Thursday, 28 April 2011

'Thor' review:

Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America are popular and, to varying degrees, iconic comic book superheroes. With this in mind, Marvel Studios decision to make big, blockbuster films based on these "properties" is understandable and even inevitable. But Marvel, now owned by Disney, have bigger plans for their so-called "cinematic universe" which involve interlinking their different characters in the same way they did with the comic book continuity years ago. It makes obvious financial sense: like Iron Man but not so fussed about the Hulk? Well, chances are you're going to pay to see the big green guy anyway because of that Tony Stark cameo.

The ultimate goal for Marvel, as announced way back in 2005, is to make what (they hope) will be a massive super-blockbuster in the form of 'The Avengers' - the superhero equivalent of the Travelling Wilburys. And they have been steadily and unsubtly promoting that future franchise ever since by shoehorning cameos, in-jokes and geek-oriented references into each film - often via Samuel L Jackson. 'Iron Man 2' was so concerned with setting up the Avenger origin story that parts of that film felt like an extended trailer. The problem with this game-plan is that, in order to form the on-screen Avengers, Marvel have to set-up some less iconic and potentially less cinematic heroes for that movie to make sense. That's what brings us to 'Thor'. A superhero movie no one asked for.

Thor is somewhat harder to buy into than his future co-vigilantes. Iron Man is a normal guy - albeit a billionaire scientist with a fancy suit - whilst Hulk and Captain America are just victims of experiments in radiation. Crucially, they are all human beings. However, Marvel's Thor supposes that the realm of Asgard is real and exists on a distant planet, with the Viking "gods" of Norse legend being super-powered, space-travelling aliens. Thor, an Asgardian, throws a huge mythical hammer, Mjöllnir, that can only be lifted by those considered "worthy". In contrast to the likes of Spider-Man, his family aren't "normal" either: dad is Odin and his brother Loki. How could this story of a fallen god landing on contemporary planet Earth possibly seem credible? Ancient myths, like that of Hercules, are full of such stories (as are texts as diverse and evergreen as The Bible and Superman), but 'Thor' has to fit in with the likes of 'Iron Man', which featured the War in Afghanistan as a plot element. How can planet Asgard and the War in Afghanistan possibly co-exist in the same filmic universe?

The daunting task faced by director Kenneth Branagh has been to construct a film which marries both worlds - the fantastical realm of Asgard and a dusty New Mexico town - in a way which makes sense. And, surprisingly, he somehow does this rather well, aided by 'I Am Legend' screenwriter Mark Protosevich who solves the principal problem by using self-effacing humour. When the brash and violent Thor (Chris Hemsworth) lands on Earth (stripped of his powers), after being cast out of Asgard by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) for starting a war with a race called the Ice Giants, the film immediately becomes a fish out of water comedy of sorts. Thor tries to beat up a hospital full of doctors who are trying to heal him before being knocked out by an injection, and later he smashes a coffee cup and loudly demands a refill in a busy cafe. He acts pompously and is lampooned as a figure of fun whilst he adjusts to alien surroundings.

This jesting is an effective slight of hand that keeps us from laughing at the transition between the two worlds. As with a stand-up comic who cracks jokes about their own obesity, the film heads off any potential tittering cynic at the pass because it's meant to be funny.

From then on the young "thunder god" adjusts to his new surroundings fairly quickly and the world of Thor comes to makes sense to us. By the time he dons his faux-Viking battle fatigues and does battle with The Destroyer (don't ask) on Main Street, we have successfully suspended our disbelief. Instead we can enjoy the fights which - let's face it - are the reason we go to the cinema to watch superhero movies. Branagh perhaps commits the crime of shooting too much action in disorienting close-up and some of the effects work is a little ropey, but 'Thor' is nevertheless good value entertainment with its share of climactic fist-pumping moments. It's also not as shallow as you might expect, with pretty well-rounded characters and a sympathetic villain. Its director is best known for adapting Shakespeare for the screen and, had the Bard penned a treatment of the screenplay, it would be easy to imagine this story from the point of view of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as a great tragedy.

This unexpected depth owes much to the actors. Hemsworth, for his part, is pretty good as Thor and his transition from, as Protosevich has put it, "an Old Testament god to a New Testament god" is carried off well. It doesn't feel like the usual sudden third act u-turn when he becomes worthy of reclaiming his powers because he has genuinely changed before our eyes, becoming more humble and gentle through his association with scientist Jane Foster, as played by Natalie Portman. It may seem as though Portman, a recent Academy Award winner, is slumming it in 'Thor' (an accusation also levelled at Branagh) - and who could blame her after 'Black Swan'. But she gives her all to the role regardless and elevates a love-interest character into something more interesting and appealing. Like Hopkins, Hiddleston and veteran Swede Stellan Skarsgård, she adds believability to this obscure Marvel tale, and in doing so eases what must have been the studio's greatest concern.

Fun, light-hearted and - at times - morally complex, 'Thor' is more than just a cynical means to an end (even if it does feature a completely pointless and convoluted cameo for another Marvel hero). That is not to say, however, that it isn't also serving as a Trojan two-hour advert for 'The Avengers'. It's just that it's good enough that you won't mind. For comic book fans, summer 2012 can't come soon enough.

'Thor' is out now in the UK and has been rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

30 Day Film Quiz: Days 21-30

It's super self-indulgent. It's extremely pointless. It's, well, not really a "quiz". But today is the concluding part of the '30 Day Film Quiz'. For those with an interest, parts one and two are also available. Yes folks, this is what passes for a blog post these days. More reviews soon...

Day 21 - Your Favourite Sci-Fi/Fantasy Film

Sci-fi or fantasy? Well how about a film which is a huge dollop of both? Princesses and knights and magical powers... and space ships.

Ask me this question for probably 90% of my lifespan so far and I would have immediately shouted (yes, shouted) 'The Empire Strikes Back' - so I'll stick with that answer even though I'm more ambivalent towards 'Star Wars' as an entity these days. It remains a sensational film.

Directed by the late Irvin Kirschner and co-written by future 'Raiders of the Lost Arc' scribe Lawrence Kasdan, 'Empire' is the best of the old trilogy, with clever dialogue (yes, really), a genuinely touching romance story and one of the most downbeat endings in blockbuster history. It's full of exciting moments too, such as the the battle of Hoth and the asteroid field chase, whilst it also debuted John Williams most iconic and enduring piece of music: The Imperial March. A tune memorably first heard as we witness Darth Vader's gargantuan "super" Star Destroyer, as seen below:

Day 22 - Your Favourite Horror Film

Errr... I don't really watch a lot of horror, so almost by default I'll go with perhaps the greatest horror ever made and one of the few I can enjoy: Kubrick's 'The Shining'.

