an added weapon, another tool in the director's little kit of tricks to set the tone. And Boyle does this to perfection.

The intro is quite gentle, as McAvoy narrates the set-up to the lifting of the painting. Then we change gear, and the music gets the adrenalin pumping as the gang set about lifting £27m-worth of oily canvas. Perfect. Then there are moments when Boyle deliberately shifts the tone, using quirky tunes to offer respite from the onslaught, to lift the mood before bringing it crashing brutally back down to earth. Again, done to perfection.

I can't talk about the rest of the film - and I REALLY want to - because there is no way of doing so without ruining what unfolds. Suffice to say, it's like unravelling a ball of wool with the kitten still attached - just when you think you're getting somewhere, you lose the end and have to grab at another bit and grip a bit harder. You may think you've spotted what's coming, but nothing here is that simple. Far from it.

Right, my glass is empty and Dave Hause's Prague (Revive Me) has just finished, so I'm off to bed. I'll conclude upon the morrow. I know this makes bog all difference to you, reading the completed piece as you are, but indulge me. And go listen to the aforementioned ditty. It's bloody brilliant.

Ahh, tea. Elixir of the gods. Welcoming me with her warm embrace as I sit here, blinking, at the screen. A decent night's sleep would have been good last night, but Richard Parker seemed determined to try and catch giant moths while wearing clogs. He's now out, resuming yesterday's hunt for baby dragons or somesuch.

So how does Trance sit the next day? What memories have remained or been stirred?

Well, it's still good. It's still making me smile (especially that bit where Cassel has his.... No, no, I've said too much already), and the final 20 minutes are still spinning around my head. But is it all flair and no substance? Well, yes, a bit. But so what?

It's a seriously stylish film, beautifully shot and brilliantly edited, even if the story really isn't all that. But the twists are good, and the moments where you're trying to second guess whether you're watching a memory, reality, or a safe place inside the brain, are stunning. Especially as the film plays out. And unlike Inception, there's no ambiguous ending, although that's not to say everything is all wrapped up like a brown parcel.

The over-riding feeling I'm left with is warm satisfaction. Satisfaction at having watched a well-balanced, very well made film, made by a man who is so clearly at the top of his game it's almost frightening. There are wry smiles, chuckles, wince-inducing scenes with pliers and one moment where every man in the room very noticeably tensed and shifted in their seats. You engage with this film from the off and it keeps hold throughout. And you love it all the more for that.

Basically, it's got the lot. And a painting.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Identity Thief (15)

Ever meet those people who you actually like, you enjoy their company, they occasionally make you laugh... and yet, they're not actually funny?

You know the sort. You'll meet them at parties, or the office or the school gate. You can talk to them for a bit, that's cool, they'll crack jokes, one or two will hit, but after a while you really just want to get away. And you feel bad, because you know they're a good person, it's just they could be funnier, more enjoyable company - only they're not.

That's Identity Thief. Right there.

The premise should work - woman tricks man into divulging details so she can print off her own credit card using his details and wrack up huge bills while partying and shopping like Paris Hilton before her grandparents realised what the rest of the world already knew.

And the cast should work. Jason Bateman has more than cemented his place in our hearts, for a start. Sure his film CV is patchy (Juno = good, Horrible Bosses = not good), but he's in Arrested Development. And he's brilliant in it. Then there's Melissa McCarthy. OK, she's in Mike And Molly (it's funny... because they're fat..), but despite that she's done some good film work. Well, OK, she was in Bridesmaids - but she was bloody funny in it.

And despite all the evidence, Seth Gordon can direct. Maybe not films (did you see Horrible Bosses?), but Breaking In was brilliant. Even if no-one actually watched it. It was quick, and sharp, and funny.

And funny's important. Especially in a comedy. In fact, it's pretty much the only thing it has to be. The rest of the thing can be an implausible mess, but as long as the jokes arrive and make you laugh, then all is forgiven. Take Movie43 for example. If it had actually managed to be funny, people wouldn't have hated it. Then there's I Give It A Year. Sure, flawed as all hell, but it makes you laugh. And that's all it has to do.

Which is pretty much where Identity Thief falls down. Not completely, granted - I counted two laughs out loud, a couple of chuckles and some smiles - but it's not half as funny as it should, or in fact could, be. And that's the real crime here.

Part of the problem is the actual pairing of Bateman and McCarthy. While he is the king of deadpan, flat delivery, she is big and over the top. And while it should work, it just fails to mesh properly.

Then there's the dialogue. These two can deliver lines, so why weren't they given any? I'm at home with swearing, as we know. But it's never a punchline. And yelling rude words as insults can be funny, but isn't here. Even when it really should be.

Then there's the plot. It's got all the basics in place - odd couple road trip, chaos ensues. Job done. Except Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten felt the need to embellish, flesh things out. So as well as the poor saps who get caught up in the japes and wheezes (and to be fair, Eric Stonestreet as Big Chuck raises a titter or three), we have a bounty hunter chasing down McCarthy's Diana after she skips bail.

All well and good, fair and reasonable, exactly the sort of thing she'd do. It's the Latino drug cartel heavies who stretch things.

Now let's be clear about this - in a madcap, screwball, dare we say zany, comedy, you can push limits, stretch boundaries, give plausibility the week off, that's fine. That's part of the deal.

What you can't do is try and add 'grit', for want of a better word. She's a sharp, sassy, loud-mouthed trickster is Diane. She knows what she's doing and can look after herself. And she doesn't tend to cross people who would come after her with guns.

Only she has.

For no other reason than to have two people with guns running about the place. And this film didn't need it. The bounty hunter would have been good enough. Plenty of comedy fodder there, as he gets taped up in the back of his van after a fairly comic car chase. Throwing two more people in, and then seemingly forgetting about them once the boot (trunk, if you're that way inclined) had slammed shut. A completely pointless addition that detracts from what could be funny bits. And the less said about the guy in prison the better. One assumes the uncredited Jonathan Banks owed Gordon money. Not much, just enough to explain his pointless inclusion in about three scenes.

But I can't be angry about this film. I wanted to like it, some bits of the trailer had made me laugh out loud (something the same scenes failed to do when I watched the whole movie...), I like the two leads, I like Gordon's TV work, but Identity Thief just left me feeling, well, nothing really.

It looks nice, it's well filmed, well made, but it has all the substance and lingering bite of, ironically, popcorn. The idea sounds appetising, and you don't mind spending almost two hours with a bag of the stuff, but it's not going to define your evening, and there are more fulfilling snacks available.

