Sunday, 25 April 2010

Anyone For a Film Podcast 5

This week, the podcast returns and I am joined by a special guest and friend, James from uni, as we chat about Roman Polanski's new thriller, The Ghost Writer

Thursday, 22 April 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

In truth, everyone has probably harboured a fascination with dragons from a young age. Away from the televisual domain of fire-breathing Anne Robinson, the savage grace and primordial beauty of these mythical creatures has nevertheless had a spotty translation to the screen, with both Reign of Fire and Dragonheart being recent, sputtering failures.

How to Train Your Dragon is a very different beast, in every sense of the word: shrewd, smart, exciting, muscular and witty, it's inarguably one of the best CGI kids flicks ever made, fusing potent mythology with a modern kind of American pop cynicism that works blindingly well. It revels in a fantasy world that is both distant and yet populated with sharply drawn, identifiable characters, winningly voiced. Although not as funny as Shrek, the period setting precludes any of the product placements that have bogged that franchise down in favour of a more strongly bolstered narrative.

Central to the piece is Jay Baruchel's Hiccup, winsome, skinny loser son to chest-beating Stoic (Gerard Butler, for once finding a perfect outlet for his machismo). Native of the Viking settlement of Berk which has long been terrorised by the fiery types, most of the locals are up in arms, but Hiccup, in typical loner fashion, forms a strong friendship with a dragon he blew out of the sky, whom he names Toothless. But how long is it before the village interprets his increased understanding of the creatures for heroism in the training ring, where he is pitted, rites of passage style, against the beasties with a further assortment of misfit heroes? And how long before Toothless himself is discovered?

The stage is set for a beautifully moral story where the moral, as with all the great animated features, is deftly hidden behind an energetic, colourful exterior, one that delightfully upends both scale in the oversized, overbearing vikings, and the quirky dragons themselves, some of whom boast two heads, others of which are fat and deceptively cute. Full of a surprisingly aggressive sound design (that will likely both thrill and terrify younger viewers), the effect, bizarrely, results in a far more engagingly entertaining experience than the live action Clash of the Titans, especially in a climactic battle sequence that is the equal of anything produced in the live action arena recently. The thoroughly modern voice-cast also works surprisingly well, from America Ferrara's tough heroine Astrid to Jonah Hill's oafish Snotlout, grounding the fantasy in hip 90210 territory while never becoming too cynical for its own good.

In truth, the entire soul of Titans could be captured on the back of a stamp; Dragon not only soars in its astonishing flying sequences (bolstered by John Powell's wonderful Celtic-influenced, score) but it takes one's spirit out into the ether long after the credits have rolled. It's a cautionary tale of prejudice, a tale of father-son relationships, of the wonderful hinterland between fantasy and reality, one that completely transcends even the clunky earthbound gimmick of 3D (should you see it in such a fashion) to evoke grins of joy and tears behind the glasses.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Cemetery Junction

If landmark TV shows The Office and Extras proved one thing absolute, it was that creators/stars Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant were able to balance blistering, caustic social observation with breathtaking pathos. It's the latter that comes to the fore in their first feature-length debut Cemetery Junction, one which forgoes ironic humour in favour of a much gentler amble through 1970s nostalgia.

It will prove an almighty sticking point for those desiring the uncomfortable laughs of before (although a worker's ball setpiece midway through is hilariously awkward); but then, Gervais and Merchant have proved themselves in that arena already, and are clearly out to shatter notions they are one-trick ponies. Just as the bleak, washed-out offices of Wernham Hogg were a breath of fresh air all those years ago, so does the big heart of Cemetery Junction take us by surprise, a heart-warmer from the masters of acidic wit.

The remarkably even-handed screenplay unfolds in the lovely opening scene, where the fictional Reading town of Cemetery Junction basks in glorious sunshine to the sound of Vaughn Williams. Honing in to a more intimate viewpoint, Williams is then shattered by the emergence of Elton John’s Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, as we are introduced to the three young heroes of the piece: Freddie (Christian Cooke), Bruce (Tom Hughes) and Snork (Jack Doolan).

