The Review: Pirates must have the best PR people in the world, based on their current profile and perception. Never mind general thievery and seafaring atrocities on a scale that’s probably only outdone by the Vikings, from International Talk Like A Pirate Day to the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow these days it’s cool to roam the high seas with a parrot and a heavy West Country accent. The Pirates! and their obligatory exclamation mark are only likely to make that worse, given that the Captain is the world’s most famous stuttering Englishman, his first mate is Tim off The Office and they’ve been brought to us by the same firm that brought us Wallace, Gromit and Arthur Christmas.
Yes, The Pirates! is the latest from the wizards of Plasticine from Bristol, and like their most famous man and dog creations both the Pirates! and Scientists! of the title are carved from the same clay and they share the same very British sensibility that has characterised every big screen adventure that Aardman has embarked on to date. (Sorry, I’ll stop with the exclamation marks now.) While their philosophy has always been that it’s better to see the thumbprints, the better to appreciate the quality of the craft, it’s never stifled their ambition and Pirates is rich in quality from the tiny background details to the beautifully realised characters. Aardman have also managed to apply their distinctive style to the story while allowing the material to retain a feeling of freshness.
There’s also wall to wall quality in the voice department, with the biggest surprise being Hugh Grant. Casting aside his trademark foppishness and instead channeling a gruff yet playful tone, almost like a younger, more coherent Brian Blessed (who also pops up as the Pirate King), Grant is a thoroughly cheerful presence who keeps the story rolling on his bountiful charisma, and he’s ably supported by his pirate crew, including standout Russell Tovey. The other star of the extensive cast, which ranges from Jeremy Piven to Lenny Henry, is David Tennant as the fraught and slightly scheming Charles Darwin. As with Darwin, the real world characters (such as Imelda Staunton’s Queen Victoria) are not particularly faithful but are all the more fun for it.
However, fun is actually where The Pirates! is sadly a little lacking. While it’s all entertaining enough and will happily while away an hour and a half with the rest of the family, the humour and the peril are both just a shade underdone and there won’t be the repeat value of the likes of Wallace and Gromit or even Chicken Run. There’s a couple of decent set pieces and some moderate chuckles, but the only thing that truly soars is a whale which crashes a pirate get-together early on. It’s so frustrating when we’ve seen what Aardman can do when on top of it’s game, and like Pixar the disappointment is even more acute when the treats on offer aren’t as fulfilling, knowing how high their bar is normally set. Since writer of the original stories Gideon Defoe provides the screenplay and Aardman stalwart Peter Lord direct proceedings, it’s maybe a surprise that it’s all a bit flat in places, but despite the consistently gorgeous animation the occasional pacing issues and the lack of a steady supply of truly great gags mean that you’ll probably enjoy plundering Pirates once, but the treasures here are in somewhat limited supply.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s amazing how much the lumps of clay can be moulded into epic vistas, albeit with a little CG augmentation, but as well as the fantastic visuals, allowing you to see every fingerprint, there’s just enough laughs to make it worth seeing with a big audience.
Why see it in 3D: While animation still seems to hold an advantage over live action in terms of clarity of image in 3D, there’s nothing here that stands out (if you’ll pardon the pun) in terms of a compelling reason to see this in 3D. 2D absolutely fine this time.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: Young adult fiction is the hot ticket right now. It seems that if you can get to the heart of that market with your subject matter, then nothing is potentially off topic. Wizardry as a metaphor for adolescence? No problem. Star-crossed lovers who might have a problem with sunlight and being just a bit bitey? Ker-ching. Two dozen teens who must fight to the death because, in true Highlander style, there can be only one? Really? Writer of the original novels Suzanne Collins has claimed that the inspiration lies within Greek myth, specifically Theseus, although of course the Minotaur put paid to the Greek kiddies, rather than allowing them to take their issues out on each other. So what kind of role model is twenty four teens and tweens grabbing a weapon and taking pot shots?
