Review: Chappie

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Chappie

The Pitch: Number 22… is alive! Your move, creeps.

The Review: The cinema of my childhood was defined by two very different film watching experiences. That’s if you can call it cinema, as the demise of picture palaces in my home town saw me watch most of my films on the technological wonder that was VHS. Some of that was made up of the typical family fare that was a staple of popular cinema in the Eighties, from The Karate Kid to Flight Of The Navigator and The Goonies to Short Circuit. As the decade drew to a close I was allowed by my very liberal mother to take in some of the action greats of the decade before I’d reached the 18 rating recommended, such as Aliens and Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Robocop. I suspect, although he’s half a decade younger than me and from the other end of the world, that Neill Blomkamp may have had a similarly formative childhood, given that his latest film appears to be an attempt to splice together those two genres by combining the family friendly robot education of Short Circuit with the corporate satire and blood-letting of Robocop.

Normally I’d suggest it’s fairly reductive and not particularly helpful to boil a film down to such obvious constituent components, but Blomkamp seems to be going out of his way to remind us of the heritage of his film. While it’s thrust into the same milieu as his breakout film District 9 with the South African slums providing a stark backdrop, there’s more than a little feeling of Old Detroit about the wasteland hideout of the gangsters who take in Chappie and try to give him an unsuitable education. Even the ED-209 style robots that form the bulkier competition in the security robot industry have the voice of old Tinhead himself, Peter Weller. On the flipslide, Chappie (Sharlton Copley) is a South African accent and a set of wheels away from being Johnny Five and while the film’s conceit of what would happen if you dropped a learning robot into the wrong environment feels original, the patchwork from which it’s been composed verges on over-familiar.

But you want original? How about making two of your lead characters a South African rap duo Die Antwoord who are friends and fans of the director with no real acting experience? As security droid Chappie falls under the influence of Yolandi and Ninja, he’s torn by the basic morality given to him by his creator (Dev Patel, yet another example of a single genius creating artificial intelligence in film making you wonder why we even bother to have corporations, but I digress). At the same time, the audience is torn by wondering if casting two non-actors as the two main human leads in your film is brave or foolish, and it’s probably a bit of both. Ninja and fellow cohort Yankie (actual actor Jose Pablo Cantillo) feel like stock villains, but Yolandi adds some maternal instinct and warmth and the gangster trio are certainly quirky for this kind of film, if not always particularly appealing. Adding to that off-kilter feeling is the fact that Die Antwood’s music is playing regularly in the background – although complemented well by the hard work that Hans Zimmer’s score does to integrate it – and what you’re left with is a whole bunch of oddness to offset the familiarity.

I wouldn’t say that there was much else original about Chappie – the other prominent humans (Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver) are stock characters and for a long stretch, the story doesn’t progress in any surprising directions. There’s a weak grasp of science, some of the dialogue – especially most of what Weaver is lumbered with for exposition and pretty much anything Patel says – is corny and unbelievable and Blomkamp applies many of District 9’s worst flaws, such as reality TV overlays that he promptly forgets about, without being able to capture its most redeeming features. The film makes a genuine attempt to combine the sweetness and naivety of Short Circuit with the satirical violence and grunge of Robocop, and not for one minute does it ever look like working. It’s only in the last half hour or so when the warmth begins to shine through that Chappie feels like a worthwhile exercise, and even then there’s as much to be at best bemused by as there is to love. Chappie is eccentric, oddly sweet and unlike the work of any other big-budget film maker you’ll see today, and for that we should be grateful, but District 9 is feeling more and more a one-off than the start of a solid career and Blomkamp will have to do more to convince that he’s not headed for a career residing at the bottom of the bargain DVD bin at your local supermarket.

Why see it at the cinema: Blomkamp does make good use of his frame and films his action well, even if there’s probably less of it than in either of his previous films. If South African rap-rave soundtracks are your thing, then hearing them on a top quality cinema sound set-up is also not to be sniffed at. (Based on this evidence, I can take them or leave them.)

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language and bloody violence. There is one stand out moment of violence at the end which feels almost incongruous against some of what’s come before, although it would have felt right at home in Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop. I’d buy that for a dollar.

My cinema experience: Saw this at on a weekday evening at The Light cinema in Cambridge. The joys of the film playing on a large screen at The Light are that I get a seat in the middle of a row with enough legroom to sit comfortably: if you change anything as part of your takeover of the cinema, The Light owners, please keep that legroom, it’s invaluable for lanky so-and-sos such as myself.

About two thirds of the way into the film, I became distracted when someone in the row in front had seemingly become bored of the film and took his phone out to check Facebook. In my book if you’re that unengaged by what you’re watching there’s just one think you need to do: leave. On politely asking the gentleman if he would turn off his phone, I got sworn at for my trouble. I’m sorry, whoever you are, that you felt personally affronted by me asking you to turn off a four inch square torch that you were shining in the middle of a darkened room which immediately took me out of my own viewing experience, but if you believe it’s OK to sit and check your social media during a film then can I politely ask you don’t watch the same films as me in future?

The Score: 6/10

Review: Still Alice

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Still Alice

The Pitch: Moore is less.

The Review: I often have conversations with people regarding my love of horror films, and if any genre is divisive in whether or not people wish to be part of the audience then it would be that one. People ask me why I love horror movies, and some of it is that feeling of safe risk: deep down we know that there isn’t a finger-clawed maniac haunting our dreams or a giant in a hockey mask waiting round the corner to chop us into tiny pieces. What I do find more uncomfortable is that within the real world, the true horror that is the simple passage of time, as each of us inexorably presses forward to a point when we will simply cease to be. For me, the greatest fear in that is the possibility of losing one’s sense of self on the downward march towards infirmity, and conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s represent the pinnacle of that fear, the risk that we may become slowly and painfully unable to function and in the process become an increasing burden on friends and family.

The story of Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) brings that fear into sharp focus, as we experience life through her eyes from the point when her memory starts to fail her in the subtlest of ways to such time as her mental faculties have become completely withdrawn. Howland is a linguistics professor and so already has a keener insight than most into the inner workings of the mind, but when hers begins to fail at a young enough age for the doctors to invoke the words “early onset” even she seems unprepared for the effects that her mind’s disintegration will have on her, her husband (Alec Baldwin) and her grown-up children (Kristin Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish). While trying to maintain a quality of life as best she can, Howland also puts into place plans to attempt to control her destiny once rational thought has begun to elude her, but the uncertainty of her illness has a greater effect than even she can foresee.

This feels a very personal film for writer / director pair Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, even before you consider that Glatzer’s life was ended while the Best Actress Oscar was barely on Julianne Moore’s mantlepiece. Glatzer succumbed to another debilitating condition in the form of ALS or motor neurone disease which he endured during the production of the film. Whether despite this or because of it, Still Alice for the large part steers clear of mawkishness and sentimentality, and it as its best when allowing you to absorb the impact of Howland’s disintegration in more subtle ways. Many scenes initially feel edited together strangely, but you soon come to realise that we are witnessing the story through Howland’s eyes and these lapses become symptomatic of her condition. Even so, the film wouldn’t retain the power it does without Moore’s devastating performance at its heart, one which deserves all of its recent accolades and which is the dramatic core of the film to a huge extent. All of Moore’s previous Oscar nominations came over a decade ago and while I think it would be unfair to call this film a renaissance for her career, it’s still a timely reminder that she remains one of the best actresses of her generation and the film would probably have sunk without trace without her. Even so, one grandstanding speech late on feels slightly at odds with everything else happening.

Consequently, as Moore’s character loses her grip on normal functioning so the story slightly loses its grip on many of the other narrative threads weaving out from her story. The best of these subplots concern Moore’s relationship with her younger daughter, and Kristin Stewart gets a chance us to remind us of her range after all those years of blankly wandering through Twilight and Snow White films. Sadly few of the other supporting characters get a look in, and both husband Baldwin and elder daughter Bosworth’s stories feel critically underdeveloped, not least when it’s revealed that Bosworth has tested positive for the same hereditary condition as her mother. I can’t speak from personal experience for how well the film actually captures the family experience of suffering through Alzheimer’s but it certainly doesn’t feel false. However the lack of histrionics doesn’t always serve the film’s best interests and you may find yourself frustrated that the family’s trauma becomes largely sidelined in favour of Moore’s story. If a film such as this helps to raise awareness of the horrible reality faced by people blighted by such afflictions then so much the better, but it’s Julianne Moore and her alone which really bring Still Alice to life and make it worth your time.

Why see it at the cinema: Seeing the film on a big screen helps you to allow the film to capture your full attention; consequently the rug pulls when you realise time is passing and you’ve become unaware feel all the more powerful.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent strong language and moderate sex references.

My cinema experience: I’d originally planned to see White God at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on a Friday evening, but some unanticipated roadworks put half an hour on my journey. Thankfully the helpfulness of the staff when I arrived at the cinema late managed to sort out a replacement film, so I saw Still Alice in its place.

