The Watchers

The Watchers

Monday, 30 December 2013

Review: Captain Phillips (UK Cert 12A)

In 2009, the US cargo ship Maersk Alabama became the first US cargo ship in two hundred years to be hijacked when it was boarded by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. The captain, Richard Phillips, was kidnapped but survived his ordeal- and even returned to sea the following year. He wrote a book about his experiences which has now been filmed with Tom Hanks in the lead role. Part base under siege movie, part chase thriller, part psychological drama, Captain Phillips certainly isn't a cheery film but it is a very fine one.

I've never really had much time for Tom Hanks as an actor. I don't dislike him, but he's never exactly got my pulse racing in any of his parts (even the big award-winners, like Philadelphia or Forrest Gump). It's not the most flattering description, but the word that always comes to my mind for Tom Hanks is dependable. He's a safe pair of hands, a reliable actor always giving solid, decent performances. And that's what you get here: a solid, decent performance. Hanks' Phillips is a cautious, principled man, prepared to put himself in the line of fire to save his crew. 

The other standout performance is by Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the captain of the Somali pirates. The script does not simply portray the pirates as pantomime, one-dimensional villains to be smote by the forces of good. There is a judicious use of backstory- as is traditional, there's always someone higher up the chain- and there is a real tension between Muse and the other members of the crew which threatens to spill out at any moment. The scenes in the lifeboat are at times unbearably tense as the pirates argue and bicker.

Paul Greengrass brings the same taut, claustrophobic and tense style to Captain Phillips than he showed in the brilliant but harrowing United 93 (2006). The scenes as the pirates search the Maersk Alabama, whilst the crew wait in darkness, is a real nerve-shredder. There are moments of violence but few and far between and not incredibly graphic.  

It's shot well and the performances are exceptionally good throughout. It's not exactly a feelgood movie but it is a gripping take on a truly remarkable story.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Sunday, 29 December 2013

Review: The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (UK Cert PG)

Now and then, amongst the sequels, reboots and safe bets that are released in the cinema, you get a film that, while not exactly re-inventing the wheel, tries to do something different, that is unlike every other box office blockbuster currently doing the rounds. Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those films: it does away with cynicism and takes you on a fairy tale journey filled with eye-catching visuals and cheerful humour.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is pretty much non-descript. He has a job at Life Magazine and that’s about it. He’s nice enough, but hasn’t really done much with his life. Walter sees himself as the exact opposite; he daydreams about being an action hero, an adventurer, someone who never lives the same day twice. As much as Walter imagines this life, he has never had the chance to achieve all the things he dreams of. This changes when Walter loses the cover photo from Life Magazine’s renowned photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), journeying across the globe to track down Sean and recover the negative.

Ben Stiller has done an excellent job of playing oddballs and eccentrics on screen – Derek Zoolander, White Goodman, and Tom Cruise’s stalker stunt double, Tom Crooze – but occasionally he gets given a subtle role, socially awkward characters, and, when it comes to shy and uncomfortable, there are few actors in Hollywood on a par with Ben Stiller. Stiller’s Walter Mitty is a timid, softly spoken creature, out of place with the world (he is clueless when it comes to internet dating and records all of his expenses in a notebook). Another actor playing the role – and several were considered, such as Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey and Sacha Barron Cohen – could run the risk of making Walter too strange, audiences finding him hard to identify with, but Stiller gives a skilful performance; you want this man to find negative number twenty-five and turn his life around.

Kristen Wiig, as Mitty’s love interest, Cheryl, has been a one-note actress ever since 2011’s Bridesmaids, but she plays that note especially well. With Walter Mitty, Wiig is once again excruciatingly self-conscious, but she has a feistiness that every so often creeps to the surface. Cheryl may be an obvious narrative device to encourage Mitty to continue on his quest, but she is far from the bland girl in a “Boy Meets Girl” film, with plenty of tongue-tied conversations between Stiller and Wiig.

While Sean Penn only briefly shows up, it’s good to see him playing an understated role as Life Magazine’s celebrated photographer. Sean O’Connell exits to make it clear to the audience what The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s message is, but at least Penn does this in a way that feels honest rather than phoney, not taking himself too seriously.

So much of Walter Mitty looks like the front cover for Life Magazine, whether it’s Manhattan’s streets, Iceland and Greenland’s landscapes, or the mountains of Afghanistan. The offices of Life Magazine are bland, every room looks the same. Once Walter escapes his job and ventures into the outside world, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh gives us visuals that, at times, make you feel like you are watching a BBC documentary on the big screen.

The film’s soundtrack is also something special, with Swedish folk singer José González (of the Sony Bravia bouncing balls advert fame) and his band Junip providing several trademark minimalist songs that add to the spectacle of Walter Mitty’s visuals. While most films throw song-after-song at the screen so the studio has an excuse to release an album, Walter Mitty tries to be creative in its song choices, with a particular stand-out scene involving Ben Stiller skateboarding down one of Iceland’s dramatic mountain-lined roads; impressive enough, but with Junip’s 'Far Away' playing alongside it – a rising, whirring base making the track more and more intense – you find yourself watching the whole scene wide-eyed, taking it all in.

David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity' has been overused in both film and sitcoms, but Walter Mitty manages to use the song to ensure its hero carries on with his journey, braving whatever is about to come his way. In the film’s best daydream, Walter is terrified to get in a helicopter with its plastered pilot (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) and instead chooses to end his search. Out of the blue, Wiig appears, guitar in hand at the Icelandic pub, singing Bowie to him. Changing his mind, Walter makes a run for the helicopter, jumping in just as it is taking off, accompanied not just by Wiig’s vocals, but also by the original song. It’s a genuine, fist punching the air moment. Songs in films don’t have to be cynically chucked in, they can be used as both character development and to push the narrative forward, and Walter Mitty does a fantastic job of this with 'Space Oddity'.

