Thursday, 29 April 2010

Review: 'The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time'

Today I reviewed the 'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time', which I saw at the Disney expo yesterday. The full review for the blockbuster (which isn't released until May 28th) can be found at OWF, here.

I also posted a news story on there about what Mike Newell said in his introduction to the film, here.

Just to round this orgy of 'Prince of Persia' coverage out, here is the trailer:

New podcast as the Splendor returns!!!

Just to contradict my earlier remarks, the Splendor Podcast has been re-born! Originally out new home at Obsessed with Film changed the name to "Barrenechea and Beames", but Jon smartly figured that name would be too difficult for those looking on iTunes to spell correctly. So we've gone back to calling it Splendor. The added bonus of this is that the Picturehouse website have agreed to keep putting it up there too! This is happy, happy news and I'm excited that we can continue to reach Picturehouse customers with our weekly film-based musings.

The latest episode, in which Jon and I review 'The Ghost', can be streamed now at OWF and I'm told it will soon be available on iTunes too (although old subscribers may have to subscribe all over again).

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Disney "Trade Tour 2010" and 'Lebanon' interview...

Another quick entry, just to say what I spent today doing. I went to Disney's 2010 trade presentation in London as part of a Picturehouse delegation that also included Splendor's Jon Barrenechea and Dukes duty manager Jonathan Hyde. There we were shown some trailers for up and coming Disney releases and told a lot of corporate stuff about what Disney hope from this year at the pictures (mostly commercial stuff - which was quite depressing for anyone who doesn't see film primarily as "product"). I'm going to write a report on this as well as a review for OWF on the full feature that we were shown: 'Prince of Persia', directed by Mike Newell who spoke to us about the film at the event.

As I'm writing all my thoughts of any real substance up for the website, I'll share more trivial stuff here on the blog. We were given lunch, which was a piece of fruit, an orange juice, a muffin and a meal from a selection (I had a pasta chicken thing), aswell as a goody bag which contained a copy of 'Toy Story' on Blu-ray, a 'Toy Story 2' DVD and some little PIXAR toys.

I then went off to interview the director of the award-winning Israeli film 'Lebanon', Samuel Maoz. He was a very nice chap from my ten minutes with him in a plush soho drawing room. I arrived pretty late, as I couldn't find the building (people in London always seem to give contradictory directions - probably maliciously) and when I did turn up I was relieved to find that the whole thing was running late and I hadn't missed my spot.

Anyway, now I'm back in Brighton and after this I'm going to have a lasagne and write up some news stories for OWF, before transcribing my interview from the audio recording.

This is possibly the most boring blog entry ever... so here is a trailer I was shown today, as pinched from a well known video-streaming site:

Monday, 26 April 2010

New at Obsessed with Film...

I promise I won't spam every single story I write for Obsessed with Film all over my blog, but as I'm still quite new writing for the site, here are two stories from the last two days which I have written:

'Monsters Inc 2' is revealed and 'Avatar' breaks Blu-ray records.

I hope you enjoy those and come back here soon for some proper content!

Also, I have just been told that I am going to host the popular Flick's Flicks film review program whilst titular host (Felicity "Flick" Beckett) is on maternity leave. I am really looking forward to the experience of writing and presenting the show for two months! I'll post the episodes here when they are available.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

'The Ghost' review: The Man Who Wasn't Blair

‘The Ghost’ (or ‘The Ghost Writer’ as it’s known in many places – including the film’s own end credits) is the new “political” thriller directed by Roman Polanski and adapted from a Robert Harris novel of the same name. It stars Ewen McGregor as the titular ghost, as he is tasked with writing up the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister (played by Pierce Brosnan and obviously modelled on Tony Blair) after the previous ghost writer is discovered to have drowned. However, when McGregor’s character (never named) turns up to ghost the book, he finds that the death of his predecessor may not have been an accident.

Polanski clearly knows what he is doing and the material is in capable hands. The final shot is perfect (Polanski knows the perfect time to bring up the credits), as is the long tracking shot that precedes it in the film’s closing moments. Likewise, the patience and economy of the film’s opening sequence is a joy to behold, as the dead ghost writer's car is discovered abandoned on a ferry. But unfortunately, touches of cinematic brilliance from Polanski can not prevent ‘The Ghost’ from being (at best) a mediocre film.

In many ways it is as much a homage to Hitchcock and to B-pictures as Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ was earlier in the year. But the latter film’s twist was more satisfying and the atmosphere more foreboding. To say nothing of the fact that McGregor is no DiCaprio: the Scottish ‘Trainspotting’ star struggles with a London accent throughout the film and to make things worse his character is (we are told more than once) supposed to be funny. Indeed he has some comic lines here and there, but McGregor robs them all of the little comic power they might have had coming from a more capable actor. There isn’t a single laugh in the film as a result. Apart from the heavy-handed nature of the end reveal, which genuinely made me laugh out loud.

Olivia Williams steals the show as the PM’s wife, giving a great performance which elevates the material. Similarly, the dependable Tom Wilkinson shows up and does his reputation no harm at all. But Kim Cattrall (soon to be seen in ‘Sex in the City 2’) is worse than even McGregor as the PM’s secretary and Brosnan’s (widely-praised) performance as the PM never rises above being merely acceptable.

The screenplay is the single worst thing in ‘The Ghost’, with the dialogue always heavy-handed and often expositional. The film, as a B-Movie or a generic thriller, deals with politics in understandably broad brushstrokes. However, the great number of parallels between Brosnan’s Adam Lang and the demonised media picture of Tony Blair are unsettling. I’m all for a film which investigates Blair as a public persona and as a man, but this film plays to every cynical, well-worn, cliché about the former PM and is content to delve no further. There is even room for a political, conspiracy thriller set in Blair’s Britain, but ‘The Ghost’ is not the film that part of recent history deserves (or maybe even demands).

