Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Why the Darth Vader Volkswagen Advert is Evil

You might not know this, but that adorable 'Star Wars' advert - the one that sees a cute kid try to use "the force" in the name of selling cars - is evil, damaging and must be stopped.

I'm not just ranting about George Lucas "selling out" here. Sure, it's sad to see the space opera series used in this glaringly commercial way, with John Williams' glorious Imperial March put to such sinister corporate use. But 'Star Wars' has been assaulted in the name of profit since the day it was born and will have to withstand similar attacks forever more.

No, for me the problem with the advert is that 'Star Wars' - at least in the UK - hasn't been used to sell anything other than itself in my lifetime. Toys, video games and whatever else are all part of selling 'the brand' and as such it is in the interest of Hasbro (or whoever) to take some duty of care towards it. Maybe there would have been a Burger King tie-in or a coca-cola promotion in the early part of the last decade, but there were at least new films to sell then.

This ad, however, is happening in 'peacetime'. There is nothing to promote except the car. This is Darth Vader in the service of Volkswagen with no bloody excuse for being there.

This is much worse than the franchise just being milked as a cash-cow. For the sake of a few easy bucks now, Lucas is damaging the series for future generations.

The following argument is mostly sentimental and contains several amorphous references to "the kids" which serve to age me horribly.

I didn't see 'Star Wars' until I was ten years old and I was then living under the previous system - where the characters were not also expected to sell affordable family cars. Hard as this might be to believe, I had no idea what 'Star Wars' was as a ten year-old. I grew up in that 'Star Wars' free bubble that existed between the original franchise finishing and the Special Edition theatrical release some years later. As a result, it was able to take me by surprise and had a tremendous impact on my childhood.

I didn't know anything about it at all. I'd heard the name "Luke Skywalker" and knew of a "Dark Vader", but really I assumed it was just another old film my dad was making me watch. In this environment, I was allowed to hear the Imperial March for the first time within the context of The Empire Strikes Back and I was given the chance to come to "Darth Vader" and "the force" in their original context too.

I'm not saying the Volkswagen ad is especially evil in of itself. Rather it's part of a disturbing trend in which all popular culture is now endlessly re-regurgitated for pay until people hate it. The kids of today who are yet to see 'Star Wars' are experiencing it first through these advertisements and, as a result, they won't care about it as much.

Maybe we're entering an age where viewing a cultural object in isolation is the stuff of fantasy. It's worth remembering that, when I was growing up, there was no You Tube and kids didn't have access to every film/piece of music/TV series on their mobile phones. In fact they didn't have mobile phones at all.

Forget 'Star Wars', maybe future humans will only know of 'Casablanca' or 'Indiana Jones' via bits of 'Family Guy' and three minute web parodies made of LEGO. That is what the Darth Vader Volkswagen ad represents to this embittered and prematurely old man.

For anyone who hasn't been moved to watch 'Star Wars', this is how you were supposed to hear that awesome car advert music for the first time:

Monday, 30 May 2011

'The Great White Silence' review:

We British are very good at turning crushing defeat into heroic victory, whether it's at Dunkirk or the death of General Gordon in Khartoum. But no British colonial folly has ever been so celebrated as the 1910 journey of Captain Robert Falcon Scott - beaten to the South Pole by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, before freezing to death on the trip back - Scott is seen as the very model of an English gentleman and his fate is held up as a fine example of the British character. It is in this tradition that photographer Herbert Ponting's celebratory and romanticised account of the badly managed expedition, the recently BFI-restored 1924 documentary 'The Great White Silence', is best understood.

Ponting was part of Scott's expedition as far as Ross Island, charged with taking the photographs that would then form the basis of a lucrative lecture tour for the explorer upon his return home. He was expected to capture the Captain's heroic return as conqueror of the Antarctic, though the documentary as exists takes a different and more tragic direction. The final third of the film is restricted to Scott's journal entries, as well as an inspired mix of rudimentary stop motion animation, model work and staged pre-enactments of Scott's expedition trudging to the South Pole (filmed before the party made the actual trip). This is a film which, from the off, nakedly hopes to capitalise on Scott as myth - with a telling opening inter-title declaring that the following is a tale of courage which should inspire boys around the Empire. And doubtless it would have done upon its original release, with Ponting's miraculous images rendering our most romantic ideal of the "Age of Exploration" palpable.

Doubtless the original run would have been accompanied by triumphant, patriotic music, but this 2011 restoration benefits from an eerie and atmospheric new score by Simon Fisher Turner. Turner's restrained and haunting soundscape lends the whole enterprise a sort of otherworldly quality - as if we are watching strange men from another planet. It puts a surreal, almost Herzogian slant on things which gives the hundred year old footage renewed vigour. It's also often quite funny. Ponting's film is already rich with comic moments - with shots of sailor's dancing, a performing cat and stills of bewildered looking penguins - but Turner's score gives them all a new lease of life. Turner proves that a silent movie well scored can be every bit as effective now as it was then - in fact I'd wager the film is better now.

Yet even Turner's majestic accompaniment would struggle to lift the material were it not for the fact that Ponting's film feels so very modern to begin with. The best part of the film - in terms of running time and enjoyment - takes the form of a wildlife documentary, which sees us observe penguins, gulls, seals and orcas in their natural habitat. And this is takes the form of something instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the work of David Attenborough. Ponting creates the same narrative as a modern wildlife documentary maker would, asking us to root for a hapless baby seal and its mother as a pod of killer whales closes in. He creates tension and prepares us for heartache as we see that infant struggle to come ashore as its mother frantically tries to push it up onto the ice.

The only anachronism that pulls us out of the moment, and reminds us we're watching antique footage, is the moment's resolution, as the crew of Scott's ship, the Terra Nova (a whaling vessel), harpoons one of the giant mammals and causes the attackers to break away. It's hard to imagine that happening in an episode of 'Planet Earth', but there are many details which flag up cultural changes (for instance, the ship's mascot, a black cat, is called "Nigger"). Also familiar to a modern audience will be Ponting's casting of the animals as little Christian families, with terms like "Mr & Mrs Penguin" or "the husband" used frequently, showing that there is nothing new about the anthropomorphism evident in films like 'March of the Penguins' (2005).

