review

Review: Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension 3D

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Paranormal Activity The Ghost Dimension

The Pitch: We absolutely saw you coming. While you’re here, can we interest you in some magic beans?

The Review: Hallowe’en. Season of ghouls, ghosts and spectres (although this year it was dominated by a SPECTRE of a different kind). What, then, could be more appropriate to the season than exhuming the corpse of a once popular franchise and attempting to wring as much cash out of its rotting corpse as possible? When the Saw franchise had become fatally worn out through familiarity, Paranormal Activity appeared at just the right time to fill the vacancy left behind. Oren Peil’s attempt at heightening the reality of the found footage genre as much as possible served up a winning combination of scares and mood that had many cinemagoers questioning whether or not this was real. (These people do exist, and many of them thought The Martian was a true story.) Sadly the studios have long since run out of enough ideas to be able to churn out one of these films a year, so after a gap of nearly two years the final film of the franchise (or so we’re promised) limps into view.

There is a plot, but not one that feels the need to concern itself with too much in the way of character development. After an opening scene that harks back to the ongoing mythology of the series (before being largely forgotten about), we see a family settling into their new house. The man of the house Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and his brother (Dan Gill) find a box of video tapes and a weird old video camera that appears to have had some unusual upgrades. When trying it out, it appears to pick up more than the eye can see, but that just happens to be around the same time that Ryan’s daughter Leila (Ivy George) starts acting rather oddly. In keeping with the rest of the series, at this point they decide to put video cameras up at night to capture the spooky goings on.

I say spooky: it’s absolutely the same premise as the rest of the series rolled out again with so little variation as to verge on insulting. Forgetting what made the original so compelling (the slow burn of mood and the effective offsetting of night and day; in the original, the onscreen captions for each new night meant it was time to pay close attention and served to heighten the mood), this is simply a random collection of moments designed to try to make you jump. For less money, you could sit at home in the dark while a friend occasionally yells at you at random intervals, and I’d be willing to bet it would be scarier too. The film’s also hamstrung by the continued attempts at mythologising, but all of the storytellng is handled so clumsily you’ll be hard pressed to notice that none of it really makes any sense any more, even in the context of the series.

Katie Featherston, the anchor of the series since the first film and ever present up to now, has had the sense to finally jump ship, so while her character is referenced it’s only young Katie you see at the start. The rest of the acting is so wooden you expect to find woodpeckers living in it, the characters variously demonstrate new highs (or lows, depending on your viewpoint) of stupidity for the series and the presence of a young blond girl going through inter-dimensional troubles makes this feel more like a sequel to Poltergeist than the culmination of the Paranormal Activity series. It’s a sign of how little the producers care about whether or not you even like this film is that the director’s chair is occupied by a man whose CV consists mainly of roles as an assistant editor – not even a full editor – and he fumbles badly with a script that seven people couldn’t manage to shape into something with any redeeming features. The time has come to turn the cameras off on this insipid franchise, which struggled to justify more than one sequel and eventually fell victim to the laws of diminishing returns, rather than anything more supernatural.

Why see it at the cinema: If you’re the most absurd kind of completist that needs to see the franchise through to the end. I hope for your sake that when they say this is the last one, they mean it.

Why see it in 3D: Don’t bother. With only the parts on the found video camera in 3D, you’ll either have to watch a poorly lit film mostly in 2D while wearing sunglasses or risk putting them on and off at the right times.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong supernatural threat, violence, strong language. Based on the current BBFC guidelines, I think it’s mainly the language that tips this one over to a 15.

My cinema experience: Did I jump at all? Yes, yes I did. Mainly because was falling asleep and the loud noises disturbed my blissful almost-slumber, blessed relief from this nonsense that it was. The biggest horror I faced was finding a car parking space in Bury St Edmunds on a Saturday afternoon for my trip to the Cineworld.

The Score: 2/10

Review: Suffragette

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Suffragette

The Pitch: Votes For Women! (For Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG Awards…)

The Review: I don’t think I’ve known what it is to be truly repressed. Sure, I was subject to the odd spell of bullying at school, for everything from my name to my nose, but I’m a white, middle class male who worked his way up from the working classes and, thanks to a diligent mother who put her families’ needs before her own, never really went without during that working class upbringing. So when it comes to a film like this, dealing with the subjugation of a part of society, I tend to judge the success of the film at least in part in how successfully it conveys what it’s like to be part of that minority. Here, then, is the first thing that strikes you about Suffragette: it’s dealing with the rights and issues of a suppressed majority. Here’s a quote from the 1911 census:

Sex Proportions. —Of the 36,070,492 persons enumerated in England and Wales in 1911, 17,445,608 were males and 18,624,884 were females. These numbers give an excess of 1,179,276 females over males, which would, however, be somewhat reduced if we could include in the reckoning the English and Welsh members of the Army, Navy and Merchant Service and mercantile community temporarily absent abroad and also the numbers of fishermen absent at sea on the night of the census.