Oh, and according to IMDB, Identity Thief 2 has already been announced. What fun.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Compliance (15)

The problem with "based on real events" movies is that, in reacting to what you're seeing on screen, are you not reacting to what actually happened out there in the real world?

Are you actually able to react to the film version without commenting, by implication, on what actually went down?

With documentaries - like Gasland, for example - you're responding to facts; proven data. With fiction, you're simply bimbling along with the story, if you don't like how it's written it's not like you're judging people's lives and actions.

Which is a real problem with Compliance.

By being unmoved, and at times inherently annoyed by what's happening, am I in some way trivialising what actually happened? Am I, in some way, adding insulting to clear injury by having a voice in my head screaming THIS WOULDN'T HAPPEN?

Because it did.

It's just the fictionalising (what do you mean that's not a word?) of what would clearly have been harrowing events actually seems to trivialise what went on.

For those of you wondering what I'm banging on about, here's the story: Man pretends to be cop, phones fast food restaurant and tells the manager a member of staff has stolen money from a customer. She believes him, identifies the member of staff as Becky (Dreama Walker - star of Gran Torino and, er, Gossip Girl) and promptly sets about following his instructions as she strip searches Becky, taking her clothes and keeping her in an office til the police arrive (which they don't, obviously).

All of this actually happened.

From here, other members of staff are roped in to add to Becky's humiliation by following more instructions. All except one, Kevin (Philip Ettinger), who has the wit to say it shouldn't be happening.
When she runs out of staff, manageress Sandra (Ann Dowd, who won the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress for this. No, not heard of it either, but she did so there you go) calls in her soon-to-be fiance to watch over Becky.

Again, this all happened.

Here things get worse, as he follows all instructions to the letter.

Again, all happened.

Finally, the maintenance guy is roped in, smells a rat, blows the whistle, and the truth is uncovered, perpetrator is arrested, law suits fly, the end.

Again, just to labour the point, this all happened.

Which is where the problems begin.

With her portrayal of Sandra, Dowd does a bang up job of making you believe she would just blindly follow instructions and not ask the obvious questions.

As her fiance Van, Bill Camp captures a man conflicted, following the voice of authority but knowing what he's doing is wrong (the real-life version served five years for his actions).

The problems with Compliance lie in two key areas.

As Becky, Walker doesn't seem to be having that hard a time of it. I'd imagine her real-life counterpart was wailing and screaming from the off (and she reportedly suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, quite understandably), but Walker seems to be resigned to this being one of those things, just another shit day at work where The Man is sticking it to her. Even at her most violated, something just doesn't gel, doesn't ring true.

Which brings us to the other problem - tonally, Compliance is all over the shop.

It starts out wanting to be a quirky, indie-flick, all odd shots and framings and use of incidental music - and banging BASED ON REAL EVENTS on the screen, in caps, which just serves to cheapen and trvilaise the story again - but then attempts to be a chilling thriller as Becky's life is put through the wringer. And it doesn't do either well. And it fails to make the most of the main character.

Becky should be the focus here. It's her life being ruined, her body being used as another man's plaything, but that's not what you take from this. This is actually Sandra's story. How her day was turned upside down by the prank call, how her fiance did a bad thing.

A point rammed home at the end of the film. And this is wrong.

You should be watching this feeling shame for those who didn't do more, you should be angry at one man's idea of fun, you should at least have a clue as to why he's doing this, but none of that happens.
Instead the whole thing just serves to annoy.

Especially at the end.

Oh, actually there's a third thing - the dialogue has clearly been written by someone who doesn't actually listen to how people talk. Which, again, takes off any edge this film thought it might have.

Basing this film on real events isn't enough, and by labouring that point writer/director Craig Zobel has cheapened what was, in essence, a horrible crime. His villain (Pat Healy) isn't nearly evil enough or seemingly motivated to carry out this crime, he frankly seems bored (the real-life guy had an apparent fantasy of being a cop, something only hinted at here).

And telling us how many times this crime was carried out, without telling us what actually happened to the real-life scammer (the man who was arrested was not convicted), only serves to add to the feeling that this film was made with less than honourable intentions.

The real story deserves to be told properly, not turned into an unthrilling thriller that would embarrass most first year film students.

The Croods 3D (U)

The Flintstones, I think it would be fair to say, is well known. Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty - they've transcended time and played out to countless generations. The modern stone age family thing has been done and done well. If you're going there, you'd better be good.

Fortunately, we're in the hands of Dreamworks here - the people who helped you to Train Your Dragon and showed that it's not just Pixar and Disney who have the keys to the magic animation cupboard. 

The fact the 3D actually works and enhances the film came as a bit of a shock, mind.

At its heart, The Croods (co-written by some young upstart called John Cleese - look out for him, he's going places) is a warm, funny, joyful explosion of a movie. It has laughs, it has visual gags, it has characters you care about... and it's a tiny bit magical.

The basic story is of a family who have to leave their cave (reluctantly in the case of dad Grug, voiced by Nicholas Cage) as the world is starting to move and change. Dad's mood is not helped by his daughter Eep (Emma Stone) swooning over the new cave man in town, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). From here, the fun begins.

There's races across rocks, falling down stuff, climbing stuff, animals attack, there's screaming, shouting, yelling, rocks landing on peoples' heads... you get the idea. Not hugely original, sure, but who cares when it's this much fun.

Because that's what this film is - huge, unabashed, bright, colourful fun. You can't watch this and not, at some point, grin like a loon. At least once. It'll be lots, but I guarantee a minimum of one chuckle.

And part of the joy of the film is the 3D. Now, granted, this is a kiddies' film, but the detail is where the 3D wizardry is at its strongest.

Sure it looks lovely, and it's bright enough that the light loss issues are mitigated against, and you actually get the sense of depth the extra dimension is going to give, but it's when the sparks from the burning branch are floating down, it's when the dandelion seeds are breezing about your head, it's when the rubble and dust are blowing at you that you really appreciate what this medium can do. And the youngsters will love it (this is based on a quick survey of two seven-year-olds who were in our screening).

Because that, for me at least, is what 3D should be used for. Not for pointy sticks, Hansel And Gretel, not for things getting spun about in a tornado Mr Oz Powerful The And Great, but for the subtle stuff. The feeling that you're in the flock of birds; the wisp of smoke wafting away to your left. The devil really is in the detail.

I'm not saying I'm a convert to 3D, but The Croods gives you a sense of what it can do when done well. In a way similar to Avatar.

And like Avatar, the story here is simple and a tad flimsy - but where as that made Avatar a victim of style over substance, with The Croods that doesn't seem to matter. It is, after all, a film aimed at the younger viewer. It hasn't got a laboured environmental message smacking you over the head, it's a tale of family. And love.

