Monday, 29 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

When a giant killer snake crawls toward camera and promptly chows down on a tasty human snack, you know that Harry Potter isn't the beast it once was. And that's a terrific thing to behold. Less abracadabra, broomsticks and Hogwarts (this latest entry doesn't even set foot in the school), much like The Prisoner of Azkaban, the joy of Deathly Hallows Part I comes from real emotion, not wand-waving. And of course, seeing as it's Part I of the culmination to J.K. Rowling's hugely successful book series, it's denied that sense of cathartic resolution; parents, think wisely before bringing young children, for there's not much redemption in this wintry, bleak Potter entry.

But then, both the films and books have seen their target market age with the film's characters. Younger viewers are advised to stick with the earlier entries; those who have matured over the past decade since the franchise's inception, are better positioned to understand Hallows' gloomy mix of apocalyptic despair and latent sexual tension. It's the careful application of mood that sustains Deathly Hallows in spite of numerous plot strands that are left unexplained due to the film's truncated nature. While not entirely coherent for Muggles, it's a gripping emotional experience.

From the moment Alexandre Desplat's appropriately subdued (if controversial) score teases out sparse strains of John Williams' Hedwig's Theme, the famous title logo rusting in front of us, we're dropped into a murky and stormy world that bears next to no resemblance to Chris Columbus' franchise starters. Plotting? Well, there's a lot of talk but not a lot of explanation. Just a distinct sense that Ralph Fiennes' Lord Voldemort, plus his clique of lackeys, are out to get the boy wizard, assayed again by Daniel Radcliffe. The quest this time? Well, it involves something called Horcruxes, which seem to contain something of Voldemort's soul, and which it's Harry's, Hermione's (Emma Watson) and Ron's task to destroy.

It's a film that moves in three clearly delinated acts. The first and last play most like a traditional Potter story, a rogue's gallery of British A-listers filling out the scenery from Brendan Gleeson's Mad-Eye Moody to David Thewlis' Remus Lupin. Notable new faces include a typically primal Peter Mullan as Death Eater Yaxley; Bill Nighy's Rufus Scrimgeour (whose doomy portents open the picture); and Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood (later given the unenviable job of explaining the Deathly Hallows themselves). But it's the middle that grips the most, transforming into Harry Potter and the Dead Man's Shoes as our heroes traverse Britain in search of the Horcruxes, benefiting from less CGI, impressive aerial photography and a desolate soundscape that heighten the desolation felt by Harry and his friends.

Necessitated by the two-film structure, David Yates' third (or second and a half) effort as Potter director often feels like it's on a road to nowhere but sensibly draws on a magical well-spring of verite, washed out cinematography that only increases the riveting sense of apocalyptic despair. He pulls some stunning directorial tricks out of the bag, including a near silent woodland chase and an almost German Expressionist animated sequence. Refreshingly, unlike many of the earlier films, it also recognises that more transcendent magic is to be found in the unspoken sexual chemistry between the three rapidly maturing leads as opposed to yet another Patronus spell; it is in fact this emotional honesty that sustains the film in its dramatic gear changes as the plot never approaches coherency at any stage.

Truthfully, the reliance on franchise knowledge is somewhat refreshing, respecting the core audience and refusing to pander to those attempting to pick up the series halfway through. And if the latter's the case, what are you doing here? It makes sense to start at the beginning, even if Rowling's multitude of plot strands and supporting characters appear to have been cast into the wind. It's the most ruthlessly pared down entry of all, memorable gallery characters like Alan Rickman's Snape and Helena Bonham Carter's enjoyably psychotic Bellatrix Lestrange reduced to walk on parts.

The resultant focus goes entirely on the kids, and they by necessity have to up their game. None will be mistaken for magnetic, charismatic leads on the basis of their work here but for once, they verge beyond the competent to touch on real pathos. An impromptu dance number between Harry and Hermione (not in the book) strikes a breathless chord of romantic spontaneity, becoming one of the most memorable moments in the series so far, while Ron gets to do more than boggle-eyed fear, plumbing the depths of sexual jealousy in a shocking hallucinatory scene that will bemuse younger viewers as much as it will appeal to the alienated teen in older ones.