I trust most people know what 'The Shining' is, so in the interests of levity here is a funny re-edit of the trailer from YouTube, which ingeniously casts the film as a family comedy:

Day 23 - Your Favourite Thriller/Mystery Film

Ooohhh... that's a difficult one. I really like the films of Bong Joon-ho, whose 2009 film 'Mother' is a superior example of both genres. I'll go with that one.

Day 24 - Your Favourite Animated or Children's Film

Being a big fan of the classic Disney animations, my favourite animated film would have to be 'Sleeping Beauty', which is an auteured piece, with a unified art style and a daring stylised approach which has no parallel amongst the studio's other features. The backgrounds are especially detailed and incredible and the animation so fluid that years later some of it was re-used on 'Beauty and the Beast'. As a runner-up, I'm a huge fan of Brad Bird's 'The Iron Giant'.

Day 25 - Your Favourite Documentary Film

I wouldn't cast myself as any kind of connoisseur of documentary film as I've only begun to watch theatrical release documentaries in recent years - and then generally only fairly mainstream ones. However, I find Werner Herzog's films interest me most due to a mix of his distinctive narration and his eye for absurdity. Wherever he goes and whatever the subject of his film, his thesis is always thoughtful, frank and human, lacking in cheap sentimentality of man or nature.

His 1977 documentary 'La soufriere' is one of the best. This comparatively short film sees the German director risk his life to capture footage of an island abandoned due to the pending explosion of its active volcano (hauntingly interviewing those who have chosen to stay behind). The whole thing is available to stream on YouTube:

Day 26 - Your Favourite Foreign Language Film

This is a strange category, maybe even more so in this poll than at the Academy Awards. Surely "foreign language" film - for most of us - accounts for the vast majority of all the films ever made.

Anyway, I won't argue. Instead I'll just post a trailer for Kurosawa's breathtaking and timeless 'Rashomon'. The film credited with opening the door to Europe for Asian cinema after it won the Golden Lion in the Venice Film Festival of 1951.

Day 27 - Your Favourite Independent Film

This is a potentially messy category. These days, as with the music industry, the so-called "indie" films are all actually backed by huge corporations. The likes of Miramax (especially in the 90s), and big studio offshoots like Fox Searchlight more recently, have threatened to make the term meaningless.

With that considered, I'll pick a proper independent film from yesteryear. The debut feature of Terrence Malick: 'Badlands'.

Day 28 - The Most Obscure Film You've Ever Seen

Last year the BFI did a brilliant Kurosawa retrospective, which included a couple of screenings of his earliest films - made during the second world war. Many of these, like 'Sanshiro Sugata' and its sequel, won't be obscure to Japanese audiences, yet in the UK many of these films are not available on DVD. One such gem is 'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail', which was loosely remade years later as the better known 'The Hidden Fortress'. There aren't any trailers or clips online that I can find, so you'll have to make do with an image.

Day 29 - Your Favourite Film As a Kid

See "Day 21". Alternatively...

Day 30 - Your Favourite Film This Time Last Year

In an "all time" sense, I don't remember that being any different to my favourite film of right now. So instead I'll try to think back to whatever film I was most excited by in April of 2010.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant dominated my thoughts this time last year with their drama-comedy film 'Cemetery Junction'. This is because I interviewed them about it, which was a huge deal for me being my first contribution to Obsessed with Film and also my first big interview.

However, the best film I saw this time last year was 'Dogtooth', a disturbing and darkly funny Greek satire about a group of "children" who are kept in ignorance about the world outside their house by possessive parents.

So concludes the "30 Day Film Quiz". It's been fun.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

'Little White Lies' review:

Running times can be a precarious business. The recent release of Disney's 'Winnie the Pooh' left many critics feeling short-changed by a film that, ignoring shorts, was less than an hour in length - a fact which resulted in a string of low to average review scores. At the other end of the spectrum there is the French ensemble comedy-drama 'Little White Lies', which outstays its welcome over 154 minutes of forced jollity and self-indulgent boohooing.

Called 'Les petits mouchoirs' ('The Small Handkerchiefs') at home, the film was a runaway success at the French box-office, with Marion Cotillard starring alongside equally big names in the domestic cinema such as François Cluzet, Benoît Magimel, Gilles Lellouche and Valérie Bonneton. The excitement it generated can perhaps be attributed to its being director Guillaume Canet's follow-up to the 2006 international hit 'Tell No One'. Though far from being another taut thriller, 'Little White Lies' is an airy summer jaunt around pristine beaches in the company of a smug group of affluent thritysomethings.

There is a measure of tension however, as this group of Parisians embark on their annual holiday in the shadow of a road accident which has left one of their number hospitalised and in critical condition. Their decision to take the holiday calls into question the strength of the friendship group and many home truths are aired, with each character forced to confront their self-involved nature. There are tears, fist fights, boating mishaps and smashed crockery, all set to an alt-rock soundtrack which never leaves you in any doubt as to what you are supposed to feel as you weep into your pinot grigio.

The film wears its desire to be poignant on its well-tailored sleeve and ends up being irksome, but in a controlled dose 'Little White Lies' could have been more bearable. The actors, though confined to playing broad comic archetypes (the funny one, the kooky one, the uptight one, the closet homosexual one), are watchable and the whole thing is beautifully photographed by Christophe Offenstein (especially an early tracking shot through the streets of Paris at dawn). Many of the comic incidents - such as the moment one lovesick chap ploughs his speedboat into the harbour whilst struggling to answer his mobile phone - are charming and occasionally raise a chuckle, but there are too many of them and too much nothing in between. Like Peter Jackson before him, Canet has spectacularly abused final cut privilege.

I don't mind that 'Winnie the Pooh' is barely fifty minutes long, because it's a fun fifty minutes and I didn't find myself checking my watch in the cinema (a real rarity). Whilst I wouldn't chop a minute off an epic like 'Seven Samurai' and I'd love to see the rumoured five-hour director's cut of Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line'. But generally films with shorter running times (around or just under the ninety minute mark) are more satisfying examples of the art: tightly paced and disciplined movies which have a clear idea of what they are trying to do and get to the point with pleasing economy.

By contrast 'Little White Lies' is an almost interminably long film and for no obvious reason. Canet could have done with shaving an hour of its running time and, if done skilfully, could have made most of the same points about his characters with greater dynamism.

