Friday, 30 August 2013
Joss Whedon and William Shakespeare. A potent combination that I was powerless to resist. I'm a huge fan of both and it's clear that Whedon is certainly a fan of the Bard (fun fact- 'Once More With Feeling', the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, came about during a private reading of Shakespeare). Shot in black and white at Whedon's own home in just twelve days, and featuring a cast that includes many actors from his previous TV shows and movies, this is a slick and stylish adaptation of one of Shakespeare's best-thought-of plays.
Whilst the setting is modern day, the language is Shakespeare's as is the plot. Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his associates Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) return from a victorious campaign against Pedro's villainous brother Don John (Sean Maher) and his associates, whom they have captured. Visiting Leonato, the governor of Messina (Clark Gregg), Claudio falls in love with Leonato's daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) whilst Benedick verbally spars with Leonato's headstrong niece Beatrice (Amy Acker). The scene is set for romance, however there is a snake in this paradise: Don John, who seeks to destroy Claudio and Hero's burgeoning relationship for his own amusement.
I'll say, right off the bat, that I've never really been taken by Much Ado About Nothing as a play- I have several issues with the Claudio/Hero B-story which takes the shine off it for me, although the pairing of Beatrice and Benedick is amongst Shakespeare's finest double acts. But Whedon does something extraordinary here - he manages to make the more implausible parts of that storyline into something very affecting and even moving.
That's down in no small part to the cast of the movie. Sometimes, when it comes to Shakespeare, you can tell the actors are just saying the lines and not really paying attention or understanding the meaning behind it. Not so here. Everyone speaks the language fluently and the meaning comes through. Performances are uniformally excellent so it seems unfair to single people about, but Acker is just fantastic as Beatrice, running the gamut from disdainful, playful and flighty to fierce, upset and forthright. Denisof is a perfect foil for her as the smooth Benedick and their easy camaraderie together will be a joy to fans of the TV show Angel. Whedon makes a shrewd move by showing the previous intimate relationship shared by Beatrice and Benedick which gives their 'war of words' a greater depth. Clark Gregg- a late replacement for Anthony Head who was unable to take part due to scheduling difficulties- is excellent as Leonato, coming across as authoritative but also warm, whilst Maher makes for a very silky and seductive villain. Nathan Fillion (Firefly/Serenity) is on fine scene-stealing form as the hapless policeman Dogberry.
You can tell this has been a real labour of love for Whedon and he's a director skilled enough to stop this passion project from becoming utterly self-indulgent. There are some excellent moments of physical comedy, a very lovely soundtrack and some beautiful cinematography. It's light and actually funny, a perfect romantic comedy. I left the cinema beaming and feeling uplifted and joyous.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Thursday, 29 August 2013
There’s no in-between with slasher films. They’re like Marmite; you either love them or hate them. There are those who enjoy the thrill, the tension, the guessing where the killer’s going to appear next; then there are those who, to quote Neve Campbell in Scream, think they’re all the same, “Some stupid killer, stalking some big-breasted girl, who can't act, who is always running upstairs when she should be running out the front door.” For me, I love a good slasher film, if it’s done right. Out of all the horror sub-genres – and film in general – the slasher film has literally been done to death. Every method of killing someone has more-or-less been done, and there are far too many films where a woman, with her cleavage ready to fall out, falls over (no reason why she falls over, she just does) then begs the masked killer not to carve her up.
I may have been living in a log cabin in the woods, miles from anyone, but I don’t remember all that much hype about Adam Wingard’s You’re Next. Like the very best slasher film killers, it quietly snuck up on me. The first I knew about it was when I saw a poster on the side of a phone box, with line after line of four and five-star reviews and the film’s title dripping in blood. Who needs Photoshop, that poster told me all I needed to know.
If Hitchcock’s Psycho started the ball rolling, then John Carpenter’s Halloween wrote the rule book. Sadly, after the success of Halloween, countless imitations followed (anyone fancy Crazy Fat Ethel 2?), which gave slasher films their garbage reputation. What should have been a sub-genre of original cinematography, editing and sound design, simply became an excuse to see some breasts.
