The Pitch: What? The Dickens?
The Review: Modern society is desperate to work out what kind of person you are. But beware, it has only a few descriptions with which to allow you to be labelled. Complexity be damned, on any issue of the day you’ll be lucky if more than two opinions are permissible. The United Kingdom is being inexorably drawn into a time when you must be in favour or opposed to everything. Never mind leaving the European Union, it doesn’t feel as if you can be ambivalent to Marmite these days. Love it or hate it? Them’s your choices, don’t darken this door again with mild admiration or moderate disgust.
Armando Iannucci arrives at his latest film bearing the label of ‘political satirist’, and while it’s a fair description to a point, it comes riding in on an unspoken implication that he’s incapable of anything else. Let’s dispel that label for a start; while it’s true he’s responsible for some of the most scathing, hilarious and unfortunately accurate commentary of the last couple of decades, at the heart of it teems a desire to understand people, to sympathise with the unfortunate and to stare disbelievingly at the grotesque characters that reflect the wider world.
On that basis, it should come as no surprise that Iannucci finds the works of Charles Dickens appealing. Dickens was to the social classes of his era what Iannucci is to the chattering politicians of ours, and their worlds are similarly populated by absurd, outlandish characters that repulse and delight in equal measure. Iannucci and his regular co-collaborator Simon Blackwell have plunged headfirst into Dickens’ world and come up with an adaptation of the writer’s most personal work that feels fresh and vibrant.
Let’s talk about another label that’s cropped up in coverage of this film: “colour-blind”. It’s an odd, almost derogatory term that suggests there is some issue in casting the best people, even if they don’t all conform to the standard casting call for a period picture. How about “meritocracy” instead? The film’s casting is generally applaudable and even the smaller roles are often filled out with faces such as Gwendoline Christie and Paul Whitehouse whose talents brighten even the slender amount of screen time they’re granted.
In being fairly faithful to Dickens’ plot structure and character roster, it also allows for a number of larger roles to make their mark. Chief among these are donkey-obsessed aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) and her Charles I-obsessed living companion Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie). Swinton gets to mix her initial brusqueness with a pleasing warmth as time passes, and Laurie’s initial fragility gives way to a mannered, boyish charm, both of whom prove ideal foils for Copperfield and the menagerie of other characters. Peter Capaldi’s Micawber also brightens every scene he appears in, and the comic timing of not only these three, but most of the cast, is so exemplary you could set your watch by it.
There are but two minor disappointments: Ben Whishaw’s obsequious Uriah Heep sneers from under his bowl haircut but never quite provides the foil to add great drama, which the film needs to balance the whimsy and otherwise excellent character work. The other is Copperfield himself, and that’s nothing to do with Dev Patel’s strong, evolving portrayal, more that Copperfield feels absent from the centre of his own story, despite being almost constantly on screen.
It’s structure where this adaptation struggles, with the social observation and coterie of contemptuous figures that flit in and out of David’s life present and correct, but never quite the sure footing of narrative to keep the audience fully invested. Iannucci and Blackwell have softened a few of Dickens’ sharper decisions, partly to allow Copperfield to comment on his own story as he develops as a writer. But devices like this don’t feel as if they carry a full commitment, and the visual trickery of hands reaching into drawings or the story projected on walls is forgotten about for a long stretch in the first half. The gimmicks don’t elevate or elucidate the story in any way, and a stage bound framing device might offer a further connection to Dickens but also feels oddly out of place.
The Personal History Of David Copperfield is very keen to work out what kind of person its hero is, but it’s slightly less sure as to how it’s going to go about it. If I were to offer a few labels to apply, they’d include “delightful”, “heart-warming” and “refreshing”. If the whole isn’t quite the sum of its parts, the parts are still worth parting with two hours to enjoy.
Why see it at the cinema: Glorious scenery, with Iannucci making the most of a variety of parts of the British countryside, and a film that does offer a lot of laughs, so is best enjoyed with as much company as possible.
What about the rating? Rated PG for mild violence, threat and brief bloody images. Absolutely fair and nothing to concern most ages.
My cinema experience: The first gala press screening of the 2019 London Film Festival, so I joined several hundred other critics and industry types for an early morning screening. After a year off while it was refurbished, the Odeon Leicester Square once again plays host to such screenings, and I took a reasonably comfortable reclining seat on the front row of the balcony. Also nice to see that the cinema had opened the coffee bar early so I took advantage of a latte and a decent chocolate muffin for breakfast.
