Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Book Thief (12A)

Once upon a time, many moons ago, way back in the mists of time etc, a friend kept banging on about this book called The Book Thief.

It's amazing, she enthused, it's wonderful - read it now, if not sooner.

So I did as I was told.

I have no idea how it ended, because it was so tedious and over-written I decided there were better things I could be doing with my time. Like staring at my feet.

And yet, when the trailer for the film started doing the rounds, I was interested.

Just because the book - a much loved and lauded tome - was tedious as all hell, doesn't mean the film will turn out the same way.

Just look at The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

So it was with genuine interest and intrigue that I took my seat to see Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and some young slip of a girl called Sophie Nelisse, do their thing.

I was also curious following Danny Wossisface on Film 2014's bemoaning of how pretty and shiny the Holocaust looked.

Clearly he either saw a different film or missed the whole point.

For a start, this is not a film about the Holocaust.

It's the story of a little girl who discovers the joy of reading just at the time Hitler has decided a lot of books are bad and has them burnt.

Great timing, kid, you'll go far.

It's also a film told through the perspective of the aforementioned child (Liesel, played beautifully by Nelisse).

Amazingly, nine-year-old's don't tend to grasp the complexities of hatred, war and persecution. All she knows is there's a bloke in the basement who has to hide because people want to kill him.

That really is it.

Because, while this may be a story told over the period of The Second World War, it's not about the war.

It's about a girl growing up, making friends, making a difference to other people's lives, discovering hidden pleasures, sharing secrets... And Death.

Which is just one of the areas where the film starts to fall down.

Voiced by Roger Allam, Death narrates the whole tale - as he does in the book. But where as, in the book, his is a key role (apparently), in the film it's just confusing.

For a start, if you don't know Death is the narrator, you're unlikely to pick it up during the opening monologue.

You might if you're a Discworld fan, of course, as there's a clear influence here, but otherwise it's just a nice voice over.

The other problem is the other haracters.

While Rush and Watson are wonderful as Liesel's adoptive parents, everyone else is so paper thin there's every chance they could blow away.

This is supposed to be a close-knit community in a small town, and according to Mrs Popcorn (who actually finished the book), you get to know everyone as the book goes on.

Sadly here, we aren't given that luxury.

No backstory is provided to anyone, meaning we are left top wonder why - when reading is bad and books are to be burnt - the mayor's wife happily opens her library to a little girl.

There is also a problem with the point of the story.

While it's about all the things I've mentioned above, you don't come out of it feeling anymore than when you went in.

Now I'm sure fans of the book will disagree and happily bore me with what the point of it all was - but that's not the point. If you see what I mean.

The story meanders along, things happen, but you are never given any real sense of peril or drama. Even the air raid comes over like a rather dull office party in a shit venue.

Which is a real shame, because the central performances are so strong that they deserve more depth than this.

Much has been said of the fact director Brian Percival directed episodes of Downton Abbey - with the lazy conclusion being that's why it looks so polished.

But that is wide of the mark.

Instead, it explains why it feels so flimsy and the characters are so poorly drawn.

While he can make it look nice, Percival is clearly used to characters people already know and love.

And while that maybe the case for fans of the book, to make it work for a wider film audience more was needed.

Still, looks nice...

(Oh, and before I forget - Danny TV Film Critic Bloke Off The Telly was bemoaning the fact that when the little girl arrived in Germany, Watson's Rosa calls her dirty when she clearly isn't.


The point of that exchange is to tell us about Rosa. Sheesh.

And he gets paid to talk crap like that...)

Monday, 17 February 2014

The 2014 EE Baftas

And so another year, and another set of awards handed out to the richly deserved for a job well done - and this year, the winners really did feel deserved.

We had a man who had never acted before picking up a Best Supporting nod in a field awash with talent, we had an Oscar winner beating two other Oscar winners to a little gold mask... It's fair to say the field was a strong one.

A shame then, that Bafta chose to publish the results on their website before the general public got the chance to watch the excellent Stephen Fry introduce anything.

Seriously Bafta, if you're gpiong to flog the rights to your annual bean feast, then have the wit to realise that's where most of us want to learn who has won and lost.

Stephen Fry is pretty much the reason for watching, he makes the show what it is - and you go and undermine that by putting 'winner' in the relevant place online, meaning those of us tweeting our surprise have it ruined.

And then we have to spend more time than we want having a go at you about it, when we should be relaxing with our wine and olives (a man can't bog on popcorn alone).

Anyway, despite Bafta's best efforts, the night was still worth watching, if only for Cate Blanchett's acceptance speech.