Typical young lads who booze, brawl and paint genitalia on billboards, the film follows their lives, Freddie as a fledgling insurance agent subservient to loathsome reptilian bosses Ralph Fiennes and Matthew Goode; Bruce as a factory working nobody with a broken home life; and Snork as the chubby loser who’s butt of all the jokes. All three take the lead at different stages, offering alternately humorous, gritty and moving angles to a fairly routine coming-of-age story.

Gervais and Merchant’s sure hands on the tone of the piece however, guide it effortlessly through any familiarity, ensuring the film is never too nasty, sentimental or sickly for its own good. Cooke is an engaging, straight-faced lead, rekindling a tender relationship with childhood friend Julie (Felicity Jones), but the real dramatic meat of the film comes with the impeccable supporting performances across the board, with Hughes a moving standout as the troubled Bruce, encountering a powerful confrontation with Steve Speir’s amiable Sgt. Davies over his wasted existence, and Emily Watson simply heartbreaking as the ghostly, wey-faced wife of Fiennes’ odious, career-driven monster (whose attitude subsequently rubs off on deputy Goode’s relationship to fiancée Jones). Gervais himself meanwhile offers several huge belly laughs sparring with Anne Reid’s testy grandmother.

With more than a hint of Martin Freeman’s Office woes, there’s a gripping, desperate duality on display with both the chance of escape from the town and the chance of consuming oneself in work offering positives and negatives. It’s a Brit film where, for once, the youth scene feels authentic, tasteful and accurate, full of a gentle optimism that should be an inspiration to all. And even if that sounds sanctimonious, the final line shows Gervais and Merchant still have their feet as firmly on the ground as they did when exploring Slough’s nightlife in Chasers for the first time.

The 10 Best Volcano/Aeroplane Disaster Movies

So while the world slowly grinds to a halt courtesy of our angry Icelandic volcanic neighbour, it's perhaps apt to look at the best in the sub-genres of volcano and aeroplane disaster movie. Ideally, the films chosen will play expertly on a common fear: namely being engulfed in a fireball or plummeting out of the sky into the tarmac (the latter being my no. 1, it has to be said). Make up your own mind.

The Volcano

1) Volcano (Mick Jackson, 1997)

The magma movie to end them all. It's a close-run thing between this and Dante's Peak but Volcano just scoops it by locating the fear right inside of Los Angeles itself, showing the urban metropolis going to rack and ruin in the face of mother nature. Realistic, eh? Well, at least we have Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche to save the day. Props to the nasty death scene inside the subway giving whole new meaning to the word 'legless'.

2) Dante's Peak (Roger Donaldson, 1997)

Aka Jaws-cano, Pierce Brosnan's impossibly Bond-esque vulcanologist tries to warn a small north-west town of impending disaster, while romancing Sarah Connor. The Terminator's the least of the problems though when Dante's Peak actually goes up, forcing dogs to be rescued from lava flows, grannies to be boiled and trucks to attempt split second escapes from pyroclastic clouds.

3) Supervolcano (Tony Mitchell, 2005)

A surefire staple of Geography lessons for years to come, Mitchell's docudrama is the first (and likely last) on this list, to deal with a potential disaster in a pragmatic, fact-based way. Suffering from a TV budget, it nonetheless chills in its dramatization of what could happen should Yellowstone National Park want to rid itself of tourists once and for all.

4) Krakatoa: East of Java (Bernard L. Kowalski, 1969)

Worth a place since it contains probably the most moronic gaffe ever slapped on a movie title: Krakatoa is actually west of Java!

5) Joe Versus the Volcano (John Patrick Shanley, 1990)

Tom Hanks willing to throw himself into liquid hot lava? No, audiences didn't buy it back in 1990 either, ensuring this tale of a hypocondriac contemplating death on a tropical island was a dud.

The Aeroplane

1) Airplane! (Jim Abrahams; David Zucker, 1980)

Don't call me Shirley; they're coming in on instruments; have you ever been in a Turkish prison? Making a magnificent, merciless mockery of the po-faced disaster movies that inspired it, Airplane! has a claim to being the funniest film ever made. It's about a fatal outbreak of mid-air food poisoning and the war vet who must save the day...but anyway, I'm probably boring you.

