Mild Ranting

An Open Letter To The Competition Commission: Don’t You Mess With My Cinemas!

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Cineworld Birmingham

Got a nice little pop-up when I signed into my blog this morning, saying “Happy Anniversary!” While I thought it nice, if a little creepy and stalkerish, that WordPress knew it was my wedding anniversary yesterday, I then also remembered that last Saturday was the third anniversary of The Movie Evangelist. Seems hard to think that, at the time of my wedding in 2005, the cinema in the picture (Cineworld Birmingham) was one of my two regular haunts, and only even became a Cineworld that year after the merger between the Cineworld and UGC chains. Now I frequent mostly the local cinemas of Cambridge and Bury St. Edmunds, living as I do somewhere in between the two, and a blog that wasn’t even a glint in the milkman’s video shop owner’s eye at the time has now been running for three years, churned out over four hundred posts and been to numerous film festivals and has seen me get on local radio and host Q & A sessions.

The intent to start a blog came nearly three years after I moved to Cambridgeshire with Mrs Evangelist, but despite the wealth of cinemas in both Leicester – where I lived for seven years – and Birmingham, where I spent another three, there was something almost serendipitous about my increased love of cinema and desire to blog about it and the fact I was living where I was. Cambridge and Bury St. Edmunds are both lucky enough to have both a Cineworld and a Picturehouse cinema, and I’m certain this blog wouldn’t have had the depth and breadth it has if that hadn’t been the case. I hope that the Competition Commission isn’t about to put a giant spanner in the works of the Movie Evangelist, because of something that happened a few months back.

There was a certain amount of fear and trepidation when it was announced in December last year that Cineworld had acquired the Picturehouse chain of twenty-one cinemas for a sum of £47.3m. So far, any concerns about what the merger might mean have been unfounded, as it’s been absolutely business as usual for both chains since that date, but now another threat looms. Yesterday, the Office Of Fair Trading referred the purchase to the Competition Commission on the basis that five areas, including Cambridge and Bury, will see a reduction in competition based on the purchase.

There’s actually a total of five areas listed in the news story, so let’s consider the competition for a moment.

Aberdeen: four cinemas, of which two are Cineworld and one is a Picturehouse, the other being owned by Vue, serving a population of 212,000 people.

Brighton: this south coast resort has two Picturehouses, a Cineworld and an Odeon, all serving 155,000 people.

Bury St. Edmunds: an eight screen Cineworld and a two screen Picturehouse only in this smallish market town of 35,000 people.

Cambridge: the university city has a Cineworld, a Picturehouse and a Vue serving around 124,000 inhabitants.

Southampton: there’s an IMAX-ed up Odeon, a Picturehouse and a Cineworld in Southampton and a Vue five miles up the road in Eastleigh, all of which are easily accessible to the 304,000 residents of the Southampton urban area.

So of the five, only one – and by far the smallest of the five – doesn’t have another cinema chain in the immediate vicinity, so in four areas, competition will remain.

But what does it matter if there are two or three cinemas under the same ownership in each area? The argument made as part of the referral is that the Picturehouse chain, while generally offering a diverse range of art house and independent cinema, makes a decent slice of its cash by showing the bigger films that would be on in both cinemas. Consequently, having two cinemas with the same owners could see a rise in prices.

If that were to be the case it would have to see a radical rethink in terms of the pricing policy of one or the other chains. I would make a case that Cineworld and Picturehouse are the two best cinema chains in the UK, because they offer something that the other large chains (Vue, Odeon, Empire, Showcase) don’t: membership rates. Picturehouse members get three free films a year, and no booking fees and discounts on all other tickets, and Cineworld are the all-you-can-eat-buffets of cinema, offering as much as you can watch before your eyeballs dry out for just £16 a month. (Rest assured, I know from personal experience that you can see a LOT of movies before that happens.) It’s also the case at most of the Picturehouses I’ve been to that the big films they’re showing are also filling screens at other cinemas, such as Skyfall and Les Misérables, so it’s a case of supply and demand more than restriction of competition.

But it’s not just about the initial membership rates. Cineworld also reward me for being a long term member with their Unlimited Premium scheme, and I now get 25% off all food and drink as well as no 3D uplift charge. Picturehouse also have a proper bar at every screen, so I can take my decent coffee or my pint in with me or enjoy it, or excellent food, in the bar, all with a member’s discount. There is no doubt in my mind – and I can say this as someone who also makes regular trips to a variety of other cinemas, including Vue, Odeon, Empire, Showcase and Curzon, as well as a few independents – that the Cineworld and Picturehouse chains reward their core audience and are the best at value for money. Picturehouse goes a step further and offers the best cinema experience you’ll get, at affordable prices. If it ain’t broke, OFT, then it don’t need fixing.

I don’t want to lose either of these chains from either of my local cities, not least because it happened once before. The Cineworld chain were forced to sell off seven cinemas from the UGC chain when they merged, including the Cineworld Great Park in Birmingham, my local at the time. It’s now an Empire, and while it’s not a bad cinema experience, you do get charged per visit, which for someone like me starts to ramp up the cost significantly. It’s this that I fear the most from yesterday’s announcement, as it’s the only practical way to attempt to restrict the possibility of competition. While there might be a risk of prices increasing – and losing customer loyalty in the process – under the current set-up, there’s an absolute guarantee that selling any of the cinemas off in the affected cities would guarantee an immediate and significant price rise for anyone seeing more than two films a month, as consumers become forced to pay the higher prices of the other chains.

So please, Competition Commission, allow Cineworld and Picturehouse to carry on operating as they are. Look at restrictions in areas where they’ve yet to expand, rather than restricting their current practice, which has two business models that complement each other and drive costs down for the consumer, as opposed to the other chains who are actually the ones more interested in profit than the consumer experience.

Seriously, what is everyone’s problem with Die Hard 4?

