Wednesday, 31 August 2011

'The Salt of Life' review:

A follow-up to the delightful Italian 2008 comedy 'Mid-August Lunch', 'The Salt of Life' finds middle-aged Gianni - played by writer-director Gianni Di Gregorio - again struggling to juggle his own life with caring for his demanding 95 year-old mother (Valeria De Franciscis). Di Gregorio again populates his cast with a mix of professionals and non-actors, whilst Gian Enrico Bianchi continues to capture Rome as the eternally sunny and effortlessly charming place of Mediterranean idyll.

But whilst last time Gianni was unmarried, living in a Rome apartment with his mother, this semi-sequel sees the elderly scamp frittering away his inheritance in a gated mansion with hired help, whilst he resides with a wife and a moody teenage daughter, Teresa (played by his real-life daughter of the same name). And rather than revolving around his catering for a group of bickering old ladies, this equally gentle and bittersweet comedy takes a look at mid-life crisis as Gianni ponders his fading relevance in the eyes of the opposite sex and increasing feeling of disconnect from the younger generation - as typified by Teresa's aimless live in boyfriend Michi (Michelangelo Ciminale).

Determined not to become one of the weird old characters he sees discussing football sitting out on the pavement or walking their dog alone in the park, Gianni pursues a number of the beautiful women in his life: among then an affectionate, spirited neighbour; a former flame; and a recently divorced opera singer. Being an Italian film, whether or not Gianni succeeds in having an extra-marital affair with one of these gorgeous, buxom women is not a pressing moral concern (his daughter even jokes about it), instead it forms the basis of a touching and, in the true sense of the word, pathetic portrayal of desperation, mortality and our common need to be desired.

With its star a screenwriter by trade - the scribe of no less than the hard-hitting modern mafia classic 'Gamorrah' - and with his adoption of a loose autobiographical persona, Di Gregorio's movies to date feel something like an Italian version of Larry David's 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'. Which is not to say they revolve around the comedy of social awkwardness and pedantry, but that on show is a low-key, mundane sort of humour with Gianni very much the butt of life's joke. Yet for all it's poignancy it shares with its predecessor a breezy and joyful spirit that can't help but put a smile on your face.

'The Salt of Life' is on limited release in the UK and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

'The Skin I Live In' review:

Nothing if not provocative, the cinema of Pedro Almodovar is a frank and blackly comic exploration of taboo subjects told with an uncommon compassion for even the most depraved of characters. His latest work, 'The Skin I Live In', fits in comfortably alongside his best, with a warped tale of mad scientists, drugs, revenge, rape, voyeurism, kidnapping and murder fizzing along with no small amount of humour - or indeed humanism.

The director's one-time muse Antonio Banderas returns to the repertory company to star in this suspenseful, almost Hitchcockian thriller which superficially resembles their last collaboration, 1990s 'Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!' - with the actor again caught up in a romance with one held against her will in a locked room.

However 21 years on, this dangerous obsessive is not a clownish, naive innocent, but a clinical and effortlessly sophisticated scientist who dedicates himself towards bio-engineering a replacement for human skin in his subterranean lab after his burns victim wife commits suicide. This time the lady falling prey to Stockholm syndrome is played by Elena Anaya ('Hierro') and her situation, identity and relationship with Banderas form an intriguing mystery as the expertly constructed plot takes many twists and turns - equal parts disturbing and exciting right up to the climax.

This is one of those times when to say any more about the story would be to reveal too much, as part of its appeal lies in the filmmaker's gift for misdirection and surprise [listen to episode 65 of the Splendor Cinema Podcast for a spoiler-ridden discussion about these themes and twists], so instead I'll just add to the chorus praising Almodovar's breathtakingly sumptuous use of colour and his masterful command of the camera - with some especially majestic zooms as he has fun with a security camera motif.

Really ingenious though is the way replacement skin - and the real-world medical marvel of face transplants - is used as a device to explore notions of identity. How much we're defined by the skin we're in is the film's existential point of crisis. And it's a compelling one, which culminates in a heartfelt and dramatic pay-off.

When reviewing so-called "World Cinema" you often encounter brilliant films - works of genius and even really great pieces of entertainment - that you know stand next to no chance of reaching a wide audience. For most 'Of Gods and Men' would be far too austere and ponderous, whilst even 'Tree of Life' was far too esoteric for the crowds that flocked to see "that Brad Pitt movie". Yet 'The Skin I Live In' has such tremendous, heartening potential for cross-over appeal, thanks to its tight, well-paced and surprise-filled story. It's never less than engaging for a single frame and, with its ruminations on identity and moral complexity (to put it lightly), must also rank among the year's most intelligent and thought-provoking films.

'The Skin I Live In' is out now in the Uk where it has been rated '15' by the BBFC.

Monday, 29 August 2011

'Attenberg', Blu-ray reviews and 'The Skin I Live In' podcast...

Greek oddity 'Attenberg' is out now in the UK. I don't have much memory of it beyond the fact that it was jeered as the credits rolled in Venice last year, and you can read my review of it from last September on What Culture here. It wasn't all that bad I seem to recall (and I think the actress won a prize from the festival jury) but it just left me completely cold. It's a lot like an inferior version of 'Dogtooth' in form and theme, with childlike grown-ups whose unworldly naivete gives rise to some strangely expressed sexual curiosity and odd alternative dance. Nicely shot, mind.

Also up today, reviews of the Blu-ray editions of Jow Wright's stunning 'Hanna' and the Coen Brothers' seminal 'Miller's Crossing'.

