Saturday, 30 July 2011

'Captain America: The First Avenger' review:

'Captain America: The First Avenger' is out now in the UK, so I thought I'd remind y'all about my review from last week over on What Culture.

I saw the film again yesterday, partly because it's the best blockbuster I've seen in years, but also so I could catch a glimpse of the teaser for next year's Joss Wheadon directed 'The Avengers' after the credits (not attached to the press version I first saw).

Joe Johnston's film was great a second time and I'm really glad the film held up to an additional viewing. A few things I didn't mention in my review which I'll take up space with here: Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) reminded me, not only of Werner Herzog, but of 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' villain Judge Doom. The whole thing actually made me think of episodes of Spielberg's TV series 'Amazing Stories'.

Anyway, go see the movie if you have even a passing interest in superhero fare.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Jack of all trades: football and video games

I've been trying to mix it up a bit recently by writing about things other than film when the mood takes me. In that spirit I wrote a sort of "where are they now?" football piece about the cup winning Arsenal youth team of 2001 (which included Jeremie Aliadiere, above). You can read that now on football blog The Trawler.

I also continued by recent spate of video games articles by writing a humorous nostalgic article on "gaming in the 90s" for What Culture, in which I list ten things the youth of today wouldn't know anything about. Just for fun, like.

Now I'm preparing to write a sort film review for an upcoming volume on American Independent cinema from Intellect Books. I'm re-watching Christopher Nolan's 'Memento' now for the small critique, which will be published sometime next year with a bunch of other things I've written for the publisher over the last two years.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

'Beginners' review:

From 'Thumbsucker' director Mike Mills, 'Beginners' is a thoughtful, loosely autobiographical film about a thirty-something artist, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), whose father has recently died of cancer a few short years after coming out as gay in his mid-seventies - in a sense, beginning life too late. It's set a few months after Hal (Christopher Plummer) has died and sees his son struggling to move on with life, forming an unhealthy attachment to his late father's dog and with unbearable sadness effecting his work and friendships.

There are frequent backflashes as Oliver thinks back on growing up with his equally unfulfilled mother and his father's life as a closet homosexual, with events put into historical and social context in a way which is less gimmicky than it might sound. Meanwhile Oliver embarks on a new beginning of his own, falling for Anna, a French actress played by an especially winsome Melanie Laurent. It's an ambitious film - as much about the human condition and the history of sadness as it is about love - which mostly lives up to its promise.

'Beginners' is a tearjerker without feeling manipulative and it's life-affirming without being sickly. A large part of its success rests with Christopher Plummer, whose performance as Hal is especially heartbreaking, with the old man facing death when he is at his most vital. His insatiable appetite for new experiences is particularly bittersweet and Mills' reflection on his own father's life as a closet homosexual in the 1950s shows great insight and empathy. Oliver's mother (Mary Page Keller), also deceased, isn't neglected as a character either, with time given to her end of a compromised marriage and relationship with Oliver as a boy.

For his part, McGregor gives an understated and sensitive performance which is easily his best in years, even sporting a decent American accent. Laurent, who appeared on Hollywood's radar after starring in Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds' two years ago, is also a presence, showing great range. All of the characters are well drawn and sympathetic - with each of them coming to terms with misfortune and tragedy without self-pity. As romantic leads, McGregor and Laurent enjoy great chemistry and their scenes together are a charming, even if the film is at its best when Plummer is on-screen.

Where it falls down slightly is in its sporadic attempts to be cute and quirky. The drawings Oliver does at work, hired to design a rock band's album cover, and scenes of post-modern graffiti, feel like something from a Fox Searchlight comedy. The superficiality of these moments doesn't quite mesh with the perfectly observed emotional honesty of the rest of the movie. It's also gloomily lit, with even daylight scenes taking place in semi-darkness - a decision no doubt intended to mirror Oliver's less-than-sunny disposition, but which becomes wearisome from an aesthetic standpoint.

Yet with its old-timey soundtrack and existentialist concerns, at its best 'Beginners' feels like vintage Woody Allen, without all the one-liners and with added cause to weep openly. Intelligent, insightful and deeply moving, it's one of the films of the year.

'Beginners' is out now in the UK where it is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Friday, 22 July 2011

'Captain America: The First Avenger' review:

My review of 'Captain America: The First Avenger' just went up on What Culture. So check that out.