It's not a masterpiece; none of the films are. The blandness of the Potter character, hard as Daniel Radcliffe tries, means he's far less interesting than the fleeting array of support performers, in spite of all the anguish the narrative throws at him. It also makes little to no sense to those who haven't read the books, with key characters dipping in and out and often dying off-screen, the event signalled by throwaway dialogue. It's hard to judge on its own terms until we see the whole picture resolve itself next year, although the conscious breaking point of Deathly Hallows is a carefully chosen one, marking a truly heart-breaking moment that only elevates the sense of grief and loss.

But the film in fact deserves to be applauded for relying on a tender thread of emotional logic, rather than a static series of set-pieces. Even it is little more than an efficient, $150 million set-up, it's a vital one for laying the groundwork. It's hard to believe any viewers would care what happens in next year's installment were it not for the hard work of director Yates and his crew here. Deathly Hallows Part I may be a thankless task - but it's an exciting, scary and moving one, nonetheless.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Seminal Scores: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004): John Williams

A distinct wintry chill has settled over the latest Harry Potter escapade. But as the boy wizard sets his sights on the Deathly Hallows and prepares for his final battle next July, let's cast our minds back to the key Potter entry that informed much of the darkness of the recent installments. When acclaimed director Alfonso Cuaron took over the reigns from Chris Columbus for The Prisoner of Azkaban, he let loose, arguably, the first strains of real magic in the series, elevating it from a series of effects-led line readings into a gripping piece of drama. Also along for the ride was composer John Williams - and like Cuaron, he wasn't resting on his laurels, bouncing back with an astonishingly multi-faceted and detailed score that's a contender for my favourite Williams work of all time...


From the first tinkling celesta strains of Hedwig's Theme, one could be forgiven for thinking John Williams and Alfonso Cuaron were headed down a well-trodden path with The Prisoner of Azkaban. But the unexpected left-field turns that follow elevate both film and score to the finest in the series so far. Working with cinematographer Michael Seresin (Angel Heart), Cuaron casts a deliberately autumnal sheen over Harry's third adventure at Hogwarts, one that sees the escape of the eponymous prisoner, Sirius Black. With Harry's life seemingly in danger, the foul Dementors are called in to guard the school, adding a danger and edge to the jolly St Trinians routine of old. But of course there are revelations aplenty, plus a batch of new characters and challenges.

That it's Gary Oldman playing Black (infusing the film with a ferocious blast of energy in what amounts to little more than 20 minutes of screen time), is talismanic of the approach Cuaron takes as a new director, but the whole production is clearly boosted by his level of energy. He coaxes excellent performances out of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint; introduces new faces with verve (including Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, replacing Richard Harris, and David Thewlis as Remus Lupin); and walks the tightrope final act of J.K. Rowling's novel with aplomb, sketching the time-shifting showdown with visual style and narrative economy. And despite the famous absence of Voldemort, it's arguably the most emotionally engaging of the series, plumbing the poignant depths of Harry's past and weaving them into the narrative brilliantly.

Also clearly bolstered by the change in pace was John Williams. Aside from the shimmering delicacy of Hedwig's theme (now as much of a character signifier as The Raider's March or Superman's theme), his efforts on Philosopher's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets lacked that vibrant identity associated with his best work. With Azkaban however, Williams grabbed the bull by the horns, imploding the musical identity of Rowling's universe from within. Clearly galvanized by his director's richer emotional tapestry, Williams recognises the need not to constantly rely on Hedwig's signifier, instead conjuring up a plethora of new themes, stand-alone moments and dazzling flights of fancy. Such an approach is entirely in-keeping with the maturing Harry of the books and films, as he transforms from pre-adolescent wizard into tortured young man.

