Helen Mirren

Review: Monsters University 3D

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Monsters UniversityThe Pitch: Saved By The Scream: The College Years.

The Review: Who are the greatest animation house ever to have made motion pictures? Most people answering that question would likely say Disney, and the evidence would support that – to a point. If you look at the Internet Movie Database Top 250 Films list (as I frequently do), there are currently 17 animations among those 250 films. Nine of them bear the stamp of the fairytale castle at the beginning, but only two were old school Disney (Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King, in case you were wondering). The other seven – Toy Storys 1 and 3, Up, Wall•E, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. – all share the castle opening with that of an anglepoise lamp jumping on a letter. (Quiz question for you – can you name the other eight, non-Disney movies? Answer at the bottom.) Pixar has become so synonymous with not only quality, but outstanding quality of both animation and storytelling, that the expectation on every film they make is almost inevitably going to prefix disappointment. Movies such as the Cars films, and to a certain extent Brave, would have felt perfectly acceptable, even decent, from other studios, but from Pixar they feel missed opportunities, so high has the bar been raised. Now, the studio seems intent on mining its back catalogue, buoyed by the success of Toy Story sequels and now set to find more fish (in the upcoming Finding Dory) and to scare more monsters. But did the world really need a prequel to Monsters, Inc.?

It feels an incredibly safe storytelling decision from a studio renowned for narrative bravery, not least because the various endings of Monsters, Inc. would seem to preclude any sensible sequel without diminishing the magic of the original. So we’re presented with what, for a decent length of the run time, is about as predictable an American college / fraternity movie as you could possibly imagine. Inspired by a school visit to the local scaring company, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) dreams of becoming a top scarer. Pursuing this dream all the way to college to major in scaring, Mike meets many of the familiar faces we’ll know from his future, including his friendly roommate Randall (Steve Buscemi) and the arrogant jock monster James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman). They are all in fear of the university’s ominous Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), and when Mike and Sulley inadvertently upset the dean, they both end up off the Scare Program. The only way back in looks to be an alliance with the dorkiest fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa, and somehow getting them in shape to win the college’s Scare Games.

There are very few points anywhere in the duration of Monsters University where you get the feeling that this was a story that needed to be told. Where most Pixar feels fresh, vibrant and can often move you to tears, the only tears here will be those of frustration during the opening stretches when the laughs seem to have been scared off and the monsters are playing out the plot in the most predictable way possible. There’s a few reasonable gags, but it’s not until the movie reaches the Scare Games that the laughs start flowing thick and fast. This is a relief, as it’s then easier to overlook the predictability of the plot – which may as well be on rails, so predestined does it seem on its course – and to enjoy Monsters University for what it is, which is a decent amount of fun from that second act onwards. All of the returning voices, from Crystal to Goodman via a fair few background monsters in a variety of fun cameos dotted liberally through the run time, fit snugly back into their original roles but some of the new characters are less successful. While the likes of Nathan Fillion and Aubrey Plaza fill out the background well, the weakest link might just be Helen Mirren as the dean, simply for the fact that she’s just being Helen Mirren being a monster, and it never feels quite enough for her character.

Of course, this Pixar movie – as with every other Pixar movie – still manages to look gorgeous, achieving a strange mix of almost photorealism mixed with cartoon monsters, but every frame is a visual feast. What the original had in spades, as do most Pixar movies, were a level of invention and surprise that would feed ten other normal movies; the climax, with the chase through the realm of doors, can’t quite be matched here, but a smaller scale finale is almost as effective, favouring atmosphere over spectacle and still satisfying as a resolution. The last stretch of the film feels the most genuinely Pixar, where the plot doesn’t always go where you’d quite expect and where the character beats manage to strike just the right notes. The real problem with Pixar is the rod they’ve made for their own back with such a sustained period of immaculate quality, but it would be wrong to feel hard done by with a good Pixar movie instead of a great one, when their good still manages to outdo the great of almost everyone else. But, while the Toy Story movies managed to feel necessary for their characters, Monsters University is more disposable; let’s just hope this studio learns when to stop going to the well before it’s too late.

Why see it at the cinema: It’s a Pixar movie, so of course it’s packed with rich and incidental detail, so while you won’t have the luxury of a pause button, you will be able to pick out a decent number of the tiny and obscure references in the background thanks to the cinema screen. Also, the second and third acts have a high level of laughs, comparable to the original, and that always works better with an audience.