Check back tomorrow for my take on Pedro Almodovar's thrilling, disturbing and beautifully realised 'The Skin I Live In' (released last Friday), which is also the subject of the most recent Splendor Cinema Podcast.

Friday, 26 August 2011

'Kill List' Podcast with Ben Wheatley

'Kill List' and 'Down Terrace' director Ben Wheatley came into the projection booth of the Duke of York's yesterday to chat with Jon and I on the latest Splendor Cinema Podcast. Our 64th episode sees us talk to Brighton-based filmmaker about his upcoming horror film, before drifting off into random chatter about 'Planet of the Apes' on Blu-ray.

That podcast is available now to subscribers on iTunes, whilst it'll also soon be available in the embedded player on this blog's podcast page. My review of 'Kill List', which is released next Friday (September 2nd), will be up at What Culture some time in the week.

Also, on an unrelated note, I've just published a huge "top 30 games" feature on What Culture about the lovely SEGA Dreamcast. The near 10,000 word beast of an article can be read here.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

'The Inbetweeners Movie' review:

British TV comedies making the transition to feature films have a track record that could charitably be characterised as less than stellar. 'The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse', 'Ali G Indahouse' and 'Kevin & Perry Go Large' are just some examples of what can go wrong when perfectly decent telly fodder gets inflated for the big screen. On paper at least, this year's blown-up cinema edition of Channel Four sitcom 'The Inbetweeners' - which comes with the no-nonsense title: 'The Inbetweeners Movie' - would seem to be following the same dreary trend, especially as it uses the tired "let's take the characters abroad" concept as the basis of its story.

Yet Film Four have bucked the trend winsomely with Ben Palmer - a director of the original series - presiding over what amounts to a high-quality bumper episode of the show. The film maintains a strong gag ratio as well as the astute character observations that serve as the series' best moments, all without jumping the shark in some bombast, hi-octane fashion. It's a consistently funny 97 minutes which sees Will (Simon Bird), Simon (Joe Thomas), Jay (James Buckley) and Neil (Blake Harrison) leave sixth form and embark on a sun-soaked summer holiday in Crete with the familiar aim of getting drunk and getting laid.

However, as anyone who's spent even minimal time in these characters' company before will know, our "heroes" aren't the coolest kids from their school. Jay talks a good game about sexual encounters, but is actually the most shy of the bunch when confronted with the "pussay" he so craves. Bespectacled Will, who again also serves as the narrator, talks himself into trouble at every turn with his boundless pedantry. Whilst Simon is as love-sick and self-involved as ever, especially now that his on-again off-again relationship with Carli (Emily Head) has hit the rocks indefinitely. Only shameless dim-wit Neil is without an obvious personality defect, in a strange way serving as the member of the group with the most appealing world view - even coming across as a good-natured innocent as he performs grotesque sex acts on game OAPs.

The Brits abroad setting allows for the digs at package holiday culture you might expect, but the film takes great pleasure in subverting clichés rather than conforming to them. The attractive girls who instantly and improbably fall for the boys are never treated as tacky FHM eye-candy either (with the vast majority of screen nudity being male) and the dynamic between the four main guys remains as engaging as ever. The actors might be in their mid-late twenties, but 'The Inbetweeners' has always been a far more realistic depiction of youth than we're used to seeing in the sexed-up, hyper-cool world of American "High School" films, or Channel Four's own 'Skins'.

Various narrative norms are also subverted to great effect, with each potential moment of sincere romantic feeling or dramatic heft immediately undercut with humour. This is a balls-out comedy that never pushes the dramatic envelope any further than its audience wants to go. It's content to entertain you, though that's not to say that the touching vulnerability of the four guys doesn't still shine through in a movie which always has its heart in the right place however crass and puerile it gets.

'The Inbetweeners Movie' is out in the UK now, rated '15' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

'Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D' review:

It's been almost a decade since Robert Rodriquez seemed to conclude his 'Spy Kids' trilogy with 'Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over', with the stories of Juni and Carmen Cortez (Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega) reaching their conclusion in a star-studded adventure presented in crude anaglyph 3-D. Yet with the current trend in 3D, the series has returned with 'Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D': with new kids - Cecil and Rebecca Wilson (played by Mason Cook and Rowan Blanchard) - a Ricky Gervais voiced talking dog and scratch and sniff "aroma-scope" serving as the titular fourth dimension.

The now-adult Sabara and Vega return to provide some welcome continuity, but with a new family the focus of proceedings, this fourth installment sees Jessica Alba cast as Marissa: a spy step-mom, struggling to connect with Cecil and Rebecca after marrying their father (Joel McHale) and retiring from the espionage trade to raise her newborn baby girl. But when an old nemesis - Tick Tock - escapes prison and seeks to destroy the world by ending time itself, Marissa is brought back into the fold by her old boss, played by the charismatic Jeremy Piven. Piven clearly relishes his role, approaching it with the same enthusiasm that saw the likes of Stallone, Clooney and Buscemi provide such entertaining turns in the original trilogy.

Much of the good-natured, joyously naive spirit of those first films remains intact here, as does the franchise's penchant for earnest, if slightly heavy-handed, moralising about the importance of family. And though Mason and Blanchard never quite recreate the chemistry of the original kids, it's difficult to watch the movie without a smile on your face. Rodriquez admirably continues his own Miyazaki-esque trend for humanising the major bad guys, whilst his decision to give one of the heroes (Cecil) a hearing aid - not to mentioning showing a heavily pregnant Alba confidently kicking ass - also reinforces the overall positive vibe of the piece.

