Tuesday, 30 November 2010

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One' review: All's well that ends well?

I have never read, or even been tempted to read, a Harry Potter book. Nor have I enjoyed the series of films J.K Rowling's writing has inspired which having begun in 2001 with 'The Philosopher's Stone' - and due to conclude next year - now span (and for some possibly define) a cinema-going decade. For me there has always been something very twee about these stories - set within a boarding school for witches and wizards - and something incredibly establishment about their very existence and place in the "British" film industry. Worse still, it has always felt like the series' best ideas and characters had been stolen wholesale from other works: books by Roald Dahl, C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien. And with Warner Brothers having eschewed hiring Terry Gilliam (the author's publicly stated preferred choice) these uninspiring tales have also been beset by a succession of similarly uninspiring filmmakers.

'Home Alone' director Chris Columbus helmed the first two movies, making films of almost staggering blandness. Some brief respite was given to the series' in the form of the third outing, 'The Prisoner of Azkaban', as darling of the Mexican New Wave Alfonso Cuarón brought to that film a more naturalistic approach in the acting (especially in the film's young cast) as well as a darker colour palette and some more imaginative shot choices. Yet it was still ultimately a pretty poor film, still weighed down by interminably dull scenes of "Quidditch" and even featuring Lenny Henry. But whatever its flaws, the series' third chapter was enriched by Cuarón as director. Though it would be short lived, as soon Harry Potter was thrust firmly back into cinematic mediocrity once again with the Mike Newell directed fourth film boring me near to tears when I saw it at the cinema in 2005.

It is strange that having gone through three established film directors the series would find its salvation in the hands of a little known British TV director. David Yates, prior to directing the fifth Potter film, 2007's 'The Order of the Phoenix', was best known for directing edgy TV dramas 'State of Play', 'Sex Traffic' and 'The Girl in the Cafe'. It was the same sort of left-field logic that had led Warner Brothers to hire Cuarón off the back of his sexually explicit 'Y Tu Mamá También' and, as with that choice, it has proven to be inspired - though this wasn't evident right away. 'The Order of the Phoenix', still bound by the setting of Hogwarts school and its myriad of dreary lessons and irksomely quirky teachers, was only a marginal improvement on its forbears. It was actually with 'The Half-Blood Prince', the sixth film in the series, that Yates really turned things around.

'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' is relatively light on action. It is a slower, more character based film which found the leads - Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson - now able to act. It was intense and visceral in a way never before attempted by these films, and in a way missing from most modern kids films in general. There were more interesting characters and themes, as it looked at the school life of the series' arch-villain Tom Riddle (AKA Voldemort) and also made other perennial villains more human, such as Draco Malfoy, played by Tom Felton. Once a two-dimensional, snarling school bully, Draco was here portrayed as a troubled child in the middle of an identity crisis, torn apart as he struggled with the moral implications of his family's allegiance with "the dark Lord" and his growing unease at his own grave part in their evil schemes.

Yet even when these films were not terrible, they were forever bringing out the cynic and the pedant in me as a viewer. I was forever asking "why are they doing that?", "how come that's suddenly possible?" and "why didn't they think to do that two scenes ago?" My problem was often that the films' internal logic seemed inconsistent and muddled. Often Potter himself seemed like a, frankly, shit protagonist. He was forever being saved by some contrived deus ex machina (such as the magical sword at the end of film two) or by his teachers. He was always being told exactly what to do, every step of the way. For example, when in film four he has make a golden egg reveal a clue, it takes Robert Pattinson telling him to "try giving it a bath", followed by another character telling him to "try putting in into the water" when he gets there - so unable is he to make that logical leap. My girlfriend was always saying "it makes more sense in the books". But I don't care. These films should make sense in their own right, or else they are just expensive fan-service.

The reason I have chosen to begin my review of the latest installment, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One', with this account of my own history with these films is two-fold. Firstly, I wasn't reviewing films when these came out and I wanted to state my position on them here. Secondly, I thought it important to provide a context for my unabashed praise of this latest film. For in 'Deathly Hallows Part One' I have found a Potter film I can actually enjoy.

Never before have two films in the same franchise seemed so totally alien to each other as 'Philopher's Stone' and 'Deathly Hallows' must look placed side-by-side. (OK, maybe the Bond series has changed more over its near fifty years of being, but these Potter movies are direct sequels less than ten years apart.) 'Deathly Hallows Part One' is not a film in which Potter inflates his nasty auntie into a balloon or takes part in a "Triwizard Tournament" or tastes bogey flavoured magic sweeties. It is a film which opens on a scene of torture and murder (of a bound and weeping school teacher no less), in which one of Harry's friends is casually killed off screen and another dies bleeding in his arms. The first time we see Harry's friend Hermione Granger she is tearfully erasing herself from her parents' memory so as to keep them safe. Whilst the fourth film boasted Jarvis Cocker singing a song called "Do the Hippogriff", this seventh film sees Harry turn on a radio to hear "O Children" by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, to which he and Hermione temporarily relieve their gloom with a melancholic dance, in an emotionally charged scene which I'm told doesn't exist in the book. It's a moment which will probably be ignored for being in a Harry Potter blockbuster, but I feel a similar moment in a "serious" film would receive more attention.

If 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' was like a Famous Five story, then this new film feels like something out of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The bleak, recognisably English landscapes are desolate and our heroes are often alone, uncertain whether anyone they know has survived. There is precious little comedy relief in this chapter. Which is nice as the "gags" in previous Potter movies have been woeful. What lightness and humour there is comes from the central three characters friendship which seems more real then ever before - perhaps as a result of the fact that these child actors have genuinely grown up together (one of the series' real pleasures). Yates' Potter films have been enriched by their taking place in a more recognisable, and even banal, world. The last film saw Yates stage a deadly Voldemort attack on London's Millennium Bridge (a modern and lesser known landmark as of yet untouched by Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich) and similarly 'Deathly Hallows' presents a modern, lived-in and refreshingly normal picture of London - neither touristy or excessively grimy. Yates has realised that in making the "muggle" (non-magical) world less wondrous a place, the magic of Potter & co. is given room to be all the more exciting by contrast.

So it is that the chase sequence near the film's start is the most exciting bit of action from any chapter of the series. As Harry flips around a tunnel to dodge cars on his motorcycle (well, more accurately Hagrid's motorcycle - Harry is in the side-car) it is Harry and his friends integration into a more convincing "real world" setting that makes it work. There are also far fewer times when things are over-explained to us via Harry, or where the the heroes actions cease making sense and robbed of Dumbledore as a benevolent, omnipotent guide, it is up to Harry, Hermione and Ron to solve the film's problems. And as the stakes have never been higher (this is after all the first part of the series' finale) the film is also much more involving than those that came before.

It is rare to find a film series that actually grows up with its audience. When George Lucas made his much-maligned 'Star Wars' prequels, fans felt he'd infantilised the saga. Those films, with the slapstick comedy of Jar Jar Binks and an increased pandering to the "toyetic", certainly feel as though they are aimed at a young audience rather than the thirty-somethings who grew up with the original trilogy. In contrast, these films (I imagine thanks to the books) do seem to be going on a journey with their young audience. Children that started off with 'Philosopher's Stone' have a film in 'Deathly Hallows' that they can enjoy ten years on and which may actually frighten and excite them.