Another key to the brilliance of The Croods lies in the peripheral characters. Belt (a sloth who, among many skills, helps to keep Guy's pants up) is pretty much a main player among the animals, but elsewhere the sabre-tooth cat, Douglas the dog, the mean plants, the feisty monkeys, the owl-faced bear creature who hunts the family and the piranha birds are all joyful additions to the adventure.

If I have any criticism it's that it gets a tad mushy and sentimental at one point, but by then it has built up so much good will it could steal your last Rolo and you'd forgive it.

There are films that, arguably, will change your life - that will make you look at things in a different way, and sure - The Croods isn't that film. And that's a good thing.

Because sometimes what you really, really want is just to have fun. To sit back, laugh, smile, feel warm and cosy, to like the characters, like what's happening, share in a journey, share in the growth of people and - by inference here - the human race.

Will be interested to see how The Croods is received in America's bible belt...

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Red Dawn (15)

Think of an 80s film - anyone, doesn't matter what it is, just pick one.

Now think of another one - this time, one you want to see brought up to date with a modern reworking. One you think would really benefit from a fresh perspective.

Last one. Think of an 80s film - again, any one will do - only this time, make it one you wouldn't want to see re-made in a million years. Because it's so bad, because it's so good, doesn't matter why, just pick one.

Now put your hand up if any of you had Red Dawn on either of those lists.

Thought not.

For those of you too young to remember the original, or those smart enough to avoid it, a quick recap.

The premise is simple. Russia, Cuba and Nicaragua are allies and have invaded the United States. One former high school quarterback and a random collection of students (including two girlies) escape the might of an armed force strong enough to take over America and head to the hills. There, with no military training whatsoever, they train themselves into a guerrilla unit strong enough to cause major damage to the conquering forces. Then a stray army unit turns up, and it goes completely tonto.

And so to the remake.

Gone are Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and Lea Thompson. In are Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck and Isabel Lucas. Gone too are the Russians, Cubans and Nicaraguans.

But that's the only change.

It's still an invading force, it's still a bunch of college kids (and three girlies), there's still an army unit, it's still nuts. Just not quite as nuts as the original. Sadly, it's not that simple. You see, the remake of Red Dawn has had something of a troubled birth.

For a start, it got shelved in 2009 when MGM went belly-up, something that also put Skyfall in doubt. Fortunately all that got solved, and now both films have finally made it to the big screen. Still, win some...

Unfortunately for Red Dawn, the original plan was to have the baddies as the Chinese. Sound thinking in 2009, apparently, but come 2012 someone woke up and remembered that the Chinese economy is not only one of the fastest growing, it also tends to lend money to America. Perhaps painting them as an invading force is not such a good idea. Hmmm, what to do... Who to pick... Who's bad and looks a bit Chine....



All that's needed is some digital wizarding, change all Chinese flags to North Korean (not South, don't want another Olympics faux pas) and we're good to go. Hurrah!

That done, here we are. The remake that almost never happened, despite no one wanting it anyway.
Brilliant. And to be honest, it's not that bad. OK, it's nuts - that's a given. But that was always going to be the case given the original. Here, though, there's proper characters, there's better action sequences, and there isn't a film score that has apparently been borrowed from a Saturday afternoon TV movie. So that's a plus.

And at one point, you hear Dragonette playing on a car stereo. Double plus.

It also doesn't have the large banner across the screen saying COMMIES BAD; YANKS GOOD, like  the original. There may not have been a lot of thought here, but at least that bit's not quite so obvious. And the actors look like they know what they're doing (which is more can be said of the first one, no matter what talent is on show). Chris Hemsworth is a Marine on leave, having joined up to avoid dealing with his mother's death. Josh Peck (born two years after the first film came out) can't act his way out of a paper bag, bless 'im, but still manages to drag himself through 90 minutes as Hemsworth's brother (a quarterback who doesn't always listen to instructions - could be an important plot point that, but we couldn't possibly comment).

Jeffrey Dean Morgan convinces as the aged, experienced Marine who stumbles upon the young renegades - partly because the other two are useless, but also because he can actually act - and of the youngsters, the girls get to do more than just sulk and plant bombs.

And that's about it.

It won't tax your brain, it won't pull at your heart strings, and if you're not screaming "OH COME ON" at the final scenes I'll be amazed, but it's not a bad film.

Not great, sure, but not bad.

Probably because the first one was so awful.

One final thing.

As mentioned above, the anti-commie diatribe of the first film had all the subtlety of an elephant sitting in your lap, but this has a different message. And it's a corker.

During a stirring speech, Hemsworth's character explains - with no sense of irony - how it'll be easy to disrupt the North Koreans, as they're just soldiers sent to a land they don't want to be in to do a job they don't want to do.

He then goes on to point out that, in Iraq, he was the good guy because they were restoring order. But now they were the bad guys as they had to overthrow an unwanted invading force.

Get that Iraq? Afghanistan? Native America? Standing up to invading forces and attempting to throw off the shackles of an oppressive army is a bad thing. And he does it with a straight face.Which is more than I kept.

Still, better than the original...

Friday, 15 March 2013

Welcome To The Punch (15)

There is always a potential problem with films laden with 'stars' - while the billed talent is an undeniable draw, there is every chance that it can collapse under the weight of the amassed cast.

That's not a problem here.

Not in Welcome To The Punch.

Far from it.

The trailer had us excited. James McAvoy had us excited. Mark Strong had us excited. David Morrissey had us excited. And then we saw the film.

At its heart, it's an old-fashioned take on cops and robbers. McAvoy playing the driven cop Max Lewinsky who, having been shot by him a few years ago, is determined to bring down Strong's Jacob Sternwood. So driven, he sees him everywhere.

Sternwood is living the low life, meanwhile, in Iceland. Enjoying the wilderness and aurora borealis until his son calls to say he's in a bit of bother. And he is. He's just jumped off a plane while clutching a bleeding gunshot wound. Bother doesn't begin to describe it. And so the fun begins.

To say any more would risk a spoiler-fest, because so intricate is the plot, so cleverly-woven the strands, that you can't begin to mention who does what without giving something away. And that's half the fun of this film.

Writer/director Eran Creevy - on only his second feature - has created a piece that is slick and intelligent. There's a lot going on, all of which is revealed slowly, patiently, like peeling an onion.
You might guess a twist or two, but you won't find yourself tutting and rolling your eyes, you'll be giving yourself high-fives for working something out.