What, for me, stops Walter Mitty from getting five out of five is one of the things that make the film stand out: the daydream sequences. There are some strong, chuckle to yourself moments – Walter rescuing Cheryl’s dog from an exploding building, or wooing her as an arctic explorer – and the previously mentioned 'Space Oddity' scene is brilliant to watch, but it all feels a little bit too much. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is loosely based on James Thurber’s short story, where Walter goes shopping with his wife and has a number of grand, heroic daydreams. In the first half of Ben Stiller’s film version, screenwriter Steve Conrad gives us several daydreams on a massive scale which, while fun to watch, do sometimes feel heavy-handed. Stiller could have got away with just a handful of daydream scenes early on and the film’s message would still come across loud and clear. One scene in particular, where Mitty and condescending manager Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) gain super powers and fight over a Stretch Armstrong, could have been cut altogether. Another problem with the overuse of daydreams is that, during the film’s second half, you wonder if Walter is going to wake up, because this has happened so many times before. Thankfully Walter no longer needs to daydream because his real life is exciting enough, but there are moments where you wonder if he is suddenly going to snap out of it and the last couple of minutes were all in his head.

This is a minor quibble. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty won’t completely change your life, but it does have a compelling message, that all of us are a bit like Walter in the sense that we live our routine lives; daydreaming rather than living. Stiller is smart enough to know that audiences can only handle so much heart on its sleeve honesty, which is why the film has plenty of gentle humour. You won’t be laughing so much that you struggle to breathe, that’s not what Stiller is after, the jokes in Walter Mitty come from the barmy situations Walter finds himself in, as well as his awkward conversations. The point of Walter Mitty is for its audience to walk out of the cinema with smiles on their faces, but also to be thinking about their own lives, and Stiller one-hundred-per-cent succeeds. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is another great film to round off 2013.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Programme 33: Review Of 2013

The Watchers Film Show: Review Of 2013 from The Watchers Film Show on Vimeo.

Our latest programme is available to view - and it's a bumper show for Christmas!

The three of us are together for the first time since Matt joined us in August and we discuss our favourites of the year, what we didn't like, and what we're looking forward to in 2014.

Enjoy and have a very merry Christmas!

Rhys, Tez & Matt
The Watchers

Monday, 23 December 2013

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (UK Cert 12A)

When the announcement came that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was getting dusted down and given a new lick of paint for the big screen, I was like a kid who had eaten all the blue Smarties. With The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson had done what many thought could never be done; to condense Tolkien’s books, which took the author twelve years to write and were not published until his retirement, into a trilogy of films that were incredible to watch, relevant, and could be enjoyed by anyone willing to give them a go. This time, however, it would be Guillermo del Toro who would be bringing us his vision of Middle Earth. There have been plenty of decisions that are announced during a film’s pre-production, only to be ripped apart on the internet by legions of devoted fans (Ben Affleck as Batman, Matt Smith as the Doctor), but having del Toro on board felt like the right choice. The writer/director has given us one of the best films of this century, Pan’s Labyrinth, but also knows how to set up attention-grabbing, fast-paced set pieces with the Hellboy films. Then came the legal nightmare concerning the rights to The Hobbit, leaving the film in limbo and forcing del Toro to move on to other projects. Eventually MGM and New Line Cinema managed to sort out their differences, only it would be Peter Jackson once again bringing Tolkien’s pages to the screen in what was, at first, going to be two films. This was followed by the shock news that The Hobbit would be split into three films. Depending on what versions you read, altogether The Lord of the Rings is over a thousand pages; The Hobbit takes up around three-hundred. When I sat down to watch part one, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was more than a little bit concerned. What can Jackson do that has not already been done with The Lord of the Rings? How is he going to stretch this out over three films? Luckily, my worrying had been a waste of time as Jackson once again gave us a near enough perfect version of Tolkien’s work. A year later and part two has arrived: The Desolation of Smaug. While The Two Towers is, for me, the best visit so far to Middle Earth, The Desolation of Smaug gives it a good run for its money.

The star of the show is the dragon himself, Smaug the Magnificent. If you thought Gollum or King Kong were impressive, wait until you see this film’s fire breathing villain. Sean Connery’s dragon in Dragonheart, while impressive, was a fairy tale character brought to life. With Smaug, Jackson has created a living, breathing creature covered in scales that mirror the light around them, with a face that, despite being a mass of teeth, quickly swaps from gleeful menace to incensed rage, and a stomach that glows whenever the giant lizard is preparing to spurt flames. Just as Andy Serkis did an incredible job in making Gollum a real flesh-and-blood character, Benedict Cumberbatch does the same with Smaug. In Tolkien’s book, Smaug is a conceited creature with a wicked sense of humour (“You think flattery will keep you alive?”) and Cumberbatch gives us exactly that. Smaug is full of his own self-importance, master of his own little world. When Bilbo runs off with the Arkenstone, the dragon is driven by a violent, childlike fury. It feels like every blockbuster at the moment gives us robots, aliens or smurfs; it’s good to see a CGI character that actually has charisma.

Man of Steel’s Zack Snyder could do with sitting down and watching The Desolation of Smaug. You don’t need almost an hour of non-stop, chaotic action, just a handful of set pieces to keep your audience wide awake. In a year where plenty of films have given us big budget action, Jackson manages to come up with scenes that, for the majority of 2013’s blockbusters, beat them all. The barrel scene is, arguably, this year’s finest set piece (it’s easily one of 3D’s stand out moments) as the dwarves fight off an onslaught of orcs whilst tumbling down rivers and waterfalls. The entire scene is a ridiculous amount of fun and is littered with an impossible to count number of visual gags. Another crowd pleaser is the dwarves wandering through Mirkwood, the dark power of the forest playing with their minds. You get the feeling that, during his time co-writing the scripts for The Hobbit, Guillermo del Toro was responsible for this spooky, visually inventive scene. This is followed by the group stumbling into a giant spider’s nest, featuring plenty of close-ups of the spiders’ fangs and beady eyes.

While An Unexpected Journey focused on Bilbo transforming from a normal, unremarkable person, to finding his courage and becoming a smart, resourceful hero, The Desolation of Smaug is concerned with power in its various forms and how it corrupts. In what is a brief – but no less powerful – scene, Bilbo clutches the One Ring and hisses, “It’s mine. My precious!” Instantly realising who he sounds like, Bilbo is horrified, forcing back tears.