'Little White Lies' has been rated '15' by the BBFC and is out now in the UK.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Chaplin and Meadows: Cinema in Defence of the Immigrant

43 years ago today Conservative MP Enoch Powell made one of the most famous, and divisive, speeches in modern British political history. The so-called "Rivers of Blood speech" of April 20th 1968 argued that immigrants would be the ruin of Britain and suggested deportation (or the nicer sounding "re-emigration") of British minorities. This admittedly well-written and passionately delivered piece of nakedly racist oratory has cast a long shadow over British politics ever since.

For instance, the foaming rage expressed in this passage of the speech would not be out of the place in a Daily Mail column: "We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre. So insane are we that we actually permit unmarried persons to immigrate for the purpose of founding a family with spouses and fiancées whom they have never seen."

The MP for Wolverhampton South West went on to argue that anti-discrimination laws would lead to discrimination against the rest of British society - the sort of frenzied, scaremongering argument that you would find in a British National Party pamphlet. It should be noted that the exact same argument - that equality would result in mutual poverty - was used to oppose the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century.

It seems fitting then to use this dubious anniversary to celebrate the immigrant, long depicted by the cinema as a working class underdog and something of a hero.

Almost every film of Charles Chaplin - acting in the guise of the "Little Tramp" - overtly championed those who arrived in the United States looking for a better life, with the British-born director himself an immigrant coming from humble origins. His 1917 short comedy 'The Immigrant' (above) chronicled the uncomfortable journey by sea to the states and also satirised the rough treatment and poverty immigrants faced on the other side. To his long-term cost (he would later find himself denied re-entry to the United States on account of his left-wing politics) Chaplin used his mass popularity to try to spread messages of tolerance and unity throughout the world. In the silent era his movies spoke to people around the world, as they captured the commonality of the working class experience across borders.

His most pointed political statement came in his great anti-fascist film 'The Great Dictator' of 1940. In a speech (which you can watch below), delivered direct to camera, Chaplin says: "Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfil their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfil that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness."

A more contemporary British filmmaker, Shane Meadows, has also frequently concerned himself with immigration. His seminal 2006 film 'This is England' is dominated by a violent force of nature in the form of a right-wing skinhead (Stephen Graham) who supports the National Front during the 1980s. During the film he delivers a number of angry sermons which echo Powell's statements and he eventually unleashes all of his fury on a gentle mixed-race lad (it isn't made clear whether this ends in murder). The irrationality of violence and racism is compounded by this final act of violence, as it comes after an otherwise friendly chat about music and culture between the two characters who learn they have much in common.

Equally (and more gently) engaged with the subject of immigration is Meadows' criminally overlooked 2008 film 'Somers Town'. Here a boy from the Midlands (Thomas Turgoose - also the star of 'This is England') comes down to London, where he is an isolated outsider. The film follows the friendships he strikes up with a French waitress and an equally isolated Polish boy, as he finds solace in fellow outsiders. Again, like Chaplin, Meadows draws unifying parallels between people from different cultural backgrounds and questions our identification with various tribes even within our own borders (which include football teams).

Today, anti-immigration rhetoric and thinly veiled racism remain present in British society, with many of Powell's views living on and - in some regions - finding new political relevance. But it's comforting to know that there have always been just as many who speak with empathy and compassion of, what John Lennon called, "a brotherhood of man" (the song 'Imagine', by the way, also dismisses the idea of national boundaries). That sort of message may sound cheesy in our post-modern, increasingly nihilistic age, but sometimes messages seem cosy and trite because they are right and genuinely good.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

30 Day Film Quiz: Days 11-20

Last week I decided to follow many of my Facebook friends onto the "30 Day Quiz" bandwagon. But instead of doing it on the intended daily basis I'm posting my responses here in ten day chunks of the pure self-indulgence. My responses to the first ten 'questions' (they aren't really questions are they?) can be found here. Below are the next ten. Enjoy.

Day 11 - A Film By Your Favourite Director

This is possibly the trickiest of all questions. Who is my favourite director? Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers and Stanley Kubrick are some of the names that come to mind, though I'm going to go with Akira Kurosawa here - the director about whom I've read and written the most. If you're also a fan - of any size - I'd really recommend his humble and enthralling autobiography, as well as Donald Richie's stunning and comprehensive volume which provides detailed critical essays on every one of his films.

Below is the American trailer for my favourite of his overlooked gendai-geki (contemporary) films, 'High and Low'. I like how this trailer tries to sell it as a sort of Hitchcock movie.

Day 12 - A Film By Your Least Favourite Director

This is just as hard to answer as the above. The obvious knee-jerk response would be Michael Bay, but I don't want to be so obvious (even though I hate the 'Transformers' movies an awful lot). Say what you will about Mr. Bay, but he has a distinctive style and is an influential filmmaker in his way. Think about how many times you've seen his specific oeuvre parodied - in everything from the bombast opening of Disney's 'Bolt' and the films of Edgar Wright to the "Pearl Harbour Sucks" song in 'Team America: World Police'. In that way he has inspired some entertaining work.

Zack Synder is the same: director of horrible, excessive films which are beyond tacky. But at least 'Sucker Punch' is giving people something to write about, however rubbish it may be.

Worse than the vulgar and the grossly stupid are the boring. And who is more boring than hired gun and Spielberg clone Christopher Columbus? His work isn't at all hateful (unlike that of Bay and Synder) and he's made some enduring and harmless family movies ('Home Alone' for one), but who goes to the cinema to see a Chris Columbus film? Would the world be poorer if he stopped making generic family movies? Would the cultural landscape be any different without him? I tend to sympathise with Terry Gilliam for feeling a little peeved that Columbus was Warner Brothers' preferred choice to direct the first Harry Potter instalments.

There are loads of bland directors turning out bland studio films, so he's not alone or even the worst offender. (Also, the man wrote 80s gems 'Gremlins' and 'The Goonies', so he deserves a bit of respect.) But he is probably the most gainfully employed and successful of the bland, jobbing director crowd, so I've chosen him here. Below is one of his most forgettable films.

Day 13 - A Guilty Pleasure

I don't know that I have one. If I like something then I am happy to say so (or least I'd like to think). I enjoy some bad movies, but I guess a "guilty pleasure" has to be distinct from a "funny bad" movie, such as the 1986 Charlie Sheen vehicle 'The Wraith'. It's got to be something you realise is badly made, and maybe even against everything you stand for, but you enjoy it anyway without irony.

I definitely used to have these guilty pleasures as a kid. An Australian kid's show called 'The Tribe' was a favourite, and that was really cringey. I was also addicted to the 'Pokemon' cartoon. Those were embarrassing admissions then, but when you're young you place more importance on how your tastes are perceived.

I love loads of "girly" films, I guess. Like 'Enchanted' and 'The Little Mermaid' - but they're just good films, not guilty pleasures in the way I understand it. In any case, after a certain age it's not really worth tee-heeing about a person's disregard for gender norms.