Where does You’re Next sit in this over-crowded sub-genre? Thankfully somewhere near the top, if not quite reaching the classic status of Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street.
The problem with You’re Next is that it’s a film of two halves. The first half is the set up: the so-obnoxious-it’s-hysterical family coming together, the masked killers wiping them out one-by-one; then the second half sees Sharni Vinson’s character turn the tables and bring the fight to the killers. Me personally, I much preferred the second half.
This probably makes me sound crazy, but I judge a slasher film by the number of times I sit in the cinema and mutter, “He’s under the bed”, “He’s behind the door”, or “He’s in the closet”. Sadly, with the exception of a ridiculously tense scene involving a crossbow, and one jolt that I genuinely didn't see coming, the first half of You’re Next has far too many predictable moments like this.
Another thing that annoys me with slasher films is how stupid some of the characters behave. I get that if the teenagers didn't go into the old house, or never went into the woods to check what that noise was, there would be no film, but it ruins my enjoyment when I see a character do something that is genuinely, mind-bogglingly stupid. You’re Next does not have too many scenes like this, and many of these can be explained by an impressively original plot twist, but they still grate. The sole purpose of one female character is simply to scream a lot and provide no practical help whatsoever (luckily she’s killed off early on).
Then you have the second half, where Sharni Vinson picks up every kind of sharp object you can think of and takes the killers on single-handed. This part of the film is a hell of a lot fun! Vinson’s Erin is up there with Scream’s Sidney Prescott, Jamie Lee Curtis’s reinvention of Laurie Strode in Halloween H20, and Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street in the classic Final Girl stakes. Vinson does everything right, is as tough as nails, and you genuinely start worrying about the killers, as there’s no way they are going to make it out of the house alive.
I really wish screenwriter Simon Barrett had the guts to do this from the start, rather than the seen-it-all-before first half: masked killers terrorise a house only to get more than they bargained for when one of the residents is the female Rambo. I’ve certainly never seen a slasher film play out like that for a full ninety minutes.
That said, You’re Next can go round-for-round with Scream when it comes to one-liners; some of the bickering between the family, and also the killers, is gold dust (“Come on man, give me a break; just die!”). The cinematography cranks up the tension with plenty of close ups, hiding the killers from view, some great use of light and dark that hails back to Carpenter, as well as some carefully timed editing, where a shot is held for an excruciatingly long time before we get the loud music and cut to the killer leaping out.
Wingard’s film is no Cabin in the Woods, and it’s definitely no Scream, but if you like your slasher films then You’re Next is easily one of the better examples of the sub-genre, if not quite the four/five-star film its icky poster claims.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Tuesday, 27 August 2013
It starts just the same as the Brothers Grimm fairytale it rips off. As children, Hansel and Gretel are left in the wood by their father and can't find their way home. They find a gingerbread house and a witch who lures them in to fatten them up to eat. They turn the tables and kill the witch. The witch-hunting then becomes their career. As adults (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton), they're asked to find the witch who is stealing children away from a small village. However, what they uncover is no simple abduction- the powerful witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) has a plan to make all witches fire-proof. But first they just need one last ingredient- the heart of a Grand White Witch.
It's difficult to know where exactly to begin. Actually, no, it isn't. Tommy Wirkola, the writer and director of this unadulterated piece of tripe, should never be allowed to even write a shopping list again if this is the best he can come up with. What's worse, a studio actually GREENLIT this. Someone actually heard this idea and thought 'That'll make a good movie! Here, have lots of money'.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not one of these people who thinks that all cinema has to be art, or that every screenplay ever written has to be award-worthy. I'll happily sit through a blockbuster as much as an arthouse flick. But what I do ask is that the script is entertaining, doesn't rely on overworn cliches and generally has more substance than a one-line title pitch.