In the first part of The Hobbit trilogy, Thorin (Richard Armitage) was a noble, if somewhat arrogant, warrior. With part two, we begin to realise that all of this is façade, that Thorin is just like his grandfather, obsessed with gold and power, everything and everyone else coming second. Rather than help Bilbo escape from Smaug, he blocks his way, demanding to know if Bilbo found the Arkenstone, before standing aside.

Once again the performances from everyone involved are faultless (even if not all the actors get their fair share of screen time). When Martin Freeman was cast as Bilbo Baggins, I doubt anyone argued with Peter Jackson’s choice for the lead role. The phrase, “He/she was born to play the role” is used all too often by critics, however, when describing Freeman as Bilbo, this is how I would sum him up. Freeman understands what Tolkien’s book is about; that ordinary people can do great things. He has always done a great job in giving understated performances: Tim in The Office, Watson in Sherlock, and now Mr Baggins. Bilbo may be much braver in this latest adventure, but when he is frightened, you one-hundred-per-cent empathise with him. He might be a dab hand with a sword now, but Bilbo is still that same man who wants what we all want: to be at home, enjoying our simple, pleasurable routines.

Ian McKellen can play Gandalf in his sleep now, but it’s easy to forget just how brilliant he is. When Gandalf first appeared in The Fellowship of the Ring, McKellen literally took Tolkien’s beloved character and placed him on the big screen. Gandalf is wise, stubborn, hiding ferocious power behind his vagabond appearance. With The Desolation of Smaug, Gandalf does not get as much screen time as in other films, though when he is around, he firmly holds your attention.

Richard Armitage gets much more to do this time around as Thorin; we begin to question just how honourable his motives really are. When Bard (Luke Evans) warns Thorin that entering the Lonely Mountain will anger Smaug, making the dragon attack Esgaroth, Thorin refuses to listen. His mind on revenge and gold, Thorin continues with his quest, convinced that he will kill Smaug, find the Arkenstone, and that nothing can possibly go wrong.

Once again, The Desolation of Smaug is amazing to look at. Andrew Lesnie, who was cinematographer on The Lord of the Rings films, gives us tremendous landscapes that will once again have the New Zealand Tourist Board rubbing their mitts, while also creating moments that will easily scare the under twelve’s, such as Gandalf exploring the menacing Dol Goldur. All of this is accompanied by another score from Howard Shore, once again giving the visuals a sense of wonder or a slow, steady sense of unease when required.

A large number of critics have blasted The Hobbit films for being lightweight, that they do not examine the blurred line between good and evil that The Lord of the Rings trilogy did so well. Without sounding like I am apologising for Peter Jackson, the reason for this is down to Tolkien’s books. Normally I stay well clear of “The film’s not as good as the book” discussions, frankly (and bluntly) because I feel it’s pointless. Books are a medium that entertain their readers in a particular way, while film is a separate medium that uses entirely different methods to entertain an audience. Saying this, when The Hobbit was published way back in 1937, Tolkien aimed his book squarely at children. When Tolkien wrote the sequel, he wrote for those same children knowing that they had grown up and could handle subtext on how people are not necessarily good or evil, but are capable of both. If Peter Jackson had brought out The Hobbit films first AND THEN The Lord of the Rings, critics would never have mentioned how “kid-friendly” The Hobbit films are.

The one thing I will agree with critics on is that, while both Hobbit films are thrilling to watch from beginning to end, you do feel they very occasionally struggle to stretch out their nearly three-hour running time, and that perhaps two films would have been the better choice. With The Lord of the Rings films you could argue that some scenes and characters from Tolkien’s books were cut because Jackson was struggling to keep each film at three-hours (poor Tom Bombadil has yet to make it to one of Jackson’s films). For both Hobbit films, you feel that Jackson sometimes struggles with the material he has to work with and that action scenes, which are not in the books, are thrown in to compensate for this.

This is the only reason I would stop at giving The Desolation of Smaug five stars. I appreciate that I am, once again, being ludicrously picky here and this does not take away from the fact that the second Hobbit film is another near-faultless blockbuster in a year that has given us Iron Man 3, Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness. Peter Jackson will, I feel confident in saying, do the same with next year’s third and final part, There And Back Again, making his film versions of Tolkien one of the finest franchises you could ever sit down and watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Friday, 13 December 2013

Review: Saving Mr. Banks (UK Cert PG)

The Disney multi-billion pound empire; few people sit on the fence when it comes to Uncle Walt. You either love him, and see Disney as having created some of the finest films of the medium, or you put Disney in the same category as McDonald’s, the Disney brand is, first-and-foremost, out to make money and everything else comes (a miles behind) second. With John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr Banks, Disney has done something surprisingly brave: they have put their business, their legacy, under the microscope.

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of Mary Poppins, has turned down Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) offers to make a film of her beloved children’s book for twenty years. She sees Disney as the “King Midas of Hollywood,” his theme park nothing more than a “moneymaking machine.” Having made a promise to his daughters, Disney is determined to try one last time to persuade the bad-tempered writer to sign over the rights to her book.

Saving Mr Banks could have been a sickly-sweet re-telling of the artistic differences between Travers and Disney, but far from it. Much of this is down to the performances, both Thompson and Hanks being, once again, impossible to find fault with.

If another actress were to play the role of Travers, audiences may have felt detached towards the film’s heroine. Putting down anyone and everyone she comes across, in the wrong hands Travers could have been a cheerless English stereotype. Every minute that Emma Thompson is onscreen is brilliant to watch. Travers’s insults are more out of frustration rather than a vicious streak and, for the most part, her observations are spot on. To be one of the acting greats, it’s not only about delivering assured dialogue; it’s about the mannerisms and expressions. Emma Thompson should run master classes on how to make an audience laugh with a raise of the eyebrows, or conveying pages of backstory solely with a gaze; she makes it look all-too easy.