The end of the film took a few people by surprise, so there was more than a certain amount of chatter in the foyer afterwards. As a people watcher I love to grab snippets of this as people walk past, and the general consensus seems to be that this is Moore’s film. Can’t disagree with that.

The Score: 7/10

Oscars Countdown: A Guide To What’s Actually Best Picture 2014

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Rachel couldn't stop laughing at pulling out the unexpected Z, but deep down she was saddened by the shonky quality of my Photoshopping.
Yet another excuse to roll out my dodgy Oscarz Photoshopping. I canz do lolz.

It’s that time again. The carpet is reddened, the bald heads are polished, the seat fillers are preparing to do their thing and the finest fashion houses on the West Coast are delighting at the sound of cash tills ringing or whatever noise 21st century cash registers actually make. Awards season reaches a climax on Sunday with the somethingth annual Academy Awards (the number’s not important, look it up if you’re really bothered, it’s eighty-something, they’re all basically the same anyway). There’s more reason than most this year to actually watch the awards, because Doogie Howser M.D. / Barney Stinson himself, Neil Patrick Harris, is hosting and I think it’s fair to say if he does it to the standard of the other awards shows he’s hosted, it should be a job for life if he wants it. Not convinced? Then try watching his opening number for the 2013 Tony Awards. If the opening to the Oscars is half as good as this, it’ll be the best thing to happen to the ceremony in years.

But it’s not just an excuse to have some song and dance and to see quite how poorly John Travolta can pronounce somebody’s name. (Am I the only one hoping he gets Best Foreign Language Film to present this year?) There are also some awards to be given out, and one film will get to stand alongside the other eighty-ish greatest films of all time already accorded the honour of Best Picture, including Crash, Chicago, The Greatest Show On Earth, Driving Miss Daisy and Titanic. Yep, I don’t even need to tell you that this awards ceremony is to justice and fairness what John Travolta is to public speaking, you already know it, but that doesn’t stop us all from some harmless speculation on who’s going to fare the best come the early hours of Monday morning.

I do wonder if the choice of host is in some way to compensate for what’s a fairly middling selection of films this year. At the end of the post you can see a breakdown of all of my ratings for films nominated for Best Picture since the award increased from five films, but even those at the top end of the chart aren’t the most inspiring films ever made. I weep just a tiny bit that the likes of Mr. Turner, Nightcrawler, Calvary, Under The Skin, Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice and Gone Girl haven’t picked up more recognition, but I won’t claim to be the slightest bit surprised. Equally inevitably, I can say that the three Foreign Language film nominations that I have seen – Ida, Leviathan and Timbuktu – are all comfortably better than at least half of the Best Picture nominations this year.

So as Oscar and his chums will get the final decisions wrong as inevitably as Transformers and Alvin And The Chipmunks sequels will continue to be inflicted upon us because we keep paying to watch the damn things, I’ve managed to see all eight Best Picture nominations so once again present For Your Consideration: the only ranking that really matters, my own view on the films that could walk off with the big one from least best to best. (Disclaimer: as far as I know, all of the Oscars are the same size, it’s just a figure of speech.)

The Least Best Picture Is The Imitation Game

Oh dear. The Imitation Game feels like it occupied a screen in my local cinemas for ever, but I fear they may have been the only one as Morten Tyldum’s film actually took slightly less money than Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie in the UK last year. Rapturous public acclaim from those who have seen it can only indicate that many of those people don’t actually watch many films, for there’s only really two good things about The Imitation Game. Those two things are named Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley and both deserve the nominations in this year’s acting categories they’ve won themselves, although the fact that neither is likely to actually scoop the award is also a fair assessment.

Where to start with the problems, then? First off is the direction, which is flat, lifeless and rarely does anything above pointing a camera in the direction of the nearest stationary actor. Then there’s the script, which botches almost every aspect of Turing’s life and is a structural mess. Most of the remaining background characters are well-acted but one dimensional cyphers, Turing is made out to be somewhere between a sympathiser to the opposition and a traitor (which is all swept under the carpet late on anyway) and the title cards over the final shot are so condescending as to be deeply insulting to anyone with an IQ more than their shoe size.

But it’s the general contempt for its audience that rankles most about this year’s Weinstein Company vehicle for awards success. I’ve visited Bletchley Park and the National Museum Of Computing, and it’s a deeply enthralling place that’s awash with momentous history. Here it’s reduced to man builds magic box, man turns on magic box, magic box works, the end, which is a narrative non-event of the highest order. Good performances will only go so far, and good luck to The Imitation Game for fleecing the British public of over $20 million, but this is a desperately average film at best and a Turing travesty at worst.

Which Is Not As Good As American Sniper

American Sniper

Speaking of contempt for your audience, there’s nothing like showing you simply don’t give a stuff about the quality of your end product when one of the most discussed facets of your film is the incredibly fake baby that’s unconvincingly passed around to comedic effect in the second half of the film. It’s an insult to just about everyone when you can’t even be bothered to put that right, but sadly it’s also indicative of the slightly sloppy notes creeping into Clint Eastwood’s last few films.

There’s a problem with what American Sniper is, which is an unbalanced, flag waving action movie. That’s set the American box office alight but box office success and critical quality make poor bedfellows. There’s also a problem with what it isn’t, which is true to Chris Kyle’s story if the book is any judge; the film gives Bradley Cooper moral uncertainty and a sense of self-righteousness that aren’t exactly a reflection of Kyle’s own telling of his story, and you can’t help but feel that the more interesting film – and the one which the Eastwood of ten years ago might actually have made – would be one which steers closer to Kyle’s own public record of his motivations and experiences.

I would also like to go on record as being mystified that Bradley Cooper has been nominated for Best Actor or Supporting Actor three years in a row, which puts him in an exclusive club along with Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, William Hurt and Russell Crowe. I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke (and he’s also impressively bilingual), but not one of his three nominations has really been in the best of the year. Sorry Bradley.

Which Is Not As Good As Birdman

Birdman

Hopefully I made my feelings about Birdman pretty clear with my review. I understand that many people enjoyed this but I can’t help but feel it’s been rewarded for technical achievement rather than artistic endeavour. Actually, maybe that’s the way forward – a combination of two sets of scores, one for technical and one for artistic, in the same way as ice dancing. It couldn’t be any more convoluted than the current voting process.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Birdman, and I love almost everyone associated with it, but even thinking about it now, six weeks after having seen it, leaves me feeling slightly exhausted. I will be a grumpy Gus if this picks up the big award, but I have a horrible feeling it might because it’s packed full of Actors with a capital A and we’ve seen much worse Actors films (*cough* Crash *cough*) walk off with the main award in the past.

Which Is Not As Good As The Theory Of Everything

The Theory Of Everything

The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything have a lot in common: they’re two British films that have two high-flying British actors in significant roles, where the man has a role which features a requirement for an increasing level of acting tics and mannerisms. Both the lead actor and actress in each case have picked up an Oscar nomination of their own and both films were nominated for both best British film and best film at the BAFTAs. And in both cases, the two main performances are by some distance the two best things about the film.

The Theory Of Everything isn’t by any stretch of the imagination as frustratingly poor as The Imitation Game, but neither is it up to the standard of director James Marsh’s previous work, including Project Nim, Man On Wire and the excellent and overlooked Shadow Dancer. It’s a pretty standard narrative set in a chocolate box Cambridge that doesn’t pan out in the way that you expect such stories to – although many going in will already know the outcome – but it’s told in a conventional, straightforward fashion and it’s both showy and understated in a rather conflicted manner.

Then there’s rather a significant step-up in quality…

Which is Nowhere Near As Good As Selma

I don’t believe that the acting has been overlooked in Selma for reasons of race or colour, but I do believe that the nominated actors all have the attention-grabbing, theatrical roles that normally get nominated and it becomes that much harder for those whose work is less clip-worthy to nudge their way into the nominations. Selma has been all but excluded from the final breakdown. You have to go all the way back to Decision Before Dawn in 1951 to find a film with a Best Picture nomination and only one other nomination in a minor category, and that really doesn’t reflect well on the Academy’s voters who had plenty of opportunities to recognise the work done here.

There have been a few reports that the tension between LBJ and Dr. King have been overplayed, but this would hardly be the first film to adjust the truth slightly for narrative purposes (yes, that is a reference to you, The Imitation Game), but there’s still enough well placed fact here to pack the punch that the story needs to. From a gut wrenching opening explosion to scenes of focused tension when the gathered masses attempt to march out from Selma, director Ava DuVernay has a strong handle on the material and isn’t afraid to shock a little to get your attention. The song over the closing credits makes a contemporary reference to what’s happened in Ferguson over the past year and it serves as a direct reminder that the issues here haven’t gone away in the intervening fifty years; in fact, Selma could scarcely have been released at a more relevant time.