Also, I have written a DVD review for The Daily Telegraph arts section tomorrow. I reviewed 'The Lincoln Lawyer' which is apparently DVD of the Week. I've got a few more gigs with them coming up too, which is certainly a pleasure.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Something that isn't to do with 'Cars'!

I've just reviewed the insanely stupid video game 'Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon' over on What Culture, so check that out if you're sick to death of all my 'Cars' related updates. It's a bit like if 'Starship Troopers' had been directed by Ed Wood.

Last of the 'Cars 2' interviews: John Lasseter

What Culture has the last of my video interviews with Pixar up today and it's the big one: John Lasseter. Head over there now to find out why he made a sequel to 'Cars' and where the idea for making it a spy movie came from.

Also, don't forget to check out all the other interviews from this past week: Emily Mortimer, producer Denise Ream and the UK pair, first assistant editor Kevin Rose-Williams and character animator Jude Brownbill.

There is also my review of the film and also, rounding out my trip to Berkeley, my coverage of Andrew Stanton's ambitious 'John Carter'.

For those of you tired of a week of nothing but 'Cars 2', this is the end!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Today's 'Cars 2' interview: Emily Mortimer

Today sees my penultimate 'Cars 2' interview up on What Culture, which sees me talking to actress Emily Mortimer, the voice of Holly Shiftwell (above).

Previously this week has seen interviews with some of Pixar's UK talent, character animator Jude Brownbill and first assistant editor Kevin Rose-Williams, as well as a chat with producer Denise Ream. Tomorrow the final interview, with director and studio head John Lasseter, will complete the series conducted at Pixar's Berkeley headquarters in California last month.

I posted a review of the film itself on this blog yesterday.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

'Cars 2' review:

Pixar is a studio known for taking risks and taking audiences to places they don't expect to go - making movies about rats cooking food, retired old men in flying houses and silent robots with a passion for 'Hello, Dolly!'. So whilst the studio's new found love of sequels may seem disappointingly in-step with the competition, you'd have to concede that the decision to make a sequel to 2006 film 'Cars' is consistent with the Pixar tradition. After all, who honestly expected a sequel for the studio's least celebrated film? Certainly there is a sizable population of young kids (boys in particular) who have helped to make 'Cars' the most lucrative source of merchandising revenue for the studio, but there is a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm surrounding the release 'Cars 2' when compared to 'Up', 'Wall-E' or last year's 'Toy Story 3'.

The original film saw brash race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) stranded in the backwater town of Radiator Springs where he befriended a rusty, well-meaning tow-truck, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), and learned valuable lessons in humility, ultimately becoming a better racer and winning the coveted Piston Cup. It was a personal film for director John Lasseter, who was indulging his own sincere, lifelong love of motor racing as well as taking a good-natured and nostalgic look at a dying way of life out on Route 66. The sequel is, by contrast, a more sprawling, action-packed and seemingly less personal movie. A globe-trotting spy thriller in which Lightning McQueen is a supporting player. All of which sounds better in theory than it ends up being in practice.

'Cars 2' sees Mater accompany McQueen around the world (through Italy, France, Japan and England) whilst the flashy speedster participates in the "World Grand Prix". And it's the comedy best friend character who now takes centre stage after being mistaken for an undercover American spy by sleek British intelligence agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Now equipped with gadgets and gizmos, he soon finds himself embroiled in a series of high-octane, life or death encounters, whilst his small town ignorance sees him clash with every culture he comes into contact with. What follows is a 60s spy film pastiche, full of races, chases and fish out of water comedy, set in a world solely comprised of cute motoring puns.

For a studio as famously disciplined in terms of storytelling as Pixar, the film feels quite loose and ramshackle - a series of hopefully exciting or funny moments rather than a compelling narrative. Some things work (John Turturro is fun as boastful Italian F1 car Francesco Bernoulli) but mostly it's the same earnest inter-car relationship drama as the first film (Mater and McQueen fall out, whilst it's the tow-truck's turn to find love) with a lot more broad, misfiring comedy - this time revolving around car-ified versions of national stereotypes. It's pretty tiresome (or should that be tyresome) stuff made depressing because of who is making it. 'Cars' was in fairness an OK film that suffered from the fact that it was below the exceptionally high standards set by Pixar. 'Cars 2' is genuinely just bad.