As mentioned, things begin on a nostalgic and familiar note in Lumos!, although even here, the central theme is given a somewhat more mysterious, wistful edge. Once the gates to the Potter universe have been eased open, Williams really starts having fun, revelling in a kind of youthful enthusiasm and experimentation not heard in many of his recent scores (excellent though they are). Aunt Marge's Waltz marks the first unexpected venture, a delightfully old-fashioned piece carrying with it a definite air of The Thieving Magpie Overture from A Clockwork Orange. Other marvellous self-contained tracks come thick and fast, adding a boisterous, fascinating texture, such as The Knight Bus, a manic jazzy cross between Williams' own Cantina Band music from Star Wars and Alan Silvestri's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Then there's a brand new song, penned by the composer during the production itself, entitled Double Trouble, carrying a definite air of Danny Elfman in its mischievous adaptation of words from Macbeth, and sung in the film by the Hogwarts students (it also featured in the trailer). It seems to be an open invite to audiences, informing them that this year at Hogwarts is going to carry a different air from previous ones.

Clearly then the influences and variations come thicker and faster in this Potter score than in its predecessors, although the real mastery of Williams is that he never compromises his own musical voice. In Azkaban he brilliantly stitches together both the set piece themes and those continuing Harry's emotional journey, ensuring a smooth flow throughout. There are similarities with Jurassic Park, Close Encounters and Minority Report in those tracks suggesting the creeping horror of the Dementors, all scratchy strings and growling brass, ramming home the notion this is a franchise growing up. Thunderous Kodo-style drums at the start of Buckbeak's Flight are just one example of the multitude of orchestral nuances lurking in the fabric of the score; elsewhere, the score carries a definite medieval vibe courtesy of musical specialists The Dufay Collective, hinting at the rich, magical history of Hogwarts and its inhabitants.

The central new idea is the gorgeous theme of longing representing Harry's connection with his parents, first appearing in A Window to the Past on recorder. At the end of that track, it gains heartbreaking resonance when passed onto the full orchestra, before a massed choir at the album's end fuses it with the chilling Dementor music in The Dementors Converge and Finale. It speaks of Williams' desire to bring new-fangled maturity to the franchise and is one of his loveliest themes, although there are plenty of comical 'sneaking' themes around the album's mid-section, tracks such as Secrets of the Castle and Hagrid the Professor carrying the aforementioned medieval tone. When even the token filler music is invested with this much attention, it's apparent this is a Williams score worth shouting about!

Throughout, Williams' interplay between chimes and, especially, woodwinds, is spellbinding; it's a cliche but it really does convey a magical air. Equally as compelling is his thunderous action music, an element of the score that really shows his aggressively modernistic, post-2000 side. Tracks such as The Whomping Willow, Quidditch Third Year and The Werewolf Scene are wonderfully exciting and extremely dark affairs, adding a palpable sense of danger to Harry's Hogwarts routine, the combination of orchestra, choir and heavy timpani giving a far more primal sound. When Hedwig's Theme is used in subtle but dramatic counterpoint to much of the mayhem, it only increases the enjoyment, giving the score a much needed sense of backbone (something which the recent Potter scores have lacked). Williams is also a fine dramatist and innovator, slowing things right down in Saving Buckbeak and Forward to Time Past, and adding a subtle ticking-clock urgency to the film's time-bending conclusion. Of course, it also helps build the emotional power of the conclusion, where Harry's new family theme gets its most powerful airing.