Not only do Rodriquez children's films not talk down to the intended young audience but they don't talk up to them either. The films are aimed squarely and shamelessly at children with next to no concession for adults. It's an imaginative, wish-fulfillment fantasy and the showing I was at was packed with kids - mostly under 10s - who absolutely howled with delight whenever a baby farted or Gervais' comedy dog made a sarcastic observation. He knows this audience and delivers exactly what they want, with even the scratch and sniff gimmick (and I'm sure even he would admit it's exactly that) going down a storm with youngsters. It would seem somewhat churlish and meaningless to point out that all eight fragrances ultimately smell the same: it's hardly the point.

Even the slightly outdated DIY CGI that has become part and parcel of Rodriquez's campy house style and the poorly choreographed fight scenes (which play like something out of TVs slapstick 'Lazy Town' rather than 'El Mariachi') add to the atmosphere of a movie that really is just innocent, imaginative fun in the best possible sense. The scenes following Joel McHale's dad character as host of TV show "Spy Hunter" feel out of place, falling completely flat, and toilet humour reins supreme, but the 'Spy Kids' movies still represent far and away the best live action films that cater specifically to this age group of the last ten years.

'Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D' is out now in the UK and rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

'In a Better World' review:

During Danish Oscar winner 'In a Better World', a child decides to put a violent, school yard bully firmly in his place by beating him senseless with a bicycle pump and then holding a knife to his throat. Now that I see that written here in black and white, it sounds more than slightly sick to say I outwardly cheered with delight at this moment. I'm not even a fan of screen violence but, as someone who was bullied at school, I experience a visceral, instinctive hatred of bullying when I see it on a cinema screen.

Now, if this were, say, a Tarantino film or a vigilante movie like 'Kick-Ass' I would probably be encouraged to allow the violence to take on this disturbing therapeutic quality. Yet the journey the bereaved and angry young Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) subsequently goes on - building pipe bombs in his garage as his response to perceived social injustices becomes increasingly violent - is one that ensures this first act is robbed of any trace of glamour or anti-heroism that it might have otherwise had.

Director Susanne Bier, best known for 2004 drama 'Brothers' (re-made in the US with Natalie Portman), has made a rare and complex film about the nature of conflict and violence, which uses its characters to explore a range of ways people justify violent acts and the way that violence becomes a perpetuated cycle. The link isn't explicitly made but, just as an example, Bier's film is as much about the situation in Palestine (or even that of the recent "rioters" versus the UK government) as it is about individuals and this small cast of characters.

Christian lost his mother to cancer and is filled with rage, accusing his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), of giving up and wanting her to die. He identifies bullies as targets he can actually fight, probably so he doesn't have to keep feeling so helpless. His meek, gentle Swedish friend Elias (Markus Rygaard) goes along for the ride chiefly because he has been included - because he wants to please his new friend and because he now belongs to a small social enclave where previously he was an outcast.

Elias' status as an outsider comes from his being foreign: the son of a Swedish immigrant to Denmark - and it is this that arbitrarily motivates the school bully to pick on him. Here we see an example of violence against those who are different and the way a sort of tribal mentality can take hold (in every case violence is a feeble outward expression of some interior inadequacy). His Swedish father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), is a doctor who works in a Sudanese refugee camp. He (literally) turns the other cheek when attacked, advising both children to do likewise, but ultimately his principles are tested when a local war lord comes to the camp asking for treatment.

Somewhere a line is drawn in the sand, the suggestion being that we all have our limits: a personal boundary past which acts of violence and revenge become acceptable. For Anton it is the war lord's shameless gloating about acts of sexualised violence that sends him over the edge, though even then the momentary decision to abandon his most deeply held moral principle - that a doctor should treat those in need regardless of who they are - comes with a certain degree of trauma and regret.

It takes much less for the boys to call Anton's code into question. When an angry mechanic (Kim Bodnia) slaps the doctor for trying to break up a fight involving their sons, the children aren't convinced his pacifist approach is working. Elias later calls his father a "wimp" for walking away from conflict and, when Anton claims the guy lost the argument because he couldn't intimate using violence, Christian responds "I don't think he thought he lost."

Here is an expression of another disquieting yet commonly held truth: that one's own conviction in a moral code is not enough. The children here express a need to win and win unambiguously in public. A need to get the better of one who has wronged them, which is pointless and counter-productive - for society at least, even if the individual might find some satisfaction. 'In a Better World' is a powerful rebuttal to Old Testament "eye for an eye" logic even if it also seems resigned to its inescapable place in our collective psyche.

It's beautifully photographed and the human drama here is compelling and well acted, with the child actors especially strong, but the film is best taken more generally as a polemic. By having the central characters a mix of Danish and Swedish - and by making Anton spend much of the film dealing with similar ethical concerns (admittedly on a much more harrowing scale) in Africa - Bier highlights that this is a universal story. That she tells this larger human story without the sort of self-importance and contrived narrative histrionics common to Guillermo Arriaga films makes it all the more rewarding.

'In a Better World' is out now in the UK and rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

'The Guard' review:

I reviewed Irish black comedy 'The Guard' back in February when it played in Berlin. I thought it was a highlight of that festival (one of three or four stand-out films) and it has since justly gone on to do really good business in Ireland prior to its UK-wide release yesterday.

Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of 'In Bruges' helmer Martin, 'The Guard' shares that film's irreverent sense of humour and brilliant co-star Brendan Gleeson. He's joined here by Don Cheadle who plays the American FBI agent summoned to Gleeson's rural cop beat in Ireland, where the mismatched duo attempt to solve a drug-related homicide case. It's a culture clash comedy that never pulls its punches, though nor is it ever needlessly offensive even if some might praise the script for a perceived lack of so-called "political correctness".

It perhaps lacks the heartfelt sincerity of that other film, but 'The Guard' is every bit as funny and shocking as its cinematic cousin.

Read my full review here.

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

Thursday, 18 August 2011

'Project Nim' review:

You can't really write a review of James Marsh's documentary 'Project Nim' without mentioning 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'. Not only were both chimp-based movies released in the UK on the same day, but both overlap in terms of how they portray the life, from birth to adulthood, of one chimpanzee. And to quite disturbing effect.

Using the same mix of filmed interviews, dramatic re-enactments and archive material (amateur film, news coverage and still photography) that worked so well in Marsh's last film, the Academy Award winning 'Man on Wire', 'Project Nim' tells the story of Nim Chimpskey: a chimp abducted from his mother in the early 70s in order test whether language is unique to humans. However, despite being raised as a human child by a slightly mad New York family of "rich hippies", Nim was eventually discarded: given up for laboratory testing after the experiment concluded. Though eventually purchased from that facility by a wealthy animal sanctuary owner, Nim would spend the rest of his life in solitude within the confines of a concrete cage - his brief time in the media spotlight long since over.

The experiment itself comes across as a farce from beginning to end, with every scientist along the way growing personally attached to the chimp (treating him as a friend or infant human rather than an animal), perhaps all too eager to believe his repetition of various signs was proof of "language". But what's really striking are the questions it raises about the way chimps are kept by humans for entertainment and science (also a central theme of 'Rise'). As with his blockbuster counterparts, Nim's conditions in one animal sanctuary are like those of a prison, with the animals put to work in the yard whilst the humans patrol with cattle prods. One worker from the sanctuary says that there were "a couple of murders and two suicides" amongst the inmates and this bizarre similarity is matched by both films near identical portrayal of sterile medical research labs.

By the look of things, the experiment was hardly safe for the humans involved either, as we hear how the maturing Nim frequently attacked his handlers - biting a hole in the cheek of one woman and sinking his fangs dangerously close to the artery of another. At one point Nim kills a poodle whilst attempting to shut it up, whilst he also becomes obsessed with using household cats for the purposes of sexual gratification. Much like David Oyelowo's nasty, profit-obsessed businessman character in 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes', those behind the Nim experiment seem to have overlooked the safety of those involved in search of fame and profit.

The documentary mostly dismisses Herbert Terrace (the man behind the study) as little more than a publicity seeker and a slightly creepy user of impressionable young women. And, on the evidence provided, that may well be a fair assessment of his character. Yet Terrace's quite reasonable conclusion, that Nim did not in fact learn sign language but simply repeated gestures he learned would result in some form of gratification (food, contact, entertainment), is presented cynically by the film. It's as if Marsh is personally convinced, against science, that the chimp really did learn language. Contributors who speak about Nim more romantically, talking about holding "conversations" with the chimp and smoking pot with him, are given more favourable screen-time.

A perfect companion piece to 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes', 'Project Nim' serves to highlight the real life animal rights issues behind the fantasy, as well as showing how accurate some of that bigger film's settings really are. But even in isolation this is a worthwhile documentary. Incredibly heartfelt testimony of some of Nim's handlers ensures that it packs an emotional punch, whilst Marsh has lost none of the filmmaking tools which made his previous film so slick and entertaining.

'Project Nim' is on limited release in the UK now and is rated 'U' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

'Arrietty' review:

Studio Ghibli, the beloved Japanese animation house behind 'Spirited Away', 'Grave of the Fireflies' and 'Ponyo', have had two directors to thank for their artistic and commercial success. Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki have, between them, accounted for twelve of the studio's sixteen theatrical features (thirteen of seventeen if you count the latter's 'Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind': pre-Ghibli but now considered part of the canon). In the last ten years, increasing concern that both men are in their seventies has seen the studio push younger talent into the spotlight, usually with a noticeable drop in quality.

Hiroyuki Morita's 'The Cat Returns' was a made-for-TV movie which ended up receiving a cinema release in order to cash in on the runaway international success of 'Spirited Away' back in 2002. It's a charming and watchable film but it doesn't hold a candle to 'Whisper of the Heart', the film of which it is a nominal sequel. That under-appreciated gem, written and storyboarded by Miyazaki, was another attempt to get young blood to take over in the mid-90s - but it came to nothing when promising director Yoshifumi Kondō died of an aneurysm at 47. The real nadir of this quest to replace Miyazaki was reached in 2006, when producer Toshio Suzuki convinced the great master's son Gorō to give up his career in landscaping to direct the awful 'Tales From Earthsea'. Yet long-serving animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi has provided a ray of hope, directing 'Arrietty': a delightfully pleasant and beautifully detailed adaptation of The Borrowers.

As you may have guessed from the film's source text, 'Arrietty' follows the adventures of a family of "borrowers" - folkloric little people who live between the walls and beneath the floorboards of houses, keeping just out of sight of "human beans". However 13 year-old Arrietty, the precocious and determined daughter of the family, gets seen by a sickly young boy named Shō and her parents decide it's best to uproot and find a new home. But not before the the maid of the house, the creepy and slightly mad Haru, discovers their presence and calls in the exterminators. Along the way Arrietty also contends with insects, birds and a mangy old cat.