It's not that I'm an elitist or that I'm pretending my DVD collection is full of popularly heralded classics. I like plenty of films most people think are bad, such as 'Titanic' and 'The Phantom Menace'. But I'd defend both of those - and plan to do so on this blog at some later date.

I guess 'The King's Speech' fits the bill for me. I enjoyed it, but I have trouble with that. It's funny and well acted but I hate myself for thinking so! It's politically objectionable, culturally conservative and takes many liberties with history. It annoys me, especially now as the Royal Wedding looms and unthinking subservience hits the nation. I've gone on about this on this blog before, so I'll leave it at that.

Day 14 - The Film That No One Expected You To Like

I really didn't expect to enjoy the last Harry Potter film, having disliked all the previous entries in the series by varying degrees. Though like it I did, with my girlfriend pleasantly surprised. I'm even looking forward to the next chapter: this Summer's 'Deathly Hallows: Part 2'.

Day 15 - The Film That Depicts Your Life

This will yield the same answer as "Day 7 - A Film That Reminds You of Your Past". Noah Baumbach's 'The Squid and the Whale' feels like the story of my childhood - at least the arc of the Jesse Eisenberg character. It's a beautiful movie, and if you haven't seen it you should.

Day 16 - A Film You Used to Love, But Now Hate

I thought Zach Braff's 'Garden State' was super witty, poignant and inventive back when it was released in 2004. But even on a second viewing a few days later (I returned to the cinema to see it again) it lost all its magic. It diminishes in my eyes every time I see it or think of it and nowadays I have no affection left for it at all. Now it seems every bit as whiny, self-satisfied and full of trite self-help advice as an episode of TV sitcom 'Scrubs'. There are still some imaginative moments (like the doctor with the improbable number of certificates on the wall) but they don't save it.

Day 17 - Your Favourite Drama Film

Most movies are dramas aren't they? Or at least they all have dramatic elements. I don't know what my favourite is, but the first film to come to mind was Kubrick's epic 'Barry Lyndon'.

Day 18 - Your Favourite Comedy Film

In recent years at the cinema nothing has made me laugh more than 'Team America: World Police', but that's not my favourite comedy film of all-time. A lot of the old Steve Martin films I saw as a kid have stayed with me. 'The Jerk' is brilliant, but I'm going to cite 'The Three Amigos' because I saw it over and over again in my youth and have fond memories.

Day 19 - Your Favourite Action Film

No question: Jackie Chan's 'Project A'. Watching Chan move it always strikes me that he is a modern ancestor of the great silent clowns. This has a lot to do with the way he moves, coupled with the inventiveness of his choreography and his desire to make audiences laugh. He turned his skills to slap-stick violence, just as Gene Kelly turned his to dance, but for me both capture the spirit of Chaplin.

Day 20 - Your Favourite Romantic Film

What could be more romantic, in the truest sense, than 'Casablanca'? Much more the baby of producer Hal B. Wallis than director Michael Curtiz, this is the finest example of a Hollywood studio film. Even if you haven't seen it, you'll also know half the script as, like Shakespeare, it's full of lines that have fallen into popular culture ("beginning of a beautiful friendship", "round up the usual suspects" etc). I never get bored of this film. I recommend critic Roger Ebert's commentary on the DVD if you're a fan.

Check back for the final batch in another ten days.

Friday, 15 April 2011

'Winnie the Pooh' review:

"Promise me you'll never forget me because if I thought you would I'd never leave", says the young Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh in one of A.A Milne's original short children's stories about that stuffed bear of little brain. Milne's wit endures, but it is probably Disney who have done to the most to ensure the endearing little chap is never forgotten, along with his friends Eeyore, Rabbit, Piglet, Owl and Tigger.

Three Wolfgang Reitherman directed short films, made by the studio in the mid-sixties, were turned into the celebrated feature 'The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' in 1977 and Disney haven't stopped milking the "franchise" for all it's worth since - turning Milne's creations into a brand famous around the world among people of all ages. As well as piles of every kind of merchandise, the years since have seen dozens of small-screen series and even a handful of cheaply produced theatrical releases courtesy of the television unit.

Yet the latest commercial outlet for the series is a refreshing return to those early shorts and a loving, respectful homage to everything that is joyful about Milne's characters. Not to mention a faithful successor to the original film, with an opening tracking shot through Christopher Robin's live-action bedroom and with suitably retro styling on the credits. The new film, simply entitled 'Winnie the Pooh', is no half-hearted knock-off. Instead it's a proper part of the Disney animation canon - Disney Animation Studios 51st feature - and boasts some of the best hand-drawn animation talent the company has ever produced, with Renaissance-era veterans like Andreas Deja and Mark Henn reliably providing the nuanced and detailed character work demanded by the source material.

It may seem at odds with the folksy, laid back charm of this resolutely "old-school" piece to talk about the animation work in these terms, but a lot of work went into the film's apparent simplicity. Moments of good natured humour are emphasised by some of the finest character animation in memory, with subtle sighs and changes in facial expression being the principal joy here. The story is slight and the running time relatively short (though only a minute shorter than its 1977 predecessor), but that's what you want from Pooh. The film is a whimsical breath of fresh air that never comes close to outstaying its welcome.

With many of the original voice actors no longer with us, the characters have new voices, though they feel familiar as the new actors pay respectful tribute to those who came before. Pooh is hilarious as voiced by Jim Cummings (also the voice of Tigger), who captures the right level of sweet simplicity, with an edge of impatience for the bear. Scottish comic Craig Ferguson somehow manages to channel the spirit of Hal Smith as the pompous owl and John Cleese even sounds a little like the original film's narrator Sebastian Cabot (best known as the voice of Bagheera in 'The Jungle Book'). Only Tom Kenny as Rabbit is a little less effective than his ancestor, with his voice lacking the impotent rage of Junius Matthews.

There are several songs along the way, which are simple, forgettable and inoffensive and probably represent the film's weakest suit - especially when compared with ditties like "Rumbly in My Tumbly" and "Up, Down Touch the Ground" from the original. But Zooey Deschanel's rendition of the original theme song is suitably winsome and the tunes that misfire are still endearing in an ineffectual, childish way that is so very Winnie the Pooh. In any case, they are always accompanied with imaginatively animated sequences and full of innocent humorous phrases which take the curse off any faltering melody.