Perhaps ‘The Ghost’ will age quite well as audiences grow more distant from the recent political past. Then the Blair references will seem more obscure and may add colour to the picture in giving it an interesting historical context. But as a film for this political moment (the upcoming 2010 UK election) the film’s cynicism about politics and its practitioners is at best unhelpful and at worst irresponsible. Many will say that artists have no responsibility other than to their own creative whims and they would probably be correct. But I still find ‘The Ghost’ a little distasteful all the same.

However, ignoring the problems with the historical and political aspects of the film, ‘The Ghost’ is still a slickly made, but lightweight thriller. It has bad performances (with a couple of exceptions), a worse script and the most obvious, heavy-handed twist you’ll see this year. However, if you are curious to see what could turn out to be a great filmmaker’s last movie, then you can at least see some deft touches and some nice shots, for what it’s worth.

'The Ghost' is playing across the UK and can now be seen at the Duke of York's in Brighton. It is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Friday, 23 April 2010

'Dogtooth' review over at Obsessed with FIlm now!

Just a quick update to let y'all know that my review of the Greek film 'Dogtooth' is now up at Obsessed with Film. 'Dogtooth' is yet another winner of last year's Prix Un Certain Regard (as were the excellent 'The Father of My Children' and 'No One Knows About Persian Cats', as well as a Romanian film I am yet to see). Check it out!

Just so as to ensure that no one leaves my blog empty handed, here is the trailer for the film in question:

On an unrelated note, I just wrote my first news item for OWF too, which you can read here.

IQ Gamer's David Bierton reviews 'Clash of the Titans' (3D)

I'm quite conscious of the fact that most of my reviews on here are for rather “artsy” films, mostly as a by-product of working in an arts cinema (the Duke of York’s Brighton) where I can see these kinds of pictures regularly. Even when I have ventured into the multiplex of late it has been for relatively “high brow” fare, like Tim Burton’s take on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or Drew Barrymore’s quirky, left-field indie flick ‘Whip It’. But I don’t want to entirely neglect the simple pleasure of the summer blockbuster (I probably wouldn't be a film critic if it weren't for 'Star Wars' and 'Jurassic Park'), and so David Bierton has again kindly left the sheltered haven of his pioneering video games review blog, IQ Gamer, to share his thoughts on one of this summer's biggest event movies: 'Clash of the Titans'. Regular readers may remember Dave turned in a fine second opinion on 'Kick-Ass' earlier in the month and he does a similarly fine job here, away from his usual field:

‘Clash Of The Titans’ is a remake of the 1981 Olympian cult classic, most fondly remembered for its stellar effects work by Ray Harryhausen, whose stop-motion models inspired a generation of special effects artists and directors. And whilst not being a particularly great movie, the fact that it presented viewers with a potentially epic tale of Greek mythology and wondrous creatures made it ripe for a 21st century reworking. This 2010 re-envisioning (directed by Louis Leterrier) is based loosely on that film, adapting the overall movie towards present day teen audiences and modern day culture, hoping to deliver a more epic, action-packed approach to mythological film making.

‘Clash’ begins with our hero (Sam Worthington as Perseus) witnessing the death of his family at the hands of the gods, and left almost for dead after a brief encounter with Hades the god of the underworld. He soon finds out that he himself is a demigod, and that only he has the power to defy the gods and save the Princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), who must be sacrificed in order to appease the gods, or mankind will suffer the consequences. Failure to do so, and Hades (Ralph Fiennes) will unleash the Kraken, a beast so deadly it is feared by Zeus (Laim Neeson) himself. Faced with this harsh reality the people of Argus decide to send Perseus to find a way of defeating the beast and gain an all-important victory for humanity.

The film sounds off like a great mythological epic, full of weird and fantastical creatures, along with a strong ensemble of characters intertwined in their turmoil through the fates that they have brought upon themselves. It should have been a rip-roaring adventure on a massive scale, with huge battles, long journeys to lands far way, and a battle of wills between man and the gods. Unfortunately the film fails in almost every respect to convey such notions, instead being stuck largely on autopilot through an extremely poor script and by the numbers direction which leaves at lot to be desired.

Despite an all-star cast of respectable and award-winning actors, the performances on offer are pretty mundane and uninspired to say the least. Sam Worthington feels distinctly out of place as Perseus, delivering his lines with the same deep gruff voice he used for his character in ‘Terminator Salvation’, whilst also failing to convey any believable sense of emotion, instead spending his time looking down at the camera, looking moody and squinting his eyes. His dialogue means to simply move the film forward rather than to engage the audience with his plight. The role requiring someone perhaps more charismatic and down to earth, rather than someone who seems like a hardened solider mismatched as a simple fisherman.

Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson as gods Hades and Zeus respectively, play their roles with far more conviction, although never stretching beyond a reasonable performance. Liam Neeson especially, as an actor, seems to hold the weight and gravitas to bring the role of the Greek ‘ruler of the gods’ to life with passion and a hard-edged dominance. And he does so on occasion, showing not only Zeus’s ruthlessness but also his more compassionate side comfortably, though never strikingly. As a result you never really come to fear him, or perhaps sympathise with him either. Ralph Fiennes on the other hand delivers the film’s best performance as Hades (although nothing particularly noteworthy), he brings a sense of deception and the feeling of isolation and hatred to the role, playing it almost like a pantomime villain reserved for the likes of ‘Harry Potter’. But, it works, perhaps, more so than anyone else in the movie.

The dialogue given to most of the characters is utterly forgettable, and most disappointingly, is delivered with a style which seems at odds with an adventure set several centuries ago. For example before entering Medusa’s lair Sam Worthington’s Perseus utters “just don’t look the bitch in the eyes” before venturing in for the kill, whilst Gemma Atherton’s Lo tells him earlier in the film that she is “cursed with the gift of agelessness”. These just break any illusion of the film trying to be an action movie steeped in Greek mythology, as it simply feels like its set somewhere in the present day but with old costumes and huge beasts roaming the land. Surely replacing the word “agelessness” with the likes of “immortality” would be far more in keeping with the nature of the source material and the film itself, just to point out what exactly I mean.