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One' is in a different league to its predecessors. It's consistently tonally serious and dark, whereas even the last film would switch uneasily between tragedy and light-hearted comedy all in the space of a scene (note the sudden change from talking about a central character's murder to talking about Harry's latest crush in the final scene of 'Half-Blood Prince'). It also better develops its characters and benefits from a more interesting story with higher stakes. The distracting array of British actors hamming it up is also less of a problem here, as most of our time is spent in the company of the three children.

Perhaps my only real criticism is that it wouldn't work on its own: you need to have seen the other films and/or read the books to understand it. This is to be expected as it's a conclusion (or at least the beginning of one), but I would hesitate to recommend this film to newcomers or to label it any kind of classic. It will always be bound up with the other, less good films which have sadly already undermined this story. It is a shame then that it took four films before Yates took the reins. Although maybe some of this film's pleasure does come from its stark contrast with the earlier chapters - and with the Columbus years in particular. Perhaps it only works because those films exist: because the brightly lit, Christmas card aesthetic of the earlier efforts is there to be subverted in this way. Whatever the reason 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One' worked for me - a self-described Potterphobe - it did work. As a result I find myself in the unlikely position of looking forward to next year and 'Part Two'. Perhaps, as far as the Harry Potter movies are concerned, all's well that ends well.

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One' is rated '12A' by the BBFC - for being bloody scary, I'd imagine.

Monday, 29 November 2010

'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest' review:

Noomi Rapace is back as that girl with the dragon tattoo and a penchant for playing with fire. This time, apparently, she has developed a taste for kicking hornets' nests. Although those with chronic cnidophobia need not look away for this is a metaphorical nest and, as with her previous adventures, the hornets are sexually violent men in positions of power as opposed to big, angry wasps. 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest' is the concluding part of a series of Swedish-made film adaptations of Stieg Larsson's widely adored Millennium Trilogy novels, which follow the bisexual, ace computer hacker Lisbeth Salander as she attempts to bring to justice the various men who have wronged her - like a goth version the Bride from 'Kill Bill'. As in the previous installments, she is aided by top investigative journalist and full-time man-whore Mikael Blomkvist (Mikael Nyqvist).

Whilst the first two parts of the trilogy worked as more or less standalone episodic detective stories, this final chapter picks up exactly where the second installment left off and heavily references events and characters from the first two films throughout. With Lisbeth spending most of the film either in hospital, in prison or on trial, 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest' is also much less action packed than the previous films. That is not to say that this entry lacks scenes of violence, but it is a far cry from the 18-rated original and, tellingly, the film's most horrific sequence is a scene lifted directly from that first movie, played to a courtroom courtesy of a clandestine recording.

Lisbeth Salander has been through some truly horrible events: beaten up by gangs of armed men; repeatedly raped by her legal guardian; and incarcerated in a mental institution at the age of twelve as the result of a shady government conspiracy. Yet she is still a manifestly unlikeable creation. She is a charmless psychopath and when she is forced to defend herself against charges that she is mentally unstable it is hard not to feel like her despicable, paedophile assailants at least have a bit of a point - although their reasons for making it are obviously not on the level. Again, like Thurman's Bride character, Lisbeth is hellbent on bloody, callous revenge in a film which thinks old testament "eye for an eye" justice is for wishy-washy Guardian readers. It is true that the film always totally convinces you that these balding, sinister Vince Cable-alikes deserve every bit of what Lisbeth gives them, but therein is the reason I hate these films so much.

Lisbeth's violent, sociopathic actions are understandable: after all they are being committed by a troubled individual who has received constant abuse at the hands of these wicked individuals. But these villains aren't human beings: they are monsters. Again, much like Tarantino's 'Kill Bill' films, as well as the likes of 'Sin City' and 'Death Wish', these films use sexual violence as a pretext for enabling us to indulge in guilt-free revenge fantasies that play to the very worst of our nature. I'm not excusing myself here. I too get that sense of vitriol when I get to see the rapist, paedophile, Nazi man get seven shades of shit kicked out of him: but its not a feeling I choose to nurture. Not to mention there is something very contrived and cynical about the way we are manipulated in films like these to feel so reactionary as unambiguous hate figures are offered to us just as the Aztecs offered still-beating human hearts to their gods. There is nothing interesting about straight-up monsters as characters either. Which is why all the best actual monsters are given human characteristics and their own set of internal conflicts (Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Beauty and the Beast). The baddies here are pure evil and as such they are totally boring.

I will say this for 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest': Noomi Rapace again completely disappears into the role of Salander, physically and emotionally transforming herself. The films best moment is when she walks into the courtroom to defend herself against charges of mental incompetence dressed in some sort of black leather, chainmail garb and sporting a huge mohican. This is the character giving the finger to the trial, refusing to back down on who she is just to conform and make things easy. It is also a gesture of supreme confidence. She is telling her persecutors that she can do as she likes because she knows she will win. That is where this story is strongest, as (although I'm not her biggest fan) in Lisbeth Salander there is a protagonist unlike any other, even if the dreary world she inhabits is from generic-revenge-thriller-land.

I have been eagerly awaiting this film for a few months now. Having really disliked the first two movies, I was getting a little sick of seeing that same poster image in cinemas for the third time in the space of a year and longed to put this whole seedy, dour, sadomasochistic enterprise behind me once and for all. Sadly this doesn't mark the end, as David Fincher is now busily helming an American adaptation of the same set of books. Although you can at least be certain that, whatever the American version is like, Fincher's film will feel less like a post-watershed episode of an ITV3 drama and more like a feature film.

'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest' is out now in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

CINECITY: 'Never Let Me Go' review:

It is a rare thing in this day and age to go into a film without knowing anything about it. Thanks to the internet's insatiable demand for new content, every second of every day, it is now fairly standard that we can find out almost anything about an upcoming film before it's been made. As a result we are seldom surprised. Barely a secret cameo goes unspoiled and by the time of the first trailer every set-piece or punchline has been revealed. It was a nice change then to walk into Mark Romanek's 'Never Let Me Go' expecting one thing and finding another.

Admittedly I hadn't been hoodwinked by an elliptical marketing campaign, but rather by my own prejudice. Watching a trailer or reading anything about Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel, upon which the film is based, would have given me some idea about what to expect. But happily I went in blind and was rewarded. You see all I knew about 'Never Let Me Go' was that it starred Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley and I assumed that it was some kind of plummy, award-baiting British drama. How pleased I was to be proved so wrong by this dark and subtle dystopian sci-fi story.

I explain all this because it puts my appreciation of the film in its context. Had I been an admirer of the novel, or had I gone in with my expectations raised any higher, then maybe I wouldn't have found the film anywhere near as fascinating as I did. And as it was I did find it fascinating.

I am reluctant to say too much here about the plot of the film, in the hope that you might have a similar experience to mine when watching it. Instead I'll talk a little about how I feel about it. American critic Marshall Fine concluded in the Huffington Post that with 'Never Let Me Go' "what you end up with is a staid, lifeless tale that never talks about what it's about, or at least not enough to provoke deep thoughts on the subject." I couldn't agree less with that assessment personally. I think the great strength of the film lies in the fact that nothing is ever openly discussed.