Yet it's on listening to the closing 12 minute epic Mischief Managed that the sheer scale and bravado of Williams' third (and likely final) Potter entry becomes apparent; after all, it takes that long just to sum up the score's major thematic threads. It ends in perfect fashion, with a tinkling, teasing fade out on Hedwig's theme, but this is a score that is blessed with such a variety of treasures, far too many to sum up in one review. Whatever Cuaron slipped in Williams' coffee, it resulted in a miraculous score, being composed of apparently disparate elements that gradually come together, eventually representing the multitude of Harry's emotions without ever resorting to over-use of the central theme. It's the best possible approach for Potter: The Teenage Years, an unpredictable ride that floors you with jazzy mania, hints at unspoken anguish and brims with dark foreboding, all the while honing an addictive, grown up sound. While Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat have each had their go on the carousel, Azkaban is their one to beat. But however Potter ends musically next year, The Prisoner of Azkaban remains a magnificent Williams entry that earns its place in his all time top 10 greats.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Due Date

The current IMDB rating of Due Date (7.1), when compared with that of its oddly hailed predecessor, The Hangover (7.9) may indicate a slip in public affection towards crass, blokey American comedies. A shame, as it has an ace up its sleeve in the form of Robert Downey Jr, bringing his entertainingly twitchy persona to bear on a film that is beneath him. He also has the ability to make his somewhat unpleasant character halfway watchable, something which counts very much in Due Date's favour; after all, The Hangover also featured a dearth of likeable characters but, crucially, there was no A-list baggage to pull us out of the rut.

So, while Due Date is no masterpiece, it is a considerable improvement on the mean-spirited adolescent mindset of The Hangover, benefiting not only from Downey Jr's star chops but his obvious tendency to get co-stars on their A-game. He plays highly strung (and borderline misanthropic) businessman Peter Highman, who, after an altercation with aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) on his plane back to Los Angeles, finds himself stranded. He needs to return home in time for the birth of his child, Michelle Monaghan making such a non-existent appearance that you could not blink and still miss her.

Lucky then that Tremblay has also vacated the plane and is willing to offer Highman a lift to 'Hollywood' as he naively refers to it in one of the film's more effectively subtle gags. Predictability clearly doesn't count in Due Date's favour but once Highman and Tremblay hit the road, it comes to enjoy a (largely) easy, laid back rhythm, riffing on the likes of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Midnight Run. It doesn't come close to those landmarks but the road movie structure nonetheless remains an effective device, and a more emotionally engaging one than the tiresomely juvenile, strung together set-pieces of The Hangover.

Consequently, the string of mishaps thrown in the characters' way carry more of a rib-tickling urgency than an ostentatious nastiness, although certain scenes come close (a dual wanking gag and a needlessly elaborate car crash go nowhere, indiscriminately placed to draw the juvenile audience). We're also allowed to grow into the characters properly over the course of their journey; Downey Jr, in spite of the fact he spits on a dog at one point, invites a degree of empathy in his frustration while Galifianakis is surprisingly endearing in forging a character more plausible than his similarly styled idiot in The Hangover.

It also allows for a richer palate of pratfalls and verbal gags (Tremblay's Texaco/Mexico confusion is a screamer, as is Highman sucker punching the child of one of Tremblay's dope suppliers played by a game Juliette Lewis). And while director Todd Phillips can't entirely decide whether to pull in the direction of his earlier hit or let the journey speak for itself, ultimately he shows both more technical flair (in the form of some lovely on-the-road photography) and a surprising poignancy in a running theme about wanting to see the Grand Canyon. In the end, we can take or leave the stoner gags and the 12 year old snickering at a key character's mincing gait, but it's the Downey Jr/Galifianakis chemistry that we remember, making likeable two deeply unlikeable fools

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Let Me In

Let Me In puts viewers - and more so, reviewers - in a quandary. It's a remake of last year's acclaimed Swedish vampire hit Let the Right One In, a film that was less a genre piece than an exquisitely atmospheric drama with supernatural trimmings. Adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel, it was also one of the best films of 2009, hauntingly shot by Tomas Alfredson. Now, the inevitable American remake has arrived, and immediately invites eye-rolling. Blimey, can't those Yanks leave well enough alone?