As with the 1977 classic, 'Winnie the Pooh' is at its heart a combination of three very simple short stories: a search for Eeyore's missing tail, Pooh's search for honey and the gangs' quest to rescue Christopher Robin from the dreaded (and imaginary) "Backson". But whereas the original feature was divided into three brief episodes, this new film more ambitiously entwines them into one feature-length narrative. Yet despite a slightly more plot-driven approach, the film is still content to meander at a leisurely pace towards its conclusion. Like a sunny stroll through the Hundred Acre Wood, it's much more about the journey than the destination and the amount of fun you have will very much depend on your pre-existing level of fondness for these characters.

As you might expect from a gentle children's tale, this film is very much aimed at youngsters - a fact amplified by the presence of two excessively toddler-friendly shorts beforehand. There are no nods to the adults or in-jokes at all. But it's nice to find a modern animation totally free of any post-modern winking and there is fun to be had here for adults so long as they are prepared to indulge their innermost child. As the credits rolled I found myself identifying with the sentiment of this bittersweet passage from Milne's The House at Pooh Corner: "And by and by Christopher Robin came to an end of things, and he was silent, and he sat there, looking out over the world, just wishing it wouldn't stop."

With the knowledge of a job well done, maybe Disney should allow these characters to get some rest for a while, safe from some of the more crass exploitations of recent decades. They needn't remind us of their charms quite so incessantly now, because with 'Winnie the Pooh' they've ensured that our old friends, as we remember them, are not soon forgotten - all with a wistful poetry and fondness for childlike wordplay that would make A.A Milne himself proud.

'Winnie the Pooh' is rated 'U' by the BBFC and is on wide release across the UK from today.

Monday, 11 April 2011

'Route Irish' review:

After the comparatively light-hearted 'Looking For Eric', Ken Loach has returned to grittier fare with 'Route Irish', a drama about the privatisation of the war in Iraq which plays like a murder mystery detective story. Fergus (Mark Womack) learns that his lifelong best friend Frankie (John Bishop) has been killed by roadside bomb on Baghdad's most dangerous road - Route Irish - whilst working for a private military company. Being an ex-soldier himself, Fergus is suspicious of the official account of how his friend was killed and starts contacting former colleagues and making inquiries before inevitably attracting the attention of those at the top.

Aside from the occasional flashback or video recording, 'Route Irish' is set in Liverpool, and Loach does an incredible job of bringing the Iraq war home to the UK. Over the course of Fergus' investigation we witness the use of so-called waterboarding torture, carried out in an abandoned garage by a motorway. We are also shown a gang of private soldiers turned loose on a number of British homes as they try to regain evidence of a war crime - with their brutal methods directed towards a British Muslim aiding Fergus. These moments take now familiar images of the conflict and put them in a new and, for many, more identifiable context where the basic inhumanity of the acts is crystal clear.

Writer Paul Laverty's dialogue can be a little on the nose at times, with the earnest, highly politicised subtext often working in the foreground, yet it is great to see Loach still making such transparently socialist films in the era of 'The King's Speech'. There is never any doubt of Loach's identification with the working class in 'Route Irish', with the real villain being capitalism as fronted by smartly dressed social elites. (So undesirable to Loach are the trappings of well-heeled conformity that he has Fergus break open Frankie's coffin prior to his funeral and remove the necktie he has been fitted with.) As with the criminal gang in 'Looking For Eric', those working class lads who terrorise others do so out of self-interest and, usually, for money - in effect betraying their social class. As always crime and capitalism are portrayed as equally anti-social.

As a former private security soldier, Fergus is also guilty of complicity with these values as he waged war abroad for a £10,000 a month paycheck. The progression of his character is driven by this guilt, compounded by the fact that Fergus persuaded Frankie into taking up the same work in the first place - effectively making him culpable for his friend's death. He begins his criminal investigation motivated only by a thirst for revenge but, but as he comes to realise the full horror of the PMCs, with their legal immunity giving rise to all manner of cowboy antics, his motivation becomes more noble and in the end he seeks redemption for his own crimes.

It's occasionally a heavy-handed affair, but a decade on from the start of the "War on Terror" Loach is taking a unique look at this much-filmed conflict. He does so with a really well paced thriller, which lasts just under two hours but never lags. Fergus is a sort of working class James Bond - ditching dinner jacket glamour and fealty to the crown for hard-edged blue-collar smarts - as he uses gadgets and guile to uncover the central mystery. 'Route Irish' works as a cracking whodunnit as much as a highly political commentary.

'Route Irish' is out now in the UK and rated a '15' by the BBFC.

Friday, 8 April 2011

'Rio' review:

The weather has taken a turn for the better here in the UK and with the summer months come the summer movies. With crushing predictability, there will be comic book adaptations ('Thor', 'Captain America', 'The Green Lantern'), accountancy-driven sequels ('Scream 4', 'Pirates 4', 'Hangover 2') and, of course, family-oriented 3D animations. The heavy hitters in that field, Pixar and Dreamworks, will likely dominate the coming months with sequels to 'Cars' and 'Kung Fu Panda' respectively, but first out of the gates is an effort from Blue Sky Studios, the Fox-owned animation unit behind the 'Ice Age' series.

'Rio' is the fish out of water story of a domesticated bird, a rare blue macaw, named Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) who is spirited away from his comfortable home in a cold Minnesota town and taken back to his natural habitat in sunny Rio de Janeiro, in order to propagate his endangered species with the feisty, independent Jewell (Anne Hathaway). Directed by Rio native Carlos Saldanha, the film is a celebration of the vibrant musical life of the city, with a sanitised version of its world-famous carnival an ever-present feature as Blu aims to evade a gang of poachers and return to his obsessive owner Linda (Leslie Mann). Also along for the ride are a slobbering bulldog voiced with charm by '30 Rock' star Tracy Morgan, a paternal Toucan portrayed by Mexican American comedian George Lopez and a singing comedy duo courtesy of and Jamie Foxx.

It's bright, colourful and its intentions seem pure, yet 'Rio' is decidedly average from an animation standpoint and uninvolving on a story level. The human characters lack detail and incidental characters seem to come in two generic flavours (fat white man and thin black man), whilst the character animation lacks nuance. Every one of the wacky cast of characters derive their comic sensibilities directly from the Jerry Lewis/Jim Carey school, waving their arms (or wings) about and shouting every single line. Meanwhile Blu's personal journey - in which he must learn to embrace his animal instincts in order to fly - is a bore. To say it's sub-Pixar is to give the film too much credit - the truth is it's sub-Dreamworks.

Jokes fall flat, musical numbers are forgettable and most of the characters are irritating, albeit with two exceptions. Linda is funny due to her pathetic, obsessive devotion to her pet bird. It isn't clear from the start whether the filmmakers are aware of how crazy Linda's attachment to her feathered friend is, which makes it all the more funny. Sadly though, you soon find that this is written into the story and it starts to feel as flavourless as everything else as the film outstays its welcome. A more compelling reason to sit through 'Rio' is presented by the villainous Nigel, voiced by Jermaine Clement, one half of Flight of the Conchords.

