Saturday, 26 December 2015

Snoopy And Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie

I used to love - and in fact still do - Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

I grew up with the newspaper strips, I got the books for Christmas and birthdays, I watched the cartoons on TV.

I wanted to be Joe Cool, I wanted to pay my nickel and talk to Lucy in her booth, I wanted to watch Schroeder play the piano, I wanted to hang with Peppermint Patty.

So it was with no small delight that the news of the first Peanuts film in 35 years was greeted by this jaded former youth.

I've missed Charlie Brown and his eternal optimism. I've missed Woodstock. I've missed Snoopy and his myriad personalities.

And I'd kind of forgotten just how big an impact Mr Schulz had with his little world of children trying to deal with grown-up problems.

Without him, you wouldn't have Calvin and Hobbes. And I don't want to live in a world without those two.

So, I was a bit giddy about this.

It's just a shame the film didn't live up to expectations.

In a way, that's almost poetic - if anyone embodies life not being what we want and hope, it's Charlie Brown.

But it's taken me a while to actually wrap my head around what the problem is.

The fact they've used Bill Melendez's original Snoopy and Woodstock voice recordings is a nice touch, and you have all the characters you love doing all the things you loved them doing.

And Charlie Brown faces every dilemma and foe we remember, so that's all good.

It's the drawings.

Modern and up-to-date animation adds a gloss and sheen and - dare I say it - a positivity that is at odds with the more down-beat source material.

It also causes some unnecessary conflict - the animation is very child-friendly, but the story itself isn't.

But this isn't laugh-out-loud funny. The comic strips never where. It's understated, raising wry smiles.  Kids aren't big on wry smiles as a rule.

You could probably live with the animation if there wasn't a quick flashback bit in the original black and white. In that moment, you remember what you loved and what isn't sitting so well now.

You could also, probably, live with it if they hadn't a) given Snoopy more cartoonish expressions and 2) given him actual fur. I'm not used to seeing Snoopy's fur...

And if ever you didn't want a film in 3D...

Overall, this isn't a bad film. It has everything you want, it has everyone you want.

It just isn't the film you want.

You want more downbeat failings, you want Charlie Brown to trudge more, you want more Joe Cool.

Instead, you get every character Schulz ever created thrown at the screen (do they all have agents?) and then polished.

And it's very hard to have empathy for a polished Charlie Brown.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Bridge Of Spies (12A)

I'm seriously beginning to wonder why they bother with trailers.

Take Bridge Of Spies for example, a film I was expecting to be a tense Cold War thriller. The poster kind of adds to this.

What you get is quite different, which isn't a bad thing but I could have done without spending the opening 20 minutes frantically readjusting my expectations as the real story revealed itself.

Because, once you get past the initial tense 'spy' stuff, what you've actually got is Tom Hanks playing a man trying to do the right thing in a world where such things don't matter.

Which doesn't make it a bad film, but it does make it a very different one.

For those who've missed the build-up, Bridge Of Spies tells the real-life tale of James B Donovan, an insurance lawyer who gets persuaded to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) against spying charges.

This being the Cold War era, it's a thankless task as his guilt is presumed.

So what unfolds is the story of a man trying to do what's been asked of him in a system that doesn't want to help or work for him.

And, in this, there's a really good film.

It's just not a spy film.

Instead, it's a story of the relationship between Hanks and Rylance, the struggles Hanks' character has with his decision to take the case, the impact on his family...

It's a story of friendship and relationships.

And it's told really, really well.

It helps that Rylance is able to go toe-to-toe with Hanks, thus stopping him from taking over the whole film (something you only notice when Rylance is not on screen and you realise no one else can match the Hankster).

The two central performances are really good, with Rylance's subtle, underplayed character a perfect foil for Hanks' more passionate approach.

To be honest, everyone else is entirely secondary - including Alan Alder, who seems to have just popped in on his afternoon off and is simply enjoying hanging out with Tom.

And, this being Spielberg, the story is captured well.

It's got the right feel for the era, the time in Berlin (just as the wall is going up) feels as cold and frozen as the weather, while the more action-y scenes do grip you.

Where the film falls down, however, is the story itself.

Intertwining the Russian spy with the American pilot the Yanks want back works OK - which is just as well, given it's what actually happened.