But the rub is Let Me In is a fine piece of work (the glowing reviews also bear this out). However, this only serves to increase the frustration. Because it is so faithful to its cinematic forefather, rigorously, devotedly faithful in fact, it calls into question which film we're enjoying: Let Me In, or its predecessor? Make no mistake: Let Me In differs from Let the Right One In in several respects. But the parts it does best are also the ones that worked effectively first time around. More confusingly, the differences are no discernible improvement, but simply that: differences, seemingly dropped in to distinguish this film from the other.

Added to that, Cloverfield director Matt Reeves' take on both novel and film (under the newly resurrected Hammer label) has a thankless mountain to climb in the form of remake prejudice, something that invites scorn at the best of times. Yet this shouldn't blind people to the qualities of Let Me In: this is a remake done well, too well in fact. Instead of shifting the scenario drastically and altering characters and situations, Reeves has done, ironically, the unexpected, and skewed very close to his inspiration.

It should be no surprise that Reeves, given his American sensibility, chooses to make explicit what was previously implicit; painting in more obvious emotional strokes (there's more overt crying in this version) and sacrificing the eerie, chilly ambiguity of the Swedish original. On the other hand, it may simply be more emotionally direct. Certainly, Michael Giacchino's liturgical score is far more apparent. Regardless, the tone is different. Much of this stems from the warmer background hues of the apartment complex, in which bullied, lonely Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, as good here as he was in The Road) forges an unlikely connection with young vampire-next-door, Abby (Chloe Moretz, more affecting than she was in Kick Ass).

Although they never approach the cryptic ambiguity of the chemistry between Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, Smit-McPhee and Moretz forge brilliantly adult performances that belie their tender years, and are a compelling centre, even if the dynamics have changed. Elsewhere, Reeves has altered the flow of the narrative, reducing Owen's father to a single-scene phone conversation while by contrast subtly humanising Abby's 'protector' (a suitably weather beaten Richard Jenkins). He's also honed in largely on his child protagonists' plight at the expense of supporting performers, Elias Koteas' unnamed cop now embodying the principles of the Swedish community seen in the earlier film. Young Owen's naive sexual curiosity is also adapted in more blatant coming of age terms (as evidenced in his peeping tom activities spying on his neighbours).

Yet it's the ostentatious additions that are more troubling, dramatic gear changes that serve as high-powered distractions while adding little in terms of improvement. Regardless of its technical prowess, an in-car crash point of view shot would seem more appropriate for the likes of Jason Bourne, while the ropey CG vampire attacks are also jarring (although, to swing the boat the other way, Reeves wisely dispenses of the daft cat attack scene). More puzzling however is the decision to foreground the sense of time and place to no great avail. So, while a title card solemnly informs us this is 1983 New Mexico and Pacman is in full rage in the arcades and The Vapors' Turning Japanese dips in and out, it never amounts to a substantial change in direction.

Again, it's a film with an identity crisis, an identity crisis that infectiously passes on to the viewer like a dreaded case of vampirism. That one should watch Let the Right One In is without question, subtitles be damned (never was there a more ridiculous excuse to avoid watching such a beautifully crafted piece of cinema). But to dismiss Let Me In out of hand is also nonsensical, given that it is crafted with intelligence and care, a firm rebuke to our much derided remake culture. Perhaps it's best to drop the 'remake' tag altogether and instead see it as an American companion piece to its Swedish counterpart, one that should belong as half of a special supernatural DVD pack encompassing both Swedish and American attitudes to vampire lore. So, while it may not be the right one to let in, let it in anyway, if only out of sheer curiosity.


Skyline is borderline dull and further proof - as if it were needed - that comic book aficionados and special effects whizz kids shouldn't be allowed to helm a piece of narrative drama. As a case in point, Avatar, for all its flaws, held together as an ambitious, brilliantly realised epic because James Cameron is a far more shrewd narrative technician then he is given credit for. In Skyline, directorial siblings Greg and Colin Strause (laughably monikered The Brothers Strause) have instead made the fatal mistake of formulating a movie around the effects, not vice versa. For all its technical wizardry, that *never* happened in Terminator 2.