2) Airport (George Seaton, 1970)

And here we have it, the granddaddy. Grossing over $100 million in 1970, clearly audience hunger was there for airborne disaster of the first order, in this case the tale of a suicidal bomber attempting to blow up a Boeing 747 mid-flight. Then there's the star-packed cast, featuring everyone from Burt Lancaster to Dean Martin.

3) Air Force One (Wolfgang Petersen, 1997)

Somewhat underrated on its own terms, Petersen's commendably gritty and tense tale of the US President's plane being hijacked by terrorists is actually one of Harrison Ford's better, latter-day blockbusters. Ford is always a dab-hand at playing stoic heroes and Gary Oldman is on particularly malevolent form as the vicious lead baddie.

4) Snakes on a Plane (David R. Ellis, 2006)

Villified for doing exactly what it says on the tin. OK then, why don't we have the creators of Ronseal in court? Sam Jackson; snakes; turbulence; and a whole load of misfit passengers spell out nasty B-grade hokum of the first order, especially the priceless attack on, you got it, the trouser-snake itself

5) Final Destination (James Wong, 2000)

It may be a bit of a stretch to call Final Destination a plane-disaster movie but it is the horrifying event that sets the film (and on-going franchise) in motion, beginning with some unnerving bumpiness before the fuselage breaks up and engulfs everyone in a fireball. That's my nightmare way to go, right there.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Clash of the Titans

The original 1981 Clash of the Titans is hardly a masterpiece but certainly has the brio and verve of a creaky cult adventure, plus Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion effects are as wonderfully organic as ever. Sadly, Louis (The Hulk) Letterier's is completely devoid of dramatic tension or atmosphere. It's summer moviemaking by committee at its near-worst.

Only near-worst mind; there’s some degree of merit in Leterrier’s vision, namely the ambiguous, shifting motives of gods Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes), whose uneasy sibling rivalry sets the tale in motion, courtesy of Greek mythology 101 from Gemma Arterton’s Io. With mankind defiling the gods’ image, Hades sets in motion a plan that will see the monstrous Kraken unleashed on the city of Argos (Woolworths presumably suffered a grisly fate), to make it clear who’s in charge. Concurrently, demi-god Perseus (Sam Worthington), little realizing he is the son of Zeus, has grown into a humble fisherman, but must embrace his destiny and set out on a perilous journey to save the city and defeat Hades.

Full of mythical beasts, romance and derring-do, there’s enough intrigue in the Greek myths to fund Hollywood for the next decade but Titans is a film that’s inhabited, not felt. Commendably lavish in costume design, art direction and effects (although this is largely a given in the classical setting), the film has the feel of a piece of polished oak furniture: impressive, yes, even expensive, but still wooden. It sits there on-screen as the latest in a factory line of lazy summer blockbusters, although vignettes are effective (the unveiling of Pegasus and the delightfully revolting Stygian Witches are notable).

Certain elements on the other hand are symptomatic of the wider problems, chiefly the miscast Worthington who looks (and sounds) like he’d rather be knocking back a Fosters on Bondi. His casting is a contemporary coup…but he’s a blank façade. The box-ticking goes on elsewhere: we know the villains are so because they dress in black and whisper incessantly; British character actors pop up in the background (Pete Posthlethwaite; Liam Cunningham) to give it a classy façade, although it’s complete rubbish; and Ramin Djawadi’s score is a synthetic, Hans Zimmer-channeling mess, adding nothing visceral to the experience.

And what of the much anticipated Medusa set-piece? Brilliantly creepy in Desmond Davis’ original, Letterier predictably cranks it up, shattering the tension in the process. Nowadays it seems blockbusters are content to run at us rather than set up an emotional investment; it’s a strange regression from an original which, in spite of all its flaws, actually made us believe titans would clash.

Thursday, 8 April 2010


Ever tire of the incessant whinging of superheroes like Spiderman? 'With great power comes great responsibility' - yes, we know that but in 'real' life, responsibility would unlikely come at the expense of fun. Iron Man went some way to redressing the balance but now the ultimate meta-fictional comic book tale has finally arrived, courtesy of helmer Matthew Vaughn and scriber Jane Goldman, taken from Mark (Wanted) Millar's source: Kick-Ass.