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Die Hard 4
If they thought the mob was angry now, that was nothing to the reaction when the next one got butchered to a 12A…

Today’s my birthday (don’t worry, I wasn’t expecting a card or anything) and as a lovely birthday present, 20th Century Fox have seen fit to release a new Die Hard film in the week of my birthday. But like receiving a birthday cake that someone’s licked all the icing off, Fox have seen fit to send us Brits only the least offensive parts of the latest vestathon from America’s favourite retired bartender. The excitement that had built up in many parts from people seeing that this would receive an R rating in the US has turned to anger at the knowledge that Uncle Sam is keeping the blood sprays and the verbalisation of sexual denigration of those who prefer mothers all to itself.

It’s clear that those people (a) haven’t seen the trailer for this film, which looks shards-of-glass-in-toe-curlingly awful, as if Fox compiled all of the worst parts of the film into one easily digestible two minute package, and (b) seem to have forgotten that Die Hard 4.0, or Live Free To Die Hard as it was known across the pond, wasn’t much cop either. Or at least, that’s the received wisdom. But that’s not how I remember it. I seem to remember actually really enjoying Die Hard 4.0. But of course I’m mad, and the only one who did. Because everyone knows that only the first three Die Hards are any good, and the fourth is just a bit rubbs, innit?

The Prince Charles Cinema in London, one of the capital’s finest and most respected emporiums of cinematic thrills, seem to agree, sticking resolutely to showing the Die Hard Trilogy and completely omitting the fourth entry from their own celebratory marathon. And they’re not alone; the general consensus from what I read on the internet – which is always an unimpeachable source of fact – is that Die Hard 4.0 either isn’t a good film, or might be OK but isn’t a great Die Hard.

I’m not quite sure what it’s done to deserve this reputation, but further research on the internet shows how each of the films is regarded by the movie-going public and by those harshest of judges, critics:

Die Hard Rankings

So Die Hard is ranked by all as the cast-iron classic it absolutely is. No surprise there. But it seems most groups regard either Harder or With A Vengeance (or both) as not as good as the fourth one. Die Hard 4 is that exception that proves the rule – it’s a good Len Wiseman movie, with a reasonable supporting cast, if you overlook the presence of Timothy Olyphant as the weakest bad guy in the series.

So maybe it is a good film, but not a good Die Hard film? There’s generally four main complaints that I hear about the fourth Die Hard that make it Not A Die Hard, so let’s take them in order of quickness.

1. Yippie-ki-yay, motherfmpfl

What’s wrong with this video? (Rated 15 for language, except the last few seconds which are a 12A.)

Yes, much wailing and gnashing of teeth was expressed over the last movie and its similarly botched rating, getting a PG-13 in America but still managing a 15 here, even with the mangled ending. While I’m extremely frustrated not to be able to watch a film designed for adults in a cinema, where they’re supposed to be seen, the copy I have to watch at home reinstates the “ucker” and provides the much-needed catharsis for McClane’s extreme violence. But think about the other great lines from the other three Die Hards. Are they dependent on language offensive to mothers everywhere?

John McClane: [stealing Tony’s shoes] Nine million terrorists in the world and I gotta kill one with feet smaller than my sister.

Hans Gruber: [addressing the hostages] I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative. Not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way… so he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.

Holly Gennero McClane: After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief.
Hans Gruber: I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.

Dwayne T. Robinson: We’re gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess.

Carmine Lorenzo: You’d be a surprised what I make in a month.
John McClane: If it’s more than a dollar ninety-eight I’d be very surprised.

Gen. Ramon Esperanza: [Esperanza has landed the plane and steps outside] Freedom!
John McClane: [punches him] Not yet!

Simon: No, no. My only problem is that I went to some trouble preparing that game for McClane. You interfered with a well-laid plan.
Zeus: Yeah, well, you can stick your well-laid plan up your well-laid ass.

Swear words are mere profane embellishments to what should be core values of story and dialogue, and if A Good Day To Die Hard is to succeed, it will have remembered this rather than relying on one tired old catchphrase. Or it could even road test some new alternatives, obviously without the swearing.

2. They are so frail, humans. So easily crumpled and broken

What actually makes a Die Hard film? Obviously it’s John McClane, fighting his way through increasingly testing situations. One of the key observations often quoted around the first film is how McClane bore the effects of his struggles, sat frustratedly in a bathroom while picking glass out of his feet, counting himself lucky that he hadn’t sliced through an artery and swiftly bled to death. Here’s a list of the number of times McClane showed similar difficulties, questioning not only his mission but almost his chances of success and survival, in the subsequent two films:

  1. He got a little bit miffed when he failed to save a plane with 200 passengers and O’Brien off Star Trek on it. But that doesn’t really count as it wasn’t about himself.
  2. Er, that’s it.

So this happened once, in Die Hard. Hardly a staple of the series, is it?

Additionally, John McClane keeps finding himself in these situations. He would either become hardened to it, or go on an insane rampage, indiscriminately killing innocent bystanders. (Which I believe is the plot of A Good Day To Die Hard.)

3. Location, location, location

Mr Takagi, I admire your attention to detail, but your model doesn't have 35 floors. What do you mean, the building doesn't either?
Mr Takagi, I admire your attention to detail, but your model doesn’t have 35 floors. What do you mean, the building doesn’t either?

The original entry in the series has an iconic location, so iconic in fact that it appeared on the first poster in place of Bruce Willis himself. The Fox building which became Nakatomi Plaza on-screen is almost as much of a character as a McClane or a Gruber. Since then, each film has seen a subsequent expansion, to airport, city and eastern seaboard. There’s also been grumbling that the series has consequently lost its focus with that expansion, but I’d counter that with a couple of things: it never did Grand Theft Auto any harm, and sequels do demand the law of increasing returns.

While on the former point I’ll admit it’s a bit of a cheat, I do think the continual expansion of the series has helped to keep it fresh. If we were just re-treading the same ground each time in buildings of random sizes (a skyscraper! a train station! a really large bungalow!) the Die Hards wouldn’t have lasted as long as they have. I don’t hold with the argument that keeping the location confined is a pre-requisite; many action movies, and Die Hard is little different, feature the protagonist and antagonist kept separate for much of the film, before a final confrontation. The first two have brief encounters with Gruber and Colonel Stewart respectively, but this is another argument where it comes down to character and conflict rather than a forced situation.

4. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a man in a grubby white vest

The last complaint that most often crops up regarding the continued evolution of the Die Hard series concerns the action, and most specifically this scene where McClane and his giant truck take on a F35 fighter.