Chief among the film's accomplishments is the great sense of scale Yonebayashi maintains, as borrowers interact with (to them) enormous everyday objects and animals. Scale is considered a notoriously difficult challenge within animation circles, there is consistently a sense of awe - most memorably when the girl enters the human kitchen for the first time (her hair rising with her spirit in the established Miyazaki tradition). The characters' use of mundane objects, such as earrings and sellotape, is also really fun to watch and terrifically inventive.

It isn't exactly at the hi-octane end of the Ghibli spectrum, being a slowly paced and gentle yarn rather than an epic in the mould of 'Princess Mononoke'. Though it nevertheless held my attention from its enchanting beginning to bittersweet conclusion, mostly thanks to some of the most elegant, neatly observed character animation in the history of the studio and some breathtaking backdrops. I suppose it's style over substance, though 'Earthsea' had neither so I'm loathe to be too critical. One crucial absentee here is veteran tunesmith Joe Hisaishi whose scores never fail to invoke a sense of grandeur and earnest emotion. French singer Cécile Corbel instead provides the film's music which is chintzy and all too fay.

'Arrietty' is a work of promise. Yet, as promising as the film is, the studio aren't quite out of the woods yet. Miyazaki played an active role in shaping the project, even co-writing the screenplay which is riddled with his DNA - from the goggles on the father's head to the resolve of the titular heroine. But Ghibli's youngest feature director, Yonebayashi has really given a measure of hope to fans that the animation institution can outlive the two old men. It's as pleasing on the eye as anything Studio Ghibli has made and the story, though slight, is as innocently joyful a way as you can spend 94 minutes at the movies.

'Arrietty' is out now in the UK, rated 'U' by the BBFC.

Monday, 15 August 2011

'Down Terrace' review:

"Never judge a book by its cover" goes the saying - and it's equally true of DVDs. The UK release of Ben Wheatley's Brighton set debut feature 'Down Terrace' has a ghastly front cover: an old geezer in a sharp suit looking like he wants to nut you, with the film's title styled as a Union Jack. There is an obligatory "best British gangster film in years" quote from BBC Radio Five and the dreadful, hooligan-bating tagline "it's about to kick off". Yet, as you might infer from the way I began this review, this is not a fair representation of the sort of film 'Down Terrace' is: a smart, well observed and subtle family drama with a dash of crime to up the ante.

'Down Terrace' is, at its core, the story of a tired minor crime boss, Bill, and his browbeaten, manchild son Karl - played to great effect by real-life father and son Robert and Robin Hill - a bickering, hate-filled pair who resemble a modern take on 'Steptoe and Son'. Karl has recently been released from prison to find that his girlfriend (Kerry Peacock) is pregnant, to the disgust of his father and the family's worn down matriarch Maggie (Julia Deakin). A crime plot, involving a series of murders, misunderstandings and a few twists, gets underway as Bill and Karl come to suspect a rat in their midst, but this is really about the twisted, abusive relationship between Karl and his parents.

If you have to liken it to another gangster movie, it belongs in the company of moody Australian ensemble drama 'Animal Kingdom' rather than 'Lock, Stock', for many reasons (some of which come with spoilers attached). Though, with its naturalistic performances and dry wit, 'Down Terrace' is a closer cousin to Mike Leigh than anything else. It's a low-key British kind of humour that wins the day, preoccupied with mundane concerns and peppered with gentle stray observations. For instance, at the height of the drama Bill tells Karl that - were it not for the recent murders - he could have finished painting the breakfast room by now. One pivotal blackly comic scene sees the 35 year old son screaming "mum!" at the top of his voice because he can't find something in his cluttered bedroom.

Despite the Brighton setting, Wheatley resists indulging in the now cliche iconography of the city, such as the Pavilion and Palace Pier. There is one reference to "trouble in Whitehawk" that will make natives chuckle and a scene on the Sussex Downs, but on the whole the fact that it's set in the area provides character and nuance without being tacky or fetishistic (unlike some bigger productions). The whole thing speaks of great discipline and the director makes the best of film's low production budget by focusing on the claustrophobic interior of the family home and a small group of authentic seeming actors.

For those enticed to the DVD by enthusiastic pull quotes about its Brit gangster movie credentials: there are a few scenes of brutal, bloody violence and several foul-mouthed conversations about the importance of "family". But 'Down Terrace' is much more concerned with character and relationships. It's sinister, damn funny and, as it reaches its climax, even a little moving.

'Down Terrace' was released in 2010 and is now available on DVD. Ben Wheatley's new film, 'Kill List', is in cinemas from September 2nd.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' review:

Coming as something of a big, pleasant surprise from left-field, 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is one of the stand-out films of the year so far and looks set to become a sizable box office hit. In fact, if Fox run a smart enough campaign, it could even stand a chance at winning some Oscars next year - perhaps even managing that acting nomination for a motion captured performance that Andy Serkis (the film's real star) so craves. But what knocked me for six wasn't the phenomenal quality of the CGI apes rendered by WETA Digital, the ingenious use of San Francisco locations, or the emotional journey told almost entirely from the point of view of an animal (Serkis as chimp Caesar). It was rather the fact that the whole ridiculous "monkeys take over the world" concept had been handled in such a plausible, intelligent and entertaining way.