While most of the film’s praise has been focused on Thompson, Tom Hanks is equally impressive. Rather than the permanently grinning, cheery uncle portrayed in a TV commercial early on in the film, Hanks’s Disney is far more complicated. He is charming, with a glass-half-full approach to life, but he is also a businessman who, one way or the other, gets what he wants. When Travers storms out of meetings, threatening to return to England, or making all sorts of demands, Disney is shaking with rage, refusing to be beaten. Hanks has made a career of delivering spot-on regional American accents, and whatever role he plays, you cannot help but root for him. Hanks gives a well-judged portrayal of Disney: he is the caring father-figure from the intros to his weekly TV cartoons, but Hanks also reminds us that this is a man on a charm offensive and, one way or another, he will bring Mary Poppins to the big screen.

Saving Mr Banks spends half its time showing Travers fighting with her creative team, but also goes back to her childhood to explain why she is so disapproving of herself and others, and why she refuses to let her famous nanny be sprinkled with Disney’s trademark charm. Normally I hate exposition in films; it feels cheap, like the filmmakers are treating their audience like idiots. “In case you don’t get it, here’s why (insert character name here) behaves this way!” For me, very few films have managed to use flashbacks and get away with it. Saving Mr Banks doesn’t just get away with it, Travers’s childhood is part-and-parcel of the film, as well as being gorgeously filmed by John Schwartzman. Travers’s father (played with heart-rending perfection by Colin Farrell) encourages his daughter to use her imagination, to be whoever she wants to be. Yet her father uses his dreams and imagination to escape what is going on around him. He is an alcoholic, unable to hold down a job, committed to his own self destruction.

Disney and Travers are at the opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum. Walt Disney sees life as bleak enough, so why create stories that mirror the worries and problems of everyday lives? P.L. Travers saw writing as a way of facing problems, recovering from them, rather than a form of escapism. Admirably, Saving Mr Banks gives plenty of screen time to both sides of the argument.

For a Disney film about one of Disney’s most successful films, Saving Mr Banks is far from a two hour advert for the Mary Poppins DVD. For the most part, the film avoids the sugary sweetness that Travers loathed about Disney’s films. Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith get the mix of comedy and heartache absolutely right; Travers is razor-sharp right up until the end and, during the film’s poignant moments, at no point do you feel like you are being tricked into shedding a tear.

Like all good “Making of” films, Saving Mr Banks manages to make its source material even more profound than it already was. Mary Poppins is moving enough, but after watching how the Disney film came to be, it’s unlikely you will be able to listen to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” without welling up.

Saving Mr Banks narrowly misses out on being perfect due to the film’s last ten minutes, when Travers goes to the world premiere and sees her creation, and her father, up there on the cinema screen. The rest of the film is understated and honest. Here this final scene feels like John Lee Hancock is smacking you around the head, making sure you realise that everything you have watched has led to this moment. While the wheels don’t exactly fall off, you feel that this is exactly the kind of candyfloss Travers would have hated.

This is me being picky. Saving Mr Banks is faultless in weaving its two narratives together; Travers’s childhood and her fight with the Disney machine. Other films that have tried the same method generally make you wish one storyline or the other would come back onscreen. The making of Mary Poppins is one of the last great films of 2013.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Thursday, 12 December 2013

Awards Season 2014: SAG Awards and Golden Globe Nominations

I've got a double dose of awards season news coming up. Some of you may wish to get a cup of tea and get comfy, and others may wish to do something else (such as balance your cheque book or watch paint dry).

Yesterday (Wednesday 11th December) saw the nominations for the Screen Actors Guild Awards announced. They are as follows:

Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
12 Years A Slave
American Hustle
August: Osage County
The Butler
Dallas Buyers Club

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role
Chiwete Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Forest Whitaker (The Butler)

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Emma Thompson (Saving Mr Banks)

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Daniel Bruhl (Rush)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave)
James Gandolfini (Enough Said)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)
Oprah Winfrey (The Butler)

This is the first real awards recognition for The Butler and, for me, I'm happy to see Daniel Bruhl's brilliant performance as Niki Lauda in Rush getting recognised too. Apart from that, strong showings for 12 Years A Slave and Nebraska, as expected.

Today (Thursday 12th December) saw the Golden Globe nominations. The Golden Globes split the films into Drama and Musical/Comedy strands for some awards, which can make things interesting, not least when you look at what the Hollywood Foreign Press Association would consider a Musical/Comedy (a few years ago, The Tourist was nominated as Best Musical/Comedy, despite being marketed as a spy thriller). Today's announcement did raise an eyebrow or two with Scorsese's The Wolf Of Wall Street down as a comedy but, despite that, several films and performances get another step closer to the Oscar nomination.

Here are a selection of the Golden Globes' film nominations:

Best Motion Picture - Drama
12 Years A Slave
Captain Phillips

Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy
American Hustle
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Wolf Of Wall Street

Best Director - Motion Picture
Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips)
Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
David O. Russell (American Hustle)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Robert Redford (All Is Lost)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy
Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf Of Wall Street)
Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Joaquin Phoenix (Her)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Emma Thompson (Saving Mr Banks)
Kate Winslet (Labor Day)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy
Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)
Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Daniel Bruhl (Rush)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)

A full list can be found here.

It's interesting to see the same names starting to crop up again and again. It's also interesting to see that both SAG and the Golden Globes have nominated the two performances from August: Osage County. I'm happy to see Sally Hawkins getting a nod for her turn in Blue Jasmine (and further recognition for Daniel Bruhl). Also, given the recent sad news of Mandela's passing, the nod for Idris Elba is timely. Whether that will translate to the Academy Awards remains to be seen.

Thankfully, we still have another five weeks before I have to get off the fence and make my Oscar nomination predictions. We still have the BAFTA nominations and various guild nominations to come- of especial interest will be the Directors' Guild Award and the Producers' Guild Award (essentially crystallising the Oscars Best Director and Best Producer lists).

Normal blog service can be resumed. Til next time.


Friday, 6 December 2013

Awards Season 2014: Independent Spirit Award Nominations

It's that time of year again, folks. 

Some of you will like this, most of you won't, but it's time for me to dust off the spreadsheet (yes, I am sad enough to have a spreadsheet) and start talking about the awards season.

I sometimes wonder if there aren't corners of Hollywood much like The Nightmare Before Christmas. After a successful Halloween, the mayor fretfully announces 'There's only 365 days left until next Halloween!'. Is it the same in Tinseltown? The day after the Oscars, when engravers' tools are barely cold and the hangovers are kicking in, are there shadowy offices planning the next year's potential award winners? Perhaps that's just me being a bit cynical- OK, very cynical- but it does seem, like Christmas, the awards season starts earlier each year.