I do hope this will give career impetus to David Oyelowo, in a film littered with top draw performances from British actors such as Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth. Maybe the moral of the story is that if you’re a British, you need to be putting on an accent as posh as Keira Knightley’s plummy Imitation Game Brit-warble, rather than flawlessly mimicking the accents from across the Atlantic.

Which Is Not As Good As Boyhood

Boyhood

Yes, other films have watched children grow up, but never over the course of a single film to such remarkable effect as Richard Linklater’s latest towering achievement in direction: one that will, if there’s a shred of natural justice left in this overly glamorous farrago, see him pick up an award for direction that his career has long since justified. The Before trilogy may have inadvertently charted the evolution of a relationship over a quarter of a lifetime, but Boyhood is a timelapse on adolescence quite unlike anything that’s ever been attempted before.

And we shouldn’t just applaud the fact that twelve years is an insanely long time period over which to be producing a film, with no guarantee that the end product would have ended up even useful (or that the actors would have made it to the end of the process they started). Having to pick someone at the age of six and to hope he’ll still be interesting in a dozen years is an unenviable task, but Linklater gets round this somewhat by using Ellar Coltrane as the prism through which to examine the transition from childhood to adulthood, rather than the focal point.

Absolutely greater than the sum of its parts, the lead actors are all still magnificent – and Hawke and Arquette would probably both have one in a slightly quieter year, although Arquette hopefully still will – but the real power of Boyhood is in absorbing it, ideally in a single sitting, and allowing the repetition and the rhythms to wash over you.

Which Is Not As Good As Whiplash

Whiplash-7567.cr2

I’ve seen a few reviews which take issue with a number of aspects of Whiplash. They can be broken down into two main categories: firstly, that the events of Whiplash are somewhat lacking in realism. Your average hospital drama does a fairly appalling job at accurately portraying the finer points of medicine, so I don’t believe we should get too hung up on the mechanics of music school. However, this also applies to some of the story structure (one character being explicitly and repeatedly told not to do something at all costs, before doing that in less than thirty seconds in a manner that’s then never explained or referred to again). While I can see where that’s coming from, I believe that Whiplash – almost perversely for a film based around jazz drumming – operates at the level of an opera, with two main characters going to extraordinary lengths to win the approval of their audience and their peers and as such, any plot manoeuvres are best not dwelt on for too long.

The other criticism, and one which carries a little more weight, is the idea that Whiplash is at best ignoring the perils of bullying, and at worst justifying that as a means to an end for artistic greatness, almost as if genius cannot be attained without suffering. I have a different take: J.K. Simmons’ Terence is modelling Miles Teller’s Andrew into his own image, even if he’s not doing so intentionally, and this is a classic power struggle, a battle for dominance between two alpha males at the cost of their very souls, and neither can reflect on their actions with any sense of pride by the end.

In between theatrical plot twists and enhanced egos there lies Whiplash, a film oozing confidence and doing a much better job of its jazz drumming soundtrack than Birdman managed to. For the first two-thirds it’s a compelling character study, but then as the plot moves up a tempo or two we reach a breathtaking climax that had my heart almost beating out of my chest. Whiplash is darkly enticing, thrilling without the promise of evolution or redemption and it does so with a jazz soundtrack that might even win a few converts. If nothing else, it elevates J.K. Simmons to the level of recognition he’s long since deserved.

The Best Picture Of 2014 Is The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

There’s probably around a dozen or so directors who, if marooned on a desert island, I would be content if nothing else but the products of their career’s labours washed up beside me. (Ideally a giant TV to plug in next to the palm tree would be nice). While Wes Anderson continues to make films that flirt with the deep sadness of the human condition but yet in which every single element is lovingly crafted, his last pair of films – this and Moonrise Kingdom – have been not only as good as anything else in his career, but are as deep, meaningful and hysterically enjoyable as anything else being made anywhere today.

If you want to know which film brought me more pleasure than any other last year, then look no further. But The Grand Budapest Hotel ups the ante by setting itself across four eras, each of which comes shot in its own typically relevant and period friendly aspect ratio and which emphasise the evaporation of time that comes to the best of us before we can even come to terms with it. Anderson might just have perfected the formula he’s been honing since Bottle Rocket and before.

The cast is astonishing, even those in barely a couple of scenes able to walk off with entire films elsewhere, but the pairing of Anderson with Ralph Fiennes is a masterstroke that I hope history will look back on and regard with greater significance. (Admittedly I only placed Fiennes eleventh on my performances of the year last year, but I think I was maybe being a tad harsh.) You can see why Anderson migrated entirely to stop-motion for The Fantastic Mr Fox for his films have a love, a care and an attention to detail that’s rarely seen outside the world of physical animation. It’s that unbelievable attention to detail and the total delight of the script, the direction and the performances that cause me to rate this film top of the Oscar pile for 2015. Expect the Academy voters to have totally ignored me.

And finally, as promised, my rankings out of 10 for all the Best Picture nominees in the six years since the category expanded. Sorry I’ve missed five of them, but I still think that’s a pretty good record. It doers hopefully show that this isn’t a great year, but I will keep my fingers crossed that one or two decent films  will pick up something before the Oscars are over for another year.

Best Picture Rankings

Previous years:

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2013

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2012

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2010

Oscars Countdown: The Oscar Scorecard Of Discontent 2015

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It’s Oscar night, and that means two things:

1. I’m going to bed because I’ve got better things to do than stay up until 5 a.m. watching an awards show when I will most likely bitch about the result.

2. If you’re reading this then you may actually be watching the ceremony. Good luck to you.

Having noticed a sudden spike in traffic of 100% today to my blog, mainly composed of people searching for the search terms “Oscar” and “scorecard”, although well done to the one person who arrived here by searching for “reese witherspoon can’t act” and, more bizarrely, the two people who both searched for “composition of air 3d pie chart”. Just for you two:

If you don't get this joke, Google "Moon Safari".
If you don’t get this joke, Google “Moon Safari”.

For the rest of you, here’s my completed scorecard for this year with my usual categories:

Oscar Scorecard 2015

And here’s a blank one for you to fill in while you wait for Neil Patrick Harris to shuffle along:

Oscar Scorecard Blank

Whatever you’re doing tonight, have fun!

Review: Fifty Shades Of Grey

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Fifty Shades Of Grey

The Pitch: OK then. Gainsboro, silver, spanish, dim, Davy’s, platinum, ash, charcoal, battleship, cool, cadet, glaucous, slate, puce, rose quartz, cinerous, metallic, taupe, er… light, medium, dark… er… have I already said battleship? Is it too late to call it Twenty Shades Of Grey instead?

The Review: You might be asking yourself, when the book sold more copies in the UK than all seven Harry Potter novels put together and when the trailer has been watched by more people worldwide than either the Avengers sequel or Star Wars revival trailers, should I go to see the new film version of Fifty Shades Of Grey? Apparently you’re one of the ten people in existence who hasn’t actually read the book (I am also one of those ten, although I’ve now read enough of it online in constructing this review to want to poke the rusty end of an old coathanger in through my ear to swirl my brain around for a bit in the hope that I’ll forget), so may I present this convenient fifty step guide to your potential cinema experience. You and I both know you’ve already decided if you’re going or not, but it wouldn’t hurt to read this first.

1. There’s a genre of fiction that has had vast chunks of words devoted to it since the birth of the internet, and it features characters from existing works of fiction having highly sexual encounters. This could be anything from Harry Potter to (seriously) The LEGO Movie.

2. One such work was called Masters Of The Universe and it was based on the Twilight series. Yes, the one with the sulky vampires and randy werewolves. As far as I am aware, it didn’t feature any actual Masters Of The Universe characters such as He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms or Fisto, although I imagine he’d have fit right in.

3. It was written under the pen name of Snowqueens Icedragon. Opinion is divided online as to whether that user name featured an apostrophe or not, given that the standard of the other writing in the story wouldn’t be an indication.

4. It was later then withdrawn and republished as three novels called Fifty Shades Of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, the last of which doesn’t even make sense as a title.

5. Despite seemingly being read by almost as many people as The Bible, the book has been correctly condemned for featuring some of the most horrific mangling of the English language ever to see print. Here’s some examples.

6. “I feel the colour in my cheeks rising again. I must be the colour of The Communist Manifesto.” The book apparently features an incessant amount of Ana (Dakota Johnson in the film) expressing her inner goddess; thankfully – or disappointingly for lovers of excruciatingly bad dialogue – none of this makes it to the film.

7. “The orange juice tastes divine. It’s thirst-quenching and refreshing.” The film does feature orange juice and medication with accompanying signs saying “Eat me” and “Drink me”, suggesting this is some form of sadistic remake of Alice In Wonderland.

8. “My very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba.” Dakota Johnson does get to show off her dance moves at one point, a rare moment when someone – anyone – actually seems to be enjoying themselves.