The original Charlton Heston 'Planet of the Apes' of 1968 saves the reveal - that the planet ruled by the chimps is our own futuristic Earth - until just before the end credits. It doesn't have to trouble itself with the irksome minutiae of how this simian revolution was possible. The implied cause was nuclear war, which killed off human civilization and gave birth to an ape-led society, but how this actually transpired is left up to individuals in the audience to imagine. The problem inherent in a "here's how it happened" prequel is that you have to make this event believable. You have to show it. This is an even bigger problem when the old "threat of nuclear war" angle is no longer considered relevant and the idea of "atomic mutation" as a cause for anything other than cancer is simply laughable. The solution for the 21st century? Animal experimentation accidentally gives apes increased intelligence and these smart animals wage revolution. But how can you pull that off on camera?

After seeing the trailer I had a basic cynical problem with the premise of 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'. I don't care how smart apes get - as long as we've got the guns and tanks they aren't going to take over the world. Yet British director Rupert Wyatt has made this idea work. Before the film is done we are invited to see a pitched battle between the San Francisco Police Department and a gang of organised chimps, gorillas and orangutans, and by the end you'll believe these animals could take the city apart brick by brick if they wanted to. The animals seem powerful, fast and agile - capable of feats usually saved for superhero characters - but none of it feels impossible so long as you accept the idea that the apes are now capable of reason and able to work together as a group.

It also helps that we aren't being sold 'Rise' as the big moment where apes take over the world, but as just the first big step on that journey, which means Wyatt doesn't yet have to show them besting the US Army or firing guns. This is basically a prison break out movie: escaped convicts versus the law. It isn't an epic tale of global conflict just yet (though the introduction of an airborne virus fills in the gaps about what happens next to some extent). An even bigger factor in why all this madness seems to make sense is that the first two thirds of the film are all about building up the character of Caesar and showing us his troubled relationship with humanity and his own crisis of identity. By the time the action really starts, we are already invested in the chimpanzee as a fully-formed character and no longer even see his actions as those of an animal.

More so than any other blockbuster of the year, 'Rise' is a dramatic story first and an action film second and this all comes courtesy of Serkis and WETA. It is a combination of a skilled character actor and tremendous animators that creates such a compelling and credible character in Caesar. A chimp adopted by James Franco's scientist after his mother is killed in the lab, he is the focus of the entire film and we follow him from newborn to energetic teenager, before he is brutalised and locked away. Caesar then (perhaps reluctantly) takes up the mantle of revolutionary leader to free apes from their human oppressors, grappling with moral and existential concerns along the way. What nuance the film has is in this journey, as key moments include subtle looks in the ape's eyes as we see his worldview change wordlessly.

By contrast the human characters could certainly be dismissed as shallow ciphers, with Tom Felton and Brian Cox playing snarling animal handlers, John Lithgow hamming it up as a confused, yet kindly, old man with Alzheimer's, and the ever-wooden Freida Pinto appearing as a smiling vet with few lines of dialogue and almost no narrative purpose beyond that of perfunctory love interest. As the live action star, James Franco is watchable but also lacking in depth, playing the committed scientist who goes to far trying to cure his father's brain illness before ultimately and inadvertently unleashing chimpgeddon on humanity. He is possibly supposed to be a conflicted, morally dubious genius in the mould of Jeff Goldblum's character in 'The Fly' or the original Dr. Frankenstein, but Franco always comes across as basically quite nice, the upshot being you never really question his motives or methods.

It's also true that compared to the theme rich original (which used its science fiction setting to explore then taboo subjects such as racism, the Vietnam War, potential nuclear holocaust and religious dogma) this prequel is pretty simple, with the basic moral being that we should treat animals better. Which is fair enough, but also not an idea that really challenges the audience (it'd be an odd person that objects to a "don't electrocute monkeys for fun" message). I suppose the revolutionary theme could be read more broadly as something about how an underclass will rise against an oppressive state, but oddly - for a film selling itself on the iconography of revolution - there is nothing revolutionary about its vaguely anti-science social agenda.

That said, 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is as good a time as it's possible to have at the movies this time of year and (my great enjoyment of 'Captain America' and the final 'Harry Potter' notwithstanding) has to be viewed as the pick of the multiplex for summer 2011. From its emotional opening moments to the mesmeric doomsday scenario offered over the closing credits, Wyatt's prequel/remake is far better than it has any right to be.

'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is out in the UK today and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Andy Serkis and Rupert Wyatt: 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' interviews!

You'll have to wait until later for my review of 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes', but I've written a couple of article on What Culture based on interviews I conducted the other day.

First up, I posted a write-up of my chat with the film's CGI-enhanced star Andy Serkis, in which he talks about his interest in video games as the future of storytelling.

I also published a conversation with the director Rupert Wyatt and WETA effects man Dan Lemmon, in which they spoke about the benefits of using CG apes as well as the moral concerns with past use of live animals. Wyatt also gave a little bit of insight into his plans for the inevitable sequel(s).

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

'Cowboys and Aliens' Review + 'Submarine' DVD

'Iron Man' director John Favreau's genre mash-up 'Cowboys and Aliens' is out on the 17th in the UK and I've reviewed it already over on What Culture. The short version: I found it incredibly boring. It left me in little wonder that the big budgeted Harrison Ford/Daniel Craig movie failed to beat 'The Smurfs' to the top spot at the US box office on its opening weekend. Why did I find it so dull? Read the review.

I've also had another DVD review published in the pages of the Daily Telegraph last weekend, as I appraised Richard Ayoade's brilliant directorial debut 'Submarine' - which you can also read online now that Saturday's more tangible issue is lining hamster cages.