But there's a third strand which, while again being entwined and a case of historical record, actually feels bolted on as an afterthought.

There are four main characters at play, but the fourth is given precious little screen time, very little back story and the outcome is neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things.

In fact you could have ignored it all together and not lost anything from the film.

Which may seem harsh when the bloke's still alive (I'm not naming him, 'cos that might be a little spoilery) but when his part in the story is kind of key to Donovan's later roles either give him the depth his character needs or just ignore him.

The half measure helps no one.

The film is also too long. To the point that the second half feels like you've started watching a second film. And once you've cleared two hours, you're just willing it to be over.

Not because it's not good, but because you feel like you've walked to Berlin while Hanks flew there.

Which is a shame, because in feeling like you've been dragged over and through the Berlin Wall twice, you can overlook some of the great things this film has to offer.

For a start, it's funny.

In dealing with a dark and potentially terrifying subject (America was living in genuine fear of nuclear war at this point), writers Ethan and Joel Coen (yup, they) and Matt Charman have injected some nice touches of humour.

Key to these is Rylance, who delivers simple lines so perfectly that you find yourself almost laughing before he delivers the phrase "would it help?" as the film progresses.

And for once Hanks isn't trying to fill every scene.

At times it can be easy to forget that he can actually be a subtle actor, and here he allows the story to breathe and flow around him rather than dominating proceedings.

It's just a shame it's so damn long and convoluted.

For a story of the past, Bridge Of Spies has something to say about the world we live in now - with paranoia over strangers and Governments using people for the "greater good" at it's heart.

And it's held together by the brilliant central performances of Ryland and Hanks.

It's just not the spy thriller you're expecting.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A)

First there was fear - fear that the distant, loving memory of a trilogy many of us grew up with would be further tarnished.

Then there was hope - hope that, having done a good job with Star Trek, JJ Abrams would restore the Star Wars universe to where it should be.

Not where George Lucas left it when he gave the world Jar Jar Binks and Hayden Christensen.

So it's not without some trepidation that you take your seat.

Then the screen goes dark.

Then the music starts.

Then the oh-so-familiar text appears on the screen.

And you start to relax.

This could actually be OK.

But it's not OK.

It's better than that.

So, so much better.

From the opening scenes, you know JJ has got it right. This is a film made with love and reverence for the source material.

We already know some old characters are going to be appearing (thankfully episodes one, two and three happened so long ago in Star Wars years everyone is now dead), but what of the new characters?

Will they be up to snuff?

Yup, they got that bang on too. Even with BB-8, the little orange and white droid fella, who manages to portray more emotion in this one film than Christensen managed in three.

And so it goes on with every passing scene.

Some places are new, some references are old, but across every frame you feel the warmth and comfort of home.

This is where we were meant to go next. Not backwards, but forwards.

The effects are superb, with everything feeling real and solid - not the dodgy CGI of recent outings. This, again, bolts Force onto the original trilogy firmly and solidly.

Each shot and scene is framed perfectly, in places harking back to the landscapes of the original film while in others giving you another bar you'd kill to drink in.

And there's not a duff performance to be seen.

Sure, Harrison Ford shouldn't be asked to run about, but to be fair running wasn't his forte 40-odd years ago, so that kind of works.

The stand-out, though, is Daisy Ridley.

Thrust front and centre from the get-go as Rey, the young actress with just a handful of TV credits to her name takes to the big screen like a duck to water.

She owns every scene, she more than holds her own against the likes of Carrie Fisher, and she balances humour and drama with consummate ease.

Alongside her, John Boyega (Finn) and Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron) deliver fine performances, again delivering both quick one-liners and hard-paced action like they've been up in space their whole lives.

Ultimately, of course, it's the action that makes or breaks a Star Wars film.

Fans just want to see space ships flying about shooting stuff. It's what they grew up with.

And boy, do they get it.

From the moment the Falcon takes off, you're grinning from ear to ear. When you see an X-Wing, you want to cheer. When a Tie-Fighter blows up, you want to shout and applaud.

And that's the great thing about The Force Awakens.

The passion with which it was clearly made just flows off the screen, washing over you and taking you on another great thrill ride. One you haven't been on since, arguably, The Empire Strikes Back.

Your blood will pound, you will find yourself holding your breath, at times you won't believe what just happened, but through it all you'll just want more and more.