The complaint here is again twofold; the unreality of John’s almost superhuman efforts, coupled with an excess of CGI. But if you look back over the series, effects work has long been a staple of the series, just at the level that the series could actually afford at the time. (Guess what? They didn’t actually blow up the rooftop of a downtown LA skyscraper. Movie magic, isn’t it wonderful…)

But it’s also about how feasible it is for a man to be sliding around on falling roads and flying jets. The immediate answer, of course, is not in the slightest, but is it the fault of Die Hard 4 that believability in the field of human endeavour has gone out the window? Let’s work back through the series to find where the root of the problem is.

  • Die Hard 4.0. McClane drives a car through a toll booth and into a helicopter, bailing out of the vehicle at a probable 90 miles per hour which leaves him very seriously injured. Or miraculously not.
  • Die Hard With A Vengeance. McClane and Carver leap from a boat that detonates in a massive explosion, about two seconds before it explodes so powerfully that the shockwave is felt miles away, undoubtedly seriously injuring them as they are about a foot underwater at the time.
  • Die Hard With A Vengeance. McClane and Carver are attempting to climb down a line from a truck on a bridge to a container ship, when the truck falls and drops them tens of feet onto the hard metal surface of container ship, leaving them both very seriously injured.
  • Die Hard 2: Die Harder. After fighting two leaders of the criminal gang on the wing of a moving plane, McClane falls off the wing of the plane moving at high speed, leaving him very seriously injured.
  • Die Hard. McClane leaps from the top of the Nakatomi Plaza, and after falling five floors with only a fire hose tied around his waist, the metal reel of the hose drops ten floors, instantly creating enough force to pull him straight out of the window despite his best efforts to resist it and leaving him very seriously dead.
  • Die Hard. McClane attempts to climb across an air vent at around thirty stories up; he slips and falls but attempts to grab onto a vent two stories below. Instead, he breaks both his arms and falls, leaving him extremely dead.

In conclusion, Die Hard 4.0 is the continuing adventures of a superhuman, wisecracking sociopath on a logically expanding wider canvas, featuring both international and family stakes based on a third large scale larceny encountered in just over a decade. As such, it’s not just a decent action movie, but an absolutely logical extension of the Die Hard universe.

Come back soon, where I expect to be reporting that the 12A rated, not released for critics, originally scripted fifth Die Hard film is a complete pile of cack, motherfmpflers.

The Corridor Of Uncertainty: How Long Before The Film Actually Starts?

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"One more advert and I'm giving up."
“One more advert and I’m giving up.”

We’ve dodged the bullet, avoided the Mayan apocalypse and arrived safely in 2013. Been to see a film yet? Maybe you’ve already scanned through the listings to see what’s coming up, in the hope of finding the first gem of the year, or at least the first mindless blockbuster which which to kill off a few more brain cells. But whatever your choice is, one thing’s almost certain: whichever film you choose to watch, you almost certainly won’t know what time it starts.

If you’re a normal person (i.e. not me), then I’d imagine that you look at the cinema listings, see what time the film starts, and then aim to arrive at the cinema around about that time. There’s a number of variables that you’re taking into account consciously or subconsciously, depending on your level of desperation to see the film in question, how often you have to suffer the ignominy of the lower end multiplex experience – parking, queuing for tickets, queuing for overpriced nachos and drinks – but based on my own observations of cinema audiences, the majority of people have managed to navigate all of the cumbersome obstacles placed in front of them by life and the cinema and have taken their seat for the advertised start time.

If you’re one of those well-organised people, what stands between you and the start of your chosen film hasn’t changed radically in terms of form or content for quite some years, but has grown ever longer and more twisted, like the fingernails of a desperate Guiness World record holder. If you’re visiting a cinema in the UK for a standard film, then what follows typically falls into around three broad sections. As you will typically have no idea how long these sections will last, either individually or in total, I’m going to call this time The Corridor Of Uncertainty (a term which I have in no way, shape or form stolen off of cricket AT ALL).

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The first of these is the advertising. At Cineworld, Vue, Odeon and Picturehouse cinemas, you’ll know you’re off and running thanks to an introduction from the people who compile their adverts, Digital Cinema Media.

This will normally be a good indication as to whether the projector’s been pointed at the screen properly and quite how ear-splittingly loud the sound’s been turned up. If everything now appears to have turned into a colourful silent film, it’s probably been turned up to 11 and you should leave immediately and seek medical advice.

Let’s be completely honest about this, though: it’s no Asteroid, is it?

If you’re lucky enough to live near a cinema not in one of the four chains mentioned earlier (so Showcase, Apollo, Empire, Curzon, Everyman or most independents), you’re still privileged enough to get a burst of Asteroid to start your cinema experience, although in a slightly shortened form. If you’re going to be in for the long haul before your film starts, at least this will get you in a vaguely cheerful mood.

There then follows anything between five and ten minutes of actual adverts. These days the advent of advertising on everything from your phone to the wall of the toilets has lessened the need for local advertising; when I was a lad, the cinema adverts were packed full of details about local amenities, all conveniently located within a small number of yards of this cinema. (On one fateful occasion, this drew my family and I to try a new vegetarian restaurant in town; the poorly cooked lentil burgers were left half eaten on the table.) It’s also down to the changing requirements of cinema since it started: when films were first shown, each time a reel needed to be changed it resulted in an intermission, but as technology improved that became less of a concern. It was then the length of films that necessitated a break, often to avoid a DVT setting in among the majority of patrons, and this was an ideal opportunity to get in the adverts, as well as the chance to purchase your refreshments from the usherette or the foyer:

Sadly, the days of the multiplex and the need to fit in as many screenings as possible have seen the disappearance from most cinemas of many of these old traditions, and the usherette and the intermission have gone the same way as the balcony and the short film. Consequently the only opportunity to hit you with a barrage of adverts is when you first take your seat. After about ten minutes of constant adverts, most rational people will be ready to chew off their armrests with boredom.

Trailers

Then the bit which gets really exciting. (Exciting being a relative term, of course.) Any self respecting cinema will want to get you back for another visit, so what follows are three or four – or sometimes five; actually, I can recall getting as many as six on a couple of occasions – promos edited to within an inch of their life to plug upcoming product.