The most eye-catching, modern feature of the film however, is Ponting's frequent reference to the making of the film. He is sometimes seen on-camera himself, walking among the animals, and he often shows several takes of the same incident, allowing us to see how many times a particular set-up didn't go to plan. When watching a seal, he tells us how grateful he was that the "fellow" didn't keep him waiting long before performing the desired action. Better still, after inviting us to see a close-up of the bow of the ship breaking through the pack ice, he pulls back to show us how the shot was achieved - with the filmmaker perched atop a specially constructed wooden rig hanging precariously over the starboard side of the vessel. Ponting demonstrates himself to have been a very fine cameraman, with every frame of the film a beautiful photograph in its own right. His use of a handheld camera was pioneering and one panning shot, as the Terra Nova is buffeted by waves on the sea, sees him afford us an astounding view of the ocean filmed from somewhere up in the rigging.

The film ends with pages of Scott's immortal journal, telling us he and his comrades died like proper, stiff-upper lip Englishman and didn't grumble too much about their "unlucky" fate. Scott wrote that, whatever private misgivings they might have had, morale was always high among the men, who met their fate as esteemed examples of imperial valour. To my mind, these are the writings of a defeated man, once full of hubris, conscious of history and chiseling out his own legend. Even at the time of the film's release in 1924, the heroic ideal was being undermined by the senseless waste of life that was the 'Great War', and now those nineteenth century attitudes - which cast people as the expendable instruments of Empire - seem all the more alien to us. But set to a breathtaking new score and amongst Ponting's gloriously restored images, Scott's tale - and the dubious values of his age - are afforded a new lease of life.

'The Great White Silence' is rated 'U' by the BBFC and has been given a limited release in the UK.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

'Silken Skin' and 'Day for Night': Two Truffaut Films Worth Watching

I've been doing a bit of reading around the Nouvelle Vague of late, with Emilie Bickerton's comprehensive chronological history of the Cahiers Du Cinema the book I'm currently reading. So it was a happy coincidence that the Duke of York's recently put on a Francois Truffaut double-bill featuring two films I'd never seen before: 1964 thriller 'Silken Skin' - also know as 'The Soft Skin' - and 'Day for Night', which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1973. Below are mini-reviews of both:

Silken Skin (La Peau Douce)

'Silken Skin' is about a French literary celebrity, Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), who takes a business trip to Lisbon, where me meets a young air hostess (Françoise Dorléac) with whom he falls deeply in love. The majority of the film concerns Pierre sneaking away from his wife (Nelly Benedetti) to hook-up with his mistress, before he is eventually caught in a lie and has to make a decision.

It all seems simple, even banal, enough - a straightforward relationship drama. Yet Truffaut shoots the whole thing as if in homage to his idol Hitchcock and it plays like a thriller. The music is foreboding and the over-the-shoulder shots of people driving are reminiscent of 'Psycho', with the whole thing building to a powerful climax which is all the more striking due to the director's knowing refusal to forecast it during the preceding events (Truffaut was far too well schooled in Hitchcock for the abrupt ending to have been a result of structural deficiency).

It's seemingly a film about a cheating, nihilistic, self-satisfied husband - a man who tells his women what to wear - but 'Silken Skin' ultimately turns out to be about the women, as it cleverly subverts your expectations. It's also every bit as human as something like 'The 400 Blows', and though it's played straight for the most part, the film is not lacking in its directors subversive, darkly comic sensibility.

Day for Night (La nuit américaine)

When Jean-Luc Godard commented on the falseness of the motion picture industry in films like 'Tout Va Bien' (1972) (the credits of which feature a producer writing cheques to the cast and crew), it was tinged with bitterness and cynicism. On the other hand, Truffaut made 'Day for Night' just a year later - the quintessential movie about making movies - with a great sense of fun. Above all else, the film is entertaining. Visually it is a splendid, brightly coloured precursor to Wes Anderson, who most certainly paid homage to the film in his American Express advert - basically a riff on Truffaut's role as director within the movie, forever fielding questions from his crew and making decisions. (Though Anderson also borrows liberally from Godard and 'Tout Va Bien' in particular in his work.)

The film boasts some fantastic tracking shots too, but Truffaut never showboats without pulling back and making a joke at his own expense - and at the expense of the art form. It's always clear that he held cinema in the greatest reverence, but he was also able to channel that love into this high-spirited, good-natured look at the process and the industry.

The film is about the making of a movie, but the movie is beset by problems, feuds, death and even by a kitten who can't drink milk on cue (in a hilarious nod to an identical shot in 'Silken Skin'). Truffaut invites us into the kitchen and shows us how the sausage is made - and in a way which, for me at least, is far more fun than Fellini's '8 1/2'.

It also has a fantastic score, composed by Georges Delerue, which celebrates the wonders of the film making process as we watch sets being constructed or stunts being performed. It's clever without being smug and thoroughly enjoyable from the first minute to the last.

Both these films are deserving of far more attention than these short write-ups here, but I wanted to urge anyone who reads this to seek them out. Fantastic films both.

'Love Like Poison' review:

The bombast rituals of Catholicism cause Clara Augarde's fourteen year old Anna to faint twice in 'Love Like Poison'. The first time is at a funeral, with the intense, haunting chants of the bereaved seemingly too much to bear, and the second time is on an alter during the final stages of her own abortive confirmation. Director Katell Quillévéré's debut feature opens in similar fashion, with Anna refusing to receive the "body of Christ" during mass - her mouth firmly closed. Anna is reluctant to give herself up to the church, perhaps in favour of giving herself up to a local boy, though she is hardly a devout non-believer either. She clutches to religious symbols, even placing a crucifix above the bed of her ailing, atheist grandfather (Michel Galabru) to safeguard his immortal soul. It's a film of internal conflict, exacerbated by the throes of puberty as Anna discovers sexual desire.

