Friday, 28 June 2013

Stand Up Guys (15)

Supergroups are a funny thing - for every Cream, there's an ELP; for every Contraband (don't worry, no one has - go look 'em up) there's a Them Crooked Vultures. They are the very epitome of hit and miss.

So it is with their celluloid equivalents. Someone somewhere said 'do you know what would be good? A film with Al Pacino, Christopher Walken AND Alan Arkin' and no one pointed out what the key ingredients needed to be. A good script and a good director.

You see, in the case of Cream you had three gifted musicians with a clear sense of purpose and direction. With Contraband, you had Tracii Guns. (What? Seriously? Oh fer... Go look him up), who may be many things but gifted and blessed with a clear sense of purpose aren't two of them.

Now, in Stand Up Guys' defence, it has the basis of a good idea - Walken puts Pacino up after the latter is released from prison. Granted he's under instructions to kill Pacino's Val but for now they're just old friends remembering the good old days. Later, they'll liberate Alan Arkin from his care home and go hoofing it about in a stolen car. It should be a blast.

And it looks fine. It may be billed as a comedy while looking like a gritty crime thriller (all moody lighting and meetings in dingy diners), but while you're not laughing or being thrilled you can appreciate there is a style at play here. At odds with what's happening on screen, sure, but it's style nonetheless.

Which brings us to the first of the problems. Stand Up Guys is directed by Fisher Stevens, mainly known for being 'oh it's that guy from...' and now handed the reigns for his first full-length feature film. And he's working with Noah Haidle, himself making his full-length debut as a writer. So two novices, setting out together, full of ideas.

Marvellous, but we needed one good one.

At times, Haidle is trying to emulate Tarantino - only with old people. There is a scene where Walken and Pacino are discussing how to get blood stains out of a suit. It's a geriatric Pulp Fiction (what would that be? Mush Fiction?), only without the zing and flair. Then there's the burial scene. In more experienced hands it's black comedy gold. Here, it's almost played for schmaltz, leaving you unsure as to what you should - never mind what you actually are - feeling.

So, it looks nice but is a bit of a mess. Worst films have made it on to the big screen. At least this has got three giants of the industry to pull it out of the mire, right?


Now, as anyone who has been paying attention knows Pacino hasn't made a decent film since Any Given Sunday. Which was 1999. Since then he's been cashing the cheques and trading on his reputation without putting in any great effort (did you see his Shylock? And no, that's not a euphemism). And here is no different. He basically figured out Val's walk and thought 'job done, time for lunch'.

Then we have Walken - an actor I admire and like. But here, he's struggling. Clearly given no great sense of direction, he's left hedging his bets between sinister and frail - and misses both. That's not to say he's bad - he's not. He's just OK.

Then we have Arkin. Now, granted he's made some crap over the years - but when he's good, he's good. Argo. Little Miss Sunshine. We know what the man can do.

Well, it turns out he can also amble through a poorly-drawn role without breaking sweat. Again, it's not his fault. He does what he can with what he's given. He just wasn't given enough.

And then we have the more peripheral characters.

Julianna Margulies is given very little to do as Arkin's daughter Nina, yet still manages to outshine whoever she's on screen with, while Mark Mogolis' Claphands (the man who wants Pacino's Val dead) is a caricature of a caricature. Addison Timlin, meanwhile, is wonderfully sweet as waitress Alex. So sweet, in fact, it feels like she's been borrowed from a totally different film. Again, not her fault.

But all of these acting issues pale into insignificance when put up against Lucy Punch. On the small screen, in the right role, Lucy's OK. But she's not a film actress. And she can't do accents. Certainly not American ones. But that's OK - only a fool would cast her as a Yank when Hollywood is full of ones who talk like that naturally.


Like Daisy Haggard in Episodes, the accent is an inverted Dick Van Dyke while the character serves no apparent purpose. There is a back story alluded to but never expanded on (a writing issue), but the accent and lack of acting is all her own work. And it's a whole new level of terrible. To the point Pacino looks good next to her.

So why didn't I hate this film? It's hard to engage with, the actors don't look like they want to be there or even working with each other, and the writer and director couldn't work out between them what sort of film they wanted to make. It's not a comedy, I laughed once, and robbing a drug store for some viagra doesn't make it a crime caper. Nor does punching a specifically Korean janitor. Mildly racist, sure, but not a crime caper.