Again, the way in which we consume these mini movies has changed radically over the years, thanks largely to our old friend The Internet. It would be somewhat hypocritical of me to slag off the internet, given that you wouldn’t be reading this without it, but the internet has largely taken the magic out of watching trailers in the cinema. I still remember the days before this happened, when the only opportunity to see trailers was actually in the cinema, as all you tended to get on TV was a cut-down, thirty second version. I can remember it as recently as 1996, when I was at university and the internet was still that thing they had just at university, or if you were really lucky someone you knew had the internet at home on a connection quick enough to watch trailers streaming at the size of a postage stamp. Trailers like this one and their impossible closing shots were enough to make sure I was always sat down before the adverts finished.

Now, for anyone who’s a serious film lover, you can consume your trailers at home in HD quality before setting foot in a cinema. As there’s no film to otherwise draw in your attention, film studios have come up with increasingly desperate ways to wave their virtual arms in the air to get your attention, and teaser trailers, teaser trailers for the teaser trailers and grandly named innovations like announcement trailers attempt to show you all of their trailery goodness before you ever set foot in a cinema. (And quite often, the sheer barrage of promotional material means that you’ve seen pretty much every frame of the first two acts before you even arrive in the car park.) When the director of a movie goes on a chat show to spoof this phenomenon and it still doesn’t stop the promotional wheels from turning very tiny announcement-based cogs, there’s probably no hope for any of us.

Public Service Announcements

Think you’re going to get the film now? Think again. Now the cinema has to stop one step short of pinning your eyes open, Clockwork-Orange style, and forcing you to pay attention until the film starts. There will still be a whole range of possible further messages that the cinema needs to tell you before you get to watch what you paid for. Again, this phenomenon is nothing new, it’s just suffering from what’s known in the world of Management Bollocks™ as “scope creep”.

Evidence that this is nothing new, and a particular reminder that once upon a time, cinemas were a very different, and quite unhealthy, pastime:

Now, what you’re likely to be served up includes a reminder of which cinema you’re sitting in, just in case you’ve been sat there so long you’d forgotten:

Other cinema chains are available. Most of them are trying to convince you that their viewing experience is more whizzy than the others. You’ll also likely be reminded that sitting in the cinema being surrounded by children throwing popcorn and bored adults talking is a privilege that should in no way be abused by recording the film on your iPhone and showing it to your mates later:

There’s then also an opportunity to point out any special facilities that the cinema might offer, such as audio description or subtitles. You might then be really lucky and get something that’s a remix of almost everything you’ve had so far, cutting clips from a couple of dozen trailers into a sort of super-trailer to remind you to go to that place where you are right now, steadily losing the will to live:

What I’m sure you’re in the mood for now is one more advert, right? What normally occurs before you get to the film is a final advert, known in advertising parlance as the gold spot. The assumption is that by now, even the latest of stragglers and latecomers are in their seat, and in the UK that represents around 175 million opportunities for a person to see the gold spot advert. This might be used to remind you of the virtues of smaller cinema, such as the See Film Differently campaign:

Or to remind you to turn off your phone, often with yet another opportunity to plug some film product:

And after all that, hopefully you’ll get to see a message from FACT, reminding you that piracy is a crime, and then whatever automated system that’s replaced the projectionist will use this as an opportunity to widen the curtains and to start projecting the film in entirely the wrong aspect ratio, causing you to wonder why you even bothered.

But before I get too cynical – after all, my love for the cinema experience is why I write this blog – so I am trying to convince you to stick with it. If you’re going to a Saturday night screening, or the opening night on a random weeknight of the latest blockbuster, then if you want any hope of a decent seat you’re going to have to suck it up and sit through the Corridor Of Uncertainty. Just remember to stop chatting to your neighbour when everyone around you starts going “SSSSSSSHHHH!!!”, it’s your clue that the film’s finally started.

Beating the system

Or am I? Do you really have to sit through this? Most cinemas seem fairly reluctant to even tell you how long this is, so attempting to arrive in your seat just in time for the film itself would seem to be more luck than judgement. There are a few exceptions which will help the frustrated cineaste in such situations. ODEON cinemas have a small comment tucked away in their FAQ section on their website:

Odeon Trailers

This at least gives you a guide as to what they’re aiming for, even if personal experience tells me those figures are a minimum, rather than an average. Vue go one better on their website:

Vue Hobbit

Knowing the end time of the film means some simple mathematics will allow you to work back to when the actual film starts, thus allowing you to sneak in stealthily and in the nick of time. For the other chains, it requires a little more work to deduce this, but there’s still ways of working out when you should aim to arrive in your seat. Take the Cineworld chain, for example:

Cineworld Listings

These are timings for the showings this week of Jack Reacher at one of my locals. Jack Reacher’s running time clocks in at two hours and ten minutes, and the screenings have around three hours between start times. What I do know, from regular attendance and observation, is that my Cineworld almost invariably leave fifteen minutes between screenings, so for the 21:00 screening I can work back to assume that chucking out time for the earlier showing will be around 20:45, so the running time of the film suggests a start time of around 20:35. This should give anyone attending a guide that around thirty minutes of their life will be lost to adverts, trailers, PDAs and other associated guff if they arrive for the scheduled start time.

There are other ways of approaching this, as the approach of the BFI IMAX in London typifies. The screenshot above from Odeon’s FAQ indicates only five minutes of promotional nonsense, but what you do get is adverts, shown while people are filing in, and the start time indicates the start of the trailers. As these are being shown on the UK’s largest screen, even the most technically minded and largely-walleted of people won’t have seen them on a screen this big. Other chains, such as the Picturehouses, typically keep most of their pre-screening preamble down to fifteen to twenty minutes, making it just that little bit more bearable.

It might not be much of an issue for you if your trips to the cinema number in single figures for the year, although if one of those was the screening of Paranormal Activity 4 I saw last year, the 38 minutes of a combination of the above will have tested even the strongest of wills (and then the film itself will have pushed those wills to breaking point). It does become an issue for the likes of me, where I tend to to double or treble bills (or sometimes more), when sitting through the adverts, trailers and twaddle each time three or more times in a day will start to cause my brain to dribble out of my ears in sheer frustration. It’s also unnecessary time sat in a cinema seat which can be spent more effectively getting to the next film.