All the usual tropes are used- distrustful townsfolk, a white witch in hiding, painful revelations about the main characters' past- and none to any surprising or entertaining effect. The script is uneven and utterly predictable: when one particular character dies at the hands of the witch, they ask Hansel to do something for them. Jokingly, I said 'kill the f****** b****'. Guess what? That's exactly what they said. Lazy and not that funny.
Another issue I have is the portrayal of the central female character. Gretel is painted as a kick-ass no-nonsense action heroine, but for a kick-ass no-nonsense action heroine, she sure is put in situations where she has to be saved by a man an awful lot, the most distasteful of which is a potential rape by the boorish sheriff (Peter Stormare). When you consider that the whole point of the historic anti-witchcraft trials was the degradation of women who didn't toe the line, it's unsurprising to find a virulent strain of misogyny shot through the film, which I found unpleasant.
Both Renner and Arterton are better actors than this. So is Famke Janssen for that matter, who sadly relies on slicing the ham quite thick. But that's down to how she's been directed. Some of the make-up looks cheap and shoddy, some of the visual effects were just dreadful and- once again- you could tell which bits were added in for the 3D cinema release.
Am I overthinking things? Maybe. Am I asking too much of a film with a title as blatant as Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters? Probably. I'm sure there are people who enjoyed this and could let it wash over them without too much fuss, a film as insubstantial as candyfloss and forgotten as soon as they walked out of the cinema. Sadly I'm not one of those people and the film quickly passed from so-bad-it's-actually-good to just bad.
What stops this from being a zero-star review? Not much, to be honest. I liked maybe one or two ideas (Hansel being diabetic due to eating too much candy as a child, for instance) but the rest is just woeful. Avoid.
Rating: 1 out of 5
Monday, 26 August 2013
I recently went on holiday to Prague. Now, Prague is a beautiful city and so it's no surprise that it's often been used as a filming location. Over the years, films as diverse as Amadeus (1984), xXx (2002), Mission: Impossible (1996), Eurotrip (2004), Casino Royale (2006) and The Omen (2006) and have all filmed in the city, making use of its stunning and diverse architecture.
However, close to the famous Charles Bridge is a hidden gem. Opened in 2012, the Karel Zeman Museum is an interactive exhibition dedicated to the work of a Czech director who also belongs between Georges Melies and Ray Harryhausen in the pantheon of pioneering visual effects artists.
Zeman was born in 1910 and studied in France before returning to Czechoslovakia and wokring in advertising. He met the animator Elmar Klos who offered Zeman a job at an animation studio in Zlin. Zeman accepted the job in 1943 and worked as an assistant before becoming the director of the stop-motion animation production group in 1945. He started making short films, before moving on to feature-length movies which combine live-action and animation techniques. He was still working in the 1980s and died in Zlin in 1989.
The museum is full of exhibits showcasing Zeman's life and work. The best part is you are actively encouraged to take photos and videos and even use the props for yourself.
This was a camera used by Zeman in the shooting of his films:
You can also see the glass figurines used in a 1949 short called Inspirace (Inspiration):
From 1946 to 1959, Zeman made a series of nine animated shorts featuring the character Mr Prokouk and you can see some of the original animations and some of the props too:
It's unsurprising that the main parts of the museum are dedicated to three of Zeman's major feature-length films. The first of these is Cesta do pravěku, also known as Journey To The Beginning Of Time (1955). It told the story of four boys who set out on a wooden boat back up the river of time into prehistoric times. A mix of education and Boys Own adventure, complete with trick photography and visual effects, it is regarded as a classic children's adventure and even had a nationwide release in America in 1960.
You can see a selection of props from the film as well as a book of storyboards taken for the film:
In Vynález zkázy, or The Fabulous World Of Jules Verne (1958), Zeman takes inspiration from Verne's Facing The Flag and the original illustrations for Verne's work to create what American critic Pauline Kael called a "wonderful giddy science fantasy". The film travels beneath the sea and through the sky and you can control the submarine or even have a try on the flying machine:
Baron Prášil, or The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961), takes the tall tales of the German nobleman and infuses them with a touch of Verne and applies Zeman's blend of live-action and animation to create what Howard Thompson of The New York Times calls "a delectable oddity". The Baron lands on the Moon and mistakes a crashed cosmonaut for the man in the moon, bringing him back to Earth and involving him in all sorts of madcap shenanigans.