Clement's delivery provides the film's only laugh-out-loud moments and his song is the only one which doesn't completely suck (though I'm not exonerating it entirely). He's certainly a lot more fun than the more overt comedy sidekicks played by Foxx and, who are frankly an embarrassment to behold.

Easily pleased children may find 'Rio' more diverting than I did. But with American animated films showing signs of increased maturity in the last two decades, the bar has been raised and 'Rio' is a relic. Little Timmy might find more to laugh at here than I did, but that isn't to say he wouldn't prefer to watch a film of greater quality - one which is less likely to send his parents to sleep, such as 'Up' or 'How To Train Your Dragon'. The best family films effortlessly cross the age divide and assert themselves as plain good films. 'Rio' is inoffensive and far from terrible, but that's about all that can be said for it - and that shouldn't be enough.

'Rio' is rated 'U' in the UK and is on general release from today.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

'Source Code' review:

It's increasingly commonplace for mainstream blockbuster films to (often superficially) involve themselves with ideas traditionally thought to be above the station of mere entertainment. The films of Christopher Nolan, including last summer's 'Inception', are a prominent example, as they seek to engage the audience in discussion of the subconscious - from dreams and memories to Freudian concepts like the id and the super-ego - without distracting from the motorcycle chases and cityscape-bending action that audiences crave.

'Source Code', the second feature from 'Moon' director Duncan Jones, is just such a film: a high-concept science-fiction thriller at the centre of which lie a number of metaphysical concerns. On its most basic level though, the title refers to a computer simulation that enables an American soldier, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, to relive the last eight minutes of a man's life over and over again in order to identify his murderer - a terrorist whose bombing of a Chicago-bound passenger train claimed hundreds of lives. In crass marketing speak, it's 'Groundhog Day' meets 'Under Siege 2' with a dash of 'Being John Malkovich' thrown in for good measure.

Yet if the premise promises to raise philosophical questions, Gyllenhaal's repeated trips into what is described by exposition as the "afterglow" of a deceased man's mind take a dispiritingly familiar route. He starts off disoriented in alien surroundings, before he learns the routines of the various characters around him on the train. This enables him to act incredibly cool in that one scene that is practically pre-written into every time travel concept, as he predicts a string of incidental details as if by precognition in order to impress the girl who has taken his fancy (Michelle Monaghan): a coffee spill prevented, a ringing phone anticipated, and so on. The self-satisfied smugness inherent in this feat feels out of place here when you consider it's taking place on a train full of those recently slain, though Gyllenhaal pulls it off with considerable charm and is generally likable even if he remains unconvincing as an action hero.

Eventually, a couple of plot twists later, he begins to set about the task at hand with more purpose, less internal conflict and less knowing humour, with his mission galvanised by the revelation that failure to track down the bomber will result in the deaths of millions in a second terrorist attack on Chicago. This is the action third of the film as Gyllenhaal jumps out of moving vehicles and runs around with a handgun. In the backdrop to all this, there is a romance, along with a number of revelations about his own "real-world" back-story - including a father-son reconciliation sub-plot.

The Academy Award nominated Vera Farmiga co-stars as an officer at a secretive US military installation, who briefs our hero on his mission and has soul-searching of her own to do as the film reaches its climax and those metaphysical concerns come to the fore. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wright makes for an unsettling (and slightly hammy) presence as the cynical, career-driven scientist behind it all.

In contrast to the tight, restrained simplicity of 'Moon', Jones sets about juggling multiple balls at once with 'Source Code' and he mostly succeeds at keeping up our interest in each of them without compromising the film's forward momentum (a pre-requisite of any film set on a train). As a thriller it's energetic, intriguing and reliably entertaining, though it lacks originality in both the way it utilises its uber-silly pseudoscientific premise and in terms of its direction. Jones keeps things very safe and functional, and it lacks a certain stylistic joie de vivre - a disappointment considering how complete 'Moon' felt as it riffed on its various seventies sci-fi influences. Moments of action also lack a visceral quality, with the exploding train never having the shocking impact it perhaps ought to.

As with 'Inception', it's hard to shake the feeling that the film is overly enamoured with its cleverness, which becomes a problem as the concept is undermined by a laboured last fifteen minutes and a twist you'll have seen coming - and which Jones would have done better to avoid. There is a point where you are practically screaming for Jones to cut to the credits. Yet the film limps on and what would have been eery hanging questions quickly become unsatisfactory answers, with an ending that betrays the preceding hour in terms of tone. As with the final shots of 'Moon', Jones is apparently reluctant to have anyone leave the cinema feeling too bummed out, and in the end the film screams compromise.

'Source Code' is a lot of fun and the concept is an interesting one. It is never dull, yet it lacks boldness in its execution and ends up as something fairly generic. With it Jones has shown that he is a competent director of a high-profile Hollywood studio film on a medium budget, and confirms that he knows what he's doing on a fundamental level with a well-paced and exciting film. The only disappointment is that 'Moon' suggested something more. 'Source Code', with its play on the increasingly trite question "what is real?" and its half-hearted ruminations on the existence of the soul, might suggest ideas above its station, but like many recent psychological blockbusters of this kind - it is ultimately content to paddle in the shallow end rather than risk alienating a mass audience.

'Source Code' is out now in the UK and has been rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

30 Day Film Quiz: Days 1-10

A few friends of mine have been filling in a '30 Day Film Quiz' on Facebook over the last week or so and - with all my distractions of late - I'm arriving late to the party.

Day 1 - Your Favourite Film

For reasons I've gone into time and time again on this blog, Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Punch-Drunk Love' is my favourite film.

Day 2 - Your Least Favourite Film

Hmmm. This is a hard one. As a kid my least favourite film was Brian De Palma's 'Mission to Mars'. I haven't seen it in over ten years, so maybe it's better than I remember, but at the time it became a byword for "bad" between myself and the friend who saw it with me. I remember it being really dull. Watching the trailer (below) it doesn't look anything like as bad as I remember, but I'll list it here anyway to save me going off on one about 'Transformers 2'.

Day 3 - A Film You Watch to Feel Good

I'm trying to think of a scenario where I've been down and put a film on to cheer myself up. What would that film have been? Certainly the aforementioned 'Punch-Drunk Love' would do the trick, but having already used that as an answer I'll pick something else. I can't imagine being sad watching 'Singin' in the Rain', so here is an upbeat musical number from that.