9. “Now I know what all the fuss is about. Two orgasms… coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow.” Apart from a singular lack of understanding about basic home appliance mechanics, this is something else that doesn’t make it into the film: there isn’t a single orgasm, leaving the film feeling like some form of neutered foreplay manual.

10. “I’m all deer/headlights, moth/flame, bird/snake … and he knows exactly what he’s doing to me.” I think we also know what E.L. James is doing to the English language, and it’s probably more painful than anything Christian’s ever come up with.

11. “Why is anyone the way they are? That’s kind of hard to answer. Why do some people like cheese and other people hate it? Do you like cheese?” A question you would do well to ask yourself before buying a ticket.

12. I think you get the idea. So the makers of the film hired Kelly Marcel (writer of Saving Mr. Banks and, er, Debbie Does Dallas, The Musical) and had a script polish reportedly performed by Patrick Marber (Closer, The Day Today) and Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4.0, The Wolverine). They have between them hidden or excised much of the most embarrassing dialogue, but in its place have failed to find any worthwhile or interesting dialogue.

13. They also hired Sam Taylor-Johnson, who is married to the bloke from Godzilla who ends up always being in the right place at the wrong time. Insert your own joke.

14. The next decision made was to excise some of the novel’s ickier concepts, such as the infamous tampon scene. According to Taylor-Johnson, they never even discussed this being in the film. (Really? Not actually a discussion? You all just telepathically knew which bits you wanted and which you didn’t?)

15. The film opens with Ana visiting the offices of Christian Grey (the third extraordinarily rich, oddball philanthropist I’ve seen in the fifteen films I’ve seen this year, and I’ve not even seen Tony Stark in a film yet. What are the odds?).

16. Ana is an English major who is apparently incapable of coming up with ten minutes’ worth of questions for a well-known entrepreneur, and also so smitten with a man she’s barely met that she’s incapable of making value judgements on questions written down in front of her.

17. When she enters Christian’s office, she also stumbles and falls to her knees, a clumsy and obvious piece of symbolism that still made it through the value judgement of at least three separate writers.

18. Although she believes the interview has gone badly, Christian later appears unexpectedly in the hardware store where Ana works around 200 miles away. She in no way finds this suspicious, stalker-like behaviour.

19. Ana later gets drunk on a night out and drunk dials Christian, who then appears at the bar she’s drinking at as if he’s in some way omnipresent. He then repeatedly shows up at places where she is without any knowledge of her whereabouts, suggesting either that he’s abusing his telecommunications business on an industrial scale or worse options that are barely worth contemplating. At no point does Ana raise more than the mildest of objections to this conduct.

20. This is also around the time that Ana’s friend José (Victor Rasuk) makes a clumsy, aggressive pass at her while drunk. This, along with José, is then also completely forgotten about. They should have tried to get Taylor Lautner to play this (he of the equivalent Twilight role) just for a laugh.

21. Christian performs gentlemanly acts such as holding Ana’s hair back while she vomits and pulling her out of the road so she avoids being run over by cyclists. Did I mention he’s also a billionaire? While Jamie Dorman as Christian does stern and brooding about as well as anyone could, it’s unfortunate that he appears to have confused the words concentration and constipation but has largely the same facial expression for both.

22. Once Christian has won over Ana’s inital trust with acts of basic decency and snogging her in a lift, he then takes up to the roof and shows her his massive chopper. This is not only a useful euphemism for a helicopter, but also allows me to reference the fact that this is the only chopper on display here: Fifty Shades takes the default Hollywood position of full-frontal nudity for the woman and either topless only or two shots of buttocks for the man. This, yet again, makes me feel slightly more ashamed to be a man, but slightly less ashamed than usual when the writer and director are both women.

23. Christian then asks Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which is a standard business practice for confidentiality but a thoroughly non-standard practice for a man who appears seemingly at random wherever you are, demanding your attention.

24. Christian explains to Ana that he’s not looking for a romantic relationship, and also mentions at various points that he wants to avoid physical contact, before he divests her of her virginity. Mixed messages there, fella.

25. Christian is visited by his mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who appears to be playing against type by being lovely, apart from the fact that one of her friends used Christian as a submissive for six years. The film occasionally throws chunks of exposition at the wall like overcooked spaghetti in the hope that enough of it will stick to explain Christian’s behaviour, under the assumption that Christian’s behaviour needs explicit explanation.

26. Ana is given a free laptop to research more of the sexual practices Christian is looking for Ana to be subjected to, at which point she types “submissive” into a search engine and comes back with some fairly timid fetish photography that is still more extreme than most of what’s made it into the sex scenes. Was I the only person wondering if she had Safe Search turned on or off?

27. Christian and Ana then have a business dinner where they discuss the contract Christian is looking to commit Ana to, where she has various practices removed from the contract but also reveals that not only has her Googling yet to reveal to her what butt plugs are, but that she has a singular lack of imagination for an English major.

28. The scene with the signing of the contract (in which they don’t actually sign the contract), along with much of the first half of the film, is accompanied by a jaunty Danny Elfman score which suggests that this is really a light-hearted comedy of manners.

29. When jaunty Elfman isn’t playing in the background, the soundtrack is littered with heavily sexualised versions of popular tunes and mixes modern artists such as The Weeknd, Sia, Ellie Goulding and Beyoncé with older names such as The Rolling Stones and Annie Lennox. It is by far the best thing about the film and will sell by the absolute bucketload. Clearly the lessons of Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman haven’t been completely forgotten.

30. Speaking of Pretty Woman, this whole film is essentially a grimmer version of Pretty Woman, as rich man uses money, power and influence to obtain a woman he’s fallen for having barely known her, except instead of love overcoming the evils of prostitution this is just a grim exploration of a misunderstanding of how BDSM works.

31. The other obvious touchstone for the film is 9 1/2 Weeks, in that Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke famously emptied the contents of the fridge over each other and explored some fairly graphic sexual practices, and here Christian ties up Ana’s wrists and rubs an ice cube over her. If that sounds like a backwards step, let’s not forget that 9 1/2 weeks encouraged mass walkouts at the cinema and scraped together a cult following on DVD; Fifty Shades had a midnight opening with the same level of box office as the last Transformers and Spider-Man films.

32. There are other reminders and references to films with two or three shades of similarity. That starts with Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith – and delivering much the same breathy intensity as her mum did in Working Girl, another film about attempting to win the heart of a wealthy but aloof businessman who she’s sleeping with regularly – and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, which means you really would think she would be more generally wary of dubious male behaviour.

33. It’s also reinforced by Jennifer Ehle, and while the closest she’s ever been to rampant depictions of sexuality was Colin Firth clambering moistly out of a lake, the film makers have attempted to reimagine Fifty Shades as a story of feminine empowerment. There is, of course, more female empowerment on display in a novel written over two hundred years ago than anything here.

34. So what is Fifty Shades about? Well, it’s not about abuse if you believe the film makers, because Ana enters into the arrangement voluntarily, other than Christian stalking her over a several hundred mile area, invading her privacy at regular intervals and nagging her until she caves into his requests at every opportunity that he gets, in a manner that feels eerily reminiscent of Bart and Lisa Simpson and their efforts to be taken to Mount Splashmore.

35. Then there’s the claims that it’s misunderstood the nature and practices of BDSM (bondage / discipline, dominance / submission, sadism / masochism – yes I know that’s technically BDDSSM but I don’t make the rules). I’m not an expert in this, but most of the articles from people who are would seem to suggest that Fifty Shades is more just about an extravagant control freak exercising his will than it is any kind of attempt to analyse or understand the more extreme side of safe sexual practice.

36. While it isn’t about abuse directly, there are strong themes of control, with Ana and Christian engaged in a mental power struggle, each attempting to assert their own control over the other. This, in the first half especially, is where the film manages to rise above its source material and for a while seems in danger of actually having something interesting to say.

37. But what neither the film, nor its makers, seem to grasp is that abuse is a control mechanism, and Christian’s control mechanisms are all teetering so close to abuse that there’s really little value to be had from arguing any difference. The fact that Ana has been manoeuvred into this situation  just makes it all the more distasteful that those involved with the production would then attempt to recast this as an empowering romance.

38. So what we’re left with is the twenty-first century equivalent of a romantic comedy with most of the romance and all of the comedy surgically extracted, and where we’re then left with two hours of waiting for the next attempt at titillation.

39. Now we’ve come full circle: the real purpose of the genre of the fanfiction from which this sprung, and of pretty much any erotic fiction ever written for that matter, is to stimulate sexual excitement in the reader. Typically that would be the female reader, as men generally seem to be more content with some pictures or a video if the Internet as a whole is anything to judge by. (I hate sweeping generalisations but I think there’s some truth in that one.)

40. This is then where the film must be judged: if any attempts at social discourse have failed, is it at least sexy? Initially yes, despite Johnson and Dornan having less chemistry than a ten year old’s first box of test tubes and random chemicals, Taylor-Johnson does manage to make the most of Ana and Christian’s first couple of sexual encounters.