The Hunger Games is actually an excellent role model if you consider where viewing habits will go when young adults become actual adults. There is an obvious level of satire on the current obsession with reality television that has obvious echoes of direct precedents such as Battle Royale, but also is only a couple of steps removed from Paul Verhoeven’s back catalogue. There’s also a dystopian future into which we are plunged which will hopefully inspire youngsters to seek out even darker material at some future date, but Hunger Games also works as a feminist ideal without ever really being overtly feminist, but shys away from casting the central teens as brutal killers, rather than desperate survivalists. From start to finish, there are seeds planted that are reminiscent of more adult films, and director Gary Ross does an effective job of weaving them together. Still, this is probably one you’ll not be wanting your own young’uns to emulate too closely on the playground.
This movie, as I alluded to earlier, is also being touted as the next Harry Potter or Twilight, and it’s certainly the equal of the former while probably besting the latter in terms of the cast that’s been assembled. Jennifer Lawrence is older in real life than her literary counterpart, but it’s worth the slight age gap for the quality of performance that she provides, not only showing steely determination and defiance but also allowing her guard to drop and showing real moments of vulnerability and fear. Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson have a long track record of top quality character roles, and if made a short list of potential menacing overlords, then Donald Sutherland would be on it. In an attempt to reflect futuristic fashions, the Capital’s garish colour schemes offset well against the drabness of the districts, but occasionally those artistic choices go a little over the top; Elizabeth Banks ends up wearing more than her fair share of them and it’s credit to her that her performance doesn’t get lost in them. The only slightly weak link is Josh Hutcherson’s slightly anaemic performance, but it doesn’t serve to unbalance the remainder.
Most people in the age range this is targeted won’t remember the delights of Saint and Greavsie, but as Jimmy was so fond of saying, “It’s a game of two halves, Saint.” Strictly speaking, the two halves are actually pre-game and game, and it’s the first half that’s the most effective, with the game itself struggling ever so slightly to throw off the shackles of the 12A rating, some shaky camerawork and some poor effects in the finale. There’s also the occasional pacing issue in this stretch, which is a shame as the first half has a steady build of tension marked out with some dark themes and leavened with the occasional dash of humour. The final score on The Hunger Games is that it’s respectable rather than compelling, but with enough to make it watching for adults of all ages.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s an ideal education for the young adult age range, who can expand into more grown-up themes easily from here, and apart from the occasional bit of dodgy CGI there’s plenty of meat here for the whole family, with both cityscapes and the countryside looking good on the wide screen.
The Score: 7/10
Pitch Pie Chart Showing What Battleship Has Been “Inspired” By:
Review Hits / Misses Lists:
Why see it at the cinema: IF YOU LIKE TO WATCH GENERALLY INDETERMINATE GREY BLOBS AND STUFF BLOWING UP REALLY, *REALLY* LOUDLY WHILE IN REALLY TIGHT FOCUS AND WITH NO LOGIC OR REASON THEN DON’T MISS BATTLESHIP! (Put that on the poster, Universal, I dare you.)
The Score: 4/10
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: If ever there were two genres guilty of falling back on high concepts, then it’s the rom-com and the action movie. Die Hard On A… movies and Four Weddings knock-offs are two a penny, and This Means War is not the first time that the action movie and the rom-com have been made into strange bedfellows. But This Means War is also the melding of two high concepts into one vertigo-inducing idea: what if James Bond and Jason Bourne went head to head. Who would win? But what if they weren’t just competing in the field, but in the bedroom as well? It does require the two concepts to be merged in such a way that’s not only fair to both, but also allows room for each to breathe. Can you make a film that’s both a good rom-com and a good action movie?