The refurbishment has reduced the capacity from around 2,000 to just 800 but both the environment and the seating are significantly improved. The same cannot be said for the audio-visual experience: angles from wide seats are a little improved but the audio is still sometimes muffled by the cavernous space, with quiet dialogue being a particular issue. I passed an engineer on the way out with a Dolby laptop, so I’m hoping the later public screening may have been tweaked slightly.
The film itself represented a slightly odd experience: the stalls were full, and while the film got a number of big laughs from down below, there was an eerie silence from the assembled masses in the balcony. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I guess.
The Score: 7/10
The passing of another month, and it’s been a hot July in the UK, which is never good news for cinema attendance. I’m gingerish, so will do a definitive boiled lobster impersonation if left in the sun for more than around 20 minutes, but part of my cinema philosophy involves seeing films in the company of others, so I’m hoping for both self-interest and selfish reasons that the heatwave doesn’t maintain too much longer.
Especially because the list of films due out in August is so promising, nestling as it does between the back end of summer blockbuster season and the start of the festival season in September. I do take my time over this list every month, perusing the upcoming lists of films at the Internet Movie Database, Rotten Tomatoes and Launching FIlms among others to try to find the cream of what’s coming up. So in an average month for preparing this post I typically watch all or part of around 30 trailers to attempt to whittle this down to the six best.
That’s been as tricky as ever this month, so to shake up the format a little I’ve first narrowed it down to a dozen, and then paired them off in some tenuous themes for a head-to-head battle to the death. I’ve included the trailers for both, so feel free to tell me if I’ve got any of these face-offs wrong. (It also means I have an excuse to skip the trailer for Only God Forgives, as (a) there’s nothing else like it coming out, and (b) it was in last month’s rest of the year preview.)
LET BATTLE COMMENCE! (Sorry, got a bit carried away there.)
The Well Regarded Horror Movie Face-Off: The Conjuring vs. You’re Next
Since the demise of the late, much lamented Empire magazine event in August, variously called Movie-Con or Big Screen, I have instead spent my pennies on a day at Film 4 FrightFest. Last year threw up a right mix, from the sublimely twisted (Maniac) to the unintentionally ridiculous (Tulpa), and for those attending the opening night, they’ll be treated to You’re Next as their final film. I’ve got R.I.P.D to “look forward to” in my six film on the Saturday, so if you’re around at the Empire Leicester Square on the 24th, do say hi. (Warn me on Twitter first so I know you’re coming.) But of the mainstream horror releases, these two look to be the pick of the crop this month. I’ve always been a fan of harder shocks and gore (hence buying a ticket for FrightFest), so only one winner in this category.
WINNER: You’re Next
The Funny / Serious Steve Coogan Face-Off: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa vs. What Maisie Knew
Steve Coogan once did a live show called “Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters”, and that might sum up the permanently typecasting effect that being Norfolk’s premier fake celebrity has had on Steve Coogan’s career. But in a month where a man who’s given us the likes of “He must have a foot like a traction engine!” and “Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! DAN! DAN!… DAN!… DAN!” has a film out there can only be one winner.
WINNER: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
The Almost Inevitably Disappointing Follow-Up Face-Off: Kick-Ass 2 vs. Elysium
I thought that both Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 were outstanding of their examples of their genres, neither quite as ground-breaking as they seemed at the time, but both thought provoking pieces of high quality entertainment. Vaughn has passed the torch to Jeff Wadlow on the Kick-Ass sequel, while Blomkamp looks to be revisiting a little of the same ground with his sophomore feature film. Both will inevitably disappoint slightly in regard to their predecessors, but which one will suck slightly less?
The Sharp Indie Comedy Looking To Avoid The Summer Blockbusters Face-Off: The Kings Of Summer vs The Way, Way Back
August is so packed with comedy that I had to hold a preliminary round face-off between two face-offs, and the Big Name Comedies Putting It All Out There Face-Off was the unlucky loser. Pain And Gain looks interesting, but We’re The Millers appears to have been entirely built around the principle of watching a 44 year old woman take her clothes off. Instead we have Steve Carrell and Sam Rockwell versus Nick Offernan, Megan Mullally and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Alison Brie. The winner here is simply defined by the trailer that made me laugh the most.
WINNER: The Kings Of Summer
The Enigmatic Trailer Of Mystery Face-Off: Upstream Colour vs. Silence
I defy anyone to determine what either of these are about based purely on the trailers. No peaking at the synopses. I SAID NO PEAKING! Anyway, Upstream Colour wins this one on the entirely arbitrary basis that it’s been renamed so us simple folk in the UK are allowed to spell it correctly. (Did you know that color / colour was also once spelled culoure and coolor as well? Crazy times.)