Much has been made of the CG battle sequences and creatures and how they compare to the 1981 original. Suffice to say they are much better on a technological level, but some fail to convey the same sense of believability or tangible reality present with the stop-motion animation of thirty years ago. The medusa for example was a wretchedly ugly, and wholly spin-shivering creation in the original film. In the remake however, she looks far too clean, and dare I say, far too pretty for such a feared and ghastly character. The CG used for her is also extremely poor and obviously fake looking, failing to bring any sense of terror or urgency to the proceedings. Other creatures such as the giant spiders fare a little better, as do the three witches donning the single eye between them.

Sadly the battle sequences are all rather uninspired and feel like the actors are simply going through the motions. Generic ways of killing the creatures, and a general lack of imagination in a film poised to be so imaginative, turns any potential action scenes into another boring section in order to further progress the movie. Also absent from the film, is any sense of time passing and distances crossed by the characters. Instead I simply felt that they were going through scene by scene just trying to cover a number of bullet points laying out the journey to be taken, and what adversaries they were to meet along the way.

Finally the use of 3D (added in post-processing) was perhaps the films biggest mistake, as not only does it look at odds with the source material itself, it is also delivered without any of the subtly and benefit given by actually being designed and shot on 3D. Most of all the film often looks perfect for a 2D transfer, with some soft focus scenes and traditional filmic camera work delivering just a little of that classical ‘feel’ (in some scenes) that accompanies so many of these movies based on ancient mythology. It also represents how a lot of us see this particular period in history displayed on film, without the harsh grain of untouched forty-year-old film stock, along with more dramatic camera work. The 3D effect just heightens instead, the modern day, popcorn-era nature of its direction, and lack of respect for producing a great genre movie.

‘Clash Of The Titans’ is a poorly scripted, badly directed, and thoroughly misplaced re-envisioning of classic movie which was never all that good to begin with. But while the 1981 original still manages to occasionally grip the imagination with it’s tangible but old fashioned special effects, this modern day take on the story fails completely to deliver any sense of excitement or wonderment, with a small scale, and none of the epic feeling required for such a movie to really work. ‘Clash’ isn’t anywhere near being the so-called blockbuster it claims to be, or the epic mythological adventure it should have been. I can’t really recommend anyone really going to see it, even fans of the 1981 original (which it’s likely to offend) and certainly not in its 3D incarnation.

On a somewhat lighter note, some of you may be pleased to know however, that the highly annoying mechanical owl, Bubo, is mostly removed from this films existence, sans a single scene in which he is discarded. It's a little nod to the dislike of this creature amongst long time fans of the original film...

Head over to IQ Gamer to read more of Dave's stuff (about video games rather than film), although most of it's rather too technical for me!

'Clash of the Titans' is still playing everywhere in 2D and 3D (it was number two in last week's UK Box Office) and is rated '12a' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Blu-ray reviews and the new podcast now up at Obsessed with Film

Obsessed with Film is the place to go right now to read a couple of new Blu-ray reviews I have written. Reviews of high-definition releases of both Bertolucci's 'The Last Emperor' and David Lynch's 'Inland Empire' can now be found there for your reading pleasure as of today.

As mentioned last week, Obsessed with Film is also the new home of Jon and I's regular movie podcast (previously Splendor Cinema, now apparently entitled 'Barrenechea and Beames'). Our maiden voyage for OWF features reviews of 'Dogtooth' and 'Whip It' (reviewed in textual form here last week), as well as a competition to win a copy of Mark Kermode's book "It's Only a Movie". The podcast itself is much the same: it's still hosted by Jon Barrenechea and myself and still recorded in the projection booth of the UK's oldest cinema (the Duke of York's in Brighton). So no cause for concern, gentle listener!

Anyway, I hope you follow the podcast to its new home and check out my reviews and Jon's brilliant article on piracy whilst you're there!

Monday, 19 April 2010

'No One Knows About Persian Cats' review: Everybody wants to be a cat...

Another winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes film festival (I reviewed ‘Father of My Children’, here last month and a review for 'Dogtooth' will follow shortly), Bahman Ghobadi’s ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’ is a fresh and exciting piece of Iranian filmmaking. It is reminiscent of 2007’s French animation ‘Persepolis’ which also looked at “western” music in Iran and managed to combine this with a broader critique of social and political problems, to similarly great effect. But whilst that film’s protagonist (Marjane) manages to leave Iran fairly early on in the narrative (and make it to the promised land of Europe), the two central characters in ‘Persian Cats’ spend the entire movie working towards that goal, in the hope of pursuing a musical career which is impossible in their native country. The “indie rock” they play is illegal and they must acquire exit visas to leave Iran, making them the Persian equivalents of Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman in ‘Casablanca’.

At the film’s start they have just been released from prison for playing a concert. Their dream of touring Europe sees them embark on a ‘Wizard of Oz’ style journey, encountering a number of different musicians as they hope to build a new band. Along the way we are taken on a tour of the contemporary Iranian underground music scene and a range of musical styles (rap, traditional, folk, heavy metal) thriving in a variety of makeshift venues (a cow shed, a rooftop shack). Whenever Negar and Ashkan are introduced to a new group of musicians we are shown a pastiche music video, which apes the conventions of that generic style. These have been cleverly edited together by Iranian musician Farbod Khoshtinat and are set to images of everyday Iranian life (people walking the streets of Tehran, buying goods or driving cars) in a way which serves to underline the fact that Iran is a modern city, perhaps too often accompanied on film by traditional Persian music. In fact, within the film traditional Iranian music is at one point described as “world music” – as seemingly distant from some modern Iranians as it is to us.