41. Sadly then, with nowhere else left to go, the remaining encounters follow the pattern of the rest of the film in leaking away the tension and also evoking little sympathy for anyone involved (especially the actors, who are either being well paid or should have known better).

42. As well as being about the sex, works of fiction from this to Working Girl and Pretty Woman are an escapist fantasy, the thought of submitting to a powerful man (even with the occasional scene of empowerment) being a consistent theme within the genre, but there would be more to be gained from exploring Ana’s conflicted feelings than Fifty Shades the film ever seems keen on.

43. What you’re left with is an odd combination of the exact structure of the novel with the trashy pleasure of the appalling writing sanitised completely out of the script and the sex scenes avoiding male nudity, orgasms and anything else that might generate controversy. The fact that the French gave this a 12 rating isn’t as controversial as you might think.

44. Given that so many films over the past couple of years, from Blue Is The Warmest Colour to Nymphomaniac and Stranger By The Lake, have used sex to explore facets of character so much more successfully, the fact that most of those have barely been seen by anyone and that this has a bigger target audience than bread is all the more depressing.

45. The only person likely to come out of this with their dignity intact is oddly the person who spends most of the film having it stripped away. Dakota Johnson does what she can with the role and, after tiny roles in the likes of 21 Jump Street, she may actually defy the odds and go onto a successful career from this, even if it is remakes of Marilyn Monroe films and Working Girl 2: The Daughter That Oughta.

46. Well actually… when I said the best / worst dialogue didn’t make it into the film, there are a few examples. If you hear anyone in real life using Christian’s catchphrase of “Laters, baby” you have my permission to give them an entirely non-BDSM slap. (Disclaimer: please don’t slap anyone on my say so.)

47. There is no escaping the fact that, at over two hours, the film feels too long. I would love to try to make a joke about length at this point but it’s just become too hard.

48. And that just leaves us with the three likely reactions most audiences will experience at the end of the film, which were certainly felt vocally by the group I saw the film with. Firstly when the credits roll: “is that it?”

49. Secondly: “9 1/2 Weeks was better.”

50. Thirdly, about thirty seconds into the credits: “Rita Ora’s in this?!?!” Now you can play the exciting game of Spot The Ora to pass the time.

Why see it at the cinema: If, rather than discreetly reading graphic descriptions of sexual activity in the privacy of your own home, you’d prefer to sit in a room with several hundred other people gawping at a half-naked man and a fully naked woman not quite having sex at occasional intervals, then knock yourself out. But don’t come crying to me afterwards.

What about the rating? Rated 18 for strong sex. A description that caused two people sat behind me in the cinema to proclaim “ooh, strong sex” in a manner reminiscent of Frankie Howerd. Titter ye not, missus.

So let’s be clear about this: the marketing suggests that the film features about twenty minutes of sex across a two hour run time, which suggests a very generous description of when the sex actually starts; possibly when the two characters enter a room within minutes of each other. If you are coming for the sex (if you’ll pardon the expression), then you may be better advised to wait for the DVD so you can fast forward the boring bits.

My cinema experience: Seen at the Abbeygate in Bury St Edmunds with an early morning (but very full) audience that is likely to be the norm for weeks to come. Good luck finding something – anything – else to watch. At least the cinema only detained us with fifteen minutes of ads and trailers up front.

The Score: 5/10

Competition Commission: And Now, The End Is Near

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Cineworld Cambridge

Finally, more than two years after Cineworld plc acquired the City Screen business that operates Picturehouse cinemas (yes, it was December 6th 2012 that this all started), and getting on for two years after the Office Of Fair Trading first referred the purchase to the Competition Commission, the actions that the Competition Commission requested have finally now all been completed and we can – almost – make an assessment of who’s gained and lost in this process. Today it was announced, about a week after the signs came down and the speculation began, that the European cinema chain The Light would be taking over operation of the Cineworld in Cambridge. The chain, started by businessmen Keith Pullinger and John Sullivan, currently operates two cinemas in the UK in New Brighton and Wisbech as well as two in Europe, with plans for another six in the UK over the next two years. Their mission statement on their website is promising, as they pledge:

  • Eye catching architecture and contemporary interior design which creates an exciting environment and encourages socialising.
  • Adventurous film programming, featuring blockbusters, independent and international films.
  • The newest and latest on screen content: opera, sport and music
  • A café bar creating relaxed atmosphere, a place to socialise and attract the mix of families, young people and mature adults who make up the cinema audience.

But this process has taken so long, it might be easy to forget how we got to this point. (It’s been frustrating recently for customers of the Cambridge cinemas, but the nature of the legal process meant that no one could formally announce anything until the sale was completed.) With a particular film theme, let’s look at the winners and losers in all this.

The Good – good news for Picturehouse customers

Back in 2012 when the acquisition was first announced, the mood was pessimistic to say the least. It was presumed by many that the change in ownership would see the cinemas transformed into mini-multiplexes, losing their focus and character, yet if you look around the country that hasn’t happened. I can say this with first hand knowledge, having been to Picturehouse cinemas in Norwich, Liverpool, Hackney, Exeter, Southampton and Edinburgh since that day in 2012 as well as my two locals, and they all still by and large have the same quirky, comfortable atmosphere and the same higher end film programme. Each is distinct but clearly part of something larger, and that can also be said of the cinema in Cambridge.

Two of the the Picturehouses did get sold under the Competition Commission decision, in Aberdeen and Bury St. Edmunds. The former was purchased by Filmhouse, who not only run an independent arthouse cinema in Edinburgh but also the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it has carried on pretty much business as usual. The latter was bought by Tony Jones, former co-founder of City Screen and now back in independent cinema. The Picturehouse programming arm continues to programme for that cinema and a reciprocal agreement on membership has kept discounts in place. Thankfully the cinema had a significant refurbishment before the sale and the bar and restaurant are a delight, and with the news that the Abbeygate (as it is now called) have purchased the bingo hall next door and are converting that to a third screen, the future of quality cinema in Bury St. Edmunds also looks assured.

But these were always likely to be the easier of the two situations. It wasn’t impossible that an independent could have come in and taken over Cambridge, just that there were so many more babies in the bathwater there that a change in ownership could have very easily set the cinema on a path to ruin. The easiest way to maintain everything that the cinema stood for seemed to be to keep the current owners in charge, and that has been the final outcome. The Arts Picturehouse will remain, and for those like myself who stood on the pavement outside the cinema in 2013, placards in hand, and to the 15,126 people who signed the petition directed at the Competition Commission – the vast majority of whom were current or former Arts customers – it is time to breath a sigh of relief, albeit a guarded one.

I’ve been in discussions with people on social media who fear that the change to a mini-multiplex in 2012 was just delayed for Cambridge and that the programming for the Arts Picturehouse will now simply transform it into the mini-multiplex now that Cambridge no longer has a Cineworld in town. There’s a few reasons why I don’t think – and hope, for nothing in life is certain – that this will happen. First off, Cineworld seem to have recognised through this process that Cambridge is one of the crown jewels of the Picturehouse chain and that to dilute it now would be nonsensical. The multiplex that they are selling has around four times the seating capacity in its nine screens that the Arts has in its three, and even the economists of the Competition Commission (sorry, couldn’t resist one last dig) could work out that a profit-based decision would be to sell the arts cinema. Also, if you look at the kinds of areas I mentioned earlier (Norwich, Edinburgh, Southampton, Liverpool and so on), they are a mixture of areas both with and without a Cineworld but all with other competition, and their core programming is not so different to that of the Cambridge cinema. Bear in mind that the programming for all of these cinemas is generally planned months in advance and then fine tuned the week before, wholesale changes are not even possible in that sense for some time to come without massive and unnecessary disruption.

However, one of the big things that sets Cambridge apart – and one of the major motivating factors for trying to protect the status quo – is all of the programming at the cinema which doesn’t come directly from Picturehouse or which marks them out from the competitors. If you look at the latest programme you’ll see there’s still at least one 70mm film a month being shown, there are repertory programmes from the University of the Third Age, the University of Cambridge’s Faculty Of Modern and Medieval Languages, short films from gayinthe80s.com / Encompass Network and films from young trainee programmers at Long Road Sixth Form College. But the two most undervalued contributions come from the Cambridgeshire Film Consortium – who have a dozen educational events in the latest programme alone – and the Cambridge Film Trust, who work to foster film education across the Eastern region and the whole of the UK, and who – not the Picturehouse as most people seem to think – run the Cambridge Film Festival each year. The festival last year moved to late August and saw a 30% increase in attendance on the previous year, and if you’ve ever been to the Arts Picturehouse and wondered what was up the stairs beyond the screens, then it’s these organisations and the projectionists. Hopefully any doubt in what the future held for any of them is now removed.