WINNER: Upstream Colour
The Old Films Back In The Cinema Face-Off: Jurassic Park 3D vs. Plein Soleil
And finally for this month, a pair of films sneaking back into cinemas, both literary adaptations (Crighton and Highsmith respectively), but that’s about where the similarity ends. Also sneaking back into cinemas this month – if you can find them – are the likes of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse.
WINNER: Plein Soleil
The Review: In a world where there’s a paucity of decent female roles – seemingly around one per film if you’re lucky – it’s no surprise that the most talented young actresses and writers are turning out to be one and the same. The likes of Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig are breaking out of the mumblecore and into the mainstream, and Gerwig has been able to leverage her success to be able to strike a balance between the mainstream and retaining her roots. She’s also made a few collaborations with fellow indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach, and their latest joint effort sees him directing, her acting and the pair scripting in the tale of a modern dancer of moderate ability attempting to make her big break in New York City.
Gerwig’s own trajectory may still be resolutely upwards, but Frances Halladay is struggling to keep on an even keel. Her dancing abilities, or lack thereof, have seen her opportunities severely limited with her dance company. Her relationship is going nowhere, so she passes up the chance to move in with her boyfriend to stay rooming with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). When Sophie moves out anyway, Frances’ already shaky existence is sent spiralling across a number of different lives and friends’ couches or spare rooms – the passage of time indicated by black and white intertitles indicating each time Frances has to change abode by acting as change of address cards – and attempts to make sense of her life as it appears to be adhering closely to the principles of Murphy’s Law (if anything can go wrong, it will).
Let’s make it clear at this point: Gerwig here is very much a mix of the typical mumblecore downer, but with an almost bipolar flipside of the energy and relentless cheeriness of a manic pixie dream girl (without the associated annoying tweeness) and a kooky clumsiness that helps her to remain endearing in the face of repeated adversity. I say endearing, but if that sounds as appealing as rinsing your head in gravel then Frances Ha is not the film for you. Do not pass go, do not collect £200 and do not part with 86 minutes of your life that you’ll spend a week moaning you’ll never get back. For those more open to Gerwig’s deliberate charms, this is one of her most appealing on screen performances, even as Frances’ life choices fly in the face of common sense or practicality. Gerwig can light up the screen when she puts her mind to it, and a decent mix of her own dialogue and the joyful vigour with which she attempts to deflect misery and cling to the few things in life she holds dear make Frances’ own arc a relatable one for anyone who’s struggled with the pre-middle aged ennui caused by life heading in the wrong direction.
To what extent you’ll enjoy the rest of Frances Ha will depend entirely on the way you live your life. The cast is filled out with characters who feel normal for New York – but people who you may recognise more from fiction than your own existence – and Frances’ varied interactions with the varied levels of the class system give the film a decent amount of depth; the fact that some of these characters are likeable and just as sympathetic as Frances might even come as a slight surprise, but a welcome one. If you’re a fan of the French new wave, then you’ll quite likely enjoy the homages that Baumbach has made, even the title being a reference to a Jean-Luc Godard work, and Frances even takes a fruitless trip to Paris to ram the point home. Baumbach even delivers homages to French homages to the French new wave, with Frances running down a road to the sounds of David Bowie’s Modern Love a lift from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. If like me you’re an uncultured slob and still think Francois Truffaut was just the French guy from Close Encounters, then Baumbach’s layers and setting need to work on their own terms and they don’t always, the occasional stilted conversation tipping too far away from the naturalism and the ending feeling too neat and bow-wrapped. None of it detracts from Gerwig too much, and fame, fortune and a bright future remains more likely for Gerwig than it would seem for her characters.
Why see it at the cinema: The grainy, monochromatic visuals may not sell either New York or Paris to their best effect but Baumbach makes reasonable use of the scenery. See it with a middle class crowd and there’ll be enough knowing titters to make the collective audience experience worthwhile.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language and sex references. That amounts to about two and a half dozen f-words and one discussion between the two female leads about awkward sex. Anyone under 15 isn’t going to relate to the characters and their first world problems anyway, so the rating is more of an issue if an average of one swear word every three minutes is likely to offend.