No; at least, not if This Means War is anything to go by. There are three main elements to This Means War, and considering each in tone it’s the com of rom-com that comes off by far the best. Reese Witherspoon is an old hand at this kind of thing, and has a light touch for the material, even if the film does it’s best to make her look as if she’s an international-class trollop. It’s her lightness of touch that makes long sequences watchable, but also her pairing with Chelsea Handler makes much of the film more tolerable. Handler gets the majority of the best lines, and isn’t in the slightest hindered by the fact that she plainly can’t act (early scenes have the feeling of her reading from an autocue – bady – before she hits her stride later on), but her spunky energy keeps the film afloat during the com elements. Hardy and Pine get lots of banter, but only the occasional opportunity for out and out comedy, and it’s a shame there’s not more scenes allowing them to riff.
The rom, however, is where things start to go pear-shaped. This Means War wants to have its cake, eat it and have sex with it, so we’re left with two competing rom-coms as Tom and Chris both attempt to woo Reese for themselves. Sadly, the way that the competing romances are structured, neither comes off as even remotely believable, full of people reading lines from a script that would just about pass for drama students in an improv but would never be said by real people (or even characters in a good rom-com). Consequently it’s impossible to root for either protagonist; the shouting and recriminations that normally sit in the second act of the rom-com are so predicable, you could set your watch by them. Worse than that, though, is that the set-up of the first fifteen minutes means that there’s only one way this is ever going to play out, and despite rumours of multiple endings, the one which panders to all of the lowest common denominators is the one you’ll get to see.
Then there’s the action element, which is nothing short of disastrous. Just three action sequences, at beginning, middle and end; the first is so badly shot it’s impossible to discern anything that’s happening, the second is edited so choppily that any excitement is drained out of it, and the last actually shamelessly rips off other, better action movies before simply giving up and resolving all of the obvious plot threads from earlier on. Put simply, This Means War is an insult to your intelligence on a number of levels, presenting a film where two characters need to get together that has such a random view of basic morality that the inevitable and predictable outcome is actually the last one you’ll want, but also spoonfeeding you action scenes so utterly unwatchable and lacking in originality that if being asked to sit through them doesn’t make you angry, I might politely suggest that you need higher standards. Director McG and writers such as Simon Kinberg have all worked in these genres before, and everything from the hyper-kinetic Charlie’s Angels films to the disturbingly similar in concept and execution Mr and Mrs Smith make this feel nothing more than a sequel subject to the law of diminishing returns. Hardy and Pine are both on an upward career trajectory after years of hard graft in the business, but let’s hope this is a blip and nothing more.
Why see it at the cinema: Not for the action sequences, which are a shameful affront to at least two of your senses, but for the comedy; at least if other people are laughing, there’s a chance you might feel like joining in.
The Score: 4/10
I’ve never really understood birthdays. Call me an old curmudgeon if you like, but I’ve somehow missed the point that our arbitrary calendar system, based on the distance round the giant glowy thing that our damp ball of rock has travelled, requires us to mark each revolution with some significance. Same applies to New Year – we have an odd and occasionally unhealthy fascination with running out of days in a particular year that requires us to spend ridiculous amounts of money to get drunk in public or stand around in the early hours of the morning singing a song that no one actually understands a word of. I’m not averse to a party, I can just think of better reasons.
Now lists, on the other hand, that’s something I can relate to. The need to obsessively collate and rank things in some sense of order, for no real point other than the satisfaction of having done it? Fantastic. I’m also absurdly competitive – get me in a pub with a pool cue or a set of darts in my hand and the demons appear from inside me and take over my brain. So if we have to mark the passing of the year, then I can think of no better way of doing it that with a purely arbitrary collection of a competitive nature, based around another damp-rock-glowy-thing-orbit.
Another Friday rolls around, and normally at this point I’d be attempting to cajole you, dear reader, into a trip to the cinema at some point in the coming week, for as we all know that is the place where movies must be watched for the fullest effect. But this week, with snow on the ground and the country grinding to a halt, I find it harder than ever to suggest that those of you living in a winter wonderland should trek out and find something to watch. (And it’s not even winter yet – an autumn wonderland?)