In spite of its slender 90 minute running time, 'Love Like Poison' manages to express a lot without feeling hurried. Anna has time to confide in the local priest (Stefano Cassetti), row with her neurotic and jealous mother (Lio) and tend to her dying grandfather - a farting mess of bodily functions who makes some troubling, even incestuous, requests of the blossoming teenager. Anna's parents have also recently separated and she is unhappy at boarding school - leading to several tender scenes with her father (Thierry Neuvic). Meanwhile, her mother has a thing for the priest, who in turn has his own crisis of faith - perhaps wishing he's pursued life as a footballer rather than a man of the cloth.

What makes the film such compelling viewing is that it's non-judgemental and made richer by the moral ambiguity of much of the action. When Anna's grandfather gets an erection whilst she is bathing him, it's undoubtedly embarrassing and creepy (Anna herself runs away screaming), but is it inherently immoral? We're certainly not encouraged to think so by this compassionate film which empathises with all of its characters - and none more so than this lecherous, irreligious old man. It's this refusal to accept moral absolutism that is the most telling anti-Catholic facet of 'Love Like Poison', more effective even than a scene in which a craggy-faced old bishop sermonises about sin to a room full of bored teenagers. Though, as with last year's 'Lourdes', the film is ultimately more respectful than it is incendiary - subtly satirical rather than hectoring or confrontational.

With an unfussy, intimate and naturalistic directorial style, punctuated by several elegant single-take tracking shots, which perfectly suit her nuanced characters and eye for detail, Quillévéré establishes her cinematic voice with well-placed confidence. It's no surprise that the director caused such a stir in Cannes when the film premiered at last year's festival, with 'Love Like Poison' not only serving as a fine piece of cinema, but also as a calling card for a potential major talent. It's also another intriguing entry in a recent (if only tangentially related) strand of French cinema exploring crisis of religious faith, joined not only by the aforementioned 'Lourdes', but also by 'Of Gods and Men' and even Jacques Audiard's 'Un Prophete'. These films engage with the concept of "faith" without superficiality, in extreme contrast to Hollywood where the term is smothered by received wisdom and unpalatable smugness. You might not know what you're supposed to think after seeing 'Love Like Poison'. But therein lies its appeal and its greatest strength.

'Love Like Poison' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is on limited release in the UK now.

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Best Video Game Movies Never Made? + More Muppet Craziness!

As with yesterday, I spent this morning channelling my renewed enthusiasm for video games into writing a video game film adaptation article over on Obsessed with Film. Check it out!

And so this wasn't a complete waste of time for loyal blog readers, here is the second trailer released for 'The Muppets'!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

'LA Noire': The 10 Best Cameos

I posted this article over at Obsessed with Film earlier, having recently completed 'LA Noire'.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Studio Ghibli Blu-rays

I just posted a couple of Studio Ghibli Blu-ray reviews up on Obsessed with Film:

Laputa: Castle in the Sky
My Neighbours the Yamadas

These two films are interesting to view alongside each other for a number of reasons. Most obviously, they represent work by both of Ghibli's key animation directors - Hayao Miyazaki having made 'Castle in the Sky' and Isao Takahata helming 'My Neighbours the Yamadas'. Another reason for their significance is that the two films differ wildly in terms of the form the animation takes. The former is a slightly more traditional anime, albeit with Miyazaki's unique sensibilities, whilst the latter is highly stylised, resembling a newspaper cartoon strip brought to life. The latter was also produced using computers, whilst 'Castle' is a traditional hand-drawn film. Finally, they were both made at nearly opposite ends of the studio's chronology. Miyazaki's film was the first to be released under the Ghibli banner back in 1985, whereas 'Yamadas' came out almost fifteen years later.

In any case, check out those reviews (and buy the Blu-rays) if you've any interest in animation as an art form.

'The Hangover: Part II' review:

No film in recent years has made me quite as paranoid as 2009's 'The Hangover'. Everyone said it was hilarious - and I do mean everyone, as it went on to make half a billion dollars at the box office. Yet it just left me wondering whether I had suffered some massive sense of humour failure. "Why don't I get this?" was my bewildered refrain. Why didn't I find it brilliant when convicted rapist Mike Tyson sang a Phil Collins song? Why didn't I laugh at the funny Asian man who kept calling everyone "niggers" and going on about his "ewektions" - resembling a sort of live action version of the Kim Jong-il puppet from 'Team America'? I have no idea, but I'm told it was the best comedy ever made.

'The Hangover' had a few things going for it though: its premise, that a bunch of guys can't remember what they got up to the night before because they were totally wasted, seemed fairly original at the time (even if it was really just an up-market re-hash of 'Dude, Where's My Car?') and the presence of then-obscure funnyman Zach Galifianakis was joyful. Galifianakis is one of those comedians whose every mannerism and utterance is funny irrespective of the material and 'The Hangover' reaped the rewards of his charming naive-innocent act wholesale. However, these two redeeming qualities are largely absent from its sequel, 'The Hangover: Part II', with the film a scene-for-scene remake of the original (the tiger has been replaced by a monkey) and with Galifianakis long since over-exposed.

One of the sequel's main problems is with pacing. It takes an age for director Todd Phillips and his writers to contrive a way for all the conditions to be exactly the same as last time, with Bangkok standing in for Vegas. The guy who was missing in the first film, Doug (Justin Bartha), must again be absent from their escapades - though not before he's convinced soon to be married Stu (Ed Helms) to invite his deranged brother-in-law Alan (Galifianakis) to Thailand for the wedding. Phil (Bradley Cooper), of course, completes the "wolf pack" trio along with Alan and Stu. However, after going out for one beer, the trio wake up the day before the wedding only to find "it's happened again!" This time they have lost Stu's future bother-in-law Teddy (Mason Lee) and must retread their crazy, debauched trail looking for clues to find the kid - all in time for the big day. Every step of the journey is much the same as last time, with Mike Tyson returning and, yes, singing us a song.

As with the original, the funniest moments still belong to Galifianakis, such as when he shouts the unlikely line "when a monkey nibbles on a penis, it's funny in any language." That this is the comic highpoint should probably set alarm bells ringing, but at least he always looks funny, whether he is frowning at his new primate buddy or simply wearing a big hat. But 'The Hangover: Part II' is seriously low on written jokes. Mostly it relies on a heady mixture of institutionalised racism, school-yard homophobia and the popular assumption that anything is funny if it involves drugs and alcohol. For instance, one of the characters (I won't spoil which) comes to realise that he was "fucked in the ass" by a Bangkok ladyboy. You have to find this event funny in itself because there really aren't any jokes around it. The man in question gets upset that he's had a willy inside him and everybody else laughs. "Ha ha", they cry, "he's had a willy inside him!" In this context the issue of the accidental homosexual act quickly overshadows the character's infidelity. He thought it was a lady prostitute!