One of the major props from Baron Prášil is the Moon rose chair - at the right angle, it can look as if you are sitting on a rose on the Moon.
Baron Prášil was screened at the BFI in the 1980s and had a direct influence on Terry Gilliam and his subsequent film The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988). In an interview, Gilliam said: 'He did what I'm still trying to do, which is to try and combine live action with animation. His Doré-esque backgrounds were wonderful. The film captured the real spirit of the character.'
There are video screens all throughout the museum, showing clips of the films and acting as DVD extras, explaining how and why certain things were done. They are in Czech but all have English subtitles.
For film fans and anyone interested in the history of film (especially visual effects), this is worth a few hours of your time. You don't need to know who Zeman was or what he did to enjoy the museum but you'll leave with a fresh appreciation of a true master of his craft.
You can check out the museum's website here.
Thursday, 22 August 2013
Ryan Gosling and director Derek Cianfrance reunite after the emotionally bruising Blue Valentine for The Place Beyond The Pines, a gripping, well-made (if slightly ponderous) crime thriller.
Luke Glanton (Gosling) is a motorbike stunt rider working for a travelling fair. When back in New York, he finds his ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes) has had a child without telling him. Wanting to provide for his new son, Luke starts pulling off bank robberies. One robbery brings Luke up against policeman Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an encounter that has a lasting impact on both their lives- and the lives of their sons fifteen years later.
The film can be roughly broken into three sections- Luke's story, Avery's story and their sons' stories. Gosling is front and centre for the first section, a brooding presence easily bringing to mind his performance in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. The Drive comparisons are apt- a laconic stunt driver involved in crime- but luckily there's more to the role (and Gosling's performance) than a mere facsimile. He's a man wanting to do right but going about it in the wrong way. The heists and subsequent chases are thrilling and giddily shot but there is a tendency towards ponderous shots of Gosling looking enigmatically into the distance.
Bradley Cooper proves his dramatic performance in Silver Linings Playbook was not a one-off, with a decent and nuanced turn as an idealistic rookie given a crash course in the murkier side of police life. For me, this second section is the most successful part of the film. It's certainly the best written section, transcending what could be a stock cliched situation (hero cop tempted by the dark side) to something deeper. Cooper's performance is excellent and his clashes with fellow police officers (including Bruce Greenwood and the brilliantly psychotic Ray Liotta) really spark.
The final section- featuring Luke's now teenage son Jason (Dane DeHaan) and Avery's son AJ (Emory Cohen)- is perhaps the least successful section for me. DeHaan's performance as the conflicted Jason is powerful but I really wasn't sold on AJ. I don't know whether it's because of Cohen's performance or if because the character of AJ, as written, comes across as a spoilt entitled brat. This part of the story has a lot of potential for some real high drama- Jason and AJ's nascent friendship is bound to be ripped apart, due to the revelations of the past- but what should be a gutwrench is more of a damp squib. However, there's a powerful stand-off between Cooper and DeHaan to redeem it.
This is a real Boys Own adventure with the female characters being rather shortchanged- a shame, considering Blue Valentine had such a strongly characterised female lead. Mendes is good with what she's given but it's a slightly thankless role, whilst Rose Byrne doesn't get much to do as Avery's wife Jennifer. Because the thrust of the story is very much 'the sins of the father being visited on the son', the female characters are very incidental.
There's a few niggles that prevent The Place Beyond The Pines from being truly great for me. Nonetheless, it's still an eminently watchable film, if only for Bradley Cooper's tremendous performance in the second act.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Wednesday, 21 August 2013
Now, before you start firing a World War Three-scale barrage of abuse, just hold fire while I talk about Kick Ass 2, as many of the problems I had with the first film crop up in its newly released sequel.