Too many sci-fi films get caught up in their own mythology, or their own supposed cleverness, and end up just having their characters exchange cod philosophical arguments as the tedium mounts (step forward 'The Matrix' and, more recently, 'Inception'). By contrast in 'Never Let Me Go' Romanek succeeds in creating a mood which is at times quite affecting and lends itself to contemplation. Instead of being told what to think about the film's dystopian society we are allowed to reflect on it ourselves. In fact the central characters' refusal to really discuss the wrongs of their condition is quite haunting and lends an amount of quiet tragedy to proceedings.

The look of the film is similarly effective, as it is always at once picturesque and melancholy, with the pathetic fallacy of overcast skies throughout. The actors are also good across the board. I am not the biggest fan of Keira Knightley, but she is utterly convincing here, as is the ever-excellent Mulligan - though between this and 'Wall Street 2' she seems to be forging a reputation as Hollywood's go-to girl for on-screen weeping. Andrew Garfield, who I first saw and enjoyed in 'The Social Network' and who I am now eagerly anticipating as the new Spider-Man, is also very good, again playing a gentle and sympathetic character.

'Never Let Me Go' is absorbing, well-acted and raises a number of interesting ethical questions. Like all good science fiction it also reflects upon our lives now and - again, without wishing to divulge plot information - makes us ultimately question our own existence and sense of purpose. It manages to do all this without ever preaching or getting especially high on itself, and all within a well paced two hours which doesn't feel artificially drawn-out. Whether fans of the novel will feel the same, I couldn't say. I have read that the story's central reveal is made much earlier in this film version (presumably in what is, in all honesty, a fairly weak scene featuring Sally Hawkins) and it is possible that a later reveal would be much more raw and emotionally jarring. But all in all I was very pleasantly surprised by the film I saw.

'Never Let Me Go' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is released in the UK on the 21st of January next year.

Monday, 22 November 2010

CINECITY: 'The American' review:

According to David Thompson all that stands in the way of George Clooney becoming a modern day Carey Grant is his smugness. Well, I don't think Cary Grant and George Clooney are very similar performers anyway, but that aside I don't really understand the oft-levelled accusation of smugness. I suppose what many people are referring to is his screen persona defining role in Steven Soderbergh's 'Ocean's 11' re-make and its two sequels. In those films Clooney is stylish, cool and in control - the definition of a suave so-called "silver fox" - with every reason to be smug. Whilst watching Clooney's latest film, Anton Corbijn's low-key spy thriller 'The American', it was presumably this view of the actor's image that led a colleague to lean over and whisper that they felt the film to be "one prolonged Clooney wink". I think I know what she meant.

Throughout his recent career, Clooney has demonstrated a knowing tendency to play counter to his star persona, which he does with varying degrees of subtlety and success. Often he will play a broad buffoon, as in such films as 'Burn After Reading' and 'The Men Who Stare at Goats'. At other times he will "go normal", as in 'Syriana' where he put on weight and sported an unkempt beard. But at his best he subverts his image without running away from it anything like as obviously. For instance in last year's 'Up in the Air' he would seem to be playing exactly the same 'Ocean's 11' huckster, only (thanks to director Jason Reitman's trademark cynicism) we see a character who is ultimately left stranded in a facsimile of a life: vacuous and unfulfilled beneath a suave and in control facade. It's like watching Danny Ocean's midlife crisis.

In 'The American' Clooney is again playing up to and against type. Put simply: 'The American' is like 'Up in the Air' with added sex and violence - and without jokes. As Jack, an ageing hitman, Clooney is again faced with the realisation that his lifestyle hasn't allowed him to make any meaningful connections with friends and lovers. He is again handsome and cool - seemingly the creation of another male wish fulfillment fantasy - yet he is an empty vessel. The relationships he does have are fleeting and built on lies (for instance false identities) and, as we learn in the film's brilliantly executed and deathly cold opening sequence, these encounters can also go very wrong. Here Clooney lives the life of James Bond: he beds glamorous women; drives sports cars around beautiful Italian towns; and wears a pistol inside his dinner suit. But he doesn't enjoy it. In fact, quite unlike Bond (well, at least old school Bond), Clooney spends most of the film moping around looking quite depressed. Soon he resolves to quit the hitman racket after undertaking that "one last job" demanded by movie convention. Oh, and along the way things are made more difficult by a gang of Swedish hitmen who are bent on killing him.

For all intents and purposes, 'The American' is a thriller without many thrills. Most of the time it is ironically a very European exercise in introspective slow cinema. We watch long silent takes in which Jack makes a rifle (without enjoying it), or takes a country drive (without enjoying it). Like the Polish thriller 'Essential Killing', Anton Corbijn's follow-up to 'Control' is scant on action and more interested in character study. Only, whilst it is attractively shot and nicely lit (if formally unspectacular), it is ultimately lacking in any real feeling or, dare I say, point. Clooney is left to carry the film and inject into it some life, but unfortunately for the star that proves to be a thankless task. He has those big, sad eyes worked out to a fine art, but ultimately the film feels somehow hollow and fairly dull.

Corbijn and his star have seemingly set out to deconstruct and critique the spy genre, though in fact they only really end up repeating its cliches in a more boring contect without delivering anything especially thoughtful or philosophical. From the trite theme of the hitman's relationship with a local priest, to the prolonged shots of Violante Placido's exposed breasts, 'The American' is simply a very earnest telling of a familiar story. It is especially during scenes of sexuality that the film is at its most disappointingly conventional as we are presented with females as sex objects whilst Clooney remains clothed (save for one brief shot of his rear) and sometimes even disappears off camera, leaving us to leer at a beautiful topless Italian lady. Even 'Casino Royale' employed a Laura Mulvey defying female gaze as Daniel Craig emerged from the sea with his shimmering torso. Yet 'The American' is rooted firmly in the misogyny of the cinematic past.

Perhaps that is the point. After all the film's poster is overtly retro in its styling. But I for one can't see whatever commentary is intended by it, other than that being a sociopathic killer can make you a bit lonely. I certainly didn't feel very much for the main character in this quite ordinary film which seems to be aiming for something profound and ends up failing to even deliver the cheapest of thrills. Oh well George. At least you looked classy in it and, if it's any consolation, I doubt Cary Grant would have pulled it off any better.

'The American' has been rated '15' by the BBFC and is released in the UK on the 26th of November.

Friday, 19 November 2010

CINECITY: 'The King's Speech' review:

When Jeff Bridges won the Oscar for Best Actor at this year's Academy Awards, for his turn in 'Crazy Heart', Colin Firth was considered to be the unlucky loser. In truth, after picking up every award going en route to that ceremony, the Oscar was always going to go to Bridges on the night - a fact Firth himself repeatedly acknowledged in the run up - but there were many who felt that it ought to have gone to the English actor for his compelling performance as a suicidal, homosexual professor in Tom Ford's 'A Single Man'. Yet there is a feeling that it could be second time lucky for Firth who has, seemingly undeterred by that defeat, brushed himself down and taken another swing at it right away, playing the role of King George VI in the award-baiting historical drama 'The King's Speech'.

