Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (12A)

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

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

Which is where Hobbit 2 has caused me a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe she's adopted.

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

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

He really should have stuck to telling the story.

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

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

Let's find some positives.

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

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

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

Then there's Smaug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not the case here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Top 10 of 2013

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

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

It's what loving films is all about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Saving Mr Banks (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

With me so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Thompson captures this perfectly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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