The one comment that I’ve made before and that I’ll make again is that if the programming changes at the Arts Picturehouse, it’s less likely to be as a result of the sale of the Cineworld and more likely to be down to the fact that the cinema’s programmers are making brave choices that then don’t get backed up by an audience. In November the cinema had screenings of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but none in the much larger screen 1, and the cinema responded to audience requests and moved a Friday night screening into screen 1 which then pretty much sold out. But I was also at two separate films on Friday nights in screen 3 last year that had an audience in single figures, and that’s not sustainable. There’s no point in the programmers being bold if no-one then watches the films, and I would urge any regular customers reading this to check their brochures and seek out the daring films being shown. Quite often these days the more niche films, such as the recent Denis Villeneuve release Enemy with Jake Gyllenhall, get relegated to a 10:30 slot because there’s no confidence they’ll attract a sufficient evening crowd, and I can’t buy all of the tickets myself (as much as I’d like to). Just don’t come complaining if you don’t watch the films and then they disappear.

The Bad – Cineworld Unlimited customers (and possibly all Cineworld customers)

Cineworld Unlimited

When someone tells you that you have two things and one is going to be taken away, and that you must lose one or the other with retaining both not an option, then it’s almost impossible to campaign for both. I did try to draw attention to the potential risks of losing the Cineworld in terms of cost, but the momentum to fight for the Cineworld just never materialised to the same extent. I personally consume films in huge volume, averaging around 160 a year since I started this blog, and much of that has been made possible by the use of my Unlimited Premium card. I can and will still visit Cineworlds in Huntingdon, Bury St. Edmunds, Haverhill and Stevenage regularly (as well as a host of others if I’m in the area) and I’m hoping that there’ll be a new Cineworld just fifteen minutes away from me in Ely come next summer, but I’ve often relied on seeing three or four films in a day split between the Arts and the Cineworld in Cambridge. The Light have said they will honour Unlimited cards, which also give significant discounts on food and drink, for three months, but after that I’m expecting to see my costs go up every time I have a film day in Cambridge.

The Competition Commission’s research suggested that around 8% of their customers nationally are Unlimited customers (there was no figure specific to Cambridge). But I guarantee that the vast majority of that 8% in Cambridge are seeing two or more films a month, and for them this will represent either a significant rise in cost or more likely a significant reduction in the number of films they can see in the cinema. Frankly, as this blog was founded on the principle of encouraging people to watch as many films in cinemas as they could, that breaks my heart just a tiny bit. I hope anyone that can’t get to another Cineworld still manages to see some films once the Unlimited extension expires.

But what of the other 92%, those that just buy single or group tickets and don’t rely on the discounts of Unlimited? We’ll know tomorrow at noon, when the Light’s website goes live, whether they’ve gained or lost on price. The fundamental basis for the decision by the Office Of Fair Trading to refer this to the Competition Commission in the first place was that more competition helps to naturally regulate price, but we won’t know until tomorrow if there’s any change to the cinema’s costs. The good news is that in Wisbech, the cinema seems to have recently reduced its prices by 20% in an effort to better pitch to the local consumer. One of the things I found out in my research into this in 2013 is that cinema chains set prices locally, so in that sense competition should have an effect, but there’s probably only half a dozen cities in the country with enough cinemas for competition to make any difference, three being unlikely to cut it. With that 20% price cut in Wisbech, a standard Friday night ticket is still 20p more expensive than their only competitor, the single screen The Luxe – your guess is as good as mine as to whether there’s actually any market forces at work there.

I also then looked at that same Friday night comparison for The Light’s other cinema in New Brighton, and that looks less promising. There’s quite a diverse collection of cinemas within half an hour’s travel of that cinema, and the range of standard Friday night ticket prices is impressive:

New Brighton Prices

To give The Light their credit, they are competing a little with the Picturehouse on content, showing Birdman and A Most Violent Year when few of the other cinemas have, but their closest three cinemas geographically are the three on the left, so if you see a mainstream film at The Light in New Brighton, you’re paying significantly more than the local competition.

So I will reserve judgement on the pricing and film choice of the new cinema until their website is live tomorrow. The best possible outcome for the cinema lovers of Cambridge would be The Light starting to compete more on programming with the Picturehouse while making the pricing competitive, but only time will tell. Hopefully customers, now much more conscious of price if this process has had any effect, will vote with their feet if they’re being overcharged in Cambridge and the pressures of the market might actually have the effect that I cynically doubt they will. I am completely happy to be proven wrong on this one.

The Ugly – the Competition & Markets Authority

Yes, this process has been going so long that the body that referred this decision and the people they referred it to have themselves been merged, the OFT and the Competition Commission becoming one in the Competition & Markets Authority. When you’ve processed the irony of that, let’s recall what the intent of this process was to do. The idea of forcing Cineworld to sell a cinema in three areas was to encourage competition in those areas and that in return, that competition would naturally help to control prices for consumers. As was pointed out by others almost on day one of this process, if that were true in and of itself then cinemas in Leicester Square would be the cheapest in the country, but clearly there’s more at work here. What the CMA and its predecessors couldn’t do – because that would effectively be a price control, and that’s not their remit – would be to determine how much competition should influence pricing in the market. At the time of the sale, one of those standard Friday night tickets at the Cineworld in Cambridge would have set you back £9.90, compared to £9.70 at the Vue or £11.00 at the Picturehouse. If in the longer term those figures don’t all just increase in line with the Retail Price Index, then this process will have achieved something. It will be fascinating to see tomorrow how The Light’s starting price compares to the final Cineworld price; I would argue that if it’s even a penny higher, this process has failed spectacularly on the main front it was trying to deliver.

But actually, I’d make a further argument that it’s already done just that: this process has already repeatedly allowed to happen the exact thing it was designed to stop. 

What do I mean by that? Well, although it couldn’t set price controls, the Competition Commission set a test as part of the third party survey conducted in their investigation. The idea was that they questioned people as to whether or not they’d change cinema if the one they normally went to put their prices up by 5%. The principle is that, if enough people would switch from Picturehouse to Cineworld or vice versa if the price went up in one of them, then it would be in Cineworld plc’s interests to raise prices because they would still keep the profit.

What the research showed was that it was in Cineworld plc’s best interests not to raise prices in Cambridge, because three times as many survey respondents said they would go to the opposition (i.e. Vue) as they would stay with a Cineworld plc cinema. In that event, Cineworld loses all of the money rather than gaining the profit, so that one piece of evidence should have told them that not keeping prices competitive would have seen them lose business, and the market was already telling them.

But that’s not the way the Competition Commission saw it, they demanded the sale of a cinema in Cambridge and two other areas. This was taken from one of my blog posts in September 2013, and prices were still at this level when the Commission made its final judgement in October 2013.

CC Chart 1

Can you guess what happened next? Between then and now, Cineworld have made a price rise of 50p per ticket (more than 5%) and Picturehouse have made two of 50p each (more than 10%). So if there was anything to be gained by customers switching cinemas, then this process has taken so long that Cineworld plc have profited from it three times in Cambridge before the cinema sale went through. Doesn’t that strike you as making this process a spectacular waste of everyone’s time and effort?

Anyway, what’s done is done, and despite our best efforts the process has ploughed on unhindered, ignoring the voices of not only the general public but prominent industry figures and members of both Houses Of Parliament. And now, here we are, with the CMA having taken nearly eighteen months to put a bolt on the stable door, but the horse has already made its exit.

I think there are questions to be asked here of how these bodies have conducted this process: the definition of any kind of success criteria is shaky at best, what I’ve seen an outsider from the reports I’ve read has given the impression that industry feedback has been overlooked in favour of evidence provided by competitors with vested interests in destabilising a competitor and we now have no guarantee that this will actually deliver what it was intended to, especially given that what it was trying to prevent has already happened. Maybe the merger into the CMA dragged out the process, but frankly I would be living in fear and trepidation if this was how the CMA handled an investigation into an industry I worked in. I think, as consumers that this body is working to try to protect, we deserved better.

In Conclusion

Sometimes good things come of bad processes. I would like to give the CMA some credit, for at least in forcing the sale the Picturehouses sold ended up in safe hands of a similar size and shape and we will shortly be in a position to judge if the sale of the Cineworld has had a similarly positive outcome. I truly hope that’s the case here, and in an ideal world The Light would help to keep prices down relative to the cost of living, and we’d start to see them programming some films which might give Picturehouse a bit of competition of the kind we actually need. It might also see the sadly defunct bar next to the Cineworld and the foyer itself given a new lease of life, and possibly an end to the generally loathed allocated seating policies that hadn’t won Cineworld many friends in the last year or so. Putting the Cineworld into the hands of a brand with the best of intentions, but who aren’t as tried and tested as the likes of Odeon or other multiplex operators, is a brave move but it’s not completely without risk either. Like Morgan Freeman at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, I hope, but the next few months will tell us if it’s warm sand between our toes or a dank, muddy beach covered in puddles and time to get out the Wellington boots.