Also, check back in the next couple of days for my review of 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes', which comes out on Friday over here. I'll say already that it's really good and a probable Oscar contender: an intelligent and exciting film which will reignite enthusiasm for the franchise overnight. British director Rupert Wyatt and motion capture performance advocate Andy Serkis (the film's real star as Caesar the ape) have every reason to celebrate a fine piece of work.

Monday, 8 August 2011

'Super 8' review:

Directed by 'Lost' creator and 'Cloverfield' producer JJ Abrams, 'Super 8' is an affectionate homage to the films of Steven Spielberg. Though in this case "homage" seems like too generous a description of a film which is closer in spirit to a greatest hits mixtape and, with Spielberg acting as a producer to oversee his own canonisation, it must surely rank as one of the cinema's greatest acts of narcissism. Not only is every shot, every sound effect and every character archetype stolen wholesale from the Spielberg oeuvre, but Abrams also borrows all his themes and even major plot details - the result being a film that feels wholly derivative and more than a little redundant.

In stitching together 'Super 8', Abrams combines the town meeting scene from 'Jaws', the nocturnal tree-rustling eeriness of 'Jurassic Park' and the absent father business from 'Hook' and 'The Lost World', alongside huge chunks of 'E.T.' and 'Close Encounters'. Whilst the young cast seem modelled, almost like-for-like, on the kids from Richard Donner's Spielberg-produced 'The Goonies'. Aside from his overuse of distracting lens flares, the director's own dubious stamp is only really felt in the familiar brand of mystery, as he withholds information and establishes lots of (eventually meaningless) threads, with the requisite unsatisfying pay-off. In fact, without spoiling the film, all I can say is that the climax of Abrams' story is not only underwhelming, but also wholly baffling as we are asked not to care about all the death and destruction that has come before during a cloying, metaphor-heavy finale that tries desperately to be heart warming and truly fails.

Set in the 1980s for some reason (allowing for tired references to the Cold War and walkmans), the story itself revolves around the meek and kindly Joe (Joel Courtney), a young boy who spends his summer holidays making super 8mm films with his friends: the fat one, the explosives expert one, the nervous one etc. Joe's mother has recently died and his well-meaning, hard-working father (Kyle Chandler), the town's Deputy Sheriff, spends little time with him. This leads him to strike up a forbidden friendship with Alice (Elle Fanning), a rebellious, young teen who agrees to star in the boys' movie. However, things take a turn for the strange when the gang's filmmaking places them at the scene of a spectacular train crash - with the film's big action set-piece out of the way after the first half hour.

Soon the army are on the scene to wage stock military conspiracy against the town and the boys are warned by a kindly old teacher not to tell anyone about what they have seen for their own safety. However, unexplained things start happening in town and, after the Sheriff goes missing, Joe's dad mounts his own investigation into the oddness (which proves ultimately irrelevant). Like the Amblin Entertainment produced family movies of the 1980s, such as 'Gremlins' and the aforementioned 'The Goonies', 'Super 8' pushes hard at the boundaries of its age-rating, with some bloody kills and a bit of swearing as Abrams refuses to patronise the potential young audience members who've been upgraded from 'Mr. Popper's Penguins'.

Yet whist the film definitely counts as something of an upgrade for the oft-abused family crowd, the film's only other audience is the nascent 1980s nostalgia demographic who are being played as cynically as they are ever likely to be. The "spot the Spielberg" nature of the movie will be a lot of fun for this portion of the crowd, but you have to wonder if it wouldn't be a better use of time to re-watch the superior Spielberg originals themselves and give this hollow imitation a miss. Compelling performances from the young cast aside (Fanning and Courtney are brilliant), 'Super 8' is a strange contradiction: seen by some as a beacon of hope amidst the comic book adaptations, sequels and remakes, the summer's only original property lacks a single original idea.

'Super 8' is out now in the UK and is rated '12A' the the BBFC.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

'Sarah's Key' review:

A shrewd example of counter-programming, French holocaust movie 'Sarah's Key' has been unleashed on a UK box office with little else to offer a mature audience. Right now most multiplexes are screening the last entry in the 'Harry Potter' series, the third 'Transformers' movie and the more recent releases of 'Cars 2', 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' and 'Captain America'. It's a time of year when Hollywood, as far away from either end of award season as it's possible to be, caters only for teenagers and families, with the elderly ignored most of all. Yet, based on an acclaimed novel, set during the Second World War and starring Kristen Scott-Thomas, 'Sarah's Key' is seemingly purpose built for those with no interest in wizards, penguins and superheroes.

Scott-Thomas plays Julia, an American investigative journalist living in present day Paris who is researching a story on Vel' d'Hiv Roundup - a shameful event in French history which saw over 13,000 Parisian Jews arrested by local police and eventually condemned to Nazi concentration camps - when she discovers her new apartment in the Marais once belonged the family of a 10 year-old Jewish girl named Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) of whom there are no records. Her family perished in the camps, but Sarah seems to have disappeared soon after her transfer to the camp at Beaune-la-Rolande. As Julia tries to uncover the past, chasing leads around the globe and talking to distant relatives, we are also shown flashbacks of Sarah's traumatic young life and of a particularly tragic event which relates to the titular key.

It's all admirable enough, with the worthy intention of reminding the French people of this horrendous episode and keeping the memory of those killed alive, yet it's a tale that is blandly told. The film lacks anything like flair for the cinematic, with the 2009 sections of the film especially boring as Julia contends with the guilt of owning Sarah's apartment, and the whole thing feels like an overlong TV movie. The scenes which see Julia working at her magazine office are full of clumsy expository lessons in history, whilst the actors playing her young colleagues don't convince as journalists - reduced as they are to representing the ignorance of youth and those of us who need educating by the film.