In fact, it's more an entrepreneurial success than an artistic one, funded entirely by the brothers themselves, and shot on their own equipment. It's also been made for peanuts: anywhere between 10 and 15 million dollars (reportedly), which should have aspiring sci-fi filmmakers everywhere punching the air in satisfaction. But then the penny drops, and one realises the chilling prospect that the people who directed the abhorrent Alien vs Predator: Requiem have got their mitts on their own project. For once, studio interference would have been welcome.

Pitting itself as a trendy, post Cloverfield, alien spectacular, Skyline loses a lot of extraterrestrial bite early on by ignoring the docu-cam approach that made the former such a vital experience, in spite of its cliches. Now, in their straight-up cinematic delivery, those same cliches, combined with atrocious dialogue and tedious performances, make Skyline as appealing as French kissing with E.T.

It's derivative nature is quite brazenly obnoxious, lifting - nee, stealing - not just the ideas but actual camera moves and set pieces from its more illustrious forebears. So we get the stealth fighter assault on the mother ship (sorry, the unnamed floating, ominous ship) from Independence Day; a fleshy/mechanical variation on the squids from The Matrix; and, most shockingly, an almost identi-kit re-staging of the tentacle chase from Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. That said, the creature designs and effects are superb in a repulsive, reptilian kind of way; if anything, Alien 3 supremos Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. are the real heroes of the film.

Elsewhere though, it's a complete vacuum. It's less in space no-one can hear you scream than in cinemas, no-one can hear you yawn, the cast (largely consisting of American TV faces) washed up helplessly with a rote script. It's enough to make one yearn for the big light in the sky to arrive ... But there is a glimmer of hope out there that has nothing to do with the film. It manifests itself in the shape of Christopher Nolan, a man who's proved that a $200 million budget doesn't mean you compromise on brains. And brains, in spite of the limited production costs, are exactly what Skyline is lacking (mega ironic for those who've watched it).

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Another Year

When that anguished, unflattering close-up fills the screen, rippling with undercurrents of sorrow, melancholy, happiness and joy, you know you're firmly within Mike Leigh territory. And when you find yourself reacting not to the actor but instead to the mass of human contradictions and feelings, you know it's a Mike Leigh venture that works. Another Year is just such a film, standing alongside the director's best in exposing the ripples and channels found in human interaction through his famous largely improvised/partly scripted approach.

More Secrets and Lies than Happy Go Lucky, it unfolds at a gentle pace (it would seem positively deathly if the screenplay didn't ring with so many truths), to the strains of Gary Yershon's lovely, pastoral score, detailing a year in the lives of happily married Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen). The former a geologist and the latter a councillor, both enjoy a rock solid marriage, content with tending their allotment in all weathers, making dinner and slurping tea. By contrast, the friends, colleagues and relatives surrounding them experience crises, fluctuations and unhappiness.

Chief among the bleary eyed is Lesley Manville, and the actress instantly takes her place among the classic Leigh creations. Feeding hungrily off Leigh's extensive improv period, Manville pares the rawness of near-alcoholic Mary down the to quick, a jittery, jerky mess of a woman, who, like many of the director's characters, threatens to spill into overwrought caricature. But such is her and Leigh's skill that she boasts all the draw and wonder of a top level CGI effect: a turbulent mass of sadness and faux-enthusiasm that is at once infuriating, grating and deeply moving.

If Manville is the soul, then Broadbent and Sheen are the heart, infusing a sense of a full, active and happy marriage in every gesture, hug and vocal inflection. Much of the dynamism is implicit of course - and this is the magic of Mike Leigh's cinema. Extracting a welter of home truths from nothing more than a strong cuppa shared between friends, his films of course stem from that classic British socio-realist tradition of showing things as they are. Be it a stubbly, unshaven visage or that swiftly quaffed gulp of wine, Leigh's films are alive with human compassion. It's all in the body language and framing, a clash of eye lines, a gap in space that reverberates with unspoken yearning.