Much of film focuses on the exciting possibility of the duo putting on a farewell rock concert and the excitement that generates (especially evident near the film’s climax as the underground venue is prepared for the show) reminds us of the simple pleasures we are lucky enough to take for granted: the right to assemble in a group, to dance, to mix with people of the opposite gender, to drink alcohol and to listen to non-religious music. All of these things are being done in secret in ‘Persian Cats’, and without that detachment and jaded irony associated with western counterculture: people are enthusiastic and happy. The Iranian music scene is exciting and cool in the film, without trying to be edgy. In a country where people face real hardships, I suppose they don’t tend to wear misery as a badge of honour. As an upshot of this much of the music is really charming, especially that of the charismatic lead duo.

There is also some really funny stuff in the film, with the duo turning to a fast-talking and delusional movie bootlegger called Nader (Hamed Behdad) in order to arrange their escape. Nader occasionally speaks in English, quoting movie dialogue and there are numerous scenes where he references American films and actors to good comic effect. There is also lot of fun to be had here with Iranian views of American culture. One of the best examples sees a Muslim lady, wearing traditional clothes, saying “I love indie rock! 50 Cent, Madonna!” When she expresses an interest in seeing the farewell concert, Negar replies “God willing you will.” This mixture of western influences and popular culture, alongside earnest commitment to Iranian tradition and religion helps to stop ‘Persian Cats’ from seeming shallow or polemical. As Negar says at the beginning, she doesn’t want to protest, she just wants to play music.

The main point seems to be that these young people would like to be able to play their music in Iran and that the regime is driving otherwise law abiding people out with such intolerant extremism. Indeed Bahman Ghobadi has since left Iran, robbing the country of one of its most prestigious directors and of a founder of the so-called "Iranian New Wave". But the film itself is far from an all-out attack on the governing regime: the most overtly political song is the rap (see the video below), but even that isn’t about religion, but rather takes the more universal theme of social inequality in a world controlled by money. A point which could be made in any country on the Earth. This capitalist mentality is evident when Negar and Ashkan visit one of the film’s bands: the group start talking about their aspirations, all of which are material and sound like something from an episode of MTV Cribs. The film’s earlier comic references to “western” culture (Nicholas Cage, Paramount Pictures etc) could now sound like part of a more sinister hegemonic cultural imperialism. Of course, the film is ultimately against the intolerance and the violence of the Iranian government, but it does not make its points in a way shich is clumsy or unconsidered.

Aesthetically, the film sometimes looks a little amateurish and the music video sequences (whilst clever) can seem a little cheesy. But that said, ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’ is an enjoyable and at times poignant look at a modern Tehran, which provides a really good insight into the social and cultural life of that city. The film tantalisingly blurs the line between fact and fiction in many ways. For example, the lead actors (Ashkan Kooshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi) boast the same first names as their characters and the bands they encounter are real bands playing themselves. But more relevant and interesting is the movie’s opening scene in which a character talks of a great movie that will be made about the underground music scene in Iran. After seeing ‘Persian Cats’ I was left in no doubt that this is that great movie.

Hopefully you can find the film playing in an arts cinema near you. 'No One Knows About Persian Cats' is rated '12a' by the BBFC.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

'Whip It' review: Barrymore's entertaining directing debut

With her debut feature, ‘Whip It’, Drew Barrymore asserts herself as a capable filmmaker, after years in front of the camera and many spent behind the scenes as a producer (on projects as diverse as ‘Donnie Darko’, ‘Music and Lyrics’ and ‘Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle’). But whilst it is hardly surprising that someone raised in the movies should take so easily to making them, it is surprising just how much fun ‘Whip It’ actually is. Boasting the quirky, colourful aesthetics that have almost become the house-style at Fox Searchlight, set to a soundtrack selected by Randall Poster (music supervisor on all the Wes Anderson films) and starring Ellen Page (of ‘Juno’ fame), ‘Whip It’ is well-placed to become an firm “indie” favourite, and deservedly so.

Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar who becomes “Babe Ruthless” when she takes up the alternative, amateur, all-girl US sport of roller derby. Dragged to beauty pageants by pushy mother (played by Marcia Gay Harden), Bliss sees roller derby as a better match for her personality and soon befriends a group of social misfits of varying ages and backgrounds, who are a better match for her quirky, off-beat personality than the fellow students at her high school. She lives in a small Texan town and also sees roller derby as a means of escape to the more exciting and vibrant life possible in the state capital, Austin. This teenage coming of age story takes place, to pleasing effect, alongside the well-worn clichés of the sports movie genre (the rival team; the tough but fair coach; shots of the scoreboard; the big final game; etc).

The best thing about ‘Whip It’ is the sense of fun which runs through the film, aided in no small part by a terrific cast of supporting players: Jimmy Fallon is a charming presence as the derby commentator, Juliette Lewis was born to play Bliss’s sporting rival “Iron Maven” and Daniel Stern is a suitably warm and likable presence as Bliss’s father. The real comic highlight is Andrew Wilson’s brilliant, understated comic performance as the girl’s coach “Razor”, which feels straight out of a Wes Anderson movie and is a consistent delight. It is nice to see him in a sizable role and here he makes his biggest impression since he turned up as “Future Man” alongside his brothers (Owen and Luke) in 1996’s ‘Bottle Rocket’. It is also nice to see Drew Barrymore give herself a small role as “Smashley Simpson”, the most violent member of Ellen Page’s team of roller derby heroes.

There is a palpable sense of joy throughout this movie, which resolves one key confrontation with a light-hearted food fight (cinema’s first since ‘Hook’ in 1991?). One of the great things about ‘Whip It’ is the way in which the derby girls swing elbows and break each others noses with real intent. It is great to such a tough attitude in a film primarily aimed at young girls. Bliss’s decision to give up pageants isn’t simply cosmetic, as it might be in so many other films (probably symbolised by dark eye makeup and wrist bands). Here it’s actually backed-up by an attitude, which is (crucially) about standing up for yourself, as opposed to being anti-social and starting fights.