Why see it in 3D: It’s a tricky one: there’s nothing offensive about the 3D, but nothing compelling about it either. It adds depth of vision, but there’s none of the minions-in-your-face malarkey of Despicable Me 2, its likely box office competition in the UK this summer. The best I can say is if that you’re not paying a significant 3D premium, don’t mind the glasses and can’t find a 2D screening, then the 3D is perfectly watchable.

What about the rating: Rated U for mild slapstick and comic threat, meaning anyone over the age of four can see this, with or without parents. And you all should.

My cinema experience: Saw this at a preview with two burly women in attendance at the door, looking for all the world like night club bouncers and rather aggressively insisting that Mrs Evangelist turn her phone off before we entered. As it turns out, thankfully the standard of ushering hadn’t dropped sharply, it was actually two employees from the House Of Mouse there to ensure we didn’t spread the film all over t’internet before it was even released. So nervous did that make Mrs E and I, we didn’t stop to see if there’s an end credits scene. Apparently there is, and it sounds like a decent LOL, so do stay if you’re into that sort of thing. (End credits, that is, not LOLs. Of course you’re into LOLs.)

The Score: 8/10

Answer to the earlier quiz question: The eight non-Disney produced or distributed movies in the IMDb Top 250 at the time of writing are Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Grave Of The Fireflies, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind and Howl’s Moving Castle (all Studio Ghibli), How To Train Your Dragon (Dreamworks) and Mary And Max (Melodrama Pictures). If you got them all, then you obviously cheated. Shame on you.

Review: Hitchcock

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HitchcockThe Pitch: Sasha Gervasi Presents. (Doesn’t have the same ring, does it?)

The Review: Good evening. I have for you tonight a devious little entertainment, which will shock and surprise you in ways you weren’t expecting. It’s the story of a man who took delight in the more unpleasant side of life and the relationship between men and women, and how the story of a serial killer tortured him to the point of madness. It’s a tale of love, hate, commitment and betrayal, but you’ll be truly terrified by the leading man and what he’s capable of; or should I say, what he’s not capable of? You might think you’ve heard this story before, even very recently, and you probably have, but what’s more likely to keep you guessing than a story that plays out exactly as you think it will? If you know your history, especially your history of Psychos, then you may think that you know the ending, where a film becomes highly successful but also highly notorious, and with a legacy of not only most mainstream horror movies produced since, but also smaller moments which would prove pivotal. But of course, you don’t know this story at all.

Right, enough of the double talk, Hitchcock himself wouldn’t have been a fan of such obfuscation. This is a man that made a trailer for Psycho by walking round the set and all but giving away the main plot points in every location, never spoiling but teasing to the point of genius. This is a man who was extremely aware of not only his own self-image but the need for good marketing to support a good product, a combination never more completely brought together than in the marketing and production of Psycho, certainly not his best film but perhaps his most notorious (and from a man that made Notorious, that’s no mean feat). This is a man who looks nothing like Anthony Hopkins in a fat suit doing an intermittent accent, but at least they got the infamous silhouette correct; George Clooney looks about as much like the real Alma Reville as Helen Mirren does. But it’s a man who would, I’m sure, not have approved of the straightforward nature and simple moralising of his own biopic; we should maybe just be thankful that it’s not the same hatchet job that the BBC’s TV movie The Girl turned out to be just a couple of months earlier.

So what works? Taken as a drama on its own terms, and putting aside any association with its subject matter, Hitchcock is passably interesting as an effective period piece or a TV movie of the week. It might be cookie-cutter drama with simple characters, but it has a timeless quality and uses simple themes well. Some of the minor casting is also eerily effective, with James D’Arcy an uncanny double of Anthony Perkins and Scarlett Johansson actually not a million miles away from Janet Leigh, at least in comparison to the leads. The likes of Danny Huston also turn up and do what they do best in less familiar roles. And again, if you disassociate yourself from the source material, the performances of Hopkins and Mirren aren’t bad, they’re just not particularly representative of their real life counterparts in either appearance, mannerism or character from all of the available evidence.