When you’ve finished having a giggle over the phrase “sex proportions”, take a moment for that to sink in. The women fighting for equal rights were actually the larger proportion of society, yet it took a vocal minority for their cause to even become recognised and, as Sarah Gavron’s film lays out, it wasn’t even something that the majority of women saw as an issue at the time, so conditioned were they into accepting the status quo as being the right way of things.

Gavron and her screenwriter Abi Morgan (‘Shame’, ‘The Iron Lady’) create a fictional character to explore both sides of women in society in the shape of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a dutiful mother and housewife to husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw). They both work at an industrial laundry where Maud’s mother also worked before her, and where the first rumblings of discontent over gender inequality are already rearing their head. It’s when some of the workers take part in more physical acts of disruption such as throwing bricks through windows, all under the auspices of the Women’s Social And Political Union that Maud finds herself questioning the relative lack of rights and status for women and becomes drawn into the WPSU’s work. She and her co-worker Violet Miller (Ann-Marie Duff) attend a parliamentary hearing on the subject, but Maud finds herself speaking at the hearing and is instantly flagged under the police surveillance programme looking to weed out disruptive influences (led by Brendan Gleeson’s inspector) and she’s soon suffering the same indignities and abuse as the other leading members (including Helena Bonham Carter’s pharmacist and Meryl Streep in a cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst).

Morgan’s script is fairly straight and conventional, and what it does well is to get into the intimate details of the indignities, punishments and abuse that these women suffered, simply to be allowed to express themselves in the same manner as their male counterparts. As well as the lack of voting rights, the film also clearly spells out the abhorrent working conditions that many women faced at the time, treated little better than slave labour and with their husbands often watching on; an overbearing, sexually aggressive boss at the laundry might feel a bit much but it works well as a plot device to add tension to key moments and never feels forced. Where Suffragette is slightly less successful is in attempting to understand why the men of society were so keen on preserving the current order; while it does show the lengths the police and government were willing to go to, method isn’t fully underpinned by motive and the film may have resonated even more had it been able to get under the skin. Other than that, the plotting is very much join the dots and barrels along relentlessly towards its historical climax at Epsom racecourse in 1913. The film has a trump card in its location filming at the Houses Of Parliament, but Gavron seems too intent on drawing your attention to the set dressing and some of these scenes have a somewhat staged feel. This is in sharp contrast to the prison and domestic sequences, which capture the squalor and suffering very efficiently.

Where the film comes alive, truly building on the effectiveness of its setting, is through its key performances. Many of the male characters are slightly underwritten or stereotypical so Brendan Gleeson’s stoic policeman provides welcome balance, with a veil of empathy shrouding his requirement to fulfill his duty. But the film really belongs to Carey Mulligan: it’s Maud’s journey that illuminates both the suffering of those joining the fight and the apathy and disdain of the rest of society not willing to rock the boat when they didn’t see the end outcome as important. Mulligan succeeds in being both defiant and vulnerable as the situation demands without ever descending into melodrama and she’s complemented well by the likes of Duff and Bonham Carter. It’s these performances that give the film an emotional core and allow its anger to build before a thought-provoking climax. While I don’t know that I could truly put myself in the shoes of the suffragettes to understand how they felt and what they suffered after having seen this, what Sarah Gavron’s film did succeed in is making me ashamed of the past actions of my own gender, and for that and for the performances of Mulligan, Bonham Carter and Gleeson it deserves your vote when you’re deciding on your next cinema visit.

Why see it at the cinema: Enveloping yourself in the darkness of the cinema will allow you to immerse yourself in the hardship these women endured, as well as allowing you to see every straining emotion in Carey Mulligan’s face and to truly feel her pain.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent strong language, moderate violence, a scene of force feeding. Way to go again with the rather specific spoilers, BBFC. It wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t insist on putting them unavoidably

My cinema experience: Having spend the day with my niece for her birthday at Chessington World Of Adventures, I scoured the map for Cineworlds along my route home. In the end, I settled on Cineworld Rochester, a brief diversion off the M25 and where I had time to log a double bill with Crimson Peak.