P.S. One last thank you to all the staff at the Cineworld in Cambridge, who it seems are being taken on by The Light. It’s one of the few multiplexes I’ve ever been to where, when I raised an issue with projection, they did something about it, and the staff have always been friendly and courteous to me. I’d just like to wish them all the best for the future.

The Half Dozen: 6 Most Interesting Looking Trailers For January 2015

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2015 is a year that I fear for having to hunt harder than ever for the true gems of cinema amid the overly scripted neon morass of increasingly formulaic blockbusters that will clog up cinemas of all sizes more than ever before this year. With major film shunting themselves into next year to avoid the crush, it’ll be harder than ever for the smaller films to find sufficient two hour slots in cinemas to be seen before they must disappear, and I fear for quality getting trampled in the rush.

However, we shouldn’t be too disheartened: if January is anything to go by, quality film making is far from a thing of the past, it’s just going to have to work a teensy bit harder to be seen this year than ever before. Based on my first look at the two minute promos for January – for I do try to watch trailers for every single film being released before settling on six each month – then 2015 should at least be a good year for the art form of the trailer, and it’s good to see those involved in promotion stepping up their game to get behind films looking to wrestle their way into cinemas near you.

Here for the first time this year are the six trailers that, for better or worse, caught my eye this month.

National Gallery

As a regular in London for the cinema, and particularly my frequent visits to Leicester Square, I am often conscious that I overlook some of London’s greater treasures in favour of more time at the cinema. Thankfully, documentarian Frederick Wiseman has come up with a way for me to do both. Just a shame that I couldn’t make a preview screening offered in the gallery itself, as watching a film about a place being showing as a film in the place is just delightfully perverse.

National Gallery is on limited release from 9th January.

American Sniper

Normally trailers are just a compilation of often spoiler filled clips from the film, but American Sniper has taken a different route. You might call this a clip rather than a trailer if you were being pedantic – and if you were, I’d of course applaud you – but it would seem to encapsulate enough about the film to help your decision on whether or not to buy a ticket without having to see another second of footage.

American Sniper is on wide release from 16th January. 

Whiplash

You wait ages for a film with massive amounts of drumming and then two come along at once. I hope my Birdman fatigue, some of which related to the incessant jazz drum score which underpinned the film and occasionally broke through the fourth wall, doesn’t diminish my enjoyment this time. I also hope that Miles Teller can redeem himself a little, for despite being one of the better things in last year’s That Awkward Moment, it was still one of 2014’s lowlights for me. The only way is up.

Whiplash is on wide release from 16th January. 

Beyond Clueless

When I started blogging, I tried to read as many other blogs as I could, and three in particular became regular reading. As well as Your Turn Heather and The Incredible Suit, Charlie Lyne’s Ultra Culture became required reading for his style, forthrightness and absolute willingness to pursue his own particular predilections, such as his fondness for the film Eurotrip. He’s now channelled his broader fascination with teen movies into a documentary and the trailer is as distinctive as the voice of his blog (seemingly now retired, at least for the time being, as he’s crossed over into film making).

Beyond Clueless is touring the country before its release on 23rd January.

No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers

One of the first things I did this year was to book tickets to see one of my two favourite bands play their most iconic album in full, with the Manic Street Preachers playing The Holy Bible at Cardiff Castle. (Oddly, One Direction are playing at the Millennium Stadium the same night, so Cardiff will be a strange place to be that weekend.) I’ve not only booked my hotel as well as my ticket, but true to form I’ve already checked the release schedule for that weekend, so I may also sample Insidious Chapter 3, Spy or Electric Boogaloo while I’m down, having last been to the cinema in Cardiff nineteen years ago as a student.

No Manifesto will receive some limited cinema screenings from January 30th before being released on DVD in February.

Pelo Malo (Bad Hair)

This is my list of interesting trailers. This trailer looked interesting. Sadly my waffle about it isn’t turning out that way, but you can’t win them all. Look, a puppy! *points in the other direction* *runs away*

Pelo Malo is released in most of the UK on 30th January and in Scotland on 6th February, presumably to give Scotland chance to get over Burns Night the week before or something.

Oscars Countdown: The British Are Going (Mad)

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The nominations for the BAFTA film awards have been announced this morning, and once again those compiling the nominations have between them managed to prove at best case that two good performances are all you need to make a good film, and and worst that the British film is simply a pandering lapdog still craving the attention and validation of America rather than attempting to stand on its own two feet. The nominations in particular for Best British film have left me so irked that I’m currently sat in the cafeteria at Stonehenge trying to get this off my chest, having toured one of the world’s great heritage sites full of 5,000 year old monuments and I’m left to wonder if these stones could talk, would they come up with a more contemporary, relevant and worthy set of picks. Each year I publish a handful of posts in the run-up to the Oscars in an effort to remind myself that awards are meaningless and just because they don’t reflect my own opinion, it shouldn’t ruin my day when they’re announced.

But wow, this year takes the biscuit in a category already renowned for encouraging the receipt of flour-based baked goods. In the time since I started blogging, an era during which the BAFTA film awards have moved to a pre-Oscar slot in a desperate attempt to secure an influx of Hollywood glitterati and so seem pointlessly relevant, the following films have been the “Best” British Film:

– In 2011 The King’s Speech beat out Another Year and Four Lions
– In 2012 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy overcame Shame, Senna and We Need To Talk About Kevin
– In 2013 Skyfall came out on top of Anna Karenina and Les Misérables
– Last year, Gravity beat The Selfish Giant and Philomena

The awards twelve months ago embodied everything wrong with the dual main categories: no-one in their right mind would have considered Gravity a British film, with it beating not only a stunning piece of work from deserving British director Clio Barnard but also arguably a better awards season type film in Philomena. But the Best Film was 12 Years A Slave, and this wasn’t even nominated for Best British Film despite a sufficient qualifying connection, a British director and two outstanding lead performances from British actors.

So what’s gotten me so riled up this year, that’s possibly even worse than last year’s farrago? Part of the problem stems from what’s actually been an outstanding year for British film, in which we are so spoiled for choice that you could fill British film two or three times over with quality picks. What the voters of BAFTA have come up with for Best British film is:

’71
The Imitation Game
Paddington
Pride
The Theory Of Everything
Under The Skin

That’s not a bad list, and there are a couple of excellent films on it. The first problem is that those films are Paddington and Under The Skin, and the two films from that list that have made it to the Best Film overall list are certainly the two least interesting and arguably the two worst: The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything.

The Imitation Game is a real frustration as its only two positives are the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch – a man now so all powerful he can get a lead role in an animation about penguins despite being demonstrably unable to say penguins – and Keira Knightley. Other than that it’s a film that fudges its issues and has barely the merest pretence of drama, an Emperor’s New Clothes of acting mannerisms with a narrative that does poor service to both the war effort and Turing himself; no mean feat when it actually overplays his war contribution in many ways.

I enjoyed The Theory Of Everything, but again it’s a film that survives on the performances of its two leads and precious little else. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are both exceptional, but the rest of the film is placid to a fault and it’s a chocolate box Cambridge that explains science politely and tries its hardest not to cause offence at any other time. It’s not a patch on director James Marsh’s last two films, Man On Wire and Shadow Dancer. I still believe that Under The Skin will be being discussed in ten years’ time; I find it hard to believe that too many people will remember The Theory Of a Everything in ten weeks.

But not only have the two films most likely to find the common denominator even though they’re not very good made the Best Film, I would argue that there are at least another ten films more worthy of a place on the Best British Film list for last year. In descending order of greatness, they are:

Mr Turner
Calvary
The Double
Next Goal Wins
Starred Up
Kajaki: The True Story
Lilting
The Possibilities Are Endless
Belle
Northern Soul
(And possibly an eleventh: I haven’t seen The Testament Of Youth as it’s not out yet.)

I can accept that you may believe not all of these ten films or the four in the Best British Film category are better than The Imitation Game or The Theory Of Everything, but if you can sit there with a straight face and tell me that none of them are – for that is the implication of the BAFTA nominations – then can I politely suggest that you don’t watch enough films. Anything on that list of fourteen which didn’t make the Best Film list above would be an ideal way of starting to put that right.

But before I go, I must also mention the most egregious omission from the nominations. As I’ve indicated, Mr Turner didn’t make it into the nominations, but Mike Leigh has at least picked up awards for various categories in the past for Secrets And Lies and Vera Drake. However, the snub handed out to what to me was the performance of the year by Timothy Spall has left me incredulous. There truly is no justice at awards time, but that probably won’t stop me getting my knickers in a twist when the Oscar nominations come out. Joy of joys.

Review: Birdman

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or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)
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The Pitch: What We Talk About When We Talk About Films With Dominating Technical Conceits Released In The Middle Of Awards Season.