Here's who won what:

Best Animation

Outstanding British Film

Best Original Screenplay
American Hustle

Outstanding British Debut
Kieran Evans for Kelly + Victor

Special Visual Effects

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lawrence

Best Adapted Screenplay

Outstanding Contribution To British Cinema
Peter Greenaway

Film Not In The English Language
The Great Beauty

Rising Star Award
Will Poulter

Best Documentary
The Act Of Killing

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett

Best Actor
Chiwetel Ejiofor

Best Film
12 Years A Slave

Bafta Fellowship
Dame Helen Mirren

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club (15)

The problem with a film that comes along with a lot of hype, buzz and awards broo-ha-ha is that, by the time you come to watching them, you're already figuring it just can't be THAT good.

We've seen it already this year with The Wolf Of Wall Street and Inside Llewyn Davis - good films, sure, but falling some way of the hype.

And now we have Dallas Buyers Club - a film I was itching to see the minute I heard the story.

Because it's a story that needs to be told.

Also, Matthew McConaughey was reportedly giving the performance of his life - which is no small claim given his recent work.

So it was with no small sense of trepidation that I took my seat.

And within minutes I knew all would be well.

The key to this film is McConaughey - and not just because he's playing Ron Woodruff, the homophobic bigot who formed the titular Club back in the 80s as a way of circumnavigating American drug laws to ensure those dealing with HIV and Aids could get treatment that would actually help.

Woodruff is not a nice guy. A rampant womaniser, he's almost leader of the militant wing of the heterosexual brigade - something which makes it all the harder for him to understand and accept his diagnosis.

HIV? That's a gay disease, right?

And yet, despite his deplorable character traits, you kinda don't hate him - and as you go on this journey with him, you warm to him all the more as he grows and changes as a human being.

And I know that sounds sappy, but trust me - it's not.

Key to Woodruff's personal development is Rayon, a drug addict transsexual (played sublimely by Jared Leto of 30 Seconds To Mars fame) who delights in putting up pictures of Marc Bolan all round the office.

The friendship that grows between these two is at the heart of the movie, and as the political commentary about the issues surrounding a business-led health service develops, so two does the strength of Ron and Rayon's relationship.

But this is no Broke Back Bromance. There's no changing teams here - that's not the point of the film. This is an underdog story, the little guy trying to do the right thing even if the system says it's wrong.

The fact this is a true story adds weight to the grit and realism that director Jean-Marc Vallee has brought to the screen. No sugar coating here.

Much has been made about how 'funny' Dallas Buyers Club is, and while it does have it's lighter moments this is in no way a light movie.

Along with Ron we have to face his condition, along with Rayon we have to face a world he doesn't fit in to, with Dr Eve (a strong performance by Jennifer Garner) we have to navigate murky moral waters - and we also have to face up to our own views and prejudices.

Like Ron, you may think HIV and Aids is limited to one small section of society, like me you may not react well to a life-changing diagnosis (well, extremely life limiting in Ron's case), but what this film tells you is that people can change and people can over-come just about anything.

Strangely, one of the things that really impressed me was just how determined a previously lazy bigot can be as Ron investigates and then tracks down alternative treatments.

It's no surprise that Dallas Buyers Club is bothering this year's Oscar nominations - the subject matter alone made it a shoe-in - but the two central performances of McConaughey and Leto are just so sublime that you almost want them to just hand over the gongs now.

And if we're really lucky, that may be enough to stop Leto making music...

This isn't to say Dallas Buyers Club is perfect, it's not. It's a tad too long and drags it's heels a bit in the final third almost as if Vallee decided two hours was the required Oscar length.

But that really is the only negative.

This is a challenging, thought-provoking film that manages to put heart and emotion first and in so doing take the edge off what could have been quite a bleak tale (Out Of The Furnace take note).

It also manages to cover the seedier, sleazier elements of the story with far more subtlety and finesse than The Wolf Of Wall Street. Not that that would have been tricky.

This film will make you sad, it will make you cry, it should make you angry - but above all that, it will re-affirm your belief in Hollywood's ability to tell a tale so well that you're still thinking about it days after.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Out Of The Furnace (15)

Life can, as many a country and western song will tell you, be tough. Sometimes very tough.

Other times, it's Out Of The Furnace tough. And it doesn't get tougher than that.

And that's just watching it.

If you've missed the Oscar-hype and blurbing, Out Of The Furnace tells the tale of Christian Bale's Russell - a man with much to live for and a younger brother with a few problems.