So if I’m off to the cinema with Mrs Evangelist, I’ll try to arrive when the adverts are on, as our trailer dissections in the car on the way home often take up longer than the discussion on the film itself. If I’m going alone, then I’m aiming to arrive as close to the end of the Corridor as possible. But one thing’s certain: no matter how many films I see this year, whether it be 20 or 200, I’ll have to put up with the Gold Spot in every single one. Sad to say, I’ve spent more time in the company of men like this than some members of my own family. I miss these guys.

 

Review Of 2012: The 10 Worst Movies I Saw In 2012

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It’s that time of year when I feel the Christmas spirit. No, wait, it’s actually sympathy kicking in for actual film critics, who have to watch whatever is put in front of them, rather than picking and choosing. But at least they don’t then suffer a crushing disappointment when something they were hoping would turn out to be good – or at least not unspeakably awful – turn out to be as enjoyable as getting a prostate examination from Captain Hook.

So this isn’t the list of the ten worst films of the year; even though the number one on the list I scored 1/10, my lowest possible score, there must have been ten worse films released this year, I just had the common sense to avoid them. (Although there was a period of about 20 minutes when I was considering doing a double bill of The Three Stooges and Keith Lemon: The Movie, before thankfully I came to my senses.) What this is, then, is the list of the ten most disappointing films out of those I chose to see this year, and a brief word of explanation as to what possessed me. (If there’s a hyperlink on the title, then you can click through for the full review.)

This Means War10. This Means War

Reason I watched it: more in hope than expectation.

If This Means War achieves one thing from its unfortunate existence, it does manage to prove conclusively that two wrongs don’t make a right. You cannot take a sub-standard rom-com and bolt it uncomfortably to a sub-standard action movie and hope to have anything other than one giant disappointment. I would like to say I expect more of Chris Pine, but that’s pretty much based on being Captain Kirk; I absolutely feel I’m entitled to expect more of Tom Hardy at this point in his career, but they should both have known better with McG’s name attached. The saddest thing is either that Chelsea Handler is the best thing in this, or that she’s the best thing despite acting like she’s reading all of her lines off of Reese Witherspoon’s forehead.

9. Paranormal Activity 4

Reason I watched it: I have a Cineworld card and I’ve seen the first three. I know that’s more of an excuse than a reason…

The juggernaut finally runs out of steam. After a film making effectively creepy use of its single camera set-ups, then somehow repeating the trick in a sequel with multiple cameras, then growing slightly tired by the time that the third entry rolled around with only a moving camera to add to the box of tricks, the best that this unwanted fourquel can offer is some infra-red malarkey using an Xbox. Tired, scareless and witless, it’s also hamstrung by the continuing need to impose a mythology, and also the need to return somewhat to the present after travelling back in time over the course of 2 and 3. This is very much a tween entry in the film, and taking an age to get to a minimal payoff will only work so many times; which is why, of course, we’re getting Paranormal Activity 5 next year. Will someone please drag me off backwards before it gets here?

8. Battleship

Reason I watched it: It had Liam Neeson in. Nowhere near enough, as it turns out.

It’s all very loud and full of hardware, but Battleship takes itself far too seriously for the most part with only odd flashes of the joy that flood through the best blockbusters. The set pieces are underwhelming, the best members of the cast are sidelined for long stretches and the alien ships are either covered in water or shown in EXTREME CLOSE-UP. It successfully captures the feeling of watching two other people playing the board game without remembering how dull that is if you’re not participating. Also, those expecting logic or motivation should check those expectations at the door. The occasional moment of wit or invention is blown apart by long stretches of dullness or idiocy. DID I MENTION IT’S VERY LOUD?

7. The Iron Lady

Reason I watched it: It was the first film I saw this year, and just wanted to have an opinion on Meryl Streep for the Oscars. My opinion? She didn’t deserve to win.

Meryl Streep is eerily hypnotic when in full flow, but it’s just one of the film’s many failings that it spends as much time with her doddering around under the effects of dementia as it does powering through cabinet meetings and raging at the weak men populating the House Of Commons. Some spectacularly misjudged casting (Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe anyone? Thought not) and poor direction don’t help matters, and the failure to either revere or condemn its central figure leave it sitting on a dull and uninteresting fence that might teach you less than you already know.

6. Tulpa

Reason I watched it: It was part of the day I spent at FrightFest this summer. Thrillingly/ excruciatingly, members of the cast and crew were in attendance while the audience laughed themselves silly.

Well-meaning might be the best thing I can say about Tulpa, which is odd for a film looking to reinvigorate those giallo horror traditions of Italy. Unfortunately, after a reasonably creepy and sadistic opening, it then calls upon all of the worst traditions of the genre, including having all of the cast speak in English, even if it’s clearly not their first language. While this isn’t uncommon for a giallo, the relatively high production values (at least comparably) throw the other failings into much sharper focus, and the unfortunate comedy highpoint of this comes in the form of Michela Cescon’s Joanna, poorly acted and even more poorly overdubbed, so that she appears to be reacting to grave news as if she’s just seen a cute kitten video on YouTube. It’s about the worst thing I’ve seen this year in reality, but it’s heart was in the right place and it didn’t really know it was that bad, so I’ve slightly taken pity on it.

5. Electrick Children

Reason I watched it: It was distributed by Picturehouse’s distribution arm, who’d distributed Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. (They also distributed Miranda July’s The Future, which I loathed so much in 2011. Hey ho.)

An insufferable road movie that goes precisely nowhere, Electrick Children assembles an eclectic cast from the likes of Rory Culkin to Billy Zane and promptly gives them nothing interesting to do. The idea sounds intriguing on paper (girl becomes pregnant listening to a tape, then goes searching for the “father”) but the execution is shocking, meandering through contrivances and searching for a rebellious streak that, when found, would make John Major look like an ultra-radical. Devoid of any interesting characters or memorable dialogue and despairingly predictable, Electrick Children lacks spark and energy and fails to deliver on pretty much any level.