My cinema experience: Picturehouse Cinemas have a regular Sunday morning free members’ preview series, and it’s not often I can get over as I have other Sunday morning commitments. On this occasion, I just about managed to squeak away from those in time to make the dash to the Abbeygate in Bury St Edmunds. I think I was the last person there, so I let myself in (having booked my ticket over the phone the previous day; the phone line had a computer glitch but I got an e-mail confirmation with an e-ticket, all very civilised). The washed out black and white did make it a slight struggle to find my seat, but thankfully the reclining comfort and top notch projection and sound of the Abbeygate’s smaller screen made it all worthwhile. Just a shame it was too early for a glass of wine…
The Score: 7/10
The Review: There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to survive a horror movie. Did you know, though, that those rules apply to the audience as much as they do to the characters? We now live in a culture where it’s possible to watch pretty much anything seven days after it’s aired on TV, even if you didn’t record it; but only if you have no desire to watch it without knowing what happens. Likely Lads Terry and Bob thought they had it bad trying to avoid the footy score, but these days you can’t even watch an episode of anything from Masterchef to The Walking Dead unless you’re willing to cut yourself off from friends, the internet and social media as today, the tools that allow us to communicate feed instant discussion and analysis and leave no hope for spoilerphobes. So what chance have you got of watching a horror movie that depends on its surprise for gaining the most enjoyment, and that’s been sat on the shelf gathering dust for three years?
Be afraid. Be very afraid. But maybe that fear is what will get you to The Cabin In The Woods unspoiled. If you’re reading this review and you haven’t seen it, then curiosity is already probably getting the better of you, and that kind of recklessness wouldn’t see you last five minutes. But you already knew that – you’ve seen horror movies before, who hasn’t? – and it’s that very fact that means if you don’t go into a film written by creator of Buffy and Angel and directed by the writer of Cloverfield expecting that it knows its audience watch horror movies, then you’ve probably not seen enough popular culture in general. But in the post-Scream era, just being self-referential about your genre isn’t enough; to truly stand out you either need to innovate, or you need to be damn good at what you do.
Whether it’s April or whether it’s Hallowe’en, everyone’s entitled to one good scare. But those expecting a film delivering wall to wall scares may be in for a disappointment, for while Cabin has a decent set of scares and a reasonable dose of gore, it’s primary achievement is that it’s consistently hilarious from start to finish. Some of the subtler jokes will depend on both your deep knowledge of horror and also your ability to pick up details in the background, but by and large it’s the characters front and centre that will have you rolling in the aisles. Where the genius starts to become apparent is that Cabin can switch between humour and fright seemingly at will, without ever losing the impact of either. It also has the most bizarrely erotic moment seen in any film in living memory, which while relevant to nothing else in the film will probably live long in your memory.
But whatever you do, don’t fall asleep, for The Cabin In The Woods moves at a fair old lick. While much horror relies on the slow burn, Cabin expects you to come with it on the journey, and conceptually it’s a long way from where we start to where we end up. Taking that journey are the cast of relative unknowns venturing into the woods, although Chris Hemsworth has found global fame since this film was in front of the cameras. Of the others, the standout is Randy-from-Scream clone Fran Kranz who steals most of the scenes he’s in and grabs a fair chunk of the best lines. There are two other well known faces who have big roles and who help to elevate the film to what it is, but given that they’re not even in the trailer, even mentioning in their names is more of a spoiler than I’d like to give you.
We all go a little mad sometimes, and frankly attempting to review this without giving the game away has almost driven me crazy. But back to my point from earlier: The Cabin In The Woods is being touted as revolutionary, and on that I’m not convinced that it is, but it certainly doesn’t hold back, and at the various points where you find yourself thinking where the story could go next, and hoping against hope that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have the balls to deliver what you’d most like to see, they never, ever disappoint. So what The Cabin In The Woods does achieve is being entertainment on the grandest of scales, an absolute joy from the first moment to the last as you put the pieces together to see if you can get to the end game before the characters, and it will become endlessly quotable once everyone that’s interested has actually seen it. Others might have trodden the path before, but Whedon and Goddard have proven they have what it takes to be considered right at the top of the tree where big scares mixed with hard laughs are concerned. Hail to the kings, baby.
Why see it at the cinema: I’m not sure what I expected, but I know I didn’t expect this film to be quite so consistently funny in a way that doesn’t undercut the scares. Comedy and horror are the two best friends of audience reaction, and there’s reason enough to see it on the big screen, but there is undoubtedly some imagery that will also benefit, and even the sound design screams “See me in a cinema!” if you’ll pardon the pun. But the sooner you see it, ideally on opening day, the less chance you have of one of your less intelligent friends blowing the whole gaff.
The Score: 10/10
I saw this film at Ultra Culture Cinema #09: for my review of that, see here.