This lack of any decent written dialogue leads to the criminal waste of Paul Giamatti, who turns up halfway through as an antagonist of sorts. Giamatti gets to shout and chew scenery, but he isn't given anything really funny or memorable to do. I don't care what anyone says: Paul Giamatti has the capacity to be much, much funnier than Mike Tyson and any film which doesn't assign him that comic value is committing a crime against humour. Instead the film is content for the Kim Jong-il marionette-alike (apparently an actual man called Ken Jeong) for return, so he can say "erection" over and over again in side-splittingly hilarious broken English. When Phillips and company really find themselves struggling for laughs they just cut to shots of the little monkey smoking a cigarette. I'm not immune to the inherent comedy charms of that image but, again, it's pretty cheap.

'The Hangover: Part II', like it's forbear, is certainly better shot and lit than a standard American comedy. Lawrence Sher's cinematography breaks from a conventional logic which dictates that everything in comedy must be bright and loud. Instead, it's a seedy, grimy looking film and its use of Bangkok as a setting is diverse and interesting. The soundtrack is also pretty decent, as you'd expect with Wes Anderson regular Randall Poster working as music supervisor. The film's use of Billy Joel is fun, starting with a huge 'Glass Houses' poster in Alan's room and followed by obscure tracks like 'The Downeaster Alexa', which are employed well. A comic highlight is when Ed Helms performs an acoustic cover of Joel's 'Allentown', changing the words to tell the story of the film. Phillips also shoots a car chase sequence with considerable dynamism and no small amount of flair, though the very inclusion of this scene represents an increase in budget which will ensure that this sequel can't hope to repeat the vast profitability of the original. Especially when the ubiquitous marketing campaign is factored in.

If any of the humorous elements I've casually dismissed above sound good to you, then we can just chalk this up as another sense of humour failure on my part. I'm certainly willing to concede that just don't "get" this film. Maybe I just don't find the word "semen" funny enough. As is so often the case, this sequel is the same again done less well. I'd wager even huge fans of the original will find themselves a little disappointed by a follow-up that lacks imagination as much as belly laughs.

'The Hangover: Part II' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out everywhere from May 26th.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

This trailer is freakin' awesome!

I just wanted to post this...

It's apparently due for release on November 23rd. Can't wait.

'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' review:

"It's not the destination so much as the journey" Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow assures his weary audience somewhere near the end of this fourth installment of the lucrative 'Pirates' franchise. And he'd be right too, if the journey itself wasn't utterly tedious. I assume this line was written as a tacit meta-apology for the film's unabashed pursuit of 3D spectacle over anything resembling a plot or approaching character development. Although admittedly character development would have been difficult in this series, enamoured as it is with the exaggerated pantomime turn of its once-promising lead.

The story of 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' can be summed up thus: the perpetually feisty Penelope Cruz recruits a reluctant Jack Sparrow into the service of her father Blackbeard (TV's Ian McShane) as they seek the Fountain of Youth. Jack was in possession of a map to the Fountain and knows the way. The map, however, is now in the hands of the British Navy, headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who has been charged, by Richard Griffiths' rotund King George II, with claiming the same prize in the name of the crown. Also in pursuit of the treasure are the Spaniards, of whom we see very little - presumably because their crew contains no name actors. It's all apparently inspired by Tim Powers' novel On Stranger Tides, but after a quick read of the Wikipedia plot summary it would seem that the only two base elements of the novel that survive the book's transition to film are Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth itself.

Gore Verbinski, director of the first three films, wisely opted out of this installment and was quickly replaced with Rob Marshall - whose 'Nine' is notable for being one of a small handful of films actually worse than 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End'. A former Broadway director, Marshall was never going to rein in the kitsch and, indeed, everything is big. Every single main character is introduced in shadow, or in a hood, or from behind so we can anticipate the exciting moment when we finally get to see Ian McShane or Geoffrey Rush's hairy face. In one of the film's five-thousand interminable sword fight sequences, Penelope Cruz is introduced as an exact double of Depp, before being revealed - at which point she becomes markedly shorter and somewhat chestier than the beloved wastrel.

In fairness, Cruz is an instantly appealing force in the movie, even if her Angelica fluctuates uneasily between being Jack's piratey equal and a helpless damsel. McShane bucks the franchise trend and bravely underplays Blackbeard, which is admirable but tends to get lost amongst all the mugging. Meanwhile Rush is easily the most engaging actor in the piece and in his performance lie the last vestiges of comedy left to the series. However, these actors are easily counterbalanced by Depp's increasingly charmless mincing and by the presence of Sam Claflin as a bare-chested missionary who has defied the odds to become thirteen times more grating than Orlando Bloom.

More perplexing though is the film's calculated exploitation of the '12A' certificate. Like the 'Transformers' movies before it, 'On Stranger Tides' is essentially a kids film front-loaded with sex. Depp and Cruz speak in naughty little double-entendres ("I support the missionary's position"; "how is it we can never meet without you pointing something at me?"), and Angelica's back story is that Sparrow took advantage of her in a Spanish convent, mistaking it for a brothel. Often they hold erotic conversations in a breathy hush, speaking of "writhing" and such. The film's lustful energy is also shamelessly channelled into its depiction of mermaids - shot with the exact same aesthetic as a Lynx deodorant advert as they tantalise us with their carefully concealed breasts. I'm not offended by this - it's just one small example of the tacky sexualisation of all things everywhere - I'm just confused by it. Didn't young boys and girls used to think kissing was icky? What I'd have made of this aged nine I cannot begin to imagine.