4. Dark Shadows

Reason I watched it: Because I desperately want Tim Burton to be making good live action movies. This was just desperate…

Not only the worst Burton-Depp collaboration of the eight they’ve made, but a strong contender for Tim Burton’s worst film yet, which from a man who made the Planet Of The Apes remake is especially dispiriting. The tone veers wildly from high camp to sub-gothic horror and spectacularly fails to nail either with any level of success. The characters are to a person both contemptuous and uninteresting, and it often feels as if Burton’s striving for in-jokes he’s not prepared to let anyone else in on. The Seventies setting is hackneyed and wasted, scenes with the likes of Christopher Lee add nothing while jarring terribly and the charisma vacuum engulfing the characters kills interest stone dead by about half way through; not even a convoluted final reel that throws in unconvincing plot developments can resurrect it from the grave.

3. The Wedding Video

Reason I watched it: I’d actually gone to the cinema to see a double bill of The Bourne Legacy and The Expendables 2, but having been delayed en route I missed Bourne and had nothing better to do for two hours. Turns out sitting in the car would have been preferable… (Once again, the curse of the Cineworld card.)

Why do makers of supposed romantic comedies believe that the best way to show a couple getting together is to show them arguing and bitching in a totally unfunny manner? I still have nightmares about the Vince Vaughn / Jennifer Aniston “comedy” The Break-Up, and The Wedding Video plumbs similarly excruciating depths. I feel genuinely sorry for Lucy Punch, who carries on manfully (womanfully?) while the rest of the film disintegrates around her. It’s desperately lacking in laughs for a comedy – I counted one, and that’s generous – and the acting of the male stars leaves a lot to be desired, especially Rufus Hound who has an air of really bad sixth form revue about him. Also, the stupidity of the ending beggars belief, even considering what’s gone before.

2. House At The End Of The Street

Reason I watched it: It had Jennifer Lawrence in it, and at the time it had a good rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I’d been so obsessed with the Cambridge Film Festival I’d missed that this didn’t screen for critics, so that those rating were probably from the film critic for Kangaroo Weekly in Tasmania and Armond White. (Ask your mum and dad if you’re not sure who Armond White is. They’ll help you Google him.)

The acronym used in the promotional material for this film was HATES, which not only doesn’t work as an acronym but is also an unfortunate prediction for my reaction to the shameless rehash horror. Jennifer Lawrence is a fantastic actress, as she’s proven time and time again, but here you can see the desperation in her eyes, not driven by a psycho killer but instead the realisation of what she’s let herself in for, and by the mid-point she’s clearly dialling her performance in. There’s a total lack of scares, characters commit the worst kinds of horror movie stupidity to move the plot forward and it’s so poorly shot that any remaining interest goes out the window. Elizabeth Shue and Gil Bellows do enough supporting grunt work to just about keep this from the ignominy of being my worst film of the year, but it’s a close run thing.

Seven Psychopaths1. Seven Psychopaths

Reason I watched it: Two manky hookers and a racist dwarf.

Yes, Martin “In Bruges” McDonagh, who gave us one of the comedy classics of the Noughties, has managed to produce something so far at the opposite end of the spectrum they may have to get two spectrums and staple them together to allow for the drop off in quality. Where In Bruges sparkled with crisp dialogue, bristled with emotion and even managed to squeeze out some pathos, Seven Psychopaths feels lazy, but actually then attempts to justify that lack of effort through a self-reflexive journey through the mind of a movie-maker. What results is a film which feels nothing more than an active and agressive insult to the intelligence of the viewer, as every single plot development becomes predictable and trite and the whole enterprise slowly and excruciatingly disappears up its own backside. I can only hope this is a brief aberration in a fine career rather than a sign of what’s to come, but Seven Psychopaths – it genuinely pains me to say – was my worst film of 2012.

Previous years:

The 10 Worst Movies I Saw In 2011

Review Of 2012: The 10 Most Resolutely Meh Films Of 2012

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What you tend to find at the end of the year is an avalanche of lists celebrating the best films of the year. No-one ever sets out to celebrate those films for which the middle of the road is the best they can hope for, and for good reason; awards are there for the pinnacle of achievement, not the also rans. However, democracy is a bad idea as, in general, people are stupid (not you, dear reader, of course; you’re actually giving up your time to read what I’ve written, so you are a genius), and not all the right movies get the credit they deserve. There are some that seem to have garnered high praise, where moderate acknowledgement or general apathy would have been more appropriate. So here’s the list of the ten that have, in my humble obviously correct opinion, received an entirely incorrect amount of credit this year.

For each film I’ve shown the score from the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, showing the level of general critical consensus. A reminder that a score of 60% or above is Fresh, below is Rotten.

Margin CallMargin Call – Tomatometer 88%

What the critics said: “A shrewd and confident drama.” – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

“Chock full of terrific performances…” – Ian Freer, Empire

“Easily the best Wall Street movie ever made…” – David Denby, New Yorker

Why they’re wrong: The biggest mistake in Margin Call is the oversimplification of the financial crisis. What this amounts to is then a series of men in suits looking at screens and looking concerned, then acting as if the implications of that were obvious. While many of the two or three handers that follow are dramatically engaging, it’s about as satisfying biting into a Scotch egg to discover a hole in the middle. The drama simply doesn’t work with nothing to bind the meat around.

HaywireHaywire – Tomatometer 80%

What the critics said: “A rollicking good ride” – David Jenkins, Time Out

“A fresh, muscular payback movie” – Simon Crook, Empire

“Watching Carano kick, spin, flip, choke, crack and crush the fiercest of foes… is thoroughly entertaining, highly amusing and frankly somewhat awe-inspiring” – Betsy Sharkey, LA Times

Why they’re wrong: Another instance of great moments with no foundation, but this time instead of a central concept it’s actual drama that we’re missing. Gina Carano is attractive, feisty, just about a good enough actress so as to not be distracting and kicks huge amounts of ass, but it’s less interesting than a walk down a one-way street, so utterly bereft is the narrative of any sense of drama, plot or anything to engage more than one part of the brain.