And through a crisp mise-en-scene and subtle colour palate, those high notes are altered to fit a more sombre key, the warmth of spring and summer developing into heart-wrenching, unspoken sadness, exposing the previously latent melancholia and laying it bare. It boasts more magic than the computer-generated majesty of Avatar, breathlessly transforming into a thrilling expose of warmth and despair, rounded out by an excellent support cast including Peter Wight, David Bradley and Oliver Maltman. Just like Tom and Gerri's perennial allotment, the down home truths of Another Year are a modest but crucial reminder that real life holds its own brand of transcendent wonder.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Easy A

One of the most pleasant surprises of this cinematic year, Easy A calls to mind the acerbic heights of 1995's Clueless, standing out like a red carnation amid a crowd of bland, anodyne comedies. Never lapsing into smugness and always careful to maintain a line between pain and pathos, it'll likely set Emma Stone on a well-earned path to stardom.

She plays anonymous yet whip-smart student Olive, who relishes the attention foisted on her when a little white lie about a tryst with a boy spreads around her school like wildfire. Initially, Olive (narrating the tale in stages via web casts) sees an opportunity to stand out from the crowd but then is required to save face when the lies spiral out of control and threaten to drag her name into the mire.

One of many witty twists in Bert V. Royal's screenplay sees the heroine's life both parallel, and then subvert, the storyline of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. But far from it being left to simmer beneath the surface; in an unexpected, post-modern move, Olive explicitly addresses the comparison on her web cam. It's not so much the verbal roasting Olive (inevitably) gives to the notorious Demi Moore 're-imagining' but that fact that the film itself isn't afraid to shy away from its literary associations.

Such intelligence pervades the entire movie, repeatedly hitting the audience like a blast of oxygen. The liberal, hippyish parents (played marvellously by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) owe a clear debt to the quirkiness of Juno, while director Will Gluck takes obvious delight in parading the gym halls and classrooms as Olive's reputation crosses the line, exposing fraternity cliques and grotesque caricatures in all their glory. Especially memorable are Amanda Bynes' hideous tub thumper and Dan Byrd as Olive's bullied gay friend, whom she solicits and pretends to sleep with in a move designed to be advantageous to both (but what turns out to be one of the film's most outrageous and funny scenes).

It does however threaten to become more soft-centred three-quarters of the way through, focusing on Olive's re-kindled love affair with old friend Todd (Pell James), and also a sub-plot involving Lisa Kudrow's teacher, one which threatens to drag it further into soap opera territory. Yet it just about maintains that tightrope act between cynicism, buoyancy and poignancy (the repeated John Hughes riffs may even provoke tears), and has a rock-solid centre in the form of Emma Stone. Smart and beautiful, Olive really is the girl next door you'd like to pick up, one who may be under the thumb of a scarlet letter but who always invites a sense of sympathy and admiration.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare represents a multi-faceted resurrection. On the one hand, it's the return of director John Landis to the screen, he of the ghoulishly gory An American Werewolf in London. It also combines his talents with the brand awareness of distributor Ealing Studios, in a story based on the notorious 19th century murderers and grave robbers of the title. Gothic, quintessentially British and with a basis in grisly history? Little wonder genre fans were salivating.

Ah but some of those juicy tasters have been compromised, especially the latter. For what we end up with is a romanticized variation that cuts very close to slapstick, ignoring that both Burke and Hare were really not deserving of glib celebrity status. Accept Burke and Hare as a broad farce with some deft performances and a surprisingly gentle, rather than caustic, tone, and Landis' film will work its magic. Historians and those expecting more meat on the bones will likely see their interest fizzle like the proverbial quicklime.