Unfortunately, Russell finds himself behind bars after a fatal car crash where one final drink may have been a factor.

He returns to the outside world to find his father dead, his girl shacked up with the local cop and his brother - fresh from a final tour of duty in Iraq - engaging in illegal fights just to pay off his debts.

And then things get worse...

Infused with the DNA of Clint Eastwood (although he's not actually anything to do with it), Out Of The Furnace has things to say about life in a small town, soldiers who aren't cared for when they come home and people who have nothing to lose after losing everything.

And it does it slowly, thoughtfully, and with lots of gravelly voices mumbling. So you know it's serious,

On the upside, and it's a huge up, the film looks amazing, and the cast (also featuring Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepherd, Zoe Saldana and Forest Whitaker) are all excellent.

The film forces you to confront truths certain parts of America would probably rather ignore - that in certain parts of the country, people are being left with nothing. And soldiers are coming home to less than that.

And it's not subtle in making these points.

Sadly, after an initial flurry and gripping moments and a couple of jumps, Furnace cools to a steady pace - and it's not quick.

That's not to say the film drags - and at two hours, it's not exactly long - but the pace is so consistent that moments of tension and drama kind of wander by before you've spotted their coming.

But that's the only real negative. Apart from the ending.

It's not a light watch - not by any stretch - but it does make you think. To the extent you feel like you've lived it alongside Bale (who should be up for this at the Oscars, not American Hustle).

There are no light touches here - it's dark, heavy, gritty and grinds on relentlessly, with the soundtrack capturing the working man done wrong ethos.

But that's no reason to avoid it.

Well, probably not.

My only major issue was the ending. There's no rousing conclusion, no sense of justice, of wrongs being righted - just that everything is final. Stuff ends. And so does this.

Which is a shame, because after two hours of this, you kinda need a lift. And a drink. But certainly a lift.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Lone Survivor (15)

Here at Unsalted Popcorn, we have one hard and fast rule - no spoilers.

We have other rules, of course, like no talking when the film is on, no diving in the shallow end, all the usual - but the biggie is no spoilers.

Which makes reviewing Lone Survivor a tad tricky. The clue's in the title.

And just in case you missed that fact, the opening scene has them fighting to save Mark Wahlberg's life. The opening scenes.

This is the one time I'd suggest you go in five minutes after the film has started.

Such issues aside, however, and even though you know what's coming and who comes out of it all at the end, Lone Survivor is a surprisingly tense film.

Telling the true story of Operation Red Wing, one of the less successful operations in Afghanistan, Lone Survivor is both a recruitment campaign for Navy Seals and an anti-war film.

Which is a neat trick to pull off.

Opening and closing with real-life footage and photographs of real-life Navy Seals, including the men who died during the operation, the film is basically a Western in the middle section as our heroes are trapped in a ravine fighting against the odds.

And it's this main section of the film that is the winner.

Putting you right in the heart of the action, you'll find yourself edging forward in your seat long before the gang of four leap to safety for the first time - hitting just about every rock on the way down.

Peter Berg's direction has you feeling every bullet whizz past, every rocket that lands just feet away, and as the situation gets more and more impossible, your heart rate will start accelerating.

In fact, you'll get so caught up in the fighting, that you almost forget who it is who survives.

Which makes it such a shame that both the opening 20 minutes (Seals at play, if you will) and the final 20 minutes (Wahlberg continues to fight against all the odds) are almost surplus to requirements.

We don't need to spend time getting to know the four Seals, as we do all that when they're under fire - and we don't need to see Wahlberg's Marcus Luttrel fighting yet again for his life, because by now we've remembered the one who's left and we know he survives.

But in the middle there...

The performances are good, that's for sure - with Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster all holding their own alongside Wahlberg.

The stand-out performance, however, has to be Eric Banner's.

Already known for being a great actor, with ease he outclasses Wahlberg with his subtle strength and poise. Which either highlights his skills, or Wahlberg's limitations.

But, and I keep coming back to this, the actual operation is brilliant.

You wince as the soldiers leap, dive and fall down mountain sides, you squirm as they treat their wounds, you gasp when the cavalry arrives - it's a brilliant mini-war film sandwiched amongst the propaganda.

Sadly, though, it is the film's main agenda that takes the shine off what could have been a stunning war drama.

By going down the 'our brave boys' route, the film actually dampens the admiration you have for what our soldiers have been going through out there.

We know it's been tough, we know they've been doing some amazing things in horrendous conditions, but by yanking on the heart strings you're left feeling manipulated rather than having your own, genuine feelings.

But the fight scenes. Wow.