It begins promisingly enough, with some imaginative new character designs and innovative character animation (particularly of the boats and submarines). The new spy plot element creates an atmosphere of intrigue and excitement and the world of 'Cars' becomes fresh and more fun than it has previously been, especially as Finn McMissile fights off an army of villainous henchman during his escape from an exploding oil rig. Yet as soon as Mater becomes the focus of the story all the tension, excitement and humour evaporates. Finn McMissile is a funny character because he is played completely straight, whereas Mater is supposed to be funny but he's just obvious and annoying. The message of 'Cars 2' is that Mater should be allowed to "be himself", which I'm happy with so long as it does it somewhere else.

It struck me whilst watching 'Cars 2' that it's perhaps much more skewed towards young children than we're used to from the guys who broadened the appeal of the art form with 'Toy Story' all those years ago. This isn't a bad thing in of itself and it's possible that the spectacle of Mater wetting himself (leaking oil) might be as hilarious as intended if I was eight again. I'd most certainly have wanted to own every single toy, especially now that the cars have that other love of young boys - weapons. But as an adult it's got nothing to offer aside from the always-breathtaking animation of the artists at Pixar, who again do an amazing job: the film's reflections, lighting and character animation are impressive and the character designs are much more appealing than the actual characters.

It gives me no pleasure to write a review like this for a Pixar movie. It feels a lot like I'm punching a faithful friend in the face. A friend who, on every other occasion, has stood for not just the best of animated filmmaking but, in many ways, for the best of filmmaking period. Pixar puts in so much effort and invests so much loving care into every one of its creations, and the richly detailed, densely populated world of 'Cars 2' is far from being an exception. I saw a lot of amazing concept art for the film when visiting Pixar last month and it feels somehow churlish to run the movie down in the face of so much talent, especially as director John Lasseter has done more for animation than anyone else on the planet in the last twenty years (including spearheading excellent recent animated output at a resurgent Disney Animation Studios). But with all that said, 'Cars 2' is Pixar's first bad movie and I'd be lying to myself if I wrote otherwise.

'Cars 2' is released in the UK on Friday and has been rated 'U' by the BBFC.

Denise Ream: day two of my 'Cars 2' interviews...

Today my chat with 'Cars 2' producer Denise Ream has gone up on What Culture. I had no idea what to ask when I went in for this interview at Pixar's Berkeley base last month, but suddenly I found myself channelling everything I'd read about producers in William Goldman's seminal book on Hollywood Adventures in the Screen Trade. At the end Denise said I'd asked some good questions and I left the whole thing in high spirits!

Check out my review of the film and further interviews with John Lasseter and Emily Mortimer across the spread of this week over on What Culture (formerly Obsessed with Film).

If you missed them, check out yesterday's interviews with first assistant editor Kevin Rose-Williams and character animator Jude Brownbill.

Monday, 18 July 2011

First of my 'Cars 2' interviews online...

Following on from last week's report on 'John Carter', the first of the 'Cars 2' interviews I conducted at Pixar in June are now online at What Culture.

First up are two video interviews with UK talent at the studio, first assistant editor Kevin Rose-Williams and character animator Jude Brownbill - both very nice people indeed.

Later in the week, leading up to the release of 'Cars 2' on Friday, there will be more interviews up on the site (which I'll link to here) - with director/studio founder John Lasseter, actor Emily Mortimer and producer Denise Ream. I'll also be writing a full review of the film itself for this blog.

Friday, 15 July 2011

'John Carter' trailer goes up!

Disney have now released a trailer for next year's sci-fi 'John Carter', directed by 'Wall-E' and 'Finding Nemo' helmer Andrew Stanton (in his first foray into feature-length live-action). This isn't quite as impactful as the much more enigmatic trailer I was shown in San Francisco last month - that one had much less dialogue and made more of a feature of the superb Peter Gabriel Arcade Fire cover - but it's still a good trailer that doesn't give too much away.

Personally, whilst I'm very excited at this point, I'm not yet sold on the two lead actors (Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins) though I remain open minded. But the sweep and imagination of the film is eye-catching indeed.

Check out my report on the production of the film when I had the good fortune of speaking to Andrew Stanton last month in his California studio.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

'Tintin' gets an improved trailer...

Is it just me, or does anyone else automatically get the theme to the 90s French-Canadian animated 'The Adventures of Tintin' in their head when they think of the Belgian sleuth? Anyway, here is the second trailer for Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's upcoming animated adaptation of Herge's The Secret of the Unicorn.