The Review: Sat here, trying to find words for The Artist, feels like the world’s biggest irony. I write this review a couple of days after much has been made in the news of people walking out in a screening in Liverpool after not realising what they’d let themselves in for. Cinema has been evoking strong reactions in people ever since the Lumière brothers first charged people to sit and watch pictures moving on a wall over 115 years ago, and competition ever since from upstarts such as radio, television and the internet have caused cinema to attempt to innovate. Sound, colour, wide screens and even 3D have come and stayed over the years, so the idea of watching a film that abandons all of those concepts seems to be deliberately obtuse, clinging sentimentally to past glories without being willing to innovate. But the techniques of cinema worked successfully through all of those early years, and it wasn’t that cinema was evolving as it had exhausted all of its possible uses for the latest fads; it was evolving to survive.
So if you’re going to make a film in black and white, without dialogue, in the Academy ratio (1.37:1, closer to an old cathode ray tube TV than the widescreen LCDs of today), then what better subject to take than that loss of innocence and the passing of one of the first great eras of the medium? George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a star of the silver screen, but when talkies come round, he’s reluctant to embrace them, either unwilling or unable to make the transition. By that point, though, he’s already had his first brush with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a girl he literally bumps into outside a premiere; suddenly she’s an overnight sensation but he risks being left behind. Despite that, there’s an undeniable chemistry between George and Peppy, even though George is thoroughly domesticated, with both a wife and a dog at home.
The distinction to be made with The Artist is that it’s not a film made exactly to mirror the silent films of the Twenties, not least because the advent of sound happens fairly early on in the narrative. While it’s black and white, largely (though not completely) silent and filmed in narrowscreen, it has the unmistakeable gloss and sheen of a film made with 21st century techniques. The cinematography is crisp, the soundtrack is much more in the style of a modern orchestral soundtrack and it’s a film filled with characters in close-up; widescreen was designed to capture epic vistas and sweeping scenery, and The Artist is an intimate story of people and relationships, ideally suited to the smaller screen width. (See it on a big enough screen, of course, and it’ll make little difference). The tricks and the effects are to pay homage to the films of the time, not to slavishly copy them, and there’s a number of very clever sequences which subvert expectations and use the throwback effects, especially the sound, to wonderful comic and dramatic effect.
It helps that the quality of the performances across the board is also impeccable. Carrying most of the meat of the film between them are a central trio formed of Dujardin, Bejo and a canine co-star who steals practically every scene he’s in. Dujardin has the perfect matinee idol look and is as comfortable with his anger as he is his charm; you could imagine Clark Gable having taken on the role if the film had been made eighty years or so earlier. Bejo is full of charm and charisma and it’s easy to see why George is so easily smitten, and the pair make a timeless couple. If there’s one thing that the casual viewer will end up remembering long after the viewing, though, it’s Uggie the dog, who’s even been on a promotional tour for the film, and his tricks and his faithfulness should melt the hardest of hearts. The cast is filled out by a cast of familiar American faces, notably John Goodman and James Cromwell, but none of them would look out of place in a film from an earlier era.
What has always been hard to conjure in cinema, regardless of the tools and techniques used to make it, is a quality almost indescribable; it’s a magical tone when performances, script and direction work in such harmony as to transport the viewer completely into the world of the film. Many films have endured even though their techniques have long since passed out of regular use, mostly because they have captured that quality. If you look at the Internet Movie Database’s top 250 films, nine of them are silent films, but eighty-nine have some black and white element; it’s actually more of a wonder that anyone made such a fuss. If only those Scousers who walked out had given the film more of a chance, because one of the films that already falls into both categories in the Top 250 is this one. It has that magic, and what Michel Hazanavicius and his cast have conjured up is spellbinding, enchanting and thoroughly deserving of that place on the list. The Artist takes techniques almost as old as cinema itself, and with a sprinkling of post-modern playfulness produces a film which will hopefully be entrancing audiences long after the current innovations have also passed into history.
Why see it at the cinema: This is a film that this blog was made for. Find the best cinema you can, see this at the busiest time possible, and get lost in the magic of cinema.
The Score: 10/10
The Review: The sports movies are in thrall with the underdog. It’s hard to imagine a film version of, say, a Barcelona FC sweeping all before them in Europe or Tiger Woods in the days when all he could do was win; without the inherent drama of the triumph over adversity, they have little to work with as the drama normally comes from the nature of the sporting event itself. But it’s not just sporting events that have underdogs, or winners and losers; ever since he made a name for himself in American Pie, the rictus grin and middle-distance stare of Seann William Scott have made him an unlikely leading man, but that’s just a failure of casting directors to marry him to the right material. We can’t all be the witty raconteur who’s the life and soul of the party, ready with a pithy comeback at any moment, and Scott’s Doug Glatt is most definitely not that man.