I think it's because I didn't resent spending time watching it. Hardly a ringing endorsement, granted, but given some of the bilge Hollywood sees fit to throw at the world, that's a positive.

The relationship between Walken's Doc and Timlin's Alex works well, and there is one single moment of emotion-tugging, so that just about drags it back from the brink of very bad. Leaving it at 'not that good', granted, but it could have been worse.

We could have had more of Punch's brothel madam...

Friday, 21 June 2013

World War Z (15)

There are pluses and minuses to doing the film of a popular book - on the upside you have a ready-made audience, but on the downside you've got an army of people with very high expectations...

So it is with World War Z (that's Zed. Not Zee. So there). The hype has been building as those who loved the work of Max Brooks await the visual feast of his finely-honed words.

Those of us who were less enamoured of the book were still intrigued as to how a series of interviews about a virus outbreak that creates a kind of zombie could be turned into a coherent, engaging film. Well, quite easily it turns out.

The story centres around Gerry Lane (played by the top notch Brad Pitt, who's production company has brought World War Z to the big screen), a retired UN blokie who still has friends in high places. Friends who can help when the zombie poop hits the fan - but at a price. That price being you've got to  go find what started it.

And thus, we have a movie.

Mr Lane has to go to South Korea, Israel and finally Wales in an effort to solve the mystery and find a cure. Along the way he'll run from many infected souls, inadvertently cause the destruction of a secure compound, run some more and have a drink.

While all this is going on, his wife Karin is stuck on a ship in the Atlantic. Which is a shame, because Mireille Enos is a fine actress. But here, the star of the American version of The Killing is asked to do nothing more than look worried, answer the phone and nap. That's it. Put a wig on me and I could do it.

To be fair, she gets to spend the first 20 minutes racing about and looking terrified and fretting about the children, but once they hit the boat that's it. A cardboard cut-out could have done what she's asked to do. Which is frankly a waste.

And the opening 20 minutes are good. It's fast-paced, tense and genuinely gripping. The fear sweeping across America is palpable and you daren't look away as the virus takes hold and people are transformed before your eyes.

It's once the family are on the boat that we hit problems.

The set-up itself is believable - Gerry being emotionally blackmailed to do what has to be done for the greater good as the world's death toll rises (we know it's rising, there's a digital counter on a big screen). There are just a few too many WTF moments.

Sent to South Korea to start his investigation, he finds a link to Israel. So he decides to fly to Israel. At a time when the world is in panic mode and filling a plane is more than a tad risky, no one raises any problems, any issues. He's found a pilot, the plane is fuelled and he's off while you sit there shaking your head.

And Israel is also a problem. Political subtexts aside (and they're not subtle), Gerry has already learnt that to keep the Manky Dreadfuls (if you haven't read Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, you should) at bay, it helps to keep quiet. The fact he fails to mention this to his contact has consequences. Massive consequences. And the digital body count counter almost explodes.

But on we go, more WTF moments whizz by (yes, the infected may be flesh-hungry crazies, but they can still keep quiet in an aeroplane toilet it seems) and we land in Wales. Itself a massive WTF moment. But go with it, because here things pick up again as Gerry dodges more zombiefied cretins in a bid to find a cure.

And he has a drink.

Now, I've seen a lot of films, so I understand about product placement - but even to someone who has seen more than his fair share of Bond films there is a moment that almost made me stand up and just shout "OH COME ON". I won't spoil it for you, but you'll know it when it happens. And then you'll want a Pepsi (no other soft drinks are available, it seems).

But, gripes aside, it's a good film. Not great. Not deep and thought provoking, but it's entertaining enough. As long as you don't mind not really being able to follow a lot of the fight scenes (too dark, too blurry, too much of everything - good luck with those bits if you choose the 3D option), then your two-and-a-bit hours will pass by pleasantly enough. Just don't ask too many questions.

Sure the ending will have you choking on the extra large serving of cheese while you wonder what the hell happened to the girl Gerry took with him from Israel (Segen, played by the excellently understated Daniella Kertesz), but your subliminal desire for a Pepsi might help you wash all that away.