Aside from the film festivals, usually the first of the major film awards to be announced are the Film Independent Spirit Awards. Their nominations were announced on Tuesday 26th November 2013, even though the awards won't be handed out until Saturday 1st March 2014- the day before the Academy Awards (this is a week later than usual, due to the Winter Olympics in Sochi).

The Film Independent Spirit Awards, as the name suggests, honours films made outside the major Hollywood studio system. Here are a selection of this year's nominees:

Best Film
12 Years A Slave
All Is Lost
Frances Ha
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Director
Shane Carruth (Upstream Color)
J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost)
Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)
Jeff Nichols (Mud)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)

Best Actor
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Robert Redford (All Is Lost)

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)
Gaby Hoffman (Crystal Fairy)
Brie Larson (Short Term 12)
Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now)

Best Supporting Actor
Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave)
Will Forte (Nebraska)
James Gandolfini (Enough Said)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12)

Best Supporting Actress
Melonie Diaz (Fruitvale Station)
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave)
Yolonda Ross (Go For Sisters)
June Squibb (Nebraska)

Whilst these awards do focus more on the lower-budget, what could be described as niche, movies, there's still a fair bit of overlap between these and the other more mainstream awards. For instance, last year's big Independent Spirit award winner was Silver Linings Playbook which took Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars. The year before, it was The Artist.

If I were a betting man, I would say you are virtually guaranteed to see 12 Years A Slave, Blue Jasmine and Nebraska mentioned in the mainstream awards, with a strong likelihood of Dallas Buyers Club and All Is Lost also joining them.

The timetable for the other major awards are as follows:

Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award 
Nominations Announced: 11 December 2013
Awards Ceremony: 18 January 2014

Golden Globes
Nominations announced: 12 December 2013  
Awards Ceremony: 12 January 2014 (hosted by Tina Fey & Amy Poehler)

Writers' Guild Of America (WGA) Award 
Nominations Announced: 3 January 2014
Awards Ceremony: 1 February 2013

Directors' Guild Of America (DGA) Award
Nominations Announced: 7 January 2014
Awards Ceremony: 25 January 2014

BAFTA Film Awards 
Nominations announced: 8 January 2014
Awards Ceremony: 16 February 2014

Golden Raspberry Awards
Nominations announced: 15 January 2014
Awards Ceremony: 1 March 2014

Academy Awards (Oscars) 
Nominations announced: 16 January 2014
Awards Ceremony: 2 March 2014 (hosted by Ellen DeGeneres)

There'll be more on awards season as it progresses.


Thursday, 5 December 2013


Carrie (1976)

Putting films into categories is a dangerous business. First you have genres, then you have sub-genres, then you have those films that are a concoction of various genres and sub-genres. By some margin, horror has more sub-genres than any other type of film out there, from the sublime (zombies, slashers, haunted houses), to the God awful (torture porn). One of these sub-genres (arguably the best of the bunch) is psychological horror: very few jolts and blood, instead the scares come from intense, hard to take your eyes off performances and an unnerving atmosphere, films such as Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. One of the all-time greats of psychological horror is Brian De Palma’s Carrie. The film launched the careers of both its director and the book’s author, Stephen King. De Palma’s films had so far failed to connect with both audiences and the majority of critics, while Carrie, King’s first novel, had gained critical acclaim, but wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves.

Whenever a list is drawn up of the greatest horror films, Carrie is always in there somewhere. Plenty of films have scene-after-scene of gore and leap-out-your-seat jolts, but De Palma’s first stab at mainstream cinema proves you don’t always need these tricks to frighten your audience. Instead, De Palma prefers to get under your skin, shocking you with scenes that go in one direction, then do a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree turn and dart off somewhere else.

The cinematography in Carrie is up there with some of the finest in cinema, let alone a low budget horror film, director of photography Mario Tosi and art director Jack Fisk creating one set piece after another during the film’s ninety-minutes. Opening with a crane shot of a volleyball game, the camera focuses in on Carrie, stood away from the others. Off-screen we hear the girls taunting her, “Hit it to Carrie, she’ll miss it!” Unsurprisingly, Carrie drops the ball, the girls walking past, spitting insults at her. The scene that follows is deliberately shot to look like a porn film, filmed in slow motion as naked girls wander the steam-filled changing room. This is only the second scene and already we have full frontal nudity. De Palma is intentionally breaking, at that time, film’s rigid conventions. Back in 1976, you can imagine cinema audiences watching this scene, uncomfortable, thinking, “Here’s a director who will do anything!”

The camera zooms in on Sissy Spacek in the shower. What De Palma is doing here is misleading the audience; you think this scene is about sensuality, but what follows is the complete opposite. In the previous volleyball scene we saw how much the other girls hate Carrie, now they act out that hatred. The soft music and slow motion immediately stops as Carrie has her first period. Having never been taught about puberty, she is terrified, crying out for help, though instead of sympathy from the girls, they throw tampons at her, yelling “Plug it up!” These first few minutes set up the rest of the film: whatever you are expecting from a horror film, or a film in general, forget it. De Palma is leading you on a merry dance and you’re going to hold his hand every step of the way.

Carrie’s home is homage to gothic art, a contrast to the quaint, picture perfect town where the film is set. The house is dim, claustrophobic, filled with crosses and arches; there’s even a painting of The Last Supper hanging on the wall above the dinner table. Everything that makes Carrie who she is, a frightened, timid young woman, is plain to see. She is trapped, suffocated by her mother’s fevered obsession with religion. The house is a narrative device, aiding the viewer in sympathising with Carrie, wanting her to get out, to escape.

When we get to the prom scene, De Palma does not rush things. For those who have never seen the film before, you know something bad is about to happen, De Palma deliberately taking his time, building up the tension. The scene begins with a crane shot of the prom. You get to see the band, the decorations, people dancing and laughing and having fun. This is the night that high school students look forward to, care so much about, and soon it will be destroyed.