While all of his rather Jewish family are at a loss to understand his inability to hold down a worthwhile job, Doug does at least have two gifts: he’s very good at brawling, and he happens to be in the right place at the right time, a defence of family honour at an ice hockey game leads him to be offered a spot on the local team. But they’re not after his skills with a hockey stick; it’s his fists and his incredible ability to be repeatedly punched in the head that make him an invaluable asset for the local team. Forrest Gump had an almost wilful ignorance of the world around him which made him a complete innocent; Doug is self-aware, but a nice guy to the point of almost sainthood, which doesn’t seem to be helping his team-mates or his instant attraction to hockey bar girl Eva (Alison Pill).
Many of his previous roles have required him to be self-absorbed and sleazy, so innocent and endearing is a refreshing change of pace for Seann William Scott. He’s helped out by a script, from co-star Jay Baruchel and prolific co-writer Evan Goldberg that understands his strengths as an actor completely, and makes the most of them. Baruchel is also good value in a smaller role as the host of a foul mouthed cable TV hockey show, but the other standout is Pill, who makes the perfect foil for Scott’s slightly wider-eyed than normal purity. Sporting an early contender for best moustache of the year, Live Schreiber also gets to growl and grizzle as the older version of Doug the Goon, Ross Rhea, coming to the end of his career and waiting for the inevitable time when the two of them will come face to face.
There’s a warm feeling all over from Goon, partly despite and partly because of the satisfying crunches whenever violence erupts in the hockey rink. Goon doesn’t pull its punches; the first shot of the film is of a tooth cascading down onto the ice in an arc of blood, but the roughness is never over the top and balanced out by a good selection of fun moments and the burgeoning romance. There’s a few smaller sub-plots but they’re effectively padding out the running time and really neither add much or provide too much distraction. The actual hockey is well staged and clear, and Baruchel and Goldberg know the emotional beats they need to hit to keep things interested. While it’s just a little disposable, it’s good Friday night entertainment and Goon is one underdog that manages to go the distance.
Why see it at the cinema: Comedy violence on a wide canvas in glorious Technicolor, watching every drop of spilled blood scatter across the ice. Plenty of laughs to share with a big audience as well.
The Score: 7/10
I’ve always been a fan of action movies, but as I’ve gotten older my tastes have broadened out. I can’t imagine the 14 year old me being interested in Mike Leigh or Michael Haneke, but the 14 year old me didn’t like broccoli or chicken either, and thankfully I’m now able to watch more mature movies and eat Nando’s. But the action movies of my teen years were missing one thing that today’s explosionfests have, and that’s proper actors.
The likes of Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Stallone might have all become icons to a generation, but (possibly Stallone excepted) they’ve never been renowned for their thespian skills. So the idea that we can live in an enlightened 21st century where people renowned for their talent as well as their ability to look good rolling around on the floor while firing two guns fills me with joy. The idea of a film where Tom Hardy and Chris Pine, the soon-to-be-Bane and the hopefully-will-be-again-Captain-Kirk in an action film, even an action comedy, makes me feel like we’re living in a more enlightened time, where films can be the best of both worlds. Eat your heart out, The Renaissance.
But while it sounded great in concept, the trailer that was released this week seemed to be lacking something. Actually, the poster on iTunes that accompanied the trailer wasn’t great – Pine and Hardy look like they’re auditioning for a Twilight remake and Hardy not only looks like he’s sporting a failed comb-over but has the dead-eyed look normally associated with bad motion capture, possibly because the photo was taken after he signed his contract. Things were looking up in the trailer – for at least the first thirty seconds or so, which looks to have all the requisite explosions, moody looks and men and cars diving off high places. But then…
Two minutes of mirth-free, cringe-enducing mugging follow. Jokes fall so flat you imagine that the CGI budget’s been spent on removing the tumbleweeds and the kind of embarrassing set-ups that make even Jennifer Lopez rom-coms look the height of sophistication. Yes, at one point, the dastardly Tom Hardy shoots Chris Pine with a tranquilliser to cause him to fall asleep mid-date. Oh, the hilarity. If you’ve recently had any kind of surgery in which you had to have your side split in order to reach internal organs, rest assured that nothing in this trailer will leave you in any danger of your wounds re-opening or those stitches coming out.
So what could possibly have gone so wrong? I watched the trailer again, in the forlorn hope that actually I was in a bad mood, and that this was a quality action comedy which I had just misjudged, but no, it unfortunately looks so toe-curlingly desperate that it could set the careers of both its stars back five years. But on re-watching the trailer, I noticed one very small name in the end credits.