Firth, along with his director Tom Hooper ('The Damned United') and co-stars Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush, will have every reason to approach next year's ceremony with confidence following the film's enthusiastic response in Toronto where it was bestowed the audience award. In the last few year's winners of that award have included the likes of 'Slumdog Millionaire' and 'Precious' and there is a growing feeling that Firth - and quite possibly his co-stars - are due to be, at the very least, among the names nominated.

'The King's Speech' is inspired by real life events that apparently saw the stammering man who would be king, Prince Albert ("Bertie" to his mates), seek out the help of every speech therapist in the Kingdom in an attempt to improve his public speaking. Just when he has abandoned all hope at ever finding a cure, his dedicated wife (Bonham Carter as the Queen Mum) tracks down an unorthodox Australian by the name of Lionel Logue (Rush) who swears he can correct the royals speech - so long as the treatment is done on his terms as with his other (more common) patients. To complicate matters, Bertie's speech impediment becomes a greater concern as his brother Edward's (Guy Pearce) relationship with an American divorcée brings him unexpectedly to the throne.

Also looming in the background is the spectre of the Second World War and the Nazi's charismatic leader Adolf Hitler. When watching a newsreel of the dictator speaking at a rally, Bertie's daughter Elizabeth (the future queen) asks "what is he saying papa?" "I don't know, but he seems to be saying it rather well." It is vital then that in the mass media age Bertie must not only speak, but be able to inspire an Empire that spans the globe. But alongside these lofty concerns sits a personal story - that of the fraught friendship between two men of very different backgrounds: Bertie and Lionel.

The resultant film is, at best, a thematic mess that (as with many biographical films) indulges in cod psychology as it explores its subject. The films feeling towards the Windsor clan is a little confused. On one hand there are frequent (and fairly funny) jokes made at the expense of the upper class: "your physicians are idiots" chides Lionel. "They've all be knighted!" replies Bertie incredulously. "That makes it official then" responds the Australian. There are also numerous moments where the royals very real contempt for the average person comes into full view, and other moments where they seem downright horrid to one another. But ultimately the film is rather smitten with these characters and its treatment of the royal clan is nostalgic and sometimes downright celebratory. Even the Nazi sympathising of Bertie's brother David (the disgraced King Edward VIII) is never really dealt with explicitly. It is alluded to at several points, but 'The King's Speech' is so set on pleasing the establishment that it avoids too much unsavoury history.

Perhaps the film is especially troubling coming now, at a time of economic crisis where the tax payer is apparently due to pick up the bill for a wealthy young billionaires wedding, as it continues to peddle a number of unpalatable myths. At one point the Queen Mum-to-be likens the heavy burden of royal obligation to a form of indentured servitude - admittedly in jest, but the lines humour comes from its perceived truth: that these noble people are in some way suffering a life of slavish public service (jetting around the world waving at people and occasionally posing for photos whilst skiing).

In some sense, the narrative's central problem is also ever so slightly pathetic. The king must labour to read aloud a speech that he hasn't written, about events he will play no practical part in shaping. He literally just has to say the words. And he can't do that. His only bloody job. I'm not intending to sound glib or churlish about those with speech impediments, including George VI who I am sure possessed some measure of courage and a certain steely resolve in order to speak publicly. But the great historical and social weight placed on this personal struggle sums up our supposed love affair with our supposed betters. "Well done!" we are geared up to gamely cheer as the very well kept and expensively educated monarch learns to pronounce his 'P' sounds. Honestly, good for him. But let's not hold a street party.

As infuriating as that premise might be though, it is one which is carried off with disarming humour. Straight after the ultimate speech, his first wartime radio address, Lionel tells Bertie "you still stuttered on the 'W'" to which the king replies "I had to throw a few of them in so they knew it was me". It is to the credit of everyone involved that this film remains affable, watchable and entertaining from start to finish in spite of its royalist ways. Geoffrey Rush is especially likable and funny, whilst Firth is again in good form. His stutter is consistent and improves subtly throughout the film. Structurally it seems to take a wrong turn when the last half hour seems to build to two climaxes (the coronation and the radio address) but it is generally well paced stuff and decently executed stuff.

It is also sometimes "a little bit Richard Curtis", when moments of comedy come entirely out of the sound of an upper class English twit using words like "tits", "willy" and "shit". In fact, Firth is in a couple of scenes required to string together great reams of "fucks" and "buggers" during his sessions with Rush's therapist. Despite this heavy use of profanity the BBFC awarded the film a '12A' certificate, even though 'Made in Dagenham' was earlier this year controversially awarded a '15' for use of the same swear words. This has led to allegations of classism against the BBFC, who many commentators suppose have seen upper class swearing as non-threatening and funny, whilst working class swearing is violent and even potentially revolutionary. Whatever the truth behind that accusation (and I certainly see some) this particular humorous element felt cheap.

Whether or not the film's decent performances are going to prove Oscar winning, we'll find out next year. I certainly don't think the films romanticised picture of the monarchy will be much of a problem for American audiences and it is precisely the sort of backwards looking, period fare that sells all too well in the colonies, for whatever reason. Is Firth's performance here better than that which graced screens earlier this year in 'A Single Man'? Well, no. But more than a few have picked up Oscars for far less, often the year after a perceived snub. With no overwhelmingly clear favourite yet established for next year's Best Actor award, this is perhaps Firth's best chance to grab the glory. If he does, brace yourself for the inevitable stutter joke during his acceptance speech...

'The King's Speech' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is due out on January 7th in the UK.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

'The Next ThreeDays' review at Obsessed With Film...

I've just found that my review for the Paul Haggis directed thriller 'The Next Three Days' has gone up over at Obsessed With Film. It is an American remake of the French thriller 'Anything For Her' and holds up rather well against that film (in fact I liked it a little more). The film stars Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks and is out in the US tomorrow. It comes out in the UK early next year - January 7th in fact. I certainly liked it far more than the last Crowe vehicle I saw: the abysmal 'Robin Hood' released earlier this year.

Cine-City 2010 Opening Night: 'The King's Speech'

Tonight the Duke of York's Picturehouse plays host to a screening of 'The King's Speech' starring Colin Firth as the 2010 Cine-City Brighton Film Festival gets underway. Having won the top prizes in Toronto earlier this year, 'The King's Speech' is thought to be an Oscar hopeful and is directed by Tom Hooper ('The Damned United') and co-stars Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush as it tells the story of King George VI's speech impediment set during his impromptu ascension to the throne during the Second World War. Personally, I am expecting something very safe and establishment that romanticises the monarchy, but I'll give it a chance to impress me during tonight's show. Expect a review later this week.

Cine-City continues until December 5th, where it closes with Richard Ayoade's 'Submarine' (another Toronto hit). Along the way are a host of other big films which include 'The American', 'Never Let Me Go', 'Rare Exports', 'West is West', 'Of Gods and Men', 'Howl', 'Somewhere' and 'Biutiful'. I'll certainly be seeing all of those and reviewing them here over the next two weeks.