Make 'Em Laugh by movieclips

Day 4 - A Film You Watch to Feel Down

I don't know if I'd watch a film to feel down but, accepting the premise of the question for a moment, I'd likely stick on 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' because everything about it is so ugly, from the look of it to its view of the human condition. It wouldn't fail to bring me down.

I hate revenge flicks and torture porn anyway, but here those sorts of things are wedded to a kind of dreary realism that makes them all the more antisocial. Say what you will about 'Kill Bill', but at least that's clearly a colourful, comic book of a movie - set in a slightly campy alternate reality. However, 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' injects the same ideas into a trite, TV detective story and provides over two hours of intense misery.

Day 5 - A Film That Reminds You of Someone

A lot of films remind me of the people I first saw them with. 'Bubba Ho-tep' reminds me of an ex-girlfriend. 'The Phantom Menace' reminds me of my best mate who watched it with me (for my eleventh viewing and his seventh or eighth) on the floor of an empty screen at the Bournemouth Odeon some weeks into its run - where we talked, using the film (which we knew by heart anyway) as expensive wallpaper during an otherwise eventless summer afternoon. Bond films remind me of another mate of mine from Bournemouth, with whom I used to play a lot of GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 and who has accompanied me to 'Tomorrow Never Dies', 'The World is Not Enough' and, more recently, to the two Daniel Craig movies. I don't even like Bond films, but I like watching Bind films with him.

Loads of films remind me of my father and my granddad, both of whom introduced me to a lot of movies growing up. I think I'll pick something that reminds me of the latter, with a 1987 TV movie called 'The Murder of Mary Phagan' coming to mind first.

I can't find a trailer or a clip for it anywhere online, so you'll have to take my word for it when I say it was an incredibly effective drama about a real-life murder case from the US state of Georgia which took place in 1913. The cast speaks volumes for its quality: Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, William H. Macy, Dylan Baker, Cynthia Nixon and Peter Gallagher. I was probably around ten or eleven when he made me watch it (I'd rather have been playing video games), but as it went on it got incredibly gripping. Being a barrister himself, a lot of his favourite movies were legal dramas and he also introduced me to 'Inherit the Wind'.

Day 6 - A Film That Reminds You of Somewhere

Having been to film festivals in Berlin, Venice, Cambridge and Kaunas in the last year, a lot of films now remind me of those places. 'Black Swan', for instance, will always remind me of stepping into the Sala Darsena on the Venice Lido for the first time - an aircraft carrier sized cinema with a massive screen. A storm hit the island during the first few days there (possibly during 'Happy Few') and I remember hearing the wind and the rain through that makeshift building's paper thin walls.

I'm going to go with 'Wild Wild West' though, which always reminds me of my brother and I excitedly dashing into a midweek preview screening at our local Odeon after missing the first ten minutes. The trailer (below) is strangely hypnotic.

Day 7 - A Film That Reminds You of Your Past

Um... I feel like the answers to the last two sort of apply to this one. But looking at it a different way, Noah Baumbach's 'The Squid and the Whale' is deeply personal for me. It's a film that speaks to me about my own adolescence through Jesse Eisenberg's character and his relationship with his father, played by Jeff Daniels.

Day 8 - The Film You Can Quote Best

Anything by Wes Anderson or the Coen brothers could fit here (I can quote 'The Big Lebowski' from beginning to end, which means I can no longer watch it with people), but I'm going to go for 'Jurassic Park' - which I quote constantly with a number of people, including Dave of IQGamer and Toby of Shine A Light.

Day 9 - A Film With Your Favourite Actor (Male)

Sam Rockwell is certainly a candidate. However, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is maybe the greatest actor living. Here he is in the film 'Doubt'.

Day 10 - A Film With Your Favourite Actor (Female)

Samantha Morton is a fantastic actress. In everything from 'Synecdoche New York' to 'Sweet and Lowdown' she is extremely committed and intelligent, giving raw, emotional performances. Here she is with Sean Penn in the latter film, where she plays a mute. As a side-note, this is possibly Woody Allen's best work.

I'll post my remaining answers here to two further blocks of ten later this month. If anyone else wants to "play" here is the full 'quiz' as posted by frequent podcast guest, local radio personality and fellow Disneyphile James Tully:

Day 1 - Your Favourite Film
Day 2 - Your Least Favourite Film
Day 3 - A Film You Watch to Feel Good
Day 4 - A Film You Watch to Feel Down
Day 5 - A Film That Reminds You of Someone
Day 6 - A Film That Reminds You of Somewhere
Day 7 - A Film That Reminds You of Your Past
Day 8 - The Film You Can Quote Best
Day 9 - A Film With Your Favourite Actor (Male)
Day 10 - A Film With Your Favourite Actor (Female)
Day 11 - A Film By Your Favourite Director
Day 12 - A Film By Your Least Favourite Director
Day 13 - A Guilty Pleasure
Day 14 - The Film That No One Expected You To Like
Day 15 - The Film That Depicts Your Life
Day 16 - A Film You Used to Love, But Now Hate
Day 17 - Your Favourite Drama Film
Day 18 - Your Favourite Comedy Film
Day 19 - Your Favourite Action Film
Day 20 - Your Favourite Romantic Film
Day 21 - Your Favourite Sci-Fi/Fantasy Film
Day 22 - Your Favourite Horror Film
Day 23 - Your Favourite Thriller/Mystery Film
Day 24 - Your Favourite Animated or Children's Film
Day 25 - Your Favourite Documentary Film
Day 26 - Your Favourite Foreign Language Film
Day 27 - Your Favourite Independent Film
Day 28 - The Most Obscure Film You've Ever Seen
Day 29 - Your Favourite Film As a Kid
Day 30 - Your Favourite Film This Time Last Year

Monday, 4 April 2011

Trailer round-up...

I haven't posted a trailer round-up for a while - probably about six months or so - so here are trailers for some of the upcoming films I'm looking forward to. Enjoy!

Despite being underwhelmed by the last (decade of) Woody Allen film(s), I'm really looking forward to 'Midnight in Paris'. I like Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard for one thing, plus the trailer actually looks pretty good. Wilson's delivery gets all the humour out of the writing by the looks of things and Michael Sheen seems to be playing the sort of pseudo-intellectual, New York poser Allen used to parody in his seventies heyday. It's playing in Cannes next month so we'll soon start hearing if it's any good.

After a screening in-competition in Venice last year, I fell in love with Takashi Miike's '13 Assasins' totally. It was one of the very best films on show there, with it's affectionate yet satirical riff on 'Seven Samurai' and it's critique of Japanese cultural values... and the fact that it was just really, really awesome. And it's out soon in the UK - on April 15th.