Whilst I'm sermonising, it's also odd that the film's only black "character" is a mindless, brutish zombie. I'm not saying this is a pre-meditated act of racism, but it's at least a bit careless (again, 'Transformers' comes to mind). Furthermore, the message of 'Pirates 4' (if it has one) seems to be that women are deceitful and the ruin of men. The mermaids here, as in folklore, delight in luring sailors to their deaths with their wiles, whilst Angelica (the film's only prominent female) is also a proficient liar: introduced concealing her identity and gender, and manipulating men throughout. Not that these politically dubious elements should necessarily prevent you from seeing this sea-faring adventure yarn - after all, if you took that kind of moralistic stand, how many Hollywood films would you be left with each year? No, in fact what should stop people from seeing 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' is the fact that it's total and utter dross. And not fun dross, but deeply cynical dross. In 3D.

As 'Pirates' films go, it's not worse than the third one. But that will have to remain the highest praise the film can expect to receive from any but the most ardent 'Pirates' apologists. What started as a happy surprise and a breath of fresh air in 2003, has long since worn out its welcome. Nevertheless, prepare yourself for films 5, 6 and 7. Depp and co will always be willing to appear, as long as the "material" stays this good.

'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' is showing now and has been rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Monday, 23 May 2011

'Win Win' review:

"Well, it's no trick to make a lot of money... if what you want to do is make a lot of money" says Everett Sloane in 'Citizen Kane'. It's a point of view shared by Paul Giamatti's character, lawyer Mike Flaherty, in Tom McCarthy's indie comedy 'Win Win'. Unlike his best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), Paul hasn't pursued the almighty dollar with any fervor and, as a result, he finds himself struggling to support his wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter and keep his legal practice open. Like a figure straight out of a Robert Riskin screenplay, Paul has chosen to dedicate his life to the less than lucrative cause of helping the poor and vulnerable.

All around him expensive problems are mounting, each of them ticking time bombs ever present in his thoughts (a fact which is giving him regular anxiety attacks). A tree threatens to fall down on his house and the boiler under his office could explode at any moment, but he is unable to afford the solutions to these problems and can't bring himself to tell his wife. To make matters worse, the high school wrestling team he coaches (along with Jeffrey Tambor) can't win a single game. In an effort to solve his financial problems, Paul soon takes the desperate and deeply immoral step of becoming the legal guardian of an elderly client (Burt Young) suffering from dementia - checking him into a care home and pocketing the money intended for his upkeep. By the standards of American movies Paul is something worse than a "loser" - though this most certainly isn't the view of McCarthy's compassionate humanist film.

The scheme is complicated when the old man's estranged teenage grandson arrives on the scene. Kyle (Alex Shaffer) has run away from his unstable mother (the terrific Melanie Lynskey) and is looking to live with his grandpa, only to find him at the old folk's home apparently under the care of Paul. Unwilling to return home, Kyle moves into Paul's house where it is soon discovered that he is something of a wrestling prodigy. This accounts for the other half of the titular win-win situation, though this being a movie, things don't go smoothly for very long.

Compared alongside other Fox Searchlight indies, 'Win Win' is not all that wacky or, in reality, infused with jokes. Cannavale's man-child character is certainly written as broadly comic, and 'Arrested Development' actor Tambor can't help but be at least a little funny, but overall the film is content to provide occasional wry titters as opposed to hearty guffaws. Even the usually explosive Giamatti is oddly subdued, though he gives a compelling and watchable performance. Much like his recent turn in 'Barney's Version', Giamatti can't help but elicit sympathy and brings his unorthodox brand of charm to the role.

Meanwhile, Amy Ryan (Beadie Russell in 'The Wire') is good value as Paul's forthright and disarmingly sweet wife Jackie. Moments of tenderness and sentiment in 'Win Win' are never allowed to be cloying and are usually quickly diffused - though they last just long enough to ensure that the film has a heart. First-time screen actor Shaffer, hired because of his real-life wrestling prowess rather than his stage chops, is the only weak link amongst the cast. His delivery is wooden and his character reads as emotionless, though it's hard to be sure how much of this is down to bad acting and how much is down to his character's written emotional distance.

'Win Win' is in some ways boldly unconventional for a mainstream American film, not only in its refusal to moralise about its characters, but also in its depiction of the relationship between a sports coach and his wunderkind. The usual Hollywood narrative of their relationship would involve both parties bonding, before coming away having learned some home truths - the triumph is that they grow as people and win the big game. Here things are less clear cut and ultimate sporting victory is less than assured. But as promising as all this sounds, any recommendation of the film must come with a huge caveat.

All too often the film indulges in cringing, heavy-handed metaphor. For instance, as a half-hearted Giamatti jogs before the titles, we see him overtaken by two other joggers - at which point he stops, turns almost to camera and sighs. "Oh dear", we think, "things are not looking up for this guy". Cut to: his wife lying in bed with her daughter. "Where's daddy?" asks the little girl. "He's out running" comes the reply, before the child's all-too-cute response: "from what?" And what is a falling tree or a volatile boiler if not a sort of sword of Damocles metaphor, for forces which could quite literally crash down on his life or explode under the build-up of pressure at any moment? And being wrestled into the dirt by his pupil at the start of the film's third act is nothing if not a symbol that he has reached his lowest point. A skillful use of imagery is to be admired and enjoyed, but McCarthy's movie suffers under the weight of all too on the nose symbolism.

The film is also host to one of my pet hates, as almost every argument results in someone running out of the room hysterically - though I concede that a stroppy sixteen year-old kid, with a history of anger management issues, might behave this way (it's just irritating to watch). It must also be said that 'Win Win' contains some of the most contrived, cynical and obvious product placement seen in recent memory, with frequent mentions (and depictions) of the Nintendo Wii. These moments also break the film's believability. After all, nobody has actually played with their Wii since some time in 2010. There are also some unfortunate cack-handed comedic references to 'Star Wars' which are ironically less funny than Jar Jar Binks. All told though, 'Win Win' is as admirable as it is imperfect, mostly for its refusal to buy into the American Dream and thanks to a decent cast.

'Win Win' is out now in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Friday, 20 May 2011

'LA Noire': Game changer?