That's not to say you have to be intelligent to enjoy this film, it's not operating on a higher plane. But if you have basic deductive reasoning you'll get more out of it than, say, two chatty idiots for whom men shooting each other is challenge enough (you knew when Punch was starting to get complicated and twisted because the chatting - which had gone quiet during the many shooty-shooty scenes - started up again).

But even on that basic level, there's a lot of fun to be had here. I'm still grinning about one particular quick but brutal death.

And that's just one of the many delights about Welcome To The Punch, the levels it operates on. But there's so much more.

Let's start with the look of the thing. This is, by far, the coolest film you'll see this year. Not just because of the performances (more on those in a sec), but the framing of the shots, the editing, the use of sound (can't remember the last time the simple click of guns was so gripping), and the look of the damn thing.

And man does it look good.

David Morrissey said in a recent interview how blown away he was with how Creevy had made London look - and he wasn't wrong. The lighting and colouring, the use of darkness, the reflections of the office buildings, all of them combine to make Welcome To The Punch visually stunning. It's cold, clinical, slick, brutal - and stunning.

Did I mention it's stunning?

It is.

From the opening shots, I just wanted this film to never end - it really looks that good. And then the performances kick in.

McAvoy - already a firm favourite here at Popcorn Towers - plays a blinder. Measured, understated, but able to deliver steel and menace when needed. And he has to bring his A-game, because he's up against Strong - in arguably one of the finest performances of his career - and Morrissey, who plays the police chief to perfection.

Then there's Peter Mullan, always good value for money, providing the perfect counterpoint to Strong's villain on a mission, along with Johnny Harris - another of the criminal fraternity, another chilling portrayal.

And over on the other team there's the good guys - Andrea Riseborough, Daniel Mays and Daniel Kaluuya all do what is asked of them and much, much more.

And it asks questions - not just of its audience (which side are you on?), but of its characters (which side are they on?) and the world in which the story is set. You'll trust no one by the end, trust me.

Everything is balanced, everything works, and the ending... well...

Well, you'll have to go see it. But we approve.

As mentioned, there's a lot going on in this film, and yet there's a lot we can't talk about because there's a lot going on. It's so neatly woven, it's like the perfect bullet-proof vest. Which is handy, 'cos you'll need one.

There was a time when we Brits produced certain genres better than anyone else (and still do in some cases), but the cop action flick has always been a bastion of American studios. They do them slick, they do them brutal, they do them fast.

Well, Welcome To The Punch does all that. And more. And better.

It's got brain with its brawn, grit with its shine, an eye on the bigger picture while showing you the detail.
This is a film that can be watched again and again, and is destined to be classed a classic. And all this before I start going overboard....

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Paperboy (15)

We have a simple rule here at Popcorn Towers - write the review of the film as soon as possible after seeing it. Why?

Because we want our reviews to be fresh, instant, as immediate an emotional reaction to the celluloid experience as it's possible to achieve. It's our thing.

That's why.

Which is where The Paperboy has caused us a few problems.

Not only could I not write the review ASAP (got taken for dinner afterwards - a prawn chili pasta dish, thanks for asking), but as I left the cinema I had no idea what I thought about Lee Daniels' latest work. Genuinely no idea. Not a sausage.

And now, sitting here, A Pale Horse Named Death assaulting my ears, tea a-cooling upon my desk, I'm still not sure. I liked it, I know that, but I have no idea why. And I have absolutely no idea what the film was about.

Well, that's not true, it's about Zac Efron is what it's about - but I'll come to that shortly...

Lets start at the beginning.

Based on the award-winning novel by Peter Dexter, The Paperboy is reportedly about two journalists (hometown boy Ward Jansen, played by Matthew McConaughey, and Yardley, played by David Oyelowo) who arrive in Lately, Florida, in the summer of 1969 to investigate and report on an apparent miscarriage of justice. Their interest in the story stems from Charlotte (a filthy-gorgeous Nicole Kidman), a sexually liberated sort who has decided that the incarcerated Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack, channeling his inner-nutjob) is innocent and should be freed so she can marry him.

Alongside all this, we have Ward's brother Jack (Efron), a tortured soul who is still coming to terms with his mother leaving without so much as a goodbye. He spends his days moping about in his pants, annoying his one friend in life - the family maid Anita (played brilliantly by Macy Gray), and delivering papers for his emotionally-distant father.

With me so far?

As the story unfolds, we learn that, other than Charlotte, people don't much care if Hilary is innocent or guilty - the police got the man wot killed the nasty sheriff, ta - and that Hilary is madder then a box of frogs. We also learn that racism is rife, that getting to the truth is harder than you'd think, and that pissing on Zac Efron cures jellyfish stings.

Still with me?

We also learn that Efron has a wonderfully sculptured physique. And that he looks good in just his pants. Or trunks. Or open shirt as he broods in the Florida heat... And that's where the problems start to unfold.

You see, the book is about journalists searching for the truth - but that doesn't come across here, because there's too much else going on.

On the positive side, the performances are great. Kidman is sassy, brassy and has brought all the sex appeal and allure she left at home when making Eyes Wide Shut. McConaughey and Oyelowo play well off each other, while Gray shines (and arguably steals the show). And Efron is good with what he's asked to do.

It just doesn't feel like he was asked to do much more than, as you may have guessed, look good in his Y-fronts.

And that's a big issue. In making Efron the focus of the film, the film loses focus. It seems to want to be a gritty, Tenessee Williams-esque period crime thriller (the grainy celluloid feel is certainly a nice touch), so why then do we have a beach scene taken from a mid-60s surfer flick? Why is one sequence clearly taken from a 70s exploitation movie? Why are we switching so erratically from static cameras to Cloverfield-style shakey-cam? Why are so many shots seemingly looking at nothing or blocked by a stray hand? Why is the use of symbolism so bloody obvious? (A sex scene inter-cut with shots of farmyard animals? Really? Oh come on...)

And who is the film about?

Over the surprisingly short running time (it feels like a REALLY long film), we manage to piece together what makes the characters tick - but it's a jigsaw. The pieces are scatterd all over the place, and as you start putting together the Jack bit, you realise you're missing the Ward bit, and as that starts to take shape you're find another piece of Charlotte...

And every character - Anita aside - is flawed. One of them could keep Jeremy Kyle in work for a year, but this lot all come with so much baggage they'd be barred from boarding by Ryan Air. And that's a real problem.

You can't get to grips with any of the characters in any real depth, because you're trying to get to grips with too much. It's like every course on the tasting menu has been super-sized. Twice.

And the whole thing being narrated by Anita is a massive issue, as you find yourself constantly asking just how the hell could she know that most of it happened?

And still I didn't hate it.