Though many will still feel it's a little too close to the uncanny valley for comfort, my only criticism is that the voices don't look like they're coming from the characters. However, the lighting (particularly the mirrors and glass at the start) and animation in general look fantastic. I love the 50s Noire look a lot of it seems to have. It's also refreshing to see an investigative journalist with some integrity (to insert an already tired topical reference)!

Also, Jamie Bell's voice is a perfect fit for the central character, as he sounds youthful and optimistic without seeming twee - though I'm unsure about Andy Serkis as Haddock on this evidence.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two' review:

Having reviewed the overall excellent 'Deathly Hallows: Part One' last year, there isn't a lot I can write about this final part of the Harry Potter saga without repeating myself. Save for some take it or leave it 3D, it's just as good if not a bit better than that penultimate episode - certainly in terms of action and excitement, with most of the build-up now out of the way. The young actors remain vastly improved under David Yates' direction, as does the whole look and tone of the film which is dark and scary. Scenes of magic and fantasy are again made a thousand times more awe-inspiring by the fact that Yates keeps everything else so grounded - even mundane. Whilst the heroes are now free from the constraints and routines of Hogwarts school, and its campy thespian teachers, allowing them to become more active participants in the unfolding narrative as opposed to awestruck passengers.

In fact, everything seems to fit so well together now that I am even beginning to credit Warner Brothers with some sort of unlikely overall plan behind the series' game of directorial musical chairs. Unlike 'Star Wars' or 'Indiana Jones', the films have grown with their audience and, for those the same approximate age as the heroes, it seems entirely appropriate in retrospect that the brightly coloured, John Williams-scored whimsy of the opening Christopher Columbus episodes has developed into this more macabre and downbeat conclusion. As the stakes have been raised, and the supporting characters have started dying at an exponential rate, so the films have become more complex and interesting.

I don't want to oversell it: this is by no means a perfect movie and I'm still no convert to the "franchise" overall. Some plot developments still don't make a lot of sense and most of the side-quests are resolved in ways which are anti-climactic (notably when Potter's "suicide mission" return to Hogwarts turns out to be a cake walk). Yet it's become impossible to deny that these films have, if only in the final stretch, become way above average summer family movies, at least competent on every level and in some respects approaching exceptional. For instance, Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe is now an intelligent and immensely capable talent, with a deliciously offbeat, quirky sensibility that Hollywood will hopefully make room for (though I suspect otherwise).

Even the gurning Rupert Grint and the perennially huffy Emily Watson are now pretty decent co-stars and it is genuinely moving when their series-spanning romantic sub-plot finally reaches its resolution (with those around me moved to happy tears). The engaging Tom Felton is underused as minor series antagonist Draco Malfoy, but is as interesting and intense as ever when he is on screen, whilst Alan Rickman as Snape, for so long a scenery chewing caricature just "having fun with the role", is a real dramatic force in this installment, with a moving flashback sequence which serves as a rewarding payoff for those (like myself) who never bothered read the books. And speaking of Snape, this film picks up where the last film left off when it comes to potentially frightening young children.

The last installment began with a weeping schoolteacher being tortured and murdered in front of a watching audience of evil wizards - some of whom were members of the school community and parents of Harry's classmates. A few scenes later, Watson's Hermoine was erasing herself from her parents' memory so as to keep them out of trouble. Pretty heavy stuff, though in this respect 'Deathly Hallows: Part Two' arguably ups the ante. One scene in particular sees a wounded character slowly bitten to death by a huge snake, which has a surprisingly visceral impact as we watch the scene unfold from behind frosted glass. And this is what is so good about Yates' Harry Potter films: not that they are dark for darkness's own sake or that they have moved away from a kiddie demographic, but because he realises what most filmmakers don't.

Children are OK with being scared. In fact they seek it out - trying to watch what they aren't supposed to and frightening each other with increasingly depraved stories under the blankets. Children want to go to school the next day and talk about these darker, scarier moments with their friends. I'm not saying that the scare-factor of 'Deathly Hallows: Part Two' won't be too much for some children - and parents will have to be the judge of that, with it rightly given a '12A' certificate - but I'd suspect a lot of 7 or 8 year-olds would find this film thrilling because it doesn't talk down to them. Because it doesn't deny the existence of death and because it actually allows its villain, Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, to be as evil as everybody has spent the previous seven films saying he is.