That’s balanced out by the list of what doesn’t work, and it’s not a short list. On top of the failure of Hopkins and Mirren to inhabit their real life counterparts, its attempts to act as a primer on the making of Psycho are muddied at best, and some moments – such as when Hitch and “Bernie” Herrmann are discussing the merits of scoring the key shower scene or leaving it silent – simply don’t work in the context of the drama. Worse still, there’s a consistent device where Hitch interacts with Ed Gein, real life killer on whose exploits Psych was based, which not only undercuts matters further but implies consequences of screen violence that patently aren’t true, selling Hitchcock’s real life’s intentions painfully short. Many of the supporting characters are cyphers and plot devices, and when it’s all over it’s not particularly clear what it was trying to achieve, a feat clearly at odds with how Hitch constructed his own pointed narratives. Even the opening and closing appearances of Hitch talking to camera, in the manner of the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” TV Series with their famous Gounoud theme music playing into Danny Elfman’s anonymous score, are more jovial than the dry intros of the master himself in that series. It would seem the best way to learn about Psycho, and the power of cinema itself, is just to rewatch Psycho. It will certainly be, if you’re much like me, a lot more enjoyable. Until the next time, good night.

Why see it at the cinema: The real Hitch would no doubt approve of you being summoned to the cinema, it’s just a shame that what’s been served up is so utterly lacking in its own cinematic aspirations.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate horror, threat and sex references. Most of the material that made Psycho a 15 rating is merely hinted at here, but it’s not one I’d be taking younger children to.

My cinema experience: A weekday afternoon at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds, and a largely uneventful screening passed off among a small audience. Not for the first time at Bury, the curtains which wound back before the start of the main feature sounded like they could do with a good oiling. Remind me and next time I’ll bring the WD40.

The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Hideous. Five full length trailers, adverts and a host of PSAs (including the one from Hitchcock itself with good ol’ Hitch advising you to turn off your mobiles) meaning that the BBFC title card came up for the start of the film thirty-one minutes after the advertised start time.

The Score: 5/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: The Debt

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The Pitch: Some debts take longer to pay off than others.

The Review: Sam Worthington could very well be the Kevin Costner of his generation. Kevin had a knack for the dramatic equivalent of being the straight man in a comedy show, a stoic pivot at the centre of a film where those around him would do all the heavy lifting in the acting department. From JFK to The Untouchables, from Field Of Dreams to Robin Hood, Costner assembled a diverse body of work, most of which is excellent and most of which he’s doing less acting than his colleagues in. Worthington has already secured a number of lead roles, and has now been inexplicably cast in an ensemble drama where he’s required to act at the same level as both his contemporaries and some great actors of earlier generations.

I would love to say that Sam steps up and knocks it out of the park, but consider the acting talent he’s been recruited with. At the older end, you’ve got Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds portraying the Nineties versions of the lead trio, retired Mossad agents who achieved glory in their younger days. In the contemporary category, Martin Csokas and Jessica Chastain, with Chastain especially marked out for great things after her last lead role opposite Brad Pitt in The Tree Of Life. Against that kind of competition, Worthington never stood a chance, but if the film had used him to his best effect, rather than putting him through the harrowing experience of asking him to act (you can almost see the acting gears churning behind his concentrated face), then it need never have been a problem.

You see, there’s two competing films in here, and The Debt is never quite sure which one it wants to be. There’s the exploits of Worthington’s trio in Sixties Berlin, attempting to track down a Nazi war criminal (the excellent Jesper Christensen) and to bring him to justice, and the human drama of their conflict both in the Sixties and in the Nineties. Scenes between Chastain and Christensen are excellent, and the drama is exploited for all of its meaty possibilities; the thriller elements, involving the capture and fate of the team’s quarry, are also tense and keep the attention throughout. It’s just the use of personnel at certain points that allows the film to flag a little, which isn’t the fault of the actors but could have been remedied either by writers Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughn or by director John Madden with a little more care.

The other failing of the film also has to be placed with writers and director. While I’ve never attempted to act myself, I did once study the piano, and my teacher told me that if I looked after the start and end of the piece, the middle would take care if itself. If only Madden and co had been able to heed this advice; the start is flabby, and consists of over twenty minutes of flashbacks and forwards and sideways glances and the characters not stating their true purpose, all of which mean that The Debt takes much longer than it should to gain momentum. The ending is also problematic, not least when a film that recasts its core roles between generations suddenly has one actor turn up in very poor old age make-up, and also when the final twists and turns descend into silliness and stifle the dramatic resolution. The Debt has brilliant parts, but is less satisfying as a whole and someone needs to work out quickly how to use Sam Worthington – for both his sake and ours.