If you live in or around Brighton you should come and check out the festival, which also takes place at Brighton's Sallis Benney Theatre and features even more films than I have listed here! Here is the link to the web page again, so you can see for yourself.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

'My Afternoons With Margueritte' review:

Watching 'My Afternoons With Margueritte' is comparable to taking a good hour and half long look at the film's warm and sickly sweet poster. On it is a park bench upon which sits an affable and rotund Gérard Depardieu alongside a frail and kindly looking old lady, Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus). The colours are sunny and vivid and the image is comforting and non-threatening. Nothing that happens in the film does anything deviate from this saccharin poster image. Certainly we are shown Depardieu's Germain having a turbulent relationship with his seemingly indifferent mother. There are backflashes to his torrid time in school, belittled by his teachers for his illiteracy. We also witness how Germain is likewise belittled by his friends at the local bistro. Yet the bulk of this film is self-consciously heartwarming, relaxed and "feel good". Really Germain's troubles only exist to give the character a starting point from which to launch into a palatable journey of friendship and self-discovery.

The plot concerns a chance meeting, as one afternoon the fifty-something Germain happens upon the ninety-five year-old Margueritte in the local park whilst going to count the pigeons, whom he has named - so familiar is he with their various quirks and personalities. At this point we have already seen that he is slightly tactless and dim-witted, but the scene with the pigeons tells us that whilst Germain is an oaf, he is at least a well-meaning and good-natured one. Margueritte, it happens, also enjoys the company of this particular bunch of pigeons and a friendship is born. Soon Margueritte is reading French literary classics to Germain and an interest in literacy is ignited by the benevolent old dear. The film is directed by the veteran French director Jean Becker (and is rumoured to be his last) and is adapted from a beloved French novel by Marie-Sabine Roger (Tete en Friche).

Strangely, due to some sexual references and Germain's crudity, this gentle film about a quest for literacy has received a '15' rating from the BBFC. To put that in perspective, that's the same rating as was awarded to 'Kick-Ass' (where a 12 year-old girl says "cunt" before dismembering a roomful of ethnic and gender stereotypes) and 'The Expendables' (a bloody film with a higher body count than many small wars). By contrast 'My Afternoons With Margueritte' is a film where hopping from word to word in a French dictionary is described as "an adventure" (I'm not making this up) as the characters share the occasional baguette during reliably good weather.

The film takes place in a broad (and very French) fantasy world, where the supporting characters are colourful eccentrics and where Germain can repeatedly deface a war memorial (by adding his own name in pen) without receiving anything more than a half-hearted rebuke. It is also a reality where Depardieu's obese, illiterate character (who lives in his mother's front garden in a trailer) has somehow attracted the love of a beautiful young women who wants to bear his children. The characters are functionary and cartoon-like, with Margueritte an idealised figure about whom we learn almost nothing. Ever smiling, Margueritte speaks in banal pleasantries and seemingly exists only as an advocate for the pleasures of reading. She is "nice" - with all the boringness that that word conveys.

Perhaps you could find something in her dependence on imagined literary worlds that suggests a silent sadness at her own lonely (and childless) existence - especially as her surviving relatives are depicted as basically uncaring. But Casadesus' smile never lets up as Margueritte is portrayed as unfailingly upbeat. Depardieu is a charismatic presence who does well to elevate his character to the point where he is almost interesting, but the film conspires against him to nullify this budding spark of genuine feeling. Despite all this, I found it impossible to dislike 'My Afternoons With Margueritte', just like it's impossible to take an active dislike towards those tartan coloured biscuit tins that you find in the stale and faintly depressing house of an elderly relative - except without the same sense of obligation. I needn't have visited Germain and Margueritte and next time I'll make my excuses.

'My Afternoons With Margueritte' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out now at all Picturehouse cinemas and many others nationwide.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Trailers for 'Winnie the Pooh' and 'Tangled'

Last week Disney unveiled the first trailer for next year's hand drawn 'Winnie the Pooh' (above). Visually in keeping with the style of Wolfgang Reitherman's 1977 'The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' - albeit lacking the "dirty" look of Disney's Reitherman era films, with a cleaner look - the new film looks beautiful and the character animation is as good as anything Disney Animation Studios ever produced (especially Pooh's thoughtful facial expressions, animated by Mark Henn). The Keane song on the soundtrack could stand to be removed, but I am fairly sure that won't be in the finished film when it's released next year, as Hans Zimmer is scoring the film.

This trailer was pretty good timing for me, as I've very recently been re-watching a lot of the classics, motivated in part by the recent Blu-ray releases of 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'Fantasia'. Disney's next "animated classic" is the computer animated, 3D film 'Tangled' (below), which opens before Christmas in the US, so I am heartened to see another hand drawn film shown by Disney following the excellent 'The Princess and the Frog'. I hope there are many more to come, and maybe they can leave the CG stuff to the chaps at Pixar?

Friday, 12 November 2010

'Let Me In' review:

There is no getting away from the simple fact that the critical consensus on remakes is that they are at best pointless and at their worst artless facsimiles. It is brave then of 'Cloverfield' director Matt Reeves to have remade a recent film of seemingly unanimous critical acclaim. Few critics took Tomas Alfredson's 2008 vampire film, 'Let the Right One In' (itself an adaptation of a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist), for anything less than a classic upon its release. In the two short years since, it has already become an established sight on horror movie "best of" lists amongst critics and the public (or at least a cinephile sub-section of the public). It is brave of Reeves to attempt to remake such a film, still so fresh in the memory, in spite of the fact that "Hollywood" remakes of foreign language films are routinely dismissed before anyone has had a chance to see so much as a poster. "They'll dumb it down." "They won't keep that bit in." And so on and so forth.

It is even braver (or perhaps more foolish) then that Reeves has sought to do little more than transpose what is a fairly slow and contemplative film, lacking much genuine action or any real "scares", into English without really "sexing it up" at all - give or take some CGI work. The film's box office results, here and in North America, reflect the fact that Reeves (who also wrote the screenplay) has tried very hard to keep to the spirit of the original film and in doing so has limited its mainstream appeal. Perhaps you could argue his film is too respectful to the original - that it does nothing new and hasn't even found the story an especially big new audience - and therefore it is even more pointless an exercise than something altogether different (however crass).

For those who aren't familiar with the original film or its source novel, 'Let Me In' is a bleak and low-key horror film set in a snowy, backwater town where a meek and isolated 12 year-old boy - bullied at school and paid little attention by his warring parents - befriends his new neighbour, an unusual 12 year-old girl who happens to be a vampire. It is a sort of dark love story, though the love is Platonic and born from mutual acceptance, and need for kinship, rather than lust. The girl is accompanied to the neighbourhood by her guardian, a father figure who is forced to murder people in order to bring her the human blood that sustains her life.

The film retains the 1980s setting of the original, but does so with far less subtlety. As well as the Rubix Cube which begins the young duos friendship (with the girl working it out with impressive ease and speed), we are shown President Reagan on TV (twice), and hear David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' on the soundtrack more than once. Unlike in the previous version the local adults/victims are not down-and-out social outcasts, but just normal, everyday people.