Bits of the film stay with you, mulling away in the dark recesses of your swampy mind - and not just the more 'infamous' bits (Kidman having an almost comical orgasm on a prison visit and later curing a jellyfish WILL feature in certain tabloids, mark my words).

But what's it about?


It's about Jack's abandonment issues and obsession with Charlotte. Only it's not.

Because it's about Charlotte's chasing of the fantasy of the perfect man without having to actually get involved with reality. Only it's not.

Because it's about Ward's inner demons and struggles. Only it's not.

Because it's about the alleged innocence of Hilary and a quest for justice. Only it's not.

Because it's about a black man (Yardly) trying to make it in a white man's world (journalism/Florida in general). Only it's not.

What you can say, without fear of contradiction, is that The Paperboy is about two things - a director's clear fascination with the physique of Zac Efron, and 107 minutes long.

And I still can't believe I didn't hate it.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Oz The Great And Powerful (PG)

There are some films that are simply untouchable - celluloid royalty if you will.

Who'd dare to mess with, say, Psycho (Shut up. That Gus Van Zant film NEVER HAPPENED)? Gone With The Wind? The Seven Year Itch? Duck Soup? Star Wars?

OK, that last one was a bad example.

My point is that some films just don't get messed with. Are loved for what they were when they were released, and still are now. A remake, or reimagining, or re anything of The Sound Of Music? There's be armies of nuns marching on Hollywood before anyone could shout action.

Which makes you wonder why anyone felt the need to piss around with The Wizard Of Oz.

The original is rightly classed as a classic - it's aged badly, but who cares? It's still The Wizard Of Oz. Even The Muppets didn't take too many liberties with it. So it's good that the owners of the rights to the original Oz have guarded it so preciously.

Unfortunately, this has led to film makers finding more creative ways around the problem. Which is how we get to Oz The Great And Powerful.

Designed to tell the story of how ol' Wiz rocked up in The Emerald City, and defeated the witches, it's everything fans hoped it would be.

Assuming what they wanted was a mess of a movie that's been made in 3D for no reason other than to justify its existence.

Let's start with the name. Oz The Great And Powerful. Basically what they did was take some key words that they thought would make the film sound enticing and magical, wrote them on bits of paper, and then dropped them on the way to the first meeting. When they were laid out on the table, they were in the wrong order. And a 'The' had fallen under a chair. Not a great start.

Fortunately, every other - and better - permutations aren't littered throughout the film's dialogue as handy reminders of how much better the film could have sounded. And they don't all leap out at you as you sit, bewildered, wondering what on earth possessed you to part with your cash. So that's one bullet dodged.

Then there's the 3D.

Now, having heard a recent interview with director Sam Rami where he said he'd gone to 3D school to make sure he got the editing right, I had high hopes that maybe this time it wouldn't be used in a gimmicky way. Not high hopes, granted, but hopes.

And not even so high that I actually bothered shelling out for the glasses. I'd had a long day and really couldn't be arsed sitting down to watch a film while wearing sunglasses, OK? And it still annoyed me. Because you can tell the bits that have been thrown in just to make use of the visual effect. Ooohhh, look, spears are coming at me.

Ooohhh, look, he's falling down several waterfalls.

Ooohhh, look, stuff is flying about in a tornado.

Ooohhh, look, that bit's going to make people feel sea sick...

And to think I actually thought that if one film could make 3D work, it would be a film set in a magical world. Sigh.

Still, it's got James Franco and Mila Kunis in. They're always good value. Or not.

Franco, as the titular Oz - who is powerful and great - looks somewhat lost, unsure whether to go for an OTT performance or a more measured study of a conman on the fiddle and failing to achieve either. And he can't act with CGI. Some can. Some manage to believably stare at a tennis ball while imagining it's a recently repaired talking china doll. In fact, someone manages it in this film. Just not James.

So, then, Kunis. One of the three witches on offer. Granted she's dressed like Steven Tyler having an acid flashback, but hey - she can act, right? She was good in Black Swan. She was OK in Friends With Benefits...

Sadly that's not the case. We have to put up with her trying to do emotion. It doesn't go well. Fortunately, things improve when the other two witches pitch up. In fact they improve one hell of a lot thanks to one of them. Thank the Munchkins for Michelle Williams.

From the minute she appears, the screen glows. Her presence is as welcome as it is warming. And the camera loves her. Helped, in part, with the way the film is coloured, sure, but she just stands out here. And she can talk to an imaginary china doll.

In fact, her appearance helps the other witch - Rachel Weisz - who seems to up her game when going up against someone who's actually acting. That's not to say she's bad when opposite Kunis, but there's a marked improvement when performing opposite a true star.

Amazingly, all this ranting doesn't mean Oz The Powerful And The Great And The Powerful is a terrible film. For its target age group - ones too young to read our reviews - it'll work fine.

It looks amazing, for a start. The colourisation is a thing of beauty, and it's clear Rami was doing his best to recapture some of that 1939 magic. And he damn near does.

And the flying baboons (not monkeys, you'll note) are GREAT. Scary as all hell, teeth bared at all times and flying out of the screen (or straight at it in my cinema) like rabid, evil, demented... well... baboons. But they're ace.

And the story is OK. It's a family film and it's family friendly. It's good versus evil, moral messages galore and someone calls Oz a fibber. That's a word that needs using more in family movies. Oh, and the black and white opening movement is brilliant. So good in fact, I'd have happily watched an entire movie just of that.

So, an opportunity wasted - where arguably an opportunity wasn't even wanted.

The original is rightly classed as a classic, and its other off-shoot (the West End hit Wicked) is equally popular. So why this? All it does is serve to remind you how good the original was, and how good the actors can be in other films.

Except Michelle. She's just ace.

Broken (15)

Film goers and movie fans never cease to amaze me.

A freezing cold Monday night, a screening with only five people in it, and still people insist on eating snacks that sound like they're eating gravel.

And why only five? It's cold, I get it. But rather than staying in watching crap on the telly, or a DVD that you could watch anytime, or going to a soulless multiplex, why not hit an independent cinema and see something slightly different? It might even be brilliant.

The trailer - the ones on YouTube have French subtitles. Go figure

I know it's a distribution issue as much as anything, but if people voted with their feet maybe films like Broken would reach a much wider audience. Not that I'm against watching films in empty cinemas, you understand. Quite the opposite. It makes for quite the heightened experience. Popcorn crunching aside.

And what an experience Broken is.

I think I experienced every emotion available while ensconced in my comfy chair at Sheffield's Showroom. I was gripped, transfixed, mesmerised.