Pirates!The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! – Tomatometer 86%

What the critics said: “Sure footed, witty and zany fun” – Claudia Puig, USA Today

“A clever piece of business that is a complete pleasure to experience.” – Kenneth Turan, LA Times

“Another Aardman triumph.” – Olly Richards, Empire

Why they’re wrong: Aardman have a reputation for delivering fantastic animation with heart, soul and plenty of laughs, and while all are present here they’re served in much smaller portions than usual, replacing belly laughs and wild inspiration with moderate chuckles and the odd flash of wit. It’s a shame, as it feels like there was the potential for a classic within the material, it just wasn’t exploited to its full potential.

BraveBrave – Tomatometer 78%

What the critics said: “A rousing, gorgeously animated good time” – Pete Travers, Rolling Stone

“…packs a level of poignancy on par with such beloved male-bonding classics as Finding Nemo” – Peter Debruge, Variety

“A hugely entertaining, properly magical adventure” – Matthew Turner, View London

Why they’re wrong: Pixar have had a fantastic run, and you can’t fault them for wanting to try something different; it does feel slightly misanthropic to criticise it when that doesn’t come off, but this push into a true fairy tale ironically loses some of the magic that we associate with Pixar. Again, a lack of real laughs doesn’t help, but the setting and the lack of sympathetic characters at the start also make it difficult to truly engage the magic.

UntouchableThe Intouchables – Tomatometer 76%

What the critics said: “This is not a film that will change the whole world, but one that just might charm it.” – Robbie Collin, Daily Telegraph

“The Intouchables is simply irresistible” – Ed Gibbs, The Sun Herald

“The cliches are so skillfully navigated only the heartless will fail to be charmed” – Matt Glasby, Flicks.co.nz

Why they’re wrong: A case of almost too much of a good thing, The Intouchables has all the right ingredients for a light souffle of a movie, but proceeds to bake them together into a cynical, leaden frittata instead. Pretty much every cliché you can imagine turns up, to the point where the last act is just a soul-destroying progression of predictability and cheese. The last kicker comes when the real life counterparts are revealed, and they look and act nothing like their filmic equivalents; it’s not inconceivable to think that their story was nothing like this, either.

Killing Them SoftlyKilling Them Softly – Tomatometer 76%

What the critics said: “A caustic but thoroughly impressive kick in the teeth” – Tim Robey, Daily Telegraph

“A juicy, bloody, grimy and profane crime drama that amply satisfies as a deep-dish genre piece” – Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter

“It is outstandingly watchable, superbly and casually pessimistic” – Peter Bradshaw, Guardian

Why they’re wrong: There’s a wonderfully grimy crime thriller at the heart of Killing Them Softly, but oddly for a man whose previous film lasted about four days it’s far too slight, feeling undercooked at just over an hour and a half. Additionally, there’s a political subtext that’s so heavy-handed you can practically see the hand prints where it’s been slapped around by director Andrew Dominik. Despite a few great performances, Killing Them Softly never gets out of third gear.

Beasts Of The Southern WildBeasts Of The Southern Wild – Tomatometer 85%

What the critics said: “Beautiful, funny, timely and tender, this is the American arthouse movie of the year.” – Damon Wise, Empire

“This film is a remarkable creation” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“Treat yourself to the experience of this perfect storm of a film” – Richard Corliss, TIME Magazine

Why they’re wrong: Sure, there’s a lot going on here, and much of it is moving, even close to magical, but there’s almost too many ideas, and too many rough edges that don’t fit together. It almost feels that the removal of the most overtly magical elements and some quick editing might have made something more efficient out of this, but in its current form its ramshackle charm kept me only mildly engaged, rather than truly winning me over.

Silver Linings PlaybookSilver Linings Playbook – Tomatometer 91%

What the critics said: “Dramatic, emotional, even heartbreaking, as well as wickedly funny… a complete success from a singular talent.” – Kenneth Turan, LA Times

“…the exuberant new movie from David O. Russell, does almost everything right.” – Manohla Dargis, New York Times

“…the scenes between Pat and Tiffany are sculpted with an almost David Mamet-like sharpness.” – Justin Chang, Variety

Why they’re wrong: The seemingly random portrayals of mental illness (let’s pick a description and assign it to a character, whether or not that’s what the character’s actually suffering from) don’t serve the characters or the story particularly well, and that means that the final moral of “cheer up and do a bit of dancing and everything will be fine” is borderline insulting. All the more unfortunate that the cracking performances, from the powerhouse of Jennifer Lawrence to the restraint of Chris Tucker, get lost in the misguided plotting.

End Of Watch – Tomatometer 85%

End Of WatchWhat the critics said: “A visceral story of beat cops that is rare in its sensitivity, rash in its violence and raw in its humor.” – Betsy Sharkey, LA Times

“…one of the best police movies in recent years…” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“End of Watch cuts past the cliches of standard police procedurals” – Peter Debruge, Variety

Why they’re wrong: The cops are fine, the action sequences are often great, and even Anna Kendrick does fantastic work as the new wife of Jake Gyllenhall’s grounded cop. But the movie makes far too much effort setting up a self-filmed visual conceit that recalls found footage, then abandons it when the going gets tricky, and the bad guys feel like they’ve been written by troubled five year olds with a dictionary of bad guy cliches that they’re having trouble reading. It then becomes impossible to take any of it remotely seriously, and the ending is left fatuous when it should be deeply emotional.

And the one where people were wrong the other way:

John CarterJohn Carter – Tomatometer 51%

What the critics said: “I felt as if someone had dragged me into the kitchen of my local Greggs, and was baking my head into the centre of a colossal cube of white bread.” – Peter Bradshaw, Guardian

“It feels less like a revival of a classic saga than a rip-off twice removed.” – Robbie Collin, Daily Telegraph

“Considering it stems from a story that helped define a genre limited only by imagination, John Carter is a curiously dull film.” – Jordan Farley, SFX Magazine

Why they’re wrong: Admittedly it does take a little while to get going and it’s a little po-faced initially, but once it does John Carter is an old fashioned romp that’s a lot of fun. It’s actually the film you feel George Lucas was trying to make with large parts of Attack Of The Clones, which maybe is why everyone took to it so badly, because who wants to be reminded of that? And spare a thought for Taylor Kitsch, who got this and the genuinely awful Battleship. He deserves more luck in 2013, even if a return trip to Mars seems somewhat unlikely.