The Review: Alejandro González Iñárritu was the first Mexican director to be nominated for an Oscar, but his back catalogue of films have a more serious reputation than those of his contemporaries Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro, the latter winning over the geek crowd with his highly detailed fantasies and the former becoming increasingly renowned for his long single takes in films such as Children Of Men and last year’s Gravity which saw an opening of seventeen minutes and you wonder if this left Iñárritu challenged to determine if it would be possible to construct an entire film in such a manner with modern technical wizardry just as applicable to the grounded, real world as it is to space, perhaps even more so if you restrict the movements of your characters to a single location, in this case a theatre where Michael Keaton’s tortured former superhero actor Riggan Thompson, star of the now defunct Birdman trilogy, is attempting an act of self-redemption with the production of a Broadway play in which his direction and acting are becoming unbalanced by his alter ego whispering provocatively in his ear even while his producer and lawyer friend (Zack Galifianakis) does his best to keep the sinking ship afloat, his daughter (Emma Stone) attempts to be an assistant while sorting out her own addiction issues and the last minute replacement (Edward Norton) brings a Method madness which complicates his role and threatens to derail the production before it gets to opening night after a series of previews which we see unfolding over the course of several days, possibly even weeks, as we and the characters roam the inner hallways, the stage, the roof and occasionally the streets of the theatre while the script by a team of writers including Iñárritu attempts to understand the conflict between acting and the nature of celebrity and how much one can be compromised by the other but the arguments feel dated and the pot-shots at the real life actors name checked in the early scenes feel cheap and unearned, Riggan’s silent partner of the gravelly Batman voice and seeming telekinetic ability proving further distractions and potentially exploring interesting ideas but like a hyperactive child attempting maths problems it never sits still for long enough to allow you to consider the solution, the tangents to the subplots involving Norton’s rooftop conversations with Stone and scenes with Riggan’s performer girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and his leading lady (Naomi Watts) offering some of the best character moments but sucking the momentum from the overall narrative which has the surface feeling of a stage play but in both its internal conceit and the overall effect lacks the natural vocabulary of either stage play or film, the first forty minutes in particular being a succession of scenes which are staged without any variation in tone or pitch and which become plagued by the fourth wall breaking jazz drum score from Antonio Sanchez which initially drives tension but increasingly becomes an irritant as the whole language of film is gradually dispensed with in a way that many have regarded as a supreme technical achievement – and it is – but never manages to rise above being anything more than that, and if by now you’re thinking that my attempt to write this entire review in a single sentence is even more of a a cheap trick than the one I’m calling attention to, then that’s exactly my point: as the play unfolds over two hours without the normal breaths and pauses that standard filming or cutting provides it became for me as punishing to watch as I presume reading this review has become for you and for that I genuinely apologise, if you haven’t given up already but then you wouldn’t been reading this part anyway so ignore me, and anyway you get the benefit of punctuation and the best the film can do to shake things up is a disappointingly brief but vibrant scene where Birdman is brought thrillingly to life, because the narcissistic fabrication that Iñárritu has fashioned so exhausted me with its constant demands to observe every element of the foreground and background and its inability to resolve any of its subplots to any degree of satisfaction that its only joy comes from within the moment, rather than by being able to appreciate the film as a complete work and maybe this another one of those cases like Magic Eye paintings where everyone who can do them thinks they’re brilliant but people like me who see differently find it commendable that so many others enjoy it but personally can’t help but be incredibly frustrated by the whole experience, and while many of those isolated moments are enjoyable, often filmed in long, technically demanding takes which undersell the efforts the actors would have invested in them, the end never justifies the means and the final irony being that half of the best moments are in the trailer but they’re actually more gratifying when taken out of context than assembled into an overwhelming stream of consciousness that hopefully means that now we’ve seen this once, in service of a story that’s less successful at skewering celebrity culture and acting than TV series such as The Larry Sanders Show were twenty years ago and one which also strives for magical realism but ends up confounding itself like a magic trick without a prestige, Iñárritu might stop attempting to one-up his fellow Mexicans and learn how to subvert standard narrative conventions as effectively as he did in his early films rather that in this award-baiting torture that is rightly earning plaudits for a Keaton renaissance and for strong work from the rest of the cast but which sadly doesn’t merit the remainder of the praise being heaped upon it.

Why see it at the cinema? If you want to play Spot The Joins, then you stand the best chance of doing that in the cinema. And good luck to you. Since pretty much every aspect of the production is ramped up to 11, you may as well do that with your viewing experience as well.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language, sex references. If it’s come to the point where fourteen year olds can’t be allowed to hear two grown adults laying in bed and talking about having sex, which is what the BBFC extended classification info would seem to suggest, then maybe we should all give up and go home.

My cinema experience: The first of what I expect to be dozens of uses of my Cineworld Unlimited card, on this occasion at their Cambridge branch. Just a shame that I’d already paid to see it a week earlier at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton before a clogged up motorway and a broken down train on the Central Line scuppered my plans.

The Score: 6/10

Review Of 2014: The Top 40 Movies Of 2014

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Few notes here. If you want to cut straight to the list then skip to the jump.

Here we are again. After dissecting the year from every angle I could think of, my biggest ever review of the year comes to an end with my fifth annual top 40 films of the year. A reminder if you’ve not yet got around to reading any of my previous top 40s (links at the bottom if you’ve got the stamina after this one), but I do top 40s for two reasons: as a reminder of the excitement of listening to the chart countdown at Christmas when I was but a wee nipper, and because I see enough films in a year that anything in the top 40 is a recommendation as I have scored it 8/10 or higher. This year, only the top six were worthy of the full 10/10, the joint lowest since I started this blog.

First up, the rest of the usual stats. This year, I saw 180 films for the first time in a cinema this year, of which 28 were re-releases or festival films not released for the first time this year. Total pedants such as myself would probably be keen to know that I count Nymphomaniac as two films for these purposes. I also saw Back To The Future in a cinema, which is not only an old film but I also saw it in 2010 on its last re-release. That leaves 152 brand spanking new’uns I saw in the cinema, and this year I set a new record of also seeing 15 new releases at home, for a grand total of 167 films. Consequently, what you see here is about the top quartile of what I’ve watched in 2014. (I also used Netflix to watch the first twenty minutes or so of another half a dozen, including Bastards and Venus In Fur, but as none of them suggested they’d crack this list on a brief viewing I will watch them to completion at my leisure in 2015.)

I agonised this year about whether or not to go for a top 50 rather than a top 40, given that I’d seen more films at around the four star mark than ever before. But, a tradition is a tradition, and so just for the record the unlucky ten to lose out, in alphabetical order, were ’71, Alleluia, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ilo Ilo, Kajaki: The True Story, Lilting, Omar, The Guest, Timbuktu and Tim’s Vermeer. I would still recommend any of these if you’ve not seen them, and hopefully if you’ve liked one or more of these then that should suggest it’s worth exploring my top 40 in more detail.

As always, despite seeing 167 films there were plenty I would have seen had the opportunity presented itself. At the top of that list would be The Overnighters, A Touch Of Sin, Obvious Child, Tony Benn: Will And Testament, Tom At The Farm, The Rocket, In Bloom, Still The Enemy Within and Goodbye To Language. For a full list of what I’d like to have seen if time and money had allowed, you’ll find one here. You might be expecting to see Citizenfour, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Leviathan, The Wind Rises, Pride, Two Days One Night, What We Do In The Shadows, Interstellar or Only Lovers Left Alive, and while I loved them all in part or in whole, just not quite enough to crack my top 50, and I’ll happily go into more detail on any omissions in the comments.

Finally in pre(r)amble I’d like to just add some thank yous. Thank you to both Toby and Bums On Seats and also to Rosy, Edd, Jim and the gang at Take One for allowing me to take part in what you’ve done this year, and hopefully you’ll have me back again. To the host of people who’ve stopped and chatted who I run into regularly, many of whom I listed at the end of the Cambridge Film Festival, thank you for making my year in darkened rooms that much more social. Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to the staff of every single cinema that I attended in seeing those 180 films, as I’ve not had a truly bad experience in any of them this year. In no particular order, that includes the Abbeygate Cinema, the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, Saffron Screen, Cinema City in Norwich, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the BFI Southbank, the Prince Charles Cinema, the Curzon Soho, Vue cinemas in Cambridge and the West End, and last but by no means least, Cineworlds in Cambridge, Bury St. Edmunds, Huntingdon, Ipswich, Stevenage, St. Helens and Didsbury, as I pump my Unlimited Premium card for every last ounce of value.

Here then are the 40 that made the cut, my favourites of the year. Click on the link in the title to discover what I wrote earlier in the year on any films where I did. I hope if you’ve not managed to catch all of these that something tempts your fancy in what follows. Bear in mind that this list is the same as every other list you’ve read in the past month: a matter of opinion, not fact, so don’t tell me I’m wrong – there is no such thing, it’s all just a bit of fun and not to be taken too seriously – but do try to suggest films I might have missed.

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