Where the film suffers is in its third act in which the pacing takes a dip and the laughs cease during the inevitable “down” section of the movie where everything contrives to go wrong all at once for Page’s plucky hero. Some of these threads are necessary for the story of the film: most notably Bliss has to convince her mother that she should be able to take part in roller derby rather than beauty pageants. However, the thread concerning the temporary break-up of her friendship with Alia Shawkat’s character is a major drag and undermines the rest of the movie, which succeeds in convincing us that they are really best friends (who you’d have thought wouldn’t be so prone to irrational implosion). The other low point is the male love interest Oliver, played by Landon Pigg (apparently a singer-songwriter new to acting). Whilst the individual tender moments written for the romantic scenes are fairly sweet, Pigg is just too wet-behind-the-ears and the film becomes a lot less enjoyable when he is onscreen.

Overall, ‘Whip It’ is a confident and thoroughly enjoyable directorial debut for Drew Barrymore. It manages to have an authentic “sisters doing it for themselves” feel, without being tacky or patronising and whilst it didn’t perform amazingly well in the North American Box Office, ‘Whip It’ may eventually find an audience later on (on TV and DVD) and stake its claim for “cult classic” status. But before then: if you’re up for a good time at the pictures, you could do much worse then to buy a ticket for this funny and charming film.

'Whip It' is on general release in the UK and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Friday, 16 April 2010

'I Am Love' review, plus the new (and last?) Splendor podcast...

Regular readers (hello mum and dad) may have noticed that this blog has not really been updated with its usual frequency in the last week or so. This has been due to my work for Obsessed With Film, for whom I interviewed Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and reviewed their latest film 'Cemetery Junction'. During that time I saw 'I Am Love', but have only just been able to take the time to review it here. It is a bit shorter than my usual reviews on here, but I wanted to get something down before I forgot everything about the film! On a seperate note: there is a new Splendor Cinema podcast up in the player at the side of this blog. It is labelled episode seven because whilst the 'Kick-Ass' episode got put up on iTunes, it was the victim of a staff holiday at the Picturehouse site and so seems to have been passed by. When the latest episode appears on iTunes it will (correctly) be number eight.

And number eight, in which Jon and I tackle the subject of the future of cinema and of piracy, may well be the last Splendor Cinema podcast... ever. But have no fear gentle listener! We are re-branding it the "Obsessed With Film" podcast and it will continue in the same vein, but hopefully reaching a larger audience. So keep on listening.

Anyway, here is the 'I Am Love' review:

‘I Am Love’ is an Italian film produced by (and starring) Tilda Swinton and directed by Luca Guadagnino. According to Swinton the film was conceived in part as a tribute to filmmakers “whose claim on the development of the cinematic language is unassailable”. ‘I Am Love’ is apparently “an attempt to honour this kind of bravado” from these great artists who so advanced film as an art form. But whereas the works of Hitchock, Huston and Kubrick (three of the filmmakers cited as influences) were always constructed to appeal to an audience and to provide entertainment, ‘I Am Love’ is content to pander to an art house crowd who will no doubt call it “a sumptuous and sublime work” and will remind us that “Swinton is superb!”. Guadagnino and Swinton may feel that they have paid a tribute to the greats in terms of their execution of the cinematic form as a “toolkit” (again Swinton’s words), but none of the excitement of ‘North by Northwest’ or ‘The Maltese Falcon’ or ‘A Clockwork Orange’ can be felt in this formal exercise in pretension.

Some individual scenes are truly excellent. The film expertly evokes the feeling of a late summer afternoon, with especially beautiful sunlit scenes depicted on Yorick Le Saux’s camera. Le Saux also worked with Swinton on ‘Julia’ and it is easy to see why she would have asked him back for this project: the cinematography is faultless. Similarly evocative is John Adams operatic score, which lends a level of grandeur to the occasion and renders the films visual elegance audible. I would also say that some key scenes and moments did affect me, with one of the film’s key revelations occurring in a purely visual way – surely the mark of the purest kind of cinema. Furthermore, I enjoyed the way in which Edo (Swinton’s favourite son) subtly mirrors his father (and the whole family) in his treatment of women throughout the film and also how the daughter’s homosexuality (an early plot development) is treated with tenderness and real love.

However, despite these admirable qualities the film generally kept me at arms length throughout. It feels like more of a showcase for Tilda Swinton’s undoubted talent, rather than a story that needed to be told. There was one brief chase sequence that alluded to the Hitchcockian influence with it’s pacing and sense of urgency. But the rest of film moves at a wearying pace, as the filmmakers hope that the undoubted visual splendor will keep you hooked. Long, well-composed shots of people sitting around nicely-lit tables can only hold my attention for so long and as early as twenty minutes into the films two hours I found myself bored, however much I really want to admire and applaud anyone who so earnestly celebrates the cinematic.

I can see how, in the age of ‘Transformers 2’ and ‘The Bounty Hunter’, this sort of ambitious and self-indulgent cinema might appeal to those who hunger for something with a bit of substance. But for me, ‘I Am Love’ is an example of the opposite extreme, for as much as ‘Transformers’ is so brazenly artless, ‘I Am Love’ is an example of art for arts sake - which to my mind is ultimately just as artless in the final analysis. Great art doesn’t (or shouldn’t) primarily aspire to be art. ‘I Am Love’ certainly sings of its artiness from the well-lit rooftops of its many splendid Milanese villas. But then maybe it is only fitting that a film entitled ‘I Am Love’ should be so enamored with itself.