It's the bitter gin and lemon to Peter Parker's sparkling tonic: a comment on how superheroes perceive themselves, how ordinary folk perceive them and, crucially, how cinema does too. At once a witty dash through a world where caped crusaders invade a kind of plausible (though still cinematic) reality, the tone ambitiously shifts from creepy to violent, unsettling to warm, capturing every facet of a lifestyle that the real world believes doesn’t exist beyond the panels of comic books. And if any Daily Mail readers dare take umbrage at a preternaturally mature 11 year old wielding knives and cursing (her maturity however opposes her years and so deflects criticism), in a film where a chap becomes a comic hero...The joke's on you. If anything, anger should stem from the generally graphic nature of the violence itself, from public shootings to Youtube-based torture of two of our heroes (that nevertheless unites mankind against the baddies on general principle).

There are none of the tiresome life lessons of the web slinger or the Dark Knight; Kick Ass’ heroes are at once believable yet exaggerated to an extent that sanctimony is nigh impossible. Our entryway is Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson, terrifically engaging), proud owner of the ‘girl invisibility’ power, living with his widowed dad, who one day decides to become a superhero, to the scorn of his friends. No longer content spanking one out to thoughts of his English teacher, the nerd finds that with a wetsuit and set of cudgels, he can set out to do good in the world…

Except, of course, it’s not that easy and the film’s defiant, subversive tone is brilliantly set when Dave unwittingly finds his nerve ends blunted and metal plates inserted after a nasty first scrap, drawing inevitable comparisons to Wolverine. His actions soon attract the attention of mobster Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), whose operations, unbeknown to him, have been the target of vendetta-led veterans Big Daddy/Damon McCready (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl/Mindy (Chloe Moretz).

The latter is the true revelation of the film, Moretz giving a scarily convincing portrayal of a ball-busting miniature heroine, and clear target of any controversy that will arise. Yet Vaughn’s clear handle on the film’s tonal shifts guarantees that potential tastelessness is balanced with real heart (Moretz and a back-on-form Cage’s relationship moves to quite moving areas), before blindsiding us again with another sample of caustic wit and violent action. Likewise, the deliciously nasty Strong’s relationship with his own son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) serves to flesh out the usual tired villain dynamic, lending the film more than a degree of pathos, while steering the narrative into more dramatic areas. The soundtrack is also particularly inspired, performing clever variations on the Superman theme while, for once, finding a good use for Ennio Morricone.

Johnson meanwhile is a nicely winsome lead and straight-laced foil for the self-aware ludicrousness he gets himself into. In the end, the message is far more life-affirming than any number of X-Men or Silver Surfers: a triumph for the common man with no abilities that gets the girl and unites the worldwide community. Because a self-aware superhero is hipper and smarter than the norm, ya know?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Blind Side

No mere TV-of-the-week weepy (although the poster and trailers would have one believe otherwise), the sharpness and wit of The Blind Side have the potential to, well, blindside, you (that line surely deserves a Pulitzer). It’s surely destined to be remembered as the one that finally clinched Sandra Bullock her Oscar, after a career of lightweight hits (and Speed) but her towering performance was totally deserving of the win: the acerbic, heartfelt, fluctuating backbone of the piece. And the film has much more to offer, besides.

She plays Leigh-Anne Tuohy, wealthy southern matriarch who decides to take a chance on homeless black teen Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) and accept him into her family. Guiding him through higher education and then onto a football scholarship, Oher’s presence makes Leigh-Anne realise her own shortcomings and offers piercing insights into the nature of family and race. Eventually, Oher was to be guided, in the fashion of all great underdog stories, into the first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens.

That trite description should do nothing to cheapen the well-observed, measured, tasteful pacing of John Lee Hancock’s script and direction, however. It comes with the dreaded ‘Based on a true story’ tag but Hancock’s film for the most part defies expectation, offering a nicely barbed attack on upper-middle class southern living (Bullock’s motives for taking the boy in are refreshingly ambiguous – is it white guilt, as her friends suggest?) and surprisingly funny satirical flourishes in the portrayal of preternaturally wise youngest son, S-J (Jae Head).