Further reading:

Review Of The Year 2010: 5 Movies Which I Didn’t Like That Much, But Most People Seemingly Did

Why the Olympics make me fear for the future of British film

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I suggested a Blackadder sketch but Tony Robinson turned it down…

It’s all over bar the shouting (and the Paralympics; actually, it’s probably only half over, isn’t it). Yes, after seven years of hope and expectation – the latter mainly that, like most things British, it would be more a Fawlty Towers writ large than a testament to organisational efficiency – the Olympics have come and gone in a flash, with the triumphs and tears still close enough to touch, but soon everything will fade into memory and Rio will come round much sooner than you think.

You might think that I’ve found all of these sporting events an irritating distraction to my normal hobby,  but on the three occasions I got to the cinema during the Games there were a fair selection of people there, not full houses by any means but far from empty. I did pick two occasions when British medal hopes were unlikely, and that proved to be a safe assumption. But other than that, I’ve been wrapped up utterly in the drama of the Games, every single medal and event proving as exciting as the last.

But actually my love affair with the Olympics goes back much further; I was fascinated by them as a child, to the point where when I had to give a talk for my GCSE English Language on a subject of my choice, the Olympics was the most obvious selection (and I got top marks for it, too). I even saw an episode of Mastermind once where the contestant had selected it as a specialist subject, and I had outscored him; if only the general knowledge questions hadn’t been quite so fiendish, and if someone hadn’t just stolen my potential specialised subject, I could have been in there.

There’s something compelling about the Olympian ideal as encapsulated by their modern founder, Pierre de Coubertin, that it’s not the triumph but the struggle that’s important, not necessarily to have conquered your opponent but to have fought well. It appealed to me as a youngster to the extent I managed to get bottom marks for achievement and top marks for effort at my grammar school’s Physical Education lessons, before I was eventually relegated to the role of scorer. It didn’t win me any prizes, but still gave a certain sense of self-satisfaction. That sense can still be seen in the likes of Hamdou Issaka, trailing in three minutes behind the rest of the field in a six minute race during Eton Downey’s rowing events, but for many the pressure is much greater, carrying what they believe to be the hopes of a nation and unable to control their emotions when only able to deliver silver or bronze when they thought nothing less than gold would do.

It’s that sense of golden glory that has actually come to define these Games for Britain. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change a second of it, but I struggle to believe that we’d have seen these Games as quite the success had we taken home the seven gold medals that Australia did, rather than the twenty-nine that our athletes so thrillingly made their own. That success has allowed the nation to revel in the sense of being a major power for the first time since the fall of an empire, and doesn’t a little power feel good? I don’t think anyone would begrudge Britain its moment of glory, as unless something miraculous happens we’ll drop down the medals table next time like every other host that’s then lost its home advantage.

But that gold rush has also allowed us to market ourselves as a nation to the world, and the politicians of the nation have all been out in force, looking to capitalise on some of that good will. David Cameron has already made a commitment to elite sport, confirming that £125 million, the current annual budget for that elite sport, will now be guaranteed for the next four years, rather than the next two. It’s wonderful to see, but without the investment in sport in our primary schools and sport at a grass roots level in this country, there’s a risk that the supply line just won’t be there.

The other triumph in many eyes of the past two and a bit weeks has been the opening ceremony, which did much to highlight to the world just what we think makes Britain great. The arts have sat comfortably next to sport for the duration of the Games, and as well as highlighting Britain’s great musical heritage, the Games have also shown us as a nation how much film means to us, from James Bond and the Queen’s parachute display team to the Bean-influenced Chariots of Fire skit (and the music from that film playing over 300 times during the festivities, until everyone I spoke to was pretty sick of it, so ingrained in the British sporting and cultural psyche it’s become), and even the sight of Gregory’s Girl projected onto the side of a house that later flew into the air to reveal the creator of the world wide web underneath, the Olympics was like a stick of rock with the letters “FILM” running all the way through it.

My fear though, and I can only hope it’s unfounded, is that the same pressure and funding ethos being brought to bear on British sport is what we’ve already seen applied to the British film industry. On the 11th January this year, just prior to a review published on government funding for the film industry, the Prime Minister stated that the film industry should primarily be supporting “commercially successful pictures”, a view that was widely decried at the time, but one that seems scarily similar to the elite prioritisation being applied to Games funding. It’s the gold medals, and the gold statues, that bring prosperity to the economy, but what risks getting lost in the rush to glory is that without the likes of Danny Boyle and smaller British films like his debut Shallow Grave, there’d be no-one to go on and make Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire or his Olympic opening ceremony.

Already there are too many British films getting lost in the mix and struggling to find distribution or funding, and with a country in recession and sport likely to claim a larger proportion of a diminishing pot for the next few years, it’s going to be just that little bit harder for those trying to keep the British film industry going. Let’s encourage British film makers to their craft without feeling that they need to be striving for box office success or Oscar glory every time they turn on a camera, and that they do their best in their own endeavours, and let’s just hope they don’t have to put up too much of a fight to continue to make British film the success that helped to put it at the heart of one of the most uplifting two weeks that this country has ever seen.

The Kindest Cut Of All – Time To Lose The 12A Rating?

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Yet another person who said it was just like Battle Royale was about to face the wrath of Jennifer Lawrence.

PARENTAL ADVISORY: The following blog is rated 18 for strong language, imagery, and a discussion that’s probably not going to interest anyone much under 17. Seriously, if you’re even the slightest bit squeamish and haven’t seen David Cronenberg’s The Fly, read on with care.

Forget your Harry Potters and your Twilights, they’re old news. The latest tweenage sensation, the young adult novel The Hunger Games, will be unleashed on us all in just a week. Well, strictly speaking, 99.92% of The Hunger Games will be released on the UK in just a week, for the distributor has taken the decision to take out seven seconds to receive a 12A rating instead of a 15. This isn’t the first time that this has happened this year, with The Woman In Black similarly cut for its release last month, this time losing six seconds of its run time. Should we care that we’re losing an amount of time that isn’t really practical enough to do anything with?

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