That said, the film isn't without its quieter moments and even bits of comic relief, with the likes of Maggie Smith given some fairly chortlesome lines. It's genuinely heartening to witness the coming-of-age heroics of the until now faintly pathetic Neville Longbottom (a much improved Matthew Lewis), perhaps Hogwarts' most unlikely champion. Most of the movie is set during an epic battle which brings together great stone golems, haunting wraiths and armies of homicidal mercenaries as one huge set-piece follows another. But whereas these sorts of sections have been a source of great disinterest in earlier installments, Yates has done so well to engage our interest with the protagonists that we genuinely feel invested in what is taking place amid the explosions.

By now the battle lines have been clearly drawn between those of you that love Harry Potter and those of you that wouldn't turn your head to see this latest installment if Warner Brothers projected it onto your bedroom wall. However dismissing 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two' out of hand could mean you miss one of the year's most accomplished summer movies. This is the second part of what is easily the best live-action family film since the first 'Pirates of the Caribbean' almost a decade ago. Even the sentimental and completely superfluous last five minutes can be forgiven as people of the right age (which sadly doesn't include this ageing cynic) will be bidding a bond farewell to characters who've been with them for as long as they can remember. Even for the rest of us this marks the end of an ambitious decade-long cinematic experiment the likes of which we may never see again.

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and will be on general release from July 15th.

Monday, 11 July 2011

A first look at 'John Carter' with Andrew Stanton

The whole of this Andrew Stanton article, obtained during last month's visit to Pixar, is up at What Culture.

You might not know it to look at him, but Andrew Stanton – co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and the director of the beloved Wall-E and Finding Nemo – is a self-described member of a “secret society” for years operating “under the radar”. His co-screenwriter, the award-winning novelist Michael Chabon, is also a member. As are approximately “one in every twenty” people that he meets, including (apparently) the Governor of Utah. They are all obsessive fans of the “John Carter” novels, an obscured but apparently culturally significant series of books which have quietly been the inspiration for just about every major work of science-fiction and fantasy over the last hundred years, with an influence that can be seen in everything from Superman to Star Wars to Avatar, and which Stanton is now busily adapting into a major live-action feature film for Disney.

Written almost a century ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs, probably best known as the author of the Tarzan novels, the first John Carter book, A Princess of Mars, is the story of an American Confederate veteran named John Carter who finds himself improbably transported to the Red Planet where he becomes a great hero. It was a concept that enthralled 12 year-old future filmmaker Stanton when he encountered it, then courtesy of a 1977 adaptation from Marvel Comics, with its depiction of a brave hero battling strange alien creatures on an exotic planet. ”As a kid it pushed a lot of buttons in a primal way, especially for a boy,” recalls the director, who also enjoyed the hero’s turbulent romance with the titular princess: “I’ve always been a sucker for unrequited love, as I’m sure Wall-E shows.”
Read on...

Friday, 8 July 2011

'Tree of Life' released today in the UK

Terrence Malick's long-awaited, Palm d'Or winning, probable Oscar contender 'Tree of Life' is released in the UK today. I reviewed it a few weeks back, so check that out here.

The film has been rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

'The Iron Lady' trailer:

I recently pondered next year's Oscar race and completely forgot about 'The Iron Lady' - potentially next year's 'The King's Speech'. Another British historical drama with the backing of the Weinstein brothers, this time helmed by Phyllida Lloyd - the director responsible for the huge box office success that was 'Mamma Mia!'. This is probably enough on its own to suggest Oscar nods for the Margaret Thatcher biopic, but then you add the fact that the former Prime Minister is being played by none other than Meryl Streep and you've got to expect the Academy will love this.

I sincerely hope this isn't a celebratory film about "one woman's brave stand in a male dominated world" or some such. But with the great Jim Broadbent cast as husband Dennis, I can't see how life at home with the Thatchers is going to be anything other than sympathetic. I know it won't be critical or satirical of Thatcher (this is a British establishment movie if ever I've smelt one), but let's at least hope it isn't an insufferable whitewash. Chances are however that politics will be sidelined almost completely and it'll be a the story of a strong leader finding her voice in a time of great social upheaval (ring any bells?).

In any case, Streep's performance could be interesting regardless. There is a trailer out today, exclusively at The Guardian, so take a look.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Happy Independence Day (for yesterday)!

I know I'm a day late but I love this clip. Bill Pullman doesn't work enough:

Monday, 4 July 2011

'Norwegian Wood' Blu-ray review

Today the Japanese Murakami novel adaptation 'Norwegian Wood' was released in the UK on Blu-ray. It's a lovely release from Soda Pictures which I've reviewed over on the site formerly known as Obsessed with Film. You can read that review here.