But there is something that is worth making the trek for this week, and it’s from a British director who’s marked himself out as a real talent to watch, Gareth Edwards. His first feature film is a labour of love, and has the look of a movie ten times its budget. But there’s something lurking in this Monster’s closet; the marketing campaign.
There’s a number of different cuts of the trailer around, and some of them err on the side of suggesting this is another District 9, a monster mash with the emphasis on the monsters. I attempted to draw the distinction in my review that this isn’t just about the monsters by drawing out the differences, and if anything the title itself may be misleading. It’s a hard movie to pin down, being part road movie, part love story and part giant monster movie, but it’s absolutely not a thrill-a-minute action ride, so try to go in without expectations, and just let Monsters grab hold of you. I hope you’ll be as enraptured as I was.
It’s finally here. After months of secrecy, speculation and salivation (not to mention alliteration), the saviour of the summer blockbuster is finally upon us. And anticipation in my head is reaching levels not seen since the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phanton Menace, when, despite having a ticket, I queued for an hour outside the screening to get the best possible seat. (Despite the movie being satisfactory rather than spectacular, my flatmate and I still bought lightsabers and fought with them until the early hours. I was 25 at the time.)
The risk here is that I have built this movie (and Toy Story 3 to a lesser extent) up in my mind to such an extent that it can never deliver on that expectation. Christopher Nolan has succeeded in pulling together possibly the best cast for a major Hollywood release known to man (and the best ensemble I can think of since Heat), filmed in seven countries on four continents, spent a huge amount of money on realistic stunts that avoid too much CGI, but has one thing which makes it stand out above pretty much anything else I’m likely to see this year – Christopher Nolan.
There are a few directors whose movies I would go and see if I had been kept in a hermetically sealed bubble until the day of release and knew nothing of the movie itself; they include David Fincher, the Coen brothers, Michael Haneke, Brad Bird and David Cronenberg. But if every other rational human being had dismissed his latest opus, I would still give Nolan a chance.
I could sit and write a lengthy dissertation for this (because, being a blogger, I love nothing more than the sound of my own voice reading my own posts back in my head). It occurred to me, though, that it might be easier just to share with you, my readers (hello, both of you), my top 50 movies of the previous decade. I originally wrote this for my Facebook at the back end of last year, as a summary of my movie-going obsession of that decade; reading it through gives some clear indication of my Nolan-love and why my expectations are vertigo-inducingly high for this one.
My wife went to see Sex and the City 2 with friends instead of me. I love her very much.
This is her review, edited purely for punctuation by me, because I am that obsessive compulsive.
The Review: I loved Sex and the City as a teenager and even until my early 20s it was still daring and provocative. Not any more. In the same way as you don’t want to imagine your parents having sex, the idea of Samantha still being a sleep-around kinda gal is repulsive. Charlotte appears unable to cope with two children despite having a nanny, which again makes all sympathy disappear. Oh my god Carrie and Mr Big are happy, oh no their not, oh yes they are etc, really who cares?? The only character which seems to have it together is Miranda and she really isn’t on screen enough; her dry sarcasm could have been a redeeming feature but sadly it wasn’t. Oh, and they went to Abu Dhabi had a few ‘girlie’ moments, all the above character flaws continued ad nauseum, then they went home and had a happy ending.
I wish I could be more positive but really I’m now old enough to know better and so are they. This won’t appeal to the early 20s market as they have no connection to 40+ year olds sleeping around and the viewing 30+ year old who require a nostalgia fest should watch the reruns on Comedy Central, not this dross.
Why see it at the cinema: The clothes are pretty and the scenery spectacular. Oh and Liza Minnelli singing Beyonce is worth the entrance fee alone in my book. But that’s about it.
The Score: A well below expectations 5 /10
I now love her even more for saving me from this.