Why see it at the cinema: If you can get past the choppiness of the opening then there’s a large chunk of a good film here, and seeing it in a cinema will fully allow the tension to grab you and draw you in. On the way out, you can see how many people kept a straight face all the way to the end…

The Score: 7/10

Review: Arthur

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The Pitch: America gets more Brand awareness.

The Review: You wait ages for a Russell Brand film and then two come along at once. Or maybe you don’t; there’s as many people who run screaming at the sight of the scruffy English dandy as who enjoy his schtick, and this remake is an attempt to play on Brand’s particular qualities. He managed to successfully break out of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, getting his own spin-off and it was one that did its best to play to his strengths and his background, allowing him the role of the reforming addict who had a larger than life stage presence. Arthur feels like another attempt to do that, fitting the role to the perception of Brand’s character, but all that serves to do is to show that it’s as easy to get that right as it is to get it badly wrong.

Brand follows in the footsteps of Dudley Moore as Arthur Bach, a spoiled rich man with a kid’s outlook on life. The other thing that Arthur has is a drinking problem, although sometimes you feel Arthur’s drinking problem is nearer to that of Ted Striker than a real alcoholic, with Brand alternating between affecting the comedy slurring practiced by Dudley Moore in the original and sounding completely sober, often in consecutive scenes. His Arthur is a comedy drunk, except someone seems to have sucked out all the comedy from his performance, with the most risqué action being to snob a complete stranger at a restaurant. The loss of comedy, crucially, seems to stem from Brand attempting to channel Dudley Moore rather than putting his own stamp on the role, but he’s given precious little to work with and there’s a definite whiff of 100 studio executives in the editing room making sure that anything too unpalatable doesn’t make the cut.

While the comedy fares pretty poorly, some other elements do manage to rise above the material a little better. Most of those centre around either Helen Mirren, who’s far too good for this and isn’t afraid to prove it repeatedly, or Greta Gerwig. The movie is at its most effective either when Mirren is acting pithy or when Brand and Gerwig are casually flirting and throwing random thoughts into the conversation. There’s a whole host of other famous names involved, from Jennifer Garner in the thankless prospective wife role to Luis Guzman as the quiet chauffeur Bitterman, but none of them make any real impression either way.

The unfortunate exception to that is Nick Nolte, who plays the bride’s father and gets about three scenes. The first of these is meant to be mildly threatening but actually comes over as toe-curlingly embarrassing and almost kills the movie stone dead. It’s symptomatic of the wild shifts in tone which director Jason Winer seems ill-equipped to cope with. It doesn’t really work as a comedy, attempts at pathos fall flat and it’s only the partial romantic success and Helen Mirren that prevent this being a total write off. Sad to say, if you want to see one Russell Brand movie released this April, you should make it Hop, which at least allows Brand to be more Brand. Arthur is as embarrassing as a drunken relative at your school play, and a lot less amusing.

Why see it at the cinema: The audience I saw it with laughed once, so there’s not much to be gained there, but the Grand Central Terminal scenes do benefit from a larger viewing area.

The Score: 4/10

Review: Brighton Rock

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The Pitch: Greene’s Pinkie gets some colour in his cheeks.

The Review: One might be forgiven for thinking, given the alarming regularity with which old classics get remade these days, that there is a shortage of original ideas among film-makers these days. Of course, if approached correctly there’s no reason why a second interpretation or adaptation of a work can’t be as artistically valid as the original, but a second bite at the cherry does make you hope that those involved have something new to bring to the material. The level of challenge does go up significantly when tackling not only a highly regarded piece of fiction, but also one that has already received an adaptation which been favoured and loved for decades. So to take on a second adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is either very brave or quite foolish; as it turns out, it’s probably been a little of both.

The adaptation itself isn’t slavish; the setting has been updated from the Thirties setting of both the novel and original film to a Sixties setting, which allows the various confrontations to be played out against the prominent backdrop of the Mods and Rockers and their various battles. The characters, though, haven’t changed too much, the central story still being that of young gangster Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) and his increasing attempts to improve his own influence and to cover the tracks of his various misdemeanours. His main attempt to cover those tracks is to get close to Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a young waitress who unwittingly ends up with a crucial piece of evidence, and in Pinkie’s attempts to protect himself Rose ends up drawn both increasingly close to him and also deeper and deeper into his plans.