'I Am Love' is still playing across the UK in selected screens, including Brighton's own Duke of York's Picturehouse. It is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

'Cemetery Junction' review: Check it out at OWF

My review will not be posted here this time! It is up on Obsessed With Film here.

I hope you head over there and enjoy it! Just so you don't leave empty handed, check out this clip from the movie:

Also, check out my interview with the writer/director team behind the film here.

Monday, 12 April 2010

A Conversation with Gervais and Merchant...

As promised at the end of last weeek, here is a link to Obsessed With Film and my interview with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, who talked to me to promote their new film 'Cemetery Junction'. My review will be up on the same site on Wednesday, so I'm told.

I won't publish the whole thing on here (I don't know that I'm allowed) but I'll put a taster here to encourage you to read the full article:

Robert Beames: Even though you obviously write these moments and you know Emily Watson is a really good actress so you’re not too surprised, but does it still surprise you at the end of the day when you’re watching dailies and you see your words…

Ricky Gervais: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

Stephen Merchant: Those people always bring something extra.

RG: The way she does that and people like that underplay it. At the time you don’t think anything of it, but when you look back at it on a screen they fill your heart. Honestly, they’ve got something else, they’ve got an alchemy. It’s indescribable and I don’t know how they do it. And that’s the difference between a great actor and a film star and you can be both. There about fifty people in the world who are both.

SM: Well Ralph Fiennes turned up and I think the first thing he did was that big…

RG: Speech. Remarkable.

SM: Wasn’t it? That big monologue he’s giving the guy and [Merchant rhythmically slaps his hands] he came in word perfect, bam, there in front of two hundred extras, nailed it. We were embarrassed; we didn’t have any direction to give him… “do you want to do it again?”

Go and read the full article now!!!

Thursday, 8 April 2010

T'was 'Cemetery Junction' day in Soho!

I don't know how much I can really say much about today as I need to give the articles to the website that kindly commissioned them: Obsessed With Film and their generous editor Matt Holmes. But what I can say is that I saw 'Cemetery Junction', the first film by the Gervais/Merchant comedy writing team, at Sony's Soho office (in the world’s most comfortable theatre and on a brilliant screen!) You can read my review shortly (and on OWF). Afterwards, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Soho Hotel where I saw Zach Braff milling around the lobby (and I also passed that guy Lizo from 'Newsround' in the street on the way in). Once at the hotel, I attended a press junket on the second floor, where I was lucky enough to snag a 10 minute interview with Gervais and Merchant themselves (which will also go up on OWF when it's done)!

It was basically like that scene in 'Notting Hill' where Hugh Grant tries to get into a junket as an excuse to talk to Julia Roberts again (only without the possibility of romance, sadly). I really enjoyed the whole experience greatly. Happily, the duo were nice enough to sign my copy of the press notes and a copy of this month's Total Film (which they have guest edited), which I shall treasure.

Anyway, stay tuned at OWF to read my thoughts when they are uploaded. I'll remind you again on here when they are anyway, but got to OWF all the same.

'Cemetery Junction' is rated '15' by the BBFC. It is released on the 14th of April in cinemas everywhere!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

'Lourdes' review: My Sweet Lourdes

‘Lourdes’ is a French film (by Austrian director Jessica Hausner) which follows Christine (Sylvie Testud, also seen in the Oscar-winning ‘La Vie en Rose’ in 2007), a woman paralysed from the neck down, as she goes on a pilgrimage to the iconic Catholic site named in the title. There is the sense in ‘Lourdes’ that Christine is possibly not drawn to the journey by her Catholicism, but by the fact that joining up with the group of nuns (who take parties of wheelchair bound people on this pilgrimage) is enabling her to see more of the world: “It is difficult to travel in a wheelchair” Christine tellingly admits early on. But Christine is not cynical or manipulative and has the best intensions. She is not unmoved by Catholic doctrine either, as she clings to the hope that a divine miracle will help her to walk again, a hope encouraged in dreams of the Virgin Mary.

For someone as irreligious as I, the films greatest pleasures are found in its representation of the tacky and crassly commercial side of Catholicism as an organisation, with Mary figurines readily on sale at Holy sites and gaudy neon halo’s adorning many of the Mary statues seen in the film. Similarly, the pilgrims take their group photo on a bench designed exactly for such a purpose outside one religious monument and Christine herself refers to ‘Lourdes’ as “too touristy” and finds it lacking in culture. Amusingly the music on the soundtrack seems to imply commerciality even to the films version of the Ava Maria, which sounds cheesy and synthesized. The film even culminates at a Catholic disco.

But to say that the film is itself anti-Catholic would be unfair and the things I have seen as evidence of commerciality and opportunism could be seen differently by those coming to the film with a different outlook. As the (usually still) camera lingers on scenes of the pilgrims eating dinner, it is up to the viewer to decide where to look and what to make of what is happening during a number of terrifically detailed scenes. It can also be said that the pilgrims themselves seem sincere, as do the majority of the nuns and priests depicted (with the possible exception of a young nun who seems to view the pilgrimage as a Catholic holiday camp and an alternative to summer skiing). Most telling of all is the fact that the film doesn’t do anything to discourage the idea that divine miracles can and do happen. This is another detail which helps to keep the film pleasantly ambiguous and stops it from seeming at all polemical.

Instead of asking the question “do miracles happen?” the film looks at who they may happen to and is mostly concerned with the reactions of people to potential miracles. Perhaps (the film posits) miracles may happen to the nicest people, not necessarily the most pious, and the film would seem to suggest that the two are not necessarily linked. Christine is never mean to anyone, even though she would have cause: she is frequently patronised for being in her condition and sometimes forgotten or ignored by the nun assigned to care for her. She is only really interested in making the best of things. By contrast some of her more pious co-pilgrims seem to gossip and view the receipt of a miracle as some sort of competitive sport.