Rockstar, the video game developers behind the popular 'Grand Theft Auto' series, today released 'LA Noire' - an open world detective game set in 1940s Los Angeles, which boasts almost miraculous, hitherto unprecedented motion capture technology. For the best part of a decade video games have been shamelessly aping Hollywood, often even drawing from the same talent pool, but 'LA Noire' comes with the added credence of having been shown off at the recent Tribeca Film Festival.

The "video games as art" discussion is increasingly tedious and redundant, but 'LA Noire' is - at least in terms of acting - a potential game changer for how the medium is seen as a means of telling stories. I've only played it for a few hours so far, but its characters make realistic facial expressions, display subtle changes in emotion and are even often played by recognisable US TV actors giving really decent performances (including the bulk of the cast of 'Mad Men'). Personally, I think the games that best make the case for the art form are those which try less to copy Hollywood and try to play on the medium's own strengths (for example 'Flower' or 'Shadow of the Colossus'). However, whilst games from 'Resident Evil' to 'Call of Duty' have, for years, attempted to tell Hollywood stories using a faux-Hollywood aesthetic, 'LA Noire' may be the first game to do so with this degree of credibility. (Yes, I've played 'Heavy Rain', but that was woeful.)

In any case, 'LA Noire' wishes it was a film and is no doubt written by a frustrated film student. Like Rockstar's other games, it puts you in a world informed by the movies and television much more so than history (which is not to say that it isn't a rich and interesting world all the same). And in that spirit I am going to review it on this blog as if it were a film. Too often a story that would be laughed off a cinema screen is given the benefit of the doubt (if only by gamers) because we don't expect games to have the same quality - the same ability to tell stories. In order to see whether 'LA Noire' bucks that trend I'm going to be reviewing it as if I'd watched it as a show on HBO.

So, if you're interested in that, check back in the week for that. And for reviews of 'Pirates 4: On Stranger Tides' and US indie comedy 'Win Win'.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

'Attack the Block' review:

The success of 'Attack the Block', a comedy-horror movie written and directed by Joe Cornish (of 'Adam & Joe' fame), was always going to hinge on how the director portrayed his protagonists: a gang of so-called "hoodies". The film is set on a South London council estate which is invaded by ravenous extra-terrestrial monsters and follows a group of youths as they attempt to defend their housing block with samurai swords, fireworks and whatever else they have to hand. It's sort of like 'The Goonies' meets 'Aliens' via 'Shaun of the Dead'. But since the earliest trailer, (for me at least) question marks have hung over whether the comedy was going to be derived mainly from cynically picking on the country's inner city poor - with nothing more than a string of cheap, tired and obvious jokes at the expense of a feckless group of stereotyped "chavs".

Yet whilst the film opens with our would-be "heroes" mugging a young woman at knife point, Cornish manages to strike a delicate balance between humanising his gang of hoodlums, moralising about their actions and poking fun at them, and in the end the film is pretty perfectly pitched. Yes, there are gags at the expense of the kids' social class: for instance the film revels in the absurdity of their "urban", youth culture patois. But the film also riffs on the speech patterns of white, middle class, West London stoners. Almost everything that isn't scary, or at least jumpy, is played for good natured laughs, and the film most definitely has its heart in the right place.

The young actors feel authentic and bring a measure of understated comic brilliance to their delivery. Especially Alex Esmail as Pest, who looks something like "Dappy" from N-Dubz (only he's funny on purpose). It's also great to see a British film which revels in locally specific detail and which focusses on a number of black characters. At a first glance it would seem that Cornish has made his debut film very much in the mould of friends Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Nick Frost has a supporting role and Cornish plays with Hollywood genre conventions - especially those of sci-fi and horror - throughout. The screenplay is peppered with pop culture references and, as with the likes of 'Hot Fuzz', humour is mostly drawn from contrasting everyday British banality with an improbable hi-octane situation, with the alien invasion prompting lines like "I've got one text left. This is too much madness to explain in one text."

Yet compared to the Pegg/Wright oeuvre, Cornish's film is less obviously a sustained pop culture geek-off, in spite of frequent references to video games such as Gears of War. Instead it works quite capably on a surface level - as a comedy with scary bits, even for those without an encyclopedic knowledge of the work of Steven Spielberg. The in-jokes lie under the surface - satisfying for those in the know, but not intruding on the film's tight structure and engaging forward momentum.

It's terrifically well realised too, especially in the early shots which frame the housing block as some sort of futuristic, science fiction obelisk, and trace the hallway strip lighting as if it were on the inside of a spaceship. As a setting the block is versatile and filled with several distinctive environments which cleverly break up the film's predominantly black and grey colour palette. The alien creatures themselves are really well designed and fairly frightening, and Cornish has admirably shunned a more commercial '12A' certificate by filling the film with some pretty visceral, over the top gore.

Far from being the sustained, middle class wink that I'd feared, 'Attack the Block' is the smart, funny and slickly produced feature that I'd hoped for. As a first time director, Joe Cornish has displayed a level of assuredness that is encouraging and - if he can resist the inevitable overtures of Hollywood (he has already co-written the upcoming 'Tintin' film) - his brand of eye-catching, socially conscious and unpretentious comedy could be a sizable boon for British cinema for years to come.

'Attack the Block' is out now across the UK and has been rated '15' by the BBFC.

Friday, 13 May 2011

'Midnight in Paris' review:

The 64th Cannes Film Festival opened last week with an out of competition screening of Woody Allen's latest, 'Midnight in Paris'. I wasn't in Cannes but managed to see a showing of the film (appropriately enough) in the French capital, where it went on general release later that same day. Maybe it had something to do with the film's local setting - and certainly the ubiquitous posters for it on the city's streets won't have done any harm - but the showing I attended was a sell out, as a diverse crowd flooded in to the main screen of a Pathé multiplex in Montmartre. Of course, it's become a truism that Allen's films are much better appreciated on the continent than in the US/UK (a fact acknowledged by the director himself in 'Hollywood Ending'), but I was still surprised to have to queue up to see a Woody Allen film - and in a mainstream cinema.