For much of the prom scene, things are perfect for Carrie. She has come out of her shell, smiling and enjoying herself. When Carrie dances with her date, Tommy (William Katt), the camera is low down, spinning around them. In any other film this would be gut-queasingly sickly, but the audience knows this is leading up to something, then, in one lengthy, continuous shot, we find out what that something is.

Norma (P.J. Soles, who would go on to star in another landmark horror film, John Carpenter’s Halloween) collects the votes for the prom king and queen, swaps them, and gives the thumbs up to Chris (Nancy Allen) and Billy (John Travolta) who are crouched underneath the stage, holding onto a rope. We then follow the rope up towards the ceiling where a bucket of pig’s blood hangs, the camera zooming in on Carrie and Tommy’s table, where the shot began.

The destruction that follows – the Carrie throughout the film has been child-like in her innocence and vulnerability, but that Carrie vanishes, replaced with a childlike rage – has been discussed in numerous features and reviews. What I will mention is something that surprises me every time I watch Carrie: despite the massacre on screen, we still care about Spacek. Carrie does not enjoy what she is doing; she is not revelling in her actions. She is in a blind rage, lashing out at everyone, including gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), her only friend at high school. In any other film, Miss Collins would have survived, but here she has to die so we understand that Carrie has lost all control, the anger she feels towards her peers, normally kept buried, has been unleashed.

Carrie’s ending is one of the horror genre’s most infamous scenes. Normally when I buy a DVD, the person at the till smiles and takes my money. When I bought Carrie, I remember the woman who served me had this grin on her face when she said, “The ending creeps me out every time!” When the scene begins it is slowed down, shot in soft focus, making you question what you are seeing. For me, two things make the ending so horrible to watch: Sissy Spacek’s blood-smeared arm slowly – Carrie’s arm doesn’t grab her, she takes her time, as if she is crawling out of the grave – appearing from the ground, clutching hold of Sue (Amy Irving), accompanied by Pino Donaggio’s score. Carrie’s theme is played once more as Sue walks towards the rubble where Carrie’s house once stood, yet when the arm appears the music swiftly changes, replaced with an eerie xylophone, resembling something from a nursery rhyme, and what sounds like an army of stabbing violins, the instruments playing the same short notes over and over while Sue screams. You don’t see it coming the first time you watch Carrie and on repeat viewings you wish it wasn’t coming, that there was an alternate, happier ending.

It’s not just De Palma’s direction that holds your attention, Carrie’s two main leads were both Oscar-nominated, Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek both giving haunting performances as mother and daughter. Piper Laurie had retired from acting for fifteen years, but agreed to take on the role of Margaret White once she read Laurence D. Cohen’s screenplay. Carrie is unsettling to watch for many reasons, but this is largely due to Laurie’s performance. Wide-eyed, occasionally snarling as she delivers her dialogue, Margaret White is more like a machine than a mother as she spews out her fanatical beliefs. Laurie is given plenty of one-liners, leaving the viewer in no doubt that Margaret White never wanted a daughter. She calls Carrie’s breasts her “dirty pillows,” and when her daughter gets back from high school she mutters, “The devil has come home.” It is difficult to watch as Margaret White drags Carrie kicking and screaming into the closet, locking her inside. In Stephen King’s novel, Carrie kills her mother by stopping her heart, which works fine on the page, but would have been a tough job to recreate onscreen. Instead De Palma chooses a far more violent, satirical method of killing her off. Hands impaled to the door frame, Margaret White becomes a human pin cushion as Carrie commands all kinds of knives and kitchen utensils to soar through the air, stabbing her mother. As the knives plunge into her, Margaret moans loudly, the sounds overtly sexual, before she finally dies, her body resembling the model replica in the closet of Saint Sebastian, where Carrie spent hours locked inside, praying. In case the viewer was in any doubt, Carrie had been trapped by her mother’s religious beliefs, suffocated, and in this scene Carrie at long last sets herself free.

When De Palma was casting for the role of Carrie, Sissy Spacek was not his first choice. Age twenty-six, De Palma was looking for a younger actress to play the lead. When Spacek found out about this, it made her more determined, getting her into the mind-set of the victimised, constantly put down Carrie. During her second audition, Spacek smeared Vaseline in her hair, refused to wear any make up, and cut up one of her dresses in order to look the part. Both De Palma and George Lucas, who was looking for actors for Star Wars, were blown away. Carrie is a demanding role; on the one hand she is a victim – frightened, fidgety, her voice scarcely a whisper – yet there is an anger which threatens to come to the surface (in one scene, using her powers, she knocks a child off his bike when he yells at her). Spacek gets the balance absolutely right; Carrie is not a monster, she is still a child, trapped in a teenage body, a social outcast who is tortured daily, both by her mother and her high school classmates. You feel for Carrie and are always on her side, despite the violence that is carried out during the film’s climax.

High school horror films are now a sub-genre in their own right, Carrie is that influential. Considering De Palma’s first commercial success is not strictly horror, so many films in this genre have been inspired by or simply stolen ideas from it. Stephen King has had the misfortune of seeing dozens of his books translate poorly to the big screen, but De Palma’s Carrie is one of those rare adaptations that manages to do its source material justice, while occasionally bettering it.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Carrie (2013)

It’s fair to say that I’m not all that keen on Hollywood’s obsession with horror remakes. While there is the odd one that you could get away with having in your DVD collection (Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Matt Reeves’ Let Me In, and Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead) there are plenty out there that are shameless, shot-for-shot rehashes (John Moore’s version of The Omen is still top of my hit list). It’s not a case of if The Exorcist gets a remake, it’s when.

Normally the announcement of a reworking of Brian De Palma’s Carrie would have sent me into a rage, but when I heard the talent that was on board, I was intrigued. Kimberly Peirce, director of Boys Don’t Cry, would be running proceedings, while Chloe Grace Moretz would be playing the title role.

Boys Don’t Cry is an underrated classic. Despite the critical acclaim it received, it did not get the commercial success it deserved, and when I mention the film to friends, it’s very rare that I don’t get a blank stare. Boys Don’t Cry is not about cinematography; Peirce concentrates on her cast, Hilary Swank giving arguably her finest performance.