It’s a fairly standard Cineworld, although they do insist on checking your Unlimited card before every screening. I always find this somewhat disappointing before the second film of a double bill, although I’ve done as many as five films in a day (at Cineworld Stevenage) and been checked every time.

Having then juggled phone (with QR ticket code) and wallet, I then ended up with even less hands as the timings hadn’t worked out for allowing time to have dinner: hence my Cineworld dinner – as in I’ve done this before, probably too often – of a large hot dog, a bag of Revels and a large soft drink. I’ve developed an odd predilection for putting tomato ketchup down the whole hot dog and mustard on the first half only.

I then took my seat on the front row of the main block, which in common with other Cineworlds I visit (Huntingdon springs to mind) has a railing at the front, allowing the long of limb such as myself to dangle their legs and sit in comfort. My only issue was when putting my feet on the railing, it wasn’t actually that far from the seat so I ended up curled up in a sort of ball with my bottom sliding off the seat and my knees under my chin. Good job I can get comfy anywhere. As it’s a fairly new Cineworld (or feels it, at any rate), the seats are still in good nick and there were no issues with sound or vision.

The Score: 8/10

Review: SPECTRE

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SPECTRE

The Pitch: You only live, er, six times. Possibly seven.

The Review: Here we are again, then. For the twenty-fourth time in fifty-three years, Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions unveil their latest film version of the escapades of the characters created by Ian Fleming in his series of novels. If you don’t know which characters those are, especially the one who has JB monograms on his towels, then this is probably the wrong review for you. It’s a difficult balancing act: hoping to attract in the ten people in the world who’ve never seen a James Bond film before while trying to satisfy the demands of three generations of Bond fans, each brought up on a different interpretation of the character and each longing for what they perceive to be Bond’s quintessential qualities. The pressure on Bond, and indeed on Eon and the production team, to deliver has never been higher and you only have to look at Skyfall’s box office in the context of the overall series to see why (worldwide, adjusted for inflation, in case you were wondering):

Bond Box Office

While first Pierce Brosnan and then Daniel Craig had begun to turn around Bond’s box office fortunes, Skyfall exceeded even the previous peak of the golden Sean Connery era. Now Bond is established in the modern era as a global brand, how do you go about replicating that incredible success with another satisfying adventure for the world’s least secret agent?

The first thing you do, if you’re the current heads of Eon (Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli), is that you do whatever you can to get Skyfall’s director Sam Mendes to come back again. You also ensure that the writing team of John Logan, Neal Purves and Robert Wade return to work out the next direction for the Bond franchise. The third and final significant step you take is to resolve all of the fuss and nonsense over rights to the most evil characters in the Bond universe – a rights battle that dates back to the fourth film, Thunderball and a wrangle that lasted nearly fifty years – and having reacquired the ability to use SPECTRE in your films you waste no time in making your next film the modern relaunch of Bond’s most nefarious nemeses. Thankfully you still have Bond’s MVP, Daniel Craig under contract, so it’s just a matter of filling out the cast, pitching Bond against SPECTRE and watching the fireworks fly. Or at least, it should be. But given the intensely personal nature of Skyfall, with Bond exploring his heritage and with the most prominent role for M of the entire series, the writers also feel the need to load Bond with further baggage, so we also get a return to the roots of the SPECTRE substitute organisation Quantum (set up in the first two Craig Bonds). We also get, somewhat unnecessarily and for the first time in the cinematic history of Bond, an exploration of Bond’s upbringing after his parents’ death with details lifted directly from the Fleming short story Octopussy.

All of this means that there’s a fair amount of exposition to get through and a large cast to navigate; as well as the returning characters of Bond, M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner from MI6, we see Mr White (Jesper Christensen) and his daughter (Lea Seydoux), the standard verbally challenged henchman (Dave Bautista), a couple of other obligatory Bond women (Monica Bellucci and Stephanie Sigman), another oily British station chief C (Andrew Scott), and the mysterious link to Bond’s past in the form of Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man apparently doing rather well for himself at the evil organisation Bond finds himself investigating. For a secret agent, Bond’s spent surprisingly little of his time doing actual spying over the years, preferring instead to focus on causing women to fall swooning into his arms at the drop of a hat and getting steadily drunk to remind everyone he’s not perfect.