Oh, a quick after thought - there will undoubtedly be a debate about how fast the infected can move, with the more traditional zombiests pointing out the undead can't shift like Usain Bolt. It's a good point, but it helps to remember this lot are infected by a virus, and so are not zombies in the more traditional sense. Think of them more in terms of 28 Days Later and less Night Of The Living Dead. It should help.

Pepsi anyone?

Friday, 14 June 2013

Man Of Steel (12A)

You've got to feel a bit sorry for DC Comics, who have struggled over the years bringing their superheroes to the big screen.

Batman was obviously a cult classic in the 60s, but great cinema it wasn't - and things only improved when Tom Burton took the reigns. Sadly, that didn't last long and before we knew it Alicia Silverstone in black PVC wasn't enough to save us from Arnie and Uma Thurman.

Then along came Christopher Nolan, and that all changed. Unfortunately, then Marvel took control of their own film operations and before we know it Avengers have Assembled all over the planet. DC was back out in the cold.

Their only other hero capable of challenging Marvel's superiority was Superman - who has had his own issues on the silver screen. Christopher Reeve made himself and those red pants household names in the 80s, even managing a bloody good sequel. Then there was Superman III, which wasn't the worst of the films because they made Superman IV.

Then there was Superman Returns, where people wished he hadn't.

So who could save us? Who was out there to do a Whedon and create a franchise that would become a by-word for ginormous success?

Zack Snyder. Of course.

OK, he's the man that made Watchmen boring, made 300 camper than Liberace in a tutu and gave us Suckerpunch - schoolgirls in schoolgirl outfits with swords. And somehow managing to make THAT dull.

Thankfully, Christopher Nolan was brought in as executive producer, so there was some hope that Snyder wouldn't Zack this one up.

Not much, but some.

Now, as the excellent Dr Kermode blogged the other day, critics don't go into films wanting to hate it. We don't rock up assuming a film will be terrible, hoping to be proved right. We don't.

So, despite my feelings about Snyder's back catalogue, Man Of Steel should be good. The character has history, a huge fanbase, and a place in many people's hearts. Of course, that can be a poisoned chalice, but hey...

Now, any superhero film stands and falls on two things - the actor, and the costume. The clothes, in this particular universe, really do maketh the man. These characters are born on the page in graphic novels - the very epitome of a visual medium. So, stuff up the outfit and you're dead in the water.

And here, they've dodged that bullet. The costume is darker, sure, and the red pants are now being worn on the inside, but that's no bad thing in this day and age - Man Of Steel's clobber is up to snuff.

And so too is Jersey boy Henry Cavill (that's the British tax haven off France, not New Jersey), star of The Tudors and a Midsomer Murder. He manages to encapsulate perfectly the angst of an alien in a strange land and the inner calm - steel, if you will - of a man who knows he could literally kill you with a look.

And Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as his earth parents are excellent, wonderfully capturing the essence of two people who adopted an alien child and sheltered him from the world while helping him come to terms with his 'differences'. Of course, it helps a bit that said alien happens to come from a planet of people who look like us, but that's something to take up with DC Comics...

Sadly, not all the performances are of the same calibre. Amy Adams - an actress I love - struggles to be battle-hardened journalist Lois Lane. Granted she's not helped by some of her dialogue (she's won awards for her coverage of troops in the field, can talk to colonels with macho vernacular, yet asks where she can 'tinkle'. And don't get me started on the bit where she tells her editor she's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist), but she's just too damn sweet and nice. To say she lacks conviction is an understatement.

And we have Russell Crowe - playing Superman's dad. Granted this is far from his worst performance, but he comes across on screen as a man who's just been handed the words with no sense of who the character actually is. His reading is fine, but there's a distinct lack of character. And given we know that he can act, you've got to think that was a director issue.

Then there's Michael Shannon as Zod - the evil general from Super's home planet of Krypton who seriously loves his work. Zod is a colossus, a man (well, alien, but you take my point) who exudes menace. Only that doesn't come across here. This time around, Zod is a bit cross, a man (alien) who can't find his lucky mug on match day. And his team of hench persons (aliens) just look nonplussed.

And the story is fine - it's the one we all know. Bad things happen on Krypton, Zod is punished, Super becomes Clarke Kent and grows up in Kansas, never meets Dorothy, Zod escapes, finds Earth, finds Clarke, battle commences. Nowt wrong there at all.