There are quibbles, sure (just how does BB-8 get UP the stairs?), but when the whole thing is just this much damn fun who cares?

It's not hugely original, the story will be very familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the history, but again - that doesn't matter.

You'll be too busy grinning and laughing to care.

Any film that's been this hyped stands every chance of falling short of expectations, but JJ and the gang have pulled it off.

With nods, winks and glimpses of what has gone before, we have been ushered into a whole new Star Wars era.

Buckle up, it promises to be a hell of a ride.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Black Mass (15)

These days, Johnny Depp is the acting equivalent of U2 - people either love him or hate him, and his latest work (when it's not a Pirates film) is always his best yet.

Which is neither true nor totally fair.

The thing you have to remember is that Depp pretty much does what he wants.

Which is why films like Dead Man exist, even though no one saw it, and the Pirates franchise is there - even though most right-thinking people wish it wasn't.

And it's almost certainly why Black Mass exists.

Playing the role of Boston gangster Jimmy 'Whitey' Bulger was never going to be easy - his victims' families are still rightly grieving, and it's so recent there hasn't been time for a Krays-esque aura to develop.

So someone who doesn't give a toss what the critics are going to say was always going to be the best choice to play a man who seemed to kill half of Boston from the mid-70s to the early 90s.

Getting any sympathy for this man was always going to be a hard sell.

So it's to Depp's - and the film's - credit that they don't bother, portraying the man as the heartless killer (and drug dealer, gun runner, racketeer etc etc) he was.

The other problem is, of course, that in doing a gangster film you are automatically putting yourself up against The Godfather and Goodfellas.

Every genre has it's cornerstone films, the ones that define the styles and themes by simply being the films you automatically think of when you hear the word.

And up there Black Mass isn't.

To be fair, it's not trying to be. But that doesn't stop the comparisons being made.

It's not glitzy, it's not glamourous. It's fairly brutal, the violence is not shied away from, and the portrayal of Boston (always known for it's gangsters) is as unflattering as you would hope.

In fact, it probably has more in common with the excellent A Most Violent Year - but even then, it seems to fall short.

The problem, I think, is that the whole film feels muted. Like everyone's underplaying it.

And I think this stems from Depp.

From the off, this is a very considered performance. Recent outings have all seemed to borrow from Captain Jack Sparrow, and it's clear he's doing something totally different here.

The problem is, as the lead character, as he underplays things so everyone else has to tone things down.

So we get less Kevin Bacon, less Benedict Cumberbatch, less Dakota Johnson (although to be honest she could just still be in post-50 Shades shock).

This slightly removed, distant, muted feel is hard to grasp or understand until Corey Stoll turns up as the new DA in town.

Suddenly we have someone giving it energy, presence, owning the scenes that he's in - there's a very clear step-up when he's around.

Tellingly, he doesn't share any screen time with Depp.

All of this only serves to add a level of disappointment to what could - and indeed should - have been a gritty, nasty telling of the life of a loathsome human being.

What you want is to come out of it feeling almost violated, like you need a shower and a change of clothes.

Instead you just feel flat, like you've just missed out on something that could have been great.

The performances are all perfectly good, if a little restrained, it's shot well, Boston looks like the slightly forgotten city it was back then... It's getting close to the mark all over the place.

But then little things let it down.

I'm pretty sure Jimmy gets called John at one stage, which you notice because it doesn't happen at any other point, and the attempts to make the pop-music references iconic definitely falls short.

Then there's the disappearance of one of the characters.

You don't notice straight away, but about halfway through you suddenly realise you haven't seen someone for a while. They've just vanished. Poof. Gone.


And what the hell was Peter Sarsgaard's character doing talking to Boston's finest when he seemed to live in Florida?

And why does no one's hair change in 20 sodding years?

The structure of the film, however, is a plus.

Using a faux-documentary style, you leap between the now and the then effortlessly, fleshing out the story without giving too much away.

But it's not enough to save the day.

As I said earlier, this should - and could - have been a much nastier film. Make it an 18 (R in America I'm guessing) and you'll get a more visceral experience.

But as it is, you get everything dialled down slightly, leaving you feeling a bit 'meh', a bit unmoved.

Still, Depp's in heavy make-up and it's award season, so it might not have been a total waste of time.