You might need a stiff drink if you think about the plot of this Bond for too long: it manages to achieve the double whammy of not only bloating the film out to a record two and a half hour running time, but it singularly fails to blend its disparate elements into anything resembling a coherent story in that time. Not only performing a little retconning on the last few Bond films but also on Bond’s previous history, what the plot actually does is see Bond globetrot around the world in his usual casual fashion, almost waiting for the plot to come to him. When it does, sometimes after interminable amounts of simply hanging around that didn’t need to be seen on screen, it fails to be either surprising or interesting. It’s pretty much the origin story again for SPECTRE and their leader, but in a story that could probably have been condensed into the first hour of a sharper film before we got on with the real business of SPECTRE’s plan. The attempts at making the threat personal fail to resonate in anything close to the same way as Skyfall, and the big third act reveals are thrown away so clumsily as to be almost risible. (You may also benefit from giving yourself a Daniel Craig Bond marathon before setting out for this one as all three of Craig’s previous outings are regularly referenced.)

Normally Bond films can get away with a half-baked plot if everything else is at the top of its game, but that’s where SPECTRE’s inadequacies truly become apparent. There’s no denying that the opening credits sequence is up there with the very best of Bond, a single tracking shot through thousands of extras capped off with toppling buildings and spinning helicopters. It’s a shame that no other sequence comes close to matching it, with a car chase which has Bond on the phone for most of it, ignoring the peril completely, being a particular example: set reports indicate that seven of the new Aston Martin DB10s designed and produced especially for the film were written off during filming, but the results of that carnage don’t seem to have ended up on screen. The finale is a particular damp squib, with an almost apologetic lack of action and a dilemma that feels overly familiar to anyone who’s seen any of the major comic book movies of the last twenty years (*cough Spider-Man *cough* The Dark Knight *cough*)

The performances are also a very mixed bag, and it wouldn’t be so much of an issue if SPECTRE’s continued attempts to trade on nostalgia weren’t constantly throwing the film’s failings into sharp relief. Take, for example, a train sequence which is reminiscent of both Eva Green’s first confrontation with Bond in Casino Royale and Sean Connery’s bust up with Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love; they’re both decent enough callbacks but all they do is remind you of how short they fall in comparison to the originals that they’re referencing. The writing for the female characters also borders on disastrous; Lea Seydoux and Monica Bellucci’s characters seem to be slipping back to being subjected to the sort of casual misogyny that Goldeneye was mocking eight films ago and Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny is made to look even more stupid here than she was clumsy in Skyfall (example dialogue: “You’ve got a secret. Something you can’t tell anyone.”). Christoph Waltz does his best with an underwritten role, but of the support it’s only Ben Whishaw, building delightfully on his role as Q that comes away with any real credit.

It’s a curiously empty film; seemingly the extras budget was used up in Mexico City as Rome seems to be virtually uninhabited and SPECTRE’s lair has around 1% of the staff of your average volcano lair, staffed mainly by people in black sweaters who look like they’re queuing for interviews for jobs at the nearest Apple Store. (I mentioned the five main roles for the 00 division earlier, and the film also does a cracking job of convincing you that no-one else works there.) I can’t even say good words about the music, Thomas Newman’s score inexcusably missing at least two open goals to throw in the Bond theme which would have elevated the brief moments when the action scenes work; when Goldeneye was rescored to put the theme back into the tank chase, you have to wonder why Newman and Mendes’ handling is so sacrosanct. Sam Mendes’ direction only really comes to life in the pre-credits sequence and in a couple of well-framed hero shots later on, and Hoyt Van Hoytema’s cinematography is serviceable without ever hitting the heights of Roger Deakins’ impressive digital lensing of Skyfall, yet another high bar from a film which wasn’t perfect but outperforms this follow up in almost every regard.

The one thing that saves it from being totally abject is its star: Daniel Craig has looked comfortable in the role from day 1, but now he fully inhabits it and feels as comfortable with the quips as with the moments of genuine emotion. We can only hope that this isn’t his swansong, as there’s plenty that could be done to improve matters for his next outing. When Goldeneye and Casino Royale launched the Brosnan and Craig eras respectively, they gave the series fresh momentum while capturing what made the series great; SPECTRE is absolutely content to replicate what it thinks made Skyfall a box office champion and as a result makes a film that’s overlong, languid and often listless and crucially missing the energy that made all of the aforementioned films work so well. This is mid-table Bond at best and would be lower but for Craig’s rock solid performance that at least anchors the film, but it failed to leave me either shaken or even stirred.

Why see it at the cinema: Much of the later action will be a complete washout by the time it gets to DVD or TV, so do catch it on the big screen. The big screen and sound system will also allow you to appreciate Sam Smith’s not-actually-bad theme song all the more.