So, we have some winners and some losers. A bit of a mixed bag, but on balance the positives outweigh the negatives so far.

But then we get to the actual nuts and bolts of the film - the direction, the shooting, the musical score, the glue that holds the whole lot together. And that's where it all goes a bit south.

Now, as mentioned, Snyder has made a few dull movies in his time, but that doesn't happen here. Oh no. Because there isn't time to get bored. The camera never stands still. It's like Baz Luhrmann on speed. There are only two or three moments (one of them a lovely shot of a polar bear) in the whole film - and it's a LONG film - where Snyder actually allows the camera to linger. And they're welcome respites from the deluge of images you have to try and process. This film really needs slowing down in places, just to allow the audience to have a rest.

Especially as there is no respite to be had from the score. Hans Zimmer clearly zoned in on the barrage of stuff and decided it needed to be louder. There is one fight scene where the sounds of Kryptonians hitting each other with concrete is actually added to by the score. It's like being shouted at and hit at the same time.

Driving home from the cinema I stuck Metallica on in the car, just for some peace and quiet. Writing this now, I have The Bronx's fourth album going full blast and that is still quieter than Man Of Steel.

Then there's the tone of the film. While Batman has always been the dark, Gothic hero, Super's always been the bright and breezy boy Scout American hero. He's the smiling one where Bats always scowls.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see that particular cornerstone of the Superman heritage get thrown out the window. Not only is the costume darker, but the whole tone is more aligned to Nolan's Batman trilogy. Now, personally, I don't have a problem with that - but I suspect I'm in the minority. As my comic book guru pointed out, there is one hell of a body count. Given the final fights take place in the centre of Metropolis, and all the skyscrapers would have been full of people before they all came tumbling down, there's unlikely to be many people left to rebuild the place.

And there's another bit that'll make devotees sit up and spill their sweeties, but we can't talk about that bit. Bit of a shock though. Certainly not what you'd call 'in character'...

Even with all that was wrong with it though - even though every fight scene was a blur (I pity those of you who donned 3D specs for this one) - I didn't hate it. I actually liked the changes. It needed to be quieter, but it was still OK. And there's even a bit that has real emotional impact. Genuinely.

It doesn't compare to the work Nolan did with his Gotham trilogy, and Marvel are still out in front in terms of bringing the very essence of a comic book universe to the screen (Mr Whedon might want to speak to his lawyers about the final fight scene too. Although imitation is the sincerest form of flattery...), but given what he's done before, Zack Snyder did OK.

Not great, sure, but OK. It should lay the foundations for the franchise DC and Warner are hoping for.

Once they've rebuilt Metropolis, obviously.

Behind The Candelabra (15)

There was a bit of a 'do' over at the old National Media Museum recently, in which the great and good of the local press and blogger community (and us) were invited over to see the revamped facilities, a couple of exhibitions, and see a film.

Typically, life got in the way, and the residents of Popcorn Towers had to send apologies. But never ones to hold a grudge, the good people at the Museum said not to worry, just pop over and see a film another time and we'll show you around.

Because they're nice like that.

Which makes the news that the museum may have to close because of funding problems all the more galling. Not only will Bradford - and the rest of the UK - lose a major attraction, an important cultural landmark and the home of a very successful film festival, but good people who's love of their job shines through on a daily basis will be made redundant.

Now, despite all the evidence, I remain confident... optimistic... hopeful... pretty sure that even Cameron's not a big enough douche bag to see three (York Railway Museum and Manchester's Museum Of Science And Industry are also under threat) cultural institutions go to the wall. This is the man who has championed gay marriage - he wants to be remembered for the good stuff, not for all the elitist, privileged and moneyed crap we will remember him for...

But still, if we've learnt one thing in the past few years it's that you can't trust the Tories, and if you're banking on the Lib Dems being the voice of reason you're going to be left bitter and resentful. And Labour are still waiting to formulate a policy. Not on the museums, just any policy...

So, we're left with people power. Be a love and pop over here and sign the petition those nice people at 38 Degrees have set up. At least then you'll know you did your bit, which is all we can ask. And then this weekend, pop over to the National Media Museum. It's ace. And the food in the revamped cafe is lovely. Staff are great too.