Another festival favourite was Wim Wenders' 3D game-changer 'Pina', which I saw in Berlin a couple of months ago. As excellent as it is, I don't know that I need to see it again so soon. I'm posting it here however because the trailer is really something. It's a perfect example of how trailers should be cut together.

I'll be the first to say I don't know a lot about Terrence Malick and have very little idea of what to expect from 'Tree of Life', which opens in May after playing Cannes (or before Cannes depending on who you believe), but the trailer is beautiful. He doesn't make many films - this is only his fifth since 1973's 'Badlands' - so this is sure to be a cinematic event.

And finally, I always like to throw in a wild card on these lists (previous optimistic entries have been 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' and 'Tron: Legacy') and this time it's 'Captain America: The First Avenger' directed by Joe Johnston. It's out at the end of July and looks pretty good (at least compared to 'Thor'), though Johnston did make 'Jurassic Park 3' and 'The Wolfman'... so who knows how this one will turn out.

'You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger' review:

Woody Allen has written, directed and, in many cases, starred in a film every year since the late sixties. On top of that he has written stage plays, short stories and newspaper columns, as well as occasionally touring with his jazz band. As a nineteen year old he wrote jokes for Ed Sullivan and his own stand-up comedy would go on to inspire generations of fellow comics, who voted Allen the third best comedian of all-time in a 2004 poll for Channel Four. These are overused terms, but the man is undoubtedly a genius and a legend.

I preface this review of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, released in the UK last Friday, with this biography because these are facts I feel compelled to remind myself when contemplating his most recent films. It has become a truism that every Woody Allen film of the last twenty years has been perceived as a "return to form", but with hindsight he never really lost form in the nineties, with that decade yielding works as varied and inspired as 'Everyone Says I Love You', 'Deconstructing Harry', 'Bullets Over Broadway', 'Manhattan Murder Mystery' and 'Sweet and Lowdown'.

The last decade, however, has been far less rewarding with 'Vicky Christina Barcelona' probably the commonly acknowledged high point and - at the risk of sounding like the sort of pseudo-intellectual parodied in his best movies - that film is by no means vintage Allen.

Meanwhile the likes of 'Curse of the Jade Scorpion' and 'Anything Else' have been forgettable, even average. Yet in those cases you suspect that Allen is a victim of both his own success, with genre-defining classics like 'Annie Hall', and his tireless work rate. If those movies weren't Woody Allen films they might just be judged as smart comedies, still well above the average, whilst the fact that he releases at least one film every year means that critics and audiences are never left to anticipate a new Woody Allen film the way they must with Polanski, for instance. However, this logic fails to account for his recent series of movies shot in the UK, of which 'Tall Dark Stranger' is the fourth.

The first of these, 'Match Point', he considers his best work and is among his most commercially successful films. Yet this thriller almost takes a perverse pride in being so very un-Woody Allen. With it he goes for drama rather than comedy, whereas his best films have always combined both, and its interesting central premise is lifted from his superior 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' almost wholesale. 'Scoop' has its moments, but likewise these feel recycled, with Allen's lower-class magician character reminiscent of his agent in the brilliant 'Broadway Danny Rose'. But at least that one is fun. On the other hand 'Cassandra's Dream' is a humourless and trite family crime drama and the worst film he has ever made - totally without redeeming quality.

With these past failures in mind, things didn't look hopeful for 'You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger' - and it's a wonder that he made it at all given his relatively fruitful return to New York with 'Whatever Works'. An ensemble comedy with a typically impressive cast, which includes Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas and Josh Brolin, 'Tall Dark Stranger' follows half a dozen interconnecting relationships as it explores familiar themes such as mortality and the endless search for meaning in an ultimately meaningless universe.

The story is bookended by a Shakespeare quote which tells us that "life is all sound and fury signifying nothing", but whereas Allen's other films derive an optimistic "whatever makes you happy" philosophy from this state of affairs, 'Tall Dark Stranger' is a bitter and tragic picture of the human condition. The characters are perpetually unfulfilled and unhappy, with the title deriving from the advice an elderly lady (Gemma Jones) seeks from a fortune teller in order to make her remaining time on Earth more palatable.

Of note is the fact that, in his 75th year, Allen also confronts the insecurity brought on from ageing - so long brushed off with witty comments - through Anthony Hopkins' character, who uses fake tan and goes to trendy clubs in order to delude himself into feeling vital. The catalyst for the film's game of relationship musical chairs is his decision to leave his wife (Jones) for a younger woman (a reformed prostitute played by Lucy Punch) and it is this pairing of Hopkins with a younger woman that is the most interesting relationship in the film.

Over the years, even as far back as 'Manhattan' in 1979, it has not escaped notice that Allen frequently pairs old men with much younger women, but the difference in 'Tall Dark Stranger' is that this desire to have a younger woman and forsake his marriage is played as pathetic - partly thanks to Hopkins' tender performance, but it is undoubtedly also down to Allen's writing. In true Allen style, Punch's character is uneducated and lacking in sophistication, with Hopkins struggling to educate her in culture, but here we get a slightly different take on this relationship that has been so much at the centre of what is quintessentially Woody Allen.

Noami Watts and Antonio Banderas are also really enjoyable, especially in the scenes they share together. One moment in a jewellers sees Watts radiate charm and natural comic timing as she reluctantly returns to the shop assistant a pair of diamond earrings she has been trying on, whilst a concluding scene between their two characters is the most quietly effective emotionally, as Banderas underplays everything masterfully. However Brolin's character, a struggling novelist, lacks charm and Freida Pinto is given very little to do as the film's tantalising "woman in red". British duo Punch and Jones turn their characters into caricatures.

'Tall Dark Stranger', with its impressive cast and with its author in reflective mood, could have been really special. However, it is spoiled by an almost complete lack of humour. There are jokes in there but they mostly misfire, or at least his New York Jewish wit doesn't effectively translate when delivered with a British accent.

Worse still the film features a horrendous narration similar to that which (for me at least) spoiled 'Vicky Christina Barcelona'. Through the narration we are told rather than shown what our characters are thinking and feeling, and there is just no excuse for it. The film's musings on life, love and the impermanence of all things also come across as a little obvious and the whole thing feels like a poor facsimile of Woody Allen's earnest 1980s output, but without the strict formal style brought about by his frequent homages to Bergman and Fellini in that period.

'You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger' isn't a complete write-off. The sardonic final scene and Allen's observation that all people are involved in a permanent state of anxiety over their mortality - informing their decisions in work, love and everything else - is compelling. It's just not very funny. But, Allen being Allen, another film isn't far off. Let's hope 'Midnight in Paris' marks a real return to form.

'You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger' is out in the UK now and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.