It's actually surprisingg how amiable Burke and Hare is, largely downplaying the comic gore (bar a few choice moments), and instead honing a nice camaraderie between stars Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. But the sense of focus is misguided, getting giggles out of grave-robbery and turning murder into mischief. The wider tapestry of acclaimed actors are also a draw and a distraction, beginning with Bill Bailey as a friendly hangman who lays out the initial context: namely Tim Curry and Tom Wilkinson as doctors opposed at either ends of the Hippocratic oath in 1820's Edinburgh (it doesn't take a genius to figure out which one relishes amputating limbs off live patients).

Into the mix come Pegg and Serkis' Ulster scoundrels who realise there is a profitable business to be made in supplying cadavers. Possessing little skill for the art of grave-robbery, they soon resort to murdering their victims. Although the film provides its own get out clause with an opening epigraph ('The following is based on fact - except for the parts that aren't), it's much less American Werewolf than Blackadder. Not that the comparison is a bad thing: Richard Curtis' and Ben Elton's series was brilliant at intelligently making light of significant events.

But intelligence is what Burke and Hare consciously seems to lack, not to mention a stream of strong laughs, although its good nature never ceases to propel the story along. It's one thing to satirize mass-murderers; to blunt the tools and rely on a production line of star cameos (some winning; some odd; some blink and miss) is somewhat complacent. That said, Jessica Hynes (as Serkis' avaricious wife), Curry, Wilkinson and Ronnie Corbett (as the miniature militia) offer nicely quirky character turns. Isla Fisher on the other hand, as an aspiring actress in a new production of Macbeth carrying on a relationship with Pegg, only distracts from the core of the story.

Visually and physically however, it's as beautifully designed as anything Landis has done, recalling Monty Python's Holy Grail in its convincingly grimy cast members and vital recreation of Edinburgh as a city with a vested interest in the autopsy table. The production values threaten to hold more interest than the screenplay itself, a pity given the hard work of both Pegg and Serkis, both of whom are enormously accomplished at physical and verbal comedy. But then, what exactly are we supposed to be laughing at?

Africa United

Slumdog Millionaire was poorly marketed as 'The Feel Good Film of the Year', when in fact it was more a cultural expose aligned with a kaleidoscopic character drama. That vital, multi-faceted storytelling made it a pleasure to watch - and consequently it has opened for the floodgates for commercially packaged, multi-cultural stories.

Africa United, the debut feature of director Deborah Gardner-Paterson, rides very much on its coattails, attempting the same slick blend of social commentary and gripping narrative. Flying proudly under the Pathe and BBC Films banners, it doesn't attain the measure of depth seen in Slumdog but as a brisk, thoughtful odyssey, it fits the bill.

The most succesful moment is the wonderfully quirky opening, as footie fanatic Dudu (Eriya Ndayambaje) lays out both the importance of the game and the importance of contraception - by crafting his own ball out of an inflated condom. It's a brilliantly edgy and thankfully tasteful (though still funny) way to open, and thank goodness Paterson and writer Rhidian Brook continue to straddle the taste divide brilliantly for the duration.

Unfortunately the remainder of the narrative necessitates the story move at such a dizzingly fast clip, it threatens to sacrifice depth for bounce. Accompanying Dudu and a small group's attempts to get prospective soccer star Fabrice (Roger Nsengiyumva) to the South African World Cup 3000 miles away, it falls between two poles: not serious enough as a commentary on African troubles but with flashes of seriousness that hint at more depth beneath its zippy facade. That the characters need to cover so much ground in a compressed time-frame also means it lacks conviction.

Yet the smaller poignant moments resonate far more than the self-consciously quirky ones (Dudu deploying a World Cup wall chart as a map and laying out the metaphorical underpinnings of their journey as an animated fable). Aided and abetted by some brilliantly energetic and compassionate central performances, some late arriving scenes really do wrench the heart and add subtle relevance in superb fashion, reinforcing that solid human drama needs no bells and whistles to truly move.