Right, lecture over, time for a film...

I'd been looking forward to Behind The Candelabra since seeing the trailer - it just looked big, flash, extravagant and hugely flamboyant. Which is what you want when you're doing the story of Liberace, one of the biggest stars in history.

The story is less about Liberace, however, and more about Scott Thorson, the young animal trainer living with foster parents who gets picked up in a bar one night and before you know it is the apple of Liberace's eye.

And it's important to remember from whose perspective the story is being told. It'll come up again later...

The first thing you have to say about Behind The Candelabra is that Michael Douglas is amazing as Liberace (I was going to say Douglas nailed Liberace, but there may be legal implications...). He's got the walk, he's got the talk, and bugger me if he hasn't only learnt how to play the piano. Clearly not a man to waste time when he should be resting up recovering from cancer.

The second thing you have to say about BTC is that Matt Damon is also amazing as Scott Thorson. A lesser actor might have been overwhelmed by the prospect of going head-to-head with Douglas in full fur coat mode, but Damon holds his own and then some.

Both are clearly pulling out all the stops, and have a very clear idea of who their character is and where he's heading.

Which is more than can be said for director Steven Soderbergh. Now, I know he's got a chequered CV (for every Erin Brockovich there's a The Girlfriend Experience). Granted he may have known what it was he was doing, but it would be nice if occasionally he let the audience in on the plan. This is one of his films where he seems happy to step back, adopting a more voyeuristic approach which unfortunately gives the film something of a detached air. That's not necessarily a negative, but it did leave me struggling to engage with the film more, which I wanted to do given how strong the two leads were.

And then there's the odd choice of shots for no reason - in particular the blurred plane bit as Scott heads home for a family funeral. Utterly pointless, serving only to make you sit up in your seat wondering if someone has just switched films on you.

And the ending still has me wondering if that was an idea that was joked about but they forgot to take it out.

And you could take a lot out of BTC. As a TV movie (as it is in the States) with ad breaks it'll be fine, but in a small cinema (the Cubby Broccoli, you should go see a film there) it's just too damn long. I'm sure Liberace would get a kick out of being described as too long, but on this occasion it's not a good thing.

The one thing Soderbergh gets spot on is the period feel of the film. Starting off in 1977 and moving through to the mid-80s, the film actually feels like it was shot at the time and has aged over the years, giving it that slightly faded, grainy quality. Which works well.

Doesn't sit so smoothly alongside the starkly-lit scenes depicting Scott's periods of cocaine abuse. Again, nothing wrong with the scenes, it just feels like it was an idea for another film, which distracts from the piece as a whole.

I also wanted more of Liberace's nasty side. He was clearly a man you didn't cross, but Douglas does so well painting him as the camp lover of life that when it's time to turn on the snarl it's not quite vicious enough.

Oh and did we need the plastic surgery shots? Really? They're not that graphic on ER...

One final negative - the film ends up having the feel of a bit of a hatchet job by Scott. It's based on his book, it's his story, and he's clearly never forgiven Liberace for what went down because the moment when Scott is asked to respect the memory of the famously vain Vegas star is there, on the screen, for all to see. And that felt wrong.

We'd already seen how cruel and manipulative 'Lee' (as his friends called him) could be, was that enough? Did we need to have Scott kicking him one more time? Maybe they were staying faithful to the book, maybe Soderbergh decided it needed adding in (Bzzzz, wrong answer), but it shifted the tone of the whole film.

All that said, it's not a bad film. The first half is big on the laughs, and Douglas and Damon are clearly having a blast acting together. And what could have been cheap, tawdry sex scenes are handled with intelligent finess (which, rather unfortunately, just serves to put the wonky moments more in the spotlight).

Rob Lowe, as plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz, is brilliant, infusing his part with an alien quality befitting of a man who's had so much work done he probably can't remember what he used to look like. And Dan Ackroyd is in it. Looking slightly puzzled as Liberace's lawyer, but it's nice to see him on the screen again.

This film raises more questions than it answers, though, and some of the more peripheral characters are left there - half-formed, but providing no reason as to why they were in Liberace's life in the first place. When playing for laughs, they're fine, but the switch to the darker tone as the relationship starts to break down is so sharp and sudden you can almost hear wheels screeching.