Chloe Grace Moretz is quickly becoming Hollywood’s most sought after leading lady; she can do a better job of holding a viewer’s attention than actors twice her age. Up until Carrie, Moretz had played roles that were tough as hell (Hit Girl in the Kick Ass films), unsettling (Abby in Let Me In) or courageous (Isabelle in Hugo). With her next film, I was interested to see if Moretz could manage playing the victimised, cripplingly shy Carrie White.

Peirce’s version of Carrie does have some good ideas; unfortunately there are not enough of them to stop you from thinking that maybe she should have left well alone. When I sat down at the cinema about to watch Carrie for the twenty-first century, I was not expecting the craftsmanship of De Palma’s original. The visuals in Peirce’s previous films have been functional, everything in place with just the right amount of lighting. What holds your attention is the acting going on in front of the camera, and Carrie does not try and change things.

In De Palma’s film, Carrie’s home was a character in its own right: it was gothic, dimly lit, and you felt Carrie’s fear every time she walked through the front door. Moretz’s house has plenty of windows, all of the curtains open. What you do notice is how bare it looks; there are no family photos, every room is modest and plain. There is a noticeable lack of colour, everything looks faded. The prom scene in the original is like something from a dream or a fairy-tale, everything in shot just that little bit too perfect, heightening the anticipation for when Carrie’s happiness comes to an end. With this latest version of Carrie, the prom resembles end of year celebrations across America: cheap decorations, the latest pop music played through the speakers, photos of classmates shown on a big screen. School bullying is an issue that regularly makes the front pages and Peirce points the finger at the teenage members of her audience, saying to them, “Recognise this?”

The problem with the remake of Carrie is that the impact it is trying to create, especially around the issues of bullying, is lessened by the film’s final act, when Moretz has her revenge. In De Palma’s film, he did not have the budget to recreate Carrie’s rampage through the town that is depicted in King’s book, while Peirce spends a significant amount of time throwing numerous CGI effects at the screen, set pieces that could easily have come from a Michael Bay film. Cars are smashed, a petrol station explodes, and the ground opens up. The chaos that ensues is far more impressive than in De Palma’s film, but it all feels too much. The story of Carrie isn’t about seeing a car lifted high into the air and hurled at a petrol station, it’s about the sympathy you feel towards its main character. This is the biggest problem with the remake’s final act; Carrie is smiling as those around her are dying. Moretz does a brilliant evil grin, flashing a smile as her classmates are set alight, trampled on and crushed by debris. The point of King’s book, and De Palma’s film, is that Carrie has a power she can barely control, that threatens to be let loose. The teenagers at Carrie’s high school are ignorant of this, pushing her until she finally snaps. This is why the gym teacher dies in De Palma’s original; Carrie is enraged, she no longer knows what she is doing. Moretz’s Carrie chooses to let her teacher, Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), live, she is in complete control, seemingly enjoying her killing spree. Throughout the first film you are constantly on Carrie’s side, you pity her; the same cannot be said for the remake, which undermines what Peirce has been doing throughout, updating Carrie’s themes for today’s audience.

It’s a shame, as there are some excellent performances in the Carrie remake. Moretz does a great job playing Carrie, delivering far less dialogue than Spacek. Instead, Moretz gives a more physical performance, frequently hunched up, eyes darting around her. Moretz’s pleading expression when she is being tormented makes it hard not to feel sorry for her. Also, the glares she gives early on as, for a moment, her anger gets the better of her, are startling. While Spacek will always be remembered as Carrie, Moretz gives it a damn good try.

Julianne Moore, a hugely underrated actress, is impressive as ever in her portrayal of Margaret White. Wisely avoiding any resemblance to Piper Laurie’s performance, Moore even manages to make you feel some sympathy towards Margaret. In De Palma’s film, Margaret White makes it very clear that she did not want a daughter; at no point does she show Carrie any love or kindness, instead punishing her and putting her down every chance she gets. While Laurie is terrifying as Carrie’s mother, Moore is more believable. Moore’s Margaret White also did not want to be a mother, but she sees being a parent as a test from God, and while at no point does she say her child’s name, instead referring to Carrie as “Little girl,” you get the sense that she loves her daughter and wants to protect her. Piper Laurie only hints at Margaret White self-harming, whereas Julianne Moore is repeatedly seen hitting her head, scratch marks on her arms and legs and, during one genuinely unpleasant scene, we watch Moore as she stabs her thigh with a hair clip. Moore’s Margaret White has been the victim of abuse, turning to God for comfort; she does not want Carrie to suffer and make the same mistakes that she did at her age, only Margaret goes about things the wrong way. Piper Laurie in Brian De Palma’s original film may have more of an impact on viewers, but Julianne Moore alone stops the Carrie remake from falling into the “Just another cynical remake” category.

Even Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) and Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) are given more to do this time round, both characters having been bullied in the past and, knowing what this feels like, come to Carrie’s aid. None of this was ever mentioned in De Palma’s film.

Peirce’s remake does have one other setback. During Boys Don’t Cry’s two hours, Peirce takes her time to make sense of her characters, exploring the themes surrounding Brandon Teena’s true story. With Carrie, Peirce charges towards Moretz’s blood-spattered vengeance. While the film is fast paced, and some screen time is spent exploring its characters, this is fleeting compared to Peirce’s previous films. You get hints of how complex and conflicted Carrie’s characters are, but then you quickly move onto the next scene. Considering how character-driven King’s novel is, how it is filled with subtext, making Peirce the ideal director for a 2013 version, for some reason she squanders this.

Like this year’s other horror re-tread, Evil Dead, Carrie is one of the better remakes out there, but, unlike Fede Alvarez’s film, it does not feel like there are many new ideas here. Moretz and Moore both give great performances, but are either let down by what is asked of them in the screenplay, or are not given enough time to really stand out. Peirce’s Carrie is not a total failure and is certainly worth a watch, even by devoted De Palma fans. It just feels like more could have been done here and that, ultimately, it’s a waste.