To say that ‘Lourdes’ is a slow moving film of subtle observations and small moments would be an understatement, as to many it would probably fit the description that “nothing happens”. There is a story here, but it is slight (and I have done my level best not to spoil it here). It is in the interactions of the characters and specifically their treatment of Christine that the film is strongest. It is odd perhaps that a film that accepts the possibility of miracles could be so matter of fact and naturalistic, but maybe that is the point: in a world where miracles exist (and are indeed scrutinized and recorded by the Church) are miracles simply as banal as everything else?

'Lourdes' is playing in a select number of screens across the UK and can be seen at the Duke of York's in Brighton until Thursday. It is rated a 'U' by the BBFC.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Q&A with Uckfield Picture House owner Kevin Markwick

Kevin Markwick owns and runs the Uckfield Picture House in East Sussex (not related to the 'Picturehouse' chain). An impassioned cinephile, Kevin was interviewed by Francine Stock on BBC Radio 4's Film Programme in February and came across as a funny and interesting guy. I got in touch and he was nice enough to answer a few questions for this blog:

Has there ever been a single feature which has saved the cinema from going out of business during hard times?
There have been a few over the years that came in the nick of time. Whether they were solely responsible for saving the cinema may be an overstatement, but it might have been close without them. Mamma Mia I know saved a few smaller independents from disaster. Billy Elliot is one that springs to mind as being the cavalry.

Apart from Mama Mia and Avatar, both of which you mentioned on the radio, what have been the biggest success stories during your time managing the cinema?
Well, I’ve been here my whole life so I’ve pretty much seen everything huge since about 1968! Since my time totally in charge, the first Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Titanic etc stick out. The titles you would expect really. More bespoke to us if you like, Sense and Sensibility, Calendar Girls, Shakespeare in Love, Gosford Park.

Any notable disasters? Anything that you agreed to play for a few weeks and no one came at all?
There are always disasters. It’s the nature of the business that nothing is totally foreseeable. Out of the worst films of all time here, at least two of them star Adam Sandler so I now have a no Adam Sandler rule. He would have to be in a Merchant/Ivory production set in India during the Raj starring Judi Dench featuring Abba songs for me to change my mind.

I'm not familiar with Uckfield. Which cinemas are your nearest rivals and do you program your cinema to be distinct from them?
As the crow flies I think the nearest cinemas are East Grinstead and Burgess Hill. They don’t worry me, I just do my thing. I play more non mainstream product than them purely out of instinct. If they started doing more I still wouldn’t worry. I just try and make my cinema the best I can so that when people are looking where to go they choose us.

Besides your own, what is your favourite cinema, and why?

My fave cinema outside my own is the Arclight cinema in Hollywood. Although it’s a Multiplex they take great care over the picture and sound for every show. I have seen many films there and never once had a bad experience. Sound is always the right level and the picture is bright and in focus. Of course that is the least anyone should expect when going to the cinema but sadly too many multiplexes are letting the popcorn sellers run the box. They should teach them where the porthole is and what it’s for, i.e looking out of to see if the picture is correct.

Did your recent interview on Radio 4 have any impact on business that you noticed? Any new customers?
It got a very positive response and hopefully gave us some good publicity. Can’t say we have seen a massive spike in attendance but it can’t have done us any harm.

Are most of your customers regulars? What is the demographic?
We have a great number of regulars as well as new customers. We also lose a few now and then as you can’t please all the people all the time. We are having over 120,000 people through the door every year, quite remarkable for a little place like Uckfield. We draw from all over, I know people travel from Newhaven and Tunbridge Wells, which is nice. Our demographic is families and people over 25. We seem to miss the bit everyone wants, 18 – 25. They seem to think it’s better in the big towns. They are wrong of course, but what can I do? They come back eventually! This is why I don’t play Jason Statham movies.

You show quite a mix at your cinema ('A Single Man' and 'The Last Station' alongside 'Avatar' and 'Alice in Wonderland', for example). Do you try to make sure your three screens are all showing different sorts of movies? Or do you simply play the three biggest you can get hold of, regardless of what they are?
To explain in detail how the process works would take a while. Basically, biggest isn’t always best for us so the three most suitable for my audience would be a more appropriate description.

Finally, what has been your personal highlight at the cinema, both when you were younger and since you became the owner?
Personally one of the biggest thrills was the day I opened the third screen. It had taken many years and a lot of hard work to get it done and walking round the cinema that day with all three screens full felt pretty groovy. This was immediately followed by one of the worst sustained periods of business for about ten years so beware feeling smug, you’ll always fall flat on your face.

Thanks again to Kevin Markwick for that interview. A complete history of the cinema (which has been operating since 1920) can be read on its official website.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

IQGamer's David Bierton turns his attention to Kick-Ass...

My good friend Dave Bierton has kindly offered his impressions of 'Kick-Ass' which I reviewed last month on this blog. Dave is generally a video games journalist and has left his comfort zone to contribute this interesting and comprehensive review, which provides a second opinion to my own:

"I went into seeing ‘Kick-Ass’ not knowing what to expect, and left particularly impressed after witnessing what can only be described as an alternative take on the superhero movie. In fact the film isn’t actually a superhero movie at all. Instead it takes inspiration from a number of sources from ‘The Dark Knight’, ‘Kill Bill’, ‘Superbad’, even ‘The Matrix’ and just briefly, Sergio Leone’s Dollars series. The result is a fresh look at what it is like for an ordinary man to become a so-called superhero, with no powers, no cool weapons, just a sheer determination to make a difference, and a lot of luck and chaos which comes his way.

The main reason for me why I enjoyed the film so much, and also why in my opinion it works so well, is down to the mixture of styles and characters, along with the superbly choreographed action sequences, which all balance out and give a grounding to the film’s somewhat ridiculous premise. A kid in high school is as unlikely to become a fighting avenger as much as a multi million-dollar tycoon is to become Batman in real life. However, seeing such a social misfit, a loser lost in the land of the ordinary, as people go, make this almost comedic attempt at vigilantism makes for an entertaining caper in which we all can relate to.