If you still don’t believe me, watch here, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Review: You might remember the days when Woody Allen made universally acclaimed films. Sadly, in the eyes of most, the last time that happened consistently was probably the Eighties, and since 1989’s Crimes And Misdemeanours it’s been a succession of moderate successes and critical flops. But nostalgia is a powerful feeling, and every time a new film appears with Woody’s name on, you can feel everyone lining up, ready to give it a kicking but most actually hoping that somehow the easy charm and clever dialogue of his earlier hits could still be recaptured. If only he could travel back in time to understand what made his earlier films so successful…
Maybe it’s that constant nostalgic reflection, or maybe it’s the inspiration of the latest city to be his muse after his mixed London years, but the inspiration for Midnight In Paris of that nostalgic element seems to have revitalised Woody, and this is probably his best film since the Eighties. It’s easy to claim that there’s a formula to a good Woody Allen film, but actually what makes this one so refreshing is his willingness to stick to the formula, albeit with a few subtle variations. A lot of his best work deals with the metaphysical and is rooted in high concept, from Zelig to The Purple Rose Of Cairo and Deconstructing Harry, to name just a few, and Midnight In Paris gets its gimmick from a completely different side to Paris that Owen Wilson’s Gil discovers after midnight.
What Woody’s never had a problem doing is assembling a great cast, and this is no exception. One of those subtle variations on the theme is the Woody avatar that the central character normally represents (if it’s not Woody himself of course), and Owen Wilson is at his extremely likeable best as the bemused and frustrated writer, but it’s a role that Wilson does bring different aspects to, not least a wide-eyed astonishment at the events unfolding. The likes of Michael Sheen and Rachel McAdams offer solid support, but the other stand out is Marion Cotillard as Wilson’s muse, who seems to attract men like flies and has most of them around her little finger. There’s also plenty of background roles with actors having huge amounts of fun, and Alison Pill and Adrien Brody especially light up the screen in their brief turns.
The irony, of course, is that a film that’s so obsessed with nostalgia manages to successfully recapture the magic of Woody Allen’s days gone by. Midnight In Paris is a light soufflé of a film and would probably blow away in a strong wind, but it’s a delight from start to finish and Allen gets the most out his slender concept. Key to the film’s success are Allen’s early Parisian navel-gazing, which means that once the plot kicks in, the pace fairly rattles along, that the cast make the most of their varied roles and that it’s all wrapped up satisfactorily at the end of the reasonable running time. For any Woody fans, they’ll be thrilled that their hero has managed to find himself once again; for the more general film fan, it’s a great concept executed in a thoroughly entertaining way, and let’s just hope it doesn’t take Mr Allen another twenty years to hit these heights again.
Why see it at the cinema: Paris hasn’t looked this good since Ratatouille, and Woody’s bringing the chuckles back so it’ll be a good night out with the middle classes.
The Score: 9/10
The Review: Great comedy double acts of the cinema used to be common, from Laurel and Hardy to Abbott and Costello, from Hope and Crosby to Prior and Wilder, but nowadays we have to put up with the likes of the Wayans brothers or Harold and Kumar. Also, Laurel and Hardy aside, there’s never really been a British pairing to compare; at least until the 21st century, when the unlikely geek stylings of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been brought together on worldwide cult hits including Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. With a Spielberg movie (admittedly a motion capture one) also in the can, the pair have taken off the Edgar Wright-shaped stabilisers and have written and are starring in their latest adventure, this time with Greg “Superbad” Mottola behind the camera. The pair gained inspiration from their time spent hawking their various other wares at events like Comic-Con, so this sees them start at that very event and get drawn into a road trip with a small grey friend they inadvertently pick up along the way.
It’s testament to how far special effects have come that Paul is a fully realised and integrated character in the story. Even ten years ago, he’d have either been some form of puppet or Muppet with possibly the occasional CG shot and a midget running around in the costume, filmed from a distance, but he gets plenty of screen time and he’s far and away the best thing in the film, thankfully, not only for the remarkably conveyed emotions in his well animated face but also for Seth Rogen’s stellar voice work. It’s also fair to say that Paul gets the vast majority of the best lines, almost as if he’s wandered in from a much funnier movie. His story, as such, is fairly linear but it does take an occasional detour, and along the way manages to pick up additional stragglers, including Kirsten Wiig’s one-eyed Christian and a succession of shady government characters including Jason Bateman and Bill Hader trying to capture Paul before he can reach his goal.