I’ll play the superhero for now and talk about what’s great about Kick Ass 2. While there aren’t many howl with laughter moments (although a scene involving UK boy band Union J is a highlight), it is more-or-less consistently funny, with Chloë Moretz’s foul-mouthed one-liners sounding like something Shakespeare secretly wrote. There are some great performances: Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a cheer-worthy hero as Kick Ass, Chloë Moretz is one of the best things about the films, Jim Carrey more than makes up for a lack of Nicolas Cage, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse is his usual effortlessly funny self as well as getting to turn up the diabolically evil all the way to eleven in this sequel (his costume looks like an S&M version of Jacko’s outfit in the Bad video). The action, while, oddly for a sequel, not as big-scale as the original, is fast paced, well edited, with plenty of wince inducing injuries. Jim Carrey disowned the film because of its violence, which seems strange as, while both films use household objects in plenty of inspired ways, I've still seen far worse in more highbrow, critically swooned over films.
And now I’m going to wear my evil grin as I become the villain and discuss what’s not-so-great about Kick Ass 2. For me, it’s the same problem that dogged the first film: it doesn't know what it wants to be. I get that the Kick Ass films are a homage to super heroes, with plenty of nudge-nudge, wink-wink jokes aimed at comic book readers, but are they also trying to be stand-alone super hero films in their own right? I ask this is because both films don’t succeed at doing either, and it’s the scripts that have to take the flack here. The humour in the Kick Ass films isn't quite as knowing and well-observed as it needs to be, but to make matters worse is the truck driver gear changes in tone. With the Kick Ass films you can go from foul mouthed one-liners and tongue-in-cheek violence, to bleak-as-hell preaching about the consequences of one-man vigilante missions, then back to another of Hit Girl’s one-liners, all in the space of five minutes. If anything – and this might be because Matthew Vaughn, co-writer and director of the original, gets a producer credit with this one – the sequel feels even preachier than the first.
For me, this is what stopped me getting caught up in the hype of the first film. With Kick Ass 2, the same applies, but even more so. That said, the sequel is enjoyable, funny and has the same glossy editing as the original.
Kick Ass 2 is worth a look, and there are far worse ways of killing nearly two hours of your life, you just find yourself wishing there had been a Hit Girl spin-off instead.
3 out of 5
Sunday, 18 August 2013
Earlier this year, whilst the epic Lincoln was still in the cinemas, another biopic of an important American President came and went with very little fanfare.
Hyde Park On Hudson tells the story of the important meeting of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and King George VI (Samuel West) at Roosevelt's country retreat in New York during June 1939, which led to America's involvement in the Second World War. However, it's not just about that pivotal weekend- it also delves into Roosevelt's private life, insinuating an affair with his distant cousin Daisy (Laura Linney). I really wanted to like this film but walked away from it feeling distinctly underwhelmed.
The main problem I had with Hyde Park On Hudson was that it didn't seem to know what it wanted to be. Was it a straight biopic of FDR? A period piece about the meeting between the King of Great Britain and the President of the United States? A foreigners-abroad comedy? A country-house comedy of manners? A personal relationship drama? It tries to be all of these things (and succeeds at some whilst failing at others) but there's a jarring shift in tonality when the separate strands cross over.
The film is narrated by Daisy. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with films that use omniscient narrators. The first rule of successful creative writing is show, don't tell. An omniscient narrator can sometimes be a shorthand way of telling the story which works in some films and doesn't in others. This falls into the latter category. The main problem is that Daisy narrates events that she wasn't present at. Linney does her best with the material she's given but Daisy is written as a bit of a wet lettuce, simply mooning after FDR and (rather hypocritically) playing the injured party when it's revealed there is another 'other woman' in his life.