I re-watched the film, having seen it last year in Venice, and liked it rather more this time around - so I contradicted my earlier festival review quite a lot. I also re-read that original review, written on a phone sometime late at night on the Lido by a tired and confused man, and found that it was barely coherent drivel. So hopefully I've done the film more justice this second time around!

Obsessed with Film is in the process of re-branding itself this month as What Culture.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

'Larry Crowne' review:

Way back in 1996, Tom Hanks wrote and directed 'That Thing You Do!', a fun, colourful and breezy homage to the mid-60s rock and roll scene which charted the rise and fall of a fictional one-hit-wonder group. It wasn't a huge commercial success, with Hanks only taking a small part and casting a host of relatively unknown actors in the lead roles, but it was stylish and evoked the feeling of that era superbly - at least as it exists in our romanticised, collective imagination. Hanks also co-wrote some of the film's punchy musical numbers, with the project feeling like a genuine labour of love and the work of a film star taking time out to do something smaller and more personal. As if to confirm this suspicion, Hanks' production company, Playtone, is named after the fictional record label in that movie.

As should be obvious, 'That Thing You Do!' is a movie for which I maintain a deep affection fifteen years down the line. So much so that nothing could prepare me for the Academy Award winner's second feature as director: the goodwill-sappingly abysmal 'Larry Crowne'. Co-written with Nia 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' Vardalos, 'Larry Crowne' is a "feel-good" movie about well-meaning, middle aged Larry (Hanks) who - in a contrivance of the plot - loses his low-wage supermarket job when his employers discover his lack of a college education. Without a job, the goofy-yet-loveable Larry decides to enrol in college where he meets, and falls in love with, inspirational teacher Mercedes Tainot, played by Julia Roberts (alongside whom Hanks starred in 'Charlie Wilson's War').

I take no pleasure in criticising this already maligned film, both out of affection for its star and because it is so "nice": smiley, wide-eyed and unfailingly good-natured. Yet there is really no defence for 'Larry Crowne' that I can think of. At its core is a deeply patronising everyman story trying to imbue us with post-recession hope by showing a guileless hero's effortless 'Forrest Gump' style ascent from joblessness to gainful employment. Immediately after losing his income Larry starts attending his local college (how is pays for this is unaddressed). As soon as he realises his car is too expensive to run, he decides to buy a scooter and, as luck would have it, finds his next door neighbour (Cedric the Entertainer) has one knocking around. He then trades in his flat-screen television for it in a calculated move which echoes the 1980s advice of Norman Tebbit ("get off your sofa and find a job" is the clear message here). And, literally, as soon as he pulls up to college on said scooter, he attracts the attention of a wholesome gang of young, beautiful scooter friends who love him immediately and devote all their time to re-arranging his furniture, his wardrobe and his love-life.

The film trundles along in this fashion with Larry quickly becoming a star student, finding another part-time job (again, effortlessly) and having a whole bunch of fun times with his gang of super-awesome friends! Getting sacked was the best thing that ever happened to this guy. I can see the probable logic behind this depiction of being laid-off and it goes something like "people don't want to see something depressing about unemployment right now - the people need hope". But not only does this betray a condescending view of the public, the crisis and resolution depicted in Larry Crowne is too far removed from reality to function on this level. It offers nothing but a bland fantasy of inevitable success and faith in the American dream (crucially Larry is never shown to be given charity, though the source of this former "U-Mart" employee's relative affluence is never revealed).

The film's gags are pretty weak too, with the audience expected to chuckle as Hanks drives a scooter into a yard sale, knocking things over, or when he puts on a funny hat. It further suffers from the charmlessness of Hanks' co-star Julia Roberts who does her best to look unimpressed by Larry's antics, and her students' good humour, throughout the movie, echoing her frosty, lustless turn in 'Notting Hill'. Save the occasional flash of that trademark smile, Roberts comes across as a bit of a downer and the sub-plot involving the break-up of her marriage is heavy-handed and unsympathetic. Some of the oddball supporting characters are rather more winning, such as the scooter gang's leader played by Wilmer Valderrama and George Takei's economics professor, but they are the cinematic equivalent of the orchestra on the Titanic.