It’s a stellar supporting cast, many of whom get reduced to barely cameos, and some of them do serve to take you out of the story, if only briefly. However, they pretty much all manage to make an impact of some sort, which leaves only two characters who struggle to truly engage, which strangely are Graham and Clive, a.k.a. Pegg and Frost. They have somehow not recaptured the chemistry of their Wright collaborations and end up both playing the straight man in the comedy double act to Paul’s broader laughs. Consequently the movie is as flat as a pancake until Paul arrives, and also nearly gets derailed with the ham-fisted subplot around Kirsten Wiig’s beliefs. While the kinetic energy that Edgar Wright brings might have been too much for this more casual road movie, there’s still a lack of drama or tension at many points in Greg Mottola’s more restrained direction and the eventual outcomes are all signposted a mile off.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot to enjoy, because there is. As well as the titular alien lighting up the screen, Wigg, Bateman and Hader all fill out their roles well and Sigourney Weaver relishes her role as the boss trying to stop Paul’s progress. The whole movie is a love affair to Spielberg, so there’s plenty of nods, nudges and winks and even an appropriate cameo, and if you’re as geeky as the lead characters you’ll have a whale of a time spotting all of the references. Somehow the special magic of the Pegg-Wright collaborations gets missed here, as the references feel more obvious, possibly because of the setting, and drama and pathos are also somewhat lessened. Crucially, it’s just not as consistently funny as Shaun or Fuzz, and so ends up being a movie you’ll probably like rather than love, but it doesn’t stop you wondering what this comedy double have in store for us next.
Why see it at the cinema: The wide open spaces of the US of A get a good airing on the cinema screen, and the giant viewing area will allow you to take in the amazing detail of Paul’s animation at its best. There’s just about enough laughs to warrant the communal viewing experience as well.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: Ensemble comedy dramas have been around since almost the dawn of film itself, but there’s one thing that they’ve all had to live in the shadow of for the last fifteen years, and it’s something that grew on the small screen rather than the big one. I refer, of course, to the comedy behemoth that was Friends, which with its ten years of episodic set-ups and lead characters that, on their own, were arch stereotypes but collectively formed a clique that most of the English speaking world seemed to fall in love with. During that ten years, though, Friends ran through almost every possible scenario that six friends could get up to. South Park once had an entire episode revolving around the fact that The Simpsons had mined every possible plotline and left nothing new for its competitors to explore, and at face value this is the equivalent of the two episodes in Friends where everyone went on a beach holiday.
So the challenge for director Guillaume Camet is what he can bring to the genre that’s fresh or original. Certainly the opening sequence is a little more hedonistic than any of the Friends was ever allowed to be, and the opening credits play out over a fantastic tracking shot with a cinematic pay-off. From there the stakes are raised a little, as a hospital visit requires some tough decisions to be made; two weeks’ holiday or four, for example? It’s less a patient in a bed and more the elephant in the room as the absence of one of the group due to the opening accident casts a shadow over events, but not one that detains the friends for too long. The other major factor casting an omnipresent shadow is a conversation at dinner between Max (François Cluzet) and Vincent (Benoît Magimel), when Vincent struggles to express his more unusual feelings for Max and typically tries to express them before he’s resolved them himself. As it’s Max whose hosting their summer get-together, tensions are bound to run high.
For the majority of the rest of that running time, though, it does become indistinguishable from a French friends. Effectively a series of comic and dramatic vignettes, the passing of each night and day signals a new escapade that the varied characters end up in, each one pretty much defined by a single personality characteristic to help keep them separate. If that sounds a lot like a certain sitcom, then there’s another reason for mentioning it – Little White Lies is 154 minutes long, or the exact equivalent of watching seven episodes of Friends back to back without commercials. You’d expect a lot to be packed into that running time and you’d be right, but the consequence is that none of the stories moves along at much of a pace, and only Marion Cotillard as the pot-smoking bisexual gets called on to do much in the way of proper acting during the majority of the running time. (And yes, the reaction of most of the male characters to the revelation of her sapphic leanings is very reminiscent of one Joey Tribbiani.) Cluzet probably has the most fun of the group, getting to work through his anger management issues and tossing out pithy asides.
But there is more depth here than a TV sitcom, and in the final half hour set-ups pay off and elephants in rooms make themselves resolutely heard. So this holiday is worth taking for the eventual emotional journeys of the characters, but it’s also worth taking because it’s quite a lot of fun for the most part. While certainly a little overlong, the length doesn’t detract too much and the story arcs do all (eventually) pay off. Camet always keeps things visually interesting and gets the most out of his characters, it’s all generally undemanding and the best bet is to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery. You might not want to spend ten years in their company, but these friends are well worth two and a half hours of your time.
Why see it at the cinema: Plenty of gorgeous French scenery, a fair few decent laughs and you might just need one of those literal mouchoirs (handkerchiefs) by the end. What more could you want?
The Score: 8/10