In the end the tear-jerking, emotional element of the film (and it certainly has one) has much more to do with history than filmmaking as we are forced to imagine some of the pain people really went through in living memory - with children ripped from the arms of mothers, shrieking their goodbyes amidst a cacophony of wailing. The fate of Sarah's young brother is also hard to stomach. But none of this has an ounce to do with Gilles Paquet-Brenner's tepid direction or Scott-Thomas' earnest, mournful portrayal of Julia. English-speaking sections are especially poor with cliche dialogue ("my whole life has been a lie!") and little-known actors out of their depth, as the producers desperately try to ensure the film has a marketing future outside of France (it's got one of those cheeky trailers that pretends it isn't a foreign language film).

Aforementioned middle-class elderly audiences, so neglected by the summer blockbuster scene, will find the earnest, historically-conscious 'Sarah's Key' a welcome and emotionally affecting trip to the pictures. And that's a good thing, make no mistake. But those less allergic to frivolous fun will understand that there is much more interesting and even (in some cases) intellectually nourishing fare at the multiplex right now for anyone prepared to use their imagination. I'd never usually direct people from the arthouse and into the Odeon, but it's summer and, like it or not, that's where it's happening.

'Sarah's Key' is out now in the UK and rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Friday, 5 August 2011

'Mr. Popper's Penguins' review:

Promising a return to Jim Carey's rubber-faced and anarchic persona that it never quite delivers, 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' is a rote, inoffensive family comedy in which the title character (a slick-haired, shark of a businessman) learns all about the importance of love and family via six adorable penguins. The animals unexpectedly arrive at a swanky New York apartment as Popper's inheritance following the death of his father, an explorer, whose lifelong absence has given the character considerable daddy issues. The knock-on effect of which accounts for the character's failed marriage (to Carla Gugino) and relationship with his teenage kids, who he rarely has time for.

It's a tale familiar to anyone who's ever been patronised by Spielberg's 'Hook' or Carey's own 'Liar Liar', in which wealthy Hollywood types castigate working fathers for not attending enough baseball games/dance recitals, whilst espousing the eternal virtue of the nuclear family (Carey and Gugino must reconcile in the kids' movie tradition of 'The Parent Trap'). It goes without saying that along the way Carey must decide not to cheat a nice elderly lady (Angela Lansbury) out of her property, at the expense of earning a partnership at his firm, thus becoming a better man.

As with other recent live-action human/CGI animal buddy movies, such as 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' and 'Hop', a lot of the humour here revolves around fecal matter, with 'Mean Girls' director Mark Waters never missing an opportunity to show CGI bird poop streaming out of his CGI marine birds - to the audible delight of the child audience. Otherwise it's a succession of pratfalls amidst convoluted animal mayhem as the birds flood Popper's apartment, cause chaos at an arts benefit and stage a last-gasp zoo breakout in the name of madcap wackiness.

With this goofy premise in mind it seems odd that Carey himself, the gurning, limb-waving loon of 'The Mask' and 'Ace Ventura', gives such a restrained performance. There are isolated bits of daft, exaggerated comic business, but otherwise the actor seems to be continuing his decade long apology for having once been a comedian as he invests a lot of heartfelt sincerity into Popper's dramatic arc at the expense of laughs. Worse still, some of his better comic moments, such as his Jimmy Stewart impression, seem destined to go over the heads of the young audience altogether.

There is some fun to be had watching a supporting cast that includes Jeffrey Tambor, Phillip Baker Hall and Clark Gregg, even if they are underused and ill-served by the material, whilst British actress Ophelia Lovibond is a cute and mildly amusing presence as Popper's alliteration abusing assistant Pippi (a person whose primary purpose pertains to proliferating pronounced p-words). Though the intention is doubtless for the unimaginatively nicknamed penguins themselves to be the stars of the show: the squawking Loudy, flatulent Stinky, clumsy Nimrod, "adorable" Lovey, overzealous Bitey and flight-obsessed Captain. However, their cute appeal relies heavily on a retelling of the popular myth of the animals as dedicated monogamists and attentive parents, a la 'March of the Penguins'. And, even if you ignore the politics at play, animals that come into your house, crap everywhere and keep you up all night face a hard time being considered cute in my estimations.

Ultimately the flavourless, odorless, cinematic beige that is 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' feels like a Christmas movie released a few months early - possibly with eyes on a festive DVD release which could prove considerably more lucrative than this tepid theatrical outing. It's admittedly slightly more tasteful and watchable than the other animal movies of the last few years, but it's unlikely to inspire a resurgence of mid-90s-style Carey-mania.

'Mr. Popper's Penguins' is out today in the UK and rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

'The Referees' review:

Just up on What Culture, my review of French football documentary 'The Referees' which is out on limited release tomorrow in the UK. If you can catch it I'd recommend it, though it's not without its faults - mainly the fact there just isn't enough confrontation between players and referees in it. But it's a decent look at a side of the sport we don't usually see.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Blu-Ray reviews: 'Limitless' and 'Super'

Today I've got Blu-Ray reviews of two of the week's releases up on What Culture. 'Limitless' (trailer above) is a pretty solid sci-fi/thriller starring 'The Hangover' star Bradley Cooper, whilst 'Super' is a charmless misses opportunity of a black comedy/superhero movie which stars "funnyman" Rainn Wilson (of US 'The Office' fame) and Ellen Page of 'Juno' fame.

Check them out!