I think it was Mark Kermode who said recently (and I have a feeling he was quoting someone else, probably Roger Ebert) that occasionally, as a critic, it's nice just to let a film wash over you. To experience it without picking it apart. So it was with Broken.

And the beautiful bit was that I never planned it. I sat, I watched, and from the opening frames I was transfixed. And I still am now.

Sitting here, typing away, a sleeping dog turning the air green, Richard Parker out chasing snowflakes, I'm burbling away because I don't really know where to begin. In a good way.

I could tell you what it's about - but that's a tough one, because there's a lot going on - and I want to talk about the ending. But I can't. I could tell you what it's about (three families on a small cul-de-sac and their interweaving lives) but that really doesn't do it justice. It's been described elsewhere as a 'coming of age drama', but that's bollocks - it's not that twee or saccharine.

IMDB says it's the story of a young girl in North London whose life changes after witnessing a violent attack. And it kind of is, only her life doesn't change. The victim's life does, sure, and his family's, but Skunk's life is changing as she grows up. Nothing she experiences is hinged on that one event. It's an event that happens and life goes on. As life does.

So let's start with the film's star. And it's not Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy or Rory Kinnear (although they are all brilliant). No.

It's Eloise Laurence.

She's making her debut - not just in films, but in anything - and yet she brings to the screen a performance of such depth and maturity that two-thirds of the world's actresses should seriously think about jacking it in. If she's this good now, Christ knows where she'll end up as she grows.

She's playing Skunk. A teenager with diabetes whose mum walked out on the family for an accountant. She's got an essentially optimistic outlook, is happy to speak to the young man (Rick, played by Robert Emms) across the way who is clearly a bit slower than the norm, loves her dad, deals with her illness in a mature way and annoys her brother.

All of which is delivered in an amazingly believable portrayal.

Then real life starts getting in the way.

She sees Rick getting beaten up after lies are told, she has to prepare for life as a first year at secondary school (what is that in new money? Year 7? Year 8? Wasn't like that in my day...) with all the rumours and scaremongering that comes with it. She gets bullied. She falls in love. She gets her heart broken. She rails against injustice. And you remain transfixed.

This kid can seriously deliver.

Obviously a lot of credit has to go to acclaimed stage director Rufus Norris, himself making a debut of his own, having switched to film from the theatre. That he has drawn such a powerful - yet wonderfully measured - performance from such a young actress is a wonder to behold.

But his skills don't stop there.

From the aforementioned 'stars' he draws equally top-drawer roles. Kinnear is loathsome as the father with control and anger issues striving to protect his family after his wife has died; Roth hasn't been this good in a while (and it puts his Arbitrage performance to shame); Murphy is wonderfully subtle, delivering on many levels without overpowering the scenes.

If I'm gushing, tough. Go with it. Broken IS this good.

But Norris shows his skills in other areas too. The time line is not linear. We often see the result before we see the action. But it is handled so effortlessly, so naturally, that it makes total sense. And he's at it from the off. There's no bedding in here, it's lights on and here we go - and maybe that's why it works so well. With no time to wonder what he's doing, you can relax, go with it and just revel in what he has achieved.

You can not fail to empathise with this film. You find yourself recalling your own schooldays, the rumours that circulated, the bullying, the kids who dealt with serious illness with dignity and no fuss. But it's not just about the children.

What Broken shows you is that life doesn't get any easier. Just because you've survived growing up, shit still happens and has to be faced. And serious shit at that. Which brings me to another great touch.

If I'm making Broken sound grim and hard going, it's not. There are comic touches here that provide perfectly-timed levity, welcomes grins as the shit - literally - hits the window. In some places you know the bad is coming because you've been given the sugar cube first, sure, but when it's done this well - and the bad is never predictable - who cares? It works.

It's a measure of just how good the film is, that by the end, after all the drama and tragedy and torment, you still don't know which way Norris is going to take you. You hope, sure, you hope like hell that he turns right. But you know that if he turns left down the other road, you'll be OK with that too. That would be just as breathtaking a conclusion.

And when was the last time you could say that about a film?

Oh, and she can sing too...

Friday, 8 March 2013

Robot And Frank (12A)

Hollywood is as predictable as a politician - they spot a trend and chase it as hard and fast as they can in a bid to milk more cash out of the general population. The difference is that, occasionally, Hollywood gets it right.

While the bean counters in Tinseltown have spotted the population is ageing, they've also worked out that the old folks have the money.

The answer?

Old folks must want films about old folks. Obviously.

Now, granted this has seen geriatric action heroes taking to the screens (Stallone and Schwarzenegger, hang your ravaged turkey-necks in shame), and old people run hotels or take up singing, it has also given us films such as Amour - a foreign language flick so universally loved and lauded that it actually broke into the mainstream award categories.

And it's given us Robot And Frank. For which we should be supremely grateful.

Set in "the near future", on the surface it's a film about care and the family. With Frank's marbles slowly starting to not bounce (brilliantly captured by Frank Langella), the wife long gone and the children busy with their own lives, it's decided that he needs a robot to help take care of him.

What the film is really about is love and friendship. And while many a film has been happy for that to be it, in Robot And Frank, the telling of the tale and the development of the characters makes it somehow more than that.

We meet Frank - a famed burglar who has done two prison stretches - as he sets about his latest raid. He may be old, but he's calm, he's stealthy, he's adept, he's burgling his own house... And it's here that the often tricky subject of Alzheimer's is broached. Now, traditionally there are two ways you deal with this subject (or any serious illness that people can be afraid of facing) - you either laugh at it, or you tug at the heart-strings until they come away in your hand.

Robot And Frank tread the rarely used third path.

We see the condition from the victim's perspective (mostly denying it, sometimes realising what's wrong), the family's perspective (trying to deal with it, but not knowing quite what to do as the transition from child to carer arrives), and the carer's perspective.

In this case, the carer is Robot. And it's here that the film gets it just right.

Between them, first-time director Jake Schreir and writer Christopher D Ford have created a bunch of diodes and plastic to rival Wall-E, Johnny 5 or C3PO. There's a warmth in the wires, a charm in the circuits that allows Frank to slowly bond with him over time - to the point they are able to start planning more heists.

Well, it's good mental exercise. Robot knows this.

It would have been easy for the film to somehow have become overshadowed by Robot, but such is the measured subtlety and depth of Langella's performance that never happens. At times frightened by a world he no longer understands, puzzled and scared by what he doesn't remember, at times devious, cunning and deceitful, Langella never allows the audience to do anything but care for what Frank is going through.