Flying in the face of the secular, bewildering opening narration laying out the terms of American football’s blindside as a metaphorical notion, the film calls to mind Field of Dreams in that a movie about sport needn’t scare off a potential audience. The focus here is much more down-home and intimate, presenting an appealingly warm-hearted (if too saintly) portrayal of a family taking a chance on someone of a different race and social class. Although it surely must have glossed over the familial tensions arising from the situation (Tim McGraw’s husband and Lily Collins’ elder daughter show a bizarre kind of patience), there’s always a killer sting in the wings waiting to disarm any notion that this is merely cornball Americana (‘Who thought we’d adopt a black boy before we knew a Democrat?’)

And, in Bullock, we have our new Erin Brockovich: self-assured, suspect but with a heart as gold as her blonde highlights. That this southern belle can shout ‘Yo, Deliverance’ at a redneck heckler means the game is hers for the taking.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Star Wars in Concert: LG Arena, 02/04/10

A man passing behind me utters the most convincing Chewbacca impression I’ve ever heard. Normally, this would be a cause for concern but not tonight, for I was at an event drawing people of all types and personalities.

It’s hard to gauge the impact the Star Wars franchise has had on people of all ages until one attends an event such as this. Ages ranged from 7 to 70: male and female, husbands and wives, children and parents. It’s a huge collage covering the entire human spectrum.

So something in the films clearly struck the collective chord, starting all those years ago. And I was here to witness the possible cause: the operatic, soaring magnificence of composer John Williams’ scores for all six films, encompassing innumerable themes and spanning almost 30 years.

Indeed, as the lights dimmed over the LG and the rapt fans of all ages took to their seats in hushed fashion, it struck me as not being remiss to suggest that Williams is the real auteur behind the two trilogies. What other pieces of classical film music (besides possibly Morricone) could unite so large and yet disparate a group of people as this? Under the direction of Belgian conductor Dirk Brossé, the full force of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and backing choir was about to remind moviegoers of the power and thematic integrity Williams is famous for. Steve Cohen’s Who-esque lighting certainly did its job at this stage and throughout in transporting us to a sci-fi galaxy far, far away…

And bang, the chanting choir (singing in Sanskrit) and racing string section launch us into one of Williams’ most impressive pieces, Duel of the Fates, a breathlessly exciting track full of potent fury. Interestingly, the organisers deemed that the music be shown in chronological order from Episode One to Six, so that as the films move forward in time, we move back in years; the fact that Williams’ music maintained its power across the concert even when played out of order is a testament to his firm grasp of melody, leitmotif and sweeping blend of romantic action, all sure factors in securing the movies in the mind of the audience.

With the crowd’s attention piqued, it was time for a little downtime, courtesy of the first appearance of Anthony Daniels aka C3PO, whose enjoyably fruity delivery called to mind everyone’s favourite moaning, gold robot. Introducing each piece of music in turn, Daniels’ rich narration lent a further dramatic narrative arc to proceedings, as did the gigantic cinema-screen in the back playing carefully selected clips related to the music. They could be forgiven for allowing Hayden Christensen’s oak furniture-charisma for slipping through on occasion.

Fortunately, Williams’ music is strong enough to resist all such challenges. What is interesting is the development of the composer’s musical style as witnessed in reverse, moving from stand-alone set-pieces in the more recent films (The Pod-Race; the darkly choral Battle of the Heroes) to more intricate, character-led themes in the original trilogy. Hence while newer films may be full of more fire and brimstone, the delicate solo violin work in Leia’s Theme and the unexpected appearance of the jazzy Cantina Band were instantly more memorable.

And with the original trilogy of course come the greatest themes of all, testing the Royal Philharmonic to the end of their ranges both in terms of delicacy (Yoda) and full throttle action (the fiendishly intricate string/woodwind work of Asteroid Field). As the series and concert neared its end, not even the emergence of the infamously light-hearted Ewok Battle music could compromise Williams’ compositional skill, especially in the face of the masterpieces The Imperial March and The Throne Room/End Title, both of which capped off the evening by sending the crowd’s spirits soaring into the night and beyond.

And as I glanced around the audience, witnessing all the lightsaber imitation glow sticks punctuating the darkness, I realised one thing: with Star Wars, John Williams not only captured lightning in the bottle; he captured the whole galaxy too.