One thing is for sure: 'Let Me In' is no turkey. It is atmospheric and tightly directed (with the mood, and many individual shots, stolen wholesale from the original), the young stars - Kodi Smit-McPhee ('The Road') and Chloe Moretz ('Kick-Ass') - are well cast, and no overwhelming liberties are taken with the story (although, somewhat predictably, the vampire's anatomical reveal is omitted). The themes of the original are left intact and the dynamics between the characters are just as interesting, though motivations and events are often over-explained. Perhaps the relationship between the vampire and her guardian is more touching and sympathetic in this American version, thanks to the casting of the excellent Richard Jenkins.

As mentioned, both the film's young stars are effective (though Smit-McPhee is a little more wet behind the ears than his Swedish counterpart), but it is Moretz who stands out and proves again that she has a strong screen presence which belies her years. The film is carried by these actors and the tenderness of the scenes between them is often quite sweet. However the more emotional scenes are undermined by Michael Giacchino's melodramatic and string-heavy score (a shame as his Academy Award winning music for Pixar's 'Up' was deeply affecting), which often also overemphasises moments of suspense. It certainly isn't a patch on Johan Söderqvist's chilling score for the 2008 film.

The film's increased budget is best put to use in the film's few "action" sequences in which the vampire attacks her prey. Some very effective CGI work has been done to make her attacks more visceral and jarring: with jerky body movements and a deadly athleticism, combined with some really bone-crunching violence (otherwise impossible from a stunt actor or practical effects). I would agree that often, particularly in horror, practical effects are more weighty and frightening, but there are some things that computers are just better for and 'Let Me In' gets the balance about right. As a result a few of those more grim scenes are improved on the original. This is not true in every case, however. The memorable penultimate scene, in the school swimming pool, is not filmed with anything like the same startling economy demonstrated in the Swedish version (in which all the violence took place in one brief underwater shot), and instead we are shown too much for too long.

All in all, 'Let Me In' is a polished and effective remake which does nothing to embarrass the original, even if it does equally little to challenge it. Some things (the violence) are taken further due to the film's increased budget, whilst some things (arguably more significant things - like the gender issue) are reduced or go unexplored. Ultimately, there is nothing here to really contradict those who will say the whole exercise is inherently pointless. But I would say that, if you haven't seen the original and can't stand to read subtitles, then you aren't shaming yourself by watching this American remake. Its flaws mostly lie in its (unavoidably) derivative nature and if you have nothing to compare it against then you might find yourself just as moved and surprised as the rest of us were two years ago.

'Let Me In' is out in the UK now and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

WIN A YEARS PICTUREHOUSE MEMBERSHIP with the Woody Allen Pantheon Podcast

The other day Jon and I recorded our latest "Pantheon" Splendor Cinema podcast which focussed on the work of Woody Allen. In it we talk about our favourite Woody Allen films. You can dowload it from iTunes or stream it on the Picturehouse website.

It is well worth listening to as there is a competition this week, where you could win a years Picturehouse membership for two people worth £55 (which includes six free tickets). Listen to the podcast and e-mail your answer to our question to splendorcinema@gmail.com with "Woody Allen" as the subject.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

'Another Year' review:

Mike Leigh's latest film, 'Another Year' starring Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville, is his first since 2008's 'Happy-Go-Lucky' (one of my all-time favourite films) and has received no shortage of plaudits since debuting in Cannes earlier this year. In France it was bested by the surreal Thai film 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives', which was preferred by the Tim Burton-led jury at the festival. However, 'Another Year' affected me far more than 'Boonmee' and moved me close to tears with Leigh's customary blend of well observed, wonderfully acted human drama. As always, even the smallest roles in Leigh's film feel imbued with real depth, no doubt as a result of his legendary production method in which actors fully develop their characters over time in extensive workshops and rehearsals.

Even when the dialogue doesn't seem especially fluid or naturalistic, as when characters continually refer to each other by name, it retains a feeling of realism due to the depth of the characters - who feel like fully formed people - and the brilliance of the actors. Lesley Manville gives perhaps the most obvious standout performance, with her emotionally damaged character Mary in many ways serving as the heart of the film, but Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent are equally good as the married couple (Gerri and Tom) around whom the action is staged. Broadbent is an especially warm presence and his masterful comic timing provides many of the film's funniest moments.

'Another Year' is typically a character driven affair with very little to really speak of in terms of plot. We observe a year in the life of an upper-middle class married couple living in suburban outer London in the years before their retirement, with the film divided into sections named after the four seasons with each one looking at a different episode in the year. Over this year they meet with family and old friends - not all of whom are as happy as the couple. As much as they try to help their friends with advice and support, the moral of the piece seems to be that we are all responsible for our own happiness.

The film opens on a close-up of a particularly solemn-looking Imelda Staunton, in a small role as a lady who is suffering from insomnia. She asks her GP for medication and an instant solution to her problems, but is instead sent to see Gerri, who works as a councillor. "If you could change one thing that would make your life better, what would it be?" Jerry asks. "Different life" replies the grim-faced Staunton, unwilling to take control of her happiness and accept that it could be improved. Then there is Tom's lifelong friend Ken (Peter Wight) who is in a self-confessed slump, and who has taken to binge drinking and eating out of despair. Tom suggests that they go on a walking trip together that Autumn, to do something fun and proactive, yet Ken remains silent.

That scene rang especially true for me, as someone who has similarly tried to counsel friends in the past, as sometimes there really isn't anything you can do - however much you try to encourage them. It is standard Hollywood truism that characters must change, and that the change must come from inside them. In that sense the film seems to support that model. Yet here no easy solutions are offered and the problems of Ken, Mary and of Staunton's insomniac are left unresolved. The film seems to support the idea that there is only ever so much you can do to affect change in someone else's life (at least emotionally). It is perhaps for this reason that Tom and Gerri eventually give up trying to council Mary, whose life is in perpetual crisis and who harbours a somewhat desperate fantasy of having a relationship with the couple's thirty-year-old son (Oliver Maltman). Ultimately Gerri suggests that Mary get professional help, now seemingly unwilling to take her work home with her (in more ways than one, as Mary is also a colleague from the practice).

That said, I'd hate to give the impression that 'Another Year' lacks compassion towards these lonely and depressive characters who it, in a sense, argues should take responsibility for their own misery. The opposite is true. Like Leigh's other films these characters are so well realised that it is hard for you to feel anything but wholly sympathetic towards them, even at their most self-destructive (and selfish). They are people damaged by circumstance, and the depression we see could just as easily apply to Tom or Gerri is circumstances were different. As Gerri notes to Mary, as she voices her disregard for Ken, "life's not always kind is it?" The empathy we feel for these people is played out in the film's ingenious final panning shot around the dinner table, which creates suspense and tension as we wait what seems like an age before we are allowed to see Mary. This shot is only able to generate suspense because by that point we are so emotionally invested in seeing how Mary is reacting to a dinner conversation where she is neither the centre of attention, nor an especially welcome guest.

As well as being poignant and emotionally affecting, 'Another Year' is also often quite funny. Perhaps the most enjoyable scene being one which beautifully contrasts Mary's self-involved and hyper-emotional world with that of Tom's emotionally numb brother Ronnie (David Bradley). Ronnie is a gruff Yorkshireman in whose dreary Derby house hangs a faded picture of Derby County Football Club - the fate of which Ronnie's life has seemingly mirrored, having lived his best days watching the team in its late-60s heyday as a boy, with his prospects less than exciting ever since. Having just lost his wife, days prior, Ronnie makes the decision to come and stay with Tom and Gerri in London for a while, only to find himself confronted by the heightened emotions of Mary, as well as her desperate longing for companionship. Not only does this scene subtly play on the North/South divide, but Bradley injects a lot of humour into it with his extreme lack of expression.