‘Kick-Ass’ as a character provides much of the films comic relief. He can barely stand up the most meagre of street thugs, let alone against a crew of experienced Mafia-style heavies. However he takes on the challenge with all the determination in the world, naivety intact, without really thinking anything through beforehand. It provides the film with some of its funniest scenes, but also its message that there are some serious consequences when taking things into your own hands. Violence always comes at a price, and the question is: is that price one worth paying?

The real star of the show, however, is Chloe Moretz as the pint-sized Hot Girl. The sight of seeing a small thirteen year old girl slicing and dicing her way through a room of hoodlums was particularly amusing, and somewhat shocking at times. Her brutality is only matched by her resolve, never flinching and seemingly enjoying her sadistic antics. Her role, like with Nicholas Cage’s Big Daddy, is played straight, without the intention of comedic effect outside of her outlandish actions. Though hearing her shouting out the ‘c word’ before ripping through her adversaries was a particular highlight, and one of the films most amusing moments. The whole scene felt like some homage to the typical Japanese Anime, with the eclectic score and Moretz’s portrayal of an almost perverse form of innocents and naivety.

I found ‘Kick-Ass’ to be a polished mixture of high-kicking comic book fantasy, combined with the stark realities showcased in ‘The Dark Knight’, along various nods at other superhero and action movies of the last decade or so. It’s all delivered in a reserved, almost understated manner, making some of its more ridiculous characters not only believable, but also integral to making the whole thing work. The combination of comedic elements in the dialogue and action, with serious delivery by Moretz, Cage, and Mark Strong as the villain of the piece, take Kick-Ass from being just another ‘different’ attempt at making a comic book movie into something else entirely. Something much better if you ask me, and one of the most enjoyable films I have seen in a long time.

With regards to a sequel potentially being made at some point -the end of the film sets itself up for one –maybe they shouldn’t really go down that route, especially seeing how the characters progress and develop, the dynamics between them, and the grounded reality of this film. As it stands Kick-Ass works so well as it is, I’d rather not have a cleaver attempt to make the film become a franchise, losing its uniqueness and the things which made it work so well in the first place.

I’d have to say that everyone should at least attempt to see the film at some point, preferably with all the impact that comes with seeing it on the big screen, surround sound and wide viewing angle and all. I’ll be doing just that on Monday at the Dukes, along with my other work cohorts, which should make for a very entertaining evening."

Thanks again to Dave, whose video game analysis can be read on his own blog: IQGamer. We both seem to agree that it is a film well worth watching, so check it out! A conversation about the film between Splendor Cinema's Jon Barrenechea and myself can be heard in our latest podcast, whilst I have also previously written about attending the film's London Premiere.

'Kick-Ass' is still playing regularly at the Duke of York's Picturehouse cinema in Brighton and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

'Tony Manero': an interesting film...

Not only did Sight and Sound name the Chilean 'Tony Manero' as their 'Film of the Month' in the May issue of 2009, but at the year's end the Guardian's Xan Brooks named it his fifth favourite film of 2009, beating such films as 'Il Divo', 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Sleep Furiously'. Since then I have been quite eager to catch up with it (quite late, as it came out in Chile way back in 2008!), but had been put off by the extortionate price that 'World Cinema' DVDs go for on the highstreet. Well, earlier today I got round to seeing 'Tony Manero' thanks to the wonderful Film Four.

I haven’t seen any Chilean cinema before, so I have no frame of reference for where this fits in and how typical it is of the quality of Chilean movies (though I would speculate that this is far above the average in terms of production values). I know that ‘La Nana’ was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film award at this year’s Golden Globes (and that it won an acting prize at Sundance), but apart from that I’m in the dark. What I can say is that I was really quite impressed by what is a very accomplished film from director Pablo Larrain.

I have always been interested (and obviously appalled) by stories about the Pinochet regime that ruled Chile from 1973-1990. There have been several American movies which have looked at the subject (‘Missing’ starring Jack Lemmon immediately springs to mind), but it is obviously really interesting to see how a Chilean film look back of that era. ‘Tony Manero’ is set in the late-1970s and Pinochet’s rule of Chile is constantly present in the film. It is present literally in the form of direct references to the dictator, the imposed curfew, the killing of political dissidents and the police-state atmosphere that grips Santiago in the film. But more than that: Pinochet’s Chile is embodied in the story of the main character, Raul, who will stop at nothing to achieve his meagre goal of being the best John Travolta impersonator on a TV talent show (specifically as Tony Manero from ‘Saturday Night Fever’, as the projectionist at a cinema playing ‘Grease’ learns to his cost).

Raul is vile, violent and completely selfish, yet he is (somehow) seductive to women (despite his impotence), even when he is betraying their love and even destroying their lives. He is a totalitarian who lives by a strict doctrine: that of endlessly studying ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and learning Tony Manero’s every move. He will not entertain different ideas, as people attempt (unsuccessfully) to alter the dance choreography from the movie. In pursuit of these warped ideals he often turns to remorseless murder. But aside from these illusions to Pinochet, the film is also critical of American hegemony in South America, as Chileans avoids dealing with the troubles at hand in favour of watching television talent shows and aping American cultural icons. In this way the film can also be seem as a comment on modern Chile and it’s attitude to the West. Indeed this was Pablo Larrain’s intention as he said to Sight and Sound in that May ’09 issue: “Raul Peralta was one step ahead of his country, because his absurd yearning – to be ‘modern’ – is shared by all of Chile today.”

It is perhaps a gross understatement to call ‘Tony Manero’ an interesting film.

'Tony Manero' is rated '18' by the BBFC and is readily available on DVD and may play on Film Four again soon, as they tend to replay things.