Rating: 3 out of 5


Sunday, 1 December 2013

Review: Thor: The Dark World (UK Cert 12A)

The eighth entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the second film in Phase 2, Thor: The Dark World sees the titular god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth) facing a threat from the Dark Elves- led by Malekith The Accursed (Christopher Eccleston)- who seek to destroy the Nine Realms by using an ancient weapon called the Aether at a time known as the Convergence, when all the realms are aligned. In London, Dr Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) starts to investigate strange anomalies with the laws of physics. It's only a matter of time before the separated lovers are reunited but the path of true love doesn't run smooth with the fate of the Nine Realms resting on Thor's shoulders and a very credible threat to Jane's safety. Add into this the machinations of the imprisoned Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and you have an absolute rip-roarer of a film which meets the level set by Thor and occasionally exceeds it.

It's a film that's huge in scale, going from icy wastes to the opulent splendour of Asgard to a run-down factory in London- taking in vast desert worlds and, finally, absolutely wrecking Greenwich. Alan Taylor, no stranger to sprawling fantasy epics (having directed half a dozen episodes of Games Of Thrones), is a safe pair of hands in the director's chair. Whilst Kenneth Branagh brought an almost Shakespearean feel to the first Thor, Taylor brings the Game Of Thrones aesthetic to Thor: The Dark World, which is no bad thing.

Performance-wise (and this will come to no surprise to anyone who's seen either the first Thor or The Avengers), Tom Hiddleston steals the show. His performance as Loki is just superb- he's scheming, conniving, insidious and downright evil in places and yet is likeable and charismatic with it. But- with the possible exception of Natalie Portman (who looks like she's phoning it in on occasion)- the rest of the cast are strong. Chris Hemsworth seems right at home in the armour, giving a strong leading performance. Idris Elba gets more to do as the guardian Heimdall whilst Jaimie Alexander is great as warrior maiden Sif. Kat Dennings gets more of the comedy relief role as Darcy but she's good at it so it doesn't matter.

Christopher Eccleston is great as Malekith, but it does feel as if there's a lot of his story missing (or maybe left on the cutting-room floor). The focus of the film is definitely more on the romance between Thor and Jane, and the family politics of the ruling house of Asgard - the Dark Elves feel more like a plot device which is a shame because visually they look imposing and there are good actors beneath the prosthetics not having much to do.

Visually, it's absolutely sublime so massive kudos to the CGI teams and the visual effects teams for some utterly sterling work. It's also genuinely funny in places (there's a great sight gag involving a drinks can). There's a frankly genius Avengers-related cameo (which is done very cleverly indeed) and the first of the mid-credits scenes nicely links to one of the upcoming Marvel releases. They also have left a few plot strands open for a third Thor movie if they want to. And since there doesn't seem to be anything coincidental or unplanned in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I would say a third outing is a pretty safe bet.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Thursday, 28 November 2013

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (UK Cert 12A)

The original Hunger Games arrived with enough hype to rival the London 2012 games. The first big screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ ridiculously successful teenage novels, this was to be the beginning of a huge film franchise that would go toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Harry Potter; the brand new Twilight. While the original film made enough money to buy a lifetime supply of Drumstick lollies and then some, the reaction from Collins’ fans, and those who had never picked up the books, was lukewarm. The film was watered down, lacking both the smart observations and brutal violence that made the books so celebrated. I have to hold my hands up and admit that I have never read the books, but from what friends have told me, The Hunger Games is Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale with a heart. The big screen version of The Hunger Games I saw was Battle Royale for the kiddies, with all the satire and teenage slaying removed to conveniently give the film a 12A rating.

It did not take the bigwigs at Lionsgate long to green light a sequel, and here we are with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. On the plus side, Catching Fire has learnt a few lessons since the original, though it’s unlikely to be troubling the likes of Hogwarts and Co. When the film does get going (which takes a while; it’s nearly two-and-a-half hours and during the first hour very little happens), you rarely stop to breathe, with one impressive set piece after another. Just as before, Jennifer Lawrence proves why she is the go-to-girl for Hollywood’s leading roles and why she totally deserved to win an Oscar.

Again, I’m pointing out that I have not read the novels, and maybe this is what screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Ardnt have had to work with, but the satire and nods feel as subtle as a brick through a window. The first hour of Catching Fire is virtually scene-after-scene of not so much nods, but head-butts to what’s going on in our world today: those with too much and those with not enough; politicians abusing their power; the public’s consumption for reality TV and how far these shows are willing to go for entertainment. Without sounding patronising, raising these issues is important, but there are contemporary films out there that have been far more successful at highlighting the world’s flaws. In Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, what made the film so heart-breaking was that at no point do its protagonists even consider an uprising, instead choosing to accept their fate. Also, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men showed us an alternative future, suggesting that it’s not too big a leap to see Britain becoming a nation of fascists. It wouldn’t be so bad if there was some character development or a narrative to push the film forward, and while there are a handful of scenes, for the most part Catching Fire’s first hour is determined to list the many injustices of this world in as blatant a way as possible.

Catching Fire feels like two films that have been bolted onto each other. You have the plodding first hour followed by the remainder of the film, which makes up for this with CGI set piece after CGI set piece. All of these scenes are brilliantly put together, and you do find yourself worrying about the characters (a scene involving a massive flock of mocking jays is chilling), though this is more because you are watching someone in deadly danger rather than actually caring about them. Jena Malone gets the most intriguing role as Johanna, driven mad by the Hunger Games and what it has cost, both to her and the people she loves. Unfortunately her backstory, the reason why she’s so angry all of the time, is explained away in an all too brief summing up by one of the supporting characters. With Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta, you’re not cheering him on because he is in love with Katniss, or because Peeta is a fully fleshed out character; it’s because he’s so damn nice.

Despite the film’s faults, for most of its running time it is a thrilling watch. When the tributes finally enter the arena it is action-packed and unrelenting, ending on a cliff-hanger that will certainly have me watching part three. There is plenty of bang for your buck here – poisonous fog, giant baboons and tidal waves to name just a few – and Jennifer Lawrence is perfect throughout. Katniss may not be the most complex film heroine, but Lawrence gives it her all, one minute being tough as hell with a bow and arrow, the next being caring and compassionate, letting that tough pretence suddenly slip. You can forgive many of Catching Fire’s problems because Lawrence does such a great job.

Rating: 3 out of 5