'Another Year' is another fine film by Leigh - and solidifies him as my favourite living British director. The only criticism I would level at it would be that Gary Yershon's score is quite twee in a way which doesn't reflect the sensibilities of the rich and genuinely affecting film it supports. Certainly one of the best films I've seen this year, it is a just a pity that jury in Cannes did not agree.

'Another Year' opened on Friday 5th November in the UK and can be seen at cinemas nationwide, including Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse. It has been rated a '12A' by the BBFC.

Friday, 5 November 2010

'Cyrus' review:

Directed by darlings of the "mumblecore" scene Jay and Mark Duplass, 'Cyrus' is an off-beat American indie comedy which stars John C.Reilly as a John, a divorced, middle-aged man who is unlucky in love until he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) at a party. John and Molly immediately click together and both seem to have found their soul mate. However, Molly has an adult son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), with whom she retains an uncomfortably close relationship. Jealous of this new man in his mother's life, Cyrus resolves to break the relationship up and send John out the door. With hilarious consequences!

Well that's the idea. The tragedy of 'Cyrus' is that it isn't hilarious. Or even wryly amusing. Trapped somewhere between a high-concept Apatow comedy and a subtle, character driven mumblecore film, 'Cyrus' feels like a film in the throes of an identity crisis. I have no problem with filmmakers mixing genres, but the problem here is that the two disparate sets of influences which seem to lie behind this film actually seem to contradict each other and kill the comedy dead. Reilly and Tomei are quite naturalistic and subtle, whilst Hill gives a more heightened, overtly comic turn as Cyrus - his eyes permanently bulging out of his head as if in a state of constant bewilderment.

The gags themselves don't work with the film's lo-fi aesthetic at all. For instance, there is quite a bit of slapstick (with the characters fighting at a wedding, knocking over furniture) which seems out of place in a film which doesn't feel especially madcap (it's got Catherine Keener is in it for Christ's sake). Another scene sees Cyrus undermining John, as he talks to Molly, by holding up large signs in his eye line. "You're going down", Cyrus openly advertises. Why can't John simply point this out to Molly? Why can't he say "your son is trying to break us up... look, he's holding up a sign that says as much behind your head right now!" This scene wouldn't be out of place in a more self-consciously silly comedy (in fact it might even work as an amusing set piece) but in 'Cyrus' it falls completely flat, undermined by what is otherwise a fairly naturalistic film.

No doubt what I have flagged up as a failing may be the key to why some others find 'Cyrus' interesting and funny. Perhaps you could argue that placing this sort of comedy into a new setting, which sees them underplayed rather than exaggerated, is a comic masterstroke. While it didn't strike me that way, I can certainly see the merits of that argument. But even if I thought the gags and set-pieces in 'Cyrus' worked in this context, I would still argue that they have nothing else going for them. There is not a single original joke in the film. "There is no way I'm going to a party tonight" says John. Guess what the next shot is? Then there is a token embarrassing karaoke scene, mined hard for schadenfreude. There's a scene in which Cyrus plays some of his own terrible electronic music for an awkward John. Isn't that joke stolen wholesale from an episode of 'Friends' circa 1997? The comedy coming from the same disconnect between the musician's earnest intensity and his actual ability?

In the end I laughed twice during 'Cyrus'. Once was when Cyrus opines that John's hair is "like a crippled tree reaching for heaven" and the other time was when I realised John C.Reilly sounds exactly like Fozzie Bear from 'The Muppets'. Otherwise, I admired the performances of Reilly and Tomei and wished that 'Cyrus' could have been worthy of its cast. In its attempts to bring the mumblecore movement to a more mainstream comedy audience, it has failed to be either a comedy or a passable indie drama.

'Cyrus' is rated '15' by the BBFC and came out in the UK back in September.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Disney Fiercely Protecting Their Legacy on Blu-ray...

As a huge fan of animation I have eagerly devoured every one of the Disney Blu-ray releases from the so-called "animated classics" canon* as they have been released. Not especially prudent use of my money, as I already owned them all on DVD, yet the superior treatment afforded to the 50th anniversary release of 'Sleeping Beauty' in 2008 convinced me that they were well worth investing in, yielding new insights into the old classics. As well as being presented in its original aspect ratio (Super Techirama 70) for the first time since it's 1958 release, 'Sleeping Beauty' received a glorious array of extra features, the best of which was a commentary track by Pixar legend John Lassester, film historian Leonard Maltin and veteran Disney character animator Andreas Deja.

What made that commentary so brilliant was its unprecedented level of depth, as it looked at all the circumstances behind the film's production, even including picture-in-picture images which allowed for archive interviews with the film's animators, as well as storyboards and concept art, to be displayed alongside the relevant bits of the movie. Happily Disney followed suit with their next Blu-ray animation titles, investing just as much love and care in 'Pinocchio' and Pixar's 'Wall-E', both of which boasted those same picture-in-picture commentaries (dubbed "Cine-Explore" in the promotional materials).

However, I was really disappointed to find that the same treatment has not been afforded the subsequent releases. Don't get me wrong: 'Dumbo', 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', 'Princess and the Frog' and 'Beauty and the Beast' have, by any other studios standards, benefited from a decent array of extras and the main feature has been provided in the best possible quality. But the thing about those other commentaries was that they were much more in-depth than the standard director's observations that we usually hear. They contextualised the films they accompanied wonderfully and the picture-in-picture element gave you the chance to see some interesting supporting materials alongside the feature. For example, when being told about the influence of Hieronymus Bosch paintings on Eyvind Earle's designs for Malificent's goons in 'Sleeping Beauty' we were also shown the paintings themselves. To my mind that was the way every Blu-ray commentary should have been done since. Certainly, those features certainly made me less reticent about re-buying films I already own on DVD.

But it seems Disney has its own quite canny and interesting new strategy for converting its customers to the format, eschewing extras as the big selling point. Disney have for a while now been at the forefront of the move to include a DVD with each Blu-ray as standard (they've been doing this since 'Sleeping Beauty' was released two years ago), but earlier this week (when buying 'Beauty and the Beast') I noticed a very clever and hugely interesting new development. With previous releases Disney has put out a cheaper standard DVD version alongside a more expensive Blu-ray version (with DVD included), however 'Beauty and the Beast' is the same price in DVD form as it is in its Blu-ray incarnation. The reason? The DVD edition now includes a "bonus" Blu-ray version of the film! In familiar DVD packaging, standard-def customers are now unwittingly buying Blu-ray.

Many may express anger at this bold move. After all, aren't Disney charging the majority of people extra money for something that they don't want/need? Well, yes. But, as a supporter of that format who hopes to see it take off (and take over) I welcome the move. What better way to move the discs into people's homes Trojan horse style? Of course there is more in it for Disney then just creating a user base for the next generation of home entertainment players. It is also a rather ingenious way of allowing their cherished classics to retain their value in a world where the £19.99 DVD is a thing of the past.