When he's arguing with his son (ably played by James Marsden) about not wanting the robot, you're on his side. When he's arguing with his daughter (Liv Tyler channelling her inner-hippy) about wanting the robot, you're on his side. Even though you know why he's doing it.

It is a performance that, in lesser hands, could have been clunky and cumbersome, but in Langella's is near-perfect.

The only other cast member of note is Susan Sarandon (time it right and you could see her in three films in one day right now), who as the librarian being windswept by advancing technology, and only other human Frank really talks to, is... well... 

Look, I like her. She's in some of my favourite films of all time. She's an assured screen presence. But not here. Now, the downbeat tone of the film (it's going to get called quirky a lot, I warn you) means she's not going to come in stealing the show. It's not her job to stamp her appearance on the screen. I get that. It just feels like she hasn't really got a handle on the role. Like she doesn't know how much to show. That's not to say she's bad, she's just doesn't quite gel with the rest of the film.

But that's the only real negative.

Langella and Robot steal this from everyone, but let's give full credit to Schreir here. Helming his first full-length feature, he could have gone for a more straightforward tale, but to his credit he steers the ship smoothly. There are light comic touches, there are heartwarming scenes, there's tense drama - he tackles the lot with aplomb.

If one was being picky (and hey, that's my job), it could be pointed out that a couple of the peripheral characters are not well-rounded enough to fulfil the bigger roles they are moved in to, and there are some inconsistencies in the storyline - but, really, at the end, I didn't care.

On the face of it, an old man and his robotic butler/carer shouldn't move you, shouldn't engage you this much - in the same way that, at first glance, a gawky kid trying to make it in a beauty pageant shouldn't wrap its arms around the world the way Little Miss Sunshine did.

But Robot And Frank does.

It's tender, it's heartwarming, it's delightfully odd, but the relationship carries you along in a warm blanket without smothering you with smushyness.

Unfortunately, in the screening I was in, the air conditioning must have been mucking about because at the end I seemed to have something in my eye...

Thursday, 7 March 2013

19th Bradford International Film Festival

You know it's early when even the cat is wondering what you're doing up.

And so it was this morning that, a bleary Richard Parker peering at a grey, damp world from the safety and warmth of the office window, we set off to the great city of Bradford for the grand unveiling of this year's international film festival.

Have you ever tried to get into Bradford for 9am? Don't. It takes forever. Especially when a bus breaks down and no one seems able to spot the high-level flashing hazard lights until they're right behind the damn thing thus forcing themselves to have to just pull out into the other lane.


On the upside, you get a great cup of tea at the National Media Museum. And a bacon sarnie. So it's worth it.

It's also worth it as we were being introduced to the delights that await those coming to this, the 19th Bradford International Film Festival, in partnership with Virgin Media and being held in the first UNESCO City Of Film (you haven't seen the signs plastered all over the city? No, me neither...).

And what a cracker it promises to be.

Grabbing the headlines are the two big films that will be bookending the extravaganza - the festival opens with The Look Of Love and closes with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, both of which look cracking.

TLOL, as it shall become known by the lazy typists among us, tells the story of Paul Raymond - England's answer to Hugh Heffner. Played by Steve Coogan and directed by Michael Winterbottom - and also starring Anna Friel - it promises to be a no-holds-barred look at the ups and downs of life as a premier pornographer, a promoter par excellence and a family torn apart by wine, women and, well, more women. And champagne.

Early word from Sundance has this up there with 24-Hour Party People. It's gonna be a belter.

All of which is a far cry from The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Based on the Booker-shortlisted best seller, TRF (laziness rules) looks at one man's changing view of the world post 9/11 as he questions his privileged Wall Street position given what is happening back in his home country of Pakistan.

Starring Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland (who seems to be struggling to escape the shadow of Jack Bauer) and the excellent Riz Ahmed (he of Four Lions fame), the clips we've seen suggest this is also going to be something special.

Light on laughs, sure, but tense and edgy as a tense and edgy thing being particularly tense and edgy.

In between these two, there is a whole raft of filmic loveliness. A preview screening of Joss Whedon's take on Much Ado About Nothing is on the cards, there's a celebration of 100 years of Bollywood (including a screening of the few scenes remaining from the first ever flick to come out of Mumbai), a whole Widescreen weekend celebrating 60 years of CinemaScope (featuring a 35mm print of How To Marry A Millionaire, and a 70mm print of The Longest Day. I'm getting giddy just typing that), Bradford After Dark III (a host of horror fun, including Rob Zombie's The Lords Of Salem) and live fun and games with comedian Aidan Goatley and the glorious Dodge Brothers playing along to silent classic The Ghost That Never Returns.

And that's still not everything.

There's stuff going on all over the city, with screenings in the cathedral and City Park (go, enjoy the fountains, soak in the family atmosphere, try not to think what else £25m could have been spent on in these austere times...), workshops, and a special honour for acting legend Sir Tom Courtenay.

For the full list of what's on when and how to get tickets, pop over here:

Bradford sometimes struggles to come out from the shadow of Leeds, but with this festival the city really puts itself on the map.

Popcorn at the ready, we're starting the queue...

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Arbitrage (15)

This film had become something of a holy grail - every time I tried to see it, something got in the way, and with every obstacle the film took on greater importance.

Phone calls, traffic jams, Richard Parker's giant furball - it seemed the universe was testing me, teasing me, dangling Richard Gere in front of me like a carrot only for it to be snatched away by some berk suddenly deciding to look underneath a motorway bridge.

And with every challenge, I doubted if the film would live up to my ever-increasing expectations.

With every failed bid, Arbitrage became an even better film that I HAD to see.

A few more foul-ups, it'd have been up there with Citizen Kane before I'd even sat down. So, was it worth the wait? Did it live up to expectations?

Well, yes.

And no.

On the one hand, it's a brilliant thriller in which Richard Gere glides through effortlessly, making every scene about him and forcing you to like him while hating what his character is actually up to.

On the other, it's a cop flick where Tim Roth gets to pretend to be either Pacino or De Niro fighting against a system designed to save the rich guy - and stopping at nothing to get the guy who stops at nothing to get what he wants.

But I still loved it.

We've had a lot of films about the financial crisis since Wall Street spent all our money and then asked for a loan (Margin Call perhaps the best of the bunch), but this isn't a financial film even though it is set in that world.

What we have is a film about a man called Robert Miller. A man unaccustomed to failure, a man who doesn't understand it when things go wrong. And gone wrong they just have.

A business deal is unravelling fast, threatening to take down his company and with it his lifestyle, and he's just had a car crash in which he's killed his mistress.

And I thought I was having a bad day.