What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate violence and threat. Moderate, sadly, is the operative word; no-one would have faulted the BBFC for calling it “undercooked” or “a bit limp” instead.

My cinema experience: VIP seats at the Vue in Cambridge had plenty of legroom and the sound and projection were very reasonable; just a shame that the film’s middle stretch was so unengaging that someone two rows behind me fell asleep, judging by their rather prominent snoring. The lethargy of the audience in getting up to leave at the end told its own story.

The Score: 6/10

Box office figures courtesy of www.007james.com

Review: Fast & Furious 7

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Fast & Furious 7

The Pitch: I didn’t think there was any way I could top the stupidity of my Fast & Furious 6 review. Well…

The Limerick Review (BOOM! In your face, stupidity):

There once was a man named Rob Cohen
Who got this film / car series goin'
He directed the first,
With his camera immersed
In car's exhausts, constantly flowin'.

Next, sequels; but Diesel was missing,
Then Walker too his role dismissing,
As the quality waned
We were less entertained
And critics were ranting and hissing.

But Justin Lin then had a great thought:
The cast from the first film were all sought
For more thieving car stunts,
Once more with Vin's deep grunts
For his girl died (or so he had thought).

The fifth film showed yet more evolving,
The casting door still was revolving,
With the stars back en bloc
They then added The Rock,
So cheesy but oddly involving.

The sixth sorted out continuity,
But its plotting was lacking acuity.
Yet the post-credits scene
Kept the audience keen:
Add The Stath? Oh what great ingenuity!

Wait! The promise of bald Jason's madness
Was tempered with deep real-life sadness
For Walker died too young;
His virtues were then sung.
The films had no choice but to digress.

The Paul Walker issue's a distraction
For he'd only filmed half his action.
His brothers helped out 
And CG's pixel clout
Gave once again narrative traction.

A year late comes this sixth film sequel,
The Stath now arriving to wreak hell
Avenging Luke Evans
(Near sent to the heavens);
Can only be tracked by Kurt Russell.

(The adding of Kurt ain't for nuthin':
The man behind this film's MacGuffin. 
By hiring Snake Plissken
There's less of a risk in
Him fading away to a has-been.)

Our gang tours the world with Stath chasing,
With barely a mention of racing
But cars are the main tools
With which they make big fools
Of logic, and physics debasing.

The main draw's the film's whack set-pieces
Whose grasp on the real world decreases
With cars in the sky
In the blink of an eye;
Admit it, the script's mostly faeces.

You may think it of me quite petty
To complain of amnesiac Letty;
There's now so much plot 
In these films, I forgot!
The story's more strands than spaghetti.

The emotional core's based on family;
A shame that side's handled so hammily.
Yet wide demographics
Like flashy car graphics - 
Thank casting spread wide geographically.

There's so many stars, some neglected:
The Rock's presence barely detected.
We lost Han Seoul-Oh
And Gisele (Gal Gadot)... 
Wait, that t's pronounced. (Rhyme rejected.)

Not even two deaths have helped thin out
The bloated cast list; yet they win out.
They might just enchant ya
With their cheeky banter
And car stunts which might get your grin out.

This time Lin has gone, Wan's arriving,
Saw's James this time wrangling the driving.
This director-for-hire
Doesn't raise standards higher
His style from the genre deriving.

His one fetish greater than fast cars
Is his lens outlining each girl's arse
As each one that's hot
Wanders into his shot
Their bottoms are making them film stars.

Overall, Fast 7's not realistic
Its scenery's quite chauvinistic
But if you like a laugh
You could do worse by half
Than the year's big box office statistic.

Why see it at the cinema:

If you like fast cars and loose women,
Then don't hesitate, drop your linen,
Get straight down to the flicks
For big stunts and hot chicks.
(If you miss it you'll be forgiven.)

What about the rating? 

The BBFC gave a 12A
You'll find out at this link what they say.
They gave it for swearing
And violence; They're caring
About all film viewers. (Not child's play.)

My cinema experience:

A Stevenage Cineworld threesome,
(For which I will not give a reason)
I also saw two more.
The others that I saw
Weren't bad either, despite no Liam Neeson.
They did have Russ Crowe and Ben Stiller,
With this film to their sandwich: filler.
The Water Diviner
Was slightly less finer
And While We're Young wasn't a killer.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Chappie

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Chappie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Score: 6/10

Review: Still Alice

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Still Alice

The Pitch: Moore is less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Score: 7/10

Review: Fifty Shades Of Grey

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Fifty Shades Of Grey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Score: 5/10