Still, a film worth seeing if only for Douglas and Damon. And Lowe. And if Douglas doesn't get an Oscar for this, I'll eat Snowy's hat. (OK, she doesn't have a hat. Bandana then.)

So go see it. Ideally at the National Media Museum before some Tory halfwit does something stupid...

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Byzantium (15)

It's weird how life can imitate art in the oddest of moments.

Take this evening. Having watched Byzantium at a nearby World Of Cine, we paused for a bite to eat at an American-style diner that thinks it's always almost the weekend. In taking us to our table, the young lady took us on the "scenic" route before finally getting us to where we wanted to be.

This mirrored Byzantium almost perfectly - young person (16 going on 200) takes us the long way round before the film you've been waiting for finally turns up.

Spooky. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Byzantium looks, on paper, like it should be great. Mother-daughter vampire combo survive through the years by relying on the world's oldest profession (which raises a question - which came first, the vampire or the prostitute?) and an ability to do one at short notice.

It's directed by Neil Jordan, and he's good - he did The Crying Game. OK, he also did Interview With The Vampire, but we can put the blame there on Tom Cruise and move on. He also did The Company Of Wolves and Michael Collins. So that's a safe pair of hands if ever there was.

It stars Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hannah, the only reason to watch The Host) and Gemma "former Bond Girl" Arterton (who was stunning in The Disappearance Of Alice Creed, and managed to escape Hansel & Gretal - Witch Hunters with her reputation intact). Johnny Lee Miller puts in a good turn as the sleazy git who puts Arterton's Clara on her road to ruin and Tom Hollander is again delightfully understated. Then there's Daniel Mays (star of the recent Welcome To The Punch) as the poor Noel, who has an interesting approach to grieving but is a good bloke at heart.

So that's all good. Two important factors in place right there. And neither can be faulted. Arterton's performance is wonderful, while Ronin's is beautifully measured. In fact there's not a single bad performance here.

And it looks stunning. Some of the shots when Clara and Ronin's Eleanor are on the run take your breath away and the clear tonal shift between Clara's more colourful life and Eleanor's more drab, insular take on the world is both clearly marked and welcome. Equally the grit and grime of the small seaside town where the pair flee too having torched their London 'flat' is so visceral and tangible you can almost feel your hands dirtying as you watch.

So the pieces are all in place. We're good to go. All we need is a good script.

Which is where things start to fall down.

Starting out life as a play - A Vampire Story - author Moira Buffini has taken charge of screenplay duties here, which I suspect is part of the problem. Coming in at a whisker under two hours, Byzantium is not only a long film but it feels a lot longer. And so much stock is put in to Eleanor's teenage angst (which, to be fair, is understandable - she's been 16 for 200 years), as she attempts to tell the one story she's forbidden to tell (how she came to be) that by the time the real drama arrives it's a struggle to care.

And that's a real shame, because the final act is wonderful - gripping, fast-paced and violent as The Brotherhood (those in charge of the whole Thumb Brigade) arrive to clear up Clara's mess. In fact, the mother-daughter relationship aside for a mo, this is the real heart of the piece and is what the film should have been about - our two heroines on the run from a misogynistic bunch of blood suckers. This is where the real drama and tension lies, not in Eleanor constantly writing her life story just to throw it all away. Every day.

The mother-daughter relationship is, of itself, complicated and convoluted (you try being a young single mum for 200 years) without having any real depth. As a survival technique Clara ignores yesterday and focuses on tomorrow, which, while a handy coping mechanism, robs the audience of any chance to get to grips with two women who have been relying on each other for so long.

We get to know their full story, sure, but the emotional aspects are somewhat lacking - and there must be some real meat on those bones. This is very much Eleanor's story, but any resentment she may have towards the woman who made a massive decision for her is strangely lacking.

As a stage play, none of that probably matters. You've got 90 minutes to tell a story and the only medium you have is dialogue. Film has the advantage of using moving images and close-ups to explain back story, feelings, emotions and whatnot. Fail to utilise that and you get, well, this.

And that's the real shame of Byzantium. It always seems to be wanting to be deep, meaningful and worthy when, underneath, a brilliant sleazy vampire flick is waiting to burst out. And you could have both, it just needs re-writing and re-editing. That's all.