It's in the aftermath of the accident that the true nature of Miller is revealed - and in which Gere's brilliance is allowed to dance across the screen. You should hate Miller. You should be jealous of his life. You should be quietly glad that it's all going tits up - but you're not. You hate what he does to his wife (Susan Sarandon with another understated performance), you hate what he puts daughter Brooke (the wonderful Brit Marling) through, yet you can't help but root for him.

Even when he drags innocent people through his dirt, you hope he makes it through.

And this is what Gere does so well. You can tell when he's lying, you can tell when he's scared, but it's not flagged up with a full fanfare. His performance is so studiously measured you almost forget he's acting.

(A quick aside: I listened to Mark Kermode's review before seeing Arbitrage. Normally I try and watch the film first, but as we know things got in the way. As a result I became a bit fixated on Gere's blinking. Mark's not wrong...).

Gere is helped through his moral maze by people who understand his world and help it run smoothly. No one judges him. Details are met head on and problems are fixed as if they were nothing more than a dripping tap. And still you don't hate the guy.

By contrast, we have Roth. Now, I've been a fan of his since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I think he is a great screen presence.  Just not here.

That's not to say he's bad - he isn't. He just seems to be playing a caricature. Perhaps too many years cruising through Lie To Me are starting to take its toll. Which is a shame.

Because there's a comparison to be had between Miller and Roth's cop, Detective Michael Bryer. Both play by their own rules, and both are happy to do what ever it takes to get the result they need. Neither judges themselves by anyone's standards but their own.

Sadly, not enough is made of this, as Roth's character is operating in a different film - the gritty(ish) New York Cop flick, rather than the slick thriller Gere is orchestrating. It's to Gere's credit that Roth's performance is so willingly tolerated here (that's not to say it's bad, it's not. It just seems at odds with the rest of the movie).

Overall, Arbitrage was worth the wait. It's tense, fast-paced and gripping. Gere is on top form and the whole film just orbits around him wonderfully.

First time director Nicholas Jarecki may, at times, lose a bit of focus on what he's trying to achieve, but hell - if this is his starting point he's got one hell of a career ahead of him.

Now I'd better clear up that furball... 

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Stoker (18)

"Yay!" yelled Erica the work experience girl on hearing I was off to see Stoker.

"A film about the bloke who wrote Dracula - that should be cool!"

It may be, love, but that's not this. It's not even close. Carry on with the filing...

What Stoker is, in fact, is a chilling, suspense-filled, lush, beautiful, wonderful film that would have Hitchcock nodding in approval. If not applauding.

The story is deceptively simple - Richard Stoker has died on daughter India's 18th birthday. At the funeral, his brother Charlie appears, rocking the already upside-down world of India and her mother Evelyn. From here on in, all bets are off.

We know nothing of Charlie, little of Evelyn and nothing of Richard - leaving just the story to reveal the dark desires and twisted secrets of the adults in India's world. Of India, all we know is she has super-sensitive hearing.

And that's it.

What unfolds is dark, sinister, creepy, erotic, funny, creepy and brilliantly disturbed. And creepy.
As India, Mia Wasikowska steals the show - and rightly so. The story is told from her perspective, it's through her we see events unfold and the bodies pile up, and it's with her we come to realise what drives her burgeoning sexual desires.

It's a complex part to play, but Mia envelopes the many facets beautifully - capturing the sexual awakenings of a shy girl who is learning who and what she is to become. It's a measure of Mia's performance that you are on board from the off, never judging, always sympathising.

Opposite her is Matthew Goode, whose portrayal of Uncle Charlie should have him in the Thriller Hall Of Fame by the end of the week. Assuming there is one.

If there isn't, build one. He deserves it.

Having seen him just last week as the smooth-talking Stanley in Stephen Poliakoff's excellent Dancing On The Edge, his appearance here may perhaps have some added punch - but even if you didn't catch the BBC drama, you can't help but be spellbound by his sinister, calm, cold charm.

But this isn't just one couple going at it, oh no - it's a menage a trois, and Nicole Kidman isn't just sitting on the edge of the bed wondering where her night went wrong. As Evelyn, she perfectly captures the brittle fragility of a woman who's just lost everything only for the family secret to waltz through the door. Add this to her role in The Paperboy and Nicole has certainly started the year in style.

Essentially, the film feels like an erotic ballet - perfectly choreographed acts that build to a climax before subsiding ready for the next wave. The fact this is a glowing positive (when it could so easily have come across as stilted and crass) is down entirely to director Chan-wook Park, he of Oldboy fame.

A lot has been made of the fact this is his first English-language film, but frankly while it may be true it's irrelevant.

While Park (or Director Park as he is being referred to in interviews) may not speak English, he is fluent in the language of cinema, and he knows how to seduce an audience. From the outset, Stoker looks stylish - and the darker the film gets, the more lush and vibrant the film becomes.

Fans of Film 2013 will have already heard about the glorious hair-brushing scene, and rightly so, but there are other moments that equally grab you - India going through the cellar, India and Whip (the again excellent Alden Ehrenreich) running off through the moonlit woods, the art class, anything to do with the spiders, anything to do with the shoes....

The list is pretty lengthy.

However, it's not people that are the true stars of this film.

Yes, it's brilliantly directed. Yes, it's flawlessly acted. But it's the sound that's amazing. And in Stoker, that's vital.

As mentioned at the start, we're told from the off that India has exquisite hearing - and while this is a handy plot device, allowing her to hear things she shouldn't, and a great dramatic tool that adds to the suspense, what it also does is allow the sound of the film to almost become a character itself.

Throughout, everything is turned up just that little bit, so you notice them that little bit more. Cars going past, doors closing, spiders walking across floors, necks breaking (I have never squirmed, marvelled and delighted so much in a single cinematic moment ever), all have an added edge that just completes the picture, fuels the drama.

And when India is crushing egg shells, oh man...

It's funny how you rarely really notice sounds in films. They're there, they work, but unless someone fucks up you don't tend to think 'oh well done'. But you do in Stoker.

A lot.

Now, I'll admit, this film isn't for everyone.

If things going bang while people run about is your thing - and why not? - then GI Joe will be along shortly.

If however, you love wallowing in perfectly-paced, beautifully shot moving pictures that make you think as well as creeping you out, if erotic fear is your bag, you're going to just fall in love with this.

The highest praise I can give this film is that there were two people sitting near me who were eating the noisiest popcorn ever made, from a bubble-wrap paper bag I think, while chatting and kicking seats in the row in front of them (and, by default, my seat), and I was so swept up and lost in the film that I stopped noticing.

It was that good.

And just to be clear again - it has nothing to do with vampires.