To a certain extent, the success of such an adaptation stands and falls on its casting, when such direct comparisons can be made to the original. This is where the first major problem presents itself, in that Sam Riley is no Richard Attenborough. Not only does Riley not have the youthfully innocent look that Attenborough had in the original, but also crucially fails to exude anything approaching the same air of menace. This is counterbalanced somewhat by the casting of Rose, and the up and coming Andrea Riseborough’s performance. Where Riley is one note and stuffy at times, Riseborough runs through a full range of emotions and manages to make her sympathetic and sycophantic character eminently believable. Elsewhere, it’s a very mixed bag; some of the big names such as John Hurt and Andy Serkis deliver their normal level and could do with more screen time, but Helen Mirren also feels oddly miscast and never quite captures the feeling being aimed for.

So, back to that question of what’s new. The Mods / Rockers setting is new, and indeed the look of the film is one of the best assets of Brighton Rock, the settings capturing the feel of the era, while allowing for variations of mood and making efficient use of both daylight and darkness. But thematically and conceptually, there’s not a great deal of fresh meat here; Rowan Joffe has contributed both script and direction and it’s by far the latter that’s his most useful contribution. The script has an effective, if slightly predictable, ending, but Greene’s original themes of Catholicism and morality are only paid lip service and get somewhat smothered, and the film has to work hard to convey even the simplest of the motivations as the plot develops. While there are some worthy moments, and Riseborough appears to be a star in the making, sadly this Brighton adaptation doesn’t rock as much as it should.

Why see it at the cinema: The Sixties setting is wonderfully evoked and some of the imagery is moodily effective. The most compelling reason by far, though, is Riseborough’s magnetic performance.

The Score: 6/10

Review: Red

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The Pitch: C.I.A. vs. O.A.P.s.

The Review: There’s been a trend over the last twenty years or so of action movie stars getting increasingly elderly. Maybe it’s our ever increasing fondness for nostalgia, or perhaps the novelty of seeing old fogies with big guns appeals as much in theory as the opposite, extremely young end of the scale that Hit Girl and her friends occupy. But for whatever reason, action stars have kept making movies as they get older, and indeed movies are now taking this a step further and making action stars out of the bus pass generation.

Based on a Warren Ellis comic book, RED has compiled a cast list with varying familiarity with the action genre. Bruce Willis has the most extensive action CV, and although into his fifties is still deemed sufficiently cool to be leading man material. John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman both have history in this genre, but in both cases it’s less auspicious in the relative terms of their previous works. Crucially, while all of them can normally be relied on to deliver good work, none of them is a reliable mark of quality when it comes to bullets and explosions. They are all at least serviceable here, although Willis especially is little more than that.

But they are just the tip of an iceberg that’s made of acting quality so solid it would put a hole in your average battleship. Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss and even Ernest Borgnine, who was retired before I was in short trousers, all pop up, often far too briefly. Getting more screen time are Mary Louise Parker as Bruce’s love interest, wandering through wide-eyed and screaming, and a rather stoic Karl Urban as the man sent to track down and round up this bunch of geriatric gunslingers. The biggest stunt of the casting is Helen Mirren, who gets a very big gun and smiles sweetly as she twists most of the male cast around her little finger.

So what do you make out of a comic book and a bunch of willing actors of generally advancing years? Director Robert Schwentke, whose previous form peaked with the Jodie Foster snoozefest Flightplan, manages to make a serviceable and lightly enjoyable action movie, with the odd entertaining set piece and a few mildly smirk-worthy lines, but it never really gets into top gear. It is worth saying, though, that the action is at least clean and generally well handled, and avoids the camera fitting and shaking so prevalent in today’s action movies. It will take up an hour and a half of your time divertingly enough, but that’s also about how long it will last in your memory – and, given the age of the cast, it’s probably about how long it lasted in theirs as well.

Why see it at the cinema: Some solid, well handled action, a few decent laughs and an absolutely killer last scene which mixes both will all get benefit from a large screen and some company.

The Score: 7/10