Performances are generally strong across the board. Murray leads from the front, playing FDR as an avuncular rogue with a twinkle in his eye. He's charismatic without necessarily always being likeable and there's an after-dinner scene between him and Samuel West which is just superb. As George VI, West avoids coming off as a Colin Firth imitation (which is great) but is still initially lumbered with a stiff-upper-lip caricature. Luckily, that wears off during the course of the film. The relationship between George and Queen Elizabeth is strained by the trip, with Elizabeth worrying about the Americans making fun of them but also undermining George by comparing him to his brother. Luckily, Olivia Colman is playing Elizabeth and she is an actress who can elevate whatever she's given to make it something better than it is. There's also a nice (if underwritten) role for Olivia Williams, playing the formidable First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
It's a relatively short film (94 minutes) so doesn't outstay its welcome. The most successful parts of the film for me where the parts regarding the royal visit. More focus on that and less on the frankly tedious relationship side would have made it stronger. It's not a complete washout but certainly isn't greater than the sum of its parts.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Friday, 16 August 2013
In The Simpsons’ big screen spin-off, Homer points out, “I can't believe we're paying to see something we get on TV for free!” When a TV series gets its own film, that quote is usually the first thing I think of. Aside from the money, what’s the point? What am I going to see in a feature film that couldn’t have been shown in one or two episodes? Homer, Marge, Bart and co.’s big screen debut, while no misfire, was basically an extended TV episode. The first X-Files film, while decent enough, felt like an excuse to show some big budget set pieces you wouldn’t have seen in the TV series.
When it was announced that Alan Partridge was to get his own film, being a long-time fan I was ridiculously excited. Then I heard that the film was going to centre on a hostage situation and the cynic in me reared his ugly head. It sounded like the team of writers put ideas into a hat and this is the first one that they picked. Anyone who has the job of transferring a TV series to the cinema has an unenviable task: re-hash the same old material and audiences will wonder why they bothered; try and do something too different and your loyal audience feels pushed out. So how does Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa fare?
The writers (including Alan Partridge’s co-creator Armando Iannucci) have got the balance spot on. Alpha Papa is minute-after-minute of Partridge’s one liners and completely miss the point observations that have made the character such an icon, while also serving up imaginative grand-scale visual gags (this film has one of the funniest opening credits in a long time!).
What helps the film is that we haven’t seen all that much of Alan recently. Apart from the Mid-Morning Matters online series and an appearance on Red Nose Day a few years back, he has been more-or-less absent from our screens. With Alpha Papa, Norwich’s prodigal son gets put under the microscope. Yes, he obsesses over all things trivial, he’s selfish, and just that little bit dull, but he is a man stuck in a rut and waiting for that excuse to turn his life around (that excuse being having a gun held to his head by a crazed Irishman).
It’s plain to see that Steve Coogan relishes playing Alan; there’s so much that an actor can do with the character, but you can’t imagine anyone else playing him. Plenty of the film’s laughs come, not from the dialogue, but from a quick glance or an awkward squirm. Steve Coogan is a master of physical comedy, on a par with John Cleese and Eric Morecambe.
For those who “Smell my cheese!” means nothing to them, is Alpha Papa worth a watch? You can pay your money to see a so-called comedy and feel cheated because all the laughs were in the trailer; with Alan Partridge’s move to the big screen you are almost constantly laughing. The pace, the timing, the observations, and at times the sheer “bonkersness” are as close to perfect as a comedy can get. With The Inbetweeners Movie and now Alpha Papa, British big screen comedy is in an enviable place right now.
5 out of 5
Monday, 12 August 2013
It is with the greatest of pleasure that we introduce a new member of The Watchers:
Born across the border in England (don’t hold that against me!), my degree was in Film and Television at Aberystwyth, going on to study Screenwriting in Bournemouth. Both courses have meant I've never been able to sit back and watch a film ever again.
Strangely for someone who studied film – and has joined a film blog – I am writing for theatre, with my scripts being performed at a few festivals and new writing events around the country. I guess I’m the Watcher who will pick apart a script like the contents of a bucket of KFC, but I can also put my brain into neutral and watch a film with fast cars, explosions, and CGI. I’m willing to give any film a go (except musicals. I've always wondered where the music’s coming from. Is the lead being stalked by an orchestra?).
Welcome to The Watchers, Matt - it's great to have you on board!
Rhys & Tez