'Midnight in Paris' follows Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a surrogate Woody Allen figure - a Hollywood screenwriter who is in love with a romantic view of the French capital and with an idealised view of the past. He loves the city and its cultural legacy so much in fact, that he wants to get away from his home in California permanently and have a shot at being a "serious writer" - an ambition not supported by his high-maintenance fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). Gil wants to take long walks in the rain and sit in left bank cafés working on his novel, but his peace is disturbed by Inez's cynical, right-wing parents and the intrusions of her pretentious, know it all friend Paul (Michael Sheen).

Like Miniver Cheevy before him, Gil feels like a man out of time and wishes he were born in a more intellectual, artistically vital era - for him, the Paris of the 1920s. And it is to that period of time that he finds himself magically transported every night at the strike of midnight, where he mingles with his heroes, among them F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). This bizarre twist in the tale - not hinted at in the trailer - that harkens back to Allen's work as a short story writer or his 'Deconstructing Harry' and 'The Purple Rose of Cairo'. Over the course of these late night visits to the romanticised past Gil meets and falls in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard) and has to decide between the past and the present.

Owen Wilson is fantastic as the central character, with his easy charm and impeccable comic timing working perfectly with this - his best role outside of a Wes Anderson film. Wilson's unpretentious likeability has seen him too often wasted in disposable rom-coms, but he was really made for intelligent roles such as this. He is supported by a brilliant ensemble cast too, with everyone from McAdams to French-Moroccan comic Gad Elmaleh (who brought the house down with his wordless appearance as a private detective) superbly cast. Especially Cotillard (I shouldn't need to tell you how appealing she is a screen actress). But alongside the laid back naturalism of most the performances, it was actually the showiest and most exaggerated turns that thrilled me the most.

Adrian Brody's appearance as Dali caused me to shed tears of laughter. Genius casting making for an inspired cameo. Whilst Corey Stoll as Hemingway was absolutely perfect, with a level of earnestness and intensity that was, for me, hilarious. Praise must also go to Michael Sheen for his slimy portrayal of Paul, a role reminiscent of all the New York pseudo-intellectual archetypes seen in all of Allen's best loved 1970s work. He manages to make the character just the right level of obnoxious and pedantic without seeming over the top and it's a pity he isn't in more than a couple of scenes.

It's the performances rather than the writing that is funniest and 'Midnight in Paris' is perhaps lacking in the sort of deft one-liners that were once the hallmark of Woody Allen's style. And unlike the adored 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' this won't be up for any Oscars, if only because it's so relaxed and deceptively simple. But 'Midnight in Paris' is every bit as beautiful as anything Allen ever shot with Gordon Willis, and it's a screenplay full of interesting ideas even if they're not all explored with any depth. As the calamitous 'Cassandra's Dream' testifies, Allen can't write "British". But he does the American abroad very well and with this he has given every reason to anticipate his next film, the Rome-set 'The Wrong Picture', with some degree of optimism.

You might say that I was pre-disposed to enjoy 'Midnight in Paris', what with being in Paris and watching the film with an enthusiastic crowd. And you may have a point. And, after a patchy last decade (to put it kindly), it is fair to say my expectations for it were set extremely low - especially given that Allen's last film was utterly abysmal. But for the first time in what feels like a decade, I absolutely loved a new Woody Allen film, almost without qualification. For the first time since childhood I laughed during one of his movies: not knowing laughs of polite recognition, but hearty, belly laughs. For the first time in around a decade, here is a Woody Allen film with imagination.

'Midnight in Paris' has not yet been rated by the BBFC and will probably not see a UK cinema release until 2012. However, the film is currently on general release in France.

Monday, 9 May 2011

'Hanna' review:

From the vengeful "Bride" of the 'Kill Bill' films to Zack Synder's 'Sucker Punch', violent actioners featuring female protagonists are an increasingly common sight at the multiplex. Few eyebrows will be raised then, in the era of 'Kick-Ass', to hear about 'Hanna' - a film about a teenage girl brought up as a deadly killer. After all, Angelina Jolie has been shooting people on our screens for years. But whilst the vast majority of silver screen heroines are really just scantily-clad male fantasy figures - strong characters in only the most superficial sense - 'Hanna' is a smart, character-driven movie which brings to mind the complexities of Ripley in 'Alien' rather than the mindlessness of 'Salt' or 'Tomb Raider'.

The impressive Saoirse Ronan, who shone in director Joe Wright's 'Atonement', stars as the title character raised as a killer in an icy wilderness and tasked by her father (Eric Bana) with killing the secret agent (Cate Blanchett) who drove them into hiding. She quickly performs this task (or so she thinks) and then ends up on the run from the American military, as well as a bizarre group of German thugs/circus performers lead by an extremely camp Tom Hollander.

The film centres primarily on her awakening as a fully-fledged individual (rather than just a killing machine): it's a coming of age story for Hanna as a women. But the film also explores the ideas of motherhood via Blanchett's interactions with various figures in the young girl's life: her mother; her father; her grandmother. Behind Blanchett's pursuit of Hanna there is an engaging ambiguity. There is a wordless suggestion at one point that she can't herself have children. Does she want to mother Hanna? Or destroy her? Far from simply existing as a take-it-or-leave-it subtext, these themes compliment the film's moments of action and visa versa. Violence is almost always married to the thrill of experience and the development of character.

The first time we hear anything of the pounding Chemical Brothers score is when Hanna makes a conscious decision to leave the safety of life with he father and accept her deadly mission. The music functions to make her anxiety and excitement palpable, and every time we hear the music subsequently - such as when she is escaping from a military facility - it, along with the artful strobe lighting, forms part of a hyper-stylised representation of Hanna's psyche. When soldiers surround her log cabin near the start of the film, the music stands for nervous anticipation of first contact with people other than her father. In this way Hanna is an example of proper cinema - often using sound and image to tell its story rather than simply leaving that to dialogue.

There is a terrific internationalist air to proceedings too as Hanna alternates between languages and goes through several countries over the course of her journey. Wherever she goes she interacts with people from other far-flung places too, but without the film being particularly showy about it. The film also manages to pull off something very rarely seen, as a kiss between Hanna and a girl she befriends (played by the terrifically funny Jessica Barden) manages to avoid seeming gratuitous or cynically motivated. In fact Hanna's relationship with Barden's character is not even really sexualised: it functions more as part of her character's longing for new experiences and human contact, played out with the only person (aside from her father) with whom she establishes a bond of trust.