The most surprising thing about 'Larry Crowne' though, considering the pedigree of those involved, is that bits of it seem so amateurish. For example, one particularly frivolous shot had me baffled: during a conversation between Larry and a friend in a diner, Hanks cuts to a hitherto unseen third party who delivers one line before disappearing from view again for the remainder of the film. Who is this mysterious man and why is he introduced to us in full close-up, delivering a line that suggests he is a familiar character and a long-time friend of the protagonist? This is unlikely given the amount of preparation and thought that goes into making a film, but it feels as though this shot choice was arrived at randomly. On this showing, 'Larry Crowne' is not the work of a director with any particular vision.

As the film bumbles into its final twenty minutes it becomes a simple box-ticking exercise in which any and all loose ends are tied up whether the story needs it or not. The dumb oaf who fires Larry at the beginning is shown to have become a pizza delivery man, whilst Roberts' under-subscribed college class gains popularity for some reason seemingly unconnected to shown events and her porn-loving ex-husband must, of course, also get his comeuppance. Here Hanks acts like some sort of omnipotent moraliser punishing the wicked and rewarding the noble in a world without troublesome nuance. In 'Larry Crowne' a wholesome, good and friendly man is rewarded for being wholesome, good and friendly in a wholesome, good and friendly land. In the immortal words of Bill Hicks: "go back to bed America".

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

Better days:

Friday, 1 July 2011

'War Horse' and next year's awards season

The first trailer for Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's award winning novel 'War Horse' (also a hit West End play) made its debut last week. I obviously haven't seen it yet and, to be honest, it looks like sentimental mush (co-written by Richard Curtis), but I fancy it's the year's first serious Oscar contender. Consider the facts: it marks the return of a prestigious (perhaps the most renowned living) director; it looks glossy and replete with period detail; and it's a war film - and don't forget that both of Spielberg's Best Director wins have been for war films ('Schindler's List' and 'Saving Private Ryan').

This logic is certainly reductive and open to criticism. After all, 'Empire of the Sun' didn't even garner the director a nomination. Yet I'm confident, however it turns out, 'War Horse' will at least be nominated for the major prizes next February. Part of the reason is that there is almost nothing else.

Seeing as it's still the summer of 2011 it may seem a little premature to start going on about the Oscars of 2012. Yet it struck me the other day that we've had something of a lightweight year so far in terms of potential Academy Award winners. There have been plenty of good films, but then again something like Golden Bear winning Iranian drama 'A Separation' (released in the UK today) is not likely to contend for Best Picture, being foreign language and having limited commercial appeal.

You know an Oscar film when you see one and we've arguably not had many of them yet in 2011. This might not be a surprise, after all many of the big hitters won't be released until the winter. For instance, this time last year 'The King's Speech' had not yet even played Toronto and 'The Social Network' was still just that "film about Facebook" everyone dismissed out of hand.

Yet this time last year, of the ten Best Picture nominees, 'Winter's Bone' and 'Toy Story 3' had already been released, whilst 'Inception' and 'The Kid's Are All Right' would be out within weeks.

I talked this over with some journalists last week and a few people mentioned 'Source Code' as this year's smart blockbuster breakthrough in the mould of 'District 9' or 'Inception'. But whilst that film was well received and did decent business, it grossed half as much as the former and around an eighth of the latter. Oscar movies have to do outstanding business. In this respect the awards are as much about industry as they are art. What exactly is this summer's huge critically acclaimed blockbuster? There isn't one.

As for the animated vote, Pixar's 'Cars 2' is currently generating middling scores from critics and I can't see the likes of 'Rio', 'Rango' or 'Kung Fu Panda 2' making an impact with voters. Especially as a modified nomination process means that next year's field may be back down to five films, with any other films (up to ten) having to receive 5% of the total votes to be nominated.

So, aside from 'War Horse', what else could be generating awards buzz this winter? Well, Lynn Ramsey's 'We Need to Talk about Kevin' (above) was certainly the talk of Cannes Film Festival. It depends how widely it is distributed, but if the Academy gets wind of it that could garner a nomination at least. Woody Allen is no stranger to Oscar nominations and 'Midnight is Paris' is pretty good and has been one of his best received films of the last decade in the usually indifferent US. Meanwhile, Terrence Malick's Palm d'Or winning 'Tree of Life' is presumably a certainty for a few nominations if not a contender for the top prize. I'd bet against Lars Von Trier and 'Melancholia' being invited at this point.

Right now though, I'd hesitate to bet against Spielberg and his 'War Horse'.