Disney has always been justly protective of these films, re-releasing them and subsequently withdrawing them from stores in an endless rotation designed to keep them "special", and what better way is there to reasonably keep the value of these films up? (And I say this as someone who has paid the full price for many of them more than once.) You never see a Beatles CD on sale for less than £10 for the same reason you never see a Disney classic in the bargain bins: like Apple Corp, Disney just won't let it happen. Just try making money selling copies of 'Men in Black II' once it's been available for 99p (or possibly less). Once you reduce somethings value you reduce it forever. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Whilst I wouldn't argue too strongly against those who would argue that Disney's keeping these films sacred is chiefly for financial gain (yes, they are a company with shareholders), I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the idea that the Mouse House is historically run by people with an earnest desire to maintain the company's heritage. After all, in 2006 Disney were rumoured to have paid a huge multi-million dollar sum to acquire the rights to Mickey Mouse's ancestor Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Universal. Oswald, the first big claim to fame of Walt Disney in his earliest days as an animator, was purchased at the behest of the Disney family (the real family... that wasn't a creepy corporate metaphor) for no other purpose than maintaining Walt's legacy. Whilst Oswald merchandise is no doubt now available, it is not really a big money spinner - at least in the short term - and certainly not enough to offset the cost of buying the rights. You could say Oswald is just Mickey Mouse with longer ears and fewer fans: and you'd be right. But I guess at the corporate level buying him is the equivalent of paying out for the Blu-ray hoping to get that little extra you were missing.

Anyway, I have just sat through the commentaries on 'Princess and the Frog' and 'Beauty in the Beast' and wanted to spout off about it all somewhere. I am super excited by the prospect of the 'Fantasia'/'Fantasia 2000' box set which comes to Blu-ray on Monday - and which will no doubt cost just as much on Blu-ray with a free DVD as on DVD with a free Blu-ray! I am interested to see what form Disney's home video releases take in the next few years, namely on the subject of which titles will be re-released and what sorts of features they will boast (especially in the post 3D-TV era). Whether Disney's new pricing strategy will continue beyond 'Fantasia' and 'Toy Story 3', who knows? Could it continue into releases by other studios? As the format comes close to being half a decade old, surely the next few years are decisive if it's to become a feature of the living rooms of people other than early adopters and obsessive collectors. In summary: I hope more people are persuaded to buy these things so Disney can keep releasing them.

*As a random geeky sidebar: whilst Disney's effort to preserve a hallowed canon has been consistent for years, what actually constitutes an "animated classic" is under almost constant revision somewhere in the marketing department of the home entertainment wing. In the mid-90s predominantly live-action features such as 'Pete's Dragon', 'Bed Knobs and Broomsticks' and 'Mary Poppins' were treated as part of the canon, whilst the 2000 release 'Dinosaur' has only recently begun to be included in the official reckoning - now listed as number 39, with everything from 'The Emperor's New Groove' onwards shifting up a number.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

'The Kids Are All Right' review:

It is not often that homosexuality is presented on movie screens as smartly, as sweetly and as frankly as it is in Lisa Cholodenko's brilliantly acted family drama 'The Kids Are All Right'. The film looks at a modern family headed by two women, Jules and Nic played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, and their two children conceived via an anonymous sperm donor. The family are functional, loving and the fact that it is headed by a pair of lesbians is almost incidental. Which is not to say that the film ignores the characters sexuality, but just that the couple's relationship is never exaggerated or patronised by Cholodenko, who also co-wrote the screenplay.

As functional and healthy as they are, the family (like all families) has its problems. The son, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), is in a destructive friendship which is causing him to behave antisocially, whilst the daughter, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), is a straight 'A' student who has recently turned eighteen and is increasingly fed up with her parents refusal to treat her like an adult. Meanwhile, Jules feels taken for granted by Nic, who seems to spend more time working than paying her attention and who even seems to belittle her contribution to the household following a series of aborted business ideas. Nic, in turn, feels burdened by her position as the breadwinner and as the strict parent.

Breaking the relative equilibrium, and bringing some of these background problems to the fore, is the sudden appearance of the kid's genetic father on scene. At the behest of her younger brother, Joni uses her status as a legal adult to make contact with her parent's sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who immediately ingratiates himself with most of the family and becomes a regular part of their lives - attempting to become a permanent fixture and establish himself as the children's father. Soon the kids are breaking rules laid down by their parents, whilst Jules becomes rather too close to Paul whilst working to redesign his garden with her fledgling landscaping company.

That plotline and the dynamic between all the central characters isn't exactly virgin territory and you could be forgiven for groaning when the film includes a tired "young-lady-I-forbid-you-to-ride-that-motorcycle" sub-plot, seemingly carried over from any number of trite 90s US sitcoms. But what marks this film apart from more hackneyed fare is the depth of the characters (none of whom are judged by the writing) and the performances of the actors. Each of the characters operates in three dimensions with each of them flawed in their own way. But none are flawed in any way which is obvious and none of the film's conflicts stem from lazy and contrived scenes of miscommunication. The family ring true as a family and it is testament to the great skill of the filmmakers and their actors that the film's brighter moments never feel overly sentimental or cheesy.

Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo provide the most nuanced and heartbreaking performances, with Ruffalo creating a character of great warmth and charm in Paul where another less gifted actor might have portrayed him as a more outwardly Machiavellian figure. In Ruffalo's hands I was never really sure of Paul's intentions. He is certainly not blameless for any of the events which follow his meeting the family, but there is a touching sincerity in Ruffalo's eyes which led me to suspect his intentions were basically good. Julianne Moore is as raw and damaged as she has ever been, whilst Mia Wasikowska (best known for her title role in the rubbish 'Alice in Wonderland' earlier this year) is an engaging and thoughtful presence. Josh Hutcherson is effective, but shines less brightly than his co-stars with relatively little to do but play "the slightly obnoxious sulky one".

As well as being an effective family drama, 'The Kids Are All Right' is also enlivened by deftly written dialogue which includes some pretty funny one-liners. As a result it never sags and consistently entertains all the way up to its emotional finale.

'The Kids Are All Right' opened in the UK on October 29th and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Monday, 1 November 2010

November's Flick's Flicks, plus Halloween Splendor Podcast

November's episode of Flick's Flicks is now online. In it I preview the upcoming films and events for Picturehouse cinemas, which for the next month includes 'Chico & Rita', 'Let Me In', 'Another Year' and 'My Afternoons With Marguerite'. This is my penultimate episode as guest host standing in for Felicity, who returns for January's show (which I'm told will have a brand new look for the new year).

Also, Jon and I recorded our 38th Splendor Cinema podcast the other night, whilst working through a Zombie All-nighter at the Duke of York's cinema. We were joined by special guests (and Duke's co-workers) Adam Whitehall, Toby King and Craig Lakin Ennis as we chatted about favourite horror movies. The podcast should be at it's usual homes on the Picturehouse website and on iTunes within the next couple of days.

Check back later this week for my belated review of indie comedy 'Cyrus' and of current release 'The Kids Are All Right'. You can also read my review of today's 'Predators' Blu-ray release over at Obsessed With Film.