In terms of cinematography and art design, 'Hanna' is tremendous and beautiful - especially when it comes to outdoor sequences bathed in naturalistic light and the warm fire-lit interiors of Hanna's cabin during the opening sections. The expertly choreographed lighting of the chase sequences is dazzling and bursting with energy. Though, as with Wright's much-heralded Dunkirk tracking shot in 'Atonement', there is a self-conscious aspect to some of the film's visuals. For instance, what do we gain from a brief shot from the point of view of a wounded animal during a hunt? It's jarring and out of place in a film in which the music and design is otherwise so consistently placing you in the position of the protagonist. Some of the accents, especially that of Eric Bana, are also pretty peculiar and changeable, though this isn't such a big deal in a film with such a stylised reality.

For some, the middle section of the film (in which Hanna goes on a road trip with a nice middle class family) might seem at odds with the pacing and the tightness of the earliest sections and the finale - and they may have a point, given the expectation of a straight thriller. But to make this assessment would be to miss the point of what 'Hanna' actually is. It's a film where action is secondary to character development, in which Hanna's interaction with non-violent people and her discovery of friendship - and just maybe Platonic love - is every bit as important as any scene of neck-snapping or gun-wielding. It's 'The American' from the perspective of a curious, confused and hyper-active young girl, rather than a middle-aged, world-weary man. This is what makes the film stand apart from the superficial "girl power" crowd. 'Hanna' is the real deal.

'Hanna' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is on general release now.

Monday, 2 May 2011

'L'affaire Farewell' review:

'L'affaire Farewell', just released in the UK and directed by Christian Carion, is an unspectacular 2009 French spy thriller based on a "true story". Set in Moscow in 1981, the focus is on an ordinary French man living in Moscow, Pierre (Guillaume Canet), who reluctantly falls into spying for his government after striking up a relationship with a Soviet informer, Sergei (Emir Kusturica). Sergei is disillusioned with the state of his country and is willing to part with the names of most of the Soviet spy network in Europe and North America, crippling the USSR's ability to effectively participate in the cold war. The importance of this information means that suddenly Pierre is on a mission that goes right the way to the White House and is credited (by the film) with bringing down the "Iron Curtain" a decade later.

Yet anybody expecting a taut and gripping espionage thriller will leave the theatre disappointed. 'Farewell' is mostly concerned with the (I imagine speculated) family strife between the spies and their respective wives. Sergei is having trouble bonding with his teenage son. And he has a mistress. Pierre lies to his wife, saying he won't accept the spy mission. Trouble ensues. Aside from that, there are several tedious and poorly scripted oval office scenes in which a cartoon cowboy version of Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) spouts exposition to his staff - who really ought to know that, for example, France is a vital ally against the Soviet Union.

There are also lots of moments of light comedy of cultural difference, as Sergei adorably mispronounces the name of Western pop bands and bends Pierre's ear over perceived French national characteristics ("you French are such chauvinists!"). Trite images of the Soviet Union are abound, as imposing statues of Lenin, decommissioned tanks and big scary monuments to the working class dominate the cityscape. Stern men in uniform lurk on every subway and take dour looking people away at the flash of a badge. Ultimately it's a patriotic TV movie about a French triumph rather than a cinematic history lesson.

I recently read an interesting book on the Middle Ages which detailed how the records relating to various kings were amended after their reign at the expressed instruction of the new regime. For instance, Richard III, immortalised as a hunched villain by Shakespeare (writing, remember, for a Tudor audience), was in reality a relatively fair and popular ruler - and there is no evidence suggesting the popular story of his murdering the young princes in the tower is anything more than propaganda. Yet it has endured and, in secondary school, I first encountered that story as a historical fact.

Similarly, that great hero of English patriotism, Richard the Lionheart, was in reality a Frenchman who spent just six months of his decade-long reign in England (a country he despised), and that was only to gather taxes to fund his wars of religious intolerance and indiscriminate mass murder in the Middle East. And yet he is canonised a national hero by a statue outside the Houses of Parliament. History, so it goes, is written by the winners.

But you needn't look as far back as the as the twelfth century to find evidence of that truism: films - the dominant means by which most popular history is now transmitted - frequently pervert the events of even the recent past in the name of entertainment. The two biggest critical hits of the last year, 'The King's Speech' and 'The Social Network', both did this. It's just that they do it better. 'Farewell' is tedious, badly paced and scarcely even redeemed by its Clint Mansell score (which is eerily similar to his work on 'Moon', released the same year).

'L'affaire Farewell', being a French movie, tells us the story of the brave, selfless, ordinary French people for vanquished communism, and to whom every health insurance paying, tuition fee protesting "man and woman of the free world" apparently owe a debt of gratitude (so says Willem Dafoe in a pointless cameo as the director of the CIA). It's a "true story" and yet, funnily enough, all the names and details have been changed. It strays far enough away from "the facts" that there is a sequence in which Sergei's moody teenage son struts around a meadow dancing like Freddy Mercury (who he can't have ever seen) whilst listening to Queen on his Walkman (the epitome of freedom, apparently). It's a reality where Ronald Reagan begins every meeting by showing his aides the same scene from 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'.

It would be unfair to accuse 'Farewell', directed by Christian Carion, of being wholly anti-communist/pro-capitalist, after all the action takes place at a time when France's own government was socialist under the leadership of François Mitterrand. So the film contains lines of dialogue in mild support of socialism: for instance Sergei tells Pierre that French holidays were introduced by lefties. In fact, the film is overall critical of both sides of the conflict, with the protagonists used by competing powers who ultimately show little loyalty to their spies once goals are met.

If it's "pro" anything, that thing is France. It's the story of a French triumph - one that we are told ultimately won the cold war. Reagan wants to interfere with Mitterrand's newly elected government, but the French president rebuffs him and stresses his country's independence, though he does honour their alliance and provides the US with intelligence. This isn't France as a US lackey but as the most vital power in ensuring the ultimate allied victory. It's a film about the moment when France changed history: for better, for everyone and forever. And don't you forget it. Who cares what actually happened? This is what happened now.

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